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Вторник, 29 Декември 2015 12:31

The New Interactive Cultural Industries. Notes from the “Centre of the Universe”

Velislava Petrova

Abstract: The paper analyses three case studies of what we call “interactive cultural industries”, or, of those agents, who, I believe, are reformulating the field of culture by producing a new cultural product, situated on the edge between the ideal and the commercial; a product challenging the fluid border between the private and the public, and strongly relying on the interactivity and involvement of the consumer.

Keywords: interactive cultural industries, network capitalism, cultural studies

 

Stara Zagora is the city of poets, lime-trees, straight streets (and crooked people). Stara Zagora is the centre of the universe. This seems to be one of the few cities in Bulgaria that are still strongly influenced by industry. Some of the biggest industrial enterprises in Bulgaria are located in the area: Maritsa Iztok energy complex, Zagorka brewery, wine growers, Trace Construction Company. Notwithstanding the rational grid plan of the city, Stara Zagora is also a place where everybody talks about special energies and predestination but also about predictability and control.

New economies, interactive cultural industries

What happens to culture in a city that has maintained its strong economic connection to industry and is also inscribed in the global economy? How is the cultural field (re)defined and how are the positions within the field re-allocated? What are these interactive cultural industries? These are the questions that the present paper is structured around.

The article presents some of the results of the collective research project “The New Cultural Industries in the Contemporary Urban Imagination”.[1] Our main proposition was that we are witnessing a transformation in the field of culture linked to the emergence of what we referred to with the working concept “new cultural industries” (Ditchev, 2012). With this notion we tried to capture the current change occurring under the conditions of late capitalism, globalisation and new technologies. What becomes visible against the background of this globally running process is the figure of the prosumer – a portmanteau of the words “producer” and “consumer”, first coined by Alvin Toffler. For Toffler it comes down to an outright business strategy; which to some extent deprives this new practice of its creative potential. More recent cultural studies recontextualize the concept and use it to describe the blurring of the clear, at least up until the 1980s, distinction between consumer and producer. Thus we direct our attention to the quasi-professional, quasi-commercial practices of artistic production and reproduction. Redefined in this way, the term appears closely related to Michel De Certeau’s concept of “poaching” describing how users (usagers in French) constantly remake the cultural products imposed by power. At the core of the analysis is the transformation of capitalism, the way it affects labour, and its implications as an ideology which justifies inclusion in capitalism (Boltanski, Chiapello, 1999). I claim that such transformation in both ideology and labour is observed also in the field of culture.

In this article I will closely analyze three representatives of the “interactive cultural industries”, or, of those agents who, I believe, reformulate the cultural field by creating a cultural product which balances between the ideal and the commercial, toying with the fluid border between the public and the private, and strongly relying on the involvement of the consumer.

The first case is the so-called “proto-Bulgarian survival school” Bagatur. Although it has already grown into a nation-wide organization, the school was started up in Stara Zagora, and is still managed from Stara Zagora, where its founder and his two sons live. Here I will not focus on the nationalistic spirit and the symbolics the school’s activities are imbued with. Rather, I will be interested in the way its activities are organized. 

The second case involves a representative of the non-government sector – Razlichniat Pogled (The Different Outlook) association which has an openly declared education mission. I have singled it out because whenever I mentioned our fieldwork and the topic of our research everybody referred us to this organization. The association is also the only actor that claims to be cultivating a broad cultural taste.

The third case is “The World of Zagorka” museum, which is located in the Zagorka brewery. The museum has an openly commercial goal, its narrative thus being strongly reliant on the consumer, but it also transforms the producer into a consumer of images.

Mapping out the research

The fieldwork that this paper is grounded on was carried out in the period 4-8 October 2013 by a group of researchers (professors, students and PhD students) from the History and Theory of Culture Department of Sofia University. The main part of the research took place during the Day of the City, which coincided with the 125th anniversary of the start of the Balkan War, and happened to be the culmination of Stara Zagora’s cultural calendar. Along with the formal celebrations there were various other events: hip-hop lessons, concerts in front the Town Hall, an art installation “Mail from the past”, art gallery events, and others. The structure and the positioning of the various actors taking part in the Day of the City celebrations could be outlined through their involvement in the official events.

The cultural field in Stara Zagora, and I suppose elsewhere, is divided between the private and the public space. First, of course, we have the public authorities – the municipal administration, the district government and various budget institutions. The actors within the public sphere don’t act in full cooperation; there are often conflicts about prestige and funding allocation. Any reference to the mayor institution is actually a reference to the person himself – his personal promises and vows. Thus he is considered to be a counterpoint to the administrative sluggishness and bureaucracy, a counterpoint to his predecessor. The mayor promised Bagatur a place for an amusement centre in the local zoo, he gave his word to the Different Outlook that they would have a place in the cinema hall. These promises, along with his youthful and attractive appearance make his charisma.

The private field is occupied by actors from the non-government sector, creative collectives, individual artists, associations, and representatives of the local business. These two groups constantly interact and often overlap: representatives of state institutions act as private actors, whereas representatives of the private sector acquire roles that, until recently, were perceived as pertaining to the scope of public policies. There is another subject of cultural policies and practices that is somehow excluded from the thus constructed field – popfolk music, which is referred to by the regional signifier “Dimitrovgrad’s culture”.

The official celebrations, taking place in the city centre on the Day of the City, were organized in a peculiar competition between the municipality and the district government. As part of the whole event students, dressed in school uniforms or fancy dress costumes (themed or not), and officials (the mayor and Deputy Prime Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov) manifested along the high street. Meanwhile, in conditions of absolute secrecy, the district government organized (and tried to include in the manifestation) a historical re-enactment. The overall arrangement of the celebration was symptomatic of the tensions within the public space. Along with these city centre activities, in the periphery of the city we could observe a specific triangular space locked between the World of Zagorka museum, the city fair and the shopping mall, which is regularly pointed out as the new place of consumption. While the centre offered a spectacle, the peripheral triangle represented supra-local cultural industries that produce different cultural products and practices, industries that rely on experience, empathy and participation. 

From shortage networks to new capitalism networks

The very fabric of the field of culture in Stara Zagora creates the feeling of a generational gap/disruption (an observation made by Ivaylo Ditchev). This gap is evident from the ways various representatives of the cultural industry act – different generations exhibit different modes of solidarity. It is important to point out that here I have in mind ideal types and I subsume the particular cases under them.

Broadly speaking, we can outline two types of cultural actors, who, respectively, rely on two different types of solidarity.

The first type of solidarity is based on the (old) socialist institutional structure of professional networks such as the Union of Bulgarian Artists, the Union of Bulgarian Journalists, etc., and/or on family relationships which, by the way, also reproduce these networks. These networks strongly rely on invitations and participation calls which guarantee visibility that might later on serve as the basis for generating financial gains. The artwork “Post from the Past” is an eloquent example.

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Fig. 1. The artwork “Post from the Past”, photo by Velislava Petrova.

It was the municipality that came up with the idea, invited the main organizer and introduced him to the other participants. The whole group was commissioned to create something together. The artists did not think of themselves as a team, which formed a kind of mechanic solidarity between them. It is interesting to point out that the network structure actually affected the cultural products these artists created. In spite of the group’s ambition to fit into contemporary art, its installation aspired to monumentality. While the celebrations were still going on, the contemporary artists started thinking what chemical materials to use to protect their fragile artwork.

The second type of solidarity is network-bound and operational. It can be interpreted as dependent on or linked to the structure of neoliberal economy or the New Spirit of capitalism (Boltanski, Chiapello, op. cit.). This type of solidarity is fluid and project-based, it can be summarized with the phrase: “We work well with this and this guy”. Not only does it have a different structure, but it also presupposes a different kind of network stability: this type of solidarity can be recycled over and over again; it is not constancy that it goes after but transiency. For instance, one of the respondents often talked about “barters” with other festivals. The barter here was not seen as a way to gain visibility or guarantee a breakthrough but as a means to get some work done. In this case an invitation was not deemed necessary, rather, it was all about negotiation – they meet, they talk, they come up with the idea of working together. An important aspect here is the notion of chance and/or predestination that all respondents referred to.

This type of solidarity may be exhibited by the representatives of the new cultural industries: the Different Outlook and Bagatur offer a fine example. In their case, their activities generate financial profits rather than visibility which might guarantee such in the future.

The interactive cultural industries.

Within the patriarchal structure, without the nationalist pathos

Within the patriarchal structure and ideology, analyzed elsewhere (Santulova, NA; Goncharova), and without the nationalist pathos Bagatur can be considered a par excellence representative of the new (and/or) interactive cultural industries. Very well targeted and positioned in the nationalist niche formed by mass education and media, they do not claim to produce a high or alternative taste but to meet a demand. The school’s activities rely heavily on the interest and involvement of the consumer, who is not a mere recipient but a co-creator who constantly experiences what’s happening. It is important to underline that Bagatur are quite different in their approach (and generational span) from another group we found in the city, Balgarska orda (Bulgarian Horde), who are entirely scientifically oriented: they take part in field trips and conferences, publish their research, organize seminars and debates but they exclude themselves from the new cultural creativity as they stay “trapped” in their quest for authenticity.

The analysis of the case is based on observations and an interview with Yavor Ganchev, conducted during the city’s fair, at Bagatur’s stand. The stand, as the informant himself emphasized, was located in the central alley “between the candy-floss and the merry-go-round, opposite the inflatable castle.” In that area people could try their archery skills (with a proto-Bulgarian bow), throw javelin, or buy “souvenirs” – various amulets combining “proto-Bulgarian” symbols with more modern messages. The location of the stand, as Yavor would later on point out, had two important aspects: it provided visibility and helped the funding of the organization. Individual members of Bagatur took part in the historical re-enactment mentioned earlier and were remunerated for it.

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Fig. 2. Bagatur’s stand at Staga Zagora’s fair, photo: Velislava Petrova.

It seems important to point out that Bagatur does not aspire to authenticity; their creativity verges on entertainment and is sold through nationalist pathos.

“Well, there isn’t such a thing. To say there exists a proto-Bulgarian martial art you should find a very old leather-bound book. What we have here is a system for physical development, which is called Bagatur. It is a modern system we’ve invented, it’s based on gymnastics, physical education, Eastern martial arts, Western martial arts, wrestling. What connects us to history is clothing and armament. We, for instance, make a sword, because a sword like this has been found, you can see it in the museum. The precise technique to make it, however, is not clear… And the guy who is taking part in the performance, he’ll take it and make some interesting movements with it which will make the show interesting”.

The museum is the institution that guarantees authenticity although authenticity is hardly ever sought. Authenticity can be discerned in a museum exhibit, an artefact, a physical remnant from a past epoch. At the same time, the essence of their activities – experience, mastery of techniques (such as handling a sword) – refers to practice, experience of culture, not its consumption, and is "invented" in the words of Hobsbawm.

As the respondent himself shared, Bagatur’s activities run in three different directions, which results from the fact that, even if united by the same goal, the members of the organization are interested in different things. Yavor Ganchev insists that the school’s activities can be divided into “training”, “show” (aiming at entertainment and theatrical performance) and historical reenactment. There are also elements related to ideology formation – they create the organization’s public image and can be found in Bagatur’s website, but they remain implicit in the interview, as for instance the specific greeting that Bagatur members use. It’s worth noting that this type of talk is riddled with (Euro-) project terminology: it is full of expressions such as “activities”, “objectives”, “organization”. The “project talk” is highly instrumentalised and affects the entire narrative on Bagatur. The cultural product is to a large extent made possible thanks to the prosumer.

“That’s why we’ve come up with a number of activities. One of them is called historical reconstruction, so the guy who makes bows, can show them as much as he wants. He is from Bagatur, he is an artisan, he is not interested in archery competitions, he does not want compete, whereas there are people who want to compete […] So, that is why we call ourselves an organisation – because we carry out various activities, and whoever wants to take part, they find their place here. If you want to compete, you are most welcome – there is a competitive form. If you want special clothing, you can find it here. If you are the learned type, you can still find your place. If you want to be on TV or appear in movies, we have our ‘performances; work on your skills so that you can demonstrate something interesting in the show, and you are welcome, you are in. The idea is that everybody would find their place“.

At the same time, the clear distinction between the activities releases the tension between the commercial and the ideal. The commercial is seen as a means to achieve the ideal:

“Sales, anything to do with pricing, is done to ensure the existence of this organization. It is an ideal organization, if it can’t provide for itself through some commercial activities, it will never survive – just the idea will never make it. Well, it’s a piece of cake for me to gather some people in a hall and talk to them; it’s much more difficult to make swords, to print leaflets, to raise horses, to maintain some kind of equipment. All this requires money; this money should come from somewhere.”

If for the public authorities (and for the case I’ll discuss next) the promotion of high culture is absolutely vital, the interviewee never raised the subject of “chalga” music. He clearly distinguishes the organization’s mission from its commercial aspects – the festival activities they organize do not aspire to historical authenticity, they only provide money; therefore the interviewee has no qualms to talk about them; the only time he lowered his voice was when he talked about his “official” job. 

The difficulty of being different

The „Different Outlook“ NGO has a different background. If Bagatur was started as a family business (it was established by a man, whose sons now run the organization), the situation with the Different Outlook is much more fluid, even chaotic. The founder of the Different Outlook is a young man, who, inspired by his own experience in organizing Metropolis music events, decided to turn artistic festivals into his area of expertise. At the moment the organization consists of four people who manage different projects and are helped by two volunteers. After applying for membership, the Different Outlook was included in the Network of Youth Information Cultural Centres. According to the association’s website:

“The mission of this art organization is by means of contemporary art and culture to inspire the rising generation and all young, talented and bright people to search for their inner selves, to dream, to create, to be brave and imaginative and thus to develop in themselves the need for a cultural and value-laden perception of life”.

The target audience is seemingly clear (the young), at the same time rather broad, the goal set being extremely ambitious, as it aims to change the young people’s outlook on life. The organization took its name from the festival they organized before being established as an institution. During the fieldwork we interviewed two of the women working there, as each had her own vision on how the organization should develop.

As with Bagatur, what struck me was the strict specialization of the team: everybody had their own area of expertise. Both interviewees described a similar path of getting involved in the association. One of the respondents got a degree in Musical Pedagogy, later on in English Pedagogy, then she worked as a teacher of English, for a year she travelled and played a musical instrument. When she came back to Stara Zagora, her home town, she visited one of DO’s events by chance and was fascinated. Back then she barely knew the organizer, who invited her to join the organization with the words: “You are looking for a job anyway, so why don’t you stay with us, we might have a job for you, if a project comes through”. That is how she stayed – first for a week, then for a month, and she is still there. The other interviewee, had a project similar to the Different Outlook’s mission, so she demonstrated a clear vision of how the association should develop, i.e. it had to be institutionalized as a cultural centre. The common thread in these stories, I believe, is the lack of strict specialization: these are fluid life stories fortuitously acquiring a common trajectory – those people started working on a project just because they liked it. Similarly to the municipality (and at the same time differentiating itself from it), the Different Outlook defines its main mission as forming a cultural taste that differs from mass culture – this is evident both from the association’s website and from the interviews. According to one of the interviewees Stara Zagora is “the city of chalga music, Mara the Bottle Opener and Anelia were born here, so young people are constantly exposed to this kind of music and it is very difficult to wake them up” (a quote by memory – V. P.). Whereas the municipality has the financial instruments to achieve large-scale participation and spectacularity, the NGO is far more limited. Their main instrument they have are film screenings. The Different Outlook runs one of the halls of the former municipal cinema, sharing the building with the Versailles pop folk club and a bingo hall. Both respondents stated that they found this situation rather suffocating. The challenge in this case was to find the balance between the commercial and the ideal, thus guaranteeing not only high ticket-sales but also a correction of the taste of the mass viewer. This happened to be extremely difficult as the organization had to compete with the much more technically advanced multiplex cinema in the shopping mall and free internet downloads;[2] besides, they had to select films which would attract viewers, and at the same time be independent enough so as not to betray their ideals. Thus, for example, the respondents shared that the program of the Aurora film festival (a festival for Scandinavian cinema) happened to be a turn-off for the viewers due to the air of gloominess persisting in the films.”[3]

The World of Zagorka: between “still white Danube” and the centre of the universe

The World of Zagorka museum is an exclusively private initiative, housed in the building of the Zagorka brewery. The tour goes around and even through the premises, so tourists can observe the brewing process. Due to the trade secret protection, no photos are allowed. The ticket price includes souvenirs and beer sampling. This distinguishes the place from the traditional museum institutions and results in the museum’s higher popularity.

The fact that the place sells experience is an important aspect of its success. Upon entering the building tourists are informed about safety rules. Then they are given glasses and earplugs (that eventually happen to be not necessary). The tour goes through the workspaces – the visitor can see the workers, along with old photos representing the history of the brewery, various exhibits (glasses, cups, leaflets, old machinery), signs with safety instructions, motivation posters, and earplug dispensers. Thus the visitor learns about the history of the brand and the process of beer-making. Along with this, the workers themselves are constantly exposed to the brewery’s history. The exhibited old machinery, photographs and texts trace back the history of the old brewery (which used to produce “Zagorka” during socialism), and at the same time serve the function of building a new narrative incorporating the newly introduced beer brands from the “international Heineken family”. The tour starts with information about the three main beer ingredients; they will be mentioned again in the advertising spot at the end of the tour – thus, the beer ingredients form the framework of the visit. 

The hall for beer sampling is the only place where photos are allowed; there are old and new advertising posters, two tables with bar stools, where visitors can consume appetizers and the beer they have poured themselves. Next to it there is a coin stamping machine and a TV set showing TV commercials.

Out of the three cases that I studied here Zagorka seems to be the one most focused on local identity (Stara Zagora). The museum narrative manages to interweave the locality into the regional and the world map. The advertising spot that visitors can see is a good example – using a few images that go from the global to the local (and play on national mythologies, stereotypes and regional inventions) it develops the idea of the national territory as a terroir of beer. The first image is the Danube, which collects “the beauty of dozens of countries” in itself and thus guarantees the connection between the local and the global. The second image is the “fruitful soil of Bulgaria“ and “the rich lands of the Thracians” (hops), as along with mountain springs and waterfalls (water). The last element of this imagery is the very city of Stara Zagora – the centre of the universe. The Zagorka brewery is thus the only representative that links the locality (the image and the history of the city) to the specificity of their production.

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Fig. 3. Zagorka brewery, photo: Velislava Petrova.

Against “Dimitrovgrad’s culture” and other demons

Mass culture, represented by pop-folk and chalga music, is considered to be the city’s major problem. The interviews conducted with municipal officials working in the department “Culture, Tourism and Religious Denominations” showed clearly that for them the municipality’s main priority should be the development of a taste that differs from the so-called “Dimitrovgrad’s culture”. The cultural events calendar, which has a budget of 500 000 leva, turned out to be the main instrument for such taste education.

Another opposition, transpiring through the interviews, was not articulated in aesthetic terms – it equated chalga culture to the commercial, similarly to the way the Different Outlook opposed the commercial to the alternative culture. In the case of the Different Outlook the tension came from sharing the “Different Comsomol” cinema – both symbolically and spatially – with the Versailles pop folk club, housed in the same building.

If chalga music is considered to be a culture-disruptive element, as it not only causes aesthetic damage, but also contaminates culture, i.e. it replaces the ideal with commercial,[4] another conflict could also be discerned – between sport and culture. While chalga music is the inner enemy that has colonized culture, sport is seen as the new foe. It is connected to the new government of the city, represented by the new mayor – a person with great charisma, emerging from his youthfulness and masculinity.[5]

Conclusion

The three cases from Stara Zagora, analyzed here, show the various faces of the new cultural production. On the one hand, we can see how approaches that have been perceived as typical for public actors so far, are colonized by new actors. The educational role is such a line of distinction – whether a particular agent sees himself as responsible for taste education. The municipality and the Different Outlook openly have their claims to that area – the municipality is determined to transform mass taste, whereas the Different Outlook targets specific segments of that mass taste. In a way, this distinction repeats the geographical location of the various actors. The main focus, however, is how the global changes the cultural practices. Through the new cultural language and the new spirit of capitalism, the global introduces new solidarities and enables new cultural practices.

The common trend we can observe is that contemporary culture is inconceivable without the experiential interactivity; it cannot exist without the consumer and his creativity. The question is whether this creativity is a possible way out, a possible resistance to the strategy of power (de Certaeu, 1984) or it is just a colonization of all aspects of social life by the commercial. The distinction, which in the 1980s – when de Certeau wrote The Practice of Everyday Life – seemed quite real, is now contested by the new structure of capitalism.

 

References

Boltanski, Luc & Chiapello, Eve. 1999. Le Nouvel Esprit Du Capitalisme. Vol. 10, Paris: Gallimard.

Toffler, Alvin. 1980. The Third Wave: The Classic Study of Tomorrow. New York: Bantam.

Goncharova, Galina. “Tangra-natsionalizmat: novite intrentet religii [Tangra-nationalism: the New Internet Religions] (accessed 04.03.2016).

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkley: University of California Press.


[1] The project is funded by grant 063/05.04.2012 from the Republic of Bulgaria’s state budget. My acknowledgements to professor Ivaylo Ditchev, assistant professor George Valchev, PhD student Slavka Karakusheva and Tsevetelina Hristova, without whose comments during and after the fieldwork this paper would have been impossible.

[2] Not surprisingly, viewers are not keen on paying 5 leva to watch a free-downloadable film in an old and dirty cinema hall.

[3] Festival of Scandinavian cinema.

[4] We can interpret this contamination drawing on Viviana Zelizer’s terminology. Studying the relationship between the economic and the intimate sphere, she states that these two spheres deliberately remain oppositional and hostile to each other in order to protect themselves from contamination, as the contamination would harm both sides: it would compromise the seeming rationality of the market principle and would spoil the emotional “purity” of personal relationships. Zelizer’s analysis demonstrates that both spheres have always overlapped. In the same line of thought we can say that the two cultural fields have always been constructed as “hostile worlds”.

[5] This is the widely-spread explanation why things are not going well in the city – it has to do with its size: as the city is quite small and everybody knows everyone, relationships are always interspersed with personality issues.

 

About the author

Velislava Petrova is currently working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Theory and History of Culture, Sofia University, teaching Anthropology of Contemporary Cultural Practices, History of Contemporary Culture, and Economic Ethnography. She holds a PhD from Sofia University and Paris Descartes University (cotutelle internationale de thèse), defended on 25 May 2010. Her research interests are in the fields of economic ethnography, material culture, urban anthropology, post-socialist studies.

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