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Сряда, 23 Март 2011 01:02

The City Taking Place from Below

Ivaylo Ditchev

The battle for the city is fought on at least three fronts. On the one hand, there is the strong-willed power of the city-builders imposing the norms. It is them we know most about – starting from Hippodamus who re-built Miletus and Octavian Augustus who bestowed glamour on Rome, continuing with the Cartesian rationalization of Manhattan with the master plan from 1811 and the grand renovation of Paris by Baron Hausmann, up to Stalin’s new town Magnitogorsk or the neoliberal Shanghai.

The intellectual resistance against the power of space comes (or rather, becomes visible, becomes a cultural fact) with the industrial revolution. We see it, for instance, in Baudelaire’s aesthete-flaneur who appropriates the city in random walks, or some hundred years later, in the International of the situationists who challenge the spectacles of power with their unpredictable, improvised “situations”. We find this way of re-inventing/consuming the city, which is at the core of today’s tourism industry, in the extensive travel literature produced, an example of which is Soft City (1974) by Jonathan Raban who shows his private version of London based on associations, casual encounters, links between places. The city of power is hard, normative, and aggressive; the city of the individual – soft, refracted through the subjective experience, and unique as the individual life trajectory.

The third side in the battle for the city discussed here is by definition the most invisible one – its inhabitants. Or, to be more precise, those activities of the inhabitants which go against the project and reshape it after their own understanding. It has to do with the inhabitants who try to get round the enforced rules, to adapt the urban space for their own benefit, and to modify the meanings imposed from above. Such activities are usually looked upon as a dirty residual, as a meaningless form of resistance of the substance. With the upsurge in cultural studies in the last decades, however, this indifference is gradually being overcome. Provided that our clothing styles, urban legends and fantasies, or tattoos, could be considered interesting, the way we produce the urban space we inhabit is no less important.

1.

An emblematic case at hand is the metamorphosis in the perception of graffiti, initially found in the subway, and gradually ending up in art galleries (Blek le Rat in Paris and Banksy in the United Kingdom are the “high” emblems of this metamorphosis). The reason why such a practice became so visible is perhaps its “artistic” side which brings graffiti closer to the above-mentioned forms of “high” intellectual resistance. Graffitists look like some sort of geniuses acting on the spur of the moment and reproducing the main myths of art laid down in the 19th century: 1) the work of art is an unselfish act; 2) it is a transgression of the existing norms; 3) the artist suffers for the sake of art.

We could get a better grasp of this practice if we give up the “high culture” perspective and think of graffiti as a mass practice instead – by the way, no Bulgarian graffitist has made it triumphantly to “Tate” or to the home of some well-to-do collector yet. In the general case, graffiti writing comes down to a sort of youth initiation, where the basic skill put to the test is writing one’s tag in places that are difficult to reach, oftentimes high above the ground, and well guarded, in other words – dangerous places; furthermore, it should be pursued persistently enough, as was the recent case with Vapsky, for example, who took over nearly all the walls in the central part of Sofia. Just as any other initiation rite, graffiti writing sets its own internal hierarchies, stipulating for instance that the more practiced graffitist has the right to tag over the beginner (Rusinov 2008).

Here we should also mention the brutal slogans, such as “put the Turks to the sword”, propagated by small, but strongly motivated in their transgression neo-fascist groups, as well as the various emblems and nationalist signs serving as their collective signature. Although seemingly politicized, such appropriations of the city play the same role as drawing attention to oneself by scandalizing the bystanders; it pertains to lifestyle nationalism, not to a genuine political doctrine. Actually it is not surprising that such graffiti usually go together with sexually explicit vulgarities – the broken cross and the phallus seem to play a similar role (for the frustrated youngsters from the suburbs).

The other type of graffitists are artists at the beginning of their careers who try to promote themselves by street art in order to be commissioned to paint a municipal mural, for instance, to do the interior design of a TV studio, or to make an advertising campaign such as M-Tel’s “Loop”. The three graffitists featured in “Capital Light” in September 2008 are representative of this type.

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Stefan is a designer who, possibly emulating Blek le Rat’s rat from the 1980s, has developed the goat as a sign: “My idea is to establish goat as a trademark, so that it could work as an ad – just like the Coca-Cola sign, for example”.1 Ivaylo is studying design as well. Drawing without permission gives him an adrenaline rush for sure, but his ideas are usually much more sophisticated. “In that case I look for walls that are not off-limits. Two years ago I went to the municipality (Sliven – author’s note), I brought them some photos, I explained to them what it was about, and they gave us walls to paint on. They even gave us some paint. In Sofia the procedure is a lot more complicated – in order to get to someone at the municipality, you need an insider… Sometimes I use ideas from my street art in my work as a graphic designer, and vice versa.”

Quite similar was the mindset of Miroslav Hristov, a research fellow at Sofia University’s Research Center for Social Sciences, who painted a fairytale-like mural on the wall of a communal kitchen for children with the help of the artists Bozko and Dmitry Yagodin. To my remark that such an undertaking, when realized with the approval of both the mayor and the neighborhood inhabitants, could hardly be referred to as street art, he replied that there was no longer a difference between commercial and non-commercial art, and that even the notorious Banksy was selling his works for a fortune. The purpose of his project was not to provoke controversial reactions, but rather to talk the municipality into commissioning other young artists to do such murals, and thus create beautiful images of the city (seminar of the Research Center for Social Sciences, December 3rd, 2009).

In one word, in its first version graffiti art is bordering on personal or political propaganda, whereas in the second – it is bordering on advertising. The young artist, so to say, contaminates the urban space with transgressive and unselfish acts2 in order to sell his trademark in the long run.

In this sense, graffiti fit in the overall process of privatizing public space by advertising. “There is a growing tolerance, or perhaps, a growing indifference, towards the work of street artists in Bulgaria.” – says young architect Valeri to “Capital Light”. Therefore, it is less likely to become famous for it is more difficult to break norms that are not observed anyway – where walls are not cleaned, and graffiti get drawn over all the time, it is difficult to stand out; in order to become visible you need to get the support of the authorities right from the start, which makes the artistic act somehow intrinsically ambiguous. The same goes about the “wild” ads which have been flourishing on every tree and on every public utility building for those 20 years of “transition”, to the extent of eventually becoming unnoticeable. The battle for the public space is in fact a battle for its privatization: only that there is a critical moment from which on the public element simply disappears, and privatization itself becomes meaningless. An illustration of this situation in Sofia are the layers of graffiti covering the walls, neither cleaned nor noticed by anyone.

2.

The second case is more specific to Eastern Europe: it pertains to the appropriation of the monuments from the communist times from below and their re-interpretation. The events of the last two decades came to disprove Robert Musil who had written that “there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument” – all of a sudden unexpected passions broke out around these monuments, showing that they had not been invisible but merely “repressed” in the psychoanalytic meaning of the word.

There have always been ideological and political battles around the images of power – take for example the equestrian monument of Louis XIV on Bellecour square in Lion he had commissioned with the intention of making an imprint on this rebellious town. In the time of the Revolution, the town was devastated in a symbolic battle with the monarchy by troops from Paris, only to be rebuilt in the time of the Restoration with voluntary donations from the citizens. The specificity of the Bulgarian case is that the battles around the monuments of communism lead nowhere – the monuments are neither toppled down, nor rehabilitated and reconstructed.3

Supported with ideological terror, the meaning of these monuments was sharply undermined during the transition: one of the main reasons was that these monuments, as originally conceived, were to be guarded by the militia4, and with the withdrawal of this protection their meaning succumbed to ambiguity. The monuments became the primary battlefield of the ideological confrontations: when the anticommunists got the upper hand, the monuments were desecrated or simply abandoned to be covered in graffiti; when the former communists came back to power, they cleaned them up and laid wreaths in front of them.

Given the lack of a clear dominant power and of public consensus on the heritage of communism, most of this battle was carried out in a war of words. On the one side, strategies on how to remove the monuments were plotted, encountering most unusual impediments such as the fact that, as it turned out, there was no helicopter in the country that could lift the head of “Alyosha” in Plovdiv. The other side was brandishing agreements and conventions which would have been violated with the removal of these monuments, among which the Agreement of friendship and cooperation with Russia signed in 1992. The unresolved issues as to who owned the monuments – the municipality or the state, further complicated the settling of the problem, extending the battle over the juridical field.5 The situation on the aesthetic front throughout the 1990s was also tense, as questions such as whether these monuments were heritage or thrash, whether they had aesthetic value or not, gave grounds to younger artists to confront older artists, and to pro-European artists to attack the autochthonous ones. The art people kept on generating ideas – half in fun, half in earnest – on how to deal with the communist monuments. Among these, for example, was a project, worthy of Andy Warhol, to multiply “Alyosha” by putting up identical monuments on all hills in Plovdiv and thus undermine the heroic meaning of the monument.6

The lack of stable and legitimate governance in Bulgaria in the last 20 years made it impossible for either of the two positions to prevail. The anticommunists took the line of waiting, by leaving the monuments to fall into ruins; the former communists, however, also played the waiting game, hoping for better times. The visual outcome of this chronic battle for power could not but impress the outsider: ruins are crumbling down in the center of the city. A pinnacle of sorts is the monument to the 1300th Anniversary standing in the park in front of the National Palace of Culture – its skeleton, bared by the elements and by the Roma collecting scrap metal, is fenced off by pseudo-graffiti commissioned by the municipality and advertising billboards.

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And yet, behind the big political battle – which by the way started dying down after the late 1990s – the monuments were being appropriated spontaneously from below. Their premises were either turned into places for drinking beer, smoking grass, skateboarding and drawing graffiti, or used as venues for sales and promotion events by one enterprise or another. There is talk in Plovdiv that the area around the ideologically problematical monument “Alyosha” was physically contested by skinheads and Gothic fans in the 1990s – the former saw in it fascist brutality, the latter – a symbol of death – a fact that is strangely homologous (to use Lévi-Strauss’s term) to the exaltation of heroic death, sought after by communist aesthetics (Vukov 2006). For the skaters in front of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia, the ideological meaning of the monument is completely obliterated: its former name “Freedom Park” has to do with the fact that you are gravitation-free there – you can freely practice your skateboarding tricks.7

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In this relation, it’s worth mentioning the case of Uncle Toni – a retired man who found two plaster statues from the communist times in the garbage. He fixed the statue of the Bulgarian woman wearing in a national costume, restored the Soviet soldier with a rebeck in hand, and put them up in front of his block of flats in “Mladost” 4, in the meantime getting into serious trouble with the municipality because of the regulations he had violated, nonetheless with the support of the media, of most neighbors, and as he pointed out, of the president himself whose autograph he is keeping by the fridge. Such kind of heart-warming appreciation for the monumental heritage comes to show that appropriation from below is not necessarily a destructive act. The meaning of the monument is simply being replaced, adapted to the culture and the needs of the local people. You think there is nostalgia for the Bolshevik ideology here? In fact, Uncle Toni is currently looking for a statue of a child to place it beside the two of them, for what else is to be expected if a young man and a young woman are standing next to each other? Similar examples with nationalist and religious symbols are easy to find.

The re-interpretation starts with the words, with the rumors and urban legends that inevitably surround the monuments. For example, the citizens of Sofia liken the monument in front of the National Palace of Culture to a figure with five wings and seven phalluses. Stories are told about how Todor Zhivkov did not like it and even changed his itinerary to avoid seeing it; there are also legends about a nuclear shelter located underneath, about secret signs encoded by Lyudmila in its weird geometry. The proliferation of such stories may be partially explained by the fact that this particular monument did not conform to the aesthetic tastes of the people, it was perceived as an aesthetical, not only as a political act of violence.8 Legends are still being told today: in the ten or so interviews conducted in the park in front of it in September 2009 I was told several explanations as to why it was hidden behind ads, among which the following: a shopping mall was about to be built up; the Italians were secretly dismantling it and shipping it out of the country; an equestrian statue of khan Asparukh would be erected at its base.

In the cultural studies tradition, we may discern in these tactics subcultural “noise” or a form of ritual resistance against the power. But we could also see it as a form of creating space of one’s own – the citizens making the city the way they want it. The monument appears to be the most rigid, the most concentrated manifestation of power; furthermore, or perhaps, therefore, the monument gets converted, appropriated, and diverted so frequently.

Umberto Eco wrote that the miscommunication between the sender and the receiver of the message is usually considered a misunderstanding: perhaps, this miscommunication should be pushed even further, as it increases the degree of freedom of the receiver. Here Eco’s oft-quoted term “semiotic guerrilla warfare” comes to mind. The guerrilla semioticians need not change the political messages, they only need to change the disposition of the audience (Eco 1965). Actually, their daring assaults have moved to the virtual realm in the recent years. The physical monument remains intact – it is neither wrecked, nor even painted over. The process of appropriation – de-contextualizing, removing, re-interpreting, parodying – is a function of perspective, framing, commentary, image processing, etc.

Here is a funny example of a (virtual) semiotic guerrilla warfare in Flickr: a detail from the Soviet Army monument in Bourgas in which the “liberator” and the “liberated” are kissing on the mouth, as Russian custom has it, was uploaded by Gery_Mur (Gergana Urumova from Kazanluk) under the title “Love is in the air”, and tagged under “Soviet art”, “monument”, “gay”, “passion”, and “Bulgaria”.

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From what has been said, it becomes clear that the appropriation of memorial sites in the city under “transition” goes two ways. On the one hand, the monuments are the battlefield where certain intellectual elites are fighting to change the public attitudes towards the monuments. On the other hand, the not fully submissive citizens are spontaneously privatizing the public space abandoned by the authorities and adapting it to their own needs.

What has happened to monumental sculpture since 1989 corroborates the above. The national project is collapsing as a result of the chronic no-win battle for power. Except for a couple of topoi of patriotic consensus (medieval kings, figures from the National Revival period), monuments either follow the peculiar whims of private individuals or are ethno-provocations instigated by certain political powers. In Haskovo, for instance, the world’s largest statue of Virgin Mary was erected with the purpose of being registered in the Guinness World Records, whereas in the village of Slavyanovo a monument to the unknown Turkish soldier was put up in a private yard.

3.

This may well serve as a bridge to the third case of appropriating the city from below which is less explored in the cultural studies, probably because the aesthetic aspect there is close to nil. It pertains to various do-it-yourself activities in the urban space – activities which are usually considered silly, ugly, selfish, but are nevertheless worth the attention from an anthropological viewpoint, in as much as they are a form of cultural resistance. The distinction I am making between the aesthetic and the cultural is along the high-low axis; aesthetic is the gesture of Baudlaire strolling around the city, or that of the graffitist leaving his traces in the city, whereas cultural is the resistance of the migrant feeding the stray dog lounging around his block of flats, putting together a kennel for it, and hiding it, regardless of the appeals of the municipality to put it away in a dog shelter.

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At first sight, it appears that the village is rising against the modern city; at a closer look, however, we’ll see that the dog-lover living in a panel block of flats does not feel the same way about animals as his grandfather did. The dog has become a value in itself, it arouses environmental pity, most probably cultivated by Disney films about animals; furthermore, the dog-lover legitimates his asocial behavior (for these dogs bite the passers-by badly now and then) with the European Union and the principles of humanity. In one word, cultural resistance is not just a step backwards to the village, but a re-defining of the urban. This is my place, I take care of the dogs around here, they are mine, or, rather, in this way I occupy the public space and mark it as my own.

The battle against the Project has started with the mass socialist urbanization in the 1960s when the happy homeowner who had just been given the keys to his new flat in a panel block of flats, immediately set about glazing the balcony and turning it into a kitchen, converting the kitchen to a children’s bedroom, the other balcony – to a closet, the garage – to a basement, the garden – to a garage, etc. The collapse of the state, tied to the above-mentioned chronic battle for power throughout the “transition” and coupled with the social upheaval, radicalized the battle for the city. Some were constructing staircases on the ground floor in order to convert their flats to offices, others were partitioning their entrance halls to make shops, yet others were encroaching upon the green areas, building whatever pleased them on the restituted properties next to the panel blocks of flats, mounting advertising billboards or mobile operator antennas in order to cover the overheads of the building, etc. It all took place without rules and regulations, only with private energies, connections, cultural values. The façades are a spatial manifestation of this battle (Lina Gergova and Yana Gergova call them the “postsocialist Hundertwasser”) – the residents on the first floor are living in poverty, the plaster is peeling off the walls, those on the second floor have made some money and have thermo-insulated their section of the façade, the third floor has been painted over, the fourth – glazed, there is brick work on the fifth…

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We find such acts of appropriation everywhere. A basement converted to a “kneel-down shop”, a Lada made into a mobile market stall. Wooden benches hammered-together, a vine-arbor growing above, its roots fenced off with repainted car tires and insulators, probably snitched from the nearby factory. A self-made car shed, an old van parked in front, used as storage place, an improvised pigeon-house. The entire façade littered with cables, antennas, and air-conditioners. In addition to the statues, the above-mentioned Uncle Toni, voluntarily working for the betterment of “Mladost” 4, has also built a chapel, put up an ethnographic collection on display, and even made an artificial mound of earth between the blocks where the kids could go sledging in the winter.

We are used to feeling ashamed of all this, to thinking of such practices as a deviation from the norm, as backwardness which will be dealt with by the good authorities one day. Anyway, why do we value the neighborhood dog-lover less than the graffitist? It is as simple as that: there is nothing aesthetical about him, there is no high subjectivity; we don’t want to identify with him. The graffitist is “the way they do it in America”, it brings us closer to the “normal countries”. Architectural folklore is the way we do it here, or worse – the way they do it in the even poorer Third World countries. Rap and chalga are in a similar opposition – the former comes from New York, the latter is local invention, here is why even if both are equally brutal and repulsive, we think more highly of the former, we see it as a sign of being civilized (Ditchev 2009: 33). In this sense, the question why we don’t develop research sensitivity towards these forms of urban culture9, why we don’t succeed in integrating them in our identity, gets a paradoxical answer: they can’t become ours because we don’t see them as foreign enough.

*The photos in this text are taken by the author, unless otherwise indicated.

__________

1.  A similar “corporate” sign of a fish has appeared recently in Sofia.

2.  Sprays are comparatively expensive for the teen budget – one 250 ml can costs about 7 levs, i.e. to cover a medium-size wall with a full color graffiti drawing would cost at least 50-60 levs.

3.  There are a few exceptions. The monument of the foreigner Lenin was rather hurriedly removed (it used to be where the statue of Sofia raised on a pole is standing today). Many nationalist monuments from the late communist period (such as the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State in Shumen) remained under close guard. The Mausoleum of Dimitrov was blown up in 1999 but this act had rather negative consequences for the right government which was in power at the time.

4.  An interview with Luchezar Boyadjiev (Ditchev & Terziev 2009).

5.  The endless arguments about the monument in front of the National Palace of Culture give a good idea. The ministry called upon Mayor Boyko Borissov to have the monument restored. “Let them restore it right away. Did I make this monument? Am I supposed to take care of this monument of Stanishev’s!” (…) Borissov sent a letter to the ministry arguing that the monument was in a decrepit state, and proposed that it had to be pulled down. In its place the municipality intended to place memorial plaques honoring the 6th Infantry Regiment. The mayor appealed to the Minister of Culture Stefan Danailov to put forward a proposal for restoring and keeping the monument if there was a different solution at hand. In reply, Minister Stefan Danailov asked Boyko Borissov for a letter of support in order to file a request for funding from the government with the Council of Ministers. (Dnevnik, April 9th, 2008)

6.  An interview with Emil Miraztchiev (Ditchev & Terziev 2009).

7.  Shared by Orlin Spassov.

8.  I would not like to take a stand on the issue of its aesthetic virtues and drawbacks here, I am just pointing out that the people found it too “modern”.

9.  Many artists have developed such sensitivity, let me just mention the circle around the Institute for Contemporary Art. It seems, however, that the appreciation for the Balkan urban disorder as a specific culture is directly related to its being put on display for the international public; the locally-based artists are more inclined to share the “normalizing” feelings of resentment.

Bibliography

Ditchev, I. 2009. Subkultura, scena, lajfstajl [Subculture, scene, lifestyle]. In: Novite mladi i novite medii [The new youth and the new media]. Sofia: Open Society Institute, pp. 33-35.

Ditchev, I. & K. Terziev. 2009. Istorii s pametnitsi [Stories with monuments] (HDV). Center for Anthropology of Places and Communications, Sofia University.

Eco, U. 1965. Towards a Semiotic Enquiry into the Television Message, In: Corner, J. & J. Hawthorn (Eds.) 1980. Communication Studies: An Introductory Reader, London: Edward Arnold, pp. 131-150.

Hall, S. & T. Jefferson (Eds.) 1990. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, London: Routledge.

Lefebvre, H. 1974. La production de l'espace, Paris: Anthropos.

McRobbie, A. 1990. Settling accounts with subcultures: a feminist critique, In: Frith, S. & A. Goodwin (Eds.) On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, New York: Pantheon Books.

Michalski, S. 1998. The communist pantheon, In: Public Monuments. Art in Political Bondage 1870-1997, London: Reaktion Books, pp. 107-153.

Raban, J. 1974. Soft City, London: Picador.

Vukov, N. 2006. Public monuments as visualization of death in socialist Bulgaria between 1944 and 1989, In: Centropa 6 (3), pp. 215-227.

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