authors: krasimira butseva & martin atanasov
Martin Atanasov (1991, BG) is a visual artist born and based in Sofia. He completed a BA degree in Photography at the Film and Television School of the Academy of the Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) in 2014. Atanasov works with photography, drawing, installation and text in the context of the photobook.
Krasimira Butseva (1994, BG) is an artist and researcher born in Asenovgrad and based between Canterbury and London. She is one of the founders of Revolv Collective and a photography lecturer at London College of Communication, the University of the Arts London, and co-editor of the EEP Magazine.
We met for the first time online and continued our communication through screens for several months. Our acquaintance emerged under lockdown. Martin Atanasov and I spent the long spring of 2020 talking about photography. Soon, the screens shrank as we found ourselves sitting on the sides of a long wooden table in the heat of Sofia. As we moved through tables, from the one in my Airbnb flat to another one in a traditional Bulgarian tavern adjacent to the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s headquarters, we eagerly shared memories of our childhoods.
In 2015, Atanasov was invited by the Bulgarian photographer, Nikola Mihov, to participate in the collaborative project ReForget Your Past. For its realization, thirty Bulgarian and international artists, photographers and designers were asked to appropriate, intervene and work with his renowned photobook Forget Your Past. The title of the book comes from the famous slogan inscribed at the main entrance of the grandiose Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party on Peak Buzludja, where an annual celebration for the success and prosperity of communism takes place to this day. Mihov’s book takes us on a journey across some of the massive communist monuments spread over contemporary Bulgaria – we encounter breath-taking concrete landscapes and brutalist sculptures watching over cities and mountains. In his intervention of the book, Atanasov decided to use collage to juxtapose visual elements belonging to the chalga music genre with the black and white photographs of Mihov.
In 2017 I came across Atanasov's work for the first time in Photosynthesis Gallery together with the other interventions of Mihov’s photobook. His interpretation particularly struck me as I was flipping through the pages. The images of both the collages and the landscapes were too familiar. They were all part of a culture, an environment in which I, myself grew up. The collages somehow brought the 90s to life – a time of notorious transition from communism to democracy for Eastern European countries;
A time of chaos, disruption, transformation, liberation, rebellion, revolution and corruption. The very first chance for catching up and tuning in to the glorified and idealised West.
To me, the ’90s seemed to be slightly blurred, distorted. I recall moving in and out of different apartments with my family, travelling constantly to elsewhere. In the last years of the decade, I lived in a neighbourhood at the edge of Sofia, where we, the kids, all competed in this search for belonging, for establishing some kind of identity whilst the world around us was going through a metamorphosis.
Growing up in this constant flux, within these specific years in Bulgaria has surely impacted the formation of my identity and self.
As with the breeze of change inseparable to this era, and the euphoria swallowing the air I also recall that I was eagerly trying to fit in, to identify myself with the different subcultures. At this particular time, I encountered the music genre chalga / pop-folk, which influenced my generation and for me, it has somehow become a metaphor for the transition period.
The chalga music was a prominent element of the everyday life of our upbringing. This music style indeed is the heart of the transition period – specific with the mix of Bulgarian, Turkish, Roma, Greek, Serbian and other Balkan music motifs. Chalga or pop-folk appeared as a phenomenon as it moved away from the previously established solely white and mono-ethnic representatives within the Bulgarian culture and music, which were central in the communist past. In the same time, this music along with the transition brought about a collective foraging for an identity, together with an establishment of new roles within the landscape of society.
The lyrics of the chalga songs in the ‘90s praised the new life introduced by capitalism – one filled with dollars, euros and German marks, endless opportunities and shiny cars; together with the foreign dreamland, the fast ways of getting rich, and the feelings of falling in and out of love.
In these years, it was really about the attempt to define oneself, without realising how much one is influenced by their surroundings. I grew up with the newly formed understanding of my parents, their quest for an identity and the new horizons opened by the fall of communism. My family was somehow a product of the transition, but also the transition itself. As a child, when I heard the chalga music, and saw the singers and their music videos I assumed that was how adults looked and behaved. The music was present everywhere - at school, on the bus, on the streets, in the shops, it was the soundtrack of the country. At one point it also began to occupy the TV with its own channel, which made the genre even more accessible and widespread.
Looking back now at the singers, I realise that, alongside others in different popular subcultures, they create a "model" for what a man and a woman should be, they form the standard of how a "successful" life looks like.
The pop folk fabricated a new lifestyle through its songs, and through the way the singers presented themselves visually.
Lyrics of songs such as I feel best with a few men and Because we are extraordinary by Kati, or Come baby chicks to your daddy by Milko Kalaidjiev – contribute to the creation of new gender roles; the woman is now "free" and the man’s ideals revolve around consumerism and ownership. In other lyrics from these years – the migration of the transition period alongside the "easy and fast money" are a central point, which also added to the persona of the new-era. These new identity morals and standards were very different from the ones of the past political system, in which historically there had been a strong censorship in one’s clothing, interests and behaviour.
I too remember the struggle for belonging, when growing up. I was hypnotized by the female singers on the screen, who were moving their bodies in alluring clothing. I also recently came to realise through our conversations, that in fact they were portraying a certain role for women within society through their behaviours, staged performances, sets of words and attitudes. In essence, for me, they appeared to be some of the first role-models which were not wrapped in fiction and present solely in fairytales or cartoons: bearing in mind that women were usually absent from the pages of the school books, the news on the TV or the monuments in the town squares.
I can trace the impact of these visuals, sounds and acts and how they have shaped me as a young girl growing up in post-communist Bulgaria.
This music culture carries its own model of a behaviour and attitude. And while there is one characterizing women, there is also a specific one for men.
The man is depicted as a heroic figure, who is physically strong, rich and owns (anything and everything).
He is usually portrayed as someone who could make anything a reality. It is interesting to think whether and how much some of the first songs describing the man of the ‘90s were inspired by the newly established mafia oligarchs; which later on spread as an expectation and outlook of men throughout all social classes. It’s highly visible in our generation, and the ones which followed after us, I think.
The role models of the ‘90s seem to have created something new for society to strive for, to be inspired by.
In the previous era, the role models had often taken the form of sculptures and monuments erected across towns and in the high peaks of the mountains. They would often represent real people or historical events, and at times they would symbolise the rapid developments brought by communism through workers in labour and action. Together with the busts and sculptures of leaders from the totalitarian system, a section of the monuments also focus on the ordinary Soviet citizen, the worker, the partisan, and the warrior.
In our long walks through boulevards with deserted industrial buildings, and small disguised streets with steep staircases, you were not only sharing glimpses of Sofia with me, but also leading me through a map of your memories.
We at times reached these monuments and I stopped and gazed at them. As is my practice of researcher and artist, I am very intrigued by Soviet architecture, and in recent years I have started to pay extreme attention to all of these brutalist structures. Whilst, in my hometown, the monuments are not so present, or rather not so enormous, and often blend in unrecognisably with the environment around, in Plovdiv where I studied, they were prominent and enormous, seen from everywhere and part of the city’s landscape.
I wonder what kind of feelings these spaces such as, the Soviet Army monument adjacent to the Borisova Gradina brings to you, as it is present in the photographs which you have reworked in the book, but also it is a part of your teenage memories, and your whole life in Sofia.
In my upbringing, the communist monuments in Sofia were meeting spots for young people. To me, they have always been slightly alienated, distant somehow, but capable of carrying the past system with them. When I look at them in person or in photographs, I often find it sad how easily memory becomes distorted and removed from the present.
Ever since I was invited to work on this project, I noticed strings of contradiction between the pop-folk and the communist landscapes. I thought that by merging these two realities I was able to comment and pose questions about the transition period as well as present day Bulgaria.
I believe that the analogy between both is helpful – as it describes this quake, this drastic jump; in the same manner in which the pop-folk music in its early days describes the ideology of the politics of the transition, of the newly bloomed dreams and standards. This music genre has somehow given us a palette of identities and has captured the new mindset of the change. I have also thought about how this transition is still ongoing in Bulgaria, as it feels comfortable for a society to be constantly held in a loop of imagining and dreaming for a better future.
This (past and present) time appears to be enclosed in a thick mist; relating these two political periods – the communist and democratic ones – through the blunt collages, leaves viewers, and myself in slight discomfort at first. The sceneries selected from a simple Google Search – enlarged and wrapped over the monuments – turn them into stages for performances, for expression and for this unique identity, whilst they break completely the authoritarian, harsh and hero-like Soviet personas.
In addition, the wild and sex-infused images speak of a vast freedom, one not existing and not allowed prior. For me, this time of the 90s, this pop-folk culture acts also as a proxy of a sexual revolution which didn’t have grounds in communist Bulgaria.
As you said, this loop of the transition has been going on since the 90s — a spiral which promises a better present which is (always) to be reached. This reminds me also of the party’s speeches, slogans and propaganda, where in the wording and syllables one can find that collective imagination of a distant resolution, a common striving for a promised utopian future which never comes in the case of the past, and in the present is still expected.
To buy the photobook How to Forget Your Past Fast, please get in touch with the author directly via email@example.com. The official pop-up book launch, organized by the Bulgarian platform for photobooks PUK! (ПУК!), will take place at KO-OP between the 23–25 of October 2020. PUK! is a photography platform dedicated to the promotion of photo books in Bulgaria which was founded in 2017 by Tihomir Stoyanov, Nikola Mihov and Rosen Kuzmanov.