Impressions from Plovdiv 2019: Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva
Curated by Daniela Veneri
“In my everyday work, I'm trying all the time to define the cultural interests that we are seeking in this whole program because there are many factors that influence the project. We are constantly discussing with different institutions, different parties, with media and other partners, and my main principle in my whole work here is to defend the cultural content of the project and to provide some good conditions for its implementation.”
- Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva
What are your most important objectives as artistic director of Plovdiv 2019?
I think I will have to take some time to analyze my objectives when this project finishes in 2020. For now it's a very intensive run. For me it was a very big challenge to find the proper system and to actually first start building a team responsible for this project, then I had to learn more about it because it is a new experience for us. We didn't have any European Capital of Culture in Bulgaria before. We had to learn a lot about the initiative itself and its regulation. During the preparation process we had to find a solution to how to adapt these initiatives to the local conditions, because every country has specific conditions like the legislation, administration, especially when it comes to spending public money. Such kind of organizational aspect was one of the biggest challenges for me from the very beginning.
My background is in curating and it was very interesting to find some curatorial approach to such a huge cultural program, which is dealing mostly with the communities, with participatory projects, with alternative spaces, open air cultural events. At the same time I wanted to put a certain order in the whole selection of projects, to have a certain logical selection and to make it visible.
Every European Capital of Culture has a preliminary program with which it participates in the bid, and so we are obliged to follow these preliminary programs during the whole process of preparation. My role as artistic director was somehow to find a way to implement all the ideas included in this preliminary program, and this is not entirely a curatorial or an authorship project. At the same time, as an art professional I wanted somehow to use my experience and approach in a curatorial way. Despite the fact that we had to do the whole program and process through open calls, because this is the Bulgarian legislation and we were not allowed to make any commissions for this, I was trying to keep a certain thematic red line of the program in the whole project during the selection and the communication with partners. Now I see that when the projects are implemented, things works more or less, that there is a certain logic, that we keep working on clear concepts for this program, and although there are very different kinds of arts it follows its own logic. Anyway I feel that to clearly analyze my important objectives I will probably need to have more distance from the whole work, after this event will be completed.
What principles are guiding your work?
In my everyday work, I'm trying all the time to define the cultural interests that we are seeking in this whole program because there are many factors that influence the project. We are constantly discussing with different institutions, different parties, with media and other partners, and my main principle in my whole work here is to defend the cultural content of the project and to provide some good conditions for its implementation. This is my role in this case, and my team of artistic and project managers is working on any problem that arises. We try all the time to do the best we can so to provide the best conditions.
As I mentioned, there are existing concepts at the basis of the program and this is also something that I pay attention to, like citizens participation, decentralization, expanding the notion about what culture is today. These are also principles that are very much present in my own work.
How did the local community respond to this process?
The whole initiative that started with the bid to the process to become Capital European of Culture was initiated by the local cultural community, and the first reactions have been positive, also of course when the city was selected. There was a big enthusiasm in the whole cultural and artistic team here in Plovdiv but also all over the country. Plovdiv is a very well-known cultural centre in our country and this title actually provided a better visibility at a European level, something that many people really appreciate in Bulgaria. We gave a lot of opportunities for inclusion in this program, and all the active actors and organizations involved here in the city and in Bulgaria somehow are participating in the program of the European Capital of Culture, all of them have been more or less involved in this program and in the process of preparation in the last five years, not just this year.
There is also criticism towards this initiative, also from cultural organizations and players, because of different reasons, mostly because of the administration and sometimes for the hard working conditions. Part of this new challenge has been to implement this project for the first time in Bulgaria. All the institutions are facing big difficulties in accepting it and adapting their work to this project somehow. Some of our partners really face difficulties with the implementation of their ideas. This is pretty common for a European Capital of Culture. Every city that has this title has both acknowledgment and also criticism.
I find that actually this has been an occasion to activate the whole local context, that here is very much involved in this initiative, and a European Capital of Culture somehow rises the sensitivity about some of the problems, some institutional mistakes and administration issues. I think that through the whole experience everybody who is involved felt a very strong connection with each other. Even the criticism and heavy discussions that we sometimes have are important for our learning and knowledge.
Which of the feedbacks that you received have been particularly meaningful for you and which surprised you most?
As many European Capital of Culture, we have a consultant team, which in our case is coming from Essen and the Ruhr European Capital of Culture 2010. Our German colleagues consulted us during the whole process, and that was for me the most helpful feedback. The other important feedback came from the so called Family of the European Capitals of Culture. We meet twice a year with former, current and future Capitals of Culture and we share about experiences, problems, issues. The feedbacks that you are getting from your colleagues are definitely very helpful and very reassuring sometimes even for us, because you see that, even though we are in different parts of Europe, we often share the same problems and the same issues and sometimes some of our colleagues are able to give us better solutions than those we have.
Thinking of feedbacks from the local community, there were very surprising moments, sometimes positive and other times not so much positive. For example, there were plenty of very active actors and participants in our program that we didn't expect and this was a positive feedback. The project was for them obviously something important and so they responded very actively and positively and they became involved in it. Other feedback is very much critical, and for us it was helpful because sometimes it helps us improve things, when it is not just pure antagonism.
We are generally very much open to receive any feedback. For Plovdiv 2019 we are supporting institutions and we encourage our partners to participate by giving them funding for the full implementation of the project. We tried to find a common floor around the main concepts and ideas of the program and we are not making big curves because of the feedback that we have received from partners of the local community.
What is at the core of the identity of the city of Plovdiv? What are its specific features?
Our whole program is structured according to the specific features of Plovdiv and the special identity of the city. The most specific aspect of Plovdiv is the multi cultural and multi ethnic profile of its citizens. We have a lot of different ethnic and religious communities, since centuries. That's why one of our program platforms is called Fuse, because of the fusion of these groups of people and their positive interactions, which is something that we try to encourage with our program and we have achieved really very positive results so far.
Another specific feature is the multi-layered cultural heritage that we have here. Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe, it's an 8,000 years old city and whatever you see in the city centre has many historical layers from the past. This is something that we try to present in a different way with the contemporary culture, to show some models of how culture and art could be effective in reviving some abundance and forgotten treasures that we have in our city. We have, for example, a platform called Transformed and also have a special platform dedicated to contemporary arts and culture. We have very good artistic and cultural traditions here, but we also have big contributions for the development of contemporary art in Bulgaria, and with Plovdiv 2019 we try somehow to upgrade the tradition and to involve international and local artists on a wider scale.
This is also a slow city and the relaxation, the slow living, enjoyment life, are something very distinct. When you step in the city you perceive this general feeling of relaxation, so we have created another platform called Relax, exactly because this time of leisure is something very characteristic for Plovdivians. It is a special atmosphere, typical only for this city in Bulgaria.
As a European Capital of Culture, we try also to present the Bulgarian national contributions to the European culture. We have small cultural community centres, which are very much active in small villages and towns in the region, and they are also presented in our program. Also the Balkan identity is a very important presence in our project.
What do you like most of the work that you are doing?
I love the new things that I actually learned during my whole work as artistic director for Plovdiv 2019, it was for me a real academy completing my experience and it has really enriched me a lot. Learning new things is just something that I love in my work, being involved in completely new networks for me so unfamiliar, is something that I really love and gives me the opportunity to open up my own perspectives and also to help other people open their perspectives. This is something that I really appreciate.
How do you think this experience will influence your role as a curator in the future?
I don't know yet, we will see. I'm sure that you it will influence my work. My approach is already not so much elitist and I notice that I pay much more attention to the audiences, their reactions. I know that this is something very important for a cultural or artistic project, the approach to the audiences and the communication with them, it's something crucial. For sure this will influence my future practice, but to be frank I don't really know where I'm going to go from now on. It's not clear yet.
What forms of artistic proposals and contaminations do you think are particularly representative of current transformations and challenges taking place in modern society?
This is a very big question. I don't feel comfortable about this topic because it's huge. Generally I think that cultural projects and artistic projects are not able to influence very much the social and political issues, they could point them or they could not. What I notice is that there are not many artists and curators, especially in Bulgaria, who are keen to get involved in some societal issues, some communities issues. Projects are rather more philosophical, in most of the cases they are rather more historical and introspective.
Here we have lots of projects with communities but we cannot catch up all the lapses we have in the social policy. You don't address all the historical mistakes with cultural projects. This is something that needs to have a wider involvement and responsibility, you cannot expect from a cultural or artistic project to find a solution. Of course when it comes to very prominent international art forums, like biennials or other kinds of big international exhibitions, artists are possibly enabled to be heard, but I don't know who actually listens to them because people with power who take important decisions are not very often engaged with the arts. This is also part of the experience that we have with Plovdiv European Capital of Culture, because for the first time political institutions and personalities are getting involved in finding solutions for cultural projects, which is of course something different, it is like finding crossing points between two completely different roads.
What is happening in Plovdiv right now?
We have had, for example, 200 artists travelling who came here from all over Europe to Plovdiv, and they gathered for the first time in such a big group in one city. All of them representatives of a network of traveling theatres called CITI, they came here and built three camps in three different neighbourhoods in the city. They stayed for a whole week in Plovdiv and the experience with them is been something completely unusual, different and very exciting, powerful, and it happened for the first time here.
We opened the Opera Open Festival, which is an open air musical festival and a stage on the ancient theatre in the old town, a completely different kind of experience. We also have four very good exhibitions of contemporary art that are going on in the moment in the city centre. We had a theatre premiere of a puppet theatre, a new production by a small independent theatre produced especially for us. We have had a medieval festival with reenactments of different historical ages.
Every weekend there is a children's city, which is based on the Youth Hill in Plovdiv, where kids with their parents are building a city according to their visions on how cities should look like, and it is something very inspirational to witness. There is a big crowd of kids building the whole infrastructure by themselves.
These are only a few examples of the intensive program that we have at the moment. My colleagues and I are running all the time from one event to another. For every event it’s like living in a different city, in a different world with people from all over the country, from the region and from all over Europe. It's really exciting.
Is there anything else that you would like to share?
With Plovdiv 2019 we try to somehow represent the European values by using the means of arts and culture, which makes it both a political and a cultural project. It's very much complicated and it's hard to judge without having the whole facts, without making enough efforts to investigate the whole picture of such a complex project. I am very happy that we have this in Bulgaria and in Plovdiv now because I'm sure that our experience, even the arguments that we had with the administration and institutions, will be somehow helpful for the future cultural development of the country, somehow I think this will also help the progress of the cultural politics of our country. And this is what is my focus right now, to give some kind of feedback about the experience, some recommendations about how things could be improved for the future. Of course I will need to take my distance and think of this whole experience later, to reflect on my future work.
Can you think of three or five keywords that express your impressions and feelings about the topics we just talked about?
Culture, whole, program, time, experience.
Svetlana Kuyumdzhieva is an art historian, critic and curator. One of the most recognizable faces of the contemporary art scene in Bulgaria. Over ten years she has been working as a gallerist in Sofia and has emerged as active critic and author of independent projects. She has extensive experience in organization of exhibitions, festivals, events in public space. She attended courses and residencies in Germany, Austria, USA, South Korea. Her interests as art theoretician encompass both the most up-to-date artists and trends on the art scene, as well as the period of the 1950s and 1960s and the problems of socialist realism. She works with numerous public institutions and non-governmental organizations in Bulgaria and abroad. She is one of the founders of the first independent curators association in Bulgaria. Prior to her position as artistic director of “Plovdiv 2019” she participated in the team that developed the cultural strategy of Plovdiv Municipality 2014-2024.