There’s no Plan B in art


Anton Terziev in conversation with Maria Vassileva -curator, art historian and critic. Director and founder of Structura Gallery



Paintkiller. Performance by Anton Terziev in collaboration with Ultrafuturo group (Boriana Rossa, Oleg Mavromatti, Katia Damianova), Sofia, 2007 Photo: © the artist

Maria Vassileva: In the 2004-2008 period you were an active participant in different collective and individual actions of the group Ultrafuturo, founded by Boryana Rossa, Oleg Mavromatti, Katya Damyanova and yourself. Looking back, how would you describe this period? Which was the most important thing for you, what were the main messages and actions? 

Anton Terziev: That was an intense period. We made the things in a way that they would be heard of, without sparing any effort. Our collective wish was to uproot the viewers from their comfort zone and their indifference, with means of expression that are not easy to take in, frightening and disturbing, yet well clarified and based on widely available information. The goal was to stir up the layers, to engage the viewer, even on physiological level, if not on mental, drawing his or her attention to issues from the field of experimental science, utopian metaphysics, but also to topical matters of the day. The important thing for us was to put up front the conceptual content and well-substantiated ideas; the provocation was not a goal in itself. I would single out the performance European Languagevisualizing our opinion on the changes and general situation in the country in 2007, the bio-art project Pygmalion, on account of its mix of different means and media, the action The establishment of National Movement Ultrafuturo, in which we opposed the nationalistic rhetoric, the interactive performance Roboriada with its interpretation of the transhumanistic philosophy.

М.V.: Actually, under the banner of Ultrafuturo’s manifest for radical transhumanism some memorable and bold performances were created. They said something, or should I say, they shouted it out. Do you think that this kind of energy is now depleted and why?

А.Т.: Energy tends to transform, its direction is determined by the individual needs in the pursuit of satisfaction. People here use different means of expression and it can hardly be expected that someone would keep or inherit such a radical line of expression, or that the originators themselves would maintain it years on end.

М.V.: What I’d like to know beyond the particular development of one or another group or separate artist is whether we didn’t just put up with the situation in the course of years, whether we didn’t look for comfort, including by making use of the pittances that the system offers us? I am talking of both my generation and yours. But, on the other hand, at least we’ve had our outbursts of protest. To expand the question, do you think we have passed on this spark to the next generations?

А.Т.: Every time deserves its resistance; but the reverseprocess is also valid – from the quality of resistance we can judge for the „cleverness“, the perfidiousness of the system. An adequate opposition requires from you to be alert, ready for permanent analysis of the status quo, the zeitgeist, which again is tiresome, but is there a more meaningful undertaking! The system has many faces and puts countless obstacles before us. The borderline moves from a dependency to another compromise. There is no unified front or a concrete image to facilitate the conflict. That is desperate and challenging at the same time. To enter into a world you have built for yourself, to self-isolate there as an „underappreciated artist“ is tempting, but it’s a one-way course to euthanasia, it’s not an alternative. I don’t quite believe in continuity, when it comes to extremely risky endeavors like art, defending civil liberties or doing the one through the other. On the whole, their separation is part of the problem. In art there is no insurance, plan B or diversification of the „business“.

After a number of personal or collective disappointments or the collapse of yet another public illusion for change, comes the fatigue. The pain barrier and resistance capacity are different with every person, and that exactly is the interesting thing – you look around and you see who has stopped where, who is part of the solution.

In this country it is possible to share a common goal only for a limited period of time. The natural development in Bulgaria tends to run in cycles – restart and then build everything from scratch. There isn’t collective accumulation of critical mass functioning as a food bank of discontent, from which to draw. Even the demands of the protest rallies, spontaneous or not, go more and more downhill, with no reference to the gains achieved by the previous ones.

I had a recent discussion with Svetoslav Todorov, the curator of my latest show, that in Bulgarian art the adequate appraisals in most cases come at a very late stage, long after the actual happening. That is why we don’t have a „wave“. An event can be striking and ground-breaking, when it is recognized as important and welcome by many people at one and the same time.

Still, I perceive the reasons for discouragement as fuel and material for my further work. The demise of illusions is an inevitable process and a test for endurance, but it also gives rise to new ones. The spark for action springs out from personal motives. Therefore, the responsibility for both failures and achievements can only be personal. That’s why I’ve never felt in a position to set or bequeath any trends.

Anton Terziev. Quiet Riots 3, 2019, oil on canvas, 140×195 cm Photo: © the artist

М.V.: Speaking of next generations, I am reminded of your amazing series Quiet Riots, in which through the image of your teenage son you contemplate on growing up (which is a lifelong process). I would like to know your motivation for the creation of these pictures.

А.Т.: In this series things move on several layers, with different speed and direction. The title itself contains a paradox. The idea came from my wish to throw a bridge over to my father, at the end of his life. To repair our failed connection by putting myself in his shoes. A peculiar archeology of childhood in search of lost time became integrated into the background. And on the foreground are the forms of resistance, which are of great interest to me for being the light part of every person’s biography. When do they become conscious, what paths they follow, how do they entice us. That’s why I put my son in open situations of generational and cultural dissonance. These are knots, which I’d like to untie and reconfigure myself.

М.V.: The autobiographical element is strongly presented in your work. You also have a book of poetry titled “No portrait for the artist”, which Ekaterina Yosifova qualified as actually being “a rather complete portrait of the artist/poet.” Why is it important for you to dig deep and expose personal stories and experiences?

А.V.: The logical thing to say is that personal experience is my only known route and a starting point for self-understanding and contact with the world. It is like that, but there’s more to it. The personal experiences are a free virtual „reserve“. You enter, lose some time walking the labyrinthine paths, you think what will be the useful gains when you leave. The truth is, in most cases you wind up in an unknown and unfriendly place, as chaos prevails over order.

Personal experience and the claim to have had it are related, and their separation is a whole different art. I can never be sure that behind a memory is a 100% true story; the more often you revisit a memory, the more detailed it becomes. One way or another, I don’t have a more reliable tool than that. Also, rationally speaking, people relate to art based on how it resonates with their imperfections. Therefore, the more personal experiences, i.e. imperfections, I put on the worktable, the more successful my strategy of affecting the viewer.

Anton Terziev. 200% Pure Past, 2015. Performance 40’, video, object, 24.05.2015, Sofia Photo: © the artist

М.V.: My next question is directly linked to the previous one, but shifts from the private to the more universal. You take active interest in the past and the collective memory and they can often be traced in your works. For example, let me take you back to the performance 200 % Pure Pastfrom 2015, in which in front of the now demolished monument1300 years of Bulgariayou ritually glue together pages from Nikola Mihov’s book Forget Your Past. What happened – did we forget our past, must we forget it, did we understand something about our past?

А.Т.: We must be well aware what exactly are we doing, whether we handle with the past or we dеny it. It ispainfully clear to us that the past lurks from all directions, but there’s a difference whether it startles us like a latent ghost presence, a white noise, or, after we’ve accepted to live with this inevitable anxiety, it enriches our intellect, even a little, and gives us hints for solutions on a daily basis.

We understood we have failed to read the painful pages; on the contrary, we duplicate them and add them as new ones in the book of life. In this way the book „in Chinese“ grows in size, while the dictionaries are scarce.

The past is not a heap of retro stuff that we just left behind. To claim you don’t remember, although you’re old enough to, is like committing perjury. OK, but in whose favor is your perjury? On the other hand, if you do remember and want to tell everyone, whose story you remember, are you sure it is yours, or that another person’s story is authentic.

The past is like a movie, which everyone boldly comments, just like that, according to their own taste. The number of supporters of a version or remakevalidates its existence. In the era ofpost-truth and abundance of know-all experts, the past is privatized, bankrupted and resold; it is left burglarized and destroyed. But that becomes known, let’s say, after a generation or two, or remains forever under the radar. In other words, because of the ones who „forget“ the past, others never get to know about it. They are being skipped. So they don’t have the chance to take part in the debate or hastily join a wrong one.

You can rewrite your own biography, promote yourself as a new, self-made individual, people respect that kind of heroes and endow them with iconic status, but when it comes to collective memory it’s rather schizophrenic that it should be reduced to a collage of fabricated images out of the same mould.

Anyhow, every artist rewrites the tracks of the past to achieve a „clearer signal“ on today’s screen. A futurologist can feel the pulse of time better than a documentarian.

A popular thing in our midst now is the collaboration of artists from different generations. They don’t shy away from political issues, just the opposite, politicizing deliberately becomes an indispensable feature, a trendy criterion for contemporary art. And it is documented pedantically, there is a two-way information flow, the archive of the future „past” is being written.

Anton Terziev. Gold Minimum, 2020, оil on canvas, 80×100 cm From No Time for Losers series. Photo credit: Svetoslav Todorov

М.V.: You mentioned the process of self-glorification that we witness and which has significantly expanded lately. Is it the foundation of the seriesNo Time for Losers?

А.Т.: Certainly. Self-glorification as a survival tactics, that is, trying to be constantly talked about by people and exposing your blunders, flops and incompetence in the process, and self-glorification as the defence position of a voluntary outcast, from which you can comfortably shoot at your opponents, throw blame, etc. In both cases, it’s a pathetic, but understandable behaviour. The tolerance to vulgarity is an inexhaustible resource in Bulgaria. But proportional to the ego’s push from within is the pressure for achieving success by external rules. You are either successful or out of the picture. If we assume that the field of art is a mirror reflection of the economical one and you depend on the goodwill of a handful of temporary clerks (though the clerk’s perception of time has a sock-like elasticity), you woo them into throwing a lifebelt in your direction and clench your teeth before the usual „we’re all in the same boat“ excuses, does the degree of your endurance make you a winner?

In the series No Time for Losers I examine just that – what it takes from you, what and whom you pay, who constructs the content of success as a symbol and metaphor, what is its shelf life? I do it through the well-known moment of triumph, mandatory for sport photographers. A freeze-frame, in which I comment on the role interrelations between the award, the awardee and the award presenter.

I hit the brakes on the rat race for quick, immediate, instagrammable success. This concept is like a tomb. A remarkable pantheon, which you furnish meticulously with awards, trophies in your CV and what not, to the last day of your life.

Whoever wants to be a „relevant participant in the processes“ knows that things like vulnerability, exposedness and sensitivity smell of failure, they don’t make you   competitive on the market. Like in sports, whose direct aesthetics I borrow for my series.

From an early age, you have to run in the right lane or track. Lest you compete on top level but outside of the field, or even worse – out of the range of the cameras reporting the game from the pitch.

М.V.: I don’t quite agree. Isn’t that one-upmanship a protective reaction against the marginalization of the artists, the neglect of their work, the process of putting them on their knees to the bottom of the social ladder? Recognition is almost inexistent in Bulgaria, be it for past, present or future achievements. I’ve been trying to understand this struggle to be noticed in a society dominated by other values.

А.Т.:  Of course, whatever you manage to do by yourself, with your own powers and resources is all that matters, that’s how it is here. An artist must be multifunctional, aggressive, loud-voiced and thick-skinned, familiar with and practicing all the advices of Jerry Saltz, Obrist and the other art gurus from dawn till dusk, but it’s a thin line and you can easily lose balance and downgrade to desperate self-promotion. When you see the production of your colleagues and it has some substance, it’s alright – you watch, you respond, you feel inspiration or envy. Otherwise, it’s not much different than spam marketing. But different people have different needs. If youhave to cover your daily expenses, the rent, then blowing your trumpet too loud is justified.

М.V.: You know well almost the whole cultural field, as you are a writer, a painter and moviemaker all at once. What do your instincts tell you – where are we headed and is there an exit there?

А.Т.: This reminds me of an anecdote I read on Twitter: What’s the future of Philippine art? Well, just the same as that of the Philippines itself. The vacuum of a humble present encourages the speculation with various forecasts. I would propose that we stick to the well-tried evergreen – keep doing your work in the best possible way is the best think you can do. If you try to catch up with someone, you will always lag behind. Like in Zeno’s paradox Achilles and the Tortoise. An excellent reason for us all to watch once more the great Takeshi Kitano movie of the same name.

Anton Terziev. The Birth of a Nation, 2018. Object, dimensions variable, row pork meat, brass Photo: © the artist

М.V.: You have a work that exerts great effect on me – The Birth of a Nationfrom 2018. A pork sausage hangs between two shiny brass supports instead of a queasy rope. It’s an extremely clear and powerful image of misconstrued national identity, always obstructed by roadblocks or failed by the temptationsof easy money. How do you see Bulgarians today?

А.Т.: I have particularly warm feelings toward this work. It took me a lot of efforts to „assemble“ it, so in order to have my revenge, I finally ate it.

The title is a throwback to the most racist movie of all time, The Birth of a Nationby David Griffith made exactly 105 years ago, one that legitimizes Ku Klux Klan. With this reference I sum up my disgust with the unmitigated extreme nationalism in Bulgaria. Nationalism that is supported and strategically safeguarded on top level by our orthodox country. How do I see Bulgarians today? Just like the social anthropologists – in an infantile stage. They crave for an iron fist, ideally in combination with lifestyle happiness. They pay no heed to processes like regress and progress… But to rub shoulder only with those we’re not ashamed to be associated with is not a solution, so, I guess we’ll also have to embrace the Christian values more tightly.

Translation: Kiril Neykov

May 2020


With the support of Sofia Municipality. Initiative “Solidarity in Culture”