I accepted the offer to present several selected photographs, a small part of the archive of the Art in Action association, as an occasion for comment on the processes related to the development of the contemporary Bulgarian art. As an initiator, organiser and participant in a significant number of artistic events in the period from the second half of the 1970s to date, I have had the opportunity not only to trace, but also to reconsider the reasons and motives that have underlain most of them. The topic I am addressing here is mainly related to the desire of a small number of artists (painters, poets, musicians) to carry out their artistic quests outside the custody and control of the institutions. In this case, in my opinion, there is an interest in the changes in motivations happening in accordance with the changing general context in the country and from there in the artistic life.
Text No 1
The Kukuv Den (Cuckoo’s Day) Group
It was formed on the basis of the influence I had on a narrow circle of friends, including young artists, poets and musicians. In the late 1970s, most of us were still university students. Initially, our interest was directed at the work of the Dadaists, surrealists and abstractionists. Back then, the information about these artists was quite limited. In official artistic life, their methods were criticised and rejected for ideological reasons. Accordingly, works similar to those of the said artists were not admitted to the General Art Exhibitions (GAE) organised by the Union of Bulgarian Artists (UBA). What should be added to this is that while we were students, almost all of us were not officially allowed to make our own, collective or solo exhibitions, or to publish texts in the press. After graduating in the early 1980s, we found ourselves in a period of political stagnation and an escalating economic crisis, putting barriers to the opportunities to work in our special subjects. Thus, the mindset for "internal emigration" settled in most of the main participants in the Kukuv Den group. Since we were not allowed to appear in public, we decided to do it "indoors", mainly in my flat at 64, Gen. Gurko St in Sofia. We were young and often got together to have fun. However, this happened in parallel with the sharing of our interests and artistic quests, as well as with the desire to present them to others. Thus, our audience turned out to be our wider circle of friends, as well as random guests. The concept of the group was based on the wording that in order to understand the meaning of our activity, "three keys" were needed - art, carnival, and document.
The "art" key consisted in organising and presenting chamber exhibitions that included paintings, collages, small objects and installations. Here I must add that on a Saturday afternoon we would gather in my apartment for tea with cognac to paint and discuss together. Those of us who studied at the Academy of Arts at the time showed the other different techniques, but often we experimented ourselves. The fellow students of my wife Emilia Dvoryanova from the Faculty of Philosophy at St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia held in parallel disputes on philosophical and aesthetic issues. As a consequence of these joint activities, exhibitions were held in home conditions, as well as various texts were written, among which stood out the gradual creation of Emilia's first novel, The House. In the mid-1980s, we also proceeded with the shooting of films based on our scripts and with our participation, using an amateur "Super 8" film camera. Our motivation was connected with the desire to experiment and make films that did not officially appear in the public domain. Above all, we were particularly interested in the specifics of the collective creative process. From 1985 to 1991, we shot eight films, each of different length, ranging between 30 and 70 minutes.
The "carnival" key was reduced to holding a big happening once a year. Every year in a row, a different theme was set and the preparation lasted for about two weeks. We painted sets, wrote lyrics to songs, and drafted a sample programme for the carnival night. It usually included a chamber exhibition displayed in the kitchen, performances, musical improvisations and dancing in the other rooms. From 1979 to 1990, 12 carnivals took place, in each of which between twenty and forty people took part.
Ориенталски карнавал 1984
The "document" key for me was of particular importance because I had the inner confidence (which the others did not have) that the group's work would at some time "see the light of day" and would be of some interest from a historical point of view. Therefore, while we had scarce financial means, we sought to document some of our activities with a camera and much less often with a film camera. I also collected different texts and verses written on different occasions or specifically for the individual artistic gatherings of the group. From 1988 to 1991, we "issued" the Cuckoo’s Diary for a narrower circle of friends – a monthly newspaper in circulation of 30 copies, A4 format, written on a typewriter or by hand, illustrated with our drawings and photos. The access to a photocopier was very limited at the time, so we had to reproduce the individual copies many times. We distributed the Cuckoo's Diary directly to each other. It more often described our personal comic experiences, but also included texts about contemporary art that had been dug out with a lot of effort. At the beginning of the political change, the Kukov Den group took part in the exhibitions organised by the Club of the (eternally) Young Artists (C(e)YA) and Art in Action. The group's break-up occurred quite naturally in the short period 1991-1992 as a result of the cardinal changes occurring in politics, society and culture.
More about the Films of the Kukuv Den Group
Premieres indoors in the flat at 64, Gen. Gurko St.
The premiere of our first film, Clavis, was the main event during the Retro Carnival of the group at 64, Gurko St in 1986. The equipment at our disposal, as well as the purposeful references to L. Buñuel's first surrealist films, were reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s. That's why the costumes and sets were to some extent replicas of that time.
The second screening of the same film in the flat at 64, Gurko St took place in March 1987.
The premiere of Eye, a film based on the eponymous story by Emilia Dvoryanova, took place in late 1987 during a film night specially organised to this end.
Doctor, I Dream Colourful Dreams was presented in two stages. The screening of the edited first part of the film took place during the carnival in May 1988. There was a lot of laughter because it featured portrait footage of me and Dobrin Peychev in profile and full face. In the morning, we were detained by the Sixth Division of the State Security Service on the occasion of the upcoming Bridges of Art action and after being questioned for several hours, we were released shortly before the start of the carnival. In fact, our detention turned out to be the "inaugural performance" of this carnival. The premiere of the full film was during the New Year's Eve cuckoo-party at the very end of 1988.
Public screenings after the political change:
Eye – during the Earth and Sky exhibition, (UBA gallery, 6 Shipka St, 1989)
Doctor, I Dream Colourful Dreams – during the Objects from Future Exhibitions exhibition (organised by Art in Action in the Sofia City Library – November 1990)
Докторе, сънувам цветни сънища
Doctor, I have dreams in colour, 1988-1989
Black and white with collaged color episodes. Duration abo...
Message to the Next Civilisation - within the Light Well performance, with the participation of the DE group and the SLAV group (Bulgaria chamber hall– November, 1991)
Послание към следващата цивилизация
The CUCKOO Mystery - during the 1 aaa three-day happening in the old building of the Traffic Police (now Goethe-Institut – Sofia), December – 1991).
Eye and Doctor, I Dream Colorful Dreams: The Ford project (Presentation of the Young Bulgarian Culture, Dresden – 2008), curated by Desislava Tsoneva, included a retrospective presentation of the Kukov Den group – a lecture by Orlin Dvoryanov accompanied by a screening of excerpts from the films.
The CUCKOO Mystery – Three screenings during the retrospective From the Distance of Time project (2014). The exhibitions and the accompanying screenings were presented respectively in the city of Gabrovo (Orlovska gallery), the town of Tryavna (Gabenski gallery) and the city of Veliko Tarnovo (Taralezh gallery).
The Other Art of Sofia project including the From the Distance of Time exhibition – a presentation of the groups Kukuv Den and DE, was realised with the support of Sofia Municipality – the Culture programme in the Sofia Arsenal – Museum of Contemporary Art (SAMCA) in 2016. The summarising retrospection included excerpts from the films Eye, Doctor, I Dream Colourful Dreams and The CUCKOO Mystery. Clavis, Eye, Doctor, I Dream Colourful Dreams and Message to the Next Civilisation were also screened during the exhibition Open Art Files: Notes and Footnotes (Kapana gallery, Plovdiv - 2019).
Text No 2
The DE Group
In 1984, Dobrin Peychev and I started working together as an artistic tandem – a group for Dynamic Estheticization" (DE). Initially, we participated together with several young architects in various youth competitions related to the synthesis of arts in an urban environment. At the same time, the situation in the country was changing as a result of the Soviet perestroika. There was public talk of a dialogue between the East and the West, of disarmament, of giving some freedom of speech. Influenced by this, Dobrin Peychev and I stepped in with a new type of performances within the mentioned competitions. Instead of projects related to the synthesis of the arts (the way this concept was perceived at the time) we began to present "another type of synthesis" – actions, happenings and installations in the public environment
Група "ДЕ" изкуство в обществена среда
We often told each other that while we were working in tandem, there was no danger of being declared insane individually. But a collective opposition could lead to accusations of disagreement with the political conjuncture that could lead to the respective measures. We knew this was the case and we were very careful not to directly politicise our art. However, without purposefully seeking conflicts with the institutions, they happened very often in a natural way. Our free behaviour and disregard for the imposed rules has definitely proved to be an irritant for a number of representatives of the conjuncture who were trying to interfere with our actions. Our concept called "Case against Transience" was based on three main directions of action: artistic substitution, community and continuity. Metaphorically, it was presented as dividing one pyramid into three parts. With this we hinted at the possibility for disintegration of the totalitarian pyramid model of government of the artistic life and the need for the emergence of independent, informal organisations.
"Artistic substitution" comprised our personal work – exhibitions (mainly paintings and drawings), happenings and performances. "Community" was aimed at action interventions in the public environment. And "Continuity" was our attempt to involve our school and university students in the actions and happenings in order to promote modern forms of expression among them. Our motivation was to state in a strong way our artist presence without complying with the frameworks imposed by the institutions. It was also related to the idea of taking contemporary art to the streets by applying interactive methods and incorporating audiences. To our delight, most young people understood us. Some of them even participated in our actions. Before we held one of our largest actions, Bridges of Art in 1988, as I mentioned before, we were both detained and interrogated by the State Security Service. At the insistence of the Chief Artist of the city of Sofia, however, we were allowed to carry out our action a month later. The action consisted of a series of deployments of nine different configurations of the colour installation Light Sieve, composed of 9 interconnected modules (each with a size of 100 x 80 cm), hanging on bearing ropes. It was exhibited consecutively in nine days, parallel to nine bridges on the Perlovska River (Sofia).
Мостове на изкуството
Photographer: O. Dvoryanov.
Sixth day of the performance – the bridge across the street from the Vassil Levski stadium parking lot.
Photographer: Mileti Svetoslavov (of the Kukuv Den group).
Eighth day of the performance – the bridge in Graf Ignatiev street.
During its holding, we discussed with many passers-by on the topic "Can art be a bridge between people?". For those nine days, the media also responded and several thousand Sofians attended what was happening. With this action the DE group gained popularity on the Bulgarian art scene.
Мостове на изкуството, Ловеч
Text No 3
Art in Action (aaa) – the Beginning
At the beginning of the political changes, the possibility of formal registration of NGOs was revealed. In 1990, the DE group and representatives of the groups Kukov Den, Performance, Rab (Edge), Dobrudzha and Hermes established the Art in Action association in order to assist with our activities the creation of a Contemporary Art Centre. Our fully understood intention was to carry out an art activity that was independent of the official institutions, which included our own gallery, public appearances, publications promoting contemporary art, creating links with related European NGOs and international projects. Initially, Art in Action worked in collaboration with the Club of the (eternally) Young Artist. The first exhibition after the political change, Hanging Objects from Paper, took place in the lobby of the Universida Hall (1989).
It is an interesting fact that the Club was offered to make a New Year's decoration for the lobby, but the attitude days after the political change led to an exhibition of installations hanging in the space. I don't think they were up to standard, but after the Earth and Sky exhibition, this turned out to be the first possible situation in the newly emerging situation.
Earth and Sky
According to the idea of D. Grozdanov, the printing had to be carried out with a large roller used in street repairs. However, the roller did not come, and we, the participants, had to perform the procedure in the primitive way rubbing the forty-metre paper sheet laid on inked objects with bars of soap. The result was presented during the Moderate Vanguard within the Framework of Tradition exhibition in the Labyrinth section.
An important independent initiative of the Art in Action association after its establishment in 1990 was the opening of the SID Gallery at 39, Dondukov St (the building of the Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) at the time).
At the Discovery exhibition Daniela Nenova presented a performance during which she lit some liquid in four clay bowls. Thick smoke rose in the rather low loft, causing the audience to squat so they could breathe. Another attraction was the participation of the first foreign guest of Art in Action, the German artist Bernhard Allers who arrived at the invitation of Antonia Duende. The two performed the installation Rust Race instead of an Arms One, consisting of artillery shell casings with wheat planted in them, as well as the Sweeping with the Blue Broom performance. In 1990, Art in Action and KA gallery (Burgas) jointly launched the annual Hero Art land art symposium, which was held until 1994 at various locations along the southern Black Sea coast. It was the time of "nude performances," we felt free from scruples, restrictions and false moral norms. Gallerist Kliment Atanasov and I adhered to the principle of small groups of participants, each of whom would create original installations or performances in a natural environment. The process and the works were documented with a video camera and a camera, and the concepts were described in a series of photocopied "aaa" brochures (A5 format), which the association distributed by hand from 1990 to 1994.
In 1991, due to a large divergence in concepts and objectives, Art in Action was distinguished from C(e)YA. The problem was that about two hundred young artists were members of the Club at the time, most of whom worked in the field of traditional forms. They sought to become members of the various sections of the UBA faster. This caused the general exhibitions of C(e)YA to resemble the official GAEs. The quests of the much smaller percentage of artists associated with the so-called "1980s avant-garde", aimed at promoting the conceptual forms (installations and performances) that had not been allowed in artistic life to that moment. It was necessary to distinguish between the two types of artists, especially in order to make modern forms clearly visible and gain their own free space and audience. This was stated during the Happy Ending exhibition (January-February 1991), when the association isolated itself on the second floor of the gallery of the Sofia City Museum (Shipka 6), entitled its part of the exhibition Galvanization and demonstrated through installations and a series of performances the intention to follow its own course of development.
New members were adopted, such as the music bands SLAV, OM and Violet General, as well as the artists Kliment Atanasov, Ventsi Zankov, Zhoro Ruzhev, Alexander Raykov (Count Voronov), etc. They also took active part in the big seven-day happening Creation (Beer Factory and the Globe Cinema – July 1991). At the beginning of the happening, our group demonstratively left the gallery building at 6, Shipka St, taking our installations loaded onto a scavenger’s cart. In December of that year followed the three-day happening 1 aaa, which was held under the patronage of the presidential newspaper 1,000 days in the old building of the Traffic Police (now Goethe-Institute) in Budapest Street in Sofia. Then, Irena Mitova and I started our collaboration as the performance tandem IO. We presented the performance In What Ways Sex Prevents the Avant-Garde, commented in the first edition of the TV show Art in Action, of which I was a presenter. As such, in 1992 I managed to make fourteen different shows, most of which unfortunately were destroyed as an archive of BNT's TV channel Efir 2. The extremely large financial difficulties in the first years after the political change caused the departure of some of the original co-founders of the association. That necessitated a cardinal change in its strategy in the coming years.
Text No 4
Art in Action (aaa) – a long adventure.
In 1994, a new, very young generation gradually entered Art in Action and took active part in the international European projects for cultural exchange. In this connection, in 1998, the association was chosen by the Goethe-Institut (Sofia) to present a retrospective of fluxus performances and Stockhausen's work Originals within the Fluxus 1962-1994 project (curated by Gabrielle Knabstein, in charge of the performances was fluxus artist Ben Patterson). The retrospective presentation in the Slavyanska Beseda community centre ended with a typical fluxus scandal, so Boris Serginov and I had to organise the performance of Originals at the Odeon Cinema. That's where we almost started a fire on stage, but it all ended well. Ben Patterson included our group in presenting three of his works at the Museum of Foreign Art. On this memorable evening, the highlight of the programme was the rice-and-cream covered naked performer, from whose body the audience ate with relish using Chinese chopsticks.
Ten of the young artists involved in this project started in the field of modern forms with their three-year project 2 aaa (1999 – 2001). Their motivation was both to establish themselves on the art scene and to "turn the country into their gallery". Fourteen shows were made within the framework of the project in the cities of Pleven, Gabrovo, Sliven, Varna, Tarnovo, Burgas, Blagoevgrad and the galleries XXL, the UBA gallery (6, Shipka St), SCAG, etc. In the second half of the 1990s and the first two decades of the 21st century, thanks to its international partner organisations Art in Action realised a large number of artistic events both in the country and in Europe. Such were the participations in contemporary art festivals and performance festivals in the cities of Cologne, Timișoara, Krakow, Bucharest, Barth, Leipzig, Dresden, Mainz and other smaller places. Exhibitions were also presented in Poznan, Bratislava, Berlin, Dresden, etc. I must note that in many cases the performances of the association were carried out by the performance tandems: IO (Irena Mitova and Orlin Dvoryanov), TO (Yulia Stankova and Orlin Dvoryanov), OS (Orlin Dvoryanov and Stella Inchovska), OMA (Orlin Dvoryanov and Maya Antova – Mayoto).
Performances in tandems
Participations in festivals
For me personally, working in a performance tandem has great artistic value. It is found in the special empathy during which the relations and communication between the two performers go well beyond the framework of daily communication. As a summary of this considerable experience, in 2011/2012 I implemented my one-year project 60 performances of Orlin Dvoryanov, in which many of my friends and followers took part. My motivation for this project was to prove to my students, and also to myself, that the artist's life is a continuous series of performances that need to be realised regardless of the difficulties and "in defiance of everything". Some of the largest exhibitions of which I have been curator in the recent years have been 25 Artists’ Art Alternatives (25th anniversary of Art in Action - 2015) and The Other Art of Sofia (retrospective of the groups Kukuv Den and DE - 2016). They were held at the Sofia Arsenal – Museum of Contemporary Art" (SAMCA). And if the focus in them came on the story of the development of the association historically, then the VariPersonal exhibition in the Triangular Tower of Serdika gallery (Sofia Regional History Museum – 2019) was oriented towards the future. It displayed current works, mostly by artists aged between 25 and 45.
"Art in Action" exhibitions
I think that my long-standing efforts, quite naturally, have led to the professional maturation of two or three new generations whose works on at a high European level. The young artists perform successfully, both in the traditional areas of painting, graphics, design, and are too actively present in the scope of modern conceptual forms – installation, performance, photography, video art. In addition, of the 15 participants in the VariPersonal exhibition more than half are already university lecturers. In my opinion, this is a guarantee that my previous work will have continuation and continuity, albeit in the conditions and situations constantly changing over the years. With me or without me, it's not very essential...
P. S. More information about the performances described above, which took place until 2000, is available in my book Art in Action – a Cause and a Tool, 2017.