The sharp edge of a turbulent 'transition' by Zhivka Valiavicharska

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Bulgarian contemporary art - The Edge group

Founded in the city of Plovdiv at the end of the tumultuous 1989, the Edge Group left a deep trace in history – even as the contours of both this trace and this history are still taking shape. But even then, one thing was clear – that the power and the signature of “Edge” were unique. The Plovdiv group from the first half of the 1990s rattled society in the city and the country with their sharp political and social themes, the unusual for the times means of expression, their interventions in public space, their strong conceptual thinking, and the monumentality of their stroke and scale. Their events, stunningly different from one another, combined installations and photography, classical painting and art happenings, performance and graphic art, and they brought together all kinds of objects. The amalgam of political and artistic radicalism, the experimental forms, the diverse mediums and the interactive elements, which the artists wove together with great ease, ingenuity, and acute sarcasm, transformed the public spaces and the galleries in the city into bizarre multidimensional environments, into sites of enormous magnetic power.

“Symbols and Signs,” “Large Photography,” “The Ideal,” “Opus Probect 93” – these were exhibitions of monumental scale, which shook our worlds with their theatricality and virtuosity, with the absurd clash of objects, forms, movements, and sounds, and with the power of their work which was not only political, but somehow ineffably magical. The exhibitions and the art activities of the Edge Group would turn into forums for heated discussions, open debate and democratic publicity which formed the post-dissident political discourse in the country. The exhibition hall of the Union of the Bulgarian Artists in Plovdiv, the largest exhibition space in the city, attracted numerous visitors from the entire country: for only a few hours the art scene in Sofia, the capital, would move to Plovdiv, and people from Pazardzhik, Veliko Tarnovo, Pleven and Ruse would travel for hours in order to become part of the events. During their openings, the exhibition space on 32 Gladston St. (back then Sasho Dimitrov St.) would get so crowded that one could suffocate, and the loud chatter inside would meet us at the door like a sound barrier difficult to overcome. But once we had crossed it, we would end up in a space that was transformed to a point of unrecognizability. It was densely populated with bizarre installations, which we would explore, jump over, and stumble on. Weird sounds coming from the performances would mix in with the buzz of the crowds into some kind of dizzying cacophony. Actually we could barely see the works themselves and in the next few days we would go back over and over to see them, study them closely and think through them.

In a collective, the artists ruthlessly deconstructed the social norms

The phenomenon called the “Edge Group” by far exceeded its preceding history and the parameters of that which had cohered as “nonconventional,” conceptual or contemporary art in the country up to that point, and the work of the group expanded and deepened its horizons. In a collective, the artists ruthlessly deconstructed the social norms and redrew the meanings of the matter and practices we had been made of, and generally of everything that surrounded us. In the interminable chaos that surrounded us, the “edges” took apart and put back together the entire world around them both spatially and semantically, creating a whirlwind that would radically displace, rearrange, and once again disrupt all established norms.

There was also the biting humor and whit in the form of authorities and established figures in the sphere of the arts. “We had the nerve to do such daring things and hence we weren’t favored very much, we were radical in these things. This is why it is ‘edge’” – recalls Emil Mirazchiev on the occasion of the retrospective “The Edge Museum” in 2016.1 Their art happenings would turn the power dynamics upside down with audacity, sarcasm, and with so much ease and lightness that those elements which headed downwards, did not fall on a hard place but had the honor of being transformed into art and lighten the day with some collective humor.

In the work of the Edge Group, the process was always present as a theme – it was something that the group constantly interrogated and self-examined, disclosed and deconstructed. The process was at the core of gallery exhibitions such as “The Ideal” and “Large Photography” as well as art happenings such as Black Happening, Root High Up in the Sky, The Body of Water, Bright Light, and The Overt Breakfast. In their exhibitions sometimes one could not find any “finished” works – “The Ideal,” for example, began with ten empty canvasses and ended with ten different artworks, which were created in front of the visitors and in conversation with them. In these projects, the interactive process in contact with the people and the site determined the directions as well as the forms and meanings that their works engendered. The sarcasm, dynamism, the dismantling of the process – all these elements which inevitably accompanied the work of the group – reflected the unruly times of the beginning of the 1990s. And in the midst of this chaos of the early “transition”, the art collective turned into a powerful magnetic force, which not only staged sharp confrontations with their questions but opened the doors to the higher and unfathomable dimensions.

One of the main political effects of the overall presence of the group was to replace the capital as the center and leading place for artistic life and activity with the country – in fact, displacing the capital was a tendency which had started developing back in the mid-‘80s. The conditions in the smaller towns and at the open-air workshops in the villages turned out to be much more favourable for experimental political and artistic ventures.2 On the one hand, the geographical marginality of these remote, harder-to-access places made possible the actual events, far away from the “center” and its institutions, regimes, and norms. At the same time these events were conceived as openly oppositional in a geographical sense. Born in different parts of the country outside the capital, many of the artists who took part in these events consciously opposed the dominating presence of the center in artistic life and the stagnation reproduced by its institutions. The Edge Group was an heir of sorts to these politics and refused to follow the inertia of this centrism in the contemporary arts. Many of the group’s members had already taken part in such events scattered across the country, at the open-air workshops in Dospat, Targovishte, Yasna Polyana, and others. But this effect was not even consciously elaborated – consumed by what was happening around the group, the artists simply abandoned Sofia's art scene and turned it into their periphery. Consciously or not, during the time of their existence as a group, they displaced the center and “provincialized” the capital.

This was the case because the interventions of the collective, until their very last appearances, were uncompromisingly situated in the social, political, and spatial context of the locations they engaged. The works of “Edge” remained way too specific to their sites and contexts to become convertible, translatable, and transportable – because their aim was to be radically present “here” and “now”, to intervene into and activate the social environment and the context of the place they were situated in, to bend the space as well as the social relations they inhabited.3Here it was not only about an intervention into a preexisting place and time, but about how the actual intervention produced both the time and the place, and vice versa—how the site and the historical context made the actions possible. In this sense, the work of the collective could be defined as an idiosyncratic form of political and social situationism, which emerged with the new art forms.

The question of how the Edge Group was positioned in the uneven political terrains of the early 1990s could be answered in unequivocal ways. Their work was uncompromisingly critical of the preceding “regime,” its hierarchies, bureaucracies, elites and ideologemes, and the historical exhibition “Symbols and Signs” critiqued and ridiculed like no other the visual language of state power of the socialist government. Their work contained political messages for direct democracy, for direct social control over the material, social, and public resources as a form of critique of the socialist system. But it was also critical of newly emerging privileges and the uneven access to the most basic material needs at a time of economic crisis and extreme privation – themes which were present in performances and happenings such as Black Happening, Bright Light, and The Overt Breakfast.

But not all works by the group had “political” content. They rather succeeded in politicizing all elements of the contemporary moment by transgressing established institutional practices, disciplines, genres, materials, and norms, opening the space for an alternative publicity that was horizontal, dialogical, collective, critical and semantically open. Many of the group’s events aimed to intervene in deconstructive ways into the fixed dichotomies of artwork-spectator; artist-audience, artist-critic, process-product, etc., creating dynamic, surprising, and disorienting environments which would rewrite the grounding elements and coordinates of the social norms, and would turn the hierarchies upside down. The shuffling of objects and the clash of meanings impeded our ability to articulate and threw us into confusion, sending us into a zone of groundlessness. This was the groundlessness of the times in which we continued to meander despite the predetermined scenarios and directions – economic, political, and geographical – characteristic of the “transition”.

“Edge” was a product of late socialism and early postsocialism, or the juncture of 1989 in another sense – that the group emerged as part of the strong tendencies toward collective work in the alternative forms of art which emerged in Eastern Europe at that time. They had a strong presence at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s and began to disappear with the formation of the individual subject that was taking shape with the new market economies and capitalist relations, and with the assimilation of contemporary artists in he assimilation of contemporary artists into Western norms and narratives. “Our new society from the mid-‘90s did not tolerate such a phenomenon, and the Edge Group was in total contradiction with this society,” Albena Mihaylova shared with me about the dissolution of the group in 1994. “‘Edge’ was an anarchist, and it imploded.”4

While taking part in the group’s activities, all of its members continued to work independently in mostly traditional mediums such as graphic art or painting, and their work as individual artists often did not bear a direct relation with the strong conceptual tendencies in their group appearances. At first sight this may seem like a contradiction, but it is a fact that the “non-conventional” arts in the country, as well as conceptual art in Eastern Europe from the period, was born in the atmosphere of collective practice and to a great extent was an heir of socialism. As a group, “Edge” would overcome the sum of individuals in it and would create something qualitatively new, something otherworldly, which contained magical power. As the art historian and critic Diana Popova states, the constellation called “Edge” not only succeeded in speaking the new language, but masterfully created poetry.5 And indeed, the group not only unfolded, deconstructed, and reassembled social and political space, but also created poetic environments which crossed visual, spatial, textual, sound, and other dimensions and inhabited them effortlessly. In their scale and power they were possible only through the mobilization of collective critical, intellectual, and creative energy.

In their collective work, however, there was always space and “porousness”. The artists recall that their concepts were never fully thought-out, to leave space for improvisation and spontaneity, as well as for the individual energy and expression of each of the artists.6 This was how the end result was never clarified in advance but emerged in the alchemy that was a product of their spontaneous creative action, collective energy and individual self-expression. “Opus Pobect 93” was one of the most astonishing results of this approach: unified by the image of the apple, the exhibition combined installations, objects, theatrical lighting, and diverse mediums from painting to plaster molds, which were synchronized into a holistic environment filled with symbolism, poetry, and a surreal experience.

When the Edge Group appeared on the art scene, I was a first-year school student in the Foreign Languages High School in Plovdiv. I have already been pulled into the multifaceted time of 1989 – into the whirlwinds of the November events and the ceaseless demonstrations in the city, the euphoria, the chaotic cataclysms which radically reshaped social relations, rearranged established registers of meanings, and generally transformed the world around me and everyone as I was grappling with the collapse of a continuous, if only very modest, stability. Those of us who did not have connections with the political and bureaucratic elites of the former socialist state, nor were among those who had property “restored” by the new regime, nor were able to adapt to the new entrepreneurial spirit of the era, were jostled around by the endless economic crisis, the unemployment, the inflation and the struggle for survival, out of which began to emerge the contours of the new social inequalities, of the new cultural and social norms.

I signed up for the art workshops led by Nadya Genova, one of the founding members of the Edge Group, which were first held in the House of the Syndicates (now Boris Hristov House of Culture), then later moved to the new Akrabov Gallery and other places. The art classes were not like the other classes in the city: they turned out to be rather a series of bizarre and inexplicable experiments in visual practice, which often intensified the sense of displacement in the social environment around me and opened the space for its processing. Gradually the artists in the group accepted us nonchalantly as their regular company in their exhibitions and events. And so the events around the Edge Group accompanied me until the end of my high-school years. Those of us who had the courage participated in happenings and exhibitions, but the process of the group itself and their projects was so open, at least towards us, that we were drawn into its life and became part of the process in one way or another. Their art was unfathomably moving. It left a deep mark in me and had a formative role for my interests in the next few years. Thanks to the Edge Group I turned my interests to contemporary art while an art history student at the National Academy of Arts and absorbed with great ease the first critical theories that I came across later. I devoured postcolonial theory and poststructuralism, I studied in depth Dadaism, situationism, Fluxus, the history of conceptual art, searching for the most complex and interesting formulations of the relations between arts and their social and political dimensions. My mistrust towards universal and totalizing frameworks of thinking surely bears the stamp of their influence as well as the stamp of the times. The truth is that the Edge Group introduced me like no other into the infinite worlds of interpretation. They taught me about its power as well as its limits, and to wander freely and without fear the terrains traversing the visual and the textual.

The current monograph is the product of collective work, which has taken years to build, and which began with the work on the retrospective exhibition “The Edge Museum” in 2016 in Plovdiv’s Banya Starinna (The Ancient Bath). It aims to make publicly available a multitude of historical and archival materials, collected and preserved over the years, and to hopefully fill a gap in the history of contemporary art in the country from the last thirty years. The publication includes visual materials, documents, texts – these are archival documents, photos of the artworks and the overall exhibitions, documentary shots capturing fleeting moments of history and the forms of publicity which unfolded through these events. The monograph also includes historical and contemporary texts – materials republished from specialized periodicals and the local press, as well as an art-historical study of the group, which I had completed in 1999 and which has not been published before.

A large part of these materials were collected from the personal archives of the artists themselves, whose documentary practices were an indelible part of their exhibitions and creative activity. This self-documentation was borne out of the temporal dimensions which the group experimented with (performances, happenings, interactive pieces and installations that unfolded in space) and out of their approach, which placed great emphasis on the process. It also came from the artists’ sense of direct collective control over the material resources, evaluation frameworks, and the historical narrative – in other words, over the material and discursive environment which they depended on. It was also related to their sense of the power dynamics embedded in the structures of historical understanding and the geography of contemporary culture, which were being actively redesigned and redrawn. It was also possible thanks to their intuition about historicity at the time of the actual event. And perhaps because of the chaos of the times, the artists took into their own hands the control of their own history in the moment of its actualization, and in their hands the process of documentation itself turned once again into art.

Many of the materials here are being published for the first time in the present book. Others are being published again so that we can appreciate their archival value. We will let them speak in their own voice with their documentary and visual power and we hope that they are a valuable contribution to the contemporary arts from the last thirty years. We hope this monograph will present material for a lot more questions and will serve as a basis for multiple studies, rereadings, and rewritings of this history. One thing is certain – that the spirit of the “Edge” will roam around with its unruly temper to raise its wiry head in the face of the hegemon, to inspire with the courage of its imagination, to make us laugh with its daring sarcasm in the face of power, and to captivate with its magic, which contains the key to a better and more meaningful life.

Text: Zhivka Valiavicharska *
Plovdiv/New York, 2022.
Translated from Bulgarian by the author

1 Stefan Dvambazov, Kritichen pogled: Grupa Rab sabra aktsii, parformansi i tvorbi v “muzey.” Vapreki.

2 For further discussion, see the study in the current monograph, “The Edge Group and the Non-Conventional Artistic Forms in Bulgarian Art, 1984-94”; as well as Vesela Nozharova, Introductionto Bulgarian contemporary Art, 1982-2015 (Sofia: Foundation Open Arts, 2016), pp. 18-31.

3 The actionism of the work of the “Edge” group is very well formulated in the text of Katrin Sarieva. Idealat na Rab. 20 Years from the Founding of the “Edge” Group (catalogue). Plovdiv: Sariev Gallery, 2009.

4 In conversation with Albena Mihaylova, January 2022.

5 Diana Popova, “Muzeiat Rab ili kak se razhdat legendite.” Kultura, 16 September, 2016.

6 In conversation with Albena Mihaylova, January 2022.

* Zhivka Valiavicharska is an art historian and political theorist, and Associate Professor at Pratt Institute, New York. She graduated in Art History from the National Academy of Arts in Sofia in 1999, studied Modern Art History and Theory at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and completed a PhD in political and social theory at the University of California, Berkeley (2011). In 2003, she became a Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Valiavicharska is the author of multiple writings on the cultural, social, and art histories of Bulgaria, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe during the twentieth century and in a contemporary context.

Valjavicharska is the author of the monograph "THE EDGE GROUP AND THE NONCONVENTIONAL ART FORMS IN BULGARIA (1984–1994)"

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