The Edge Museum On History, Its Ghosts, and Its Materiality by Zhivka Valiavicharska 2022

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The retrospective exhibition “The Edge Museum”

The retrospective exhibition “The Edge Museum” opened doors on September 3– October 31, 2016 in The Ancient Bath in Plovdiv. In the captivating spaces of the former public bath from the Ottoman times, which usually hosts works of art from the contemporary present, this time around a guest of history had settled in, who had come out of the storages, dusted off and reassembled together from pieces that had been scattered all over the city and the country. The spirit of the Edge Group woke up and came to life, resurging in its familiar energy and drama. The title of the exhibition managed to provoke quite a few reactions: The Edge Museum? What kind of audacity and lunacy is this? What is this self-heroization and mummification? And indeed, we cannot miss the irony of the gesture in the reference which the title contains—to make a museum institution out of that very art which deconstructed most successfully the fixed boundaries and hierarchies of the exhibition space, the dichotomy of artist-spectator, the reification of the art object, and those who rebelled most wildly against the institutional status-quo, against the traditional art spaces and mediums.

And so beyond the more spontaneous and shallow reactions, the exhibition opened a multitude of serious questions: Is the museum the most adequate form for the retrospective rethinking of the dynamic phenomenon called “the Edge Group”? Wouldn’t a museum display of the group’s art somewhat neutralize the most radical elements in their work—the contextual interventions in public space, the focus on the process, the interactive and playful moments, the dialectical relation between the artistic activity and the time/space situations it engaged, the experiments and the spontaneous elements in their works? How would this format capture the group’s radical interventions in the social and political context? By reducing them to museum artefacts, wouldn’t we paralyze their political force? What does it mean to turn into a museum the history that was a kind of radical and ruthlessly contextual situationism? And of course, how do we think of the projects and visions related to the “museum of contemporary art” present оn the Bulgarian art scene in the last thirty years in multiple forms after the institutional critiques of the museum, and after museums have been exposed as instruments of power and legitimacy?

historical reconstruction of a social, political, and artistic movement

Once we are submerged in the exhibition, however, the sceptical thoughts quickly depart and transform into a dynamic and rich experience. “The Edge Museum” presents a serious historical reconstruction of a social, political, and artistic movement and a process, which takes us to the years 1989–94 with documentary detail through a variety of mediums — photographs, video, installations, press materials, reconstructions of entire sites. And precisely because the work of the “Edge” collective was woven deeply into the fabric of public culture and political life in the city, the documentary materials of their creative activities stand as invaluable historical documents. In the meantime, new materials continue to emerge with the reopening of the archives: personal diaries, which capture the meetings of the group, notes from the founding of the Akrabov Gallery, exhibition protocols of the Union of the Bulgarian Artists in Plovdiv, materials from the local press, pictures, letters. All they illuminate past events in novel ways and open terrains for new readings. The artists share that the process of preparing the retrospective in the Ancient Bath—following the traces of lost works, putting together the installations from partial pieces and damaged fragments, reconstructing some works entirely from scratch, arranging the exhibitions in a new spatial and historical context—all these raise a series of questions related not only to the complexities around reviving and reliving the past, but also to the inevitable challenges around the collective reconstruction of history. The past, in the words of Albena Mihaylova, turned out to be a “puzzle” in which “the facts came together in a new way.”¹ In this sense, the actual retrospective initiated the beginning of a dynamic archive, which opened doors in Banya Starinna (The Ancient Bath) but which neither begins nor ends there.

The retrospective exhibition “The Edge Museum” was also conceived as an artistic action, which raised concrete questions about the fate of the material legacy of the group. This legacy already presents an extremely pressing and urgent concern. Many of the artworks have been damaged irreversibly, others have disappeared. Those which have survived are being stored for thirty years already in extremely unfavorable conditions, scattered across the city in basements, storage spaces, art studios, hallways and attic spaces, and which continue to survive thanks to the artists themselves and to city residents with public consciousness and historical foresight. The nonstandard sizes and materials of the works confront us with the peculiar challenges around the conservation, preservation, restoration, and the professional storage of contemporary art. How much longer would these works persist, how much longer would they weather the conditions they are subject to—including moisture, dust, temperature changes, and multiple relocations throughout the city? How much longer would this unique multitude of material artefacts, which contains the history of the city captured through contemporary art, would continue to hang onto the mercy of fortune and the collective efforts of citizens who care about the cultural history of the city? When is this outstanding collection of artworks and archival materials going to find its permanent home so that we as society could take care of them through their professional restoration, preservation, and display? When would this collection become accessible to the public? Let us remember that in 1995, members of the Edge Group occupied The Ancient Bath building with a guerilla exhibition open to a diverse group of participants demanding to have the building turned into a center for modern or contemporary art.² It is precisely thanks to this direct participatory and artistic action, as well as the tireless work of the Art Today Association and its collaborators, that the Ancient Bath now has the status of a public building which hosts a great deal of the contemporary cultural life in the city. Many similar campaigns were organized in the following years in Plovdiv, in their (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to save unique historical buildings and public spaces, many of them having or deserving the status of protected heritage of historical and cultural significance. In conditions of dramatic loss of spaces for culture and the arts in the city and the country, of the brutal decay, privatization, and destruction of the architectural and cultural heritage throughout the country, the homeless works of the Edge Group, scattered in the undercurrents of the city, raise their boisterous heads again. This time they demand a permanent home for an important archive which has stored the memory of an entire era, and for more spaces for public life, for culture and the arts. The documentation in the current monograph is a contribution toward this dynamic project. We hope it serves as a rich and polysemous archival environment, publicly accessible and open to multiple interpretations, and we offer it with the hope that it continues to expand and develop in different dimensions.

Translated by the author

¹ Conversation with Albena Mihaylova, 2018, Basel/New York.
² The action was organized following the idea of Dimitar Kostov, friend of the “Edge” collective and the theatre group А’Part.