BTA exclusive with the authors of the Bulgarian project for 2024 Venice Biennale

site.bta"Neighbours" Is a Call to Caring for Others

"Neighbours" Is a Call to Caring for Others
"Neighbours" Is a Call to Caring for Others
The Neighbours team, froom left: Krassimira Butseva, Julian Chehirian, Vasil Vladimirov and Lilia Topouzova, March 12, 2024 (BTA Photo)

The Neighbours installation weighs over 800 kilos and silence weighs over 800 tonnes, say the Neighbours team. And they define their project "as a call to caring for others." Lilia Topouzova, Krasimira Butseva and Julian Chehirian and curator Vasil Vladimirov will represent Bulgaria at the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale of Art. The forum will take place from April 20 to November 24 in the exhibition space of Titian Hall, near the Accademia Bridge in Venice, Italy. 

The Neighbours is “an interactive multimedia installation that brings to light the silenced and faded memories of survivors of political violence during the Communist era in Bulgaria”, to use the words of the authors on the project’s official website. The installation partially recreates the survivors’ homes in which the meetings and conversations with them unfolded. Staged within these private spaces are fragments from oral history interviews conducted by the artists, field recordings and videos from two former camp sites—Lovech and Belene.

The concept 

The project is based on 20 years of research, working with various archives - the State Security, the Central Archives, personal archives, CIA archives, archives in England... The other part is oral history - interviews with direct witnesses, survivors of the communist camps. There are also interviews that are not part of this installation, but are with former guards and people who were on the other side of the camps, says Lilia Topouzova.  She has met hundreds of people who were in different camps. She has interviewed many of them. Some speak fluently. Others have never and in no way shared about their experiences. And others have not had the opportunity to tell. 

"Which is not to say that narrative is not present. It is present in their bodies. It is present in the space, but they literally have no words. And the kitchen is where narratives are not heard. But you hear sighs, attempts to speak, but not the speaking itself," says Topouzova. The three spaces in the Neighbours installation are based on this.

In the living room you will hear the stories of those who have always been open to telling. In the bedroom, the stories we will hear for the first time. And in the kitchen will be the sighs of those unable to tell. 

So the installation consists of three rooms - a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen. In the living room we will hear the stories of the speakers. In the bedroom - those who dare to share their story for the first time. And in the kitchen are only the sighs of those who cannot bear witness.

The project

The project is based on 20 years of research, working with various archives – the Bulgarian State Security Service, the national archives, personal archives, CIA archives, archives in England... The other part is oral history: interviews with witnesses, survivors of the communist camps. There are also interviews that are not part of this installation: with former guards and people who were on the other side of the camps, says Lilia Topouzova. 

She has met hundreds of people who have served time in various forced labour camps. She has interviewed many of them. Some spoke fluently about their experience. Others have never ever opened up about their experiences. Still others have not had the opportunity to tell. 

"Which is not to say that narrative is not present when we communicate with these people. It is present in their bodies. It is present in the space they occupy, but they literally have no words. And the kitchen is where narratives are not heard. But you hear sighs, attempts at speaking, but not the speaking itself," says Topouzova. The three spaces in the Neighbours installation are based on this. In the living room, the stories of those who have always been open to telling will be heard. The bedroom is for the stories that are spoken for the first time. And the kitchen is for the sighs of those unable to tell. 

The beginning

Lilia Topouzova was the first to start working on the topic. She returned to Bulgaria from Canada in 2003 to learn more about the communist forced labout camps. "Returning to Bulgaria, I started to research the subject first as a historian and second, as a documentary filmmaker, and I made a film. Back then, the archives of the communist era security services were still closed. Very few people were willing to talk. Gradually, I started talking to eyewitnesses, got access to the archives and told the story. And that's actually my research and academic work," she says.

Krassimira Butseva started her work on the subject in 2016. While studying for her master's degree, she became interested in the subject through art and photography. As there was not enough information, she started looking for historical sources. 

For Julian Chehirian, the original interest was the history of psychiatry in Bulgaria. He tried to find out how the concepts of psychotrauma and different mental conditions developed in the period after the end of the Ottoman rule in Bulgaria at the end of the 19th century and later after 1945-1950, when new concepts of psychiatric practice entered through the Soviet schools of psychiatry. As he delved into the subject, he met Lili Topouzova and came across her scientific articles.

The coming together of the team

Having worked independently for a while, they met and they decided to work together. 

Julian Chehirian said: "We have been developing the idea for several years to create an installation that recreates the homes of the survivors, where Lilia and Krasimira's interviews took place." 

Topouzova explained that this is not just art, it is not just research. “The project itself, the methodology itself is an interdisciplinary encounter between many different things. Also, technology is a major part of this project,” the team said.

The stories

Among all the stories that the team has heard and now lives with, each has one that has shaken them deeply. "My relationship with these people is extremely strong," says Lilia Topouzova. She remembers meeting a former inmate from the Belene and Lovech camps. She knew in advance that his State Security file had not been “cleansed”. "So for me it was very important: someone who had been in both camps and whose State Security file was intact," says Topouzova. Entering his home, she saw his entire file scattered on the kitchen floor. At that moment, she instantly knew he would be impossible to interview. "He was sitting next to me, saying some words, pointing to the file on the floor. At one point he said to me, 'Do you see it?'  I said, 'I see it. You've been to Belene and to Lovech, haven't you?" and he said to me, "You see, don't you?" And that was the interview. So there we stood with his file undestroyed. And he didn't say anything to me. But in fact he told me everything. That, for me, is the story that has stayed with me," Topouzova says.

Krassimira Butseva remembers her first meeting with a man, Ivan Semkov, a survivor of the Lovech camp. He told her that he had never before shared stories from the camp with his family. All his life, he had avoided talking to anyone about it. He told me that I was the first person he decided to tell his story. His whole family was in Belene at  different times. He talked about how the only thing that saved him was to never talk about it. And he says that if they would have talked, their family would never have been whole," says Butseva with undisguised emotion in her voice. Soon after, Ivan Semkov died. He probably knew those were his last days and he wanted to share, she adds.  

Julian Chehirian says he spent a lot of time listening to Lilia and Krasimira's stories. "And even though I wasn't in those rooms with them, somehow I live with those conversations as a listener. I'm familiar with the sighs, the pauses and which part comes after which," he says. The encounter that has stuck with him is the one with Hristina Milenkova. She was the wife of the famous psychiatrist, Kiril Milenkov, who wrote about the abuses of psychiatric practices in Bulgaria under communism and about a secret political unit in one of Sofia’s psychiatric clinics, where psychiatrists were not allowed to interfere with the treatment chosen by the authorities for a patient. But the psychiatrist had already died when he met his wife, and he went to see her several times so she could tell him.

Space for caring

The Neighbours team agree that the defining word for their project is “caring”. "Caring about the past, about memories, about memory, about our identity, about the parts that are gone, about the pain of caring – for it is very important to take care of the pain, because it gets bigger when left alone and in silence," says Butseva.

According to Lilia Topouzova, this project is an attempt “to care and to witness”. “We are creating the possibility for someone else to witness what we have witnessed. I think this is a collective intergenerational activity. This is our project. We are from different generations in a way, and we are creating this bond together,” she adds.

The title

According to the team, “our neighbours are out there somewhere, very often we know something about them, we have an inside story”. "Everybody has a neighbor, everybody is a neighbor, everybody can be a neighbor. This allows us to re-live it as a collective history. Neighbours are both the repressed and those who are in some way responsible for the repression," says Lilia Topouzova.

The audience

Although the project is based on a historical facts, history remains in the periphery. "It is not there. Some of the stories are mundane, everyday stories but there's something in them that hits you when you hear it. There's emotion," said Krasimira Butseva.  “Some people who see the installation may have no idea where Bulgaria is,” she pointed out.  

Lilia Topouzova adds: "And it doesn't matter, because not only are the stories everyday, but the spaces are everyday. Everyone sits down at a table, everyone enters a kitchen, everyone enters a living room. And that kind of makes it accessible. And when we showed it in Toronto, most people didn't have any context of what was going on. They were still standing in that space. They wanted to hear, they wanted to be there, just because it's everyday. You know it's a home and we're all in it."

Krassimira Butseva is a visual artist, researcher and writer living between Sofia and London. She is a senior lecturer at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.  Her work appears in both gallery spaces and academic journals.

Lilia Topouzova is an Assistant Professor of History and Creative Nonfiction at the University of Toronto. She is a scholar and a documentary filmmaker whose work is positioned at the intersection of history and memory, particularly in relation to political violence, silence, trauma, and public remembrance. 

Julian Chehirian is a multimedia artist, researcher, and writer who bases himself in Philadelphia and Sofia. He is currently a doctoral candidate in the History of Science at Princeton University, USA. In his practice-based research, Julian Chehirian creates site-specific multimedia installations that employ architectural space, modified objects, video, sound, and experimental technologies. 

Curator Vasil Vladimirov graduated with a BSc in Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an MSc in Political Sociology at LSE. Given his background in history and sociology, Vasil Vladimirov’s practice as a curator lies at the intersection between art, politics, and history. 

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By 13:02 on 17.06.2024 Today`s news

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