Voin de Voin on Life, Art and Politics in Bulgaria

We met with Voin de Voin to talk about his life, recent work, future plans and the challenges of running a subversive art space in the Balkan country's capital.

by Vasil Vladimirov

Voin de Voin is a multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Sofia, Bulgaria. Since 2006 he has been involved in over 60 solo and group shows, projects, and performances. His work has been seen in viennacontemporary, Manifesta, Documenta (off programme), MOMA, The Hamburger Bahnhof Museum für Gegenwart, and many other prestigious art fairs, museums, and art institutions. He also runs his own art space in Sofia - Æther.

You were born in Sofia but since the 90s have studied, lived, and worked all over Europe. What’s it like to be back home? And how long have you been here for?

Yes, I lived outside of Bulgaria for 20 years, in Holland I did my studies in visual art, contemporary dance in London's Laban Centre, in Paris I studied at the American school of cinema and television EICAR and worked in fashion - Andrea Crews collective at its very beginning and I was a PR for young designers, in Brussels I was invited to re-launch a brand from an artist Mario Sommarti and I ran the company as an artistic director for 2 years. Berlin was my playground, where I almost mechanically was producing a lot of performances, worked with groups and was partly engaged in collectives like Basso, helped in the residency program at HBC Alexander Platz and the Liminal Institute De.

I missed the buffer period of the transition in Bulgaria and watched the changes from a distance. However, my heart was always here and I got back 2 years ago and realised a dream I always had - to create a space for dialogue with the people through art - so I called it Æther and got back in a hurry, while witnessing the necessity for non-institutional art platforms/spaces that have a direct link to the processes of the times asking for critical resonance on all the issues. So it began...I got back home!

So what’s it like making performance art in Sofia and is it any different to your experience in the other European cities that you have lived in?

The specificity about the Performing Arts is that is like a seaweed, rootless and allows itself to transpose ideas and processes that don't necessarily belong to one place. It is a universal tool for communication via the present and the human presence, to establish new systems of thinking and re-define language in new perception (at least to me). Bulgarian audience is highly engaged and critical-I love doing things here as people are not reacting on the “shock" principle that performance can often generate, but rather seeing the underbelly of the core of where ideas are coming from. People in Sofia are highly aware of the content and here we have a strong tradition in very good theatre. Certainly, performance is a very different thing, but there is a recognition in its apparition and how it reaches the viewer.

And what’s life like here? What inspires you in the city and the people?

Sofia is a discovery, a hidden treasure. Life is definitely very hard for most as we are one of the poorest countries in Europe, and our history and the geographical position has always been the main factor in our past - an entrance and exit to Europe. A zone that is a used for division rather for unity in modern times geopolitics. The division of the Balkans and the World Wars, the regime and the hyper-Capitalism that is ruling the present are very difficult factors for a healthy living. However, what surprises me each time and gives me the power to go on is the humour, the people's good hearts and desire for change. Sofia is like Pandora's box but reversed effect - you think that demons and nasty creatures will jump out, instead, there are light beings in a dark box.

I can think of a few foreign artists who have chosen to move to Sofia in the past couple of years. What do you think attracts emerging (and established) artists to Bulgaria?

The impossibility for artists to sustain their practice and life in the west mostly. I had a talk with Ulay last year in his visit to Sofia, he expressed his feeling to me about the unrealised potential that he felt there was in the 60s and only in this kind of unexploited(yet)constructions and conditions for the arts, radical gestures are still valid and recognised. The west has surpassed and overdid itself, sleeping on its past glory without reflecting over the new power world orders. That’s why people are turning to the East as a need for new freedoms and possibilities.

2017 was pretty busy for you. You took part in an exhibition curated by Frans Oosterhof and were involved in Simone Gilges’ latest film. You also did a performance installation with Andrew Smith for Documenta 14, Latraac Athens with whom you also took part in Manifesta 11. Tell me more about your involvement and work on these projects.

Those are very different projects and for each of them I can talk for hours, as each of them is a development of something precedent, but they have one thing in common: The idea of displacement and deconstruction of the senses in order to transmit messages. They seek to establish a network, but not social or public, but an internal one, in order to identify with each other as beings and take a stand toward repeating history. Portals, morality plays revisited, light and magic - a keychain for a construction for magic though so needed in the art practices.

Æther, your own art space in Sofia, turned two in September. What’s your assessment of the past two years? What are the challenges in running an art space in Sofia?

The challenges are huge, but so are the rewards. The assignment is unspoken and the rules are writing themselves as we are going along. But in its base lies the idea to create an autonomous ground for reflection considering different perspectives of via the social, political, economic or critical thinking and certainly creative ways to help us assimilate the fast running processes, uncover history and present states; remain a safe place, a hub - untouched by the deforming strategies of social or popular ideas and media, corporal or political manipulations and interests.


You are also opening a space in the Hague, the Netherlands with Marie Civikov who is here with us and with whom you have worked on other projects as well. Marie, how did this happen about and how did Æether in The Hague go about and how is going to fit the art scene there?

Marie: Born and raised in The Hague, where I work as a visual artist, I am well informed about the visual arts this city has to offer. With Æether Haga we want to make the exchange between Eastern and Western Europe more complete. Now many artists with a background in Western Europe are presented in Æther Sofia. In the Hague, we are turning this around. At the same time, Æther Haga will probably be a place where the focus will be more on research, context and the background of the artist.

Voin: Æther Haga is a sibling that speaks a language that vibrates, it resonates in the morphic field and can make land appear closer than its actual physical properties.

And a few days ago was the opening of the exhibition by Bulgarian artist, Michaela Lakova dealing with the construction of a (not so) new atomic central in Belene. Why is this topic important in Bulgaria and in the world in general? Tell us more about your trip/mission to the Bulgarian city.

It is most important to me and the artists I work with are conscious and proactive towards what's going on in the society, especially nowadays when the media is a tool for manipulation, we have to stay sober in relation to all the empty promises of politics.

Belene is a special case in Bulgaria and it is a monster corruption scheme that has been running since the mid 80’s and had put the country in a heavy international debt. It is another decentralising point in our foreign politics, as Bulgaria does its best dance when it finds itself in the middle...as usual we obey Russia's pressure and are staying in dialogue and on the other hand cannot entirely commit into the eco European demands of non nuclear power sustainability of the euro pact and betraying the German demand, so what I want to say is whether or not this demonic construction and project is being given green light or not next month, the bottom line here is, that not only the state of our political landscape is lacking simple ethics towards preservation of human life, but also the dubious game of the present affairs only shows how unoriented the country still is after the buffer period of the transition since 1989. To go out now of the redundant idea of the political discructives, I can say that to be political means to be aware, means to see opportunities in new solutions and it is political to understand and hear nature's call.

You serve as a curator in most of the exhibitions in Æether. What’s the difference between Voin the artist and Voin the curator?




Going back to Voin “the artist”. What was the overarching theme of your latest show at Sariev which closed on August 27?

The umbrella of the show SUR(REAL)RENDER was a shared experiment with the audience where we created photograms developed on the spot and a portrait representing the common state of mind of the collective. It is important to me that the art has to be released and set off the control of the maker, break oneself's ego afflictions and create on equal ground with the participants the work, as we are all artists, we all think and we all can do things and have things to say.

Plovdiv is going to be European Capital of Culture in 2019. What does that mean for the Bulgarian contemporary culture, art, and the art scene? How do you think are we utilising this historical chance?

And this question is hitting a hard spot as I think very critically of what has been going on since Plovdiv was announced as the title for the cultural European leader. The choices and the program so far are being highly disregarding towards the people who have worked for years and building the face of the cultural landscape of the country for the past decade. It seems as if the old system is suddenly back holding the bone of an eaten horse, sharping its worn out teeth to it. Most of the associations and foundations have been cut out of the selection and the program of the calendar and big focus and entry is given to popular phenomenon like Sting or Metallica, who will perform as headlines; not even for free. It’s a wrong managed project in many levels, as many things unfortunately here in Bulgaria when big investment comes to play. Those people need to go out of position and authority. It has been too long. Culture isn't a power game. Culture is care, and when we don't care for each other - certainly there is no culture. On the other hand, I see the coming year as a possibility for doing a really great program in Sofia and renounce the city as the Capital of Art.

Past-Present: Utopian dream for nu(un)clear future by Michaela Lakova runs until 29th September in Æther, Sofia.

Æther Haga will open its doors to the public on 5th and 6th October on Deneweg 26, Den Haag.

Photography: Viktor Bobchev