It is great that Sofia increasingly discusses how to stimulate the development of the cultural stage of the city. The eventual selection of Sofia for European capital of culture would be a huge impulse in this direction. It is important however to talk also about what do we understand when saying “Sofia’s cultural stage.” I believe there are things to add up to this discourse.
Currently when talking about a stimulation of the contemporary culture of Sofia (and Bulgaria as well) we mean mainly supporting the existing theatres, philharmonics, exhibition halls, galleries, music stages, museums, etc. as well as the entire educational activity regarding them.
It is clear that there are no sufficient financing and appropriate premises. Such “producers” (a market term, which however suits the current situation) of culture are in the majority of cases institutions with some history and sometimes it is a short history. They represent the so called status quo in the culture. Even if we review these indicators only, Sofia is significantly behind some other European cities. Such example is the project for Museum of the Contemporary art. No matter how necessary for Sofia this kind of museum is, we should not forget that it is still a museum. Meaning – an institution, whose purpose is to perpetuate a certain moment of the cultural history. In other words it embalms some important “achievement” of the cultural life of given society. Once embalmed this “achievement” (often emerging at the time as avant-garde) looses its progressive value. In this sense the cultural institutions are an archive of these important moments of the cultural history. They are of high importance for a city with pretensions to be cultural like Sofia is and still they are only an archive.
Thinking about it however, we will realize that the innovative and the avant-garde trends in culture have always happened outside the existing institutions. Among the brightest examples are Paris and Berlin in the 20-ies of the XX century or New York in the 60-ies. If we take a deep glance at the Bulgarian cultural tradition, we will find that there are important moments of non-institutionalized culture. For example Bulgaria in the period of the Renascence even before the existence of the institution “theatre” has already had plays. The actors were people who did not know who Shakespeare was, but had a great desire to create culture that would enrich the Bulgarian society. The places for this “theater” were just as improvised as the acting itself.
This is why I think that what Sofia needs so it could at least try to take a place in the contemporary cultural stage is not institutionalized culture only. The city needs places for creation of unregulated culture. Places, where some new cultural activists could experiment either in already existing spheres or with new cultural forms. There are several things that should be apprehended when speaking of “unregulated” culture. The most domesticated type would be the culture with precedents, but made in a new way and/or by new people: theatre, cinema, sculpture, architecture, writing, design, opera, painting, ballet, etc. Even more interesting would be some new forms of culture: installations, digital art, social art, new musical forms, modern ballet, transformation of the urban environment, etc. The outcome should not be restricted, as no matter how visionary one’s approach is, one could never foresee all the dimensions and forms. Stimulation of the unregulated culture does not aim to understate the importance of the existing cultural institutions, but to support the development of new cultural forms and contents.
It is important to note that the two “types” of culture are not in direct competition with one another. Regarding the contents they actually complement each other. And regarding the infrastructure they have different needs. The already institutionalized cultural activists need an infrastructure that is larger and with better quality. The just starting cultural activists are a lot less demanding about the quality and the “size” of the environment they work into. I am not saying that they could go with anything, but definitely could go with less that what any existing theatre needs. Often this is one of the drivers for such antenatal forms of culture – the desire to transform the direct surroundings.