Sofia Underground as a Form of Protest

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This interview was first published online in Bulgarian in the portal on the 3rd of Mai 2016.като-форма-на-протест/
We reissue it in English language with the kind permission of the author and the media.


Sofia Underground was held for the twelfth time from the 19th until the 24th of April 2016. Its main stage for a second year in a row was the electro-control room of the National Palace of Culture.
A conversation between Daniela Radeva and Yovo Panchev, organizer of the festival.


D.R.: Yovo where is this festival going to?

Y.P.: Sofia Underground has a very flexible form. We define it as a festival rather because of the lack of other word, or just because it’s easier. It’s maximum close to the mood, the feeling – social, spiritual, emotional in certain moment. This “sense” that the festival developed with the years is, perhaps, it’s most curious quality. It worked out as a effect from one moderately open selection, but also from our hooligan approach towards our work. It’s been organized as one organizes a strike or a protest, not like a professional festival with the parameters and the attitude, which other festivals  have. We do it with our own means and the impermanent support by some institutions (we mainly thank to Gaudenz B. Ruf). This allows us to maintain the character of the “underground”, independently from the location of happening, the content, the topic, even from the participants. In this sense it is a serious exercise as a artistic practice for us as organizers.

The period 1997 – 2003 is the “first generation” of the festival, created then by Ruen Ruenov. From 2007 to 2015 is provisionally the “second generation”. Following is the “new generation” I hope. I’m just finishing a collection of texts and images about the “second generation” with working title “Below In The Underground”. Because our goal is to investigate border forms, the borders of art and the meaning, how far those forms can cary content, message, thesis – that’s why in this generation we have a lot of noise, experimental, a lot of non-artists, various border attempts, even though mostly those are borders only for one generation. Alas, the lack of cultural memory is a insuperable factor in our culture. When we put out a variety of practices, acts, gigs, attitudes, artworks in our context, in that frame, which is presumably one dark “maze”, we test how what functions, how it gets done, does it work, how it speaks, which are the new for us expression means, languages.

A strike or a protest you say – agains what is Sofia Underground protesting?

That’s what I’ve explained, Sofia Underground is a form of protest, a laboratory for possible conclusions, solutions. The topics of the protest are changing with the curatorial concepts, with the annual tittles. But the energy and, I hope, the meaning of the underground, what makes it more than a festival, is that it shows live art. The art of action, which, besides performance, is the art of acting, of including, of activating in much broader definition. I am talking about the distance between the festival and the people, who participate as audience. Because they are not audience, they participate as audience.


Geeske Janßen from Germany deals with the inner conflict with the body.


We allow ourselves some liberties and we have certain reservations according the ex officio attitude towards art, declared by some of the players in the local scene… and around the world, of course. They call it professionalism. We call it trading.

Art can save the world, but the art market won’t participate.

Have you been asked about how SU is collaborating with institutions like National Palace of Culture, Union of Bulgarian Artists (UBA), Sofia Arsenal – Museum for Contemporary Art (SAMCA)? Why there have to be institutional galleries as partners? And also, did some of these institutions protested agains that the event is “underground” as character, conception, i.e. anti-institutional in it’s nature?

Institutions are a very important thing. Terribly important in our epoch. I am a official in a institution for almost 10 years now. I have always strived to help and work with institutions, not only for the festival, because they have to be activated, to become alive, to be reminded of their roles and responsibilities in society and often to be guided.
When we made our “institution” in the Studio Dauhaus space (later it disappeared physically, the building was demolished), we passed into a ephemeral nomadic platform, which brought added value to other spaces. It gathered content, it stratified cultural layers of the contemporary, often underrated artistic practices. I think we helped a lot of places, such as Vlaikova, the firdge and Plastelin amongst others in their first years.
But of course, about partnership with UBA, SAMCA – it’s because those institutions have to be included, to be reminded of the potential they have. And our strength is in the imagination. Usually it’s missing in institutions. Without imagination nothing happens, there’s no energy, no strength for action.
Let’s not forget also, if we get back to the beginning of the question, that we do everything not only because we like art, but also out of social engagement and position.

According to me sometimes even “underground” places lack imagination. What do you think about the underground in Sofia and in Brussels? Make a comparison.

There’s no comparison, there’s no base for a parallel. Sofia Underground is a name that has gained some meanings.

I mean your overall impression from the scenes.

According to imagination and places, I think, we passed long ago by the for-the-sake of doing some stuff in interesting places. Now it’s a subject of interest for advertisers, the pope rules now the warehouses and yuzinas, even literally.

Is there underground in Sofia?

Well, this question has already been asked to me.
There’s more to be desired, of course. But there are also settings, which are interesting and difficult to reach. There is some stuff happening. With the gradual increase of social isolation and the crisis, in which we cycle, the production and the content of these circles also increases.

I think they will say one day, that in the beginning of the 21st century in Sofia there was no underground, as we say now that a while ago there were no dissidents amongst the artists.

Popularity and information change as they want trough history. In some time the people will say what they have been told to say. Only in the underground of the future some truth about the past will be known, some un-manipulated seed from the truth. So, I believe in the underground of the future.

Generally I think that there’s no reason to make ourselves famous and to fit in history. It’s full with butt-heads, but it has also some dilettantes like us. We don’t last centuries and, as I said before, our haven is imagination and the energy it brings, not the history, but the legend.

What is the topic of SU this year?

“Inner conflicts”. This year curator and author of the concept is Ivo Ivanov. Until now he co-curated different programs of SU. Thanks to the extension of the team with our collaborators from – Vanya Grozdanova and Rad Gyulemetov, the festival developed horizontally and reached more international participants. This year, even though we don’t have main funding, is а peak according to the number of foreign artists.


Lia Ikkos from London is taking part in this year’s festival.


The topic “Inner Conflicts” is very exiting for Ivo, so he developed a conception that rests on the choice of future – attitude towards the outer world and one self, the responsibility.

I wanted you to share your opinion about the different artistic scenes as someone who’s between Brussels and Sofia. And also to say something about the performative character of SU –  why the audience expects a exhibition, but it’s in itself one big performance. Would you organize a event like this in Brussels?

Alternative scenes are very different. In Brussels I’m especially impressed by the curatorial exhibitions and the museums. i.e the work with art, the topics and the society as a mediator. The exhibitions in some nice galleries in Brussels really show exceptional curation – co-inventing, upgrading over the works, introducing of new uses of classical forms. Demonstrating attitude towards art which makes you not only to respect, but also to get more acquainted with the work, the thesis, the author’s point of view. In this rich bourgeois society, with it’s pampering and compensations, the art scene is a polite space for intellectual debate. Or rather a space for polite debate.
This is how one creator from our “underground” translates himself into the scene here – Ivo Dimchev – and crushes some layers, causes excitement, brings charge. Other question is that Ivo Dimchev’s work is not entirely of local character.

Event like this in Brussels I don’t engage to imagine. There are enough people here who do that and it’s not my job.
That’s why I include myself only in our practice and context, which needs modeling and improvement.

As far as my “solo career” as curator and artist, it is not only provoked by woe, but also from practice that gives meaning and makes bearing of things more interesting. The position of active interpreter is a zone of comfort, or at least
sanitary zone. Everybody who deals with art understands and appreciates that, I think, that’s why also we remain in the “zone”.

To get back to the question about Brussels and Sofia. Here [in Brussels Ed.] there are a lot of good practices, developed system, infrastructure, relations, levels, horizontal and vertical borders in the art world, that define the coordinates of every artistic action. As long as it has positive sides, as for example the purely practical “good practices”, it also has its negatives. We don’t have these negative sides. We have others, but with a bit more character and work they are overcomed. We cannot be trivial in our attitude to art and it’s role (the role it must have) in society. I don’t speak as a idealist, but as a practitioner.

Our infrastructure will improve if we import a row of practices from the world scenes. Everyone will benefit from that.
It’s very easy to organize a contemporary art fair without scathe, but not a saloon of galleries. Some well working residential programs also. Protection of syndical and other rights and various stuff, which UBA and MC [Ministry of Culture Ed.] have to do. The chitalishta in Belgium for example – meaning municipal culture centers – and even in neighboring Serbia, have open calls for projects, residencies, they have sense for contemporary, or at least actual art, and not only interest in traditions, folk and crafts. What else is there to say?

Beuys or Duchamp?


Yovo, is this interview a performance according to you?


Yovo Panchev is a curator, art critic and artist. He graduated cultural studies and political science at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.  Founder and co-organizer of one of the first independent art spaces in Sofia, Studio Dauhaus. he is also a organizer of the Sofia Underground Festival. Currently he works in the Permanent representation of Bulgaria in EU in Brussels.