It is highly possible that 1968 was a secret super production of Kinostudio Gorky, Metro Goldwin Mayer, DEFA, the French, Czech and Bulgarian Cinematographies (from us /the Bulgarians/ are only the scenes from the World Youth Festival).
Georgi Gospodinov, “1968 – Presence and Absence.” Dnevnik newspaper, 24.04.2008
“Secondly, a revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery ; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”
Mao Tse-tung, “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan,” March 1927
Did 1968 actually happen in Bulgaria ? Or was it a non-event, part of the long series of voids and lacks that haunt Bulgarian history ? When writer Georgi Gospodinov, himself born in 1968, asked these questions in his daily newspaper column, they were among the few reflections about the Bulgarian position that appeared in the local press on the occasion of this anniversary. But what was there to talk about ? After all there had been no “Bulgarian spring,” no revolutionary upheavals, nothing left in the collective memory to be revived. Breaking the general silence surrounding the anniversary in Bulgaria, the response came from another writer, Viktor Paskov (1949 - 2009), which quickly exploded into a confrontation between the generations of the two revolutions, 1968 and 1989. Paskov vehemently defended the memories of “his” ‘68 – that of the Ninth World Festival of Youth and Students held in Sofia during the summer of the same year – as the real body of the Bulgarian ‘68.
In the highly controlled Bulgarian totalitarian society of the time, in which the surviving intelligentsia was sedated with privileges and incorporated into the control mechanisms of the state, a true revolution was technically impossible. But although only fragments of news about the events in Prague or Paris spread as rumors overheard on forbidden Western radio stations, love, rock-and-roll, bright colors, and hopes for freedom nevertheless permeated the Iron Curtain. The 1968 Youth Festival gave form to all of these desires. For the first time the streets of Sofia were flooded with young people who came from all over the world to sing, dance, and protest against the war in Vietnam. A true spirit of being part of the rest of the world was suddenly (and very shortly) made possible. But this freedom wasn’t really earned. It was the illusory result of a temporary loosening of the state control in order to allow for the successful unfolding of this event important to the regime’s international image. The festival itself was managed by the secret police.
Still, is it possible to imagine these short months as a (even if administered and closely monitored) break within the system, where a different way of living, moving about, and communicating was experienced by a certain number of people ? Maybe 1968 did happen in Bulgaria in a way, in a very particular way, as a revived idea of an international movement that would be able to bring together both sides of the Iron Curtain. The fact that only couple of months after the festival some of the young Bulgarian “rebels” were to leave as soldiers fighting against their fellow youth protesters in Prague was a bitter and ironic reversal of the hopes for reunion.
Can one big party save the Bulgarian 1968 ? A revolution may eventually turn into a party, but can the party replace the revolution ? Maybe we should not dismiss the party’s potential too quickly. About twenty years later, the Bulgarian avant-gardes of the mid 1980s would spontaneously use the party as the form of their manifestations. Many of the first informal art events happened either outside of Sofia or outside of cities in general, but when they did occur in the city, they were “disguised” as parties, whether carnivals or simple get-togethers. From 1968 until the end of the 1980s, parties at the Art Academy were semi-official channels for creative experiments. In the 1980s these informal gatherings or parties became not only ways of bypassing official structures and directives but a form of art in themselves, “happenings.” For instance, for several years in the second half of the 1980s, the group Kukuvden (“the day of the Cuckoo”) organized regular thematic “carnivals” as part of their artistic practice.
Symptomatic of the party mood of the avant-gardes and its way of challenging the established official art was the reaction of an unnamed art critic (quoted by colleague Diana Popova) who said in response to one event : “Why should we care ? It is (the artist) Mitko Grozdanov partying with his friends.” Most of these actions remain undocumented and such carelessness or, at times, conscious refusal of archiving as a possible self-historicization is an important part of the avant-garde’s gestures. One way of understanding the importance of the party is to read it as the ephemeral experience of living bodies against the dead eternal body of the totalitarian communist regime and its art.
What perhaps best describes what the party was standing against is the metaphor and the body of the mummy. The mummies of Lenin and Georgi Dimitrov (the Bulgarian communist leader embalmed by the same Soviet laboratory which took care of Lenin’s body) were the bodies that haunted the regimes. Despite the ghost being Marx’s most successful metaphor, communists believed in bodies, even if they were dead ones. But before the eternal mummy of Lenin became the image of communism, communism was itself a living body. A living body, much like the one in which major interior theater director Evreinov set his 1911 monodrama, In the Stage - Wings of the Soul. The set of the play featured a gigantic spinal column and a large heart, lungs and other organs that moved rhythmically with the music. Even the “wings of the soul” in Evreinov’s vision were driven by the bodily mechanism and could be understood only by first figuring (out) the bio-mechanics of the human body.
Of course, the body of the early revolution was a mechanical body, a body-machine. In the case of ’68 and the avant-gardes from the ‘80s, the party introduced a different kind of body – unorganized, undefined, inefficient – the body as matter. Matter is important here, as this move towards act, happening, and experience does not quite fall within the logic of the art object’s dematerialization. On the contrary, it is about recuperating living matter out of the completely “dematerialized” symbolic language that communism has become.
Marx compared the commodity to a human being who has both body and soul. Use-value is its body, while exchange value corresponds to the soul. “Use-values like coats, linen, etc., in short, the physical bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements – the material provided by nature, and labor.” Capitalism focuses on “the soul,” the exchange value, which makes communication between commodities possible. It is the soul of the commodity – its value – that allows for the accumulation of capital and ultimately engages the commodity in capitalist relationships. But the body of the commodity itself – as matter and as labor – is probably where a radical commodity can be recaptured. It is within this body that lies the commodity’s potential to become a comrade, as the Russian constructivists saw it, instead of objectifying congealed alienated labor. For Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, the comrade-commodity was the opposite of the dead commodity of the West. The comrade-body of the Bulgarian avant-garde was opposed not to the dead body of the commodity but rather to that of communism itself.
Dessislava Dimova, Brussels, 2010.
1- Georgi Gospodinov, “1968 – Presence and Absence,” Dnevnik, 24.04.2008. http://www.dnevnik.bg/analizi/2008/04/24/489700_1968_-_prisustvie_i_otsustvie/
2- Viktor Paskov, “The dumb trick with human face,” L’Europeo (Bulgaria), #2, June 2008. Reprinted in http://www.novinar.net/news/tapiiat-nomer-s-choveshkoto-litce_MjY3MTs4Ng==.html
3- Diana Popova, “About Fun…”, Art in Bulgaria magazine, 17/1994, p. 25. 4- On the mummy, see : Vladislav Todorov, Red Square, Black Square (New York : State University of New York Press, 1995).
5- Indeed, the mummy was not initially intended to be eternal. In the beginning the scientists gave it only two to three years guarantee. The guarantee was gradually expanded to eternity, through both extensive scientific research and the ideology of perpetuity of the Stalinist regime.
6- Spencer Golub Evreinov, The Theatre of Paradox and Transformation (Ann Arbor : UMI, 1984) : 42, as cited in Todorov, op. cit. : 108.
7- Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (London : Penguin Classics, 1990) : 133. I am indebted to Oxana Timofeeva for reminding and elaborating on this passage in her talk during the “Communism’s Afterlives” conference, Brussels, 2010