Diary: Surva / Сурва

Photography, Writing

Surva (Bulgarian: Сурва) festival takes place towards the end of January in Pernik, Bulgaria. A parade of the kukeri – costumed demons and other figures – is performed, including dancing, music making and pantomimes.

Lots of groups from all over Bulgaria perform their traditional ‘kukeri’ pieces and there is a great variety of styles in costume, dance and what’s included in the performance. Most of the kukeri wear bells, bang drums or blow horns and generally make a lot of noise and look fearsome to scare off the evil spirits and bring in the regeneration of the year.

Watching the kukeri, I thought about how these preserved acts of ritual purging and cleansing relate to essential concepts of the human psyche: how to cleanse the demon the human form must also become the demon; how pagan rituals figure the subjugation of the human form to the ruthlessness of nature, and prepare the human and his community for this ruthlessness; and also how they recognise and then recontain the chaos of natural forces.

Even in this, much modernised version of the ritual, certain indicators of more violent and wild things remain – the costumes are hot and heavy. The (mostly) men carry their masks before their performance in the parade square, putting off the moment when they will be encased in thick goat hide or wool or large, hard, wobbling head dresses. You can see performers remove them, panting and sweating, whenever they get a break – their breath steaming in the cold air. This physical effort, whereby the man must carry the burden of his costume and become cocooned in the hot body of the figure he portrays, seems to me to echo something of the necessary pain of purging. It is painful to become the demon and to fight the demon, only the strong can do it, but through pain the relief of a fresh cycle is attained – like a body fighting infection through fever. What this also darkly hints at, I suppose, is the possibility that this battle is lost – that unwilling sacrifices are made to the demon, bodies are lost in the fight to overcome the old year and all it implies about death, retrogradation, and fear of apocalypse. What if the new year just simply doesn’t come?

Some of the village or regional groups included plays in the performance. In one of these, a gallows was wheeled into the square. The kukeri danced around it, and around a priest, a doctor, a plough and a host of other figures and roles. Eventually, some guards caught a kuker and strung him up in the gallows, they then hoisted him so that he hung from a noose, swinging. The other kukeri lined up and the priest blessed each one. Finally, each kuker knelt down, their sword tips pointing into the ground. The women (who are often men dressed up as women) threw grain. The kukeri, my interpretation is, were defeated and the life of the new season could come.

The crowds jostled, took thousands of photos and videos on their phones. They ate spit-roasted pork, hot dogs, and red sugar lolly pops in the shape of chickens or hands from the many stands arround the parade square. The air smelt of cigarette smoke, burnt sugar, hot fat, and sometimes sweet spices. A woman continually read numbers over the loud speaker, which were in fact vote-by-text numbers for each audience member to vote for their favourite performance group. (At the time of writing, the second day of the festival, the online tally shows that Kaynardja village is winning with 18% of the vote.) A very cold wind was blowing which threw about the feathers of the many dream-catchers for sale from souvenir stands. Small children were crying, overwhelmed.

Eventually, my feet and hands went numb. I watched more of the festival via their live Youtube video. Which, I think, poses the question: can a live broadcast of the kukeri also scare off the demons from a remote location? Maybe it works best if it is played at full volume so that the cacophany of bells and horns can be heard – echoing and warding off the chaos of the demonic. Surely not, though, for embodiment is key to the ritual. Man becoming demon, with all the suspension of rules and norms that implies, must necessarily be an embodied experience. Afterall, in latent, unembodied concept it exists everywhere. The ritual asks us to look the demon in the face because most of life is about keeping the demon – the darker fears and desires of the human, the greater strength of nature and time  – out of sight.

The parade in Pernik exists in a strangely ambiguous zone then – as perhaps all rituals do: releasing the chaotic and containing it at the same time. It is a highly partial sight of the demon, more partial than it would have been in a village run riot with men who were no longer themselves and no longer responsible to the normal rules, and hugely more partial than whatever original rites it references which are lost in pre-history and the unconscious. The demon at Pernik is pushed into latency by civilisation, tourism, leisure and consumerism. It is contained in civil parameters: the fence that lines the paradeway, the democratic voting system, the holiday souvenirs. But it is also an echo of something much darker and stranger, something that exists in each community and was important enough to be granted and re-contained every year, for fear it might otherwise spring out and create chaos and stall, or even destroy, the rightful passage of time.


Kazuma Obara’s ‘Exposure’: Photography at the borders of the medium

Essays, Writing

I have two pieces of news. Not only has photographer, editor and all round unique genius, Myriam Cawston launched Artistika Magazine, in order to bring readers explorations into skilled, sincere and beautiful art, but I have an article in it where I discuss Kazuma Obara’s project Exposure, which won the World Press Photo ‘People’ category in 2015. Excerpt below and find the whole article in the magazine; “Chance and Craft: Photographing Chernobyl’s legacy”.

Perhaps the most interesting photography is that photography which struggles at the edge of what is possible in the medium. Aritstika‘s interest in interdisciplinary forms and moments also brings us to that border between one medium and another, or where one medium fades off into something a little indefinable.

These borders must be explained. It is easy to stand on the sidelines of a discipline, calling out, usually in opaque styles, the weaknesses of the core discipline. We may not want to say that ‘clever’ works are poorer for their cleverness, but what we can say is that they command a more narrow audience: those who are in on the joke, in on the discipline, usually in an academic sense.

It is harder to play in the borders of a medium in a way that is sincere and communicative. It is this type of endeavour that leads me to Kazuma Obara’s project Exposure, something of a documentary piece, which draws on fine art and a sense of the artefact to respond to the legacy of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

As Obara told World Press Photo, upon receiving first prize in their People category in 2015, his aim with Exposure was to “help people imagine the invisible problems” that the nuclear explosion has left in its wake… Read the full article in Artistika

Swarms: Marketing and Migrants

Essays, Writing

David Cameron’s use of the word ‘swarm’ to describe the migrants desperately creating an existence at Calais has been remarked upon a lot, but it was a word which instantly set thoughts rolling for me as I have been reading Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi on that exact term.

In Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, he uses it to identify how groups of people act in hyper networked info-capitalism (1). What could be revealed by the use of the word in both cases? The more I look into it, the more both uses prove mutually revealing and the more they say about how connectivity really operates in this intensely networked society and economy. What I mean to say is, the usage of the term seems more than coincidental – it is informed by a common context even if it bubbles to the surface of discourse for very different reasons and for very different objects. That common context can be understood as the market and its role in shaping our society.

This is what I will explain with this blog post, and I hope by the end of it, I can stir some creative ideas about how we get beyond the ‘swarm’.

House keys

Work in progress, Writing

As the door closed, I noticed that I did not have my keys. The second when you realise that your plans have been fundamentally rearranged is one of suspension. It provokes a laugh. A moment of stillness before everything runs awry.

Locking myself out of my home today is nothing profound or major. I lost only a few hours. But I noticed that the moment of suspension, where the ridiculousness of your situation is revealed to you, is not much different to the same moment one experiences upon hearing life altering information. When we hear that we have lost more than just a few hours – a loved one, a dream, a home – that one split second is actually remarkably similar. Afterwards, it all rains down on us and laughter may abandon us for a long time, maybe forever.

I tend to err on the side of the absurd and I remember being in fits of giggles with my cousins as we rode to our grandfather’s funeral. Mainly because we were in a hearse. There is actually something hilarious about being in a hearse. Laughter and weeping seem to be a short flick away from one another.

I have had the privilege to often feel a strange kind of creative potential when things have gone awry. Or maybe it is a writer-photographer’s inclination towards observation at moments of heightened emotion. Being outside yourself as you experience life changing things is very elating.

In an attempt to gain access to my flat, I was on a train to pick up some keys. The Battersea development loomed to my right. What you can see there at the moment is an ultra-HD building site on a massive scale. The spokes and spikes and cranes and cords; the high vis-jackets and hard hats and fences and scaffolding; a whole mass of detail and structure. There are hundreds of glass panels, hundreds of concrete frames where balconies will be. The off-white chimneys of the old power station are set to be engulfed by a grey tide.

London is a tide itself and I am not a preservist. But those blank grey boxes seem to prophecy the empty spaces they will soon be for absent investors. Change is the nature of London, change is creative potential, but empty houses mean that someone has lost a home. Somewhere a life is going awry in a fundamental way, never to be hauled back to the promised framework.

Metaphor is knitted into the fabric of things – it’s only a matter looking at it in a certain way. As the train turns the corner towards Victoria station, a piece of graffiti reads: “It only takes a minute girl”.

For the powerful there are split second decisions that change everything. For the weak there are split second revelations that change everything. There is after all, the moment when something was possible, and the moment when it stops being possible. There is the closing of opportunity, and the asserting of one reality.  There is a liminal space within that moment in which strange things happen.

I’ve started writing about development in London because I think it needs to be visualised, and in a more simple sense, because I am starting to feel it. I am not the poorest, I am not the richest. I am very lucky, I have a good education, I have some debts. I come from a working class family that became to all effects middle class thanks to the last period of social mobility. I guess this set me up to be hyper-class-conscious (as you might call it). I’d rather say, I think empathy is everything that matters.

Now back in ‘my’ flat and with more to follow.

Flower Diplomacy

Essays, Writing

As part of my research into the politics of plants and flowers I attended a panel discussion on “Photography, Colonialism and the Politics of Planting” at The Mosaic Rooms.

The discussion featured interesting points on the legal frameworks which make invisible non-Western forms of relationships with the land and the political nature of the classification of plants.

Simply reciting the language we use when classifying plants, tells you much about the political potential of the systems used to order the natural world: native species, invasive species, non-native species, alien, exotic…

The symbolic weight of these words is surely due in part to our metaphorical use of systems of flora classification for systems of classifying groups of people, but I would argue that the metaphorical relationship runs both ways. Flora and fauna have come to shape our language about peoples, and our language about plants reveals our political and social stances and narratives towards peoples.

As an example, I recently heard some discussion of the fact that Aborigines were categorised as ‘flora and fauna’ in Australia until the 1967 referendum. There seems to be some debate over this, but whether it was true in some cases, or has entered the discourse through a different logic, its presence as an idea is meaningful. Indeed the non-verification of this idea, and the anxiety it seems to provoke, reveals much about the limits of colonial ways of recognising meaning (seen in the discussion on those hyperlinks).

The underlying principle is that people and land are semiotically bound together. A relationship which proves revealing and full of implied meaning when land and people are physically and politically separated.

There is much to explore here, but one point which intrigued me given my ongoing artistic interest in flowers and blossoms, came from artist Uriel Orlow’s research into plants and South Africa. It’s something he called “Flower Diplomacy.”

Through waves of boycotts towards apartheid South Africa, one object not included in the list, he pointed out, were flowers. The South African government could still send bouquets to foreign embassies, contribute flowers to international cultural events and was allowed to take part in the Chelsea Flower Show.

Flowers were deemed as ‘non-political’; benign, unimportant and without agency. Of course, the South African government used this to great effect – sending beautiful flowers across the world with labels proudly marking them as South African species. Orlow showed photographs from the South African Botanical Garden documenting the gifts and their oversized labels.

This blind spot interests me as it reveals something about the connection between international politics, the limits of colonial and patriarchal ways of envisioning meaning, and the subversive acts this framework allows for – whether we support those acts for not. It is always my deepest instinct that bodies and individual identities are replicated in group identities, are replicated in global political systems, and that any one part impacts all parts.

Here flowers are devalued and underestimated because of a misogynist reading of the state of nature: beauty equals uselessness; beauty cannot be understood as an act, only as a state and cannot sit alongside agency.

It reminds me of stories of female intelligence agents or political envoys gaining unguarded and sensitive information because powerful groups of men presume the visiting woman could not be of any importance, or even be able to remember and use information she is party to.

The deep need of patriarchal systems to align femininity with beauty, and beauty with powerlessness, creates a political situation which cannot envisage the clear political value of sending and featuring national flowers.

The body of the young girl has often been likened to the flower. It is that connection between youth, femaleness, exoticism that reveals to me the bodily message of such political systems. They cannot comprehend the subjectivity and agency of the young girl, and they write systems which make sure her subjectivity and agency cannot be recognised.

Add to this the racial and national identities that become key in the South African context: the native plants are colonised as white South African national symbols, connecting one group of people to the land over another.

These two dynamics, misogynist and racist systems of value, on the whole cohere with one another. In this case what is interesting is that their implementation becomes a contradiction in terms, exposing the untruthfulness of these systems of meaning.

If flowers mean nothing, then why send them at all? If flowers carry meaning, then why not exempt them from the boycott? Whilst governments sought to oppose South Africa, they clearly had a breakdown in non-meaning which allowed for meaning contrary to their stated political aims to occur. It is clear that in sending these bouquets, claiming native plant species was a way of claiming national and racial identity in connection to land.

Flowers became vulnerable to carrying a meaning that inflicted pain on groups of people and put them in jeopardy. Equally, by overlooking flowers, the West revealed its ongoing capacity to overlook both the vulnerability and potential agency of those bodies who feature at the bottom of a deeply embedded system of colonial and patriarchal meaning – even when it sought to make a statement against these structures.

The revealing alignment between flowers and people in terms of both the feminine and the exotic, offers a rich imaginative ground upon which to explore further connections between land, plants, and bodies. It raises the possibility that flowers as a subversive act could be used to challenge these systems from the other side. That their assumed in-agency, parallel to the assumed in-agency of the feminine and the black and the colonised, could be used to make statements – all the more powerful because of the irony of their position.

This is always the hope I seek as an artist when working within these paradigms which crush bodies, peoples and identities: That the limits of dominant forms of meaning provide us with ways to subvert and celebrate forms of meaning that recognise human agency and human value; that beauty can act.