Swimming Pool was founded by curator, writer, and educator Viktoria Draganova in the heart of Sofia in 2015. As an institution for contemporary art and research, Swimming Pool is collaborative in nature and focusses on questions of community, politics, and education. It hosts exhibitions, public conversations, artist residencies, and many other participatory formats. As the founder and curator of the so-called “blue cube,” Draganova engages with local as well as international collaborators at the intersection of social practices, art, and science. For V/A Draganova talked and fabulated with writer and curator Dessislava Dimova about the beginnings of Swimming Pool, the roots and aims of their curatorial practice, the (art) institution itself, and the shifts in what is possible for their work and art in general. Is ideology no longer the driving force of activism? Is there more room for agency and effecting immediate change in our everyday life?
DESSISLAVA DIMOVA Swimming Pool started with a place that is almost impossible, fantastic, and yet real: a pool on the roof of a private building in the center of Sofia, built in the 1930s. A poetically empty, blue space, architectural elements, levels and curves that create ever new perspectives, and the sky over the city, stretching your gaze until it comes to rest on Mount Vitosha. Paradoxically, this place, the fruit of a woman’s imagination and audacity (wished into reality by your grandmother, Viktoria), turned out to be the epicenter of a conversation on institutions and public space that you led in Sofia. From the very beginning this space merged, as it were, with your work, in which you have been thinking about possible futures, about the unraveling of the institution of art.
VIKTORIA DRAGANOVA In 2015 it was the architectural element of the pool on the terrace that inspired its name. The pool is empty, so we use it as an inverted stage, for installations, performances and discussions. The truth is, people find it hard to live with such emptiness – and it’s not surprising that visitors often ask when the pool will be filled. But it is this emptiness that has generated our program over the years, and it has even defined the institution itself. This emptiness made it possible to think of the pool’s architecture as a shape and, in that sense, as an abstraction; to think of it as replicating the gallery space – as a “blue cube” within the white cube. And while we associate the latter with the idea of neutrality, the blue cube is woven from contexts, desires, stories. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, the empty pool oozes life.
You and I have known each other for longer, but we worked together for the first time within the frame of The Possible Institution, a project that seems to have been in the works for a long time but did not appear until 2021 – during the pandemic. Its aim has been to rethink different models of instituting art, and thus, thinking about what Swimming Pool actually is.
DD I think, The Possible Institution made it possible for us to think about what the (art) institution in general means as a form of life itself, how even our own body is a collective unity of individualities that must function in a community in order to live. For the modern person freedom has always been defined through individuality. Since the pandemic, we saw how collectivity itself could be a form of freedom.
VD As the curator of this project, I was mostly interested in collective action through the institution. I also tried to trace how society organizes itself through institutions, which are not fixed, ancient, eternally existing, but specifically connected to a community and in a constant process of self-creation and self-determination, that is, in the process of instituting. Society has the ability to organize itself through laws but also through institutions that make it possible for society to be flexible, adequate, and responsive to its needs. Here I see that I instinctively try to imagine an institution that is based on freedom but also on responsibility.
DD However, with your latest project, the Center for Social Vision, in which you also invited me to participate, it seems to me that you are looking to get out of this primordial broth of blue cube ideas and out into real life, where public art is less experimental but much more uncomfortable and challenging and where the institution can be potentially and actually disoriented.
VD Perhaps I wanted, above all, to redefine the institution and its tasks, which led to the creation of the Center for Social Vision as a spin-off. I needed to support projects and studies that are much more relevant to different communities and that try to engage in conversations. I know this is important to you too – I recently recalled that some time ago, you organized a series of conversations on art and politics in Brussels. We didn’t know each other well then, but I followed what you were doing with great interest, and it would be interesting to hear a bit more about your motivation back then.
DD I think that our practices are paradoxically similar in the constant transition between the personal and the collective, the poetic and the socially engaged. The conversations you mentioned were organized in Brussels in 2014. Let’s remember, those were years under the influence of the Occupy movement, the global financial crisis, and the Greek crisis. There was a feeling that these crises could be the start of something new, we felt the dawning of a “revolutionary moment,” and we were reconsidering previous revolutions. Quite logically there was also great interest in artist collectives and the idea of community, even a nostalgia for collective action and the idea of protest. Note that all the important texts on the subject of art and public space that we collected in the virtual library of your project also date from this period.
VD For The Possible Institution you wrote an essay, “The Institution Of Life,” that I think largely traces how our personal truth spills over from one community to another, and sometimes are recognized in neither.
DD The figure of Persephone in the essay conveys precisely this idea, but so do the figures of many mythological heroes. I was also thinking of the beautiful Helen of Troy– the symbol for women who dramatically leave one community/institution and go to another. In the case of Persephone it is a perpetual cycle where she is never quite where she belongs, while in that of Helen it leads to war and tragedy where she, too, is never quite where she belongs. These are heroines with no way out. The communities here are fixed – institutionalized – and any non-belonging is punished. Community is necessary. It guarantees survival even at the level of the organization of the organism, and yet it is not conflict-free. It is not a utopian response to individualism. Every element of life is both individual and collective. The essay also responded in part to the situation we found ourselves in after the pandemic – when bodies met again and all relationships and communities felt different. I think the very idea of collective action will never be the same again.
VD Our practices seem to me to be increasingly linked to social shifts and the political and economic crises of recent years. In Bulgaria, but not exclusively, communication through new technologies has led to a fragmentation of public space, to a predominance of hyper-subjectivity, where the voice which shouts the loudest has the greatest influence. With the projects at the Center for Social Vision we are trying to move away from grand narratives, and we are trying to connect to all the different experiences and ways of sharing. But I wonder whether the institution isn’t the social infrastructure that largely helps us to cope with life – not only as a place to talk but also as a possibility to solve practical needs.
DD It seems like there is a change in the concept of community and collective: that a community is no longer based on an idea but on the feeling of being supported in the difficulties you are experiencing. We no longer unite because we are going to fight capitalism but because we want to be with someone who is going through the same difficulties and who can support us. Community as a self-help group instead of a collective force of opposition.
VD Possible action has been relieved of the pathos of ideology and has returned to everyday life.
DD Yes, the frustration that there is no longer an idea to gather around, that there is a crisis of political imagination, a lack of vision of what kind of world we want, has given way to the need to cope and to simply make it possible for life to be livable. Perhaps the prospect of an inevitable ecological end has allowed us to look at the little we can do today and to recognize the responsibility that each one of us carries by virtue of our being alive on the planet.
VD Institutions of community – different than those of politics, ideology, or activism – don’t attract with their façade, or with power. Rather than writing the big stories, they bring together all sorts of micro-narratives, hosting them, managing them, caring for them. They have come alive in their own way.
DD Even at the most intimate level we are a community – our body is an institutionalized collective. Several bodies together make up an additional form of organization, and when they come in contact with their environment, they make up yet another body. From this perspective it becomes possible to think of community and institution, including that of art, as a kind of personal existence and as a continuous process and endeavor to organize and balance different elements, which is part of the definition of life.
VD And perhaps the art institution is managing to activate a form of thinking through narratives around the processes in which art participates. But this would be something that remains in the making, with an unknown ending, largely surprising, but also closer to our ways of living – like the community whose realm the institution inhibits.