In the middle of Sofia is a big space where the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov once stood. In 1990, the removal of Dimitrov’s preserved body, followed by its cremation and burial, was a symbolic rejection of the old regime. The mausoleum itself was taken down in 1999, though a majority of Bulgarians opposed the demolition. It took the authorities four attempts and lots of dynamite to bring down the solid marble structure. Other than a small tent occupied by a religious hermit, the space has been empty for over a decade.
In 2011, the architect Sylvia Aytova – with the help of the Ideas Factory – put up a wooden pavilion called the Utopia Box. It was an ingenious construction: a box that could be turned into a stage, a place for workshops, an exhibition space. Here the citizens of Sofia could imagine a new, fluid public reality. The creators of the box provided the pavilion as a gift to the municipality. The city, which had in fact cosponsored the structure, simply tore it down.
New ideas sometimes take a little while to take hold. But fortunately the new ideas keep coming off the assembly line of the Ideas Factory, which has been translating the energy and creativity of Bulgaria’s next generation since 2006. I met up with Yanina Taneva, one of the forces behind the Ideas Factory, at the organization’s office in Sofia last September. She talked to me about the impetus behind the founding of the organization.
“Everything that we were watching as children on television, all this inequality, made us so angry, but we were kids and couldn’t do anything,” she told me. “But some of us studied in universities outside Bulgaria and then came back. What we saw was huge injustice, especially regarding the environment. This topic became so well known in Bulgaria because we started a few campaigns that turned out to be huge. And people recognized in environmental problems everything they didn’t accept for so many years: corruption, injustice, inequality, poverty.”
The Ideas Factory has been instrumental in the revival of environmental activism in Bulgaria. It has integrated the arts into social movements, and it has worked hard to link up activists in Bulgaria with activists elsewhere in Europe and around the world.
Like the Utopia Box, the Ideas Factory is a new kind of structure for Bulgaria: flexible, innovative, responsive to the needs of the public. “Smaller organizations have the advantage of being flexible,” she told me. “Established organizations can’t change easily. Our strategy is to stay small and maintain contact with lots of associated people. We just need to stay flexible. Change is the only thing that is happening for sure in the world.”
Sofia continues to have a big empty space where Dimitrov’s embalmed body once lay. But it probably won’t remain this way for long. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, big cities abhor empty spaces at their center. And groups like the Ideas Factory keep coming up with ways to involve Bulgarians in recreating their present.
When you think back to 1989 and compare it to the situation today, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed, how would you evaluate the situation in Bulgaria?
I think this question is very misleading. It depends on which area. Many areas might seem much better, others are much worse. I would say “very disappointed” for the health care system. I would say 1 or 2 for the social system, which you cannot really rely on. But of course for what we call democracy and for freedom of speech, which is still not really free, I would put 3 or 4. Media freedom is not as good as it should be, but it’s still better, so maybe 5. The court system: 1.
The police are not better, not worse. They’ve always been bad. Before, even though it was crazy and frustrating with the security police, at least we had the police, at least there was a system. Today it is chaos, and the police are used by oligarchs and mafia and criminals, I don’t know which is better: I don’t like either. Some of the people who used to be in the security police knew things we didn’t know about the economy, so they now run their own businesses, or they appropriated big companies that used to be state-owned. I don’t know if this is good or bad.
Regarding the economy, during communist times, we used to export much more to Western countries than now. Now we are much more dependent on the West than we used to be. In Bulgaria, we use this verb to describe democracy: we don’t say when democracy came, we say when democracy “hit,” like it was a hurricane. When democracy hit, it hit like a natural disaster, not like something that had been planned or wanted. It’s not like democracy at all. It’s much better than it was before: I feel safe and free. I’ve travelled around the world, and I know it could be much better and it could be much worse.
We got a copy based on other models. Western companies just came and bought Bulgaria’s national property for no money. They didn’t respect the dignity of the people here. That’s what has most frustrated me: this asymmetry of power. My parents, my grandparents, their dignity has been smashed. I don’t think that anyone cared about empowering people. The so-called privatization was very ugly. It took the lives of our parents. I’m really angry about this. It’s what moves me forward.
How would you evaluate your own life, on the same scale and over the same period of time?
It’s been a very tumultuous, very dynamic time. This is what defines my generation. We’ve grown up at a time when normal was not normal. We were living in chaos and frustration. I think I’m better off now, of course, in some sense. But I’ve watched the struggle of my parents — all their savings melted away because of the idiots who took all the money out of the banks, because of the criminals who bullied people with small businesses. At that time, people had no rights. There was no state, no one to take care of you. Some people survived; others didn’t.
I was very lucky. I had a very good education, which was also the heritage of the previous era. I also had the chance to travel because my parents gave me all they could so that I could travel. Maybe I’m better off because I’m independent. I know my rights now. So, I’d say 5.
When you look into the near couple years for Bulgaria, how do you feel about the prospects, using the same spectrum with one being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
I would stay with 5.
Do you remember 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and you were very young?
I was six years old. During that time, it was normal to go with your family to these rest and recreation centers outside the city that were run for journalists, for people who worked in the state companies, and so on. Everyone went there for a minimum of four weeks during the year. I was there with my mother and my grandmother, who is a journalist. It was October/November, 1989. People didn’t have TVs in their rooms at these centers. There was one common space where everyone came together to watch TV. They would also have meals together. I was playing around by myself, because it was off-season. The TV was on. Suddenly the news came on and they said that Todor Zhivkov was out.
I was so excited that I ran into the place where everyone was having a meal, and I said “Mommy, Mommy, Todor Zhivkov is out!” It was unbelievable. Without saying anything to me or my mother, everyone just left the room. Maybe they were scared that something would happen or they would be punished. “What are you talking about?” my mother said to me. “Todor Zhivkov is out, I heard it on the news,” I said. But she didn’t believe me.
Then I remember people — my cousins, friends of friends — leaving for the United States, Canada, Western Europe. An entire generations left, the generation that was about 20 years old. This left the country quite dependent on the votes of old people. Which has made it difficult until now.
I was in Germany on the 10th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1999. I was studying in Leipzig where the whole thing started, I talked with many people from east and west Germany, and I’ve watched a lot of documentaries. My eastern German friends remembered being so excited. They were like children, believing that everyone was waiting for them with arms open. They left their homes in Berlin empty and they just went to the west.
Tell me about the work you do today.
What I do today is try to change things: to empower people to decide on their own, to help people know that being a citizen is not just about paying taxing but that that the state owes you certain things, to realize that there is power in small- and medium-sized entrepreneurship.
We created the Ideas Factory, which is where we are now. This was the first visible statement from our generation. We started it in 2006. Everything that we were watching as children on television, all this inequality, made us so angry, but we were kids and couldn’t do anything. But some of us studied in universities outside Bulgaria and then came back. What we saw was huge injustice, especially regarding the environment. This topic became so well known in Bulgaria because we started a few campaigns that turned out to be huge. And people recognized in environmental problems everything they didn’t accept for so many years: corruption, injustice, inequality, poverty.
We started defending a wild region on the Black Sea coast that was about to urbanized and appropriated. It was a very long process. It’s still not finished. But six years later, just a few months ago, we won in court. I was 22 when we started, and I devoted a lot of my personal life to this effort. We connected arts and creativity to this campaign. We created a network of people who wanted to make change but didn’t know how. Because of the socialist past, people were living in parallel universes. This is one of the worst heritages of that time, that people just can’t work together. That’s what we try to create: a new culture of collaboration for change. These campaigns have helped us create a wide network of people working in different fields.
We are now putting together a Changemaker Academy, building the capacity for change, helping people build whatever they want to build: an initiative, an NGO, a social enterprise, an informal group. We acquaint them with the theories, with experiential learning, with the people they need to know. We also put it all into the global context. People here think that Bulgaria is the worst place on earth to live. But I think there are a lot of social resources here. The relationships between people here – which are not formal so people don’t always appreciate them – can be a huge resource for solidarity, for building informal networks.
We are small: just three people. As a new NGO, we were very lucky to have U.S. funding.
I was recently at a big conference in Mexico on social impact and making change. There were philanthropists there, investors in social change. And I was the only one from Eastern Europe. And there were people from all around the world. We have a huge vacuum of innovation and investment in innovation in this part of the world. Compared to Asia and Africa, Eastern Europe is no longer interesting. Investors are like: we’ve done what we’ve done in Eastern Europe. But the damage from what they’ve done is so huge. We have to deal with the damage from socialism and from democracy to build an independent society. It’s a huge process.
We try to be part of all the Balkan networks because Bulgaria has been kind of cut out of the Balkans. We work with contemporary artists, young artists. We work with an agency that rents spaces. We use their unused space for blitz art, for interventions in places that are not commonly used for art. Young generation artists have difficulty getting into the art world here. The establishment artists build huge walls against the newcomers. That’s why we’re still losing very precious people: to Amsterdam, to London.
Our generation of organizations is much more open. We’re an informal network and can work together without the formal structures. It’s so much easier.
Tell me more about saving the wild area near the Black Sea. Why did your group choose that spot? And how did you make it into an issue?
I came back from Germany where I was studying and working at a gallery for contemporary art. When I came back I saw Bulgaria with different eyes. I was very frustrated to see one of my favorite places being part of a huge system of money laundering. People intuitively didn’t like this scheme. They didn’t have arguments, they didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know any networks. I was very frustrated. And frustration is a mighty power that moves many of us forward.
I received a letter from a girl who said, “Guys, this is where they’re going to build the next big hotel, and I want to fight it.” We were just 20 years old. We were watching “investments” coming in, and they were building on the Black Sea coast, these Russian, Irish, and UK “investors,” destroying a lot of places that everyone loves. Bulgarians have grown up camping because there isn’t much else to do. This culture of camping is quite beloved. This girl was the first one to talk about stopping the hotel project. Many of us were thinking this but didn’t know how to act. So, three or four of us formed the core of a group. I was coming from advertising and PR, so I used the skills I knew. Others came from web design so they designed the website. Everyone did what they knew.
Until that moment, after socialism, “activist” was a very dirty word that you didn’t want to be linked to. We managed to make activism cool, particularly for young people. We had a 24-hour party so that everyone could come, including mothers with children. We tried to reach everyone. At that time, there was no Facebook, so it was hard to do it so easily. We used our contacts with the media. We made a statement that was really clear. We were the first to say that we just weren’t accepting these things.
At the beginning no one took us seriously. Then we lay underneath the excavators. That’s when the campaign really started to grow. It wasn’t planned. It was an emotional answer to what the politicians were doing. We started to talk about sustainable development and things that were not really known. Actually this was more of a civil participation campaign than an environmental campaign. But we saw that environmental arguments were working in our direction. So that’s what we used. And thank God this part of the Black Sea coast is very precious for environmental reasons. When Bulgaria entered the EU, the area was preserved on the EU list of preserved sites.
In order to get that EU preservation status, did you have to push the Bulgarian government to apply?
We were very often talking to the government. The spadework we left to the experts in the environmental organizations. But we were the ones that pushed public awareness and media attention. In the second month of the protests, we were invited to the ministry of the environment. They agreed to prohibit building in that location for one year. They were just postponing the decision. It’s still not what we want it to be. But it’s much better. At least this offshore company can’t do this kind of “investment” any more. For other investors, well, the system is broken. We’ve only been able to stick our hands in the dike.
We built a very active civil society on this topic. If another issue comes up, we’re the ones who can mobilize tens of thousands of people to support it — for example, the protest this summer over the forest. It was the biggest protest since democracy hit here. It was huge. The environment is the only issue that can mobilize so many people to go out onto the streets. And 70 percent of the protestors were younger than me. Many of them remember the campaigns that we were running from their childhood. And now this is the first time that they are active, so it’s huge progress.
So you see a change over the last 10 years in the attitudes of teenagers and people in their late 20s?
Younger people see that if they don’t defend their own rights, no one else will. Before, people thought that the state would defend them. This was very damaging to civil society. Even now, foundations and NGOs are portrayed here as taking money from outside and telling us how to do this and that, like dealing with “our Gypsies,” for example. This kind of black PR happens all the time, putting out the message that NGOs and civil society take a lot of money but do nothing. Our actions have managed to overcome a little bit of that.
The public perception of NGOs is not necessarily very positive in Bulgaria.
Not at all. The Open Society office here has done very good research on the topic. The main conclusion was about trust. People don’t trust each other. They don’t trust organizations. They don’t trust businesses. They don’t trust the state (I think this particularly distrust is valuable and we should keep it!). That is our main task: to make people believe in each other.
Tell me a little bit about the Idea Factory. This sounds like a new approach as well.
For me it’s so logical. Maybe for Bulgaria it is new. The Factory was created out of the campaign on the Black Sea, because we thought that creativity and art could help social change and that the network we created could be used for systematic change and not just for urgent issues. We need to build the capacity of people who want to change things. We also have to make it so that they don’t feel alone. I’m still surprised to see so many people feeling alone in the era of the Internet, when your invisible tribe is everywhere. Whatever you think, there is someone thinking like you somewhere in the world. But there are a lot of people who feel alone here. We need to connect and exchange ideas, and create space where creativity and innovation are a priority. When our network is big enough, we’re going to change the world!
We try to update ourselves quite often. We go to trainings around the world. We invite speakers from around Bulgaria and around the world. Many people here have exceptional experience, but Bulgarians don’t like to listen to Bulgarians. It’s slowly changing, but…
Can you give an example of a way that you’ve used art in social change?
Connected to this project with unused spaces, we’ve already created two events. One was an installation by a very fine artist, who criticized the contemporary perception of what is natural. In an apartment the artist created an installation with a lot of green things from a company that plants small bushes, created artificial light for them, created an artificial rainbow, created a 400-hertz sound environment. So, it was a very surreal but very “natural” environment where you can think about what “natural” means and why everyone is so keen to be natural.
The other one was related to the protests with the forests. A lot of artists from different disciplines developed a concept as a group, which was very difficult but really interesting. They created an invisible theater piece –
What’s invisible theater?
Where you have a bunch of people who are actors but no one knows because they look normal. They go on the street, into the subway. For instance, a beautiful blond lady kisses an African-American really passionately, different situations like that that challenge people. In this other one, people walk around in a big exhibition space and then suddenly there’s a crowd around you. You start to notice how the crowd makes you move or you are dependent on the crowd.
Tell me about some of the work you’ve done in the area, in the Balkans or nearby. Have you made connections with specific groups?
We work in one network of NGOs called Southeast European Network, which is maybe the only network made in the Balkans by the Balkans. This year we’ll host the board meeting in Bulgaria. Some of the member organizations work on the environment, some with arts. We have a very good network of people from Macedonia, from Romania, from Turkey and Greece. We work a lot with East European countries, sometimes with the U.S. embassy, sometimes with the Asia-Europe Foundation. My own personal art piece may go to Phnom Penh.
We also do this festival called Beglika Fest. It’s the place where the most different-thinking people in Bulgaria gather, people who have already started something or want to start something connected to change.
What does “beglika” mean?
It’s a Turkish word. It’s the name of a very beautiful place in the mountains. It tries to be the first sustainable event, so we care about the carbon footprint. We try to build a Balkan identity through culture and music. We invite a lot of Balkan and East European musicians and artists, Serbians and Polish and Czech.
This is an annual event?
Yes. This year we had about 3,000 people. We don’t want it to be bigger, because the area is quite a sensitive and preserved area.
What do you think the future of activism is here in Bulgaria?
The signs are very positive, especially for developing entrepreneurial culture. We now have two hubs here that bring together creative people and trainings, supported by the European Fund for Entrepreneurship. Now smaller and younger entrepreneurs will have access to funding.
As for NGOs, it’s not so beautiful. There’s no funding. But now the Ministry for Regional Development will set up a state fund. Until now, the state fund for NGOs was mostly distributed without any application process to strange organizations that nobody knew. Now it will be much easier.
Another thing is the global process. Higher education has been liberated. Stanford University and MIT have free online courses. The new generation is growing up without the limitations that we needed to overcome and we overcame, and the generation before didn’t overcome. The new generation doesn’t have these problems. It has other problems.
What do you think about the informal organizations?
I think that’s the future. Smaller organizations have the advantage of being flexible. Established organizations can’t change easily. Our strategy is to stay small and maintain contact with lots of associated people. We just need to stay flexible. Change is the only thing that is happening for sure in the world.
What about the less attractive activism in Bulgaria, like skinheads and racist activism?
I don’t like them, of course. And I have suffered from them. But I’m not involved in this movement against racism. I’ll participate in a parade or sign a statement. But it’s not my work. I think the anti-racist organizations here get funding from the UK.
Do you think this skinhead, neo-fascist phenomenon it’s growing? Why do you think it’s still there?
In the last 20 years, the whole system hasn’t cared about people. The system has been set up so that a few people can loot the commonwealth. So, of course there will be a lot of dissatisfied people, with a lot of aggression. Nobody encourages organizations devoted to culture and arts to go to the places where these people live and show them alternatives. It’s a vacuum that they fill with hate. But if you fill this vacuum with something else, with creativity, with possibilities to develop yourself…
Sofia, September 26, 2012