FROM THE LAB TO POLITICS
Maria Vassileva in conversation with
Maria Vassileva: For many years, we worked together on projects of the women’s group 8th of March. When you joined, you were only a young painter, but even then your feminist views were very clear. How has your understanding of feminism changed since you moved to the United States? Feminism is not a constant concept, but something that varies according to time, place and circumstances. Do you agree with this flexible definition or are you in favor of firmer positions?
Boryana Rossa: I wouldn’t put things so dualistically. It wasn’t my move to the United States that changed my views, but rather the accumulation of life experience and knowledge in different continents and places. Besides, I wouldn’t say I’ve moved to the United States – I live between two places and see myself as transnational. However, the experience gained from those different places has given me a good perspective, helping me to avoid the self-colonization typical of many Eastern European feminists, who consider Western discourses and practices “more advanced.” In short, the opportunity to compare not by second-hand stories, but by personal experience has shown me how far ahead we are in the emancipation of women in Bulgaria and how the idea of “victorious feminism” in the West is false. The simplest example is US maternity support policy. Women who have state jobs are not entitled to any maternity leave. After giving birth, they get two weeks of unpaid sick leave. The best case scenario is 3 months of paid leave if you work for some private institutions. This is only the first item in a long list of essentials a woman needs to be successful in her career, but doesn’t get. The development of theory, which is generally (not rightfully) considered an exclusive advance of Western feminisms, doesn’t necessarily result in successful feminist practices. Still, practice is inevitably a consequence of utopian thoughts and theories. It’s impossible for a practice to develop successfully without an already existing theory. It’s therefore important to note that the development of thought and its form of expression differs in different countries and that giving primacy to Western, especially to white theory, is colonial and narrow-minded. Black anti-colonial feminism, which often refuses to be associated with Feminism with a capital F or with what is stereotypically called “feminism” and is mostly white, is much closer in both theory and practice to the feminist ideas that gave rise to women’s emancipation in Bulgaria. Take for example Audre Lorde’s writings, where the intersection between class, race and sex is very clear and which have parallels with the ideas of, for example, Elena Logadinova. As a woman from Eastern Europe, which is considered a “second-class” according to European standards, it’s very easy for me to associate myself with precisely this feminism of black marginalization.
As for how things are in the arts, I believe the existence of women painters in the history of Bulgarian art is not sufficiently well described and studied by historians and theorists. Only a small number of names have been deemed worthy of attention. And yet that number is much greater than in the United States. The rapid equalization of women’s rights in many fields during the communist era in Bulgaria (please note that I’m not saying it was perfect – on the contrary, I have many problems with it) instilled those generations of women with confidence that they are respected as individuals and creators. We can consequently see that the subjects they work with are considered typically “male” in the Western world, where women still have to fight for necessities and to make the women’s world visible. For example, the women painters, directors and writers in Bulgaria speculate futuristically about the future world and present new ideas embodies by the female protagonists in their artworks, who speak not only for themselves but on behalf of the entire humanity. They offer universal models of thought and consider themselves universalists who can build utopias on an equal footing with men, as representatives of humanity as a whole, not just as representatives of their own gender.
In the West, those universalist utopias are mostly offered by male painters or personified by male protagonists in works of art. We can compare the women prisoners-futurists in Binka Zhelyazkova’s 1972 film “The Last Word” with Godard’s male characters – they all offer universal human utopias, but the fact that Zhelyazkova’s story is told through women’s stories doesn’t make it any less valid for everyone. On the other hand, Godard’s protagonists most of the time have an exclusive maleness, and all women do is help them as comrades. I have written about all this in many articles and reflected it in my works, for example the 2012 installation “After the Fall” dedicated to gender in cinema.
In short, my life in the US has put an end to many of my romantic ideas about this place, but I wouldn’t describe my experiences as solely dystopian. As a professor at an elite university, I’m in a very privileged position, but since I’m also an artist, my job is to understand everything about everyone and find the best way to tell what I’ve seen, instead of staying safely inside my shell. My students come from many different backgrounds and countries, and I need to be able to understand what they’re trying to say with their work and help them express it. It’s hard work, sometimes truly arduous, but on the other hand, it’s very enriching. It’s easy to close ourselves to the world and think that we do not need it. Or that we already know everything and everyone just needs to listen to us. To me, that’s not only boring, but also ethically unacceptable. That’s why the need to work with people whose culture and background I know very little about is part of what I consider my artistic mission. Not only as a teacher, but as a creator of art too. I have always sought to communicate with a diverse audience, therefore I make public interventions as well, where the reactions of the strangers are absolutely spontaneous. In this regard, the university is just another “intervention,” another fulfilment of the mission I see for myself as an artist – to reach upon as many diversities as possible.
This began in the years when I was working on my doctorate, from the student communities where I met many of my American colleagues and friends. Those meetings were really eyeopening. This now continues and is expanding more and more, towards Asia. This is what I got in large doses in the United States, and I’m very happy about it. There is much more romanticism in this clash with the otherness than in the stereotypical ideas of what this country and its art scene is.
And this will be my transition to the second part of the question about the flexibility of feminisms. I outlined earlier the difference between socialist, black, white Western and bourgeois feminism. I don’t adhere to firm positions and I don’t think they exist. There’s no single feminism. The insistence there’s only one form of feminism is colonial and arrogant. The differences according to various moments in time, and the determination of the three or now four waves of feminism is showing that obviously. It’s less obvious, though that those three waves are also a product of Western feminist theory and are also a colonizing concept. Recently, on my feminist vlog, I spoke to Zhivka Valyavicharska, who studies feminism in Bulgaria, along with her other research on reproductive labor, alternative economic networks and the Tolstoyist communes from the socialist period.
She has also lived in the United States for about twenty years and currently teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. According to her research, the three waves of feminism that are traditionally accepted as universal, namely: the first (late 19th-early 20th century), which gains fundamental rights, such as voting; the second (1960s), where “the personal is political;” and the third (late 1980s), which includes queer identities, are not applicable to Bulgaria or to any of the ex-socialist countries, similarly to how inapplicable they are to Asia, Africa or South America.
There’s therefore no way I can adhere to some common, stable, non-evolving, “firm” notion of feminism. What I said here about the inapplicability of the Western periods of feminism, however, doesn’t mean that feminist ideas are only local, that feminist art has only local audiences and that feminist words can’t speak to different contexts.
My works elicit reactions across borders. Commonality and universality do exist, or I would rather say there is connectability and possibility of transnational identification. I’m often invited to major feminist exhibitions featuring art from different countries. For example, I now have three works in the exhibition named “Women Make History: Women in the Age of Transnationalism” (Haifa Museum of Art). The exhibition title actually refers to this transnational identity I mentioned earlier. I think that the understanding the diversities that can be observed across borders and can show the relationship between the local and the global cultural and political contexts through comparison is currently a popular topic.
This topic fits perfectly into the postcolonial discourses of today’s global world. We are embedded in the community of nations through the global economy and are therefore forced to develop a commonality of cultures precisely because of this globalism. We all drink Coca-Cola and understand the cultural references associated with it. At the same time, localities, marginalities, power hierarchies between countries and peoples determine the differences in everything, like the difference in the periods of feminisms, for example. Hierarchies are built exactly according to these geopolitical principles. That is why, for example, Coca-Cola is a universal symbol of joy and friendship and romantic legends are written about the Manhattan Special, the old Brooklyn alternative to coke, whereas memories of Altai and Etar (old Bulgarian fizzy drinks) are considered negative communist nostalgia.
Photos from the 2014 cycle “Amazon Armor”, the 2011 video “Woman President” and the 2001 cycle “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” are the works I show in the “Women Make History” exhibition. “Amazon Armor” queers the stereotypes about female form, beauty and health by referencing archetypal images from our subconscious. In addition to exploring the sexualization of women in the presidential institution, “Woman President” raises the question of why Kennedy’s death and not that of Indira Gandhi, for example, is a global image of presidential martyrdom; and “The Good Woman, the Bad Woman and the Ugly Man” addresses how quickly the new generations have forgotten that the rights women have today are not simply there, but fought for and won by other women, not too long ago. All these topics have both global and local significance.
M.V.: In Bulgaria, the concept of gender is still misunderstood and shrouded in fog. Do you remember when it became common in America, how it was propagandized and how it is understood by the masses?
B.R.: As Krasimira Daskalova said in one of her interviews related to the arguments about the Istanbul Convention, that the Bulgarian term “pol” contains both the physical sex and the social concept of gender that determine both our physiology and behaviour. That is, “pol” means both sex and gender. Not just sex or not just gender. If we were to look for the source of the term “gender”, we’d see it has similar roots as our word “rod.” In the West, “gender” acquired its contemporary meaning of naming our social behaviors around the 1960s.
Its import specifically to Bulgaria, like any word introduced from another country, aims to expand our understanding of the concept of “pol”, enriching it with social and terminological nuances accumulated from across the world. The word “computer”, for example, which we use in Bulgarian had replaced our eords for it which were “izchislitelna mashina” (computing machine) or “izchislitelno ustroistvo” (computing device). And that is what computers were called in Bulgaria before we introduced the word “computer.” The word “robot” has Slavic roots – it was coined by Karel Čapek’s brother, Josef Čapek, to name the intelligent machines-slaves from the play “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” The word’s root is common with “rob” (slave) or “rabota” (work). The word was introduced into the English-speaking world through Čapek’s story. This shows that words are borrowed by everyone and everywhere, and the drama about the desecration of the mother tongue is unjustified.
M.V.: You’re among the most active drivers of the “Sofia Queer Forum.” Where do feminism, gender and queer intertwine and where do they diverge?
B.R.: Those three concepts intersect with each other, as well as with concepts such as class, ethnicity, race, nationality and physical and mental disabilities. However, those concepts diverge and are placed in different hierarchies at the moment when, for example, some feminists advocate that only women with a certain social status and education or of a certain nationality and sexuality should have the right to vote.
We talked earlier about the difference between bourgeois and socialist feminism – one is exclusive and the other is inclusive. At that time we can already see formed hierarchies that allow the exclusion from the right of equality not only on the basis of class, but on the basis of queer identity. It’s no coincidence that the inclusion in the mainstream feminist ideologies of queer femininity and femaleness not defined by physiology, along with the trans-gender identities is considered a whole new wave in Western feminism. And on another side the inclusion of this queer femaleness is considered just an extraordinary feature of the traditional gender concepts of native Americans, who in some cases recognize five genders. Here I would like to mention that precisely this “queer” element in the world’s feminisms, which does not follow the periodization of the Western third wave, is also just another example of the very different histories that have been colonized by the Western theoretical framework.
This framework begins to include the queer identities only after the mid-eighties, around the publishing of Judith Butler‘s “Gender Trouble.” It is unfair, when some civilisations claim something as their big progressive achievement that makes them leaders of the entire world, when the same thing has been a common sense for ages for other civilisation, who are constantly marginalised.
As a recap, I’d say that each of us has been in a disadvantaged position in different moments in our lives and that focusing on the intersection of identity and class is a necessity. Compassion and solidarity help us find connections with each other.
On the other hand, our selfish desire to feel we’re above everybody, even if we aren’t, creates boundaries, discrepancies and hatred.
In 2003, I did the “Defenseless and Bad” exhibition at the L Gallery in Moscow. It was dedicated precisely to this plasticity of privileges – any king could be beheaded at any time and his servant could take his place. The exhibition also looked at precisely those intersectionalities. Intersectional feminism is already seen as the emerging “fourth wave,” which has the characteristics of the postcolonial world and criticizes all previous segregations in the struggle for equality, not only the ones related to gender.
M.V.: You’ve been dealing with bio-art for a long time. You recently did a workshop called “Chimera.” In the ad for it, you say the subject of its interest extends from the biological to the ethical. Tell us about the workshop and the “Mirror of Faith” project included in it.
B.R.: “Chimera: Bioengineered Dreams and Realities” is the title of the bio-art exhibition I’m currently working on as curator. It brings together many of my interests, which we talked about earlier, and focuses on the social aspects of the hybrids of humans, machines and animals, on the cyborg fantasies, techno utopias and dystopias. This exhibition features works created in collaboration with scientists and will be a physical and theoretical laboratory that intertwines artistic ideas and biological knowledge. We know from Greek mythology that the Chimera is a fire-breathing monster, a hybrid consisting of a lioness’ body, a head of a goat protruding from her back and a tail ending with a snakehead. The “Chimera” exhibition allows artists and scientists to reflect on the social and philosophical aspects of contemporary biotechnology, human dependence on the environment and technological influences on climate change and biodiversity.
The Chimera workshop you asked me about was dedicated to this. The participants were invited to make chimeric creatures from toys and various objects and then describe the functions of the organisms they created. The way a scientist plans a genetic modification is generally the same. One of the very interesting examples, which is not a fiction but an engineered reality, is a goat (Capra aegagrus hircus), otherwise known as the BioSteel™ Goat, genetically modified to produce the protein found in the Golden Orb Weaver Spider (Nephila clavipes) silk in their milk.
Those proteins are extracted from the milk and become threads used to make extremely strong fibers meant to produce protective clothing for the US military. The silk of this spider has unsurpassed strength and flexibility.
The scaling up of these qualities from the macroscopic world to “the big one” creates materials incomparable to the ones we know about. At the end this genetically modified goat eventually became so extravagant even to the artistic phantasies.
During the workshop, while the participants were making their own chimeras, we talked not only about the formal process, but also about the environment, the dangers of and need for genetic modification, how, for example, climate change will force us to create genetically modified organisms, and about the fact that genetic modification is constantly used in laboratories as a routine method of studying nature. Overall, it was an educational and critical conversation about those technologies, which have long been a part of our lives and will only continue to develop.
The “Mirror of Faith” project, which will be shown again at the “Chimera” exhibition, had premiered at the GARAGE Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. The context at GARAGE was “The Coming World: Ecology as the New Politics. 2030-2100” exhibition, curated by Snezhana Krasteva and Ekaterina Lazareva. In this installation, we presented a genetically modified Transcendental Yeast which carries the human God gene (a mutation of intron 7 in VMAT2 (vesicular monoamine transporter type 2)). According to Professor Dean Hamer, this gene is responsible for human spirituality. His study provoked very strong reactions not only in the world of science, but also in religious circles. For us those social influences are extremely therefore our Transcendental Yeast was presented in a glass reliquary that visitors can get close to using a rubber finger, just like Doubting Thomas who wanted to touch Christ’s wounds to ensure himself he had risen from the dead.
Viewers can also enjoy the murals that are part of the installation and tell the story of the GMO yeast in the same way that we learn about the texts in the Bible through religious murals. Within this quasi-religious-quasi-scientific environment, is shown a film that tells the same story and elaborates on its significance. Interestingly enough, many Russian priests welcomed Hamer’s research, saying that scientists should have proven that “God exists on a physical level” a long time ago. On the contrary, other religious leaders said that faith is the result of social or mystical processes and there’s nothing physical about it.
The opposition between nurture and nature in this project touches upon the problems around possible eugenic programming, which will emerge if we assume everything’s depends on our genes only.
It’s especially problematic when genes are thought to predetermine our behavior. Genetic determinism or every attempt to “proof” that a certain behavior is only genetically predetermined is not only far from scientific, but also opens a wide door to all sorts of obscurantist and fascist ideas of exterminating people who have some “innate” quality or other. For example, another study by Hamer claims there’s a gay gene responsible for homosexuality, and yet another study of his finds that aggression is genetically predetermined. Discussions about those genes range from joy that finally nobody will try to “cure” gays from homosexuality because they were born homosexual, to calls for the extermination and abortion of gay gene carrier fetuses by anti-queer movement leaders.
In our work, we criticize the possibility of using scientific research for commercial or political purposes. It’s important to note that the way scientists talk about genetic predisposition is very cautious and that they emphasize it includes environmental or epigenetic factors. This is true for genetic predisposition to disease, where genetic predetermination is clearly traceable and the environment is related not so much to culture as to lifestyle – like eating, resting and stress levels. But when it comes to genetically predisposed behavior, things become so vague and depend so much on the social environment, rather than on what you eat or your stress levels, that it’s just dangerously unprofessional to claim just one gene determines this behavior. Hamer himself doesn’t talk about his research in the way that newspapers present it to the general public and manipulate our understanding of science. This is precisely our topic – how ideas come out of laboratories and how they turn into politics and why.
Oleg Mavromati and I started this project in 2004, when the first publications on the God gene appeared. It was very difficult to find funding for this project. It was only in 2014 that I won a competition awarding a rather large scholarship under the European Commission-funded Spinoza program dedicated to cooperation between science and art. The condition was to find a scientist in Barcelona with whom I could work during a one-month residency at the Hangar organization. So I got in touch with Dr. Michael Edel, with whom we studied about 30 people from different professional groups. Searching for this God gene, we isolated it from three volunteers, one artist and two scientists, and then genetically modified the yeast. For the premiere in Moscow, I worked with Dr. Heidi Hehnly, with whom we have been doing the so called “Bio-art Mixer” for three years now – a forum at our Syracuse University where scientists and artists share their work. In Russia, I also had a fellow scientist – Katya. Basically, many people were involved, which contributed to the project’s popularity. The exhibition in Moscow showed our work in the context of conversations about the environment in recent years. Thus, our work was connected to other works dedicated to the topics we discussed during the “Chimera” workshop.
At this time of crisis stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, this project has acquired a new aspect. Conspiracy theories have emerged in Russia that Bill Gates wants to develop a vaccine against the virus, but would actually eliminate the God gene with it. This conspiracy is based on a fake video that has been circulating on the Internet for several years, part of which we use in the film dedicated to our “Mirror of Faith” project. In this video, a man gives a presentation at the Pentagon about a vaccine that neutralizes the effect of the God gene, thereby eradicating religious fanatics. The speaker in this video suggests this is how the United States should defeat global terrorism. This is a fake video that doesn’t take place in the Pentagon. It has a long history that I won’t spend time on, but for us it’s a wonderful example of fake news that manipulates a piece of knowledge about science, turning it into a political weapon. This update shows the project’s multilayered nature, as well as the possibility for it to provide a basis for different contexts – from a purely artistic perspective to a view of science through the prism of the humanities and the arts.
Translation: Petar Tsanev
With the support of Sofia Municipality. Initiative “Solidarity in Culture”