Christine Foteva in conversation with American artist Meredith Drum

Meredith Drum

Meredith Drum


Christine Foteva: What expectations about the art scene in Bulgaria did you have before coming to Sofia? Have they changed? 

 Meredith Drum: I did not have set expectations of the artists that I would encounter in Bulgaria as I imagined that I would see a range of works. And this has been my experience. But to back up a bit, for many years I have been friends with two Bulgarian artists based in New York City: Eva Davidova and Daniela Kostova. And I met Albena Baeva, who lives in Sofia, when she was in the US as part of a CEC ArtsLink residency about seven years ago. These three artists produce projects which share overlapping concerns regarding social, environmental, economic, and gender justice. While each owns a distinctive style, they all ride the edge of surrealism and tend to produce visually complex and playful work. Moreover, they are all excellent craftswomen. Perhaps my exposure to the three of them led me to expect to see more work like theirs, which I might have. What is certain is that I saw a wide range of projects by emerging artists and more mature creators in Sofia – all of it clever and interesting. 


Система за оповестяване на паметника, AR App, документация 1, 2022 г.

Monument Public Address System, AR App, documentation 1, 2022


C.F.: Your interest in monuments from the time of socialism remained constant – you were interested in them even before your arrival here and you continue to work on a project related to the Monument to the Soviet Army.  Tell us more about the project. 

 M.D.: I applied to CEC ArtsLink to develop a project about monuments in Bulgaria from the communist period because of a project that I am creating in the US. At home, I have been working for three years on a multi-media initiative focused on confederate and colonial monuments. As reported in international news, the brutal and unjust death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer emboldened and expanded the already powerful Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Across the country protestors marched through the streets demanding political action and justice; as they did so they pulled down confederate and colonial monuments and/or sprayed them with graffiti. The protestors were expressing a perspective that I also consider true: that these monuments are unambiguous symbols of the U.S.’s violently racist present and past.  

As I have been immersed in the specifics of public art in the US, I came to Bulgaria to pause that project and learn about public opinion of the soviet monuments. I imagined that this experience would grant me a valuable perspective on my work in the US. And it has.  

While the situation with soviet monuments in Bulgaria is structurally similar to that in the US, the historical narratives and political contexts are completely different.  While I have learned that Sofia’s Soviet Army Monument is disliked, even hated, by many citizens, it has value to others. I speculate that some may value it in accord with their pro-Russian political views but others, who are clearly not pro-Russian, seem to value it for more subtle, cultural reasons. In contrast, while I, and many others who have politics similar to my own, see the confederate and colonial monuments in the US as unequivocally negative, in Sofia the Soviet Army Monument’s meaning might be equivocal across the political spectrum.  

 Yet, from my perspective, the thorniest problem with the monument is the association that I sense between it and Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. It brings to mind Putin’s twisting of WWII history which he is using to justify his violent invasion. From this perspective, Sofia’s Soviet Army Monument is certainly a contested space. 

Finally, to get to the specifics of my artistic response: during my month in Sofia, I met and spoke with about 25 artists, architects, and curators about the monument and I listened carefully to their opinions. Now I am reaching out to each of them again to gather their words and imagery which I will assemble into an augmented reality work set virtually around the Soviet Army Monument. I will return to Sofia in October to present the finished collaboration.  

 I have also been working on an animation about the monument. This animation references an art work from 1993 by Bulgarian artist Lyuben Kostov, titled Collages of a Mound as Metaphor. I read about Kostov’s work in Maria Vassileva’s excellent book Art for Change, 1985 – 2015. Kostov’s piece is a series of photographs of the Soviet Army Monument that appear to be animation stills showing the monument gradually being covered by a large mound of dirt. Kostov imagined covering the monument with soil and letting future generations decide its fate. I think that this is a brilliant speculative solution to the problems presented by this disputed sculpture. 

Monument Public Address System, AR App, documentation 2, 2022


C.F.: At the moment, dynamic endeavours of rethinking history are taking place in the USA and Europe, and very often they actualise through the destruction of monuments and murals. What is your take on this? Do you believe that altering these monuments’ symbolism through art is a better way of dealing with their painful connotations? And would it be enough? 

M.D.: To your question of whether or not problematic monuments should be destroyed or removed, I think that each should be considered individually. The people who live near and around the monument should be part of the process of deciding what to do. In my experience, it is best if local community groups, local governments, local artists and writers work together through a collaborative process. Outside voices can also play productive roles. A planner, leader, scholar or artist from one location may collaborate with colleagues in another. With my project, this is what I am trying to do – that is I have been reaching out to Bulgarian artists in order to co-create a work responding to the Soviet Army Monument. 

 You ask “would this be enough?” No, I do not think that cultural projects – even if they incorporate aspects of the social sciences – can resolve social-political issues. But they can contribute to well-designed, multi-faceted solutions. 

Monument Public Address System, AR App, documentation 4, 2022


C.F.: What are your thoughts on political correctness and artistic freedom? Serious discussions are currently taking place in the Document regarding this matter. How to protect ourselves from self-censorship in the contemporary world? 

 M.D.: My perspective is that censorship of any artwork is wrong unless a fair debate, between the artists who created the work and the stakeholders who disapprove of it, concludes in an agreement that the work contains hate speech or imagery equivalent to hate speech. From this standpoint, I understand why ruangrupa, the collective who created documenta 15, agreed to remove the “People’s Justice” banner. Apparently the banner contained antisemitic caricatures, thus it seems fair for it to be taken down.  

At the same time, I disagree with the German government’s condemnation of artists who support the B.D.S. (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. Support for B.D.S. is strong in the international art world. My approval of the movement is similar to that of many of my peers in that we regard Israel as a colonial bully unjustly occupying Palestinian territory. Holding this opinion does not mean that one is prejudiced against the Jewish people of Israel. I understand that many politicians in the German government attack B.D.S. as they think the movement challenges the existence of Israel. But my sense is that B.D.S. instead challenges the current policies of Israel and is asking for the state to change in order to protect the rights of Palestinians. There is much more to this. But to return to my original statement, my perspective is that documenta artists who support B.D.S. are not engaging in hate speech against Jewish people. Therefore, their work should not be censored by the German government.  

 While debate about political art is often healthy, the documenta artists and the German government seem to be in a stalemate. Of course, the exhibition will be up for a bit longer so there is hope that the two sides can push past this block and engage productively.  

Monument Public Address System, AR App, documentation 5, 2022


C.F.: You mainly work with virtual augmented reality. How does the digital space help us to better understand the physical? 

M.D.: Actually, I don’t think that augmented reality has the ability to clarify or illuminate the physical in any manner that a physical object or event cannot. Rather AR can be employed, if made with critical intent, to help one think about the physical world in relation to the digital world. Many humans no longer experience the physical without the digital. I am interested in using mobile AR projects – projects experienced with cell phones or tablets and not headsets – to interrupt the norms that people have developed. For example, when in public space people often use their phones to distract them from their surroundings. My AR projects invite participants to use their mobile devices as an interactive window to explore and learn about the physical. The narratives and visual materials I present are intended to encourage them to think critically about the built and natural environments around them. Thus, my AR projects do offer a new understanding of the physical but I want to clarify that I think similar results can be achieved through physical interventions – performances, sound installations, sculptures, etc. Specifically, I choose to use mobile AR as I am interested in altering how humans typically use technology. While the process of producing mobile AR is technically difficult, especially because the technology is continually changing, I appreciate the work as it keeps me up to date with what is happening with mobile media – a cultural realm that is enormously influential. 


Monuments Dissected, Installation, documentation 1, 2022


C.F.: By offering a new understanding of the physical, what does the mobile AR project that you are currently working on in Bulgaria, aims to achieve in relation to the understanding of the symbolism, freedom of interpretation and artistic value of the Monument of the Soviet Army, which you talked about earlier?  

M.D.: I have to admit that the process of making this project about the Soviet Army Monument has been a challenge. Much of my difficulty has to do with the short time that I had to prepare. It was not until late April this year that I received the email inviting me to the residency and I was to arrive in Sofa on the first of July. Of course, I had been thinking about the countries of the former Soviet Bloc for months as part of my application to CEC ArtsLink. Still, I was not sure if I would be granted the residency and, if granted, to which country I would be invited, thus I had not yet begun intensive research. I only had two months before arriving to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could, about Bulgarian monuments from the Soviet era. I want to be clear that I am truly grateful to CEC ArtsLink for this residency. It has been wonderful. I simply have struggled with the lack of preparation time. 

Despite this, my July residency was rich in terms of the interpersonal connections that I established with artists, curators, producers, and thinkers. I am thankful to Maria Vassileva for the numerous introductions that she facilitated. I would not be able to make this project without her. All of the individuals I met in Sofia have had an impact on me, but I will mention four. 

 Boryana Rossa, who I encountered at the opening of her solo exhibition at Sofia’s National Gallery in July, was an excellent contact. We later met a couple of times during which we engaged in lively discussions about the communist period in Bulgaria. One of our meetings occurred at the Museum of Art from the Socialist Period, which houses work made between 1944-1989. The museum allowed me to study some of the aesthetic styles and social concerns of the prominent artists of this era. I was intrigued to learn that these artists were supported by the state, and that funding for artists who were part of the art union was very generous, as long as they did not challenge the government. Boryana also told me about the artist Vaska Emanouilova (1905-1985) and explained that she was one of the six artists who designed the sculptures that comprise the Soviet Army Monument. Later, I visited the city gallery dedicated to Emanouilova’s work and enjoyed learning about her life, which seems to have been positive and productive with the aid of state funding. Boryana also provided me with a valuable personal perspective on life under the socialist government as she explained the beneficial qualities of state-supported education, health care, employment, and women’s empowerment.  

Another individual who has impacted my project is Krasimira Butseva, a young artist whose visual research about photography produced by Bulgaria’s State Security was on exhibit both at Structura Gallery and at the Sofia City Art Gallery in July. The careful, theoretically-rich qualities of Krasimira’s installations granted me a deeper understanding of the State Security’s intrusive, often hostile surveillance of Bulgarian citizens and the sometimes violent and unjust results. 

I also benefited from meeting Nikola Mihov and learning about his book Forget Your Past which contains his photographs of socialist monuments in Bulgaria. I was especially interested in a collaboration that he produced where he invited 30 artists to appropriate, intervene and/or otherwise make something new with the images from this book. Moreover, it was through Nikola and his girlfriend Jenny Decheva that I met Viktoria Draganova, the director of Swimming Pool, a non-profit gallery in Sofia that focuses on research-rich art projects. 

Viktoria’s intelligence as a curator impressed me and I have learned a great deal from reading the essays that she publishes in her Journal for Social Vision. Viktoria also kindly offered me a seat in her car to drive to Prishtina, Kosovo for the opening of Manifesta 14. The exhibitions in Prishtina were incredibly thought-provoking. But it was the drive to and from Kosovo and the discussions in her car – which not only contained Viktoria and me but also a Ukrainian curator based in the US and a Bulgarian curator based in Italy – which enabled me to more deeply understand Bulgarian culture and politics in relation to the monument.

 Regarding the intended impact of my augmented reality project, I will have to respond to this question after I am finished with it. I am still producing the work and plan to return to Sofia in mid-October to present it.  


Monuments Dissected, Installation, documentation 2, 2022


C.F.: You have worked vastly with mobile AR and created projects like “Monument Public Address System” and “Pandora’s Snatch AR” in the U.S. What are your impressions on the way the public perceives new technologies in relation to art?  

M.D.: It has been exciting for me to witness the slow but steady acceptance of new technologies – VR, AR, digital animation, games, web projects – by contemporary art museums, galleries, and biennials. Digital animation has been part of the international pavilions of the last three Venice Biennales and it is notable that Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s virtual reality work Endodrome was included in the 2019 Biennale. When I first started using creative technologies, in 2004, this acceptance was only just beginning and I felt isolated from my peers who were working in more accepted forms. I am happy that this isolation has ended. It was especially gratifying for me, since I work with augmented reality, to learn that the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) began commissioning AR projects from artists in 2020. Art critics, with notable exceptions, have been a bit slower than cultural institutions to warm to new technologies, thus maybe the general public is also lagging behind. But I do not mind as it is more important that curators and collectors are supportive. Their support allows the field of creative technologies to evolve – formally, aesthetically, and conceptually. 

With my own work, I balance my use of emerging technologies by creating installations, videos, and publications and producing public art events. With my Oyster City Project (2012-2015), my collaborator and I created an augmented reality walking tour that allowed participants to learn about the ecology of oyster reefs in New York Harbor. Based on the same research, we also produced Fish Stories Community Cookbook, a physical, published book that includes recipes, drawings, and ecological information contributed by New Yorkers. With my current monuments project in the US, in addition to the augmented reality app, I also produced an interactive installation titled Monuments Dissected. I commissioned a piece of music for it which plays in the installation as visitors explore the physical elements – a video sculpture, an interview archive, and a drawing table where people are invited to draw public art to replace the removed monuments. These extended physical interactions with individuals and communities are essential for me. I am a social person and I cannot stand to be stuck alone with my computer for too many hours.  

 Another thing that keeps me sane is working playfully. While my monuments project is serious, I also make lighter work. This spring I was part of an initiative called #MakeUsVisible which invited 30 female or non-gender conforming artists to make AR sculptures to place in front of monuments to men in New York City. I was assigned the Prometheus statue in Rockefeller Center. For my annotation to Prometheus, I made Pandora’s Snatch, an animated virtual jar that, when opened, spews life-giving symbols. The jar is adorned with symbols for women’s vaginas, as I wanted to present Pandora as a life-affirming goddess instead of a weak woman with a jar of trouble and sorrow, as she is usually depicted. And at the moment I am making an absurd animation in response to Albena Baeva’s invitation to work with her Solidarity Machine. This is definitely a fun process. 

August 2022


Pandora’s Snatch, AR App, XR Ensemble web-page screen shot, 2022


Oyster City, AR App, Governors Island NYC documentation 1, 2015


Fish Stories Community Cookbook, documentation 1, 2015