Exteriority Complex: Krassimir Terziev’s Outside


A Message from Space in my Backyard, 2009, dual channel video installation, view from the exhibition Territories of the In/Human, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, 2010

by Stanimir Panayotov

Krassimir Terziev, Between the Past that is About to Happen and the Future that Has Already Been, translated into English by Lyubov Kostova, Sofia: Iztok-Zapad and Gaudenz B. Ruf Award for New Bulgarian Art.

“A field of nouns without verbs. It once was a creation in which form followed function, but falls back on earth as a pure form.” – Quotation from Krassimir Terziev, A Message from Space in My Backyard (2008/9) (p. 44)

“What is supposedly left is a white flag standing.” – Quotation from Krassimir Terziev, Thirty-Nine Years Later (2011) (p. 46)

There are two ways to discuss the work of Krassimir Terziev, the maverick of the digital post/media in Bulgarian arts. Either as a representative of a specific national context that befits a global plethora of artistic and conceptual developments, or as the figurehead of a persistent global actuality that can host the national artistic developments. Accordingly, there are two ways to regard his latest, retrospective publication: 25 years in merely 135 pages or 13 years in exactly 135 pages.

This approach of bifurcating the very figure of the artist is no accident. In the first approach (the national), we are stuck with a narrative of telling a local, personified history of contemporary (Bulgarian) art; with the second approach (the global), we are telling a history of an ongoing globality downloaded locally in the artistic imaginary. Even though it is important to highlight that in the past several years we have seen an array of retrospectives in what represents a quarter century of post-socialist arts not only in Bulgaria, but across the Balkans; even though it is true that a single artist’s (thematic) retrospective can and should tell a 25-year long story of an artistic and local download (downloads are always local), and even though we need to acknowledge the importance of the scene’s self-reflective quality, I choose to side with the second approach. Why?

The first approach is indicative of something that recycles a well-known affect in the Bulgarian cultural and political milieus: the inferiority complex, captured in the Inter-War period by Nayden Sheitanov’s essay “The Spirit of Negation in the Bulgarian” (1933), but also in the Serbian vicinity by philosopher Radomir Konstantinović’s Philosophy of the Provincial (1969).  If I speak of Terziev with a “transition narrative” (the formula “25 years of…”) superimposed onto his oeuvre, I perform not only the self-perpetuation of such spirit of negation (Sheitanov’s influential essay itself does just that), but I also engage in an oddly self-colonizing gesture of dooming his work to a pretentious locality, to a righteous interiority. I will be then simply translating interiority into inferiority: for the transition narratives – especially in the context of the serializing language of retrospectives – recast the East-European artist as the avatar of a globality sentenced to a very singular topos, the one of post-socialism, always “catching-up” with the arrogance of Modernity. And this well-rehearsed language not only performs the self-fulfilling prophecy precisely of the inferiority complex welcomed by both a colonial gaze and self-colonized self – it is also about money and funding. We all know that money’s odor is irrelevant, however, art is no Roman toilet. This narrative is stultifying, one that has to decidedly find its new topos, that is, the dumping ground of art history in Eastern Europe. If I have devoted such a long introduction to approaching the artist, it is only because I insist that we need to get rid of the post-socialist toilets of arts history.

Thirty Nine Years Later, 2015, b&w photograph, text, 70/100 cm (framed)

To the second approach: it abdicates from the confines of the interior, dejects the affect of the inferior, and offers the vista of exteriority. Terziev’s work is decidedly work, and then it is the work of exteriority (well beyond what may seem here a purely political trope). Work: because it is both jointing and dissecting – it displays the very process of working as an artist, transcending the self-reflective comment, working as intervention. Exteriority: because his work is nearly always about an Outside, a space of opportunities that is irreducible to artistic or intellectual mastery – it transcends the textualizing and mesmerizing charm of autodidactic poststructuralist gesturality, working as perception. It is a complex work: complexity that narrates to the senses. (I should not remind the reader how difficult this is, for the reader is no inferior to the artist.) As such, this creates a complex exteriority whose thematic clusters I will outline below. But the quality of his works preserves the composite histories of the objects of both expression and analysis (“I would rather retain or emphasize the composite character of each figure,” Vladiya Mihaylova in Conversation with Krassimir Terziev, “The Contradictory Economy of Images and Media,” p. 115): because the object is irreducible to the whole range of expression there is (the “wooden, noisy, often unkempt, and refusing to live up to any of our expectations object on the table, it rules the rhythm of our days,” Mihaylova and Terziev, p. 109), this recasts Terziev’s works as an exteriority complex. Exteriority complex is the artist’s impossibility of enfolding the Big Outside and is at the same time his resistance to its irreducibility down to all and any expressive arsenal. (Remember that Terziev is never depressed by the Outside’s ahistorical weight: hence his artful and Janus-faced flirt with artistic commentary is never a mere “play of differences.”)

A complex exteriority that extends to an exteriority complex, then: in the 135 pages of those 13 years (the edition includes works spanning from 2002 to 2015) the Outside of Terziev’s work displays several space-time slots of analysis, or even “grand narratives.” I have not been left much space to unfold these, given the introductory panorama provided by Iara Boubnova’s introduction (“Sic Transit Media Mundi,” pp. 5-26), but I will venture to add a perspective to hers. There are three big stories this edition tells: one about the gaze (and, by extension, the spectator), another concerns temporal dissonance, and still another deals with spatial dislocation.

The gaze is at the center of Terziev’s interests: he “turns the illusion of seeing into a topic for his works” (Boubnova, p. 15). Let us start with Between the Flashback and Déjà vu (2015), where two installed cameras are instances of (reverse) gazing at “each other” – though never to be sure which one is the “other.” In MoonPalmEarth (2015) we know there is a bifurcated gaze, outside the work, that tries to capture the unsettling familiarity of a planet peeking behind a palm tree, because the artist’s medium does not tell whether this is the Moon or the Earth; so at least two directions, but also another one – that of the gallery perspective, and another one – the televised one. Something similar happens in Untitled (2013): “Terziev offers the exact opposite – to see our planet with all its recognizable continental outlines from the Moon. And to avoid even for a moment being fooled that we are the astronauts, there is that lovely palm blocking the view. Recomposition gives rise to a new genre – visual sarcasm.” (Boubnova, p. 19) Domestification. The First Five Thousand Years (2014) – an installation of modified skeletons that serves as the book’s cover, reminiscencing about the ongoing arts-and-academia Anthropocene and extinction craze – is simply uncanny. The two skeletons – allegedly alienated companions – are meant to be seen as alive and to act out an understanding that, though as artistic vehicles, they are to be seen also as such – whether it is due to what appears to be a skeleton asleep or the other one which embodies a posture of begging (more often than not beggars do not look at you, and then you also do not, so the gaze is minimally implied).[1] The technical implementation of (Self)Tracking Shot (2011) – a technique that becomes the ground for the work itself – in its turn disembodies the very figure of the producer, and yet dismembers him, thus instituting a perspectival perversion, a turning-onto itself that attempts to become the absolute gaze. The gaze is here the concealed blind-spot of analytical mastery – and no less so in A Movie (2004) where the artist keeps the gaze only for himself while producing the movie, leaving the wandering extras seemingly unattended, but carefully documented in the blind-spot (the “canvas”) of their being caught unaware. With This Image (2008) and Fifty-Fifty (2014) another kind of bifurcation evolves: while the first work parodies the spectator’s gaze, by dint of a text that conveys the surreal via the medium of formalism, the latter plunders both the production process and the gaze of the owner/the producer by casting a double of the work that might never be seen by anyone else but the artist: perhaps there is an invisible but all-seeing, mythic gaze here. All of these gaze stories traverse different media: Terziev does not keep the message sacred to any media (suggestive also of his academic background and understanding of post/media theory).

Articulately present, but oddly evasive or outright ambivalent as to the importance of gazing and looking are those works most pertinent to the subject of outer space. It does not merely epitomize the Outside. A recent exhibition, works of which are included here, called Cosmopolis (ICA-Sofia, 2013) deployed in detail Terziev’s interest in space. The space-related works are not always about what I will call later spatial displacement; they also have to do with a ghostly anthropology of the worlds of human remains or the humanless. A Message from Space in My Backyard (2008/9) gives place to the perspective of space junk, rendering somewhat obsolete the very act of space travelling.[2] What are we to make of the agency given to space junk? Thirty-Nine Years Later (2011), a work that offers a “paradigm of the unseen but imaginable” (Boubnova, p. 15), with the brute indifference of an American imperialist space flag gone white and obsolete, gives even more volume to such uncanny agency: the astronaut can do nothing but look and witness the obsolescence of an all-too-human signification that was meant to be political, but all it did left was the white canvas of a superfluous space-travel nationalism, a canvas that betrays purpose.[3] While in A Message… we can hardly grasp where to position the instance of the gaze, in Thirty-Nine… one wonders: who does the gazing? One cannot help but think it is the flag’s work. So Terziev gives at least two vistas for the interpretation of what has now become the powerful tagline of “the agency of matter,” taken up by theory-sensitive artists and curators.

Domestication. The First Five Thousand Years, 2014, view from the exhibition Krassimir Terziev: Between the Past that is About to Happen and the Future that has Already Been, National Gallery, Sofia, 2015

The two other “space-time slots,” or grand narratives, would at first seem even more voluminous than the one just considered, but their ambivalence is discouraging: they are the narratives of temporal dissonance and spatial dislocation. Ambivalence (but also contradiction) derives from intersectionality, as, to be sure, these stories do intersect not only with each other, but also with instances of gazing just discussed. (“Many of my works are born of the collision of controversies. And these controversies are often revealed at the level of various visual languages within a single plain,” Mihaylova and Terziev, p. 111). For example, when the gaze is implied as and produced from within the work itself as a commentary, as in (Self)Tracking Shot, it is the spectacle, and not just the spectator, that is more than implied. Or as in what we can call his “market works” (all devoted to the post-2008 speculative-financial collapse) the larger-than-life building inscriptions (The Markets Are… [2013], God Save… [2012]) contain temporality with their physical robustness. Terziev makes temporality contract: as in the market works, where time is a pointer, but also as in his extra-work, the Troy-movie related series devoted to the figure of the extra, where spatial moves and the financial mapping of the cinema industry suspend the sense of time and create a vacuum (produced by “the air of hyper-reality to which the extras were exposed during filming,” Mihaylova and Terziev, p. 117). Particularly in his video works, as Boubnova points out, there is also a “‘hanging’ in time” (p. 9) that lingers on after the aesthetic experience. There is also a typology of time: the artist’s statement on A Message… implies there is Eastern and Western time, as in the development of Soviet and Western space programmes. Time bifurcated: as the idle idyll of Central (2015) and as the public work performed by Monument of the Time Elapsed (2013). Temporal disjointedness is no wonder for “transitional societies”: in many ways the interview conducted by art historian and curator Vladiya Mihaylova (pp. 107-124) drives us through the competing lanes of temporality present in Terziev’s oeuvre (see especially pp. 114-15). In her Introduction, Boubnova also pertinently notes the relation between transitional time and new media (p. 7).

If time is so discretely, yet persistently divided, accelerated and reversed, what would be really spatial dislocation? It is no secret that there is a resilient topophobia in western systems of thought. It is in this sense that spatial dislocation is derivative of temporal contraction and subtraction in Terziev. It is also what perhaps produced the phrase “contradictory economy” in the interview’s title. This is too diverse a line to track, but in works as different as the Troy projects, the market works (and these two series have to be reconsidered as intimately related, of which there is no space here), including the performance On Crisis with Rhythm in collaboration with composer Gheorghi Arnaoudov (2012), space is the paragon of disappearance. Whether space is shrinking to the quality of efficacy as in the Troy series, of which World Routes Map is part of, whether the latter’s flattening out of economic determinism to a Deleuzo-Guattarian faciality, or whether having the same motif rehearsed differently in Blank (2013), where faciality is indeed expressive of superficiality – that of the national imaginary lodged in the map, where the bas-relief of superficiality becomes the high-relief of faciality, to Baudrillard’s Why Has Not Everything Disappeared? Terziev seems to pit the following answer: because materiality is invertible and reversible, decomposable, yet composite media, and not even the most annihilating celerity could efface it. Matter is spacemattering (Karen Barad). Its irreducibility is no depression, neither is it merely our fate of textuality. The apotheosis of this inherent resistance to textual and self-reflective sense of doom is Space Enlargement Tool (2010), where the measure of something in-between а Vernier caliper and a goniometer is the rule of both the work of art and its constituent environment.

Gaze, time, (outer) space, space: in all of these “slots” of working out an irreducible exteriority, the Outside is denuded, with a moderate visual pessimism. Very little of this denuding work is self-indulging to the point of ritualizing some great immanence expressive of the aesthetics of silence and reticence. With Between the Past that is About to Happen and the Future that Has Already Been Terziev elegantly indexes the domination of the Inside in artistic practice, but he is not humbled by it. And this is why I call his work exteriority complex: it is not a complex to be resolved once and for all, but to be procedurally (I would not say “therapeutically”) addressed.[4] “[A] shot enclosed in the trajectory of its own movement” (p. 72) is not the same as art enclosed in the trajectory of its own movement. As Boubnova sees this: “the artist argues that despite everything illusion does indeed change reality” (p. 11).

There is something about the use of facts and data in Terziev’s work that traverses both the pedantic and the formalistic. 135 pages, 13 years, 39 years, the first 5000 years: all the work of counting is the work of exteriorizing the complex artistic mind of self-reflexivity. In that, Terziev is oddly pre-emptive: indulgent, and yet resistant to the allure of artistic immanence and auto-commentary. He has acted so for more than 13 years, but this edition seals the process between the pages and bears witness as to why we can call him a digital post-media maverick. By way of data – both sense-data and info-data – Terziev is a counter-intuitive, evasive betrayer of locality: he can tell big stories about minoritizing phenomena, about decomposition and deconstruction. And he does so regardless of time and space, tunneling into their Outside.


[1] Both begging and the title of this work beg us to link it to David Graeber’s Debt. The First Five Thousand Years, published in 2011. The economic reference, however, comes to fruition via another narrative, see below.

[2] Terziev’s artistic work on space junk is, in a way, complementary of Myra Hird’s academic work on landfills or Greg Kennedy’s on the ontology of trash.

[3] But, as Boubnova warns, “[w]e are all becoming extras, Krassimir Terziev warns us through his works” (p. 25) – and this is not an artistic statement advocating the deistic dream of a humanless world, but a pessimistic credo of superfluity. As the artist himself has it: “humans are but minor and helpless, and … the price of their presence beyond the Earth’s orbit is devastating” (Mihaylova and Terziev, p. 109).

[4] In an essay on Gadamer’s insistence on artistic truth, Jean Grondin describes in a more generic way what I tried to convey throughout this text: “The hegemonic claim of scientific truth had painted the aesthetic experience in a corner. It was confined to the margins of truth and science and could only define itself through this predicament imposed upon it by modern science. The ‘inferiority complex’ of the aesthetic actually amounted to an ‘exteriority complex,’ since it was excluded from all matters of truth. It had to recognize that its predicament was ‘merely aesthetic,’ but it tried to put a positive twist on things by celebrating the aesthetic dimension as such. From now on, there would be such a thing as an independent aesthetic consciousness, with its own logic, requirements and institutions.” Jean Grondin, “Gadamer’s Aesthetics. The Overcoming of Aesthetic Consciousness and the Hermeneutical Truth of Art,” in: Michael Kelly (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Vol. 2, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 270.

About the Author:

Stanimir Panayotov is a PhD student in comparative gender studies at CEU, Budapest, working on the relationship between desire and space in ancient cosmologies and Plato. His research interests and published work are centered round issues in feminist and continental philosophy, queer theory and gender studies. He is also a freelance translator and has translated numerous articles from the same fields (Sedgwick, Fuss, Butler, A. Rich, etc.), and books by Peter Berger, Wendy Brown, Jasna Koteska, David M. Halperin and McKenzie Wark. Stanimir has also been involved in numerous projects in Bulgaria and Macedonia related with queer issues and has served as a queer activist for various projects and organizations. He is also part of Social Center Xaspel and New Left Perspectives in Sofia, and is co-organizer of Sofia Queer Forum (Sofia) and Summer School for Sexualities, Cultures and Politics (Belgrade).