I love residencies, especially in new and far flung places. The feeling of being both a stranger and on the edge of everything is stimulating and exciting. The logistics and practical details of the residency in Plovidv in 2019 are as follows:-

Place: Plovdiv, Bulgaria (European Capital of Culture 2019)
Host: 29 th Process Space Art Festival
Application: by invitation of curator who I met on a previous project. (application details on their website)
Length: 2 weeks in May 2019
Artists: 12 – from Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, Poland, UK
Guest artists: 2
Curators: 2
Assistant curator: 1
Venue: Gallery Resonance
Funding: accommodation, most meals, some materials paid by sponsor / no artists fee or transport expenses
Workshops: 2 (how to use Audible software, how to use resin)
Sponsors: Plovdiv Municipality + Family Bobokova
Ambience: sociable, communal, friendly, heuristic, hands off, supportive, trusting.


Wed 29
Before leaving the UK I found a few architectural tours that looked worth investigation so decide today will be a day of action. I look online for alternative Plovdiv and find a map of in the city which will take me round the the buildings made during a brief period when a couple of architects were inspired by and made their own Bauhaus style buildings. This tour takes me out towards the south east of the city and I come across a few soviet style administrative buildings en route, their scale and geometric surface decoration do not quite overpower the buildings around them but add to the rich texture and variety of the cityscape.
Much of the city is in the stye of French second empire style, 3 and 4 story buildings with tall windows and shutters, elaborate floral decorations, painted in soft blues, pink and ochre.
Pavements, railings, gates are all elaborately patterned and brightly coloured. I find about 5 buildings which have distinctive Bauhaus features, airy and rounded balconies, regular plain facades, flat rooves and yet there is not a white wall in sight ! These colourful houses, like many others elsewhere in Europe, are often private commissions and set on the edges of cities. In Plovdiv however they are rarely elegantly sited on large landscaped plots like Le Corbusier’s villas, but sit hunched up alongside other suburban villas that vary in age and style. I roam around their edges photographing their good sides, their weird side entrances and their profiles, though I’m not sure why I am attracted to these buildings. They follow a clear sense of purpose and function which is appealing yet these particular examples break some modernist rules, appear lived in (rather than being machines for living) and exude a lived-in-ness, being embedded in vegetation, decorated with abandoned bikes and garden chairs, and entered via rusty gates, like a regular house.

After midday we get into the gallery, it is rather late and the floating fabric piece looks too small in the space, the fans are working but the whole thing lacks visual drama. As a form of space interrupted it is flimsy. I am sharing the space with N who somehow got in the day before and stretched his massive black and gold drawing all around the walls, dominating the space. People like the work but it’s not disruptive enough. I need about 30 metres of fabric to create the necessary drama, but it is a concept that I can return to at a later date.

There are many artists in a fairly small space and it fills up quickly, overflowing by U.K. standards, but it looks dynamic and there is a pleasing sense of energy. The work takes many forms and represents a range of experiences including a sound piece of local conversation, watercolour paintings that are residues from a performance, pavement rubbings, wooden sculptures, spectral photographs, neatly arranged disembodied sleeves, a slide show of olympic futile endeavours, body scans. It is very hot in the gallery and I spend the day trying this and that, up and down a ladder, cleaning, fixing, unfitting, redoing, trying something else. I quite enjoy this time, being suspended in time and space, but I know I can’t make it bigger. By 5 it is done and the gallery looks good- buoyant and vibrant, not everything is resolved or finished but it feels alive.

Hot, weary and with the stormy weather drawing in we hunker down with pizzas, beer and rakia. We watch artists’ films, listen to music and watch the assistant curator’s the slides of his outdoor pursuits – maneuvering kayaks, walking up ragged mountains, climbing frozen waterfalls, swimming in dark rivers and photographing smiling children who have eaten their dog and this last slide quietens us with shock.

The last day, we are all a little distracted, wanting to finish and finalise work in the gallery. So much rain has fallen that the roads are ankle deep in water. Lying in bed listening to the rain on the roof I suddenly think of a way to complete what I am now calling, the stones in my pocket project – I will deliver the the wrapped stones back to their place of origin and photograph them. This could lead to a small book. They don’t really fit in my pocket so I stuff them in a bag, they are really heavy. I dart around the city between showers, placing them carefully back where I found them, and then stand back to take photographs of them in their new guise. I feel a little self conscious scrabbling around on the ground but most people are too busy to notice. This feels better than trying to resolve the unimpressiveness of my attempts to defy gravity with a piece of fabric in the gallery. I save a handful of wrapped stones to exhibit in the gallery – they look modest but steady. Here I am again though, facing my tendency to be excited by everything, squeezing a lot into a little time, and overreaching myself and realising this rather late in the day!

The rain continues and we hang around the hostel in a listless way. I pack my bags again and again. H tells me that her driver will take me to the airport. At 6 we venture back to the gallery for the PV – it looks alive and people are peering at the work. But I have to say goodbye and leave for the once the week flight out of Plovdiv. There is a pleasing feeling of communal effort, shared endeavour and mutual appreciation – good notes to leave on. The white knuckle drive to the airport is thrilling; the driver is negotiating evening traffic, driving rain, and enormous puddles all whilst checking his phone every 3 minutes. He grins at me in a friendly way when we get stranded briefly in a torrent of water that engulfs the car. I feel very small in the big seat of his big black car and I sit very still. He leaves me at the small new airport and I buy a small bitter coffee and sit quietly waiting for my flight.


Monday 27
Head north today towards the Maritsa river and cross the enclosed river bridge. Tiny shops line the bridge so the river is invisible, the shops sell dresses, sportswear, mobile phones and tired women stand around talking. On the far side I admire the decorative horizontal bands above windows on the facade of the Grand Hotel Plovdiv. Its scale and bold geometry suggest an optimistism for the future

As I walk westward I notice numerous concrete rubbish bins and decide today’s project will be to photograph them. They have a monumental form yet remain mundane and easily overlooked. I notice that the bins have varying shapes and patterns in different parts of the city, some have minutely textured surfaces, others are boldly patterned. From a low viewpoint they retain a certain authority of form against the dull grey sky.

Lying down in the Archaeological Museum car park are 2 cats who look quite tired, their feet are dirty and they lift their heads slowly to give me a blank stare. Beyond the museum is an open square and in the centre, elevated on a plinth of shallow steps, stands the monument to Bulgarian Unification (1885). Having shaken off the shackles of Turkish and Russian occupation the sculptor Velichko Minekov portrays unification as female and sturdy, holding the wreath of victory aloft, flanked by enormous wings – she is about to take off, held back only by the leaden weight of the bronze. A group of school children run around her feet in the dull afternoon heat.

Going away from the city I walk towards the river, where the banks are engulfed in vivid green vegetation, the river itself a slippery black ribbon in the distance. It is still and hot, the sky presses down and I rest on a bench, watch the river, eat strawberries and sip the tepid water in my flask.
I search for Plovdiv Stadium, but get lost, backtrack and finally find it. A massive squat cylinder looms ahead surrounded by tall racket shaped lighting banks, without bulbs. Vertical strands of yellow steel hold horizontal concrete forms in tension. Three tracksuited men casually saunter out through the massive doors, their red faces suggesting activity. Inside sprinklers rock back and forth spraying the central grass arena, but the seating, which is just stepped tiers of naked concrete, is overgrown with sickly weeds. The red running track looks new and used – a part time stadium for action rather than spectators.
Further west is a vast manmade body of still water and while small freckled fish nibble at the weeds at the edges, the far distant oarsmen slowly, rhythmically row back to the boat house. I sit and watch the dark water, the slow- motion movement of the rowers and a girl who sits very still on the landing stage staring out.

Walking back to town and because I am more sure of the way, there is time to think about what it is am doing, reflect on how being an artist in residence works for me. Until now it has felt rather random, and me, restless, but I discern a pattern and methodology. Daily lists and excursions help shape a structure for exploration, facilitate the collection of images, impressions and experiences. Perhaps I am a flaneur roaming here and there, collecting sedimented histories, visual clues and fleeting impressions in order to orient myself. Place and space, time and matter, image and form meet me, sometimes head on, other times quietly in the shadows and out of this nebulous ‘collecting’ process something begins to grow. I see-saw between enthusiasm and panic.

This evening’s presentations are by the Bulgarian artists. M is first and his work has a strong graphic quality, industrial and in part elemental. Metalwork and minimalism come together as overarching metaphors.Paintings by I are strong, abstracted heads are framed by rectangles and squares or cut off from their bodies to float around the canvas. Real life seeps in through abstract forms and paint itself drips down the paper. The founder of this Project D shows his work next. It harks back to an industrial materiality, rough and tender surfaces vie for attention on flattened sculpture or beaten panels. Lastly its P, who’s work is like her, energetic and humorous skillful but not precious, seemingly light yet always thought provoking.

The evening meal is pasta, rakia, beer and afterwards we play boules using the torchlight from a mobile phone, and the Canadian artist introduces us to a very complicated scoring system.

Tuesday 28
A quiet start to the day with strawberries and cherries for breakfast and then spend a slow and reflective morning wrapping stones in fabric and sewing them. They look ok, the sewing is soothing but the results lack finesse and feel dated; they are tactile though and people want to pick them up.

At 2 pm N creates her performance on a rough bit of land near-by. She and others have spent the morning clearing bottles and rubbish to create a flat stage like space for her. It is dramatic, N is poised and in another world, she pours coloured water over the canvases on the ground and attached to the fence, and over herself. She sings in an unearthly way as she moves around the stage and we are all entranced. The heat bounces up from the rocks and insects buzz around our feet.

In the late afternoon I wander around a local supermarket, interested to see if Bulgarian mascara is more exotic or exciting than an English one – but there is only Maybelline. The allure of goods and artifacts from cultures different from our own works both ways I guess. At the end of the day we gather and have a BBQ in the garden. Charred meat is complemented with massive salads and washed down with beer and rakia. Am so tired.


Saturday 26 May
Have now got 4 fans to test my experiment, to keep my length of fabric horizontal, yet moving and causing a disruption. I spend much of the day seeing if I can improve the upward flow of air.

This evening we eat pizza in the garden, it is relaxing to eat outside and we move around from table to table, talking and eating. Our neighbours, whose many crude, rough cast concrete balconies I admire, make things with metal at the end of their garden. This garden is short and somehow high above ours and we can see the sparks fly from the open door of their welding workshop. Sometimes they sit outside on a floppy sofa, drinking beer and listening to heavy metal music or piano concertos.

Sunday 27 May
I walk alone to the old town with no real aim, it’s buzzing with families eating ice cream. I wonder aimlessly up the hill and then catch sight of a Bauhaus style house. I walk up the steps to take a closer look and take photos of the curving balconies, but then get caught up with the caretaker of the old church in front of the Bauhaus style house. He thinks I’m taking pictures of his church and asks if I want to go in. He unlocks the door and I go into the cool, dark space that is small and square with no seats; it smells of wood and incense. Opposite the door is a glinting icon, it is St Nicholas. His dark skinned face and chest are outlined with a silver halo; his hands are three dimensional and also made of silver.

I visit the art gallery housed in an old crimson building on the hight street. The art inside is wieghted with recent history, old stories of poverty, powerlessness and invisibility plus more recent ones of domestic violence and computer viruses.

On the way back I collect more stones and rubble, this begins to feel more relevant somehow. I sit awhile in the park watching the old men meeting, the familys walking and listen to the strange bird calls.


Thursday 23 May
This morning all the artists gather in the gallery, each looking for the ideal spot to put their work. I am drawn to the airy extension space which has a loose pebbly floor, horizontal beams and glass roof. It feels calm. I am to share this space with the guy from Sophia who is anxious that my work won’t interfere with his 6m long drawing – a parade of stylized women their their heads cut off and their bodies decorated with gold spots – we will see !

Back at the hostel I experiment with the levitating fabric idea, using a number of fans which require constant adjustment to hold aloft the 5 metres of flimsy white fabric – it’s hard to keep it all up in the air at one time and I feel rather disappointed – I need more fans, more fabric, more space … it kind of works but I the fabric never completely leaves the ground. The relationship between materials, location and concept is nebulous.

This afternoon the Czech artist and I have arranged to go back to the abandoned stadium. P wants me to film her in black sporting gear doing something vaguely olympic in this enormous and unfinished amphitheatre. We creep through the buckled metal fence at the back of the stadium and enter the arena via a shady concrete opening beneath a zig zagging staircase. We plan hoola-hoop activities, judge distances, timing and shots. I stand in the middle of the arena as P climbs up and up, then she stands upright holding her green and gold hoola hoop aloft; she is tiny against the the serried banks of seating. We swap places, the heat bounces off the concrete and P becomes a small dot she walks away from me. Amongst the weeds in the center of the arena, P’s hoola hoop spins around her waist in short spurts.

Brexit is a shadowy thing in the background, and I begin to see the UK through the eyes of others. May is on the verge of resigning and people here are genuinely interested in what will happen if Johnson becomes the next PM. The artist from Sophia checks the news on his phone regularly and quizzes me on the details, I haven’t a clue. The German artists express their desire for us to stay in the EU, they don’t understand why we wouldn’t want to be part of a project that has ensured peace in Europe since the end of the second world war and aims to ensure its citizens have a decent life ? it’s all rather embarrassing. In this artists’ bubble we are collegiate, respectful, inquisitive, generally generous, convivial and mostly non- judgmental, it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to be anything else! Feel hopelessly naive.

Friday 25 May
Breakfast this morning is a glorious mix of cheesy pastries, melons and strawberries, I eat them with S, who is always up early, and we chat as we eat under the umbrella in the garden. P and I return to the abandoned stadium and sit in the shade amongst prickly weeds talking and laughing, making stupid jokes about about our plans and projects. The sky lightens and we start to take more photographs, we cavort around the stadium with hoopla-hoops, making shapes against the stepped concrete, suggesting a passion for health and fitness 1940’s style that neither of us possess; we are bad at hoola hooping (though the photos look quite convincing) but we are quite successful at holding hoops aloft, holding them this way and that to make interesting shapes

I’ve started collecting things as I walk around the city. I have a number of stones and rocks, broken pieces of architecture gathered from significant sites,but not sure where this might lead. Instinctively I begin to wrap, sew and glue the fabric from the second hand shop to and around the stones – women’s work (weaving and sewing) encasing men’s work (building and engineering) perhaps. The fabrics I have collected refer to the many cultures found in Plovdiv – for Bulgaria red and green embroidery, for Turkey rich patterns, for Rome white cotton, Soviet – red wool.


Tues 21 May
It’s hot already so I make an early start and head out east towards the cemetery (an old family habit). It is huge, scruffy and busy. Shoulder high wildflowers sprawl across the site, littering the paths, choking the graves. Everywhere I look there are crimson poppies, marigolds, pink mallow and something tall with tiny yellow flowers. People are milling around with fresh flowers, buckets of water and brooms.

Further south is a nearly complete, but now abandoned stadium. Strutting rusty steel rods poke reach towards the sky, and twin staircases illustrate their mode of production, one all skeletal rods and the other solidified with concrete. Half baked and semi erect it is an oasis of calm but I can see no way in and my photographs don’t convey its sleeping grandeur.

Back at the hostel we meet up and then walk crocodile fashion to a local gallery for presentations by M and R. It’s cool in the gallery where we are invited to look into a room of serious children who are standing at easels making large paintings inspired by their favourite painters. We assemble in another cooler darker gallery where the work of the self taught Encho Pironkov is hung. A member of the Plovdiv school in the 60’s, his paintings hang heavily on the walls around us, the subject and the paint fighting to gain the upper hand.

M presents a European wide project, a video version of exquisite corpse. Each artist responds to a few frames from the previous artist and then adds something of their own- this is really interesting and I’d like to try it ! The images flow and flood the screen, sounds leapfrog over each other and meaning makes a fleeting appearance.

Then R talks keenly about her collage, she is quite sciency in her approach and explains how the process of cutting out one image to insert into another is something akin to the holes found in the space-time continuum. I feel a bit confused, understanding the idea intuitively rather than verbally, yet she is knowledge about the physics of this and we are all straining to keep up.

On one of the many hills surrounding the city we find a a busy restaurant and we sit at one long table looking out over the buildings amassed in regular patterns below us. Waiters in embroidered waistcoats serve our food as the sun begins to sink, again, behind the distant mauve hills.

Wed 22 May
I head to the west of the city in search of some brutalist architecture. After a few misguided detours I walk along along the tree lined path which leads to the Relaxation and Culture Park. Ahead is a low white structure, crouching like a spider on an open expanse of concrete -the Fraternal Barrow Memorial Complex – where rest the bones of the fallen from numerous wars and occupations and broadly celebrating Bulgarian independence from the Turks and the Soviets. Angular arms of concrete plunge into the earth and form a subterranean circular stage which is lined with clunky figures that are lit by sharp triangles of sunlight. The angular panels are decorated with orange, pink and green graffiti tags. Under the shade of a nearby tree I sit and eat cherries, watching the people pass. I look at the children on bikes, with dolls prams, laughing in groups or skipping along with families.

Atop the Liberators Hill is a 15m tall soviet soldier statue, the Alyosha monument. I can’t avoid him he is right in the path on my way back. Commemorating the 1944 Soviet invasion of Bulgaria towards the end of the Second World War, he is also insistent reminder of recent occupation. It is very hot as I climb the uneven steps that run up and up past crumbling stone cottages. The air is scented with honeysuckle and jasmine and at the top teenage boys lark around in the Alyosha’s deep shadow as the city glints and glimmers below.

I point at and buy a random pastry at the bakery, expecting it to be filled with some form of cheese, I am surprised to find a frankfurter. I queue up and attempt to ask the guy squeezing fruit for a peach drink but his irritation quickly puts me off and I point at a grapefruit. Despite the plethora of fruits pictured on his sign, it’s clear he only has oranges and grapefruits.

The afternoon is troublesome. I bought some fabrics in the second hand shop, now they are washed they look dull, unsatisfactory. Ideas are coming and going very quickly and after a couple of hours contemplation they seem both flimsy and clunky. I find it difficult to think without spending time in the space.

Each day at 6 we gather to hear three presentations and today it’s my turn, it is over quickly but it’s good to see and hear about the other artists, their ideas and practices – there are expressive painters, abstract thinkers, collaborators, an opera costume designer, performers, conceptual jokers and digital explorers.