I was unable to meet with Boryana Rossa in person, because ironically, we had effectively swapped positions on the East-West axis – when I was in her native Bulgaria, she was not far from my home state of Connecticut – in Syracuse, New York, where she works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University. Before my trip to Sofia, we met on Skype, to discuss her work.
Boryana is one of the few artists that I’ve met in Eastern Europe who is willing to label herself as feminist. One of her earliest performances focuses not on the female gendered body per se, but on the neutralization of gender, or the creation of a genderless being. The Last Valve (2004) was a performance in front of a small audience in the artist’s apartment. Using a mirror to see herself, the artist sewed her vulva shut. The piece is also a reaction to or owning of the expression “stitched up cunt,” which is a derogatory way of calling a woman who doesn’t readily make herself available for sex as frigid. Instead of denying such an accusation, she appropriates and literalizes the term, in the same manner that other marginalized groups coopt the terms that are used to deride them by others.
I asked the artist about her background in relationship to feminism, since there is not a strong tradition of feminist activism or even feminist art across Eastern Europe – mainly owing to the historical past, where gender equality had been, at least in theory, achieved. She mentioned that she came from an “emancipated family,” wherein her parents shared the housework. Both were engineers, both were equals. Growing up, she was surprised when she learned that not all families were like this. Feminism was not a word that was used at the art academy, and it wasn’t until the end of the 1990s that feminist texts started to appear in popular publications. The artist fought against this anti-feminist environment and forged her own path, following her instincts.
The artist had a number of performances involving stitching. She had met Russian artist Oleg Mavromatti in 2000, and started working collaboratively, together with him and other artists, under the name of Ultrafuturo in 2004. Mavromatti, who had medical training, had performed a crucifixion of himself in 2000, in a scene from his film Oil on Canvas. The piece was entitled Do Not Believe Your Eyes! and was thus familiar with the type of medical procedures that Boryana would perform in her work, which provided the support for such risky and extreme activity. In Boryana’s SZ-ZS (2005), Mavromatti sewed the artist’s body to her mirror image, in an attempt to get at the Lacanian ‘Real,’ an effort which turns out to be, in the artist’s words, “painful and infeasible.” As she explained, if the mirror image of oneself is the Imaginary, and the body represents the Symbolic, then the Real should be located on the border between the two. The performance demonstrates the impossibility of reaching it.
In 2007, the artist reenacted Viennese Actionist Rudolph Schwarzkogler’s iconic yet mythic performance, in which he supposedly cut off his own penis, and reportedly died after the procedure. As the artist stated, “As a woman who works with her body, I had to ‘compete’ with this ‘heroic’ action during my whole art career. I was often told there is no stronger gesture than an amputation of a penis. Since I couldn’t amputate my penis (I don’t have one), I decided to reenact the performance considering the anatomy of my body.” She did this in the performance Blood Revenge 2, by stitching a dildo to her stomach, and then proceeding to cut it off. Before the amputation, however, she unraveled the Schwarzkogler myth, explaining the the viewers that the iconic images were not of him, and that the person in the photos didn’t die from the procedure. In amputating her fake penis, she created a new myth for art history, and leveled the playing field.
More recently, the artist has reenacted Valie Export’s Touch and Tap Cinema from 1968, in which the artist confronted audiences with her own body, and collapsed the boundary between audience and artist, viewer and screen. In the original performance, Export approached the viewer with curtains over her breasts, and invited him or her to put their hands through the curtains and feel them, confronting them with her gaze at the same time. Boryana performed a similar action in Deconstruction of Valie Export (2013), but the dynamic explored here is is different, because of the fact that she has no breasts, having undergone a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Her piece deals with the stigma of losing one’s breasts, given the conventional notions of femininity and sexuality, especially as promoted by the mass media. Here, both the artist and the viewer confront these sentiments together, in a very visceral manner.
Boryana’s work with Ultrafuturo is often focused on “researching the social implications of science and technology,” as she told me. Like with her Last Valve performance, the artists are interested in using technology to move beyond gender and conventional modes of living. For example, in 2006 they presented Babel Fish, which were otherwise dead carp that had been reanimated using electronics. Their work presents the possibility of a future where the integration of humans and science/technology is not dystopian, but rather, presents new possibilities.