Integrating Art and History to Explore the Aftermath of Authoritarianism

September 20, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

The Neighbours: Forms of Trauma (1945-1989) is a multimedia installation created by Lilia Topouzova, Krasimira Butseva, and Julian Chehirian—the outcome of 20 years of scholarly research and 9 years of artistic collaboration. The installation serves as the public-facing art component of the international academic workshop Authoritarianism: Lives, Legacies, Trauma, led by Professors Joshua Arthurs and Topouzova. The workshop will be held September 28 and 29 at the University of Toronto.

The Neighbours is based on 40 interviews that Topouzova and Butseva conducted with survivors of the Bulgarian forced labour camps, which were in operation from 1945 to 1987.  

Using a mix of physical artifacts, video elements, and soundscapes, the artists recreate the homes of the survivors, capturing both the tangible and emotional environments where the interviews took place. Woven into these recreated spaces are snippets from oral narratives, field recordings and video footage from camp locations. This fusion of different media forms blurs the lines between the familiarity of home and nearby areas marred by past acts of violence perpetrated by an authoritarian regime.

Topouzova, Butseva and Chehirian spoke about their installation ahead of it’s opening Monday, September 25, 2023.

Can you provide some background on the inspiration and collaboration behind "The Neighbours" installation?

Julian Chehirian: Lilia and I first met 9 years ago. We immediately found so many strange parallels between the two of us—living in North America, being Bulgarian and both working on these complicated social and political histories from different angles, but looking at similar sorts of questions and challenges. Lilia approached me with the idea of doing a multimedia website, a platform where portions of her interviews with survivors of forced labour could be put together with other forms of documentary evidence as part of a broader effort to understand the relationship between memory, silence and the precarity of the archive.

Lilia Topouzova: I am an historian and a documentary filmmaker. I'm faculty at the University of Toronto and did my PhD in history at the University of Toronto. I began working on the topic 20 years ago as a graduate student and recorded the interviews during my research. Krasimira, who got in touch with me about 6 years ago, had also been conducting interviews for her fieldwork, but a little bit later. We were coming across very similar research questions and we decided to join efforts and work together. This has always been a University of Toronto project as far as I'm concerned—first working on my PhD and then I came back as faculty member. The research has always been supported by the University of Toronto.

Can you tell me more about the 40 interviews conducted with survivors from the Bulgarian gulag? What were some of the challenges and insights that emerged during the interview process?

Lilia Topouzova: The survivors of the Bulgarian gulag lived in a very insular world. After the Berlin Wall came down, a lot of information became public very quickly and mostly picked up by the press. There was a brief moment when there was a flood of graphic, sensationalist stories about the gulag and then there was this absolute silence. Then the archives were purged. When I began interviewing people, it was very difficult to access their life stories because they lived in a closed world and there was an enormous disconnect between what they had experienced in the gulag and between the absence of their experiences in the public space. This was my experience in 2003, 2006 and 2011.

Krasimira Butseva: I began working on this topic in 2016 when I started my Masters in photography. My initial idea was to visit the locations of the camps and do a kind of photo-journalistic, documentary type of work, but that completely changed because there wasn’t much information—no scholarly work had done in Bulgaria, very few articles or books. This led me to try to connect with people who were either survivors, or people that were related to survivors of the camps or that experienced any form of political violence. Very few survivors were still alive, so I met more with people that had inherited narratives, or memories. I don't have any personal connection to this history and no one from my family does. I was, like Lilia, located thousands of kilometers away from where the research would take place and where these communities are. That was definitely challenging.

Dark room lit by a lamp and an old tv set.
Photograph by Krasimira Butseva from the multi-media installation, The Neighbours: Forms of Trauma (1945-1989).

What prompted you to present your research findings through a tangible, spatial art form like an installation?

Julian Chehirian: We've had to deal with a very disparate set of kinds of evidence and because Lilia and Krasimira's work has been so archival and ethnographic, there is something very organic feeling about thinking of the spaces in which the interviews were conducted as sites of historical methodology, as spaces in which the explicit and implicit layers of this history become manifest. That's how we gained momentum towards this idea of integrating our different practices, by creating an environment that could be a composite evidentiary and argumentative exhibition.

Lilia Topouzova: As practicing academics, we publish, right? We publish peer reviewed research and that's how we convey the outcomes of the research we conduct. We usually publish in highly specialized journals with academic presses and the conversation, in a way, stays within that academic community. I was looking for ways to convey this to a different audience. The question is, what language do we want to use? What is the right medium of representation for this particular story that we’re telling? In the past that has been film for me, but this time it was an installation because an installation allows people from the outside to come in and bear witness. If what we aim for, ultimately, is to have these silent stories be heard by a broader audience and not just be read by other academics, we need to create a space where an encounter can happen.

Krasimira and I were conducting this research completely separately during very different historical eras, but we were witnessing the same issues, the same absences, the same kind of insular memories…So the idea was—can we recreate that space so that people can bear witness to it in the same way that we did?

There's something misleading when you publish a text or when you publish an academic article or book—the story, the narrative is already there and it's very difficult to retain its fragmentary nature. It's very difficult to convey the affect that you as a scholar are experiencing. A multimedia installation does that, it makes that possible in a way that peer reviewed scholarship doesn't.

When we did this project in Bulgaria last year, we had a natural audience for it. In Toronto this is a work of translation. In Toronto, we're translating this for a different audience, and I think, at least for me, it's not so much that people here gain an understanding of what happened in the Bulgarian gulag, but that people gain an understanding of what happens during an authoritarian regime, an authoritarian period of time.

Krasimira Butseva: I agree. The purpose of this installation is completely different when it's in Bulgaria and when it's outside of Bulgaria, even when talking about it in a different language like English, or talking about it to a different audience. Maybe the message too and what happens with the installation as well. The installation that we're setting up in Toronto is a reworked version, it's a shorter version of the one in Bulgaria, and in relation to the context of the space where the installation is happening.

Lilia Topouzova: This installation is also a collaboration with Soulpepper Theatre Company. We could have done this at a gallery, we could have done this even at a theater space, but the idea is to make an intervention in the university space, on site, in an office. Normally you wouldn't do that, but for us the idea was to do it on site at the university, to rethink what the humanities represent nowadays and what is possible to do within the university setting, through collaboration.

The installation is described as evoking the "unstable boundaries between spaces of home and the psychologically proximate sites of violence." Can you go deeper into the concept of these unstable boundaries and their symbolic significance in the project?

Julian Chehirian: As Lilia said, there's so much that falls through the cracks of the kind of seamless narratives that we as historians create when we write for publication. All of those fissures, cracks and omissions are so evident and are communicated—even in their absence—in the context of being in a survivor’s home and asking them to tell their story, to talk about their past. All of that which is not said is as present as that which is said. Especially in terms of excavating this history of political violence, it's precisely that “category of the unspoken” that is “the mass” of what needs to be recovered. Working with a domestic environment brings together these registers of the spoken and the unspoken. Domestic spaces tend to be ones of a kind of unbounded intimacy with conditions of comfort and regularity.

In the installation, we try to make these “wires” touch in a way that's more explicit—audible, visual—so that the implicit fact that the inhabitant of the space spent 15 years in a forced labor camp penetrates into the space with the presence of rocks, roots, branches, sand. These are visual interruptions that disturb the composition of, and the integrity of, the domestic environment. Even visually filmed landscapes and sounds from the survivors themselves are introduced into the installation as a kind of merging of these two very different spaces that have both served as residences.

Table piled with a variety of well used items like books, cups, bottles, and newspaper.
Photograph by Martin Atanasov,  from the multi-media installation, The Neighbours: Forms of Trauma (1945-1989).

Can you share any personal anecdotes or memorable moments from the journey of researching and creating this installation that had a significant impact on the project's development?

Lilia Topouzova: In 2011, I was supposed to interview a camp survivor who had a narrative about a particular camp that we know very little about. I was very excited about this story that I was about to record, but when I went into the apartment of this elderly man, he didn't have a narrative—he was so unsettled, so traumatized by what had happened to him that he didn't have the language to convey what happened. From an ethical point of view as a scholar it was impossible to get an interview. As an historian, there's no evidence, nothing goes on the historical record. This man speaks no words, there is silence. I, as a scholar, can do nothing with this specific absence of evidence. As far as facts, as far as data is concerned nothing was collected, but, as Julian said earlier, all the evidence is there. Precisely what is left unsaid is the evidence of the trauma of the camp. How do we convey that? How do we mirror the lived experience of this man and what happened to him and his inability to speak?

Even though I'm a documentary filmmaker and a practicing historian I needed Julian and Krasimira, I needed us to come together, because there's something about this deep-seated trauma—and layers and layers of it—that one can never bear on their own. Remembering the violence of the past is an intergenerational endeavour and it's a collective responsibility. By this collective interweaving of strengths and ideas we’re able to forefront that for a different audience. I think about this in the present and not only in the context of the Bulgarian past: Russia's violent invasion of Ukraine continues, the Chinese government is sending more and more of its Muslim minorities, the Uyghurs, to forced labour camps.

Krasimira Butseva: Lilia and I experienced the same things, we both had the same experience of walking into cities that were adjacent to the camps and talking to the locals or talking to people that were in these camps, the same way we were welcomed, or not welcomed.

Lilia spent most of her time doing research in relation to the forced labour camp at Belene and I worked more with the forced labour camp at Lovech. These are two of the most infamous camps, where there's the most evidence historically or an archive of oral history.

When I was in Lovech, I had a meeting arranged with someone who was very aware of who I was, what I was doing, why we were meeting…the meeting got cancelled three times before I met with this man, who was in his late fifties. We met in the closed yard of a restaurant, it was summer and very loud from the pouring rain. There were no other people in this whole restaurant and when we met, this person whispered. And he whispered for an hour or two hours, however long our meeting was. He was really scared of me initially. He asked me first to tell him who I was and why I was there. Then he asked me about my parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents, my great great grandparents, the whole line of my family to try to understand if I am someone that was being sent by the secret police. This is years after the fall of the regime. If I am the secret police. I was 23 years old.

He was in fear. This person was never in a camp. His father was sent to one of the first camps but managed to survive and then fled to France. He never saw his father again after the arrest, he just knew that his father died in France. He knew a few stories, but he didn’t have any firsthand memories about the camps or anything to do with political violence in the same way his family did.

He forbid me to record with a recorder, then forbid me to take photographs and then he also didn't want me to even take notes with a pencil. The whole interview happened as a memory, as an experience, there was no recording of it. It was like it never happened. It is about the silence and the trauma and the weight of the trauma and how heavy it can be in the present for someone.

How have you encouraged visitors to interact with the installation and the history it represents?

Lilia Topouzova: As a faculty member, I want us to think of the installation as a pedagogical tool. Imagine large classes in the humanities with a conventional lecture; students then get together in tutorials and discuss primary sources with their TA. That's the classic North American model for engaging with history, literature, or any other kind of humanities disciplines that we have.

But what if, instead, we create this installation that students visit? They’re still engaging with the history—there's still a lot of historical information—but this way they're able to participate in the experience. They're able to sit in a room, they can listen to the interviews, they can interact in the space.
Also, as a professor of history and of creative nonfiction writing, I'm interested in the idea of the university and university students being able to participate in the making of such installations, in the making of the history. We have 10 students who are working with us right now. Ten students who are helping us think through this installation, helping to build it, to do outreach. I’ve never had students more excited! I’ve never had 10 students email me to ask for more historical background so they can understand the installation better, so they can help us better. I have difficulty getting students to read 50 or 60 pages—these students read them in 24 hours and were prepared with questions!

I think the humanities are there for us to reinvent and rethink. As a professor, I have learned to do that by working with my colleagues, Julian and Krasimira, who are always pushing me to think differently. It's about opening up that conversation and making collaborations because, in our Western-centric model of learning, we have this sole author/single author emphasis. We have this very top down, problematic way of learning and acquiring knowledge. This is collaborative, this is not about one egomaniacal scholar. This is about all of us in a room together with our students, asking questions.

Art has the power to provoke emotions and empathy. How do you hope this installation will impact the emotional responses of visitors, and what kind of conversations or actions do you envision it inspiring?

Julian Chehirian: I'm really looking forward to seeing how students—undergrads and grad students—at the U of T will respond to the work. In Bulgaria, we had high school and university students come and they would recognize objects from their family spaces—‘this is my grandmother’s sewing machine’ or “my grandfather had the same book in his house when I was a child’. There was a very visceral and sometimes uncomfortable closeness that we don't have here, so I think it remains to be seen how people will react.

This is very much a work of translation. We're approaching this in an inductive way, in order to learn how we want to develop this project as a teaching tool in terms of bringing it to other places in North America and in Europe, places that are outside of the Bulgarian context.

What were some of the most surprising or unexpected discoveries or insights that emerged during this project?

Julian Chehirian: We set out to create an installation and by the end of it we had created a kind of temporary memorial museum. We created a two-site installation across an actual museum and then this very guerilla-style intervention into historical memory and to collective memory and discourse in Bulgaria.

This methodology that we've developed in this very inductive and collaborative way—we want to put that into writing as a model for what the humanities can be like and what the potential is for practice-based research to be a teaching tool and also a mode of creating representations that help us think through challenges in the past and in the present and looking into the future.

Practice-based research is a field that is well developed in the European context. It's built into curriculum and the structure of degrees in European MFA programs. It's something that has very much lagged behind in the North American context. One of the things that we want to do is think about this project as an enactment of what we see to be the potential of that way of working. It’s a way of thinking with materials and spaces, drawing on the tools of the arts and at the same time centering in inquiry.

Lilia Topouzova: While retaining the integrity of scholarship research. It’s not doing away with scholarly research, it’s retaining it, but using the arts and practice-based approach to convey it.

About the Collaborators

Lilia Topouzova is an Assistant Professor of History and Creative Nonfiction at the University of Toronto. She is a scholar and a documentary filmmaker whose work is situated at the intersection of history and memory, particularly in relation to political violence, silence, trauma and public remembrance. Topouzova is the scriptwriter of the documentary films The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories (2007) and Saturnia (2012), which she also co-directed.

Krasimira Butseva is a visual artist, researcher and educator. She investigates human rights violations, political violence, traumatic memory and official and unofficial histories in the context of Eastern Europe. She is a lecturer at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Her work has been exhibited in Sofia, London, Cape Town, Brighton and Pingyao.

Julian Chehirian is an artist and a PhD Candidate in History at Princeton University. His research engages social and institutional histories of the mind sciences across Eastern Europe and North America. His dissertation project examines 20th century experiments in the treatment of mental illness through artistic expression. In his practice-based research he develops exhibitions in dialogue with archival and ethnographic research.

The Neighbours: Forms of Trauma (1945-1989)

Monday, September 25, 2023 to Friday, September 29, 2023
321N Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies
Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy
1 Devonshire Place, Toronto, ON, M5S 3K7

The public are welcome to view the installation between 1:00 pm and 5:00 pm each day. The organizers will hold a special event on September 28, 2023, from 5:30 pm to 8 pm including a guided tour of the installation, a live musical performance featuring works by composers who experienced authoritarian regimes, curated by Catherine Lukits, doctoral candidate in History at the University of Toronto and former orchestral cellist, and a panel discussion between the visual artists and Rohan Kulkarni, Director of Education and Community Engagement at Soulpepper Theater.

For Faculty members: If you are interested in booking a tour of the installation for your class in the week of September 25 to 29, please email Lilia Topouzova.

The installation is supported by Soulpepper Theater Company and the Jackman Humanities Institute’s 2023-24 Program for the Arts.