What were your earliest encounters with zines and independent publications, and what were your first impressions?
One of the first zines I saw was made by a friend of mine from the University of Edinburgh. What he was doing was quite different from the beautiful illustrated books that I loved and had been collecting. He was making a series of small stapled books, with collages and drawings on one subject, printed with a risograph and using words he invented himself. I remember that I really liked that they allowed you to create a spontaneous story in a simple and direct manner, not following a literary work or an already existing text. I also liked that you had control over the entire finished product, such as the colors of the ink, the shapes and the paper, and the finished edition was simple, direct and easy to distribute.
Why did you decide to create an online archive with Bulgarian examples of this kind of publication?
Over the last two years, more and more independent publications created by Bulgarian authors are starting to appear. This also includes graphic novels, comics, zines, photography books, art books, and what they all have in common are their limited editions and the artist's initiative in creating the book. Together with TI-RE, we have been organizing events related to these kinds of publications for five years now. We have organized several open calls and exhibitions, as well as workshops. Since opening in 2018, the KO-OP Gallery has hosted exhibitions by artists, illustrators and graphic artists, which were accompanied by printed editions of the work. And so we decided to start this physical collection, which will later be available online, and which will archive the books we have selected, and make them available to the general public. TIRAZH is the natural continuation of our interests and our respective collections of such publications.
Which titles were the hardest to locate, and which ones turned out to be more popular and easy to access?
Almost all of these books exist in very limited editions (the most common range is 20 to 150, with the exception of books released with the help of a publisher). And most of them are already sold out, or their authors have 10-15 remaining copies.
Some were impossible to find, such as Nikola Mihov's Forget Your Past, which has long been out of print, Sa6ettu's Unusual Images and Elena Nazurova's Triumph of Empathy, which were printed in small editions and could no longer be purchased. We also wanted to get a copy of Maria Nalbantova's Beli mechki za cherni dni, but the few copies that got made were sold out, and the production of new copies is long and complicated. It's similar with books that have been published in very few copies or even only a single copy that serves as a prototype. Like the book Treptenia by Sofia Popyordanova, her thesis project, we managed to get one of the five existing copies, which are the prototype for future editions. We found some other books through our friends from PUK !, who gave us their latest copies of works such as How to Forget Your Past Fast by Martin Atanasov and Kitchen Stories by Evgenia Maximova. We realized that, in order not to miss out on such books in the future, we have to start acquiring them more systematically and add them to a collection that can be accessed by other people.
Photographer: Boryana Pandova
Do you think that this type of book format is developing and has achieved the requisite visibility and recognition in Bulgaria, both in and outside the capital?
The popularity of these kinds of publications is something that both the KO-OP gallery and the TI-RE platform have been working on for a long time. In 2016, TI-RE worked to include non-standard formats among the "regular" books at the Sofia Book Fair. Since then, things have improved quite a bit. There have been more and more individual and joint projects, and this has spread beyond Sofia. An example of this is the publication KUT, which focuses on Veliko Tarnovo and shows different creative points of view on the city.
The NO POINT Atelier space in the Gabrovo region is also creating similar publications and moving the scene beyond the center of the capital. In this sense, we hope that we are moving towards a kind of decentralization.
As for recognition, maybe it will first come from the outside, which often happens in other spheres of Bulgarian culture. Martina Vacheva's first zines, for example, are part of the collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Thomas J. Library in the United States, and last year Nikola Mihov created a mini-collection of photography books and zines that use the language of photography, which is now at the TATE as part of the Martin Parr collection.
Photographer: Boryana Pandova
Why has this scene grown in recent years and do you know of any good examples from before this expansion?
First of all, it's because of the artists. More and more young artists are choosing to study abroad, sometimes in addition to their studies in Bulgaria, or they gain other valuable experience through internships, residencies and workshops in different countries in Europe. In places like Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, this scene is highly developed and very inspiring. For example, one of the pioneers of this format here is a team based between Brussels and Sofia – Blood Becomes Water.
PUK! is another example – they are a team focusing on photography books, and they have organized many events, discussions, meetings with authors since 2016. They have made books with non-standard formats, content or production much more visible, and the public has become more interested in them and has been seeking them out.
Apart from individual experiments, the growth of this scene is due to sporadic efforts towards visibility for such publications. Initiatives such as the Hip-Hip Zine Fair and the sole edition of the Sofia Art Book Fair, which invited foreign authors and publishers, as well as the open calls by TI-RE and a majority of the exhibitions at the KO-OP gallery, are some of the factors that have influenced this process.
One Book Bookstore, which presents both standard books from publishers and all kinds of printed publications with non-standard format and content which are not usually sold in bookstores, has also played an interesting role. When a book is presented in that space, it's not only being distributed, but conversations can happen around it, and this type of publication can then be explained to a wider audience.
But the development of the scene is also somewhat due to an increase in knowledge of this medium, the fact that production has become more accessible to authors, but also that printers are receiving more orders for this kind of work. They have gotten used to the idea of small circulations, specific kinds of production, as well as to the whole process surrounding the making of a book with a non-standard shape. There are also accessible ways to do it yourself, such as the risograph, as well as the idea that a book does not necessarily have to happen through a publisher and be released in large numbers.
Photographer: Boryana Pandova
Is there a community of collectors in Bulgaria for these kinds of publications? Can you give us examples of people like that and what they are collecting?
Collections that can be accessed by a wide range of people can be found, for example, on the PUK! photography book platform. A similar kind of collection was (and still is) the Hip Hip Library in its various stages and in the many places that host it. Spaces such as the KO-OP gallery and the Swimming pool gallery have collections of publications by Bulgarian artists that you can access, although none of them is specifically dedicated to art books, zines, graphic novels, etc. The National Academy of Arts has an archive of student books from the Bookmaking and Printed Graphics program, and we own several such books, which were produced as prototypes with a single existing copy. But their archive is not available to the general public, and it is not the exact focus that we have. We don't know of another collection with a focus on just these kinds of publications in a private library or institution. This kind of effort is yet to be made yet in the field of independent publishing, it will depend on how many examples of such publications there are, and to what extent they are considered valuable by the professional community, by collectors, by the public.
Of course, most authors of such publications are also collectors in their own right, and there are probably many people with large collections.
What are the main obstacles in creating this type of independent print formats and publications in our country? Are these obstacles specific to Bulgaria or are they the same no matter where you are?
The way printers approach small-print book and production, from offset printing, which requires a larger circulations, to finishing processes such as more specific types of binding can be difficult to communicate to printers. There are exceptions, of course, but if something different from the standard process is required, the artist has to have experience with this type of communication and understand the processes in order to control them.
Photographer: Boryana Pandova
Regarding distribution, there are still no publishing houses and bookstores specializing in producing and distributing these publications. Until recently, there wasn't a single one, and then several spaces emerged that focus on it – such as One book bookstore, Avrtikl, and of course KO-OP, which has a bookstore. The question is, after printing a publication, how can it be sold so as to recoup the money invested in producing it. There is always an initial wave of interest around the publication, but then distribution is difficult and requires a lot of personal initiative, and this is one of the main obstacles.
How do zines complement the publishing scene in terms of themes, visual culture and reading habits? Which communities, stories, or issues need this kind of physical imprint?
Due to the very nature of self-published publications with low production costs, zines have given marginalized communities the opportunity to have a voice when popular magazines or publishers did not have the interest or opportunity to give it to them. Zines represent the aesthetics and ideas of subcultures that resist different forms and sources of authority and power. Saying that there is one form, manifestation, theme or use of the zine is antithetical to its nature. In that sense, I do not think you can identify topics that can be supplemented by zines, because that is possible for any given topic. But for me personally, it would be interesting to have more zines with serious content that deal critically with current affairs and issues. There is definitely a trend towards the commercialization of the zine format, and perhaps a project like ours will intensify this process, but on the other hand it can give publicity to a wider range of important issues if they are represented on the local zine scene. It would also help distinguish zines from other forms of print media.
Photographer: Boryana Pandova
Why does print continue to hold strong in the fight against digitalization? And how can digitalization support print?
In the context of our project, print is everything. The basis of a book object is the paper used, the type of printing, the type of bookbinding, and the shape of the book body more generally. All of this can only be described in the digital space, while the tactile moment is extremely important and makes the print edition what it is. Information is transmitted not just via content but also through all these elements and through their sum total, even the smallest details of the production contribute to it. In that sense, you could say that there is no fight to speak of. Or if there is one, it is meaningless, because the two sides are fighting towards a completely different goal and audience. And digitalization can help print by creating a non-physical space to distribute this type of publication, thus contributing to its development and sustainability.
What role could libraries and community centers play in the development of this scene in Bulgaria, and are there any good examples of that happening?
Community centers and libraries are an exceptional resource, and their potential is not being fully used. We are talking about hundreds if not thousands of spaces across the country that can work towards creating and developing audiences and communities. To a large extent, private organizations have taken over this function, at least when it comes to the visual arts scene and independent book publishing. Community centers and libraries can help by providing spaces for presentations, research and conversations. This would be extremely useful, especially in more peripheral regions, where private organizations do not exist or could not exist due to low demand.
Photographer: Boryana Pandova
Reading has become a "slow pleasure" in our fast-paced times. Why is it important to keep it that way?
Reading nowadays is not just slow, but also demanding. Our daily lives are so dynamic that we are required to consume everything quickly, including culture, and to react immediately – as briefly and directly as possible so that our reaction can be read and understood in a flash. There are fewer and fewer things that can captivate your attention enough to challenge you to devote more than a few seconds to them. Books are one of those things, and our encounters with them can help restore our sense of mindfulness.
In addition to their conceptual and undeniably visual qualities, many of the books in TIRAZH also have a very specific tactile profile. Often, "reading" them requires some kind of physical commitment beyond just flipping through the pages. Some are in an unusual format, others were printed using a very delicate techniques, or have several components – there are all kinds of editions that you can't browse carelessly without damaging them. Simply put, their "strange" appearance hints at a hidden surprise that gets revealed upon slow and careful examination.
The educational system often emphasizes reading comprehension. What would it look like if there was an additional assignment requiring "sensitive reading"?
Sensitive reading is a great formulation, and if it were part of our education system, people would have much richer imaginations. That would, in turn, significantly increase the audience for the publications collected by our project, and hence encourage more authors to create and to explore unusual ideas – that's something we strive to achieve with our initiatives.
TIRAZH opens on June 9 in KO-OP. Details HERE.