An interview with Maria Nalbantova and Viktoria Draganova: “I want to meet people with my art in a way that pushes the imagination.”
For the first art project in the new office of foryouandyourcustomers in Sofia, Maria Nalbantova transforms one of the rooms into a studio, thus involving the people working there in the artistic process. This is crucial, because her work is almost always the result of continuously researching and collecting materials, information and personal experiences, gradually forming a visual language and narrative from these.
For the “Post-Tools” / “Оръдия на труда” series, Nalbantova uses well-used tools discovered in flea markets and antique shops, configuring them in various forms and interactions. The title of the series in Bulgarian literally translates to “weapons of work”, points again at a person’s individual responsibility; ultimately the specific use and significance of an object depends on us. We spoke with the artist as well as the curator of the exhibition, Viktoria Draganova, in an interview about their time with foryouandyourcustomers and the process of creating the art for the first show in the Sofia office.
Hannes Weikert: Maria, you once said in a previous interview that you are fascinated by working with and in a specific space, by the dialogue between the art itself and the environment in which it is placed. Why did you choose old, used tools and materials as your subject matter for the first exhibition at foryouandyourcustomers Sofia?
Maria Nalbantova: In my artistic practice I generally experiment with lots of different materials, media and techniques. Drawings, collages, objects I found, dried plants, with photography, installations and videos. When I considered the foryouandyourcustomers office, thinking about digital business, algorithms, artificial intelligence, new technology, I asked myself, what tools are they using? How do people manage that? Which tools are they connected to, and how? What does their day-to-day work look like and what tools do they use to accomplish this? I spoke with the employees there about their first computer, the use of artificial intelligence, among other things. We discussed whether the use of these tools was good or bad. It is an absolutely abstract subject. Here is a tool, and it is our responsibility to decide whether we use it and how we use it.
So I decided to work with old tools and objects – in stark contrast to the office’s work in a digital environment. I used screws, nuts, screwdrivers, drills, etc. among other things, which I transformed by taking parts from them and combining these with other materials and things, thus creating new, hybrid forms, putting them together into sculptures and installations. In this way they were all given a different type of form and configuration, which is not so much dictated by their function, but rather more by how they relate to possibilities, how we can imagine working with them. I think all of these instruments can be used for different purposes and here the question is about what possible purpose these can fulfil?
Hannes Weikert: What is your intention with your art?
Maria Nalbantova: The incorporation in my work of the specific space and the resulting dialogue between the art and the environment as well as the people in the environment should create associations that open up a possible field for conversation and discussions, which should help people learn more about each other.
Hannes Weikert: Viktoria, as the curator you were the one who suggested Maria as the artist for the first exhibition. How did you come to choose her and what criteria did you use in your selection?
Viktoria Draganova: I had already suggested three Bulgarian artists, all of whom we will hopefully still experience in the foryouandyourcustomers office in the future. For me, cultivating an exhibition is essentially always a question of making space – and as founder of the independent non-profit art project space “Swimming Pool” in Sofia, it is also about art politics, naturally. My goal is to support artists in Bulgaria and give them opportunities to grow and evolve, artists just like Maria, who challenge the space in a different way.
In my opinion, an exhibition is always connected to a path. It’s about the people taking part in the creative process, and also the audience consuming the art and about respect for the people providing the space for the art. It’s about people who encounter the art and don’t just look at it, but they continue to think about it. Everything you see in an exhibition is part of an ongoing process. So my work is about process design and a process mindset.
Jonathan and Albena were the ones who chose Maria as the artist for the first exhibition in Sofia. I think they both appreciate Maria’s way of working so openly, the idea that all art produced in this project is created during the project and is thus a reflection of the overall process. And they also liked that she was an artist that creates new things, focuses quite heavily on the building, the individual rooms and, not least, the people. She experiments with new materials and new approaches to assemblage and a new way to work with materials. And part of this process was allowing Maria to work in the office …
Hannes Weikert: … After all, with the exhibition at foryouandyourcustomers in Sofia, not just we as a company, but also you as an artist, Maria, forged new paths.
Maria Nalbantova: The idea arose in conversation with Jonathan Moeller and Albena Mancheva. I myself do not have a studio; I mostly work from home instead. So we thought, wouldn’t it be interesting for the creative process if the new office in Sofia along with the team were incorporated in my experimental work and the art were produced right there on site for the exhibition. Ultimately I was only able to spend time with the people there for a month due to Covid-19, but for a variety of reasons it was still an incredibly intensive and productive phase for me and I hope also for the employees at foryouandyourcustomers.
Hannes Weikert: What did you like about this idea of producing the art for your exhibition directly on site in our office?
Maria Nalbantova: That it essentially lines up perfectly with my artistic intention. I believe that art should be part of day-to-day life and since I was working in the Sofia office, the people there were necessarily integrated in my artistic process right from day one – they became a part of the creative process. The artistic process as a whole means quite a lot to me …
Viktoria Draganova: … Not to forget the many people from our art community who were involved in this process. I think that is also something new or special in the way we do art here in Sofia. We are a community of artists who work together and help each other, who share a passion for experimentation and further evolution of artistic diversity and possibilities.
Maria Nalbantova: Yes, that is important to emphasise: every employee on site, every conversation with the people in the office was part of the artistic process, just like the involvement of my artist friends, who have helped me along my journey to different places for the exhibition.
Hannes Weikert: Could you describe this journey in more detail?
Maria Nalbantova: Months before I moved into the office, I started thinking about this project and decided to use this type of construction materials, substances and tools. I had a lot of time to collect all the elements. And most of them I found in flea markets, antique shops, various places. And I started thinking about the site and about possible works of art that could be created there. I decided to prepare some of them in the space, but there were others that would have been absolutely impossible to create on site, so I went to an artist friend’s space and made them there. Another friend helped me install the works later in the individual office rooms, where we used a specific system to mount the pieces. Viktoria: She also helped me a lot by overseeing the entire production process and trusting me and my way of working. You could say that in our community, art is a team effort and is heavily shaped by freedom, trust and care.
Viktoria Draganova: We all understand art as a team sport: there are lots of players involved and they are constantly passing the ball among themselves. The game would not work without collaboration. I find it very inspiring in light of the situation for artists in Bulgaria. With us it is more about appreciation and care and less about doing something beyond our capabilities.
Hannes Weikert: Maria, when would you consider your work to be a success?
Maria Nalbantova: When it sparks interesting conversation. I think it’s not just about the aesthetic aspects alone, because a piece of art has so many layers and there are so many ideas there. Every person has a different perspective and different way of thinking, and when we share these feelings and impressions with each other, that creates something that goes much further than what we see in front of our eyes. When that happens, then I can say that the art is doing what it should do. But it’s not finished; it’s always an ongoing process.
Hannes Weikert: What specific works can be seen and experienced in the exhibition?
Viktoria Draganova: When entering the office, the first work you would encounter is a row of six used woodworking hand planes that has such a different materiality to the corporate elegancy of the building. It is a strong hint to what will appear in the other spaces; and it already carries a bit of humour as one can easily be drawn to hang a coat there. At the office spaces, one would encounter artworks that are made of combining working tools. They hang mainly on the walls and are indeed a very interesting extension of what painting could be, as this is where materiality and shape get another quality. Moreover, even if often built on seriality and repetition they never drift into cold abstraction. One could still read the history of their previous life and meaning; or recognise moods; or, humour again. There is also a series of sandpaper paintings that carry the colours of the surrounding buildings into the office; in a very smooth way these paintings relate the inside and the outside. Few of the objects are scattered around, at the bathrooms you get to see one of my favourite works made of soap, stone and brushes – materials Maria often uses in her artistic practice. And then, there this airy and delicate installation of flower hybrids in the tiny, bright space next to the kitchen. Maria loves to call it a „garden“, which should remind us of how notions of nature have changed. The whole exhibition says: Abandon romantic ideas of nature; nature is what we make of it. Or this is how I understand it; and I love to talk about „environment“ through Maria’s work.
Hannes Weikert: Viktoria, what made you decide to work with foryouandyourcustomers as a curator?
Viktoria Draganova: I was very curious and interested in collaborating with a company that gives art so much space and for which art is so important. And our way of doing art lines up excellently with the philosophy of foryouandyourcustomers, with the importance of art in the workplace, the cultivation of relationships, the process mindset and the opportunities for development that are provided to the artists and the people there. There are a lot of parallels between our understanding of art and the corporate culture of foryouandyourcustomers, and we will try to meet this very specific audience at foryouandyourcustomers in a way that pushes the imagination. In a way that allows for invention on both sides.” For me, invention is a very important component of art. I also think that Maria is inventive. It’s not obsessive. It is invention. After all, invention is something that allows us to progress, that makes us want to live. It gives us energy to address even difficult situations in life and overcome these.