Art and Crisis. Reporting from Varna

Behind me is the high tech sculpture Zero-V, a series of four elements inspired by sport cars and and powerboats, each looks like a fin on a handle – the red one is clearly from sport cars and the blue one from a powerboat. The two small black ones are low profile fins that could be from anywhere. The sculpture by Vessel T was exhibited at gallery Bulart, Varna this Saturday Together with the cool techno beats of DJ Sixtynine and some wine poured into blue red and black cups the party was really on. Plamen was taking pictures.

But what was the art all about?

To me the whole installation looked like a distant call from the 1920’s speaking the Bauhaus language of expression or as Dora, the curator, explained to me of the “ready made” stream. But unlike the art in the 1920’s this one had no obvious conflict or opposition, no inner dynamic. The four elements stood still all oriented in the same way, two of them with installed breaks on them. The fascination with high technologies suggested on the flyer just did not square with these static objects in front of me.

Later the same night I was reading a book about the Great Financial Crisis, a Marxist critique of capitalism. The critique focuses on the excess capacity and the lack of real investment opportunities which drive capital to financialization as opposed to the old investment in machines and manufacturing of real good. And there it comes to me! Vessel’s fins are perfect mechanically but unemployed, they are waiting (in line) to become engaged in something but they are not yet moving. Brand new, they remain unused, unmoved and unemotional, stagnated, stuck, framed. From that point of view the dream of the futuristic techno-architecture looked like a mirage. Is capitalism ever going to make it out of this world alive?

Back in the gallery Daniela Shakespeare and me agreed that the music was good indeed.  I enjoyed the enthusiasm in the atmosphere. Everyone else was outside smoking.

The father of the computer is of Bulgarian origin but the mother is not the communist party

1973, USA, John Vincent Atanasoff  is named the inventor of the first automatic electronic digital computer.

1980, People’s republic of Bulgaria, the first three local computers are produced as analogues of Apple II.

1985,  John Vincent Atanasoff (as a Bulgarian) receives the first class order of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria  for his invention.

To this day Bulgaria is proud to have given something to the world. And this something is nothing less than what defines the latest industrial revolution – the computer. Atanasoff was of course an American whose father immigrated to the USA in 1889. So Bulgaria has actually given the grandfather of the computer to the world rather than the computer itself. The irony is that Bulgaria could have done much more if it were not called the People’s Republic of. Instead of being a story about glory and achievement this is a story of a sorry conception. The conception of the Bulgarian computer and its abortion by the communist party.

Indeed Bulgaria was a leader in computer  technologies among the socialist countries in the 1980’s when it produced first 8bit processors on an Apple architecture and later 16 bit analogues of IMB PC. In the early 1980’s Bulgaria surprised the world with the first microprocessor controlled robot hand “ROBCO”. The electronic equipment of the Russian space station and shuttle was also designed and produced in Bulgaria. The main plant in Pravetz (the birthplace of the communist leader Todor Zhivkov) produced 40% of the computers used in the Socialist bloc by 1985, the electronics industry employed 300 000 people and generated 13.3 billion USD yearly.

For only a few years. Back in the 1980’s the commanding highs of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance regarded “telecommunications as a kind of private luxury irrelevant to development planning”. We read this in Michael Palairet’s review of Berend, 1996 along with the reviewer’s own experience:  “When researching the history of the Bulgarian steel industry, I was impressed by the modernity of its imported control technology, but although Bulgaria took pride in its role as Comecon’s computer specialist, the plan fulfilment spreadsheets for the mid-1980s were entered entirely in pencil or ink.” (Palairet, 1997).

Our understand of development directly affects the path of our development. This inability to predict the transforming potential of new technologies is the main difference between a capitalist system based on entrepreneurship and a communist system based on central planning. It is also an important example of what Friedrich Hayek means by dispersed knowledge and the inability to plan what we do not understand. It is widely known that communism is at odds with innovation. But those who see the world only as a revolution of one class against another remain blind to the innovation that is a revolution in itself.


Michal Palairet, Review: Ivan T. Berend, Central and easternEurope, 1944-1993: detourfrom the periphery to the periphery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xviii + 414. /J45), Economic History Society, 1997:392.