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Artist Venelin Shurelov: “My Fantomaton is a machine for fantasies”

Desislava Tomova

Street art is resistance art, says the author of Sfumato's trademark

Sfumato's seventh Short Season is over. Once again, the driving forces behind the theater workshop – directors Margarita Mladenova and Ivan Dobchev – closed the season by announcing the laureates of the “Sfumato – New Names” idea. And if this Short Season had a particular feel, this feel is best exemplified by the fantasies of scenographer Venelin Shurelov, who received a special distinction for his installation of wooden figures Fantomata, arranged along the alley in front of the theater.

During the Short Season, you staged your performance called Transfusion in the space in front of Sfumato. What do you tell your audience with this creative act? What reactions do you expect?
Transfusion was conceived and staged for the first time at the Goethe Institute within the Nomad Dance Academy. As a consequence,the Art Academy invited us to take part in the program of the Night of the Museums. This was an opportunity to gather a new team which we named the Street Theater Troupe.
They put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into making this performance come true in its new shape. They also gave me the courage to present it once again within the Short Season. In this performance, expectations come first, as the preparation for a show is usually the key part of the process. In this case, we rely on the authentic actions of the performers and the audience's spontaneous reaction. The decision of actress Yuiliana Sayska to do the choreography played an important role in the project. She prepared a movement score. This gave the performers a basis upon which they could improvise.
What place does street art occupy in Bulgaria, and around the world?
This question brings me a long way back to the first acts I used to do in the late 1990s with the Via Pontica art group. My first independent projects dealt with the urban environment, public space. I arrived at an idea brilliantly expressed by Hakim Bey – the potential of urban landscape to be changed through the means of art and the chance to open zones where the environment will start breathing again. Street art cannot be institutionalized; it resists settled zones and figures who steer the artistic events in public space. It is one of the most primal and spontaneous forms of making art. It is not subject to regulation, but a question of personal choice.
You've worked along with Ana Vilenitsa and Animatar Animitrov in the Subhuman Theater. Do you ever get nostalgic about the times when you used to shape your childlike dreams in the Via Pontica art group?
If there's any nostalgia, it goes to the friendships and relations that we had inside the group. We were very close. As for the results of our work, there's no nostalgia. I believe the projects I do now are a fine continuation of what I used to do. So I feel no nostalgia as an artist. Right now, I'm lacking people, a team, kindred spirits to work with. The Subhuman Theater is an unstable formation, more of an idea, a concept, than a definite structure.
A Theater of the Inhuman is a possible interpretation of the name of your formation. What is the relation between Subhuman and art and theater?
Subhuman is a broad platform that brings together a lot of aspects of a forgotten humanness. The “subhuman” concept should evoke oppressed humanness. It can take shape in various ways that may be defined as subculture, subversion, subproduct, substance...
How did you come up with the idea of the machine for drawings? Do you envision its mass application, for instance in supermarkets, petrol stations, hospitals? It's quite an utopian question, yet the essence of the machine for drawings and the Fantomaton is rather dystopian. The machine for drawings was a much more personal act, as I had embedded myself as the software of this odd mechanical device made of metal, thereby automatizing my own art and making it dependent on the user's consumption in public space. My goal has not been so much to point fingers at the commercialization of contemporary artists or their transformation into art mass-production machines. For me, the first and foremost aspect of this sort of acts is contact with the audience, with the potential user, the random passer-by. I feel really glad when “users” begin discussing any provocative aspects of what I offer them. It's mostly about interaction, the opportunity for contact. I can imagine this machine on the North Pole too. It doesn't chase after mass appeal and popularity. Whenever I display it, I do it in lively public spaces, but I wouldn't like to overexpose such objects. The chance to come across one of them just once is much more valuable than seeing them at every corner.
You've graduated from the National Art Academy, with a MA in Scenography. What stirs you more – working in a theater or on individual projects?
My path in theater is due to my fortunate meeting several directors. What is common to most of them is their affiliation with the Sfumato school. I call those “fortunate meetings” because I too like the risky laboratory experimental process as modus operandi, no matter how tiresome and intense it may be.
Your interactive installation Fantomaton is really impressive. What do you wish to convey with this humanoid sculpture and the embedded plasma screen? How is an unbiased viewer supposed to interact with it?
As unbiasedly as possible. The emergence of the machine for fantasies, Fantomaton being an automaton for fantasies, is a direct consequence of the machine for drawings, which applied the principle of popular vending machines that take your coin and give a product back. So does the Fantomaton. It uses a coin mechanism, a simple electronic system which allows interactivity – by pressing a button, the viewer can switch between various channels and see various images. The Fantomaton aims to utilize the structure of popular vending machines, slot machines, yet replace the product they offer with something that is hard to consume in the way the user expects. In other words, if it offers some kind of product, that product is food for the senses, the mind, imagination, our consciousness.
When does the boundary between human and non-human get blurred?
It has done it already, long ago. I've taken the task of discerning humanness in the non-human. Technocracy, technoculture, technoesthetics, with which we interact all the time, is a particular type of esthetics of the monstrous. Each myth points us to those complex, dichotomous, hybrid creatures. They play a key social role, since they serve as cultural actors in our society. Their mission is to present the monstrous aspect we each carry inside our human nature, to create a mirror image that would help us recognize it and so choose our path.
You have authored the Sfumato trademark. What does it convey?
It belongs to the period when I worked with Via Pontica. We used to have a motto saying, “Keep walking, never getting to a destination, until you have turned into a road yourself”. A man who walks along a circle has turned the road into a home and shelter. The sign is a combination between the concept of Homo Ludens (Man at Play) and Leonardo da Vinci's contribution to the name of our theater. It was Leonardo who introduced the term sfumato, meaning a technique of painting air. This logo may be called a technique of observation.