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How one Bulgarian writer created a global mail order community of radical artists

In 1990, Plovdiv poet Vesselin Sariev founded Svep, a concrete poetry magazine that brought together experimental and dissident artists from across the globe in a brief and remarkable communal project

22 August 2019

I’m sat, wrapped up, outside a café in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city. Spread out amongst the cups and saucers are the only four issues of Svep, a visual poetry magazine founded by the late Vesselin Sariev in 1990, which I am leafing through with the poet’s widow, Katrin, and daughter Vesselina. Inspired by the pioneering mail art practice of his friend, Guillermo Deisler, a Chilean exile who, escaping the Pinochet regime, had wound up in Bulgaria in the late 1980s, Sariev solicited contributions from all round the world. Around 40 poems per issue arrived through the post, which Sariev assembled, loose leaf, between the magazine’s austere cream cover.

Sariev and his family lived in a small flat stuffed with art, having been forced to sell their Plovdiv townhouse, way below its value, to the state in 1985. Vesselina, then aged 11, remembers spreading the poems out on the living room floor, as much in awe of the postage stamps from foreign lands as the works contained within the envelopes. Her father, a poet in the more traditional sense, with two collections published already, was vocal in local artistic circles. Until 1986 he had run the local arts centre but, having harboured an insurrectionary streak throughout his life, Sariev was sacked for staging talks by writers banned under Bulgaria’s oppressive regime. It was only because a senior figure in the local Komsomol was a fan of his poetry that Sariev didn’t suffer greater punishment.

Contributors got a copy of the magazine as part of the deal, each seeing the others’ work, a small community around the globe emerging, their communication channeled through the letterbox of Sariev’s apartment in Plovdiv. The first issue of Svep opens with a line illustration from Italy, drawn in the style of a Victorian morality cartoon; elsewhere in the debut issue is a set of perforated stamps by Kassel-based Jürgen Olbrich; a “poem” by an artist who signs themself “Private World” of San Francisco, involving glitter and collaged pictures of butterflies; a sketch of an elephant by Shigeru Tamaru of Kyoto. Looking at them now it is clear that these enigmatic creations, often typewritten or cheaply photocopied, delightful as they are strange, belong to a different world; technologically speaking, certainly, but culturally and ideologically, too.

“This is probably the most democratic art. It relies on happy ideas”

While most of the poems are not overtly political, some betray the era. Jörg Kowalski contributes a photocopied advert in which Deutsche Post offers, for a fee, to sweep offices for listening devices: only a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the capitalist service industry of the West meets the spy culture of the GDR. What is most striking politically about Svep however, is its very existence; and the newfound freedom it symbolises. “This is probably the most democratic art,” Sariev writes in the first issue by way of introduction. “It relies on happy ideas, using all sorts of materials and means — collages, montages, prints, patterns, manuscripts, digital texts, packages, blanks, cards, views, seismograms…”

He penned those words in June 1990, the month that Bulgaria held its first free elections, and seven months after Todor Zhivkov, the country’s hardline communist leader since 1954, had been deposed. “The stuff he was receiving in the post after 1990 wouldn’t have been allowed before,” Katrin notes of her husband. “He would have been arrested.” While many of the contributors are from the West, approximately half the poets whose work is included had been operating from behind the Iron Curtain, or lived in Latin America.

Sariev was inspired by UNI/vers(;), a longer-running mail art project founded by Deisler four years earlier. Like many of the city’s intellectuals, Sariev would hang out at the Mlekoto, a milk bar in the centre of town and it was there he first met Deisler. The Chilean had been fired from his teaching job at the University of Antofagasta, in the north of the Latin American country, in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet’s military junta came to power. Harassed by the police and imprisoned for two months because of his support of Allende, Deisler managed to get a visa for France, before arriving in East Germany in 1975. A quota system for refugees was in place within the Warsaw Pact however, and the German authorities moved him on to Bulgaria.

A small community emerged around the globe, their communication channeled through the letterbox of Sariev’s apartment in Plovdiv

Deisler brought with him to Plovdiv the traditions of Latin American visual poetry, pioneered in Brazil in the 1950s by figures such as Augusto de Campos and Wlademir Dias-Pino, and an extensive list of artists interested in the medium. One such was Hans Braumüller, the first of Svep’s contributors I managed to track down. Now based in Hamburg working in internet marketing, Braumüller was a young artist and activist living in Santiago when, in 1991, he sent a sheet of purple A5 paper to Bulgaria. It was a photocopy of the artist’s notebook on which was drawn a scrubby desolate landscape, together with a face in profile, alongside the annotation: “We don’t want the progress made in Tschernobyl [Chernobyl] in the Third World.” Braumüller tells me the composition was borrowed from La Preciosa Nativa, an underground newspaper he had co-founded in October 1987, a year prior to Pinochet’s removal from power, dedicated to environmentalism and indigenous rights. “We were one of 30 publications active in Santiago at the time, it was illegal, anti-Pinochet, we had to take precautions.” La Preciosa Nativa was delivered by hand among like-minded agitators. For Braumüller mail art was the logical step in widening the audience for his politicking.

As I began to search out Svep’s contributors it became clear I had missed many by several years. I will never get to meet Jaroslav Supek, who died in 2009, for example. At some point in 1991 Supek made a hundred skewed photocopies of a newspaper featuring a picture of an older woman riding a bike directly toward the photographer. He took one, left his house on a tree-line street in the small Serbian town of Odzaci, and put it in the post destined to be slipped into issue four of Svep. Serge Segay is also dead, but his son, August Sigov, was keen to talk of his father’s work. In 1990 Serge lived with his wife, fellow artist Ry Nikonova, in Yeysk, a Russian port town on the Sea of Azov. Art, and particularly mail art, became a lifeline beyond the stifling confines of southern Russia. “They saw art as a mission,” Sigov says. Using a library of banned books Segay had accumulated from his job at a paper recycling factory, the artist produced samizdat (hand reproduced) editions, with an art practice that encompassed painting, printing and performance.

It was his mail art work, which he started in 1985, that proved the most dangerous, however. His contributions to Svep are outwardly innocuous, yet the volume of poems he was sending and receiving had already brought him unwanted attention, however much Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was in the process of reforming. “The postmaster was annoyed at the amount of work my dad was making him do,” Sigov says. Segay was called in for psychological testing by the local KGB and though nothing untoward was found, a similar demand was made twice more. “Eventually the doctor told my dad that he knew he didn’t have a problem, but that he had been told by the local party to find something because of the stuff he’d been sending and receiving.”

Some of the poems included in Svep are better than others, but all reflect the historical moment in which they were made. “The unsung songs of a people” was how Sariev himself thought of the works he received. “I was so optimistic then,” Braumüller recalls. “It was like everyone was on ecstacy,” Vesselina Sarieva says, remembering the summer of 1990. “My parents weren’t really taking care of me, I didn’t go to school, Plovdiv was like one big hippy festival.” This sense of joyous freedom emerges from the pages of Svep, each odd poetic composition a testament to hope. Hope, and a free postal service.

Text: Oliver Basciano

All images courtesy of Sariev Contemporary.

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