Gostopriemstvo is the word for »hospitality« in Bulgarian and other Slavic languages. In contrast to the German term Gastfreundschaft, which is composed of roots meaning »guest« and »friendliness,« gostropriemstvo’s elements relate to »guest« and »acceptance.« Without speculating on any differences in the real expression of hospitality between cultures, the German-speaking West linguistically chose to denote the phenomenon more or less as »being friendly to the guest/stranger,« while the Slavic East chose to look at it as »accepting the guest/stranger.«
Accepting or welcoming the stranger into your own environment and circles is a specific relation and it does not entirely coincide in meaning and practice with being friendly. The language gives no concrete answers; it merely opens the door to observing reality from a specific angle. In the current situation of rising nationalism and xenophobia around the globe, the problem of how to really »accept« the stranger/guest is of significant importance. For Bulgarians, one strong cultural implication of gostropriemstvo – which is not obvious from the word alone – is how much it is bound to the idea of »home.« Gostropriemstvo starts at home, and is shown first and foremost at home. The idea that one could invite guests and pay for them to stay at a hotel, for example, is so foreign to southeastern Europeans that it borders on being ridiculous. If you want guests, you invite them to your home.
The cultural practice of »home residency« could be better understood in this context. Why is it possible at all and why here, in Sofia, Bulgaria, and not so much in other places on the map? This interesting trend is still nascent and fragile in my country, but also growing and gaining support.
I am referring to micro-spaces, usually operating in privately owned or rented premises no larger than an apartment. These small players are carrying out cultural activities that until recently were the domain of only huge and powerful institutions. The micro-agents are organizing exhibitions, performances, even festivals. They also manage to orchestrate open calls for grants for other artists and provide residencies to foreign artists, writers, dancers, etc., often covering their travel, accommodation, and in some cases even awarding scholarships. Most importantly, these residencies take place in private homes and are usually artist-run. They put their guests directly into the shoes of somebody who lives in the city, the way locals do. The residents do not receive any special treatment – in the sense that they don’t get better living conditions or anything that is not usually available to local artists.
Of course, such an approach allows for a more intimate host-artist encounter. But what is also interesting in this home-run situation is that these small agents can now take a portion of public resources and redistribute it to more alternative forms of creation – on a micro-level, of course, which otherwise often, not to say always, remains neglected by state-funding schemes. These »homemade« players can attract and work with artists who would remain outside of the scope of the state vision.
Home residencies are in a way the younger relatives of the 1960s and 1970s artists’ squads in Europe, at least in terms of the free spirit they want to somehow keep. The micro-spaces usually want to cut through red tape and officialdom and try to let things happen more naturally. Their activities and projects often instill a sense of community and adopt a more democratic approach to the decision-making process. Unlike the artist squads, however, they are legally registered. They pay for the places they use and can offer better living and working conditions to their guests, still preserving the atmosphere of a »home,« the idea of a place that is prepared for you by friends, not by chambermaids.
Home residencies are also somewhat sustainable. Maintaining these smaller spaces consumes fewer resources, allowing for a less economic-driven approach to the whole organization.
In Bulgaria such spaces are Radar Sofia, Aether, and Swimming Pool. As physical manifestations, none of them are bigger than a normal flat. They are all centrally located and all pay rent. At the same time, they are able to provide their residents with the peace and quiet that is so necessary for creation and reflection. Home residencies can invite guests without necessarily asking them to »produce« something, because they function on a model less driven by output. This approach is something so luxurious that in many cases it has been reserved for and has been the prerogative only of the richest residency programs so far. In Bulgaria, especially, state/municipal support to artists was exclusively reserved for product-oriented projects, and it is exactly the small home players who managed to convince institutions to change their established ways and also give support to guest creators without asking for a tangible final product. This shift of attitude was only possible within a culture in which gostopriemstvo is a legitimate phenomenon.
In an international context, we saw a significant management decision in 2019, when Akademie Schloss Solitude wanted to build a network of exchange residencies in Eastern Europe. Of all the options in Bulgaria, they chose to work precisely with these microspaces. This is an important sign that these relatively new and tiny players can provide flexibility and content that is culturally quite specific, and therefore valued.
In 2020 home residencies are now part of the game in Sofia. And this development was to an extent possible due to the mere existence of the word gostopriemstvo, and the way both the language and the cultural tradition have opted to view this phenomenon over the centuries.