Food as the instrument of social engagement

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Data Chigholashvili and Nini Palavandishvili

August 30, 2014
Bialystok, Poland

 

The GeoAIR independent art initiative operates from 2003 on, officially registered as a non-governmental organization in 2007. It’s one of the very few art residences in Georgia. For the past year they are realizing the project connected with migration, cooking and public space. The team of GeoAIR believes that food can bring different people together. Furthermore, it’s easier to talk about serious problems and solve them together after the tasty “dating”.

About the structure of GeoAIR

Yuriy Kruchak: How did the idea of GeoAIR appear?

Nini Palavandishvili: This idea came from Sophia Tabatadze, Georgian artist who lives in Berlin. That time she lived in the Netherlands, where she had lots of friends interested in Georgia. All together they came to Georgia to do something there. They made the first project called “Foreigner” in 2003 on the territory of the old vine factory. The backbone of organization formed during two or three years, and then its participants decided to give it an official status.

I came back to Georgia from Germany in 2004. I was a curating a project by Goethe-Institute, where Sophia Tabatadze was also participating. Gradually we started to work in collaboration, some other people joined who shared our ideas and views and that is time when Archidrome – Contemporary Art Archive, one of the oldest directions of the organisation was born. Archidrome is an archive, library discussion platform, which contains diverse material (publications, periodicals, digital media) about contemporary art and culture in Georgia, the Caucasus region, as well as international theories and tendencies. At that time there was a lack of information about local artists, movements and art community in Georgia. We met with artists, gathered their portfolios and made presentations for each artist. Now we have quite an extensive database of operating artists in Georgia and the Caucasus Region.

In 2009-2010 I again lived in Germany, and after return to Tbilisi started to work as a curator for GeoAIR only. That time Sophia decided to organize residence. Working with foreign artists showed that organising a place where they would stay and work for longer period was necessary. Sophia built one more floor over her house, which was turned into a place for residents. Thus in 2010 GeoAIR Residency appeared. Since then we have new resident(s) for at least one month some for longer.

Our aim for the residency and residents is not production, as we understand that in some cases one month is too little time to create something. We have three main directions we’re concentrating on, all of them are intertwined. Our residents, especially curators, work with our archive. We try, when it’s possible, to involve residents in projects that we realize. All of our residents should have interest in Georgia, in environment and issues not only of the country but also in larger picture of global politics.. We concentrate on work on public space, now our interest had also spread to work with communities. So, we’re focusing more on working with people than with artists. In Georgia there are still not many artists who work on social issues and/or with communities, that’s the problem.

Data Chigholashvili: Our residents also contribute to the archive and the library. There is material about art from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia and not only. The library is open, everybody can use it. Our office is situated near the Tbilisi State Academy of Arts. Unfortunately, students of the academy visit us rarely, because I guess unfortunately they’re not interested in such information.

Nini Palavandishvili: Educational system in Georgia is weak. The Academy of Arts is the old school academic type of institution, which doesn’t want to change. At the Free University of Tbilisi, founded by Kakha Bendukidze, this year the faculty of Arts and Design will open. I think, it’ll be a great competitor to the academy. There’re higher prices at the Free University but there you can get knowledge. In my opinion, the Academy should be closed. Nothing changes there, things become worse and worse.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: Data, you’re an anthropologist by education, right? How is it to collaborate with artists?

Data Chigholashvili: I’m studying socio-cultural anthropology, mainly working in visual and urban anthropology. For my MSc dissertation I wrote about intersection of contemporary art and anthropology practices. I also discussed one of Sophia Tabatadze’s projects there and then I joined GeoAIR upon my return to Tbilisi. Now I continue research about the transformation of Tbilisi, especially in relation with different communities and city’s visual aspects, as well as art projects that deal with it. As I collaborate with artists and curators, I can implement the result of my research into practical works and also learn a great deal from them. It motivates me to do what I’m writing about and working on at the same time.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: How do you share responsibility at GeoAIR?

Nini Palavandishvili: There’re three of us, we work collaboratively and share tasks, but each of us can lead also different projects, which connect at some point. In contrast to the art collective, the members of which are constantly working together, we’re an art organization that works with different projects, but all of them coincide with organisations vision and mission.

Data Chigholashvili: We have a big database, and we work with other organizations abroad to choose artists for their residences, provide recommendations, set up connections between artists and different institutions. Regulations and rules of competitions are sometimes read inattentively, I think more work needs to be done with art scene representatives here with regards of presenting their works more effectively, elaborate more and get more active on international level, we also try to work on that with them.

About working with "non-artistic" society

Yuriy Kruchak: Could you tell a bit more about projects realized with communities in Georgia?

Nini Palavandishvili: I even don’t remember the first time when we’ve started to do it. It was always interesting for me to work with people, to do some research, but without any knowledge of special methodology, I was able to rely only on my instinct. Data (Data Chigholashvili) joining the group remarkably enriched our practice as he has more knowledge of ethnographic approach and anthropological research.

Last year we realized the first project with Data. In Tbilisi there’s historical area called Betlemi, in the previous century lots of different ethnical groups lived there: Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Kurds etc. As a result of typical gentrification process representatives of these nationalities had to leave gradually, real estate property in that area became expensive. But the specificity of this area is that ICOMOS, which has an office there worked on rehabilitation of that district together with local inhabitants. Thus, fortunately the picture is very different from common “beautification” we face in most of the city, where we call restoration of Tbilisi old district but in fact we are destroying and just building copies of old.

Data Chigholashvili: Yes, local dwellers learned how to restore something. It started by 2000. Nowadays the “old city” changed a lot. It’s often told that old Tbilisi is multicultural and open place, but not many people can feel it now. That’s why we decided to work within the festival on the territory of Betlemi which is held annually on the 17th of May. In that framework we collaborated with people from different ethnic groups living in Betlemi district. Together with social science and graphic design students we worked on small brochures, which contained some typical for their origin or family recipe on the one side and with the story of the person, who provided this recipe, on the other side.

At the festival participants cooked meal and talked about it, they also opened their yards for public entrance. It was nice to unite people, and the festival was also marvelous. Though, unfortunately that day is remembered in Georgia because of the horrible things that happened. On the 17th of May, 2013 there was an attempt to have the demonstration in Tbilisi against homophobia, but a big group of people, lead by the orthodox church representatives bashed the demonstration, beat and chased some of the people who were there to protest.

Nini Palavandishvili: So, our first project was an experiment in a way. Its already quite some time that we are interested in topic of “new migration,” we wanted to know more about people who move to Georgia nowadays. Some ten years ago lots of Chinese people appeared in Georgia and particularly in Tbilisi. Then they disappeared, their shops were closed, but people from India and Pakistan came instead. Now we have migrants from Iran, Iraq, African countries and “Western” countries, etc. We wanted to know for what reason all these people come to Georgia, what they are doing, how they feel and how the local people perceive and treat them. There’s stereotype about “good” immigrants from Western Europe and bad criminals from all other countries.

Since Georgia is famous for its cuisine, we decided to connect migration with cooking. Last year we started to research on how migrants lived in Tbilisi, this work is still continuing. We learnt that many Indians study medicine. But to learn more, you need to communicate with someone for a long time, also you should set up trusting relationships. Student-anthropologists were involved in our research. The aim is to obtain material , which will contribute to our research as well as be included in publications we produce about chosen migrant groups, individuals with whom then eventually we do public cooking.

During the process we also realized that problem of migrants living in Tbilisi is deeper than it seemed before. And if a person, you collaborate with, has problems with accommodation, you can’t just dismiss it. We contacted the public defenders office, went to chancellor’s office to find out more about new migration law and regulation and try to assist those people in need in whatever we can. We also contacted the culinary show from one of the most popular Georgian TV channels to get more publicity and start discussing this crucial issue, as it was basically not addressed at all. As a result we did five programs with people from Nigeria, Thailand, Jordan, India and Iran. I can’t say that things have changed, but we, as well as migrants and television workers, got an interesting experience. At least, people noticed that migrants don’t come with aim to steal something, but for searching better opportunities. Even in our friends circle some think that immigrants don’t have any problems, because they don’t complain or simply they do not have an opportunity to raise their voice. But actually, the person with black skin can be refused to visit a swimming pool, it’s that bad often.

Data Chigholashvili: We want to talk about discrimination and we’re conscious that people in Tbilisi or elsewhere won’t be completely tolerant all of a sudden, but we need to start from somewhere, so if we scratch the surface regarding the issue, it will be great. It’d be very useful to start similar activities in universities. Mostly, in one faculty where both Georgian and foreign students are studying, they even don’t know each other and could be divided into separate groups. Through public cooking events and other related activities, together with migrants we engage with locals, living in their direct neighborhoods or generally in Tbilisi. As we are preparing and sharing food, social experience of migrants living in Tbilisi is also discussed, these include both, positive examples, as well as terrible cases of racism.

Nini Palavandishvili: We got so involved in this issue that we developed it further. In October we’re organizing workshop with schoolchildren, with whom we will work on visual stories about their neighbouring migrants.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: What is the political direction of your institution?

Nini Palavandishvili: We are oriented “left” and try not to make compromises for money. For example, if Kakha Bendukidze offered the grant for artists, it would be difficult for me to decide whether to apply or not.

Once our artists protested against Georgian minister of culture. I signed the petition and helped to distribute it. That time I was going to go to the residence in Poland for one month. It was planned that the ministry of culture would fund this trip. I didn’t know about such agreement between Polish and Georgian sides. When I found it out, I refused to accept the money from the ministry. It’s important to think how to behave and be responsible for your actions and not to act in sake of comfort.

About money and an ideal institution

Yuriy Kruchak: Do you have a mechanism to get the financial independence? How can the society support your organization?

Nini Palavandishvili: We don’t know how somebody can support us. I have my own vision of this situation, but I’m not sure that I’m right. The only source of finance for Georgian artists is the Ministry of Culture and Monument protection of Georgia, there is also municipality fund, but they rather give money for populist concerts. Also, the ministry covers only production costs, and it’s not possible to get fee for administrative work.

We have been supported by the grants from European Union and the Open Society Foundation for various projects. Programs connected with these grants will end soon, and we don’t know what to do next. The residency isn’t something profitable, we can only take care about the space and artists. GeoAIR is a non-profit organization, and we can’t open a cafe, for example. Maybe, we should propose guided tours for interested travelers or artists?

There was a case when independent gallery “Nectar”, which offers a space for non-commercial artists to create experimental works, have asked the artistic society to support their project. I’m not sure, that it’s a right way. We pay taxes to the state, which should provide such support. Using the system of crowd funding we make the state free from its responsibilities, and yet you must pay taxes. There’s no way to fight with the ministry. I disagree with this system, but don’t know about other options.

People collect money for social needs, someone’s medical treatment and so on, but community is still not conscious that it’s necessary to support art. I assume that money for the “Nectar” gallery’s project was also mainly transferred from abroad.

Data Chigholashvili: And the projects we’re doing are unclear for many people. Once, a German artist who was teaching at the Art Academy invited me to give a short talk about the connection of art and anthropology. I prepared a very general talk and decided to talk about the importance of context in art, no matter from which perspective we look at it. I had such a big rejection from students, they said that they’re interested in other things, like abstraction and context is not relevant there.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: You create an institution with elements of social center. What is an ideal institution for you?

Data Chigholashvili: I’m interested in developing the institution this way. But it’d be better if it develops not just with our forces and sources. It’d be nice to have financial support as well as done together with students, young artists, researchers and activists.

Nini Palavandishvili: As a curator I’m interested to work with artists, but not in a way that I’ve proposed the topic and they adopt it. We should develop some certain direction together.

There’s one more problem that Georgian artists don’t understand that it’s possible to collaborate with musicians, filmmakers and so on. I’d like to make a project, where artists could learn something from other disciplines. For me institution is a platform for self-development, discussions and communication. I almost don’t make exhibitions and my exhibition projects involve panel discussions, workshops and educational programs. I think that the ideal institution is possible; otherwise, we wouldn’t do what we do.

Speaking about funding, we try to communicate an idea of co-working between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Economy. We propose to change the tax policy. Authorities don’t want to allow paying fewer taxes to people who invest in culture. The government doesn’t realize that it’s not an exemption from the payment but taxes go on specific purposes.

Data Chigholashvili: We need a special law imposing an obligation on big businesses to invest in cultural activities. Also, there should be funds transferred to a special foundation, free of individual influences, that would allocate these resources on projects based on competitions.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: Is it possible to influence the cultural policy of Georgia?

Nini Palavandishvili: Two or three months ago there was an announcement on the website of the Ministry of Culture that it is open to ideas from non-governmental sector to develop cultural policy. In summer I submitted recommendations for transparent system and better distribution of the budget, selection procedures etc in the field of culture, to report how much money allocated on grants and reveal the selection mechanism. There has been no response from the ministry yet. As a community of artists, we write recommendations and it’s unclear who will consider them. Especially now, when the minister changed again, and we need to lobby our interests again.

About collaboration with other artists

Yuriy Kruchak: I’d like to talk about the archive again, about the «Archidrome» project. How was the structure of the archive formed? How did you agree with artists regarding the copyright?

Nini Palavandishvili: Artists gave us DVDs with information, sent their CVs and newspaper clippings. We wanted to make it accessible through the internet, but there was not enough money for that. At the moment it’s still a physical archive, which we also have difficulties to update permanently, but we still continue to work on it. When we make an open call, we always renew our data with the information from the applications.

About copyright, we don’t sign any agreement with artists. But each time when somebody asks us about materials we redirect him or her to artist, we don’t give anything without permission of the author.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: Do you have friends who develop similar initiatives?

Nini Palavandishvili: Yes, we do. For example, French curator Géraldine Paoli from Marseille, who has visited our residency, and who has a lot of connections with Arabian countries and Korea. She wants to create a platform to unite people, initiatives and organizations for collaboration, but out of the frames of existing partnerships and political prescriptions. The name of the project is “CONFLUENCES RESONANTS” (flowing resonances). She lives in the famous house of Le Corbusier in Marseille, in which architecture was planned with social purposes. Géraldine Paoli also turns her flat into a place for meetings and socializing. She organizes different kind of cultural programs and tries to involve inhabitants of the house to participate in it.

We also work with organization in Tirana, the capital of Albania. They lead thematic residencies. We collaborate with residence in Kosice in Slovakia and we work a lot with other countries.

In Georgia everything is centralized and concentrated in the capital. We try to expand our activity outside of Tbilisi as well. Last year we worked in Zugdidi, Rustavi and Mestia, we worked a lot in Batumi as well. But it’s problematic to find artists interested in what we do in Tbilisi. Then, in other cities it’s almost impossible. However, we were able to work with local artists and communities, explained our ideas to them and engage them in our work.

And we do hope that with our activities gradually we will engage more people and make them interested in different approaches and more civil engagement and mediate social context of art.

We were testing the ability of art to change the world

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Vladimir Us

August 29, 2014
Bialystok, Poland

 

Vladimir Us – is a curator of Young Artists Association Oberliht in Moldova. Vladimir studied painting in Chisinau, cultural management in Belgrade, participated in the international program for curators in Grenoble.

Yuriy Kruchak: How many years does Association Oberliht exist? What is its structure?

Vladimir Us: Our association was founded in 2000. I was a third year student of Academy of Music, Theatre and Fine Arts in Chisinau. The purpose of our organization was assistance to young artists to present themselves, as students didn’t have opportunities to exhibit their works. Those times we knew about civil society little, and association was the tool for practical purposes.

Initially, there were 10-12 artists in the collective. We prepared various exhibitions. For example, thanks to the association, we got a place in the historical museum for free. We have exhibitions in different cities and villages of Moldova. One project we even made in Transnistria, then we wanted to show, what young Moldovan artists were doing, and also we wanted to see what young artists in Transnistria were doing.

We also made the site and newsletter, which now is called Oberlist, with its help we informed youth about opportunities of participation in various exhibitions and educational programs. This information resource has grown, and now it’s used not only in Moldova.

Later, many artists from our collective moved to other countries by economic reasons, some of them started to work in other spheres. Experience obtained within first few years helps us today to realize complex international projects.

Since 2006-2007 we started to rebuild activity of our organization. We began to actualize the theme of public space. We didn’t have such space but we needed it as a place for work and a place to show what we do. To some extent, it pushed us on the street. Now Oberliht is a group of people with different professions and different experience. We not only organize exhibitions, but also think about transformations of public space, development of the region, the state, and society.

In the first decade of the 21 century we began to invite local and foreign artists to work in public space. Thus we started our residence program, and we’re continuing it up to now. In 2006-2008 we prepared a series of projects «Interventions»: artists worked in public places in order to change something there. So, we investigated how art can change the world.

Afterwards, there was a project «Сhiosc». It was a platform installed in the public space in Chisinau, such a place of interaction between artists and community. That platform was implemented by Stefan Rusu. He proposed to make an open flat from concrete, designed according to principles of frame-and-panel houses. This construction still stands in front of the Department of Culture of Chisinau, and work for artistic and social purposes.

When we started to use public space in Chisinau, we realized that it’s also attractive for businessmen and politicians, who have their personal interests. Thus, the public space is a place of conflict between different groups, and needs of local residents, who use these spaces, are totally ignored. In this way, it gave us a theme that still has been developing in our works. Now we collaborate not only with artists, but also with architects, sociologists, historians, activists. All these professional groups are aware of the public space, how it works, and they design it. Together with sociologists we explore needs of residents of the particular location, with historians we study the past of the certain terrain, we work with activists, when destruction or disappearance threatens to public places because of somebody’s personal interests.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: How do different social groups influence the activity of the association? How do these communities interact with each other?

Vladimir Us: We form a particular team for each project. Different people unite due to projects. The association is rather a platform for group of programs. It’s not an institution, but it allows initiating projects and engaging lots of people.

We don’t want to create an institution on the base of the association, because it would make work more bureaucratic. We try to function horizontally. We form new team for each our projects, and all teams are equal in taking decisions. The government should have the priority to create institutions. Institutions should protect artists, give them opportunity for development.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: What programs besides residences do Association Oberliht realize?

Vladimir Us: A residence is just one of the formats we are working with. Within this format we invite artists, architects, anthropologist to share their experiences. In this way, representatives of different professions explore an unfamiliar context. But in the same time this program is educational for us, as we realize principles of work with different people by communication with them.

Other programs are connected with «Open Flat» in a frame of «Сhiosc». In 2009 we started a program of open-air projections, where we demonstrate films about public place, urbanism and activism. Political cinema is the new topic for us, in this way we’d like to tell that politics concerns not just political parties but also usual citizens. Also in «Open Flat» we show video-works of artists from different countries.

One more project is the groups for reading. Different people read scientific literature about transformation of public space. There are philosophy and sociology books among others. The library of public place is based on it.

Last few years we’re making sociological interviews with residents of places, where we want to work. I wouldn’t consider it as a particular program, it’s a constant process we are involved in.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: How big is community you are working with?

Vladimir Us: Local art-community is very small, independent institutions of Chisinau can be counted by fingers of a hand. Our audience is also small, and this is a problem that should be solved. One way to do it is the art education. Center of contemporary art in Chisinau has ideas connected with this question and we help them to develop this direction.

We work not only with art communities, but all these groups are small. There are lots of students of the architects in Chisinau but not many from them work with public place. We try to expand this group by inviting “our” architects with lectures in different universities, so, they inform students about things we are keen on.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: How would you describe your political views and, accordingly, position of the platform, you are developing?

Vladimir Us: Association Oberliht is the nonpolitical organization, but our work can be considered as political activity. We try to work on two levels. On “bottom” level we communicate with people and communities. On “upper” level we connect with media, and deliver necessary information to somebody who takes decisions in the cultural sphere. This work is connected with shaping of cultural policy and participation in economical discussions. Also we regularly make propositions about improving cultural policy in the country and present them to the Ministry of Culture. Recommendations mainly connected with support of independent art organizations and with development of urban space. One more aspect is the art education. We develop our activity in these three sectors. Also we’re going to develop other directions in the future.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: How many people work in your organization?

Vladimir Us: At the present moment it’s a group of three people and the accountant. Also some volunteers and trainees help us. In addition, we collaborate with specialists from different spheres.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: How do you take a decision about launching a new project? How difficult is to shape a new team?

Vladimir Us: Decisions about each project are taken by the team. We have a supervisory board from artists, who are members of the association. The supervisory board ensures implementation of particular ideas, namely, support of young artists. Youth are engaged in all projects of the association, and we try to help them. Besides, we want to help society in general.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: Your association exists nearly 14 years. What are the main results?

Vladimir Us: There were two periods in the association. Firstly, it was a collective of artists, who organized exhibitions in different cities, and then we start to work with public spaces. The second stage already has results. We’ve realized projects that still functioning, and created programs that demonstrate results.

We are very small organization, and it’s difficult to measure what we did in terms of quality. It should be at least 20-30 organizations in order to have some obvious results.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: How difficult is to develop Oberliht? Is there any support from authority or society?

Vladimir Us: Our organization is financially independent, we always rely on personal sources. And now the association is developing thanks to people who invest their funds in this activity. But now it’s easier time for us as we’ve learned how to collaborate with international funds to develop our programs. We’ve collected human and financial sources that allow us to work for ourselves. Firstly, we were just surviving, now situation is more stable, though still not good.

The support is the task for the future. For several years we’ve been trying to work on educational program. We give the theory, in order to form knowledge about transformations of public space, and factors that influence on these processes. Now we’re able to form more adequate recommendations and propose some concrete strategies to the authority.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: What are the mechanisms of fundraising?

Vladimir Us: There are some international projects in European Union to support cultural initiatives. Also we’re trying to apply local programs of financing culture and propose to increase the quantity of local foundations which support culture.

We haven’t proposed any legislative reforms yet, but we constantly inform authorities about activity of independent organizations, which, as we think, the state should support. Also there is an initiative, not ours, to create cultural fund of Moldova. Such fund potentially could finance independent culture and initiatives of NGO organizations. Moreover, there is drafted a bill, by which at the end of the year the people should redirect 2% of their taxes to support activity of certain organizations. Besides, we think about participative budget, which could function on the local level. Thus, certain percentage of local budget will cover initiatives of local communities.

Theoretically, the city budget should be participative on hundred percent, but let’s start with a small. This model is functioning in Poland, many cities there have commissions that explore propositions from citizens, and distribute the money between different local initiatives. From the one side residents are involved in the life of the city. From the other side, the budget of the city is distributed much more effectively, because people know better what they need to change in their backyard. Participative budget is more effective and democratic.

Strategies and tactics of the multifunctional center

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Kateryna Botanova

January 20, 2014
Kyiv. Ukraine

 

Kateryna Botanova – art critic, curator, contemporary culture researcher and cultural producer. Director of CSM-Foundation Center for Contemporary Art and founder and chief editor of the online journal on contemporary culture KORYDOR.

Institution as an incubator of meanings

Yuriy Kruchak: Kateryna, last spring you participated in the series of working sessions «Architecture of Opportunities», where the conception of multifunctional center in Ukraine was discussed. How has your vision of this institution changed since that time?

Kateryna Botanova: Now each day brings something new. It seems that everything what we say, should be necessarily dated, because the dynamic of political and social development just incredible, and your words will be interpreted depending on the time when you say that.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: Some people believed that community can’t influence the processes around. Now we can observe the opposite things, people’s indignation spilled out onto the streets.

Kateryna Botanova: I prefer the situation when the community affects the situation, though I’m not sure that it’s reality. The difficulty is to determine to what extent we’d like to influence the political situation as citizens and as artists, representatives of cultural sphere. These questions are weakly elaborated, and it’s very dangerous.

We constantly live without “tomorrow”, without any vision of what will be in a few steps ahead. It’s important to remember that the cultural center is the living structure, which consists of needs of producers of cultural phenomena, needs of the audience, the knowledge of this audience as well as human and material resources. The disposition of these four blocks is dynamic and constantly changed over the last year, it’s a very sharp change, especially in the field of sources. Both human and material sources are drying up. In our country welfare expenditures constantly decreasing, that’s why understanding of the importance of these spheres disappears. Human sources depend on the material, and now we are facing with deprofessionalization in the field of culture. So, we need to learn and evolve, but we don’t have opportunities to do so, because we think how to survive.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: Yet, how should the structure of the multifunctional center look? The situation at night of January 20, 2014, shows us that the community doesn’t want to have old models of governance, and probably need new ways of interaction between authorities and citizens. Perhaps, the multifunctional center should develop these new models of relationships between social groups, shouldn’t it?

Kateryna Botanova: Generally, my vision of the center hasn’t changed, but it became clearer since the last year. Today I strongly disagree that it’s necessary to establish a dialogue with the current regime. To the bitter end I was sure that that was necessary, and I saw the way of peaceful changes. But now I understand that negotiations are impossible, because it’s impossible to negotiate with a rifle. This statement certainly doesn’t mean that public communication unwanted. We have a lack of communication, and no government could succeed without it.

As for the cultural center, to my mind, it’s important that cultural activity consists of thinking and sensual activities, even in the broadest sense of culture. This is an opportunity to see, to formulate and to embody certain ideas, values and concepts, which are important for the modern society, and which will determine its future. The system of communication and relationships in different parts of society should be built around this thing.

When we have nothing, when there’s only “the poor landscape with yellow grass”, there is a danger that we’ll try to cram into a cultural center everything. We must think what to choose. It’s important for me that interdisciplinary organization, at least at the first stage, should be an incubator, a place for thinking, perceiving and creation of concepts, ideas and certain social models. The ability to do something in an artistic sphere is one of the most important basic needs.

The model of incubator is hard to understand. In the future the cultural center will have different phases of development, and it will change over time. It’s very difficult to plan something, the needs of the society and the mass of critical thinking are changing, and these processes are difficult to measure. Now uncertainty is the key element of people’s work in the cultural field. However, any managerial model requires specific vision of prospects.

Incubator, which I’m talking about, is a valuable thing. Enormous amount of sources should be spent on inconspicuous activities. At the same time, the funds that come in this sector require public, preferably a positive, reaction. Incubator doesn’t give it before a certain moment.

And it’s obvious, that some educational activities should exist parallel to the incubator. It’s necessary to identify principles of the dialogue in order to set up it. Why during the revolution should be protected Art Museum and the library of the parliament? Why the consequences of such losses will be crucial for many generations? I don’t know how to explain it. It’s lost so much over the last 20 years…

 

Yuriy Kruchak: For the last 20 years people in Ukraine were more concerned about success, and very little time was given for development of the model, oriented towards an effective understanding of current social processes. It seems to me that the center we are speaking about, could contribute the formation of such structure. This is a long process, but it would help to understand how we can influence politicians and culture. Now society is excluded from cultural and political processes, people make a choice only during elections.

So, what segments the incubator could consist of?

Kateryna Botanova: I don’t think that the cultural center should influence policy, especially politicians. It’s naive to assume that cultural institution should directly influence the political reality. In my opinion, the specificity of our lives and civil lawlessness now led to the violence and protest, which have no strategy and inefficient in creating a policy.

The most important thing in cultural activity is immersion in the process, but keeping certain distance, which allows us to see in perspective, to create a variety of “tomorrow”, to watch who we are as individuals and as a society. There’s shortage of perspectives in the Ukrainian art today, we’d like to affect the situation immediate. But it’s impossible. In the future cultural institutions should influence society, but differently: through the creation of knowledge, values and audiences that will realize these values, including the political field. So, in a certain sense culture creates a policy, as a certain strategy of development of the public spheres. This question is particularly difficult today, and the nature of sources will affect the political interaction.

Other important issue is the insularity of our reality on Ukrainian problems only. This point creates the illusion that everything what happens here is crucial for the world. It’s a kind of some rumination instead of studying from the external context.

I think that the cultural center should include residences with different durations, with the possibility to combine different artistic disciplines and researches. Some exposition, working areas, places for discussions and concerts also will be needed there. The processes in an incubator should be open for discussion. It’s important to organize educational and awareness activities, which will be built around the incubator and accompanying events, and which will create a context and a history. The other significant issue is the establishment of the international context on the basis of residence and exhibitions. Research activities should be implemented as part of the residences through some art projects and publications. Besides, investments to the creating an artistic product and establishing deeper contacts with the audience will be needed. Ideal model of the center should develop in a spiral, expanding its circles.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: Who will participate in residences? In what spaces they will be held?

Kateryna Botanova: For response on these questions it’s necessary to concretize previous issues, otherwise, it’s the space of pure fantasy, and hypotheses may be far from reality. Theoretically, collaboration and joint “boiling” of various types of artistic practices are very important, because such modifications help to generate new ideas. I don’t know how to do it technically. In such situation, a significant role will play curators, their ability to construct the space of communication. Again, there’s a question of sources, of the availability of right people in Ukraine.

On the other hand, a question of decision-making always will be in described structure. Who will be the authority? Honestly, I don’t know, because both models as with the sole expert and with the collective leadership have a number of pros and cons. The collective’s professional decision always creates a protective buffer, everyone always can say “it’s not me”, this model can be effective in terms of volume of knowledge, but I’m not sure that it’s good for management. Individual decision of curator is always limited by knowledge, ability to take risks. However, such model can be more successful for implementation the certain vision of development.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: What do you think about the prospects of relationships between artists and existing institutions? There are many houses of culture now…

Kateryna Botanova: I don’t see a connection between institutions and houses of culture. From my understanding, an institution is a certain sequence of strategies and policies, and houses of culture are entities, which try to survive in modern conditions. Cultural center obviously will be created in Kyiv on private funds, because others don’t exist in Ukraine. Reform of the houses of culture and creation of cultural centers in the regions are important issues, but from different level. Houses of culture should work with local needs, which are simple to implement. I know few cities which are trying to work with this: Vinnitsa, Lviv, Kremenchug, Dnipropetrovsk, and Lugansk. Speaking about Kyiv we assume artistic professional environment with the different type of audience.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: What cultural institutions can be considered as examples of your model? Maybe such places exist abroad?

Kateryna Botanova: Ideologically, no. We have a completely different situation, although partially the center will be based on the experience of other organizations. There’re a number of European residences that explore practices of various institutions. A few years ago it was created a book about interdisciplinary cooperation – resources and so on. Each segment of the future center should consider experience of others and methods of combination it with our realities. We have a situation when there is absolutely no budget, there is only private money, which is likely to be a certain type of money of a certain person – so, this person will have a significant impact on what will happen.

There is a perfect model of artistic residences in Warsaw. It can be taken as a model, but how much does it cost? It’s supported by organization that now is in a big crisis because of the problems with financing and management. Residences have autonomy, but the institution provides possibilities for projects development. That’s why when it begins to fall apart, everything collapsing.

«Constant need in culture is important»

Yuriy Kruchak: What could be the goals of the multifunctional center?

Kateryna Botanova: I’m sure that the goal of such organization would be the formation of cultural policy of the society, while doing this alone isn’t very effective. We need a platform that will enlist co-operation of others, stimulate particular processes, because the collective action dies without leader. However, it’s all rhetoric, until it becomes clear what authority is in the country. Cultural policy should be implemented through state authorities – only in these circumstances it’ll be effective.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: What is the point from which a network of cultural institutions could be built? Who could work in a supervisory board of the multifunctional center?

Kateryna Botanova: There are some tactical issues on which impossible to answer without response on the strategic issues. We can’t discuss who will join the supervisory board, if it isn’t clear what kind of structure we’re talking about. I like the incubator model. In such organization may be a few councils, among them supervisory board or board of trustees, which will work with the development strategy of the institution and with possibilities of implementing this strategy in terms of resources and financing. Ideally, it should consist of people working in the cultural sector and in the business, who understand features of the art product. Members of such board should form supporting networks around institutions, and the wider these networks will be, the better it’ll be for the center.

The choice of residences and forming the program can be controlled by expert council of several specialists, or by the curator who will work with the contract and could deal with this. However, it’s almost impossible in Ukrainian conditions. Again we face with the question of how to find the curator.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: In my opinion, we can’t talk about sources until we start to offer small projects that are different from the existing ones. For example, “Hromadske TV” demonstrates a certain level of journalism, and people trust it. It’s necessary to restore the public confidence to the institutions. Confidence in the quality of the product ensures the credibility of the institution which produces it.

Kateryna Botanova: I think the comparison with “Hromadske TV” is dangerous, because it’s the project for a fairly narrow range of people. There’s a community that understands that we have affiliated information field, there is demand on information, and there’s a source of professional journalists – all these things create a database. Group of professionals gathered just in time, although the question of the financing is not so clear. Will this project be systematic, will it exist the next year? Another risk that not many people understand that quality information should be supplemented by quality analytics.

A potential cultural center doesn’t have a reference group now. Whatever changed the political circumstances, I can’t imagine a situation when people would feel a necessity of this project. Information is necessary now for the survival of society, it’s the factor of political struggle. Culture in Ukraine has never been recognized as a factor which guarantee the existence of society, and it’s unreal to instill it now.

Different layers of society have to understand the strategic objectives of the multifunctional center. We, the initiative group of cultural activists, distinguish among our tasks an extension of the circle of people who support certain ideas. It’s important for society to have a constant need in culture, as it binds our yesterday, today and tomorrow. When tragic events on Hrushevskoho Street become points of history, something remains, which will be able to accumulate knowledge about those days. But it’s a huge task which needs a giant network of supporters.

Awareness of the importance of culture can come in a month or in a few years. Talking about these processes has no sense now because society “burns”. Community began to hear cultural environment a little in the late 2000s, it was possible to write about art, and it provoked response among society, but then – boom! – everything fell down, among other reasons of that were political realities. We should keep redefining of the importance of culture in perspective, and today also take some small steps in this direction.

Now we, cultural activists, can say that we are small, and with specific needs. The world around these needs will grow, and they will become important rather for part of the society. We should accept the fact that not everybody will share our beliefs. I’m not sure that someone will hear our idea of a cultural center, but it’s required at least by a part of the cultural environment, and we should speak about it. If we extend our circle, maybe we’ll be heard, somebody will see our needs, and we will do the next step.

P.S.

Since this conversation, after the tragic days on Hrushevskoho Street in January 2014, only three months passed, but it seems like an eternity. Today, we, the cultural activists, can and should talk not only about requirements to the new authority, but also about collaborative work with policies and strategies, what we actually do. But the main issues regarding the establishment of a cultural center in Kyiv haven’t changed: development of contemporary art practices, understanding painful reality through art, development and cooperation – today these points are not on the agenda. As not on the agenda funding of this project from private source, because all sources are invested in the war, or are abroad.

Contemporary art it is the language of people, which they haven’t distinguish yet.

Open Place interviewed Monika Szewczyk

October 26, 2013
Tbilisi. Georgia

 

Monika Szewczyk is an art historian, an exhibition curator, the director of Arsenal Gallery in Bialystok, Poland. Since 1990, she’s been creating collection of II Gallery Arsenal. Monika Szewczyk is the author and curator of more than 100 exhibitions. There’re “The Journey to the East” (Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok, Poland and MOCAK, Krakow, Poland), “Here & Now” (Zaheta Gallery, Warsaw, Poland and Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok, Poland), “Four Roses” (Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok, Poland), “How to talk about contemporary art” (Jak rozmawiać o sztuce współczesnej; Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok, Poland). In 2011 she was the curator of the third festival of arts in the public space “Public place” in Lublin, Poland.

Open Place: How gallery may affect the cultural policy of the state, and how policy affects the gallery?

Monika Szewczyk: Our influence on the policy of the state is minimal. We work at the provincial city gallery, though not in a small town. Perhaps, the only thing we can do, it’s to do our duties, which includes to show contemporary art as better as we can, focusing on the essential artists from Poland and other countries. And if the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage wants to make some conclusions from our program, it’s very well. Gallery can only scream and emphasize in its provincial town that these artists, works and projects are incredibly important. And for all of us is important to demonstrate this progressive art.

 

Open Place: Provincial, as you say, gallery organize workshops in Tbilisi and Kiev. It seems that it’s a proper policy of the state, which makes this work possible. Is it true?

Monika Szewczyk: It’s my own decision. I was always interested in the presentation of Polish art and in its promotion abroad. I started to do such activity, and it’s been developed. Then work only with Polish art became a too narrow path for me. I feel that our position is estimated by the Ministry, its officials know that our gallery is fine, and they trust to our work.

Why did we start doing projects abroad? I’ve been working at the gallery in Bialystok for twenty years, and I remember times when magnificent Polish artists were underestimated. Therefore it was essential to remind the world about their existence in places where we could go. To my mind, it’s very important for artists, arts and cultural policy of Poland, and we have madness for this, we want to do this.

Also we concentrate on the art of Eastern Europe, the art of states, which are located near Poland: Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Moldova. It’s said a lot about the Eastern Partnership, and we try to make it real, to implement it in the community of artists.

 

Open Place: So, is it exist an internal agreement between the Ministry of Culture and private initiatives, certain agents?

Monika Szewczyk: When I hear “the private initiative”, I don’t associate it with myself, because, to my mind, private and commercial galleries have some specific purpose. Gallery Arsenal is not a private institution, it’s the urban public gallery, and we spend public money. I think we realize what the Ministry expects of us, in such way that we’ve been making exhibitions for the presentation of Polish culture in the world for many years.

Also it’s important to me that art is interested in the Eastern partnership. Poland and Sweden are two countries which have proposed to EU the idea of the Eastern Partnership. The EaP includes six countries from the former Soviet Union: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. I’m convinced that it was a very important decision.

 

Open Place: What is the role of education in the cultural policy?

Monika Szewczyk: I’m doing a little in the field of the cultural policy… I work in my sphere, and from the experience of running the gallery I’ve understood that it’s impossible to conduct such institution, if it doesn’t have the educational program. We need to work with these aspects simultaneously, we should organize interesting exhibitions and make them “included” in the society, make them conceived by recipients.

Educational program is an important element of the budget and activities of Arsenal Gallery. There are several educational events around each exhibition. It seems that society underestimates, dislikes and doesn’t perceive contemporary art. We must convince the community that in fact it’s for them, it’s their language, which they haven’t known yet. And when they understand this language of contemporary art, they’ll love it, I’m sure.

Our works become a part of our life

Open Place interviewed Constantine Kitiashvili, Ekaterina Ketsbaia and Natalia Vasadze - members of the Bouillon Group

October 26, 2013
Tbilisi. Georgia

 

The Bouillon Group (Natalia Vatsadze, Teimuraz Kartlelishvili, Vladimer Khartishvili, Konstantine Kitiashvili, Ekaterina Ketsbaia, Zurab Kikvadze) was founded in 2008. The Bouillon Group is the one of a few artists’ groups focusing on utilization of public non artistic spaces. The group is concentrated on e active confluence of a space, which is not concerned with art and artistic production or in contrary intervention with non artistic activity in artistic space.

Open Place: When the Bouillon Group was organized?

The Bouillon Group: In 2008. Firstly, the members of the group set up an exhibition separately, within other groups. Then it was held the first apartment exhibition where participants joined partially, and with the next apartment exhibition almost the whole group worked together. So, gradually we united.

 

Open Place: Why did you choose the format of apartment exhibitions?

The Bouillon Group: Such exhibitions were very popular in the 1980s and 1990s, but after 1990 they were stopped. First of all, we liked that this niche is free today. Secondly, we enjoy the apartment’s space itself, as we work with site-specific, the kind of space and structure together, on which the work is “molded”. Thirdly, we’re searching the place, where we could feel more comfortable: in private space, or in space, which is called “public”, does this space really exists, and whether we can do something there.

As alternative we’ve had galleries with their own programs, policies and curators. All these circumstances always constrain you, but you must take them into account.

 

Open Place: So, it was an attempt to create your own cultural policy without using already existing artistic space, wasn’t it?

The Bouillon Group: It was an attempt to open a private space, and find out where the public space is. In Soviet times the so-called “public space”, in fact, was used by the regime. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, public space seemed to appear, but, actually, it was private. For 23 years little has changed.

Another problem is that it’s no space where you could do something. All galleries are square and white, but we expect from our place something else. Some apartments give this “something else”: they can be small or locate in an old house of the early 19th century… Visitors don’t know where they go, what kind of space they see.

 

Open Place: How do you work with site-specific projects? What data do you use? What is the starting point?

The Bouillon Group: We get together, and, if somebody has an idea, for example, to make some performance, we discuss it. As the result we have a completely different work. Actually, it remains without the author, and it’s very important, it’s our specificity. We create projects together. Each of us is the author, because initial ideas transform during our collaboration.

It’s difficult to come to agreement. Sometimes everybody sticks to his own gun, and each of us follows his own concepts. If we don’t reach consensus, we postpone the project. If we find a common vision of some work, we do it.

 

Open Place: How is important for you the place where each particular work occurs?

The Bouillon Group: The place, a flat or a gallery, is very important for us. In some cases we came to the particular apartment, and a new idea arose right there. Space often dictates to us what we could do there. It’s like a canvas, where you should draw something.

 

Open Place: How do you consider people you interact with?

The Bouillon Group: They are participants of the work and co-authors. At our apartment exhibitions we involved residents of flats, so they’re the part of the work and our collaborators.

 

Open Place: What are the tools of this co-authorship?

The Bouillon Group: In one work we changed the direction of the door eyes for some flats. Residents of these apartments allowed us to change the direction of their peepholes. Moreover, some of them opened the doors and let visitors come.

Usually, especially in performances, we have some starting point. We know that we’re going to do something, but it remains open how our work will continue. Until the end nobody knows what will happen next, it’s always very exciting. We try to create a kind of interactive, so an audience could join us maximally. But it’s true just for some works.

 

Open Place: Does an artist have any limitations?

The Bouillon Group: Only personal morality, if he or she has it.

 

Open Place: Should an artist be responsible to society?

The Bouillon Group: In principle, we think not.

 

Open Place: Do you consider your activity as an art only, or it also included other functions?

The Bouillon Group: Things which we do never are just the artworks; they become a part of our life. For example, when we’re doing work with the barbell, we couldn’t imagine that we’d stop going to the gym and raising the barbell, it became a part of our lifestyle. After works which were realized with other people, we often continue contacts made during the project.

It’s hard to tell when the work began and when it ended. Sometimes we repeat the works, but in each case they are different, because of the space, where we reproduce them, and due to the people we communicate with. Where is life and where is art? It’s a very interesting question.

Once we did the Birthday of Georgia’s Mother, the sculpture. For this we set the table and organized traditional Georgian feast. The toastmaster glorified the mother of Georgia, and other mothers from Ukraine, Russia and Armenia. People, who came, didn’t realize whether it was an artwork or it actually happened, because in Tbilisi you can often see such feast, when people just have a drink, and everything is fine. It’s unclear where the border is.

 

Open Place: Do you define this border or not?

The Bouillon Group: No, we live in a system with no boundaries, so there’re no borders in our works. Anything can be art, and nothing can be art. But if we call something an “art”, it becomes art.

 

Open Place: Why such art is valuable for you?

The Bouillon Group: Well, we like to do what we do, we learn a lot, we enjoy communication with people, and they like to participate in our projects. This is the first and the most important thing. Also, when we started, our works weren’t funded, we invested our money. Till now we’ve been financing our artworks personally, and we’re pleased to do it.

 

Open Place: How do you fund the works? Where do you find sources?

The Bouillon Group: It’s very difficult. We’ve never applied for funding. Actually, we always do everything at our expense. When somebody invites us, for example, in European countries, they finance a work production, pay some fee, refund road expenses etc. But we’ve never sought it. This year it was the first time when the Ministry of Culture funded us.

 

Open Place: What was this work exactly?

The Bouillon Group: The Ministry of Culture invited us to participate in the Venice Biennale. We presented the work – «Aerobics», which we did two years ago in Bialystok, Poland. It devotes to the problem that really exists in Georgia and other post-Soviet countries; it’s religious fanaticism. This year “Aerobics” became relevant again, because on May17th in Tbilisi people, who came out against homophobia were beaten. Those, who beat were basically priests. Just after that, at the end of May we went to Venice.

 

Open Place:In Venice, as we know, you also did the installation…

The Bouillon Group: There were two our works in Venice. The first was the TV set with aerobics video stylized in aesthetic of 1980s. The second was the albums with photos from our apartment exhibitions.

Loggia in Georgian pavilion wasn’t our work, it was Kamikaze Loggia of Gio Sumbadze, and author of the title is Levan Asabashvili. This supposedly happened in 1990s in the time of lawlessness, after breakup of the Soviet Union. People began to make such outbuildings on the houses. Some of them wrecked, that’s why they got the name Kamikaze Loggia. The theme of work was the last 20 years in Georgia.

So, they did the work about Kamikaze Loggia, and we did the project about religion, which is increasingly radicalized, the situation is getting worse.

 

Open Place: How do you imagine the audience for such art?

The Bouillon Group: In Georgia the audience and the visitors are artists who work in the same field. In general, they come to see what makes “a rival firm”. But in case of apartment exhibitions, where inhabitants are involved, it’s interesting.

We like working with people. Even unconsciously they engage to contemporary art, however, they need lots of explanations. Last year for one work we’re collecting culinary recipes of all women from the particular street to make the book, and then asked women to cook according to their culinary recipes. We printed the book and invited those women. Our edition looked funny, as we’d done it by scanning old papers, which were yellowish and torn. Women who saw their recipes in the book were delighted, and those whose recipes weren’t included in the work were very upset.

Initially, nobody wanted to participate, they were lazy. When we said that we would bring products for their signature dishes, many of them refused. But some agreed, and their recipes were included in our book.

 

Open Place: Should art be linked with a place where artist lives?

The Bouillon Group: We work with the themes that surround us, and they could be global or local. We’re working with our space, and if we go somewhere, we’ll work with the new one.

As for the project Religious Aerobics, though it concerns our area, it would be topical in Russia or Poland as well. So, we can work with a local theme, but at the same time it might be global.

 

Open Place: What about evolution of your art? Do you set some tasks for yourselves?

The Bouillon Group: Yes, we do. Our task for the next year is to go to the residences, because we have a few ideas, but we don’t have any finances for their realization.

Firstly, we want to make the book about our practice. Something we’ve already overcome, now we are at the certain point, and we need to gather together and figure out what we’ve done. Secondly, we want to do a particular work. We have ideas, but we need sources to realize them.

 

Open Place: So, your development is in a summing-up, isn’t it?

The Bouillon Group: It’s only one point, but we’re not going to stop, we’ll go ahead.

 

Open Place:You told that there is no support at the state level. Have you tried to influence this situation?

The Bouillon Group: No, we haven’t. But something has become different after the change of government. Now the Ministry helps us a bit. It was the first time when the government chose the project for the Venice Biennale by open call. And if someone has an invitation to participate in a particular cultural event, they can apply, and they’ll be financed at least partially.

We can influence with our works, but in direct way we haven’t done it yet.

 

Open Place: Is Georgian society structured? Are there any active communities in Georgia? Do the artists interact with themselves?

The Bouillon Group: There’re several communities of artists. Some of them are very isolated, most of their participants are the children of film directors and artists, who contact only with each other and consider themselves as privileged, even toward us.

Artists, who don’t consider themselves as some “elite”, interact with everyone, organize open events. We also work like this: we open our apartments’ exhibitions and invite everyone. As for some specific group, it’s young people.

 

Open Place: Does civil society exist in Georgia?

The Bouillon Group: There is no civil society, but also there is Facebook, where everybody can express openly, and, in principle, do that.

 

Open Place: How social networks influence the Georgian local context?

The Bouillon Group: They affect only if they coincide with the certain circumstances, for example, political. If we have elections tomorrow, and today Facebook is very active, it can affect the situation. But if today Facebook is active and it would be no elections tomorrow, there’s no impact, then. Impulse to the debates comes from outside, not from Facebook to the streets, but from the streets to Facebook.

 

Open Place: Did the Rose Revolution affect your position?

The Bouillon Group: For the five years we’ve been working together, there were no revolutions in Georgia. Of course, politics influence our work, but we don’t organize any actions, we can only join to something. For example, we want to go to the border between Russia and Georgia, where a protest action is being held these days. Different activists take part in it.

 

Open Place: What kind of protest action?

The Bouillon Group: Activists just stand near the border. If they do something, a war will start. We’re also going to stand. In this way we want to declare our position, we’re against the aggression. But the Bouillon Group never organized any political actions.

 

Open Place: Do you push the policy away from your works consciously?

The Bouillon Group: It appears in our works, but in very subtle way. Our projects aren’t the open books, people should reflect on them. Our works contain policy and sociology, closely connected with the policy, but primarily we raise social issues.

 

Open Place: Are you anarchists?

The Bouillon Group: No, but all six of us are different. During working process we often argue. Someone wants to do more politicized things with clearly articulated attitude, and someone doesn’t want to declare position actively.

 

Open Place: How do you achieve the balance?

The Bouillon Group: Usually we swear hardly, and if we have a majority, it takes a decision.

 

Open Place: But as a result of this dialogue, even conflict, do you come to a new vision and commit the conclusions? Does this process affect you personally, so that you integrate your feelings into new work?

The Bouillon Group: At some point I (Natalia Vasadze – the author’s note) began recording how we did our works. Then I decided to make a film: I prepared questions, each member of the group answers them individually, and I record it. My questions are provocative, they can really hurt. They’re about our preparation to exhibitions and our perception of them.

 

Open Place: Do you have any allies locally, in Georgia?

The Bouillon Group: Yes, it’s our friends. It’s very special cases, and it’s not a class or a group, but individuals.

 

Open Place: Do you have a target audience?

The Bouillon Group: No, we don’t have an audience at all, so no reasons to talk about the target one.

 

Open Place: To your mind, is it possible to affect the formation of the audience?

The Bouillon Group: Somehow we tried to influence. During our early apartment exhibitions we planned to arrange discussions, but this idea failed.

 

Open Place: Nobody came?

The Bouillon Group: No, people came, but the questions didn’t concern the theme of discussion, they didn’t develop anything. Discussion turned to chitchat.

We can affect the situation by our works. We let a person be a part of the art-object, and he or she begins to interact with it. It’s the only way to influence, especially if the person isn’t aware of art.

Nevertheless we’ve affected the weightlifters. Sportsmen didn’t understand what we’re doing; they thought we’re preparing for a competition. Weightlifters couldn’t admit that it’s possible to raise the barbell without any specific purpose. They couldn’t understand that we have nobody to compete: our task was to know how much each of us could rise. However weightlifters hosted us for free, we had three professional coaches, and in the gym we felt like at home. Then the athletes came to our exhibition: they were interested in what we did, and that’s great.

 

Open Place: Did something change in their minds at that time?

The Bouillon Group: We think they discovered something new. Firstly, they didn’t understand us, but then they got used, we became friends gradually, and everything became different.

Thanks to interdisciplinary centers we’ll learn how to dream professionally

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Irina Solovey

April 15, 2013  
Kyiv, Ukraine

 

Iryna Solovey – President of civic organization Garage Gang Kollektiv, co-founder of social innovations platform «BIG IDEA» and Spilnokosht.

Yuriy Kruchak: What is the main thing in formation of multifunctional center?

Iryna Solovey: Multifunctional centers are the places where important initiatives are implemented. So, the basic requirement is to create a backbone organization for coordination of participants’ activities according to the common agenda.

Other goal of the backbone organization is to create a system of indicators for determination how the project’s progressing. This factor is especially important when we talk about social changes. Indicators can be different for different participants. Thanks to them a service organization could see the general picture. Thus, at any time it’s possible to evaluate the center’s work at different stages of its development.

Another important function of the backbone organization is consolidation, or assistance in resolving of the conflicts among the participants. Organization, which we discuss, considers a conflict as a good challenge. Usually contradictions arise in the group when its members have hardly enough competence, but movements in problem direction are necessary. Conflicts also reflect situations peculiar to the community where the project operates. Contradiction is a source of valuable information both for members of the organization and for society in general, so, obtained knowledge can be applied in the future.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: What is the mechanism of information analysis in multifunctional center?

Iryna Solovey: People who develop the principles of facilitation use different methods to estimate the situation. The strategy, I’m familiar with, considers the process as something, which evolves in time continually. According to this, people don’t think how it should or should not be, as they aren’t able to know this. They say how it was, how it is, and how it could be. Specialists are focused on what is happening in this space and at this time, and they try to make a prospection using the present situation as a starting point.

It’s a difficult work. People have been studying for years to learn this. The certain level of competence allows us to explore the certain level of information. The more competent facilitators are, the more they’ll be able to see. It’s not always well, because if you got information, you need to digest it and to work with it.

The organization, we are talking about, is self-learning, it integrates obtained answers into the principles of its work, it coordinates separated actions. I like to use the notion of “continuum”. Somebody graduated from the high school, somebody other finished the university, and both of them are “educated”. Firstly we need to determine the continuum.

Service centers, which we discussed, have the clear understanding of the fact that each project has the proper client tier. And organizers of the center realize that people working on the project are the same consumers of this project, as those who join it periodically. They know perfectly both target audience and the audience they don’t want to attract, so, they use demarketing skilfully. The last point is important: for example, if an artist realizes that some idea may be interpreted wrong by certain people, he makes the presentation of his work using demarketing.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: Who would form the backbone of the service center? Which professions could be represented there? What are the mechanisms of interaction people in this organization?

Iryna Solovey: One of the problems, that should be solved, is assistance in identifying areas of responsibility between participants. The crucial point in successful work of service centers is considerable attention to details. Organizers define each new member as entity of the unique culture. They talk to each new participant, explain all principles of work in the given cultural space, and at the same time they reveal main benefits of the culture that new person represents. For example, someone came into the center from business background, he has good business thinking. The question is: what can we learn from him? How can we help each other?

It’s a complex model that needs to be translated into the language of the present. In fact, interdisciplinary organization provides services at different levels of interaction: someone comes from time to time, someone makes a big project. The center coordinates these processes, works to minimize the cost and maximize the projects’ recognition. It sounds like bare listing of the facts, but the center’s coordinators are required to keep in focus current goals of the organization, to feel each participant. The word “facilitator” fits to their role, because they contribute to what is happening.

The necessary precondition of successful work is regular meetings of the main participants. The task of the service organization is to work with this group of people all the time. If a participant of the organization is working at some project, he’s obliged to visit meetings regularly. It allows monitoring relationships inside organization and raising topical issues on time not to miss something important.

The structure of service organization and qualifications of its members depends on what project is creating. It can be representatives of one particular field, but then we could have a lop-sided review from some sphere. If all participants of the center are artists who don’t seeking financing, don’t do management and curating, their ability to be helpful decreases. Thus, it’s important for organization to have people with working experience in different fields.

 

Yuriy Kruchak: How such Multifunctional Center can survive?

Iryna Solovey: Society needs the space and people who always do experiments and generate ideas for practical usage. I wish the Multifunctional Center, we’re talking about, was a kind of a think tank for these things. Such think tank could focus on the future, and if business or an entire industry will want to determine the development strategy, in the center they’ll be supported and will assess the situation from different angles. Recently I’ve attended the meeting where economists acted as facilitators; they’re looking for ways to connect those who have assets and those who have the means. These people are often in different social groups, and it slows the economy.

Thus, service centers help to analyze the future and to explore applied technologies. In general, we’ll learn how to dream professionally.

Taking responsibility is an important point. For example, a designer invented his own perfect world and made an object appropriated in this world. And he takes responsibility for this creation. It hasn’t been completely clear for me yet, but I feel that it’s incredibly important, because it concerns our organization. The fact that cities could think in terms of their creativity is important for us. We take it as the starting point and explore how some city can implement its creative energy to be consistent with the world. It’s an illusion, but it allows us to say that things, which we create, are designed for cities that want to live in the certain way. We don’t say that everybody should live so, but we work for people who are interested in our ideas.

The fact that not everybody wants to live like we propose, we consider as a positive moment. If we make a mistake, another stream won’t allow us to go the wrong way. Thus, we don’t have a direct way, we’ll never reach our maximum, we need to study constantly, and we’re secure from the absurd.

Food for a Museum

Yulia Kostereva interviewed Data Chigholashvili and Nini Palavandishvili

August 25, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine

 

Data Chigholashvili is working between social anthropology and contemporary art, exploring the connections between them through theoretical research and projects. Since 2012 Data is affiliated with artist initiative GeoAIR. Nini Palavandishvili joined artist initiative GeoAIR in 2006 and since then she is actively engaged in curating and organising international exchange project in Georgia and beyond its borders. Through her projects Nini researches on social and political contexts and its interpretation in the context of cultural production and contemporary art. 

“Nobody really spends a thought on which role does cuisine and culinary play in our everyday life”

Yulia Kostereva: How does your previous experience intersect with your activities in Melitopol?

Data Chigholashvili: I think first of all the context is of course so different, the idea of many ethnic groups, or nationalities that come together – that is very actively present here. We’ve been working with people from different countries who live in Georgia, but there the context and the project was different. It was very interesting working with the group here, everybody had so much to contribute and most of them were so active and had lots of useful ideas for the project and it was also quite interesting that all of them were women. Here and there we had few men who stopped by, but most active ones were all women. Maybe that is stereotypically due to the fact that the project was about recipes and food, which is also an interesting fact. And in terms of what we were emphasizing – the exchange aspect was a starting point for the project in Melitopol, which was again another perspective on foodways.

Nini Palavandishvili: If in the previous case it was an exchange between us and our project participants, in this case it was an exchange among all the involved individuals. All the participants had to exchange among themselves and share. And this was very interesting to see and to observe it in this group of people.

Yulia Kostereva: Why did you suggest such an activity for Melitopol?

Data Chigholashvili: This year and last year we have been working a lot with cooking and we wanted to look at it a bit differently this time. It was mostly recipes and details, like culinary notebooks, again it was limited around the culinary aspects, but at the same time it was about the memory connected with this recipes and food. What I think was important about this project is that the museum and the culinary traditions are not really something that people would think together most of the time. Even though a lot of things that museums show, about whatever period, are connected to food and to kitchens and how people got food, what instruments did they use, a lot of things are there about the kitchen, etc. so why not bring contemporary foodways into a museum? And, I think, one of the good examples was that a woman who was doing the TV shows about cooking, she brought this film here after she attended the first session. She thought that it is OK to show it in the museum. I’m thinking she could have shown it before, and now somehow the boundary has shifted a little bit.

Nini Palavandishvili: And it is an interesting thing, that very often when you have different cultural activities, especially exhibition openings – vernissages, finissages – there is always food present at this kind of events, but nobody thinks of talking about this food, and why exactly that food is present. Nobody really spends a thought on which role does cuisine and culinary play in our everyday life.

“In the museum there is already quite a big number of people who are the community”

Yulia Kostereva: To what extent have your expectations regarding this work in Melitopol come true?

Data Chigholashvili: I think it’s wrong to have any precise expectations for a work, which is based on the process. This is very short term what we did here. One thing is what you see as a final result, or maybe the final event, but generally you work for a day or two and most of the things change during the process, which does not mean there is something wrong with the project, if nothing changes, then there might be something wrong. Sometimes, if the context and/or participants require, one can even go further from what one initially wanted to work on. We had some thoughts – maybe we go this or that way…

Nini Palavandishvili: But then these thoughts are about the process not about a final result or an outcome.

Yulia Kostereva: Did you notice any particular issues connected with working in a small town?

Nini Palavandishvili: It very much depends on a place and on a community. I think in the museum there is already quite a big number of people who are the community and they are visitors, they are friends, they are close participants of these events. It can be also in a big city when there are not many people participating in such events and that can be a village where people are disinterested. But in this case it was definitely very nice to see that so many people come to the museum and appreciate what is done here and also looking forward to new things and to get engaged.

Yulia Kostereva: How can the museum in Melitopol develop?

Data Chigholashvili: Personally, I would add more contemporary elements on the first floor, which they already have in a way, but not only to find the person who does caricatures or does portraits and make their exhibition in the museum, but also to look at things that are a bit different, but speak so much about the people, maybe, also have open calls and get some ideas from locals on what to exhibit temporarily. For instance, the recipe books, they can be so interesting in the context of this museum and in the context of the multicultural environment of Melitopol.

Nini Palavandishvili: And it is interesting always to rethink and to look anew on the museum collection and to work with it. To work and change the permanent exposition they have, to make more thematic exhibitions from the collection they have and also to add new things. And of course with the participation of many different people and to opening it more up.

Data Chigholashvili: Involving people in the work instead of just offering them something, so that they know that it is also part of their city. And that is very important, that it is more doable here, than in the bigger cities, in the bigger museums.

Yulia Kostereva: What other conclusions or thoughts following the project would you like to share?

Nini Palavandishvili: Wishes maybe, that these kind of initiatives are not temporary and single initiatives. That the museum also takes it over. Because that is also what we’ve been talking about, that you or any other artist won’t be able to work here permanently. I would wish, that they would continue this kind of work themselves, they would look for different people, they would themselves initiate things to trigger their own creativity and to developing the museum themselves.

The Game of Life

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Nina Khodorivska and Jana Salakhova

June 30, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine

 

You can agree with the thesis that life is theatre, or you can dispute it, but it doesn’t hurt to rehearse some of your actions. This is proven by the experience of the “theatre of the oppressed.” Nina Khodorivska and Jana Salakhova are the “jokers” in Theatre for Dialogue, which operates according to this method. In Melitopol the activists held a theatre workshop for people without prior acting skills. The participants in the event, with the help of theatre games, learnt about memory and how it is constructed and destroyed. These “jokers”, i.e. coaches in the “theatre of the oppressed”, together with the participants, prepared sketches about memory, history and Melitopol, based on real-life events, and the thoughts and experiences of real people.

In an interview, Nina and Jana explained how, through theatrical games, they teach people to defend their rights, what their performances have in common with ancient Greek tragedies, and talked in detail about their work in Melitopol.

How life is rehearsed in theatre workshops

Nina Khodorivska: Our main goal is to humanise humanity. We are a humanist theatre with humans at the centre, not artistic traditions. We work with the views, problems, and interests of the people who come to us. We form our performances from these. Scenes are written and roles are handed out by the people themselves. At the same time they learn to listen to each other. We provide the space and carefully moderate the process so that the group remains together till the end, so that the people use aesthetically-pleasing techniques.

The workshop begins with a series of theatre sessions, which we call games. In an unobtrusive theatrical game people are willing to open up boundaries which they did not previously want to think about. We first analyse, and then we synthesise a performance. During a show, the audience become equal participants in the process. They watch the show, and then can challenge whatever was said, and say what they thought was lacking. Also, viewers can take the place of almost any character – except a sharply negative one – and try to play the role differently. To show how to behave differently in a given situation.

Jana Salakhova: We work with the “theatre of the oppressed” methodology, which was created by the Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal. There are two important points which, in his opinion, the method must implement. Firstly, making art, in this case theatre, accessible to all. Augusto Boal stated that everyone is theatre. The second aspect is that oppressed people are deprived of their right to vote. They know a lot about their lives, but they do not have a channel through which they can voice this knowledge. We can offer such a channel in the form of theatre. Here people can voice their questions and problems. One important aspect is this: we offer people a safe place to rehearse behaviour that they can carry out in life. Many games and exercises are aimed at the fact that a person does not speak but acts with the help of their body, which expresses his or her thoughts and feelings more naturally. We are trying to help people hear themselves, causing them to act via our productions. And we involve the audience in our performances.

Yuriy Kruchak: Why are you interested in this technique?

Jana Salakhova: Our performances cannot affect systemic problems, but on a personal level our workshop participants learn to change their lives. People learn to stand up for their rights. For example, we did a production with migrants and there was a scene of a conversation with a boss. It suggested a number of strategies of how to convince a person to change their position. Soon one participant in the performance got a job and was told that at first she would not be paid. After the performance she had the courage to say that that was wrong. And she persuaded her employer to pay her. That shows that in our theatre people can acquire useful skills.

"At the workshop we rehearse democracy, and at the show - revolution"

Yuriy Kruchak: To what extent have your expectations of Melitopol been met?

Jana Salakhova: It’s too early to talk about it. The complete process consists of two parts. The first is a workshop. In a few days we create a community of people who share stories about their lives. We act it all out through theatre, we grieve together, solve problems, and with this community formulate questions which are important to show in the performance. The second part is the show. The participants in the show are the writers and actors. They learn to make decisions collectively. During the workshop, we try to simulate a situation where the voice of each participant is involved in the process. We try to teach people to work together.

Nina Khodorivska: If in the workshop we rehearse democracy, in the show it’s revolution. At the workshop, through creative techniques, we show people how to hear each other. At a certain point we leave the room, there’s no moderation, all participants have equal rights, and they need to agree on a certain scenario. And they learn to find common ground without a leader. Democracy manifests itself in the fact that all opinions are taken into account, decisions are made together.

At the show, we put on a pessimistic performance in the style of an ancient Greek tragedy – where the hero dies at the end. Our hero does not necessarily die, but the situation is very bad. He or she has certain goals, interests, and desires, but circumstances – often in the form of people – take him or her further away from them. During the show we ask the audience to take the place of the actors and understand how the hero can behave so as not to be intimidated by the vicissitudes of fate, like Greek characters, and get what they want. On stage we cannot make a revolution, save all the oppressed, but we can rehearse it. Either way it’s better than discussing things in a kitchen.

Yuriy Kruchak: What are your expectations from the In the Heart of the Community project?

Jana Salakhova: When we were talking with the actors, many of them pointed out that all the problems that we touch upon are relatable and important to them. But usually inhabitants of a town just talk about these problems. They complain, but there is no critical mass, a community of active people who can take responsibility and begin to do something. A performance may become an attempt to create such public discourse. When people see that some of the problems have been stated out loud, in the theatre, it can affect their attitude towards the issue. They understand that some things can and must be aired for public discussion, for example, at an open meeting of the town council.

We want to show how it is possible to raise problematic issues. Perhaps in the hall there will be viewers who recognise the situation. And a sense of unity can sometimes be the impetus for the creation of a community of people, for their self-organisation.

"We were told that the 'theatre of the oppressed' sounds sad"

Yuriy Kruchak: In Ukraine, are there other collectives like yours?

Nina Khodorivska: There are people who in their human rights activism, or other activism, use the forum-theatre method. But the “theatre of the oppressed” is something much broader, it has its own philosophy. You know, in many countries there are departments or faculties of anthropology. And in Ukraine an anthropology course consists of six lectures at university. Can we say that in this university they are engaged in anthropology? Various organisations use a bit of this technique to reveal something of their own, but our “Theatre for Dialogue” totally focuses on this technique and utilises it for different groups of people.

Jana Salakhova: There are public organisations and human rights activists who use forum-theatre as a tool to achieve their goals, without the ideological component which we try to save. If we say that the “theatre of the oppressed” is theatre made by simple people for people, we expect that following this there will be direct action. When we started to conduct the workshops, psychologists and social activists came to us, people who saw it as just an interesting methodology for working with people. But the “theatre of the oppressed” was thought up so as to free people from oppression, so they understood what they wanted and acted independently. We do not always notice these things when the procedure is used by different organisations.

Nina Khodorivska: Working with a group of people to put on a performance regarding a certain, relevant, topic – that’s something different from the actual “theatre of the oppressed”. In Africa, for example, they use a group of people to stage a play on a “necessary” topic. People are fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS, they want to show as much as possible the problem that worries them, so they make of play about it. Yes, the play is based on true stories, but it has no connection to the people who are involved in it.

Yuriy Kruchak: You have conducted workshops in various cities in Ukraine, for example, in Kremenchug. How is Melitopol different?

Jana Salakhova: I was in Kremenchug for one day, so some things cannot be compared, but some aspects are similar. In Kremenchug we staged a play about a young female artist who dreams of organising performances, of ennobling the town, and she comes up against the outdated notions of her fellow citizens about how the city should look. Her work is not understood by her family, or among her peers. And in this aspect, the project in Kremenchug is similar to that in Melitopol. In general, our protagonist often has an idea that does not fit with what is acceptable in their town. Certain established values interfere with what the hero wants to achieve.

Nina Khodorivska: It all depends on who comes to the workshop. In Kremenchug, Yana had a group made up solely of women as, in general, we have in Melitopol. I worked with young people in Zhytomyr, half the group were not even 20 years old, and there there was a different vision of the key challenges. We worked with the concept of a certain structure – school, university, or college – where there is a tyrannical head, tyrannical teachers, and schoolchildren and students who do not seem completely human, you can scream at them and all that. There’s hopelessness, lawlessness, and so on. For the participants in the workshop that’s where the oppression was. The words “hierarchy”, “power”, and “abuse” cropped up in the scenes. In Kremenchug and Melitopol they spoke mainly about finding employment and opportunities. Here there is a view that if you are oppressed – join another social group.

Jana Salakhova: By the way, it’s mostly women who come to our workshops.

Nina Khodorivska: I think it has something to do with the fact that the name of the method is the “theatre of the oppressed.” We were told that it sounds sad, that there’s no need to mention this concept. But those who comes to our workshops really understand it. They feel the oppression and want to work with it. Now we’ve rejected the idea of removing the phrase “theatre of the oppressed” from our posters. We try to attract an audience that needs to work with oppression, and there is such an audience. Most of the workshop participants really are women. I won’t bang on about it, but it seems that there are more women than men who feel oppressed and hence wish to change something. Maybe men think theatre an unworthy activity.

Finding yourself in a museum

Yuriy Kruchak: In the In the Heart of the Community project we are working in the Melitopol Regional Museum. What proposals do you have for reforming such museums – small ones not in a capital city.

Nina Khodorivska: I was surprised, but half the rooms in the Melitopol museum are very modern. The palaeontology room and some other rooms with stuffed animals are obviously Soviet. But one of the rooms has a ceiling that glows with a blue light and it creates a sense of adventure. Another thing is that the museum should work not only with those who will come to look at exhibits. The museum needs to work with people in general. Each museum employee can conduct a small popular-science course. Employees can organise creative excursions for different categories of people. The National Art Museum of Ukraine carries out such events. There are lectures for people of all ages, and it’s fantastic. Yes, the museum deals in the past, but it is not only objects, but also customs, that their experts know something interesting about. I would like to work together on a human level.

Jana Salakhova: I think the At the Heart of the Community project is moving in the right direction. In smaller towns there are plenty of spaces where people could do something, but these spaces were built in a certain period and for certain purposes. Many of these spaces, including museums, should take into account the interests and needs that exist among their citizens today. In one of our workshops someone was talking about working people who have a need to develop. And a museum can be a space that responds to this need: it is possible to hold lectures, workshops and master classes. A certain discourse may be formed. But this place should be free, so that people from different walks of life can come and feel comfortable. In some ways our workshop is about that. About a model of space where everyone can find themselves. Museums can become such a space, the staff can develop them in this way, in particular through conducting various activities.

Yuriy Kruchak: In Melitopol you have had the idea of putting on a festival. Tell us more.

Jana Salakhova: We were inspired by the local Palace of Culture for railway workers. The acoustics are good, the very design of the building is cool. At the workshop it was mentioned that Melitopol has ceased to be the gateway to the Crimea, and now the city has a problem with jobs. I thought that it would be cool to hold an art festival in this Palace. The main room lies empty, it is not in very good condition, but one could get money for a festival and some of it could go towards renovating the hall and maintaining the building. You could attract an art crowd to Melitopol. But a simple arts festival will attract a closed group of people. So the idea has been expanded to include a festival of culture and business.

In Melitopol, as in any other town, there are resources that can lift the economy of the region. Now is the time to do it. But we need to know how to build everything, so as not to crash and burn. We need an impetus, inspiration and knowledge. A festival of culture and business could become an impetus for creating an active part of the city, one which has a physical or social and intellectual capital. So that Melitopolites could talk with people from out of town there, people who excel in the arts or business. I am talking about business that develops something around itself, about social entrepreneurship. Maybe a businessperson would invest some of their profits in cultural education, in a space for art. For example, a symbiosis of a club and art centre, factory, and exhibition area.

Yuriy Kruchak: Are you ready to become part of a group that would launch such a process?

Nina Khodorivska: I’m curious to try. I have read a little about how to organise such things. Perhaps I could get together with people who carry out such activities, I would study foreign experience – in order to understand how to make the project succeed.

Why collect stories?

Yulia Kostereva interviewed Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

August 11, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine

 

Hundreds of people’s “little” personal stories merge into one big story that in a hundred years will be taught from textbooks – of course, if books and school will exist at all. Such stories were collected at the Melitopol “Festival of Memory” by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac.

Gabriela Bulisova is a documentary maker, photographer and artist. She is originally from Slovakia, but spent most of her life in the United States. Gabriela explores socially important topics, for example she is doing a project with American prisoners. Mark Isaac is a multimedia artist who lives in Washington, DC. His work focuses on issues regarding people’s immersion in electronic media and their attempts to forge a true identity.

In Melitopol, Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac were impressed by work in the local penal colony – where they talked a lot with the female prisoners and took photo-portraits of them. In the Regional Museum our guests from America talked about festivals and, in the end, organised a “Festival of Memory” with Melitopolites. During the event everyone could share personal stories about their favourite locations and suggest objects associated with memory. What came out of it, and how Melitopol surprised the American participants – they told Open Place

Free dialogue - in a penal colony

Yulia Kostereva: How does your previous experience correspond with what you did in Melitopol?

Gabriela Bulisova: Very much, I think. As far back as ten years ago or even longer I’ve done projects in Ukraine and Belarus, focused on environmental and social justice issues, associated with the Chernobyl disaster. Thus, my previous work, at least on a cultural and ethnographic level, informed me on how to proceed with a project in Melitopol. And specifically, our work in the penal colony was preceded with years of working on criminal justice issues in United States. However, it was an entirely new experience for Mark and I to gain a permission to enter the colony (which is not something that’s really possible in the United States), to be warmly welcomed by the deeply caring professional staff, and to meet the lovely young women, face-to-face, and listen to the very personal and intimate stories they decided to share with us. We are deeply touched by the heartfelt welcome, and we treasure our experience at the colony.

Mark Isaac: The difference is that you were not able to obtain that level of access. You very likely would not be able to enter the facility at all, and you would not be able to engage either with the staff or the inmates in any way, shape or form. Most of our projects in United States have been done with people who are returning from prison or with family members who are affected by prison, but we’ve not been able to gain the same type of access that we gained here.

There is another thing that I’d like point out that is important. We have been searching for the right way to engage more directly and to have a more interactive experience in our artwork. And the entire experience in Melitopol , not only with the colony but also with the local residents who volunteered to participate in “Festival of Memory” created a new level of collaboration with the local community. It was quite a good experience for us, and I hope also for the people who participated, and I think very importantly it will probably influence the way what we work on future projects. Because having had that experience it will make easier for us to develop good strategies for engagement with the community.

Gabriela Bulisova: Which is something that we continuously think about: how to engage a subject, how to engage the audience in a more meaningful way. And it is very important for us when the subject is on an equal level in terms of collaboration. The subject basically gives his or her voice to the project.

Mark Isaac: Right, in this case, interestingly, rather than us making all of the decisions regarding what would be shown, the project very specifically called on the participants to make decisions about an object that is very important to their memory that would be included in the project. We are always searching for a way in which to authentically portray the stories of our subjects, and this really allowed them to be direct collaborators in choosing some of the material. I think that was very successful and will inform the way that we will work going forward.

Yulia Kostereva: Why did you choose this type of activity to propose for certain place?

Gabriela Bulisova: We didn’t know what to expect when we first came to the colony. We didn’t know what kind of access we were going to have, and we didn’t know how many girls would like to participate. Obviously it was very open, very collaborative, and I specifically find interesting what happened on the last day when we worked in there, when each one of the young women would present an idea where they wanted to be photographed. Because we spent some time with them, and they understood what the project was about, they had an opportunity to think how they would like to be portrayed and what place was important for them. And, I think, a similar thing happened in Melitopol working with the other participants. They understood that they are an equal part of the dialogue. They could choose the location where they wanted to be portrayed, and select the object they wanted to highlight as part of their story. We provided ideas on what kind of strategies could be implemented given time restraints and so on, and they were able to make selections. It was very much a dialogue from the beginning to the very end.

Yulia Kostereva: Did you have any expectations and if so, did they prove in the reality?

Gabriela Bulisova: Of course you have some thoughts, visions, plans and expectations, but I think it’s very important to be flexible and open to suggestions and opportunities once you actually meet with the person you are photographing, after you have a conversation with them and understand their thoughts, the details of the location they selected, and so on. Because, if you are not flexible, if you just try to move forward with your expectations and your ideas, you may find yourself at a dead end.

For this specific project, because we didn’t know what was going to happen in the colony at all, the outcome is far greater than my expectation. And also in Melitopol, when we first got there, we knew that five people might want to work with us, but at the end it was 25 people who worked with us, so again the result was far greater and meaningful than what I personally expected.

Prior to starting any new project, one has to do some research, some preparatory work, etc., but what I think is very important to stress is that none of the work we were able to accomplish would have happened was it not for your help (Open Place) and also the help of the museum. Because if there was no foundation we could build upon, we would have been complete strangers, we would not only have had a language barrier but also a cultural barrier and that would have closed doors ahead of us.

"For the USA it is rare that a museum contacts a correctional facility"

Yulia Kostereva: Did you notice any features to work in a smaller city, not in the central one?

Mark Isaac: On some level, I think, in a smaller city, what we found is that people are very open to collaboration, and they were very welcoming and there was a desire to become a part of the project. I think in a larger city generally speaking people may be a little bit more cautious about participating in a project like this. So in a way it makes things easier, I think it may be a desire on the part of people in a smaller city to connect to something larger. So, when we come in as artists who work other places, in other parts of the world, and also work often in larger cities, then the local residents see opportunities to connect to something larger. And many of the questions we received reinforce that they were wondering, for example, if the Festival of Memory was held in other cities, could they connect to something larger than their own city. And this felt rewarding for us too – to be able to think of ourselves participating in something that became on some level more global. I think that makes it exciting, no matter where you are that you are connecting people in common strategies and in a common vision of what will improve the ability of our cultural institutions to serve the public. I think that the willingness of people to engage of that level was very rewarding for us.

Yulia Kostereva: And how do you see the role of such institution like a museum in the life of the community?

Gabriela Bulisova: Back to the colony, again, it rarely happens in United States that a museum would have any kind of relationship with a juvenile institution or any kind of penal institution. The relationship between the Museum and the girl’s colony already existed, for me it is a tremendous asset, that there is an openness and willingness on both of the sides – on the colony side and on the Museum side – to embrace the similarities and differences and create a bridge and a dialogue between those two institutions. To me that’s really crucial.

Mark Isaac: It’s very important that the Museum embraced this type of project and this type of engagement with the community as part of their mission, which shows that they are already thinking of themselves as a hub for the community in terms of the cultural life of the people. And this larger mission means the museum is not just a place where objects from the past are archived or held up to be important, with people coming to look at them and go home,. It means the museum thinks of itself, at least in part, as a way to bring people from the community together and to create strategies for cultural enrichment. That is an exciting and real opportunity for the museum to grow and develop in that direction and for the community to grow and develop in that direction. What we see is the beginning of recognition by the people that if they come together in collaboration that they can create projects that enrich their cultural life. And the more the people realize that, the more they will be inspired to create something that’s very valuable for the future.

Gabriela Bulisova: As we know, often museums are very exclusive. Whatever decision is made is made solely by the museum and the museum stuff. The Melitopol museum was willing to embrace a new concept and to open its doors to a rather innovative idea, and I see that as a great potential. I also find it very interesting that they let strangers in, open the door even further, and start to implement new ideas. The name of the project is Tandem, right? And the project is happening in tandem: somebody had an idea and somebody had to respond to it.

Instead of local - a "Museum of cultural heritage"

Yulia Kostereva: Do you have any ideas how such institutions can be developed?

Mark Isaac: A couple of things come to mind. I think it’s important for the museum to embrace this type of strategy going forward outside of the Tandem project. They need to create a lasting path to pursue new strategies into the future. Melitopol places a lot of emphases on its diversity and its diverse culture. And we definitely witnessed that, and it is definitely strength of the community. I think that the museum already has shown that it embraces a lot of those different people, but I think it will be an important strategy to reach out even wider in the future. It will be important to reach out, not just to the same people they’ve already reached this time around, but to reach totally new people and to increase the number of residents who start to become engaged in a broader dialogue about the future of culture and the arts. That way, the cultural enrichment of the community will be supported by more and more people going forward.

Gabriela Bulisova: We’ve also met many talented local people who may not necessarily always have an outlet to express their talent. Collaborating with the Museum, the culturally and ethnically diverse residents of Melitopol can actually bring to the Museum ideas on what could happen in the future and how they can work on programming and scheduling together. Based on some of the questions people asked as a part of the Festival of Memory, I feel there is a wealth of promising vision, innovative ideas, and exciting potential. And I think if people feel that their ideas are being taking seriously and are being considered and discussed as part of a larger conversation, there is a potential for future collaborative projects enriching all parties involved.

Mark Isaac: The final thing to say that could potentially be important going forward is that the name of the museum, as it has been translated in English, is perhaps diminishing its role. In English it was translated sometimes as “Museum of Local Lore,” and we saw elsewhere it was translated as a “Museum of Local History,” but we suggested they change that translation to something like “Museum of Cultural Heritage.” We suggested that because their role is wider than just “local lore” or “local history.” They are not just concerned with the history of the city, but also as an institution that is helping the forge the cultural future of the community. And that is why they might think about whether their name could change to reflect this different role.

Yulia Kostereva: Do you have any thoughts you would like to share?

Gabriela Bulisova: The idea of sharing stories from our memory and sharing oral histories is very important for me personally in my work. But also I think it’s something that we see less and less, especially because we are so engaged in being entertained by somebody – watching TV, being online, or whatever. We often stop sharing stories; very often we don’t have this kind of multigenerational conversation any more, especially in United States. People used to listen to their grandparents’ stories and learn about their past. Very often we don’t ask some of the essential questions because we are so busy or preoccupied with something else. And I think it is extremely enriching when we learn more about our personal past, our parents’ past and our grandparents’ past and the past of our communities and our cities. It’s back to the very beginning of human conversation – sharing and listening to stories.

The Museum – a Portal for Communication between the Community and the World

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Мykola Skyba

May 27, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine

 

Мykola Skyba – director of the Agency for Cultural Strategies, participant in the Culture 2025 platform, and expert on the creative economy – conducted a workshop in Melitopol. Мykola’s workshop was called The Museum as Storyteller. After a meeting with the museum’s staff, Мykola Skyba shared his impressions of the project, explained why a museum can become a “window to the world” for a small town, and gave examples of modern cultural institutions. 

A museum as producer of stories

The situation in Melitopol Museum is encouraging, even though there is much work to be done, and the scope of the project is not wide enough to achieve the goal set, which is to “get the museum talking.” At the Heart of the Community can become a “magic kick up the backside” and the trajectory of further development will be decided by the museum workers themselves in the long run. The main thing is to overcome the stereotypes that are ingrained in the heads of the museum staff. There is a core that wants change. We can and should work with them, delicately suggesting how to bring the museum to the desired level.

At the workshop, we began with the participants naming three words which they associate with museums. Many people said that a museum should be interactive, modern and innovative. But those touch screens are just a façade. And this façade will fail if there is no core – one which the museum exists for, and ideas that the museum conveys to the world. We need to create such a core and it is very difficult.

We spent some time discussing the difference between history and stories. History, as a substance, is similar to amber, in which some prehistoric insects become “stuck”. Stories are what we ourselves produce. Museums must move from polishing history to the production of stories, i.e. some narratives and aspirations. History has no end. And we must show this incompleteness, this openness to continuation.

Museums as engines of change

Today, projects like At the Heart of the Community are timely, because decentralisation is ongoing in Ukraine; towns and cities are receiving more powers, and they are choosing how they develop further. This is great if the future of the towns takes place in sustainable way. In such event, a museum can and should become a platform where different communities come together, and culture becomes a resource for development.

What we do in the intimate format of the workshop requires the expansion and attraction of different audiences. These processes cannot be artificially accelerated. Otherwise, a community is formed that will simply break up without any pressure from outside.

Some spontaneous social processes occur without meaningful content. Something substantial is overlooked by people. There is cultural, social, intellectual and human capital, and it is necessary to combine them. We need a place where they can be made public. It is best to do this through cultural institutions. A town should have a social centre, where the community can address issues of self-government. I think gradually such centres will appear. But while there aren’t any, museums can take on this function and carry out certain processes, and then transfer the groundwork they have laid to the town. Museums are portals of communication between the town and its community and the wider world.

The museum is one of the most globalised of institutions. In fact, no city in the world lacks a museum. Museums are to a city what streets with houses are, or shopping areas and people. They are a space through which the voice and the memory of the people, and their artefacts, speak more than they do at home. A functional item becomes a semantic artefact. The museum concentrates the voices of the town and can send this information on further to the wider world. We must learn to use the museum as a means of communication with the world. This is the point of projects such as At the Heart of the Community.

The museum as a platform for communication

I called my workshop in Melitopol The Museum as Storyteller. The most common type of museum in Ukraine is the regional one. Such places exist in every regional centre. Often, what they represent is monumental history, typical of similar museums in Ukraine, from Uzhgorod to Donetsk. The exhibition simply has to include the moment the territory was settled, nature in the guise of various stuffed animals, collections of dried plants and other “gems”, war sections with weapons and ammunition, photographs, and a “corner of achievements”, often steeped in socialism. You are thrown into this history and, like a bug in amber, you freeze. You are expected to bow before such history.

A museum teaches us “not to rock the boat,” because everything has already been decided for the people. This message destroys our human relationship with the world, denying the thesis that everyone can do something important. The challenge is to move from history to stories, comparable to humans. Despite their richness in numbers, dates, and indexes, museums are deafeningly silent. But a museum can and should speak with a human voice, and tell interesting stories. The essence of my workshop in Melitopol was for museum workers to understand: they are moderators between the past, present and future, between different communities.

The most powerful thing in the world is human values and beliefs. They are more difficult to change than anything. There is a comfort zone that you do not want to leave. In the workshop I tried to show that changes are a push, a step towards new possibilities. To do this I described what a museum is in the modern world. A museum today is a space where different communities interact, where you can go through an intellectual adventure. We have to show that the museum in Melitopol can also become such a platform.

I would like to attract a larger audience to the workshop. A small focus group attended the classes at the museum. This was a minus, because we did not fully exploit the potential of the event. On the other hand, those who have already joined the project might draw new people into the process. Hopefully, other lectures and workshops in At the Heart of the Community will get the community excited. Then the museum will have become a “DJ”, unifying different voices.

The museum as a place of study

During the The Museum as Storyteller workshop, we tried to comprehend what the museum in Melitopol is for, what it can tell the town, and we thought about the meaning of existence for the very town itself. Also we discussed specific audiences who may be interested in local history museums. For example, students, entrepreneurs, and certain older people. Also, there are tourists, but at the moment in Melitopol they are few and far between.

We generated a concept of what exactly Melitopol is. We formulated some definitions: it is a commercial town, an entrepreneurial town, a town of intersections, a town of opportunities. Then we thought how the museum could work with these categories. We toured the exhibition and the building to assess the potential of the establishment. We strove to find projects that would appeal to different audiences. We finished the workshop with interventions in the exhibition, to break the spell of the world of “mega-history.”

Each museum has its own unique team. There is a recognisable type of museum curator, but in every town these people have their own characteristics. There are always leaders, people who drive the development process. In Melitopol it is the director of the regional museum; she is open to young people who trust her, she continues to learn, is ready to implement new ideas, and expects initiatives from her staff. This is encouraging. Another thing is how museum staff respond to this. Sections of the team are comfortable in the museum’s “amber”. And later a lot depends on how the director will explain the museum’s new policy.

The museum as a place of experience

In Ukraine, most modern museums are in Kyiv, although it is still a bit varied there. Thus, the National Museum of History is an example of preserving. So is the Bulgakov museum, whose exhibition looks like a ‘dejstvo’, an old church play. Among the modern museums outside the capital, there is the “Tustan” open-air museum in the Lviv region. This is a unique facility, a fortress carved out of rock and a customs point between the 9th and 13th centuries. The museum staff have developed a strategy for its development, and the employees use every opportunity to develop. There is a decent shop and they organise a festival. There are other positive examples as well, and everywhere museums themselves are looking for opportunities to develop.

The National Art Museum in 2012 managed to fend off an attempt to impose a new head on it. An active community formed around the museum, protested and put forward a positive agenda: an open application process for the positions of director, PR and so on. Now the museum is showing how to rethink a museum’s own content. Recent projects – “Heroes. An Attempt at Making an Inventory” and “Special Fund” – are about this. There are Pirosmanis and Goyas, which people will come to see because they are famous names. The museum shows history, and engenders resistance in people to the transformation of culture into propaganda. Generally, one’s attitude to memory attests to one’s willingness to work with people.

The museum as a collective of individuals

Reforming a museum should begin with a correct assessment of one’s abilities, with a definition of particular aims. It is important to identify the specifics, the mission. It is also important to distribute roles around the team. Often change is initiated by a few leaders. At some point, this increases the distance between them and the other members of the team. You must synchronise efforts and build a team. It is better to sacrifice speed of transformation for quality.

It is important to give a museum’s staff an incentive or “carrot”. This can be an educational tour, or the opportunity to make oneself known through different channels. The motivation to do something is often highly personal, and any reform strategy should include a personal component. It is necessary to take into account the interests of specific people – then we will keep the motivation to change alive.

A resource component is important. It’s wrong to give a lot of resources right away. It is also bad to arouse people’s desire to change something when there’s an absence of financial and material resources. We need to help a museum to raise funds for small transformations, to establish close ties with the communities of the town, communities which are ready for change. You may need a facilitator to help the museum become an influential partner in the community. If such practices spread through other Ukrainian towns and cities, we all win. This will cultivate an audience in different regions of the country.

The museum as a "window to the world"

Now various cities around Ukraine have become active, and this must be made permanent. You may need to establish a place in a public space, one which will show what’s new in the town or city. These new things can be informal events: a festival of street food or skaters, street musicians, a place for reading and children’s games. There should also be multi-functional community hubs where anyone can come with an initiative and find someone to address it to.

The general public have little trust in the authorities and public organisations, they have a lot of questions regarding the transparency of these structures. This can be changed by creating a place where civil society organisations will directly help people to solve various problems, such as social ones. Such functions are often distributed amongst various small agencies, and a certain amount of disorder is the result. We need to create spaces for the accumulation of communal memory and experience, and make sure that people support them. Various initiatives should work together to operate and maintain such a place. In part, the “assembly point” for activists could be museums and libraries. This would be an example of collaboration between institutions which are maintained by the state or town, and grass-roots initiatives.

The practice of creating counselling centres is not at all bad. Often people do not know how best to realise their potential, they are not aware of certain competitions or exchange programs. There is a certain algorithm of where and how to file applications, and it can be taught. It requires few resources: a person who works part-time, a computer and the internet. You can go to a museum or library to find out what grants are now available. For example, once a month, a museum could tell people about the opportunities that are available outside the small town. This gives the museum the status of a “window to the world.” The museum thus finds itself at the heart of the community.