Open Place interviewed Maria Vilkovisky and Ruth Jenrbekova
July 20, 2017
No one is able to visit krëlex zentr, no matter how hard would you try and whatever privileged group you belong to. In fact this organization exists only in imagination. This allows Ruth Jenrbekova and Maria Vilkovisky, who are engaged in the center, immersed themselves into the theory of contemporary art and simulate the ideal situations for the center development.
Open Place discussed with Maria Vilkovisky and Ruth Jenrbekova the painful search for identity and why it is so difficult in fact as well as where artists come from, and why it is better not to reject the myths.
The idea of krëlex zentr first appeared in 2011. At that time we’ve identified ourselves as artists, though something confused us. Usually when we speak about the artist we imagine a person who does not depend on external circumstances. No matter what happens around, this person has the inner sense of self that gives her a kind of autonomy. In any country and under any circumstances, artists create because they have something specifically artistic inside themselves. As Andrea Fraser famously wrote: “It is because the institution is inside of us, and we can’t get outside of ourselves”. For us, queer feminists, this idea looked too essentialist and suspicious. We started to think: where does this special sense of self comes from? Where do artists come from in the first place? Were they born like that, with something special inside? We were skeptical about this. In general, if we look at Kazakh art, the connection between the appearance of the institutions and the subsequent appearance of artists is absolutely obvious. This is a rather banal observation, and theoreticians have always written about it. For example, Michel Foucault says that subjectivity is not a gift from God, but a thing that is formed by institutions.
We realized that contemporary art in Kazakhstan is not organized at the institutional level. The national cultural centers—whether they are theaters, libraries, museums, galleries, academies, etc.—are functioning in the old quasi-Stalinist aesthetic paradigm. This assumes a consolidated identity, where each person is assigned to a particular nation, nationality or ethnicity. Culture here can only be national otherwise it is “false”. We decided that we need a cultural center based on different principles. When there is no context for art, it needs to be created by ourselves. We need to organize ourselves to think how to work collectively and make coalitions politically. It was important for us to think of an arts institution that would break established regimes and raise questions. We dare to problematize the criteria in art because it seems to us that aesthetic representations, now generally accepted among amateurs and professionals, embody quite a large element of colonialism.
We often declare that krëlex zentr is an imaginary institution and therefore does not exist. It is important to understand that nations also exist only in people’s imagination, as it was demonstrated by Benedict Anderson. In questioning the framework of a national representation of culture; it is important for us to think about communities as something not tied to a specific territory, passport, national identity, or genealogy originating far in the past into some mythological antiquity. Communities that would be more like our own–indefinite, with the feeling of non-belonging, exile, a kind of cosmic diaspora.
A huge number of people in the world feel similarly. A feminist position always contradicts the national ideology because that ideology is fundamentally patriarchal. The control over female bodies and the low status of women is used to maintain the illusion of external danger which demands a vigilant and efficient defender of the male sex. For queer feminists the criticism of identity is a matter of resistance to a culture of violence. We see our commonality with the global queer-feminist movement because of this shift towards decolonization, whether the country of origin be first, third or fourth world. Whoever we are, we say: let’s not take the role, identification and definition that are imposed on us from the positions of power. Let’s define ourselves the way that we want.
We decided that the krëlex zentr can represent beings like us – with a seared sense of belonging to any group or community. We use “creatures” instead of “humans” to question the old humanistic tradition where there was binary opposition: Human vs. Nonhuman. We assumed that it would be more and more of those who are difficult to define. Like us: half – this, half – that, it is not clear who. This failure in classification is exactly the focus of the krëlex zentr.
We are holding our decolonial agenda, in attempt to find a way to resolve a conflict that exists all over the world. It is a conflict between a universalizing capitalist empire “without identity,” (or default identity, which is always white masculine) and those who resist it from their local perspectives. As a rule they proceed from the position of rootedness, deep ethnical or local histories, and some ancient roots. This opposition is so rigid that we want to break it somehow. There must be a place for resistance without essentialism. It is possible to invent new supranational or extra-national frames. The national frames became too constraining for people. One step left or right and you are a stranger, an outcast and an enemy. It is important to try to imagine the world after nations, after capitalism. What does it mean to consider a whole planet rather than a certain territory on it as one’s homeland?
Social reality is held by myths: myth of the family, the myth of heteronormativity, the myth of nationality, the myth of masculinity and femininity, etc. One way or another, we cannot escape myth. Rather, myths have to be emancipatory and progressive. We must not reject the myth that a better world is possible. We see the task and competence of artists to redesign old mythologies making them less repressive and removing the violence on which they are based. We see the task of the artistic community to make dialogue and collaboration for the creation of the new myths sensitive to all sorts of hierarchies and inequalities.
Some distance and self-irony are important qualities of these new types of myths. The myths that engulf a person thoroughly are dangerous. When there is no distance, when there is complete identification with the myth (this is our fear in nationalist movements) a person can’t go beyond the frames of the myth. We think the other type of myth is possible. One that assumes the distance, critique and self-irony. One that does not consume a person, and which leaves space for unexplored and unknown things. A person can even believe in God this way. Usually we say: “There is no God. Well yes, but maybe they will appear tomorrow. ”
 Andrea Fraser, From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique. Artforum. New York: Sep 2005. Vol. 44, Iss. 1; pg. 278, 8 pgs