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.

Local іs the New Global

Text by Yuriy Kruchak

2013
Kyiv, Ukraine

 

Yuri Kruchak artist, curator, founder of the Open Place platform. Studied  Scenography at the Kharkiv State School of Art, and Environmental design at the Kharkiv state academy of design. Graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture (major in painting).

There are three key problems in the contemporary cultural context that drove us to explore in greater detail the theme Local іs the New Global: the problem of choice, conflict of interests and limited resources. To make a choice we have to decide why one idea is more valuable or important to us than another. The situation is complicated by the fact that we are surrounded by aggressive propaganda of consumption that permeates nearly every aspect of the modern world, and so we have to figure out how to reject these possibilities and which option is the wisest.

Another distinctive feature of the present is the politicization of our lives. Most political activists today use art to achieve their goals and at times art becomes an alibi for protests. On the other hand, artists apply political methods to their work and enter the area of public policy so as to get more expressive artistic results. But society is losing trust in political statements and parties. The thin line between political activism and artistic practice creates contradictions in the perception of one and the other. These contradictions polarize local communities, which leads to conflicts that, in turn, distract us from problems that need to be resolved.

The time is ripe to analyze the relationship between the production of art, public space, politics and society, to rethink the division of roles between artists, activists and communities, and to answer several other questions that we think are important to the present. How can you make the local public your allies and adherents? What resources can we find and create to support our artistic and social practices when working together on the local and international level? Should art teach, or should it learn from those populations it works with? What is more effective for social transformation and the development of artistic language – removing borders between art and reality, changing the “system” from within, or perhaps another, third way?

The project Local іs the New Global is an applied study in the format of workshops that aims to develop concepts and scenarios for art events in public places. The series of workshops develops a line of research focusing on how creating art projects with different social groups can help shape less systematized forms of individual expression, and also how individuals and groups can come together to build qualitatively new types of institutional infrastructure. Thus, the main objective is to formulate cultural policy together as a group. It should be noted that the idea for this research didn’t arise during reflection on theory or concepts, rather it’s an integral part of the practical experience of the platform Open Place in recent years. It is an applied study combining theory, practice, game and experimentation.

The field of study of this project was shaped by the contradictory relationship between art and activism. A comparison of various projects by activist and art groups over the last decade created a new space for reflection on the mutually contradictory concepts of defined and undefined. On the one side, there are activist groups with clearly defined objectives and goals whose activities are organized along the principle of horizontal links and mobile response (which is why they’re not very effective). On the other side, there are art institutions whose main objectives and goals aren’t always clearly defined, that have flexible frameworks and tend to be event-oriented structures. And on the third side there are various excluded social groups that have clearly defined needs but no idea how to realize them.

The approach developed for the workshop Local is the New Global attempts to constructively rethink and combine the notions of defined and undefined, gradually introducing an effective model that would link the capacity of different social groups with curatorial activity. The starting point in the development of this special concept was the creation of a communication strategy based on import-export principles. This strategy ensured the physical presence in a particular place of representatives of different artistic, social and activist groups, as well as created an opportunity for the exchange of different kinds of knowledge. Consequently, our project worked with defined and undefined factors.

The results of the study showed that events organized by activist and art groups that contained messages and entered the public space either changed or remained incomprehensible to the target audience – key social groups. For the structure of the workshop Local is the New Global such realities speak of the constant dialogue between the defined and undefined, which isn’t a problem or deviation from an ideal model, but rather an opportunity to develop a new type of procedural structure. A hybrid structure that includes elements of social, activist and art centers. A structure that takes existing artistic, social, economic and political conditions and uses them as starting points for new social transformations and the development of the language of art.

Paradoxically, it is still acceptable to say that a work of art should have one author. Local is the New Global explores and develops a model of collective authorship. This methodology sees collective authorship as a series of impulses that can come from different subjects and through discussion combine into a common message, strategy and tactic of action. Collective authorship is based on several lines of behavior that gradually change one another after certain goals are achieved. This methodology is also based on the action and principles of camouflage and practices used by journalists, anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists. The figure of the creator in this model becomes invisible, which makes it possible to focus on the potential of artistic and social practices in the boundary zone between visible and invisible spheres – active communities and those excluded from the field of vision. When working in the real social context, this model provides an opportunity to use tactics and strategies that can bring to the surface invisible processes that are hidden deep in today’s cultural space, with the help of which you can transform existing and create new relationships between society and the artistic process.

Based on the idea of the “construction of a work” as a cumulative and open process, the workshop builds on a succession of independent but interrelated stages. The workshop takes the format of a game that allows participants to identify relevant themes, places and groups on their own, interpret meanings together, and then decide why one thing is more important than something else. The point of the game is to put together sets from different categories of cards, like a kind of project design, and then explain your choice to others.

The aim of the workshop in Kyiv was to identify possible ways to involve local communities in the artistic and social process. There were five components to the main objective. First – identify social groups that weren’t involved in artistic processes before. Second – recognize problems that are important for the local context. Third – identify public places that could bring different social groups together. Fourth – consider possible tactics and strategies for cooperation with local communities. Fifth – develop recommendations for artists and curators interested in making the local public their allies and adherents.

The workshop participants, working in several focus groups, put together sets using three categories of cards (potential problems, places and social groups) and build relationships between the components of the set. Then representatives of each focus group explain their group’s choice to the others. Afterwards, the workshop moderators present the next two categories of cards – events (a social activity that people can rally around) and activity (“professional activity”, methods and strategies that can be used for interaction with different social groups).

The workshop Local is the New Global combines features of a communication center and creative studio. It is at once a school, a workspace and a display. The workshop becomes a platform for critical thought and enables new forms of interaction between people.

Open Place

Text by Yuriy Kruchak

2008
Kyiv, Ukraine

 

Yuri Kruchak artist, curator, founder of the Open Place platform. Studied  Scenography at the Kharkiv State School of Art, and Environmental design at the Kharkiv state academy of design. Graduated from the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture (major in painting).

Three main things about Ukraine’s cultural context led us to organize the platform Open Place, namely: constriction of the field of artistic activity, self-removal of the artistic community from public engagement and loss of continuity. The paradox of the situation in post-Soviet society is that during the recent reconstruction a mass culture developed that destroyed the connection with the previous cultural stratum. Features that were considered at the beginning as a manifestation of freedom, have twenty years later become a source of income for a small group of people, leaving to society only the role of consumer.

For Ukrainian curators now, there are three unpopular questions, responses to which we are searching in our work. 1.What is the purpose of artist and curator, in a society where the basic model of relations is built on the vertical axis of the state fused with big business, and the horizontal axis of the Christian Orthodox church, that is seeking to replace Soviet ideology and become the judiciary? 2.What is role of the art institution in a society where all political ideologies are devalued? 3.Is it possible to develop the institution with that society, existing as it does at different socio-cultural poles, producing art and together answering the questions of what art should be, and how it should look?

Initially, when we asked ourselves these questions, they seemed impossible to satisfy. The basic contradiction was that the forms of contemporary art institution existing at that moment didn’t satisfy the main drives of the program we wanted to implement, namely to create a cultural context where the public, on an equal footing with the artist, would be an active participant in the cultural field, a co-creator of common values, artistic events and cultural context. Our strategy to deal with this was to include curatorial practice in our artistic methods: to rethink the notion of the institution, its basis, models of relationships and interactions between curator, artist and society, approaches to programming and physical outputs.

The first drafts of our institutional model demonstrated the efficacy of a mobile structure with a flexible, invisible frame linking to both artistic and social centers. This could be placed directly into a real social context, to make changes and to establish communication between different communities. The development of this model of the institution and the construction of its three-dimensional concept became the significant moment in the development of Open Place. This migratory structure strives to blend with its everyday urban environment – to be present in a certain place, and simultaneously change it temporarily, accept artistic, social, and economic conditions and use them as starting points for the formation of new artistic values, public strategies and sociocultural methods. The institution in this situation serves both as a platform for artistic and social activities, and as mapping of the hidden potential of the space.

The project Dotted Lines of Speech aimed to acquire practical and artistic experience outside of galleries and studios spaces. This project consisted of a series of art interventions, researched in the field of public communication, developing concepts and applying event-based scenarios in public environments. Artists, musicians and writers from Ukraine and Lithuania were invited to participate. Some models and principles were tested in 2006 in Kiev, Ukraine at Zhitny Market and in 2007 in Vilnius, Lithuania at the cafe in the writers’ house. The nature of actions was improvised, and although outlines had been agreed upon in advance, the substance was formed during the action. Those invited could play the part of their personal story, and spectators could become protagonists. What emerged during the course of events was close to a public happening in form, with a paradoxical way of thinking about communication that allowed an understanding of everyday reality through new experiences, in a new way.

After the first exercises it became obvious that the space of creation and study plays a more important role, for such event-oriented structures as ours, than the place of representation; and likewise that the interventional nature of the mobile institution gives more extensive results than the facility located in one site with clearly defined boundaries.

To continue the development of Open Place it was necessary to work out a model of behavior, one which would make the figure of artist and curator ’invisible‘ and would allow a focus on the potential of artistic practices in the border zone between the visible and invisible social realms – active and excluded communities. Actions in real social context demand tactics and strategies capable of making evident invisible processes, hidden deep in the thickness of the existing cultural environment, that help to transform the extant relations and create new links between society and the artistic process.

In the course of our work we have developed several kinds of action, moving from one to the next on achieving certain goals. These actions were based on the principles of camouflage and were modeled on different professions’ methods – the journalist, the anthropologist, the psychologist and the sociologist. This tactic is manifested most clearly in the project Invisible Way, launched as a journalistic investigation of the socio-cultural space of the Ukrainian Association of Blind people. Eventually the project grew into a revision of the cultural space of relationships, between us – artists, whose nature is open to the world – and blind people, a largely isolated, socially sharpened group with clearly defined requirements of society, with a certain system of values and perceptions of the world. A series of interrelated artistic and social events resulted, which allowed the sighted people to experience the world of the blind people; for the blind people it was an opportunity to be seen, as well as to participate in making art.

An important stage in the development of the platform was the search for an appropriate institutional language, which would allow participants to make conscious decisions and interact with different socio-cultural groups on the creation of collaborative works. We had to rethink the concept of ’artwork‘ – to realize it as an accumulative structure, open to development, consisting of independent but interrelated levels with both artistic and social components. This approach assumes collaborative work with the spectators, and gives a certain equality, as well as freedom, both for artist and for spectator. The mantle of the creator, in this situation, can be taken on by curator, artist or spectator. Regardless of biases, ideological and political disagreements provide primary conditions in which different communities can collaborate to develop the art work, specify its content and how it should be manifested.

Referring to the narrative of a Post-soviet park, its eclectic structure, we initiated the project Start Time, the leitmotif of which was an idea developing the park. The challenge was to find a balance – a system of human interaction with the exterior of the park, with its past, present and future culture, in the self-organization of leisure activities by different social groups. Building upon the previous projects, we invited people with visual impairments and young Ukrainian artists to cooperate, as well as residents and visitors to Kiev who we reached through the mass media. Those who wished to take part built on the territory of the “Hydropark ” an artistic platform with both physical and intellectual manifestations. About fifty people – representatives of different social strata – cooperated on a program of artistic and social activity. We presented a number of artifacts, and identified several places that epitomized past and present culture of the park. Participants were invited on the basis of these objects and places, having created or transformed them as necessary, to reveal other, hidden meanings, or to determine new meanings. The result of this experiment was a series of interrelated, interpenetrating time-based events – consisting of objects, performances, happenings and sporting competitions, the course of development, and evaluation of which were determined by participants themselves. Work became the medium, uncovering the hidden meanings of the park.

We consider our institution as a social agent in public space, which questions the boundaries of knowledge and ignorance of social and creative processes in the society. To conclude, it is necessary to note that despite the problems existing in the Ukrainian cultural context, in society there are the groups with colossal creative potential – open to dialogue and interaction. A gap, existing between ‘executive authority’ and ‘the church’, allows one to create situations and spaces where people can work together to find a form appropriate to their needs, their perception of past, present and future.

Local Museums in a Dynamic World: the (Post-)Soviet Legacy and the Future

Text by Iryna Sklokina

November, 2015
Lviv, Ukraine

 

Iryna Sklokina – historian, research fellow of the Center of Urban History of East Central Europe. Defended her dissertation about the official Soviet policy of memory of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine using the example of Kharkiv region. Graduated from V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University (major in history of Ukraine). Worked at Kharkiv National University and the Kowalsky Eastern Institute of Ukrainian Studies (Kharkiv). A member of the Kharkiv Historical and Philological Society. At the Center for Urban History Iryna Sklokina researches historical heritage, in particular industrial and Soviet heritage in Kharkiv and Lviv.

In this text I’d like to present some thoughts about how the Soviet period proved to be formative for regional museums as we know them today, and also about possible paths for changing and adapting these museums to modern times (1). Were Soviet museums fundamentally different from those of other countries? Is their experience a burden or source of potential? Are these museums needed nowadays and for what?

Museums around the world became important institutions of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries, tasked with disseminating a rational world-view, an image of the world as an ordered and systematic place, with asserting the values of science, the enlightenment, and high culture. At the same time, museums sprang up as instruments of power, asserting national statehood and imperial supremacy over “backward” and “ethnographic” nations. The power invested in a history museum consists in its task to present “real”, “authentic” exhibits which should reflect the “real” past, “as it really was”. Aside from that, it is expert, universal knowledge that stands behind the creation and functioning of a museum, knowledge which should replace local knowledge and folk ideas. It was precisely this powerful position of the museum – as a bearer of objective knowledge, as an institution of enlightenment, which was meant to change the world-view of “philistines” – that became the foundation for a game between various centres of power, centres which exerted influence on museums’ activities and in fact, their exhibitions. Accordingly, in the 19th and even the 20th centuries, museums not uncommonly found themselves used as weapons of self-representation for rulers, dynasties, and influential donors.

However, as the self-awareness of the bourgeoisie and other urban societal groups rises, so does the critical attitude to official state myths – disseminated by museums (2), amongst other institutions. In addition, along with large, influential museums which embodied the might and glory of the nation-state, there also existed collections owned by private people or societies, which at times and subsequently remained mere collections of curiosities, and at other times could offer alternative narratives and question state policy.

Local museums became particularly active in Western Europe and around the world in connection with the radical changes which took place in historiographic culture in the 1970s, when new social history played an important role, including many initiatives involving “history from below”, and public and oral history, aimed at supporting those groups which had been marginalised as part of traditional political and state-centric history. For example, the “historical workshop movement” from Great Britain, which then spread to Europe, America and South Africa, turned its attention in the 1970s and 1980s to working class and women’s history, and encompassed dozens of local initiatives with the involvement of leftwing historians, musicians, amateurs, and most importantly – average people, who themselves told stories from their lives. Similarly, Sweden’s “Dig where you stand” movement (3) (“Gräv där du står”), which later spread to Canada, democratised historical culture by bringing the working class to the foreground, as well as ordinary town and country dwellers, who all became heroes and co-authors/creators of historical books, pamphlets, exhibitions and theatrical performances, and also 1,300 (!) “museums of working life” (4). This movement paid much attention to studying the natural and constructed environment at a micro- and local level. Thus, local museums became a part of initiatives which took on the historical schemes of the nation-state, and underlined the value of individual and collective experience. New local history museums were created not just by experts, but above all by communities themselves as institutions that were as open and flexible as possible, orientated to the needs of the public. In the end, the features of new social history were incorporated by academic science, and even traditional museums – sanctuaries of science and nations – became more democratic, open to discussing societal problems which troubled the local population, and became critical of the generalising national narrative. And to this very day, popular movements such as oral history, women’s history, environmental history, and the history of minorities, often work with museums to create history from historical material that is close to the historical actors themselves – “from the bottom up”.

This situation is particularly evident in the USA, where local museums depend on the community more, whereas in, for example, France, a whole chain of museums in the regions was formed in the 19th century and is financed primarily by the state, due to which grassroots initiatives in the museum sector are less well developed. Amy Levin, a researcher of museums, writes that in the USA an important factor in helping small museums flourish is the individualist ethic, and the idea of the value of all individual experience, therefore anyone can found a museum devoted to any subject at all(5). Museums in the USA are now more open to collaboration and temporary undertakings, and in particular their orientation towards comprehending contemporary problems, especially multiculturalism and coexistence in diversity, increased after September 11, 2001; people felt the need to understand the reasons behind this tragedy, reasons that had their roots in the past(6).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all small museums in Western Europe, the USA, and Canada started to worship new social history and forsook the traditional view of a museum’s work. Many provincial museums continue to present history as the exploits of famous politicians, and in other exhibitions they sometimes remind you of a collection of old rubbish or random objects which serve perhaps only to arouse tenderness and nostalgia, not to tackle the current problems of life in today’s society(7). Many local museums continue to fulfil the functions of the 19th century (social control via education), appealing to an idealised national history (the image of the US as the cradle of democracy is a widespread strategy used by museums to justify their existence) and to items of cultural prestige, and also uncritically glorify their own community, without paying attention to marginalised groups(8). However, a link to the local community, emphasis on the unique, and openness to contemporary problems – these are still paths of development that are more than familiar to local museums and historical societies.

Where can we place Soviet and post-Soviet regional museums in this history? Are there any essential differences between them and local museums in other countries? Is there a definite potential for positive change today to be found in their experience?

The advent of museums in the Russian Empire, as in the west, was a matter of not only the state, but also of independent and semi-independent actors: local historical societies, amateurs, collectors, pre-Revolutionary district councils, and universities. Changes in the 1920s reflected tendencies that were in fact universal for the whole world: growth in the role of the state in the life of museums, the centralisation of government, the founding of museums on the periphery of the state, and the use of museums as both scientific institutions and instruments for forming political loyalty. However, such modernisation at a time of monopolisation of power by the Party, and its leader, took particular forms. From the end of the 1920s, complete planned rule over museums was approved. In 1930, at the first museum congress, the idea of a museum as above all a “political enlightenment factory” was consolidated, at the same time that science and the preservation of heritage were becoming more or less secondary. In 1932 the Central Research Institute into Methods of Regional Work was established in Moscow, to carry out the function of preparing instructions – including about both model exhibitions and criteria for selecting items for collections. This beautifully demonstrates the combination of the authoritativeness of science with propaganda, something typical of a modern state. In 1936 the V. I. Lenin Central Museum opened as a separate institution, becoming a template not only for museums of Lenin in various republics, but for all museums in the USSR. The state aimed more and more to determine from the top the contents of exhibitions and excursions, and visitors were expected to become exclusive recipients of enlightenment and “culturedness”(9). Oblast, regional, and town Party committees were meant to approve plans relating to topics and exhibitions.

The best path (and safest for employees) for creating an exhibition under Stalin came to be the use of already printed, and therefore approved, texts – such as “A Short Course in the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”, the book “The Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union” by J. V. Stalin, histories of party organisations in oblasts and republics, speeches by the “Dear Leader” and other leaders on the occasion of historic anniversaries and current events, and publications in “Pravda” and other newspapers.

It was precisely this path that was simplest in order to construct a narrative with preordained ideological content – use texts already approved and legitimised by the state; this allowed one to avoid problems and the multilayered ideas of non-textual material objects. Display items were often specially created: a museum exhibit was seen as something to be created, prepared (the expression “preparation of an exhibit” was widespread). One instruction even asserted: “During the creation of an exhibition, you must ensure the presence of one particular item or another. The starting position is to be found in the topic of the exhibition, in those issues which we must shed light on in the exhibition or excursion for the correct assessment by the visitor of a given phenomenon, fact, or exhibit, in issues which are necessary for the propaganda of particular ideas, opinions, and world-views”(10). It is unarguable that this bears witness to the modernisation of the museum, to the dropping of the archaic view that it is a collection of things. At the same time, such a modern view served the ideological indoctrination of the museum.

However, the authorities were not satisfied with the strategy of repeating texts and more and more often required “real things” to be provided, in particular the “past as it really was,” and demanded museums find original items that would represent an “objective picture of the past”, “reality”(11). Statements made by the state leadership were not meant to remain just statements, but to become incarnate reality. This attempt to overcome the division between reality and its representation, between the intention and its incarnation, form and content, in fact, was characteristic of the whole utopian ideology and artistic method of socialist-realism(12).

In addition, museums had to instantly respond to current events and make the exhibitions revolve around the current events of the day. Excessive focus on the past could be read as a symptom of a dangerous “idealisation of patriarchy”, “delight in the old days”, as an attempt to flee from socialist reality. As we can see, this is very similar to current approaches to museums – they should be close to the life experience of the community and should address the problems of the current reality. But in fact, this “reality” was embodied in the revolutionary dynamics as the ideas and plans of the party and its leaders. The museum became a reflection of an expected, future, a never-actually-unattainable reality that appeared to be the already available “here and now”.

However, authoritative texts – on which exhibitions were based – contained only general statements, and often one had to determine the ideological tendencies intuitively. The role of local museums and their employees remained very important, particularly because of the need to present more general statements in the concrete form of local artefacts. This task of presenting above all local material was endlessly pointed out in numerous manuals and instructions: this was how the grand narrative of Soviet history was supposed to become “closer to the people” and take the form of well-known, local things: “our own” things(13).

This required much more ingenuity, skill and independent interpretive work which museum workers tried to avoid in order not to take responsibility for it. Trying to get detailed information at the highest levels about how an exhibition should be built in accordance with the latest ideological trends and at the same time on the basis of specific material did not always meet with success.(14) It was typical that the approval of plans in the Party Committee and that verification commissions, which examined exhibitions, were not usually considered by employees of museums to be a foreign hostile force, designed to expose the ideological errors of the museum staff. On the contrary, inviting senior officials to inspect the exhibition was the easiest way of legitimising it, a possibility to shift the responsibility for it onto these officials and, accordingly, to reduce the fear of possible charges for any mistakes(15). In addition, those checking the exhibitions were seen as an additional source of information about the most recent developments in the ideological line of the party.

Regional museums in small towns, in addition, were subject to the oversight of large, oblast museum-chiefs. Thus, a clear hierarchy was produced, and the contents of exhibitions in smaller museums became limited: they were, above all, meant to reflect purely local events and heroes, especially achievements regarding the construction of socialism and the wise plans of the Party regarding their own town or region. Reviews of thematic exhibition plans for regional museums often stressed the need to use more local material(16), which in practice basically meant provincialisation, ridding local issues of any link with the global or national context. Regional museums were accustomed to the fact that their role was to present general ideas using specific local examples. All the variety of local exhibits, and the uniqueness of local history, were seen as important “frills” which would help to convey the general idea of the historical process better, to decorate it and make it more relatable for the visitor.

Paradoxically, such “localisation” was more a translation of the generalising party line on local material and not at all similar to “history from below” which was spreading through western public history institutions.

Certain similarities with European processes can be seen during the Thaw, when numerous “people’s” museums began to appear, ie non-governmental institutions run by local activists, local historians, school children, and funded by kolkhozes or companies(17). Museums of individual institutions and organisations began to appear more and more often. “People’s museums”, of course, were still subject to control “from above”. They were run by state regional museums, among other entities, but they still did not have unified thematic exhibition plans, and, moreover, were often specialised, i.e. they covered more narrow aspects of the past (for example, people’s museums of partisan glory), i.e. an overarching comprehensive narrative was not always fully implemented. The participation of local inhabitants themselves, participants in historical events, in the lives of these museums expanded significantly(18). However, this does not change the main issue – the vision of a museum as an authoritative educational institution designed to convey objective knowledge, and through it – to agitate and exhort. Museums’ views of their actual audience did not change either – the view, above all, was powerful, educational, a view “from above”.

Ever since Stalin’s times, instructions for museum staff noted that the role of the guide should be as active as possible and, well, guiding(19). Ideally, visitors were not to be left alone with the exhibition, because, obviously, they had to get a complete picture of the historical process (i.e. so that they wouldn’t suddenly think of non-canonical interpretations that might easily grow out of the ambiguity of the material objects). Priority was given to visits by organised groups, which were without fail to be “given a tour”, while grouping together all single visitors proved to be impossible. Therefore, in the museum a clear spatial direction was also important, as was choosing the route through the exhibition, so that even without a guide the sequence of a visit would be set in advance(20).

The reaction of the visitors was also meant to be intentionally preset. One of the most popular methods was to cause visitors to identify with the heroes of the past and present, whose example should be emulated, especially via hard toil. In times of war, museum workers headed directly for the front line with travelling exhibitions and lectures meant to inspire immediate action: “The men of one of the batteries, under the command of Lieutenant Dyachenko, after leaving the lecture opened devastating fire on the enemy, and with their fire they destroyed several gun emplacements and their machine-gun crews. Soldiers convinced the lecturer that in the future they would destroy the enemy with even greater violence and hatred.”(21) The same is seen in peacetime: for example, at the Kharkiv Electromechanical Plant, in the 1960s in order to be hired a new worker had to visit the factory museum and make a solemn vow to continue the glorious traditions of the heroes.(22) And until the very end of the Soviet Union, museum workers were expected to be ‘agitators’ – for example, to walk with travelling exhibitions through trains, talking about the successes of constructing socialism, and accordingly to call for improvement in work-related enthusiasm, moral, and political unity.

However, visitors to Soviet museums still found ways to not only take part in this ritual of loyalty, but also to fulfil some of their own goals. The main benefit, which visitors identified according to entries in comment books – was to get certain knowledge about “the past as it was”, because after all, museum materials actually could prepare you well for sitting exams in such subjects as the “History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” or biographies of Lenin and Stalina(23). Knowing the interpretation of certain issues from the point of view of the official ideology was extremely important for supporting the discourse of loyalty to the state. Especially in the Stalinist period, reputable institutions such as museums were needed, places which could – with the frequent changes in ideological trends – inform the bewildered and frightened people for whom the use of the correct ideological language was the key to surviving (particularly for cultural sector workers)(24).

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet museums found themselves in a new context. The relative increase in well-being, the proclamation by the party of a policy of competing with capitalist countries when it came to living standards, the growth of mass culture and entertainment, as well as the penetration of Western cultural products into the USSR all made the values of a consumer society increasingly significant. Along with an emphasis on transmitting more objective knowledge, methodological recommendations referred to the need to make exhibitions more interesting and attractive. At the end of the 1970s, the Research Institute of Culture in Moscow (formerly the Research Institute of Regional History and Museum Work) conducted extensive research into the audience for local history museums, called “The Museum and the Visitor,” and in the middle of the 1980s it carried out a study of the attitude of inhabitants of large towns and cities to museums(25). There was a clear tendency to pay attention not only to the content of exhibitions and their ideological consistency, but also to the recipient, the consumer.

For museums at the end of the Soviet period, there was a characteristic growth in the aesthetics and attractiveness of exhibitions, and a greater emphasis on the emotional impact and design. Big bright pictures and dioramas, which aimed not at a cognitive but emotional and aesthetic impact, became typical for museums. A new form appeared, setting museums up in former partisan dugouts, directly at the place of events, putting the viewer in the position of a participant in history, including them in the past via the use of space. These changes were important given the change in the approach to the museum as being a place not only of education and indoctrination, but also of cultural consumption and leisure.

According to entries in comment books, museums are increasingly seen as a place of rest, where there is “a lot of interesting stuff”, where you can have certain experiences and get “cultural services” and other such things(26). These changes were important indicators of broader cultural transformations.

However, awareness of these changes did not reach a significant amount of local history museums. It was mainly elite research institutions and large museums (or tourism museums/centres, including foreign tourism) that understood the new context as their employees were in the scientific loop. In a planned economy with no market, state- or enterprise-funded museums had no vital need to change or focus on new requirements. The growth of pop culture was not perceived as a challenge to the traditional institutions of culture, but rather as a “decline” or “corruption”. In addition, in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union there was no point in talking about the democratisation of historiography or the new social movements which became the basis for changes in historical culture in the free world.

During perestroika there was loud criticism of the administrative-command methods of managing museums, the lack of funding, the neglect of cultural objects to the benefit of industry, the newly-exposed Stalinist (and later) clearing-out of archives and museums, the sale of collections, and the focus on the glorification of the achievements of “developed socialism”(27). Ideas regarding a dialogic approach and the pedagogy of cooperation, which were known before, now found support in the communal atmosphere. The self-identification of museum institutions started to change as they found themselves caught between educational and recreational goals(28).

There was a general optimistic expectation that the elimination of Party dictatorship and “filling in gaps in history” would automatically lead to positive changes in the sphere of culture, but the need for reform was much deeper.

Indeed, the absence of a more profound rethinking of the vision of the museum led to a simple “changing of the flags”. Museums in today’s Ukraine have remained mostly translators of the “general line” of the historical policy of the state or the regional elites; they continue to receive recommendations regarding the subject matter of exhibitions, calendars of recommended events to celebrate, and are also thought of as yet another resource for the concept of “patriotic education”, which varies depending on the current president and government. Against the backdrop of a lack of funding, the depopulation of villages, infrastructure decay (and hence a deterioration in the availability of local history museums in villages and settlements), there is a fundamental crisis. These institutions are simply no longer able to enjoy the full support of the state and the planned economy, but continue to work for the state, transmitting, in essence, the old tasks of legitimising power and political propaganda.

What steps could be taken to change museums today? What resources are needed to do this? I’ll try here to outline are a few suggestions that are being implemented for real in modern museums, as well as being discussed in the works of museologists.

Changes in the system of financing. State grant programmes are where funding is provided on a competitive basis according to an independent evaluation of projects – such as projects for long-term change in a certain museum institution, museum collaboration projects with other cultural institutions, educational programmes, and research projects run by museums. An important additional source of funding today is international cooperation, especially cooperation with foreign museums which have more opportunities to apply for grants. Undoubtedly, more profound changes will also be impossible if the standard of living continues to remain low, since this means that museum attendance will also stay low as will admission fees. It is also worth working to attract private funding and volunteers. Volunteers can be guides, teachers in educational programmes, help organise celebrations, and collaborate in the creation of temporary exhibitions. Improving infrastructure is also critical(29). Museums should be aware that they do not occupy the position of elite institutions of high culture, but are in a situation of competition with leisure and entertainment offerings from other institutions. In this situation, it is important that the museum should not lose its identity (as an institution not only related to entertainment, but also to knowledge and educational services), but also become as open as possible to the needs of the public and start activities with thoughts of them, not with what the museum can offer.

A museum of communities. From the previous thesis it follows that changes in a museum should be linked to an awareness of what audiences the museum caters for, what needs the community has, whose interests it should represent, and who should be given a voice and power? Departing from the illusion of “objectivity” that any historical representation might have, we should at the same time examine critically our own position and be honest with ourselves, asking ourselves questions about our own level of engagement. Namely: which community runs this museum? Whose viewpoint does it represent? Does this representation promote mutual understanding? Does it also find room for the voices of “others”? What social consequences will it have? Will it become a legitimisation of an overly partisan point of view?(30) I think that after Maidan and the war, these issues are highly relevant for Ukraine.

A museum should transform from a transmitter of dominant ideology into an open institution which expresses the interests of the community that supports the museum and which is interested in it. It should address itself to the living stories of life, to grassroots material. However, that does not mean some kind of deep provincialism or position extremely critical of the government. Modern historical research methodology allows a museum to go from the grassroots and local to the global and universal, creating knowledge “from below”.

Museum staff should also think about which special groups exist (perhaps older people, people with disabilities, or children in the countryside where there are few educational opportunities) that might be interested more than others in visiting the museum, as well as in collaboration and co-creating. Education should not be the transfer of prepared knowledge, but the actualisation of the capacity to participate and gain experience – and therefore the museum can teach people from different environments and with different educational foundations. One and the same exhibition should leave open the choice of suitable – for a specific visitor or group – methods of learning, communication, and interaction, i.e. the museum experience should be both individualised and collective at the same time.

A museum in an urban space. A push to transform a local museum may be found in its connection with the development of the actual town or village where the museum is located. According to C. Orloff, the museum should be involved in the planning of a town, providing information about its historical heritage for the general plan and for plans for revitalising particular areas where heritage objects can lead to new ideas about future changes and about the new / old functions of certain buildings and places(31). More events should be held outside the museum, in the urban landscape. This should help to use history not as a burden but as a resource for building the future, as a source of new ideas for development and at the same time a sense of rootedness. Such a position should facilitate the formation of a civic culture of participation, when people feel responsible for the town or city in which they live. To do this, the museum can organise projects with the involvement of certain groups or small communities (for example, exhibitions of photographs, paintings, or the life stories of neighbours in the communities)(32). The museum can help to solve existing problems by covering their historical roots, demonstrating possible solutions that have been employed in the past. Of course, the museum is not always able to make the municipal government take the steps needed for society, but at least it can show a good example of how you can change the urban space, and provide extensive expert knowledge, as K. Butler-Bowdon and S. Hunt write(33).

A critical museum. It is essential that a modern museum is a critical tool for the community to view its own past. Since Soviet times, and to this day, we have mainly had a cult of heroes and the celebration of happy modernity in exhibitions, something which contrasts sharply with the real experience of people. On the other hand, such a representation is not only Soviet, it is actually a feature of the traditional museum of the 19th century, when the museum was seen solely as a treasure trove of all that was the best and worthy of praise and respect. And even now, visitors to museums are often outraged if exhibitions contain something “scandalous” (and therefore they do not accept critical contemporary art which shows the dark sides of life), or things that belong to hostile forces in history (for example, particularly in the 1990s, veterans visiting the Historical Museum in Kharkiv were incensed by the presence of many Nazi items connected with the Second World War, a flag with a swastika, and a colour photo of Hitler)(34). Museums are still perceived as places of propaganda, as pedestals on which you may only put something totally positive and worthy of repetition. The modern museum should leave this “higher mission” in order to be a tool for critical self-reflection and to show the historical roots of today’s problems. Under no circumstances should it present historical sources as being self-evident, as “remnants of the past”. The visitor should be aware of the nature of the created artefacts as well as the interpretive component of each exhibition. A museum should compare different opinions and encourage visitors to talk about the exhibits.

A participatory museum. The basic idea of a sharing museum is not only to attract visitors to the museum, but the realisation that knowledge in a museum is created in collaboration with the audience. Instead of giving ready knowledge and the “right” answers, a museum poses stimulating questions and at the same time speaks not to the audience but with the audience. The museum’s narrative should not be authoritarian but inclusive, bringing together different voices.

N. Simon, author of the excellent book “The Participatory Museum”(35), identifies a number of possible forms of participation: in addition to traditional forms, such as public councils in museums and help with expanding collections, museum visitors can contribute to the exhibition by creating their own videos (e.g. via a presentation of their own experience of an historical event), a drawing or collage, by commenting and voting on the exhibits, and many other forms. The main thing is to develop a good design for such cooperation, one that will assist with creativity, at the same time without programming it unambiguously, and without leaving the visitor alone with challenging tasks. Of course, there will always be visitors who love traditional static exhibitions and do not desire to be active participants – and for them a museum must also be open. Technology – for example interactive screens, the ability to interact with the exhibition through one’s iPhone – this is just one of the possible ways. In fact, an exhibit can become interactive even without expensive technical fluff. The ultimate aim of participation is not only fun, but above all gaining both personal and at the same time social experience of the past and the surrounding world. Ideally, a participatory museum should encourage dialogue not only between the audience and their guide, but also dialogue and debate among the visitors themselves regarding the museum’s exhibits. It is also worth noting here that interactivity should be mandatory for all activities aimed at children.

Of course, the key challenge to a participatory museum is the ability to share power and authority with the audience, and the ability to depart from the position of an all-knowing expert and claims to cultural superiority(36).

Changes in historical culture and eco-consciousness. Needless to say, all these methodological approaches should also be combined with knowledge of the approaches used by contemporary historiography and other sciences. There is no point in making the museum digital, interactive and open, just to transmit old authoritarian, imperial or narrowly nationalistic approaches to history, or disdainful and environmentally insensitive approaches to nature. Undoubtedly, participation in international exchanges, educational programmes, and partnerships with academic institutions can play a key role.

In summary, we note that all these changes are aimed, above all, at museums becoming real actors in the creation of civil society, as open, collaborative, democratic institutions, which are happy to work with others and facilitate the social inclusion of different groups, including those displaced from the grand narratives. Leaving behind all illusions about receiving complete support from the state, a local museum should serve the communities around it while retaining its identity as a cultural (rather than purely entertainment) institution, which, however, is primarily public and can facilitate positive changes through the use of historical, natural and artistic heritage resources.

(1) The empirical part of this text is based on my research on the Kharkiv Historical Museum which was included in my dissertation: The Official Soviet Policy of Remembering the Nazi Occupation (based on Material from the Kharkiv Oblast), 1943-1985, Kharkiv, 2014, and was also published as a separate article: I. Sklokina. The Politics of Remembering the Nazi Occupation in Soviet Museums. The Case of the Kharkiv Historical Museum (1943-1985), in: E. Makhotina, E. Keding, W. Borodziej, E. François, M.S. Wessel (Hg.). Krieg im Museum. Präsentationen des Zweiten Weltkriegs in Museen und Gedenkstätten des östlichen Europa. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

(2) In her fantastic work “Monarchy, Myth, and Material Culture in Germany, 1750-1950” (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Eva Giloi shows, in particular, how the representation in museums of the rulers of Prussia and Germany changed in connection with the growth of the educational remit of museums, with the formation of bourgeois consumer culture and mass media, and with the process of state-building in various German lands.

(3) The name of the “Dig where you stand” movement comes from a book-manifesto: Sven Lindqvist, Gräv där du står. Hur man utforskar ett jobb (“Dig Where You Stand. How to Investigate the History of Your Place of Work”) (1979).

(4) By 1997 there were 1,600 such museums in Sweden: Industrial Heritage in the Nordic and Baltic Countries. Seminar on Cooperation in Strategies, Research and Training. 1-3 October 1999, Helsinki. TemaNord, 2000. Pр. 105-106. For more about changes in historiography, see: Dworkin D. Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left and the Origins of Cultural Studies. Duke University Press, 1997.

(5) Levin A.K. Why Local Museums Matter // Defining memory. Local museums and the construction of history in America’s changing communities / Ed. by Amy K. Levin. Altamira Press, 2007. P. 9.

(6) Ibid, P. 11.

(7) See Peterson D. The New Social History and Local Museums // Journal of American Culture. 1989. Vol.12 (2). P. 61.

(8) Levin A.K. Why Local Museums Matter… Рр. 12-17.

(9) Paradoxically, for example, even actual participants in historical events (particularly, respected revolutionary heroes, participants in events between 1905-07 and 1917-21) were not seen as sources of information that could contribute to museum exhibitions or collections: at meetings held by the Society of Old Bolsheviks in a museum, it was quite the opposite: “mistakes and distortions” were pointed out to them in their own reminiscences and it was suggested that they correct them in accordance with accepted Stalinist theories.

(10) Manevskij A. D. Fundamental Issues Regarding the Regional Museum Sector / Research Institute of Regional Studies and Museum Work. Moscow, 1943. P. 14.

(11) Simkin M. P. Collecting Material about the Soviet Period. A Manual for Regional Museums. Moscow, 1950. P. 20.

(12) Groys B. The Struggle against Museum or, the Display of Art in Totalitarian Space / Boris Groys // Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles / Ed. by D. Sherman, I. Rogoff. – London: Routhledge, 1994. – Pp. 144–162.

(13) Cf. inter alia, the State Archive of Kharkiv Oblast (GAKO). F. 5942. Op. 1. D. 35. L. 6; D. 36. L. 35; D. 43. L. 64 and others. Balancing general material and local material was not that easy, after all going too far in one direction or the other would be criticised. One typical example is: Serebrennikov G. N. The Organisation and Content of the Research Work of Museums. Moscow, 1950. P. 8-9.

(14) Hence, while on a business trip to Moscow in 1946, workers from the Kharkiv Museum tried to obtain thematic exhibition plans, however, they were refused everywhere: GAKO. – F. 5942. – Оp. 1. – D. 21 – L. 38. This is a typical example of how red tape, disorder, and a shortage of resources (of banal paper) were natural limits for totalitarianism.

(15) GAKO F. 5942. Оp. 1. D. 21. L. 8zv, 10-10zv.

(16) So, in 1946 regional museums were meant to do the following when creating exhibitions about the Second World War: “material, connected with the historic events in Europe, should be excluded for not having anything to do with a regional museum”, and they were meant to significantly reduce sections on the ancient historical past: GAKO – F. 5942. – Оp. 1. – D. 21 – L. 40. A museum’s history of the war became ever more provincial, not considered in a global context. The Second World War was boiled down to events solely on the Soviet-German front.

(17) The beginning of this process was instigated by the Decree of the Minister of Culture of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1957 regarding spreading experience related to creating museum rooms in village clubs following the example of the village of Kozeevka in the Kharkiv region. Regarding the wider hiring of non-specialists to work in museums, see: The Role of the Social Activist in the Work of a Museum, Moscow: Research Institute of Museum Studies, 1966

(18) Cf. in particular: To Help People’s Museums. Moscow, 1976. (Collection of Scientific Works of the Research Institute of Culture No. 42); Kasparinskaya S. A., Chudov I. S. The Activities of People’s Museums Nowadays. Moscow, 1965; The Methods and Experience of the Work of People’s Museums / Ed. S. A. Kasparinskaya, P. Y. Bukshpan. Moscow, 1973.

(19) See, in particular: Manevskij A. D. Fundamental Questions Regarding the Regional Museum Sector / Research Institute of Regional Studies and Museum Work et al. Moscow, 1943. P. 4.

(20) GAKO. F. 5942. Оp. 1. D. 21. L. 8-9.

(21) Vrochinskaya K. A., Komarova M. F. The Work of Museums of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic during War Time (information letter No. 1). Moscow, 1942.

(22) Burenkov M. The Heroics of Three Generations / M. Burenkov // Agitator. 1962. No. 5. Pp. 12-14.

(23) See in particular: GAKO. F. 5942. Оp. 1. D. 31. L. 28; D. 59. L. 4zv; D. 130. L. 24zv; Manevskij A. D. Fundamental Issues Regarding the Regional Museum Sector… P. 17.

(24) So, for example, one visitor to Kharkiv Museum soon after the death of Stalin (obviously, there was an atmosphere of uncertainty) expressed their wish, in the comment book, that the “plans of our Party and nation” could be more widely presented, which in principle was not at all strange: modernity and five-year plans were widely displayed exhibition items (GAKO. F. 5942. Оp. 1. D. 130. L.17); another group of visitors in 1954 expressed their discontent with the lack of “modernity” on show in the museum (GAKO. F 5942. Оp1. D 145. – L4).

(25) Current Issues in Museum Building. The Museum and the Visitor. Moscow, 1979 (Works of the Research Institute of Culture; issue 85). In particular, this collection devotes separate publications to the topics of advertising museums and organising holidays for schoolchildren in museums, which perfectly illustrates the direction of change. See also: The Museum Holiday: Organisation and Use of Methods, Recommendations / The Central Museum of the Revolution in the USSR. Moscow, 1985.

(26) See the comment book for 1966-1973 from Kharkiv Historical Museum: GAKO. F. 5942. Op. 1. D. 3036.

(27) Frolov A. I. Soviet Museums through the Prism of the Press // Museum Studies. On the Path to the Museum of the 20th Century. Moscow, 1989. Pp. 5-34.

(28) A. S. Soustin. The Exhibition Activities of Museums: Some Paths for the Intensification and Raising of Efficiency // Pp. 127-144.

(29) Amy Levin, in particular, notes that in the USA it was the developed network of highways that helped to organise and facilitate the huge number of local museums. Levin A. K. Why Local Museums Matter… P. 9.

(30) E. Kruk poses these questions in her studies of (Northern) Irish museums: Crooke E. Putting Contested History on Display: The Uses of the Past in Northern Ireland // (Re) visualizing National History. Museums and National Identities in Europe in the New Millennium / Ed. by R. Ostow. – Toronto-Buffalo-London: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Pp.90-105.

(31) Orloff C. Museums of Cities and the Future of Cities // City Museums and City Development / Ed. By J. Jones, R. R. Macdonald, and D. McIntyre. Altamira Press, 2008. Pp. 27-39.

(32) C. Butler-Bowdon, S. Hunt, Thinking the present historically at the museum of Sydney // City Museums and City Development… P. 75-89.

(33) Ibid, p. 76.

(34) Interview with V. Vokhmyanin, a historian and former employee of the Kharkiv Historical Museum, director of the museum of School No. 87, 12/04/2011, in Kharkiv (personal archive of the author).

(35) Simon N. The participatory museum. – Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010.

(36) An interesting example is the dialogic museum, which implements the idea of M. Frish regarding the necessity to “share power”: J. K. Wei Tchen, Ševčenko L. The “Dialogic Museum” Revisited: A Collaborative Reflection // Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World / Ed. by B. Adair, B. Filene, and L. Koloski. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011. Pp. 80-97.

Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Radical museology


Lecture by Maciej Wołosiuk

20 March, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine

 

Maciej Wołosiuk – culture expert, researcher of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw that was founded in 2005, temporarily situated, and leads their activity, in modernist pavilion in the heart of the capital. The major goal of the Museum is to acquire a collection of artworks to be presented in the new building that is going to be built to 2020. The museum held an extensive educational program related to contemporary art – film screenings, lectures, meetings, discussions and workshops. These activities are dynamic and open to the public that consistently draws a lot of residents and visitors alike. The museum organizes numerous artistic events outside of the institution, invading with contemporary art in the current space of the city.

The lecture was a part of the project At the heart of community which is realized in the frame of TANDEM – Cultural Managers Exchange Ukraine is an initiative of the European Cultural Foundation (Amsterdam) and MitOst (Berlin). The programme is implemented by MitOst and Insha Osvita (Kyiv), supported by the Federal Foreign Office (Berlin) in the framework of Dialogue for Change.

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.