Participatory practices in museum’s area

Conversation between Larion Lozovoy and Yuriy Kruchak

March 31, 2017
Kyiv, Ukraine
National Art Museum of Ukraine

On March 2017 the National Art Museum of Ukraine and METHOD FUND invited artists, curators, and art historians to participate in conversation on the history and motives of collaborations of contemporary art and museum institutions in order to summarize the experience of activity in the museum field. Bellow there is a part where Larion Lozovoy and Yuriy Kruchak discussed the project At the heart of the community, the effectiveness of work of socially engaged art and its evaluation criteria.

Yuriy Kruchak: First of all I’d like to note that the museum where we worked was not an art museum, and people who participated in the project didn’t identify themselves as artists. The aim was not to create an artwork, but create a model which could change the way of thinking about the museum, and would help to understand the local society of Melitopol itself at the same time.

I will give a brief introduction of how it started. In 2013 I worked on a model of an interdisciplinary centre. We know what happened in the country that year. It became obvious that society is disintegrated actively and this process can be very painful. That was clear that such the centres which could work out the social conflicts had becoming very important. I started to think where and how such an activity could happen. The museums of local history that we have quite a lot, seems to speak about identity. When I started to research them I realized that the museums in the different cities and the different regions are similar. There is not much difference between the museums of local history in Chuhuiv and in Melitopol or somewhere else. Most of the Museums of local history today still strongly connected with Soviet ideology, and children, when they come to the museum, are included in a specific program. It is thus important to launch a discussion about an effective model of a socially minded institution. The project lasted half a year and was divided into several blocks: research, practical and exposition, with the goal to show of the processes what happened these months.

There were two workshops each month. The questions were dedicated to the city and the museum. What is the role of a small museum in public life? How is the development of cultural institutions linked to the development of society? The questions about essence of the museum were raised by Мykola Skyba. Among the participants there were not practically people engaged in the visual arts, there were analytics of the culture, media activists, documentary photographers, and Jokers of the Theatre for Dialogue. For us not only the workers of the museum were important, but local society was important perhaps even more so. We wanted that not only the scientific workers of the museum took place in the sessions, but also the residents of Melitopol.

In a month, we have managed to set up communication between the residents of the city and museum worker. Have to say it was not easy, in the border situation and geographical closeness to Crimea, the war, and high level of violence within the society. Everyone had to restrain their emotions, and switch the hierarchical model to the model peer-to-peer in order to find the answers to the problems that existed in society.

We found the answer of how to establish dialogue between people with opposite beliefs in the museum archive. When we started to exam the history of museum, picked up the documents from its archive and found that the museum was created, saying in modern language, as a kind of hub, where people with different interests gathered together. We went the same way. Oleksiy Radynski, in particular, started to work with various activist groups, involving them in communication. It was crucial moment when the interest to what was going on in the city and who these people were arose within the museum staff. The second challenge was related to the “Theatre for Dialogue” session. The invited Jokers declared from the start that they would work with political issues. The management of the museum suggested first deal with the culture and with political issues it is better to wait for proper time. I must to admit it took us half a month to convince them that these things are interconnected. The management worried that political topics would provoke the conflicts, but “Theatre for Dialogue” demonstrated its ability to see into the root of the problems. I pay tribute here to Jana Salakhova and Nina Khodorivska – Jokers of the  “Theatre for Dialogue” –  who could  engaged people with opposite points of view, in order to present them in the play.

It was important for me as curator to formulate a certain model understandable for potential participants and members of local communities. Artist is not a core in this model. The viewer, who in fact, triggers the mechanism, becomes more important.

The artist creates an impulse, and the recipient brings it to a real value. The main accent here on how clear is the message. Rather than giving of more examples of how the interaction is built, I would underline the lack of methods and practices of interaction as the main problem. In the situation when these practices are not well developed and society is not as open that people could exchange the issues important for them with others, this work seems to me important, worth to do it.


Larion Lozovoy: Thank you! I can’t be unprejudiced to this project, as it is too close to me as a person historically connected with this city. I would like to react to the way in which Yura touched on one of the key features of the engaged art as such: an artist refuses to play the role of a demiurge creating objects or images, and restricts own role to an organizer of some situation or event. As far as I can tell, from the materials of your project that I saw, the  the museum staff considered artist  primarily in the traditional meaning, as the creator, and the requests were like: please help us to reform the exposition, for example. In this case, don’t you speak from different perspectives with the museum staff?

Yuriy Kruchak: There is quite good level of scientific workers in the museum, and they are open which is important. Yes, indeed, what I am doing is often interpreted as work of organiser – well, it is not a problem. The work itself can contain and this functions as well. For me it was really important to shift from creation of the image to the creation of the reality, its elaboration. And if someone thinks of you as a manager or organizer, then this is a matter of perception. The work itself in this situation may contain different scales.


Larion Lozovoy: I can’t help but recall one of the objects in the Melitopol Museum of Local Lore, a showcase with branded cups, mugs, pens and flags that were made during one of the city’s festival events. Melitopol is a kind of Ukrainian multicultural capital, a city of illustrative pluralism. There is a tradition in the city for many years to manifest this fact somehow with the support from various foundations. The museum staff decided to add the recent cultural events to the category of museum objects. The question is not whether such activities are needed and what goals they pursue, but whether artistic activity wouldn’t dissolve in many initiatives of civil society organizations? What is the fundamental difference and importance of the situation that you organize?

Yuriy Kruchak: The museum uses rather strange way to raise money, by enter into collaboration with political parties. It is obvious for the city dwellers as well. They see the false. In the small towns it is impossible to hide these things and the museum loses the trust of people. On the other hand, there is a lack of transparent ties without corruption. I noticed that the residents of the city were aimed to create qualitatively new collaborations, but there is a significant deficit of connections and exchanges between different cities in Ukraine. Thus if we are able to do something, then let our “artistic” dissolves, the main thing is society still.

December 18, 2017
Discussion "How many contemporary art practices for the museum's ruins?"

Larion Lozovoy: During the discussion, you said that you don’t see a problem if your artistic activity with social commitment “dissolves” in the variety of the projects made by conventional civil organizations. The answer seemed dignified, especially in the conditions of the cultural periphery, where any bearable cultural activity is already a benefit, though, it requires further clarification. Would you agree if someone confronted the effectiveness of your activity with the social projects implemented beyond the realm of art? There are a lot of projects among them that merely exploit the prioritized donors’ topics (the “multicultural” agenda in Melitopol, for example), but also really innovative projects. Is such juxtaposing relevant?

Yuriy Kruchak: To some extent such juxtaposing is possible, since nowadays both social services and sphere of art are oriented toward interaction with society and in most cases use the same practices. But social services and the sphere of art use different criteria to measure the effectiveness of their work. Most of the social projects in Ukraine who exploit certain topics, use social and economic efficiency as the main criteria. Thus, the effectiveness associated with the financial benefit of the donor, and the society is in the role of the consumer of propagated good. Melitopol festival “Chereshnevo” could illustrate this very well. The main highlight of the festivity is “cherry procession”. The guests and the residents of the city dressed in cherry, caterpillar and butterfly costumes march to the vat with cherry jam. Jam is “kindly” provided by the mayor of the city who at the same time is the founder of the group of Companies “Melitopol Cherry”.

In socially engaged art the main criterion of effectiveness is its impact on consciousness of an engaged person. An artistic activity in this paradigm is aimed not at creation of “image” but at interaction with the addresses of such an activity. In case of “At the heart of community” it was active communities of Melitopol and workers of the city local history museum. In other words, the main task of artist is to create a common discursive field open to interaction, where people with different points of view could rethink their own experience and reproduce a common language, important both to those who immediately involved and for society at large. An indicator of effectiveness would be a person who is not afraid to express opinions and ask questions. These factors are hardly measurable economically, but we can talk about socio-political benefits.

Regarding the “multicultural”, or “intercultural” agenda in Melitopol, I see the problem in the definition itself. Segregation of people by race, ethnicity, nationality or gender, and linking the identities to the certain cultures, create the fruitful field for manipulations. The intention of city authorities is clear, such a “social project” gives the possibility to engage foreign donors to the city. But it’s important to say that exactly the policy of segregation of the people according ethnicity made it possible for “national patriots”, pro-Russian activists and Russian terrorist forces to incite ethnic hatred, to occupy the Crimea and started an armed conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.


Larion Lozovoy: Claire Bishop in her book «Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship» writes that the “participatory turn” in contemporary art not only means art addresses to social objectives (community involvement, and mutual collaboration), but also their valuation as more essential, “real” and important than aesthetic experiences. In fact, the works of artists are compared based on ethical quality. Thus “Socially engaged art” is in a very comfortable position – on the one hand, it is protected against criticism in the field of art (“… after all, we are doing useful things for the society”), on the other hand, it escapes the assessment and comparison with social projects (“… after all, we are artists “). How would you comment on it?

Yuriy Kruchak: The desire to avoid the criticism is a dead end position, as it doesn’t help to develop the artists and institutions, as well as society. The situation you described: “we are doing useful things for the society but we are artists, after all” – reveals archaic understanding of ​​the essence of artistic activity in participatory practices. Further I will tell more about it. First of all I’d like to react on the formulation “ethical excellence”. For me it sounds as danger as “aesthetic excellence”. I think both aesthetical and ethical are equally important components for socially engaged art. If we would deny one of the components, we not only censoring the work before even it appeared, but, also curtail a person’s freedom with the grip of an ideology.

In the artistic practices of the 1920s and 1930s, the battle between aesthetic and ethical criteria was the same actual. The conflict has not been resolved so far, but in the process of this battle two cultures with characteristics of superiority have emerged Avant-garde and Socialist Realism. The museums became the fields of this battle. Now the results we can witness practically in any of Ukrainian museums. The Melitopol Local History Museum wasn’t an exception. In the museum’s archive, that was included at the final exhibition of the project one could trace in the history of the museum how one form of pressure through conflicts and repression was replaced with another authoritarian configuration.

Further I’d like to share the experience of work in Melitopol as well as to clarify the core of artistic activity that based on participatory practices. In fairness, I should point that Avant-garde, Socialist Realism and Engaged art have the same communicative nature, aimed at the consciousness of others. The subject of such activity is the recipient, but not an object that being created. The significant difference is in the way of formation of the communicative event. In Avant-garde and Socialist Realism it was one way communication – from author to addressee, quite hierarchical and authoritarian model of behavior, where addressee was assigned a role of an executor within predetermined scenario. Participatory art is based on dialogue. The model contributes to non-hierarchical consciousness, and this is really an important turn in artistic practices, which can lead to significant changes in the system of interaction within society. The fact is that in participatory practices, “political” is based on metapolitics but not on Party Politics or ideology. For the museums it is a chance to get rid of the function of serving the political parties and their ideologies, to become a space of political dialogue about politics itself. This is a really significant turn.

Performing the East

Dr. Amy Bryzgel interviewed Yulia Kostereva

Kyiv, Ukraine - Aberdeen, Scotland

The political situation in Ukraine has thus far prevented me from getting to Kiev to conduct my research in person. Consequently, I am trying to introduce myself to the scene there by doing my interviews remotely, through Skype. So far, the only artists I have been able to get in touch with are Yulia Kostereva and Yuriy Kruchak, who share an artistic practice; they are also co-founder and founder of Open Place, a platform dedicated to, according to their website, the “development of creative research” and the “establishment of the connections between an art process and different layers of the Ukrainian society.”

I spoke with Yulia about Open Place. I was intrigued by the interactive and collaborative nature of their work, and the manner in which they involve the surrounding community in dealing with local issues. One of the pieces that struck me, looking at their website, was The 7th of November (the date of the 1917 October Revolution), an art intervention that they staged in Geneva in 2009. What intrigued me about it was their use of the plaid plastic bags that are a familiar accessory not only in Eastern Europe, but also the West, used by refugees and migrants. The artists invited 20 people, citizens of Geneva, to move 80 of these bags, filled with newspapers, across the city, and eventually bring them to a public sculpture in front of the Palace of Nations, Broken Chair, which was installed as a monument in support of the international treaty for a ban on cluster bombs. The participants of the action used the bags to “repair” the chair, acting as an artificial support or fourth leg.

The purpose of the action was to bring attention to the status of migrants in Geneva, and in general. The artist recalls that as artists from Eastern Europe in Switzerland, they themselves felt like “barbarians,” which they imagine is not dissimilar to the way in which most immigrants there feel, or are made to feel by the inhabitants. The bags were used because of their iconic association with foreigners. Indeed, in their travels through the city, they made quite a sight, as 80 of these large bags blocked the view of the city on the bus, and disrupted sightseeing, interfering with the pristine view. By bringing these bags out into the public space, they confronted passersby with a reality that they might not like to see or acknowledge. They brought the bags to the chair to repair it, using it as a symbol of a “broken nation” or union. They also wanted to show that “barbarians” could also fix something.

In doing this action, they occupied public space and showed that this is not just a space for tourism, but also a space for dialogue. They also gave the local citizens who participated the experience of what it might be like to exist as a foreigner in that environment. Yulia told me that the people who participated seemed to really make this connection after the performance, and one woman went as far as to say that she “felt like Christ,” after participating in it.

A similar collaborative effort can be seen in Subbotnik, where the participants came together to do gardening work – often a task associated with the Soviet-era subbotnik, or mandatory work party. During the Soviet era, subbotniks would involve picking potatoes at harvest time, or cleaning up a factory or school. In Yulia and Yuriy’s Subbotnik, the participants planted a garden, according to the artists’ instructions. In the end, the result was a small flower garden that formed a portrait of Lenin, the inventor of subbotniks. The artists liked the idea of the work party, stating that “when you earn money [for your work] there is a difference between the people who earn more or less money; if you work for free, you are equal.” The artists chose this activity because of the connection with local traditions, mainly citing the large flower clock in the center of Geneva, which people care for on a regular basis.

Aside from these projects in Switzerland, which were done in the context of a residency that the artists had there, with their Open Place platform, Yulia and Yuriy are both committed to promoting contemporary art in Ukraine. They mentioned that they wanted to create an alternative to the Pinchuk Art Center, which doesn’t always necessarily deal with the reality of contemporary Ukraine. Rather, they wanted to create a more “flexible structure, that can change and be implemented in many places, everywhere.” They also wanted to ensure that contemporary art was connected with the general public, not just the regular art-going crowd, thus they deliberately located their space outside of the city center. Performative and participatory artforms do not have a strong tradition in Ukraine, and when I asked Yulia where their ideas came from, she told me about an artistic exchange that she and Yuriy participated in in Kharkiv in 1998. She spoke about the freedom that they were given to work on their project, and the collaborative spirit of the exchange, which hosted participants from Kharkiv and Nuremberg. After this, they realized not only the importance of being able to have direct contact with their viewers, but also the importance of feedback and dialogue. Ironically, Yulia told me that she and Yuriy used to lament the fact that people in Ukraine weren’t active – meaning prior to the events of 2013-2014. She said that as artists, they didn’t want to simply make “critical art,” which only shows the problem and doesn’t propose anything new. Rather, she spoke about the empowering nature of people coming together to solve a problem. Simply lamenting the problem “makes people feel helpless,” she said, but if they “feel free and educated, then they can solve it…” Later, she stated that “when people aren’t free, they feel poor, not active, this makes them feel worse.” So their artistic practice starts from the idea of empowering people to come together to find a solution.

The artists have worked with blind people and differently abled people, to create a more inclusive environment for them, in a society where they are otherwise marginalized. [It is rather symptomatic of post-Soviet spaces that differently abled people are denied access to public spaces, rather than being integrated into daily life.] For example, they have created a work of art that blind people can interact with. Before they could do this, however, they had to establish trust within he community, so they created new maps of the city to replace the old, Soviet era maps that the rehabilitation centers in Kiev were using, and made maps that corresponded to the new situation in the city. Then, they worked with volunteers to walk the people around the city using these maps, so that they could become familiar with the layout. Initially, they made smaller sculptures that one could hold in one’s hand, and touch. Later, they made a hands-on sculpture to give sighted people the experience of what it is like to be blind. In this piece, they created a grid, and depending on which square of the grid the person stood on, different sounds would emanate – the sound of a barking dog, for example – that would indicate that one needed to move to another square.

The Open Place platform is a great initiative that combines art and activism, and works with the local community, to bring artists and laypeople together to solve problems through interaction, and artistic activity. I look forward to the day when I can visit their space in person.