Why collect stories?

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac from America explained how a museum, where antiquities are held, can help to build the future.

Yulia Kostereva interviewed Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

August 11, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine


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

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

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

Free dialogue - in a penal colony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead of local - a "Museum of cultural heritage"

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

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

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

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

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

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