Intellectual resistance: New strategies

A roundtable discussion on Belarus and Ukraine

12 January 2016
Only in en
Leading artists, curators and practitioners in the creative industries discuss the prospects for intellectual resistance in the most precarious of circumstances: where state institutions tend to strangle much-needed social critique and one must use every available resource to avoid submitting to one's own fatigue.

In recent years, in political and humanitarian circles,
it has been increasingly repeated that the geopolitical
situation in the world — both globally and locally —
has changed dramatically. Here not only physical
changes are meant: the relevance of the humanistic
values formed by policy makers and humanitarians in
the second half of the twentieth century is thrown into doubt. The
question is more and more frequently posed as to how one
can dwell in the midst of what is happening nowadays and which words one can use to describe current affairs. How can we outline
those tactics (especially intellectual ones) which we
may use to resist this “new” situation?

Space: Why resist, for what reasons?

Andrei Liankevich: When I first heard about the
topic of our discussion, I immediately thought that I
had to speak about two aspects of myself. One of them is
me as an artist. Some time ago I realized that I had no
idea about what it means — to represent Belarus. How
can I represent some space which I absolutely do not
identify with? One businessman who sometimes
provides us with support once told me that in general
people like me are tumours on the body of a normal
healthy society. Joking aside, but I have never had a
solo exhibition in any state museum in Belarus, I have
never submitted an application to participate in the
Biennale, understanding that the concept I can offer in
no way fits into what this country is, the concept of how
this country positions itself. Neither would I be able to fully
present myself through my projects, because state
institutions have their limitations. And sometimes —
now I am turning to the other aspect of myself as organizer of the
Month of Photography in Minsk — directors
of institutes, as soon as they hear my name, show they have no
intention of dealing with me.

But I have a firm understanding of the need to act
here, to work and to influence the processes in this
country, so I have recently joined CECH art-space.
And when, in my role as curator of the Month of Photography
in Minsk, the whole institution depends on
you, the rules of the game change. Since either
you start an all-out war and obviously lose it, or you
start to cooperate. Certainly, this is collaboration
in its pure form, a sort of betrayal of your own class,
but at the same time it is due to this collaboration that the next Month
of Photography in Minsk becomes possible. So we
should try to integrate major efforts into certain projects,
because no one has money, sponsors, grants that
could be obtained, and legally spent with a cool
project as a result. And thus, I support the strategy
of cooperation and shaking hands with people with
whom as an artist I would be unlikely to communicate.

, August 2012. Photo: Lushes Hunt. Source:Flickr

Alaksandr Sarna: If we talk about the importance
of resistance in contemporary art in our situation, the
position of resistance seems obvious and natural for the
artist. On the one hand, it is resistance to a set of official
bans, ideological prejudices and the stereotypic perceptions
of officials who are unable adequately to assess the
relevance of contemporary art projects. On the other
hand, it is resistance to conformity, not only that shown
by mass audiences (the public is not always ready to accept
radical projects), but also the conformity of those artists
who view self-realization and self-expression as their only goals, with a
certain “blindness” and indifference towards what is
happening around them. Unfortunately,
most Belarusian painters, sculptors, photographers,
theatrical figures and so on can be found within this
category of people. And to my mind what they create
can not be considered contemporary art, because it
in no way has something to do with reality. It is this
trend which dominates here — self-expression is
welcome, where critical issues are avoided, and problematic
topics not dealt with.

Cases of artistic resistance (especially
in the political aspect) can be counted on
the fingers of one hand. This is partly because of a hostile political environment,
but more so because of global changes, as I see it.
Due to the crisis-ridden financial situation, matters have become
worse in the world and it has become much more
difficult to find support from abroad to carry out
significant art projects in Belarus. For example,
the legendary festival “Navinki”, which has been
held annually in Minsk for 16 years, did not take place this year
due to the lack of funds. This case shows that it is
necessary to change tactics and strategies both on the
local and global levels — in order not to rely exclusively
on financial support from abroad, on searching for
sponsors and patrons, on foreign foundations or
Belarusian government agencies. I believe that the
way out can be found in the active support of the
community. We must invite people who are interested
in participation, those who are willing to hold events by
mobilizing their own resources. Sure, it will be good to
have some external support, but first of all you need to
count on the support of the community; now, for us, this is the most important thing.

Iryna Hierasimovic: In relation to this I thought
about the manifestation of this very new element we can
feel in the world. I think that now more than ever it has
become obvious that the world is quite a heterogeneous
structure in which very few homogeneous blocks can
be discovered, now we feel that everything is in motion.
It is scary, how this movement manifests itself is really
scary, in some sense it is just chaos. Since, for example,
we need to get used to the word “war” in reference to
Ukraine. During my stay in Kyiv, just getting used to
pronouncing this word was a real challenge. We are suddenly
surprised to find that in our environment there
are people who are in quite a literal sense xenophobes.
Here in Belarus, they suddenly start to boil over
at the Islamization of Europe. You observe people who in
some critical, unstable situations begin gladly to fall back
into such a flimsy category as “the national”. They begin
to operate on the basis of national categories and try to find some
support in something that does not present any support
at all. “The national” may seem temporarily to offer such support,
but this support is absolutely weak, it falls to pieces,
when a person faces existential questions about his/her
own position in the world.

And I think that these attempts to hold on to some
general categories — no matter whether they are national,
religious, gender-specific, etc. — are harmful, sometimes even
dangerous. They are harmful because they hide the secret
depths of human potential, and dangerous because, for
example, when today people begin to think in terms
of hatred towards the Russians I get scared, because
hatred can accumulate and at some point will
explode. When people speak about the rejection of Islam,
it will also explode at some point. These are some reasons
why, to my mind, it is worth resisting — resist falling
into some general categories. In this sense, the function
of art today — visual arts, cinema, literature, etc. — does
not differ from its original purpose, that is to give voice to
individuals above any categories, putting him/her in the
spotlight.

People who previously had no voice in the public
space then make their voice heard and become visible. And when
we start seeing the face, then a person, and
then one more, etc., it is difficult to think using
unchangeable, “frozen” categories.

I really liked the formula that Lukas Barfuss presented
in his speech at the literary festival in Solothurn. He identified a
writer as a person who gives voice to the absent. Then
he listed these absentees — from the migrants in western
Europe to the dead or those not yet born and thus
having no voices. And that is what I personally expect
from art and why it is very important to me. I believe
art to be primary for society: it is the artist who helps to
create polyphony, and then the number of dangerous, rigid
categories decreases significantly.

Anna Medvedeva: To continue on the topic of resistance,
I would like to say a few words about some projects as examples of resistance
in numerous aspects and dimensions. For example,
resistance to the social situation, to digitalization, to the rules
of the world of contemporary
art, resistance to bureaucracy and even the
Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, resistance to so many
things that are not necessarily associated with politics.
The first project I am going to tell you about is
#onvacation. At some point, we began to notice
that the annexation of the Crimea and the occupation
of Donbass were quietly disappearing from the
information flow and falling by the wayside. It was just
before the opening of the Venice Biennale, and we
decided to make the following project. We started it during
the Biennale’s opening days, when a large number of tourists and
representatives of the art elite come to the city.

So we had uniforms with no clear identification signs
— a reference to the little green men who occupied
Crimea in 2014. As we all know, they used to react to the
question “What are you doing here?” by saying something
like: “We are on holiday”. This provided
our project with its name and the hashtag, which was placed on bags
and the backs of jackets. The team and volunteers
were standing at the entrance to Giardini and Arsenale, as
well as in the streets of Venice and offered passers-by
the uniforms so that they could photograph themselves inside a
pavilion of any country they considered to be aggressive.
Many people asked why we were wearing those uniforms,
and when we told them the story about the Crimea, many
understood it at once. Someone even told us an anecdote
about Russian tourists travelling abroad who were
asked the question: “Is it an occupation?” The tourists answered:
“No, we are just on a visit” or “We are on vacation”. For
the whole month we saw different people take uniforms,
head towards pavilions of different countries, and
then upload their selfies in uniforms onto the site. Our team had a timetable where it was indicated how
and where we were working, as well as the amount of time
spent inside the pavilion that we considered to be most
popular for us — the Russian one. Part of that pavilion
was in bright red and green colours, which became
a perfect background for our performance. This art action
became our provocation, a proposal to return to the
subject-matter of occupation, in principle, also a call not
to forget about what happened.

Many visitors took the
uniforms and went to the pavilions of Israel, Azerbaijan,
the United States, Armenia, Serbia, and others. There
were even citizens who were headed to the pavilion of
their own states, considering them to be aggressive.

I also need to mention one aspect that prefaced the story.
Just before the Biennale, the Foundation
received an invitation to become the national pavilion’s
commissioner from the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine.
During the negotiations, we failed to develop a common
understanding of the project’s concept and we refused the invitation.
The system was not ready for the format
we intended to offer, so our project
#onvacation can also be seen as resistance
to the existing bureaucracy, which is not
ready to change, not ready for alternatives.

To briefly speak about other projects of ours, one of our
areas is resistance to digitalization. That is, resistance to
the world where there is a lot of information, where modern
people live mostly on the Internet. We have forgotten the
smell of paint when you work in a furniture shop, we have
forgotten what live communication is, that we can develop
not only digital art forms, but also drawing. So
we recently opened a creative space “” — an
infrastructure with workshops where everything can be
done with your own hands — there are engraving and
furniture workshops, a digital art lab, “”, etc. During
the opening, when people came just to have a look at the
opportunities and resources they can use, it became clear
how quickly the visitors got together, making friends only on the basis of interest in what each of them was doing.

People were rescuing themselves from the routine, from virtual
relations. Moreover, there was a return to the artisan, to
what you can do with your hands.

There is also an aspect of economic resistance. Due
to the commercial nature of the project, we hope to
render it self-sustaining one day. The point is to allow
artists and those who just want to learn these skills to
go all the way from the moment when an idea is born
to its implementation, and to learn to make money, also
through creativity and the creative industries. Traveling with
our projects across the many cities of eastern Ukraine, we
have come to understand that in those places where private
business is developed and where there is understanding
that creativity can be monetized and there is nothing
wrong about this, the resistance to propaganda is stronger,
people are more confident about their power and have a
better understanding of a possibility of being master of
the situation and their initiatives.

New tactics

AL: I would like to come back to another point. When
preparing the Month of Photography in Minsk,
there were also some debates within the
group relating to our views
and beliefs. And there was a conversation which
caused me to realize that first of all we need to
start from the local context. And that people imprisoned
here are far more important than the problems of
migrants in Germany and the Israel’s occupation of
Palestine, for example. I say this because one can often
hear the reproach that we base our event only on the local
context, ignoring global problems.

I also say this because of my own experience of
immigration, and returning to Belarus. I know that we work with
the existing conditions, and we will not have any others;
we work with actual people and existing institutions
that would remain unchanged. Ninety per cent of people think
differently, that is true, we are not the citizens of our
country, we should accept it. We have to deal with it, and
not just to sit still talking about the problems of Germany.
We have a different situation, and here it is difficult to
speak about boycotts, we must go and negotiate instead.
This is real life, and we need to work with it.
In this regard, the strategy of small actions
and working with the local context seems
the first thing to do, simply because we are
working here and now.

IH: I would even narrow down the field that Andrei speaks about. For me, a productive and interesting
strategy can be defined as something that a person,
first of all, forms in accordance with his/her own personal concerns.
The division of contexts into “mine” and “not mine”
seems artificial to me. And I would not remain within
country borders. For example, I am in Belarus now,
but the refugees arriving to Germany really worry me.
When I argue about it with a friend or when I have a long
conversation with my refugee-friend, it becomes the
context of my life.

AL: I meant rather a different thing. If we talk about
the activities of some public institutions, what happens
here is important for their work, first of all. Since we live
in a historic moment, and it is necessary to solve our local
problems, and only then to move to the global level, like
into the second round.

IH: I agree, but it is also important to hear the voice
of another: the more voices there would be, the better.
Moving from the individual, in my opinion, we should not
draw the line between “ours” and “not ours”, because a
question immediately arise about who “we” are, who “I”
am, etc. To my mind, it is important to remain vigilant.
When some of the concepts, definitions, ready-made
answers start putting pressure on us, it is important to
discharge the atmosphere asking yourself a question.
To question the evident — and it is precisely what art is
in charge of. However, it seems to me, that not the full
potential of this challenge is used, and not only because
the environment is not supportive, but also because
there is no inner need yet, in artists, too. I am very much
concerned about not only vigilance on the part of the
artists, but also, of course, on the part of viewers.
I would also add that in my opinion, the
problem of the Belarusian context is largely
connected to the country’s being a rather
“sealed” and homogeneous space, at least
at first glance. Therefore, the more windows
and doors we open, the more fresh air would
arrive, the faster the situation would change.

AS: I think all our problems, already mentioned today,
can be perfectly described with the precise notion of
“glocalization”. If we move away from our private, local
issues and practices, we would be able to take the next
step and go to the global level. There it would turn out
that we need to offer something different, for example,
in cultural terms. The culture acts as a universal resource
characteristic to any region, but in each case unique.
That is, first we move from the inside out, and then come
back to ourselves and to perceive our own problems, but
already on a global scale.

Another important point mentioned by Andrei deals
with the following. On the one hand, we have to consider
the situation and take into account the resources that we
have. But on the other hand, the purpose of art is utopian
enough — not to put up with the existing reality, but to
offer some alternatives, to construct possible worlds. To
simulate new versions of reality, the appearance of which
we still will not see in the short term, but which suddenly
one day can become possible. Therefore, I would name
one of the main objectives of the current Belarusian art
as “the resistance to the obviousness”. For us it is very
important now (and it is also a resistance strategy) to
push the boundaries of the possible, to cultivate diversity
and not to rally around any one idea. Although we can
share totally equal values — for example, the struggle
for freedom of expression in the opposition to the
authorities.

AM: What concerns polyphony — I would like to
share my memories about what we were discussing after
some people had left Donetsk. For example, the media
talked about the voice of Donbass a lot and for long
there had been no rhetoric claiming that actually, there were
many voices, their number being the same as
the number of Donbass residents. That is, we, as a young
country, found ourselves in a situation when we
literally lacked terms or rhetoric, and many believed a mythotype
articulated by one person who was representing
everyone.

Next, I would like to say something about the new tactics of
resistance. Of course, the new context causes a reaction,
expands upon the existing set of tools. I would like to
present the example of two projects — not only those
made by , but also belonging to other
artists from Donetsk. In 2012, we hosted the Football
Championship and around a year before talks about
identity and identification had started, these issues
were mostly discussed in connection with territorial
marketing, because Donetsk was supposed to be represented somehow. We discussed who the residents of
Donetsk were, what they needed, and in addition to these
“grassroots” discussions there were also many things that
came from the top down: the identity of the region and the city
were presented in way that very few people really associated
themselves with.

Meanwhile, one female artist who calls herself
Mikhalych, completed a project overnight: she drew
caricatures with different types of city residents,
among which there were mostly, if we put it in “a
Donetsk way”, such “high-heeled chicks”, “tattooed
lads”, etc. It was sheer speculation, because clearly in
Donetsk there are students and intellectuals, but since
the government showed us one picture, this project
was intended to show the other side, which is certainly never
presented to tourists. The project also criticized the fact
that all these discussions about citizens’ identification
were so useless and led to nothing. So it was about the idea
of resistance to the one-sided representation of the city
dwellers. These images could be seen by the public for a
long time, almost till the beginning of the war.

Last year, when combat operations were already
underway in the city, the artist Sergey Zacharov, who at that
time was engaged mainly in furniture design, also made
a project in a similar manner. The project included
cardboard installations that incorporated caricatures of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s
Republic, together
with pictures portraying their lives. You should understand
that back then, all these people in Donetsk were considered
icons of revolution and struggle. And then there
came a certain artist Zacharau, who at night, during the
curfew, put all these installations in the city centre. Later
he was caught. But at the time, we were already in Kyiv and assumed that the resistance in Donetsk no longer
existed, so the intervention produced an amazing feeling. Someone out
there stayed and was trying to fight. By the way, we had
never heard about these artists before. Mikhalych
and Zacharov used similar techniques, but there were
different challenges for these artists to respond to.

Challenges to which we must respond

IH: I believe that whether it takes place voluntarily or not, “the
depressurization” of the Belarusian space will inevitably
happen, and we have to be prepared for this — for
the challenges of the depressurized space. Because, on the
one hand, the “sealed” space is inconvenient. On the
other, it has its advantages: one can work with a
certain topic and successfully export it. And it is the need
to get mentally engaged with a more global context, in
my view, that will be a major challenge for the Belarusian
space.

AS: In the near future, we (primarily, such players on
the art field as artists, critics and curators) will most likely
be finding ourselves a bit disoriented, as if on a spacewalk
from a state of isolation and autonomy. Thus, on the
one hand, you can not always expect any active response
to your activities from society, and on the other —
the pressure from state institutions may cease if they
give up claims to control everything, because of a
lack of resources. But we should not be afraid of such a
“suspended” state, we should just go through it and try
to get by with the least possible losses.
We need to develop joint projects,
mobilize the community, communicate
with the institutions or — if they refuse to
cooperate — as Andrei said, create our own.

AL: I would further develop this idea at the example
of CECH art-space. Now we are engaged in planning
and cooperating with businesses because we understand
that we need to make big ambitious projects, such as
the Belarusian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in Minsk,
organized by Ruslan Vaskievic in 2009. It is necessary to
make such provocations, to which the state will sooner
or later react. As, for example, it happened with the
independent Belarus Press Photo contest, when the
state did not agree with our vision and concept, and
launched its own contest five years later.

AM: Speaking globally, the problems will be the
same, and we will resist the same things — rudeness,
ignorance, passivity, xenophobia, etc. Going back to the
activities of the , we have many challenges
that still lie ahead. For example, the law on de-communization, which is
already in force; its deadlines are so tight that we
hardly have time to prevent the destruction of works of
art that contain communist symbols and which
will simply be dismantled and destroyed, because the
ideology of the country has changed.

And it all had started even before that law, when
the Kyiv City Council authorized the dismantling of
Soviet mosaics, and we began a public campaign
to resist these processes. It will no
longer be possible to restore these works. A peculiarity of the situation lies
in the fact that, in the sphere of
monumental art in Ukraine, it was mosaics which used to be the
least controlled by the Soviet ideologists and where Ukrainian artists
could express themselves freely. It turns out that
now, due to their ignorance, the new authorities want to
destroy the freest Ukrainian art sector of the
Soviet-era, one can even call it dissident.

Tania Arcimovic: In conclusion, I would add that
the challenge that will always remain relevant is resistance
to our own fatigue. Yes, sometimes it seems that the
situation will never change and that any initiative merely enters
into a void, like Sisyphus’s boulder. But as soon as you
feel that, you immediately need to take it as a challenge
and resist. Because it is what is expected from us — both
locally and globally — we are expected to put up with
what we have and start to function in the conditions
someone created for us. And this submission should not
be permitted.

Published 12 January 2016

Original in Belarusian
Translation by pARTisan
First published in pARTisan 29 (2015)

Contributed by pARTisan
© pARTisan Eurozine

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