When Canons Roar: Artists Reflect on the Conflict in Ukraine

Fig. 1 "Crimea and Russia together forever," wall painting in Moscow (2014). Photo by the author.

For the 2015 edition of the Supermarket Art Fair in Stockholm (the annual international artist-run art fair), artists from Ukraine and its neighbouring countries were invited to discuss the role of art in times of war and chaos, as well as the possibilities for collaborating across borders. The art fair brought together artist-driven initiatives from around the world, including the collectives Parazit (St. Petersburg) and Open Place (Kyiv), whose members participated in the discussion below, together with Maria Kulikovskaya, an artist who is currently starting up an interdisciplinary feminist art residency in Kyiv. Building on this conversation in Stockholm, I interviewed these and other members of both collectives to discuss further the role played by art in the region’s current war, particularly in relation to their own collective practices. Participants include: Sofiya Kokhanskaya (b. 1988, St. Petersburg), member of Parazit collective, lives and works in St. Petersburg; Vladimir Kozin (b. 1953, Lviv, Ukraine), member of Parazit collective, lives and works in St. Petersburg; Yuriy Kruchak (b. 1973, Poltava, Ukraine), member of Open Place collective, lives and works in Kyiv; Maria Kulikovskaya (b. 1988, Kerch, Crimea), based in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Malmö, Sweden; Sasha Kurmaz (b. 1986, Kyiv, Ukraine), member of Open Place collective, lives and works in Kyiv; SemyonMotolyanets (b. 1982, Brest, Belarus), member of Parazit collective, lives and works in St. Petersburg.

When I initially interviewed independently organized artists in Russia and Ukraine in early 2013, the topics discussed mainly focused on the difficulties involved in realizing non-commercial and experimental art projects. The artists talked about the general lack of interest in and understanding of contemporary art in their respective locations, a lack reflected in limited audiences and limited funding. Since then, Ukraine has experienced revolution and outright war. At the same time, the ongoing Russian propaganda regarding “traditional values” and its impact on art and culture has received a great deal of attention, together with the harsh sanctions facing opponents and critics, including artists, in Putin’s Russia.

Katarina Lindqvist: What place does art have in a time of chaos and war?

Fig. 2 Maria Kulikovskaya, "Army of Clones," sculpture installation made from plaster casts of the artist’s body (2013). Image courtesy of the artist.Maria Kulikovskaya: I am fully convinced that where there is art and culture, war is impossible. The former simply replaces the latter. In just one year, I have lost both my homeland and my home because of the occupation of Crimea. I’ve been overwhelmed by unbearable feelings. Sometimes these feelings include despair and disbelief, anger and apathy, violence and a desire to wipe out everyone who creates aggression and pain. But I’ve spent my whole life working in an artistic environment – an environment of political and critical art addressing social issues; an art that has never avoided uncomfortable and controversial issues and that questions the position of women in a patriarchal society and human rights, in general, as well as issues of power and the body. This is why I’m able to free myself from these thoughts of cruelty, revenge and violence. I will never stop repeating that it is only art, culture, science, philosophy ?and political will that can fill our lives completely, and remove all thoughts of violence, hatred, the oppression of one people by another, and all forms of discrimination. Art, in this time of war, can be any action trying to support and strengthen solidarity and save lives.

Sofiya Kokhanskaya: At this very moment,? art doesn’t matter at? all. Art implies the practice of observation and interpretation of reality. Art is not real since it is all about reflections on certain experiences of the individual in a fragmented artistic community. There aren’t that many artists who could state their position based on what is happening in Ukraine, and even fewer who could attract and engage others. The misinterpretation of the political situation in Russian, Ukrainian and the foreign mass media periodically creates panic and hysteria; in the end, there is nothing left to do except to keep on doing your own thing and see what happens. That is basically what is going on in St. Petersburg: artists are occupied with their personal research, experiments and artistic experiences. In art today, war does not exist. On the contrary,? art has a relaxing function. It is about visiting an exhibition, about stepping into the world of another artist to see what he or she does, to forget about what is going on while being absorbed by the “wonderful.”

Semyon Motolyanets: The role of art during wartime and chaos ?is to retain “a sober perception,” since the hysterical mass psychosis easily spills over to the art world after the polarization of political opponents. I don’t think that art alone can stop chaos and war. But art can be a mirror, rendering visible the blatant shame after some time has passed and, thereby, help us to understand and see past mistakes.

Sasha Kurmaz: They say that when the canons roar, the muses are silent. I partly agree with this statement. Of course, the war in Eastern Ukraine, including the pro-Russian and Russian mercenaries, is a big challenge for Ukrainians and for the country as a whole. To me, art in times like these is like the surface of a mirror that reflects a critical view of the situation; a thin thread of a sane thought, pure and sincere.

Yuriy Kruchak: The role of art in a time of war isn’t very big.? It is unlikely that art would be able to stop war in a combat zone, which requires other mechanisms and tools. But art can provide a certain clarity amid the chaos, reveal underlying causes of the conflict, and reconcile the parts of society that have not yet been involved in open conflict. Undoubtedly, the main causes of war and chaos in Ukraine lie in the political and economic sphere, but cultural factors have also played a significant role. Actually, the cultural differences amongst people living in Ukraine gave ground for deception – the purpose of which was to revive fear. It is the fear of losing identity that has mobilized a significant part of the Eastern Ukrainian population to become active in the pro-Russian movement. What kind of art can unite Ukrainian society today? Art could play the role of a mediator and become a unifying element between different social and cultural groups, and a platform for joint action, the purpose of which is to create a new common identity.

KL: How do you view your artistic freedom and freedom of speech in the country in which you work?

SM: I don’t think that artistic freedom is very much suppressed in Russia at this very moment; there is, rather, a pretty widespread indifference to the activities of contemporary artists. Russia has taken a particularly conservative route; a couple of years ago, it seemed to me that contemporary art might be granted a place in the state, but alas. But for artists who wish to discover the repressive apparatus of the state, there is always the opportunity to work with the media machine to achieve these goals. Their careers depend directly on ?the reaction of the authorities. Think of Pussy Riot. My personal practice is not at all limited, which is possibly due to the fact that I’ve only been interested in issues that do not fall under any category that could be labelled “critical.”

SK: I’ve sensed some inadequacy in the local art life here in Ukraine, which manifests itself in exaggerated patriotism. This is, thankfully, not a mass phenomenon but it is still currently quite evident. For me personally, I can’t say that I feel any kind of restrictions on my self-expression.

YK: As artists working in the public sphere, we have certainly faced restrictions on our freedom of expression and freedom of action at the hands of state officials, the church, and private business. In the early 2000s, private capital and the church began to consider the public sphere an area of interest. Under pressure from different religious constituencies, and with the assistance of some businessmen, this led to a law on “public morality,” adopted in 2004, and later to the establishment of the National Expert Commission of Ukraine on the Protection of Public Morals. This commission didn’t have any legal power, but its importance in the minds of officials has been increasing every year, making it difficult for our colleagues and us to work. Rights and freedoms were challenged by the dictatorial laws adopted on January 16, 2014, and had the aim of criminalizing the opposition and civil society.(On January 16, 2014, a group of laws restricting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly were passed by the Parliament of Ukraine and signed into law by President Viktor Yanykovych the following day. The laws are referred to as the Ukrainian anti-protest laws, and the ”dictatorship laws.” The laws were heavily criticizedboth within and outside Ukraine. The Parliament canceled nine of the laws on January 28, 2014.) These factors brought the protest movement in Ukraine to an even more radical level of confrontation. As a result, these laws were repealed, and the regime of Ukrainian president Yanukovych fell. On February 10, 2015, the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, abolished the National Commission.

It is too early to assert that artistic freedom and freedom of expression in Ukraine have triumphed. Most of the officials serving the interests of private business and the church, and those committing acts of censorship in the name of the former government, are still in high positions in the state and the municipal institutions of culture in Ukraine. In fact, the struggle continues, and it is now reaching a new level.

Vladimir Kozin: On one hand, there is the war in Ukraine; on the other, there is the economic crisis and isolation. The authorities make artistic practitioners face a choice: either you support the politics of Putin, or you are traitors to the nation. It is very hard for an artist to exist in such a situation. Not so much ?for material reasons, but for moral reasons. ?So far, artists have some possibilities to make statements, but it is? hard to do that openly. Therefore, artists ?use allegory, irony,? and playful forms of expression most of the time. In Russia, fascist ideology is now being reborn. The authorities show intolerance towards dissidents and are searching for “enemies of the people.” The country is at war with? its brotherly Ukraine, supporting the separatists, and if it? all continues the way it has, we can expect a global catastrophe. Then the muses will be silent, and the canons will do all the talking.

MK: I used to feel that there weren’t any restrictions or infringements in those parts of Ukraine where there is no war. But sadly, I have realized this is no longer true. If you criticize Ukraine in any way, the reaction is very aggressive and you are seen as a traitor. At the same time, I can’t even enter the place where I was born and grew up, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Or if I go there, it is not known what might happen to me (there have been several incidents with activists, filmmakers and artists who disagree with the Putin regime). I am now blacklisted by the Russian Federation, while my house and my region are being controlled by that same Federation. This means that with my peace loving views I am not at all welcome there. Although I think that if I started to paint pretty little flowers and landscapes, as well as idolatrous portraits of Mr. Putin and his propaganda, all my past remarks might be forgiven.

Fig. 3 Yuri Krushchak, "Maidan," photograph (2013). Image courtesy of the artist.KL: What are your thoughts on the subversive potential within the artistic underground compared to the established art scene?

SM: The advantages of our underground art collective Parazit, which can be defined as “underground” when compared to the rest of the St. Petersburg art scene, include unity, a good atmosphere, an experimental spirit, self-education, and the support of fellow artists: it is a union of contemporary artists. However, due to the economic difficulties, the established art world sometimes “pulls away” colleagues, offering them a career as commercial artists who are able to live off their art. The subversive potential of the Parazit group is high, since the revolutionary movement in art is made up by new, constructive ideas about the structure of our world. I think that “critical art” ?(in which I do not include Parazit) has found its own spot in the St. Petersburg establishment, flickering into the higher echelons of the ?art scene. Parazit has remained? an underground space that helps young artists take their first steps without having to run after grant support or support commercial capitalist structures. The collective element itself is the main advantage of underground associations.

YK: If we are talking about art’s subversive potential to develop in society? and change it, then surely we believe in it.? But the peculiarity of the Ukrainian cultural context is such that in Ukraine, there is neither an established art community, nor a developed art market, nor a dominant religious or state cultural policy that the artistic underground could oppose or conduct subversive activities against. The paradox lies in the fact that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the majority of Ukrainian artists opposed Soviet culture,? the upcoming capitalism, radical nationalism, and many other things. The very definition of “against” was a formative element for artistic groups. All this has led to the fact that the artistic community has lost touch with reality – it has withdrawn from social processes and, today, these groups have turned into closed subcultures where all the protagonists as well as the audience are the artists themselves. One of the prerequisites for the creation of the Open Place collective was to form certain mechanisms to connect different social and artistic communities and to develop a common language understood by various groups – to hear, understand, and develop knowledge together.

MK: I find it difficult to answer this question. What I saw in Ukraine was that practically the whole revolution, the so-called Euromaidan, was initiated by ?the cultural underground. Then completely different classes of society joined the movement and stood together on the barricades. ?But in Russia, the underground is? so deeply hidden, it doesn’t dare to create a barricade of pride. The gap between the underground and the “ordinary people” is still so large that it is not clear when the first bridge of solidarity in the struggle against the regime will be built, or by whom.

SK: It’s important to define the terms we are using here. What is an “artistic underground” – artistic practice outside the art market? Outsider activities? Sub-cultural art? In reality, capitalism absorbs everything in the interest of big capital, focusing on the rich countries of the West. Religion, bureaucracy, racism, patriarchy, militarism, totalitarian propaganda and mercantilism mercilessly absorb the contemporary world. Therefore, the goal of today’s artistic avant-garde has to include a radical social critique – for the survival of sincere perspectives and fiery speeches; for the sake of love and equality; for the reunion of man and nature in a world liberated from the oppression of labor; for a new solidarity, a new alliance against the aggressive world order known as “neo-liberalism” and “market globalization.” But all this, of course, would only be the beginning of liberation.

KL: What are your thoughts on and experiences of trans-border collaboration between Russia and Ukraine or other countries?

Fig 4. Semyon Motolyanets, "Every alive movement turns into shitty capitalism," oil on canvas (2014). Image courtesy of the artist.SM: I am originally Belarusian, and I live in Russia. Collaboration and dialogue with Belarusian artists living in Europe are important to me so I can understand the situation of those who left the country, as well as those remaining inside Belarus. Communication helps to really feel the cultural boundaries that create difference and development in contemporary art. It is a myth that art is international; this I clearly see from communicating with colleagues living in other regions. It is important to identify common problems and to form an active dialogue around them. Artists often work with their own priorities and positions, rather than dealing with real conflicts.It seems to me that culture itself cannot oppose the media machine, but it can be fruitful in a narrow circle of recipients and perceivers.

VK: I have artistic collaborators in Ukraine, Estonia, and Montenegro. In Ukraine, I have a lot of old friends and artist colleagues with whom I am constantly communicating through social networks to discuss politics and art. In Montenegro, I am currently working on a project called Mournful Slavic Baroque, which for financial reasons as well as censorship, could not be carried out at home in Russia.

SK: The Russian art scene can be divided into one DIY kind of world, and one commercial entertainment world; thus, it completely lacks any sign of quality. Trying to collaborate to solve conflicts is, therefore, like trying to build a roof without foundation and walls. Discussions usually end by once again stating the problems of post-Soviet mentality. As an acquaintance from Ukraine said, Russia is one big totalitarian sect, where people either believe in, try to survive, or just hate Putin, while hoping that everything eventually will turn out fine without even the slightest public involvement.

YK: I’ve recently been participating in a project in Nizhny Tagil that is now to be presented at the Ural Biennial. We created a kind of social hub in an old tramway wagon with dialogue in the form of workshops as the main idea. Anyone could drop in and talk to us, leave messages, comment on their community and request changes in their town. We wanted to show that cultural workers could use public space to initiate openness and free communication. We worked with local artists and independent institutions. It was the first time I had collaborated with Russia in any way, and I was positively surprised about both the process and the outcome: the artists and locals we met; the dialogues; and that it was possible to realize this project in Russia in the first place.

MK: When Crimea was occupied by Russia, the Russian art world, as well as parts of the art world in Ukraine, were preparing for the Manifesta biennial that took place in St. Petersburg in 2014. I immediately signed a petition to boycott the event since, to me, the aggression against Ukraine was not compatible with a contemporary and supposedly political and radical art festival. In the first days of the annexation, I refused to participate in any activities and projects associated with Russia, or be financially supported by them. Suddenly, all my Russian friends and colleagues went silent, stopped writing to me online, and simply ignored our once-good relations. Even those who supported the Maidan and strongly empathized with us started to ignore me, and some have openly supported the annexation of Crimea. Now I have decided that I will only go to Russia when I have the possibility to speak for myself directly, without any galleries and curators interfering.

There is a small group of people in Russia who support the art performances I have done this past year.(The artist wrapped herself in a Ukrainian flag and, without official permission, laid down on the main staircase in the Hermitage Museum during the Manifesta biennale in 2014, emulating the dead bodies wrapped in their country’s flag on the streets of Kyiv and in Eastern Ukraine.) But mostly I have been called a fascist because of my Ukrainian nationality and disagreement with the aggression. I might also add that this situation is very symptomatic, and most of my relatives living in Russia have even declined kinship with my family and me.

The power and ubiquity of Russian propaganda, as well as how much money is invested in it, is amazing. It leads to a weakened citizenry and, most importantly, to a lack of dialogue. Dialogue is not possible within the Russian apparatus. And yet, I continue to believe that culture, artistic revitalization, grassroots organizations, and international associations can change many political, intellectual and international processes, especially in times of war.

NN: Thank you.

This interview was conducted in Spring, 2015.