Is freedom a banner or a real thing? A tool or a responsibility? A right or a legal issue? An asset or a restriction? A form of diversity or unification? Does it even exist?


Is freedom a banner or a real thing? A tool or a responsibility? A right or a legal issue? An asset or a restriction? A form of diversity or unification? Does it even exist?

—Last year we had a visitors programme in the Netherlands. I felt an urge to go there to live. Every procedure, every programme is designed to facilitate the author as the key actor of the creative economy. The creator enjoys a variety of freedoms, including economic ones. For any proposal, you can receive up to € 20,000 of subsidy on your own bank account, and the only form of reporting is an Excel sheet and scanned receipts for expenditures above € 1,500. That’s what freedom is like! Where there is know-how and will, there are millions of ways. That’s where the economy of creative makers comes from. An ideal situation, if you ask me.

We are free to make our decisions. It is always nice to put things into perspective, as we soon realised when we started working with public bodies that needed five signatures at every step and took months to collect them. This is the opposite of freedom. So I kept thinking: "Oh my God, we are so lucky to be able to decide the way to move forward ourselves." But this kind of freedom means additional responsibility for the people that depend on you and follow you. There is always a risk that something might go wrong and some funds end up lost. On the other hand, this is what an enterprise is all about: you choose for yourself and take the responsibility for the process and the result alike.
—Freedom of enterprise means a chain of interrelated rights and actions. A set of subjective ideas about public good and the ways to achieve it — not only for yourself, but also for the other people, place, and profession. You have to choose partners, goals, and methods wisely and consciously. Social responsibility is the result of your actions, the steps you take to achieve your goals. And finally, in Russia a social entrepreneur must fit a set of criteria and be duly registered.
—People aged 23−25, young and independent, make up a significant strata of entrepreneurs along with those in their thirties, who have a history of dealing with the state and chose independence. Just ten years ago designers and artisans were affiliated with art schools, and today everyone is self-employed. Tax procedures have been streamlined, it is now much easier to register a one-person company. Charitable foundations are still behind, they do not support individual efforts, there are no grants for the self-employed. But social entrepreneurs, even though they are still very few, are a bit different: they are catering for public interests and not looking for profits. From the legal standpoint, they are businesses, but all their earnings are invested in development.
—In my own experience, private enterprises are much more fun and much less intimidating than I thought when I was leaving my museum job. Today, I would never trade my freedom and independence for a state institution. Only private initiatives and my own volition.
—People talk about freedoms a lot in terms of leaving the civil service and managing their own communications. An analysis would show a significant cluster of free people in the Far East and in Siberia, where the spirit is different.
—I realised that I needed the kind of freedom no employer could offer, even though I had proposals from executive authorities. But this road was closed for me. I needed freedom and independence for balance and harmony.

Public institutions are full of tensions, conflicts, pressure, and brainwashing that is against my own personal beliefs, values, principles, and professional aspirations. Psychologically it has become difficult. Working for NGOs and cultural enterprises provided a much-needed breath of fresh and free air, in administrative procedures among other things. Here you are only answerable to yourself and the client, and all the Ministry of Justice cares about is that the report is filed in due time. For them, the essence does not matter. In spite of all the anti-foreign-agent legislation, NGOs still enjoy a modicum of freedom. They can get things done.

I will never get involved with anything that is against my principles, which include freedom of expression, personal dignity, and the freedom of speaking out about my civil stance. Freedom as such is one of the key factors, but it comes in many different kinds: there are freedoms of or freedoms for. All in all, in good projects with partners that share the same views and seek to achieve the same goals, collaborations are possible. Using the taxpayers' money for good causes is all right, at least it does not get spent on some ugly affair.
—My intuition (rather than my intelligence) tells me that inside a museum I am going to get more freedom than in any editorial office in the city: I used to work as a freelance journalist when I was a student and I soon got the picture of where the media stood in terms of censorship and financing. A museum is a free place, and I think I was right in joining the team. Sometimes I meet my university teachers, and they all say how they envy the degree of professional and intellectual freedom that I am enjoying. But possibilities are limited, since municipal museums in Russia are rather tied for funds. We never have any budgets for exhibitions, and sometimes we have to buy the materials with our own money. The scarce funding combined with the growing ideological vacuum is frustrating. I sometimes wonder if I would be better off as a cultural freelancer. But so far I feel it would be painful to leave the museum. Not sure if what I am experiencing is Stockholm syndrome.
—Is there anything that might urge me to leave the state institution that currently employs me and become a freelance curator? The only reason would be if people start ordering me about and telling me which projects I should work on. So far, it has never happened. As soon as I encounter a project that does not fit my criteria of good work and fair play, for example if a developer asks me to highlight the beauty of the restoration of a stadium that had just been pulled down and starts putting pressure on me, I would have a reason to leave. But at the moment I do not do commissions.
Gallery Na Shabolovke was set up recently, at a time when there were very few free-thinking public institutions. It offered a nice, inspiring case of carrying on a meaningful discussion with colleagues that have different focuses and approaches. A debate where the parties trust each other is instrumental in sharpening the diverse opinions.
—In 2018, when the renovation was finally over, we installed large electric letters on the rooftop that said FREEDOM, and ended up having a lot of trouble on social media, including reprimands from besuited users. But for us it was essentially about showing the world that as a museum we were ready to look into relevant issues and contemporary ethics, phenomena that are not always likeable by all.

We wanted to emphasise the role of the museum as the place to see contemporary art without being scared off. Contemporary art gives freedom of expression. There are complex issues, ideas and formats that dwell on freedom and stray from the official line, which is not officially articulated in any document. And we shall go on exhibiting controversial artworks. Because this is the way it should be. We are not trying to become more harmonised and streamlined for the system.

Traditional art deals with the same issues, but in order to experience it you have to put on a nice suit and go to a museum. But contemporary art can actually come forward to meet people because it is more flexible, free-spirited, unregulated.
—For me, freedom implies honesty and diversity. It is an axiom. The custom of unification, conformity, toeing the line is the greatest enemy of any kind of development.

My favourite book about freedom is Alice in Wonderland.
Иркутский пожар 22−24 июня 1879 года уничтожил большую часть исторического центра — выгорело 75 кварталов и 3,5 тысячи построек.

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