Is culture a smart way to depart from politics or to smuggle it in? A defence or a development mechanism? A mechanism of working with civil society, against it, or despite it?


Is culture a smart way to depart from politics or to smuggle it in? A defence or a development mechanism? A mechanism of working with civil society, against it, or despite it?

—A group of young businessmen in their thirties joined the training for observers at the regional elections. "We have never tried it, but you keep doing it all the time. Let us have a go at observing as well!" I sent them out to polling stations, and they returned with the conclusion: "Now we know that elections in our city are not rigged. We have witnessed them with our own eyes and we are going to spread the word: there is finally some degree of trust towards state institutions." But these people do not want to have anything to do with politics. Not even one of them ran for city parliament last year, even though they could have well afforded it.

Irkutsk is a city of high culture, at least judging by bookstore queues. But our readers are changing. They made a conscious choice of refraining from elections. On 13 September we had the lowest turnout in Russia. I see that the absentees are all decent, well-educated, culture-loving people. Not even one of them used their vote. My question was: "But how? You are among the regulars of the Grey Building, you keep asking them for money." "Well, yes, we do ask, on the off chance they grant something, but that’s not the point." It was especially remarkable before the 1st of July. We did several expert interviews, and every answer was the same, although in some cases I could not believe my ears: "Let's not talk about it!" This is the new civil stance. Unlike Khabarovsk, Irkutsk does not have a rallying culture. The discussions are relegated to the kitchens: the talk is of books, culture, recent events. People are longing for action but they do not trust the authorities. Left to our own devices, we are trying to build intercultural bridges and cultural spaces.
—We are not into politics, this is a firm line. Just so everybody knows, we are not involved. Although I believe it keeps getting more difficult to remain neutral. If you do not take an interest in politics, politics takes an interest in you. There are escapist tendencies, like trying to be non-partisan and stick to timeless issues. Perhaps timeless issues feel safer and easier. The cultural scene is conformist in many ways.
— In a normal, healthy situation political views cannot be isolated from professional ones. And our convictions eventually sneak into museum work. For instance, there is a section of the exhibition entirely dedicated to the relationship between the writer and the power, and it is structured around urgent questions. There is a huge poster that says: "Collaborate or dissociate?" We show how Alexey Tolstoy tried to outsmart the Stalinist government with a little wink towards the public, hoping they would get the clue.

Politics lives in museums in many forms and ways, quite surprising at times.
—No one has put any red flags out for us, even though our mayor comes from the Communist party. As far as I remember, we never had to take anything down, no one has ever said, "This is disgusting, why are you doing this?" But with radical projects we have to think twice. Whenever we raise urgent concerns, we engage a separate space called Fab.8, as was the case of the Dirty Women show focusing on female bodies and embodiment. And yet, it was part of our 48 Hours Novosibirsk festival, and the same solution was applied for Mayana Nasybullova's To Spite Motherland project. It followed the story of the artist’s family, starting from her brother whose long prison terms left very material traces in the form of tattoos, and proceeding to make a link between today’s AUE and the repressions of the past. We felt no resistance at all. Moreover, these projects enjoyed a high media exposure, we highlighted them intentionally in order to legitimise them in the public sphere. With the media played in the right way, these issues are not likely to generate much friction. But we are not ready to embrace everything within our own space. Sometimes we smuggle controversial ideas into exhibition texts by focusing the attention on critical issues or quoting radical thinkers that do not mince their words. We can hardly invite Voina art group, but we wink at those in the know.
—Gallery Na Shabolovke is a striking case of competent and accurate play with a wide range of cultural actors and stakeholders at all levels, from the municipal upwards. It resulted in a top institution with independent programming, a very distinctive tone of voice, and a dynamic curatorial style. Such a place could not go unnoticed. A fit of collective raving madness ensued, complete with warring parties and social media campaigns. We soon saw that the people who in theory were entitled to create, support, and finance cultural institutions, and the people who actually made them saw their aims and goals in an opposite way.
—There is an ongoing conflict of defence and development. We have to pull ourselves out by our own hair to resist staying within the prescribed limits. We have to push the boundaries all the time, to keep inventing new ways of doing things. Reacting to this or that move of this or that idiot is just part of the daily drudgery, to be dealt with quickly in order to leave time for things that matter.
Local and regional elections took place across Russia on 13 September, 2020.
The Grey Building is the local Irkutsk name for the government headquarters.
1 July, 2020 was the day when the constitutional amendments resetting presidential terms in Russia were voted.
Alexey Tolstoy (1882−1945) was a Russian writer, nobleman, and distant relative of Leo Tolstoy. After the 1917 Revolution he turned and became a prominent supporter of the Soviet regime. Alexey Tolstoy is most famous for his historical novels, which won him a series of high-profile accolades, and an adaptation of 'Pinocchio', an all-time Russian children’s classic.
Image: Olga Posukh © makersofsiberia.com
Photo: performance “Alai Market” by Filipp Krikunov and Egor Zaitsev at the “48 Hours Novosibirsk” festival. Novosibirsk, 2019 // Innovation Prize 2020
Mayana Nasybullova's works in Vladey contemporary art auction house collection. Image: Mayana Nasybullova, Lenin-duck from the project «Lenin for the soul», 2016.
AUE is a youth criminal movement operating in the poorest parts of Russia. The name is an acronym that stands for "Prison Order Universal." In August, 2020 the movement was officially banned.
Voina ("war") was a Russian street-art group best known for provocative and politically charged performances. Their Dick Captured by the FSB, a giant phallus chalked in 2010 on one of Saint Petersburg’s most famous drawbridges, earned the national Innovation art prize.
The residents of Khabarovsk have been rallying against the arrest of their governor, Sergei Furgal, since July, 2020.
Alexandra Selivanova, the curator behind the Avant-garde centre at Gallery Na Shabolovke, stepped down in August, 2022.

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