Nikita Kadan Born in Kiev in 1982. Artist, member of the group “R.E.P.” [Revolutionary Experimental Space]. Lives in Kiev.
The contours of a decade reveal clarity only at a distance. Pivotal events for society and art did not correspond with these contours. Ukrainian ‘90s tarried for too long, and only came to completion with the “Orange” year 2004. This was a decade of a painful ascent, a pathetic moment of presence on top in the rays of a new hope, and an even more painful nosedive into the hollow of common depression. The economic crisis at the end of the “noughts” and the crash of neoliberal illusions perfectly encapsulates the decade of euphoria of “democracy and the free market,” if even on the symbolic level. This euphoria was combined with the compulsive accumulation of everything within reach, the oblivion of a common goal, or any kind of long-term strategy. But beyond the catastrophe, new possibilities did not arrive and a new horizon did not open. Society was convulsing, and the catastrophe became a habitual background of the everyday.
My “noughts” slip away from clear contours and boundaries. But I will attempt to overlay these contours on seven years of my practice of contemporary Ukrainian art: the experience of the “generation 2004”, the transformation of the artistic scene, “post-Orange” inspiration and disappointment, the fragmentation of society and the union of grassroots groups. I would also like to use several images, which seems to me to successfully describe the appearance of this decade: the Stage, the Square, the Euro-renovation, and the Community.
The Stage and the Square
Let’s begin with the year 2004—the beginning of my “noughts”; the Stage, social transformations that happen here and now, the opportunity to touch history, and seemingly—along with other participants of the protests—to influence its development. That time also marks the beginning of the activities of “R.E.P.” as a group of quick reactions, attempting to create new imagery of public horizontal expressivity, of direct democracy. The “post-Orange” continuation, the actions of 2005–06, the analysis—not so spontaneous, but nevertheless created on the fresh footsteps—of relations of the language of the Square and the language of power. That same power, which began with its public identification with the Square, however elevated it was by stage scaffolding. The stage soon became empty, replaced by a glowing screen, and routine set in—the redistribution of power and the development of resources. On the Square left behind by demonstrators, self-identified “coalitions of the participants of the Orange Revolution”, as well as the professional “heroes of the Maidan” multiplied. The immature language of direct democracy proved itself at the service of representative democracy, or simply, the market of power—and consequently began to degrade quickly. It is hard for me to say what dominated our actions in the “post-Orange” years—the desire to resurrect this language, or inversely, to give it its final burial, protecting it from desecration by “young managers” of Ukrainian political thought, to dance on the grave of the beloved, in order to faster escape the bitter farewell.
The division of the theatrical (and subsequently, the televisual) and the horizontal, communitarian, networked, is the lesson behind Orange events. In the closing discussion of the project Revolutionary moments, one of the “Orange” activists confessed with genuine confusion that “upon leaving, those who stood on the stage did not tell us what to do next.” For the 2010 elections, the distribution of power already “stood behind the screen,” and the “Square” became divided into two competing groups: the merchants of affect and affected consumers. Those who at one time “were the Square,” became obsessed with the politics of the “Stage”—and the obsession was, in substance, deeply apolitical. The end of the noughts covered the sprouts of collective subjectivity of the Square with a thick layer of consumer drowsiness and identity conflicts—whether it was the mass of atomized individuals, streaming through office buildings and centers of commercial entertainment, or those right “passionaries” obsessed with the “passion of the exclusionary Unity”—it was irrelevant whether they were pro-Russian, pro-Western, ultra-nationalist, or the mute millions working without lifting their heads with the sole aim to survive. The collapse of the democratic collective body (founded on self-governance), exiled from the Square (here, it is possible to remember the tent city comprised of small businesses fighting against a new tax code and nicknamed the “entrepreneurial Maidan,” who were dispelled by the state), resulted in this body losing the contours that gave it its shape. This is how a short period, when Ukrainian art could identify itself with the Square, with space and with external institutions, had ended.
The period of Western—and partially, Soros—financing of post-Soviet contemporary art ended in the first half of the noughts—the financing in the regime of “humanitarian aid” characterizing the ‘90s. The artistic community has become tied to Ukrainian private capital on the benevolence of which also depends the main state museum project—the “Art Arsenal” complex. The kind of institutionalized construction, politics of exhibiting, and in the end, of art itself, which became in demand by the local capital, can be conceptualized using the terminology of the culture of Euro-renovations.
Euro-renovation is an incredibly important cultural phenomenon and it is foundational to understanding post-Soviet Ukraine, although another conversation could be had about, for example, the Russian or Moldavian Euro-renovations. It is also worth distinguishing between, on one hand, the Euro-renovation of the ‘90s as a temporary design of the allocated, privatized and bounded area, and on the other, the Euro-renovations of the noughts as an all-pervading principle of a worldview expressed both in “Euro-renovation luxury,” as well as “Euro-renovation paucity.”
The Ukrainian Euro-renovations of the noughts are replaceable surfaces, drywall and plastic; a cheap dream, the temptation of advertising, physically displacing an unworthy reality. Euro-renovation is self-identification through consumption, an expensive spectacle of representative democracy rapidly deteriorating in meaning, the euphoria of an “eternal today,” a plastic sheet of printed advertisement glued onto the granite of the Soviet metro; the rhetoric of “Euro-integration” or of a “special path” (pro-Western/pro-Russian as the underlying rule of political polarization). The Euro-renovation is an oblivion of class, the charity of those who have appropriated the common heritage. It is artists who want to exhibit, and more so, are afraid that they will be impeded from exhibiting—and that is why they gratuitously organize leisure for the rich. It is those same rich who give “artists the opportunity,” and even urgently demand art, and as a result, there is a complete domestication of artists who guarantee the fulfillment of these demands, but who do not receive anything in return. It is art, which, as a result, turns into decor made on one’s knees, or an anecdotal “light” style of art criticism, at the basis of which lies shame and frustration. Euro-renovation is a lineup in front of metal detectors at the PinchukArtCentre, banners and stands plastered with furniture and car ads, exhibited on par with the artistic works and expositions at the “Art Arsenal.”
However, if the Euro-renovation at the private PinchukArtCentre is more impressive, then at the state “Arsenal” and its periodical ArtUkraine, it is more innocently ordinary. However, in both cases, there is a façade without foundations, a lightweight, unnecessary institutional work, which at any moment could fall prey to an accidental coincidence: the disappearance of private interest, or the appearance of a new combination of state interests. It is not hard to create a façade, but it is difficult to deny the fact of its existence. Forget the “invisible” routine work, or durable construction “for the ages”! The dictate of immediate, obvious, undeniable demands—its advantage over any other perspective—is at the core of Euro-renovations. Cosmetic renovations in a dilapidated building? Of course, since we require a shiny new surface! Here and now! In the end, why make projects with some sort of “problematic,” if bare eventfulness is sufficient for the client and the wider public? And for the professional environment, this kind of eventfulness at least offers the possibility of self-production, even if that self-production is tautological and lacks perspective. Why create an archive, if tautological repetition does not require it? Why analyze—this is equivalent to sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting? Any analysis would lay bare the real meaning of “projects-events,” incomparable to their scale. Why gather a collection, reflecting the artistic process in its evolution, if this process is so ephemeral—especially as compared to the short-lived enthusiasm of the collector? Why pay artists honoraria, if they agree to exhibit for free? Why create strong and permanent connections with the international context—it will only provide the international community the possibility of judging and evaluating Ukrainian Euro-renovations, and evidently, this evaluation will be deadly for it. It is much easier to just buy a little bit of the “West,” which is precisely what PinchukArtCentre does. By that same logic, the Ukrainian project at the Venice biennale 2011 is curated by Achille Bonito Oliva.
The culture of Euro-renovation is also expressed in the use of the Western situation as an example of the local situation. The recognition of Ukrainian critical art of the “generation 2004” became possible largely owing to the presence of artists of that stream in Western institutions, presenting “ready-made” normatives for evaluations of the local scene. But the real, “non-Euro-renovational” presence in international spaces does not presume a complete subordination to Western institutional norms based on the division between the market and the public sphere, but a critical approach to these norms, their re-evaluation in relation to local copies of Western institutions. It is, of course, also possible to choose a strategy of critical universalism, elevating the space of art over the national and regional boundaries and (self-)colonization with a Euro-renovational façade. But what exactly comprises this universalism? On what values can rely to reconstruct an external judgement about Western “normality” and about its local imitation?
The noughts changed the structure of the Ukrainian artistic scene in its pre-institutional foundations. They can safely be called the decade of communities. The appearance of artistic communities was the consequence of the disappointment of artists in their Ukrainian institutions (which, nevertheless, did not presuppose a complete “exodus” from institutional space) and the crisis of art criticism (which required new mechanisms of self-orientation). If the disciplinarian structures that “generation 2004” addressed were oriented mostly to the West, then on the local scene, a “parallel system” of description, projection and discussion of self-organized exhibits was created. However, the economics of Ukrainian art are largely controlled by people of the former formation, as well as young functionaries who are very superficially acquainted with the life and values of the new communities. Nevertheless, the “parallel system” becomes tightly interwoven with the “dominant” one.
I see the goal of the subsequent period of the development of Ukrainian art as the utilization of the accumulated resource of horizontal networks for the reform of the vertical institutional system, and in part, for the defense of the working rights of artists and other people working in the arts, as well as the support of the quality of artistic representation and criticism that would promote the formation of new social demands. It is necessary to force artistic institutions to serve art.
All the key projects from the end of the noughts created by the younger and middle generations,—artistic, inter-disciplinary, socially-critical (“Center for visual culture” at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, “Hudsovet,” SSS-K, and the periodicals Prostory and Spilne [“Commons”]),—have communal beginnings. It is precisely they, as it seems to me, that offer a bridge to the next decade, to a new situation. Each one of them combines characteristics of community and institution in itself. Each one of them presupposes a reinterpretation and invention of new forms: of education and scholarly work, curatorship, the organization and description of the artistic process, editing and publishing work. Owing to this, a space of co-presence of art, literature, journalism and social theory is created. In its effectiveness, these initiatives can often compete with projects that have more traditional organizational guidelines, but in terms of the created meanings, they win by a substantial lead. However, as communitarian projects, having replaced the “rigid” social connections with fluid interpersonal intimacy, they must constantly restate their connection with society—these are centres of projection and constant revision and self-reflexivity. And although there is no approved agreement with society, it is imperative to constantly renegotiate it, and on the basis of many decisions. This is at the heart of the routine interaction between communities and society.
Ukrainian art of the past decade developed in the environment of two generations, figuratively connected to the years 1987 and 2004. The first transitioned from the institutions of “humanitarian aid” in the ‘90s, to the institutions of Euro-renovations in the ‘00s. The second, works between these Euro-renovated, façadist and weakly socially-rooted local institutions, grassroots self-organization and the Western art system. At the end of the noughts, these self-organized communities are leaning more towards a new kind of disciplinarity, and increasingly gather more institutionalized forms.
The collapse of the Square of the 2004 model did not just lead to fragmentation and disappointment, but also to the appearance of decentralized network structures of resistance, the invention of social alternatives, much more politically articulated and much less modest in their demands in contrast to the “Orange” movement.
Art has become one of the territories of this invention, which has deeply impacted the poetics of the noughts. Fluid interpersonal connections and relationships reflected in models and sketches of new social forms and still demanding “rigid” transcription,—this is what lies at the foundation of these poetics. But will these poetics hold out for long in the conditions of the old economy of art? Communitarian economics of time presuppose the community’s gratuitous loss of many hours, weeks and even years to the project, which could otherwise be successfully sold in the conditions of a competitive environment. Time that “could have been spent to some benefit” is thrown into the community’s pyre. To understand the artistic processes of the noughts, those who step over into the new decade have to always consider this deep “impracticality” of artists.