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Editorial Team on Their Own Journey from East to East

What do we argue about at our weekly Zoom meetings

Shortly before the launch of EastEast, we decided to have a detailed discussion about the place and goals of the platform and to share a few problems we were facing while working on our first issue. What does EastEast actually mean? What strategies of self-identification do each of us choose? How can we talk about the East and can we do so from the perspective of the East? What do we find important and what do we argue about at our weekly Zoom meetings—EastEast is inviting you behind the scenes.

KIRILL ROZHENTSOV:When thinking about EastEast as the platform’s name, I’m always reminded of the image of a compass. Between the east and south cardinal points, apart from the southeast, intermediate directions such as east-southeast and south-southeast are also mentioned. So, I see “East-East” as both a metaphorical and geographical direction, that gravitates towards that very East people are accustomed to defining or capturing, but still never coincides with it completely. And in this gap, the possibility of heterogeneity appears, this is where multiplicity is born.

NASTYA INDRIKOVA:Sticking to your metaphor, I personally define EastEast as a kind of movement.

LESIA PROKOPENKO:I also think that, in addition to being the direction, the East in this case is also about the place where the movement in this direction begins from. That's why it's repeated in the name.

KIRILL: And we are looking eastwards from the East, right?

LESIA: Well, yes, because we are also “the East.”

KIRILL: By the way, I have never perceived it that way. For example, I was born in Mari El—a national republic in the Volga region, which is often exoticized. For instance, there was Alexey Fedorchenko’s film Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, art and research projects dedicated to the Mari people and their traditions, attempts at reconstruction of which we are now observing. I am partly Mari myself, only I didn’t grow up in the outback, but in Yoshkar-Ola—a rather depressive provincial capital, where I never experienced all this ethnic originality. Then I moved to Moscow, and, consuming unified American and Western European media formats, I never got in touch with anything that could be identified as “the East.” I mean, I never thought of myself, Mari El, or Russia as a part of the East. Perhaps, it has to do with the problem of the dominant view of the East, which is very clichéd, and there was nothing in my personal experience that I could refer to as the East. But maybe this multiplicity we are trying to talk about and which is embedded in the name of the project will help me to find new images that would correspond to the reality I see around, to find myself in the East and the East—for myself.

FURQAT PALVAN-ZADE:For me, the East is my native environment, which is always around. At the same time, now I find myself on the post-Soviet periphery, where, due to various historical circumstances, many things in culture are deeply intertwined. My dad is a Marxist and atheist, while my mom is a believer, she prays five times a day. The question of whether it is the East or the West has never been raised, it is just a part of my identity. This seems to me a universal thing. One can take a somewhat easier approach to the issue, not from the perspective of the colonial trauma—like, there is one part of your identity that you can describe as Eastern. In my opinion, it’s a universal situation, similar to the female and male components in one's gender. The fact that we are looking eastwards from the East also seems important to me.

LIZA FOKINA:It is not my idea, but this is exactly how I imagine EastEast’s mission, although it might sound a bit radical. I think it is about collecting the fragments of a cultural vessel broken by the hegemony of Western civilization. As a visual example, I recall Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn by Ai Weiwei. But in this case we’re not aiming to collect these fragments in order to recreate some kind of vessel, but instead we are giving them the possibility to take their own shape—which would still retain the contours of the common.

KSENIYA PETROVA:I’ve always found it amusing how Moscow natives imagine the East as, for instance, China, with dragons and lanterns, while for Europeans and Americans Moscow itself is actually the East. From afar, the inhabitants of Russia are no less “exotic” for them than the Chinese. It is also interesting to mention that something “progressive” Western people wanted to have (but were not allowed to) was often tagged as “Eastern”—odalisques, witchcraft, opium, intrigues, unbridled luxury, sensuality, gold, silk, and so on. It seems to me that regardless of one’s current place of residence and origin, it is important to accept and love the “Eastern” part of yourself.

Something “progressive” Western people wanted to have (but were not allowed to) was often tagged as “Eastern”

BEN WHEELER:Growing up in the Pacific Northwest of the US, I even had the perception in my childhood that the “East” encompassed all the lands outside of my home in a way; starting with what was directly east, the rest of the country and the east coast of the US (which were already new and foriegn places to me), across the Atlantic to Europe, Africa, Asia, and back across the Pacific to me, arriving from the west. My mother was raised in the same town as me and in her childhood while walking along the beach she would collect curious, stained green-glass orbs that would occasionally float up onto the shore. These turned out to be Japanese buoys used by sailors that had come loose in storms and were pushed by currents for who knows how long across the Pacific ocean, arriving on the beaches of my small hometown. For me as a child, these were precious relics from some unknown “East,” but in fact they’d floated in on waves from the west. In a sense the opposite of Furqat, my native environment was the West: the west coast, the Pacific Northwest, the American west, and all of the reductive images and associations with the “East” that went along with my upbringing became things I had to gradually question and unlearn.

LESIA: There is an idea I’m very much fond of—the idea of disidentification. I’ve been reminded of it again just recently. Initially, it caught my eye in Preciado’s Testo Junkie. Later, in 2018, I was at the Berlin Biennale Curators Workshop, where we had intense discussions around various issues related to belonging and (de)colonial situations, with colleagues from African countries and from West Asia, from Latin America and Eastern Europe. It was then that we brought up this concept and talked a lot about one’s disidentification from particular borders. And recently, Antonia Majaca, a researcher who curated this workshop, has mentioned disidentification in her new essay: in it, she connects it to belonging and comes up with the hybrid notion of “disidentified belonging.” It has always been important for me to challenge the concept of national identity. And so, I got really interested in how, on the one hand, one could go through such disidentification and, at the same time, stay aware of one’s own complex origins and relation to certain territories. I find the idea of “disidentified belonging” to be a very valuable tool. At some point, I had felt that I had to question the imposed static “Ukrainian identity,” which belligerently defends its quasi-“Westerness” as opposed to the ex-USSR: I always saw it as something very synthetic and eventually got interested in the possibility of the plurality we are talking about here now. But I believe it is important to combine the rejection of such categories with some kind of materiality. For example, the way Oxana Timofeeva describes land or how she talks about belonging.

NASTYA: May I also ask a question? Remember a month and a half ago we had an internal discussion about the dichotomy of center and periphery? We’ve decided that we do not want to work within the framework of this particular opposition and operate with the concepts of “center” and “periphery,” that this is not relevant for us at all...

FURQAT: I wouldn’t say that we have actually come to this conclusion and that we’ll never come back to this way of thinking. We need to understand that the very concept of periphery arose in certain historical circumstances and bears particular connotations. We must approach it critically but with humor. For example, I personally perceive Uzbekistan as peripheral. On the other hand, for me, as a researcher and editor, what is happening off-center is much more interesting. It seems to me that we have not decided that we will not think in this logic—we somehow still operate within such categories. Yes, they need to be challenged. But perhaps first it would be good to realize that centers and periphery exist. I'm not sure that many people, in general, understand that there is the center of the capitalist system and countries that serve it—this picture of the world is not obvious.

LIZA: I agree with Furqat that the periphery is more complex and unpredictable than the center. During my school life in my hometown of Kineshma, the Ivanovo region, I thought that living in the province implied a certain form of backwardness. But everything is a little more complicated, as I see it now, and if it weren’t for the motivation to possess the center's tools, no will for a critical understanding of life outside of it would appear. At the same time, the periphery produces some unexpected spiritual and intellectual potencies that are simply inaccessible to the center, which often lives within the framework of certain clichés. In general, staying curious seems to be the best strategy.

Staying curious seems to be the best strategy

BEN: This may just be my own take on the title EastEast, but I feel that both its repetition and ambiguity are meant to spark the reader’s curiosity, almost like a challenge to follow us to a series of not yet specified locations, a route that may move from centers to peripheries while stopping in between. 

LESIA: Also, the distinction between centers and peripheries seems to always depend on the place one is speaking from. Since 2013, I have been engaged in various activities of the Institute for Public Art, which holds its annual meetings in Shanghai. The Institute operates a particular division of the world into regions, which at some point really impressed me, because it was not what they would come up with somewhere in Germany, for example, and certainly not in America. According to them, the world is divided into such regions, I’m reading: Eurasia; West, Central and South Asia; East and Southeast Asia—these are three different regions. Then, Oceania, Latin America, North America, and Africa. I am a specialist from Eurasia.

FURQAT: Is Eurasia Central Asia and Eastern Europe?

LESIA: I represent the entire region of Eurasia. Nobody cares about Eastern Europe!

NASTYA: I’ve just thought that it is probably more interesting not to be a world citizen, but to be a center that looks at everything around it—a pretty pleasant feeling, isn’t it? Sometimes it feels really good realizing that I own a place and that everything is arranged the way I want it, because I'm a Moscow native bleeding poor Russia dry. This is precisely why this feeling is so hard to fight.

LESIA: What if one develops such a feeling regardless of where they are? It could be quite efficient. Of course, it is very convenient if location defines you as a center. But there are many other factors that can define you this way. I am very much aware of what it means, because over time, I have also developed this feeling. At the moment, I am not even in Kiev—I’m in a small town an hour and a half away from it, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

LIZA: During the quarantine, I visited my hometown and there was a feeling that many of the center’s advantages had ceased to exist and the division was no longer relevant.

KIRILL: I have a similar nomadic sense of “self.” I’ve never become too attached to any of the places where I’ve lived, often taking them for granted. I may like a certain place better than another, but I have never overidentified either with Moscow as “the capital of our homeland,” or, conversely, with Yoshkar-Ola as the periphery I needed to escape from. Or St. Petersburg, where I find myself, having been pushed away by the environment of Moscow. Everywhere you just search for something you need, for existence opportunities, build relations and settle down for a while, put down roots—but without plans of staying there for good. And this is a kind of a situational state, which, in principle, does not bother me. But at the same time, I do not have any anxiety that is driving me to new places.

LESIA: Yes, it is not anxiety that should be driving one to new places. If anxiety is driving you to new places, you will never really get there. There should be something else...

KIRILL: Sure! I just mean that anxiety is a frequent source and initial impulse of nomadism, the desire to move elsewhere. You want something better, or you hope that, if you move, your problems will be solved. Something might actually change, but something won’t. In general, yes, of course, there should be something else that will push you to travel and change locations.

If anxiety is driving you to new places, you will never really get there. There should be something else...

FURQAT: I think it's okay to be anxious and move around. Well, you are searching for a home like a little dog—always on the move. But I would not say that it’s a kind of a wrong state to justify constant movement. Anxiety is a basic thing and it does have a sort of an engine in it. It can often lead you to positive situations.

LESIA: Well, there’s also such a frequently mentioned thing as a colonial subject’s anxiety. Or the anxiety arising in people who know that their ancestors survived genocides, the Holocaust, or forced displacement, like Armenians or Crimean Tatars, many of whom were deported, by the way, to Uzbekistan. There is anxiety that manifests itself and haunts you because of your origin.

BEN: And I think in many cases this anxiety, related to forced displacement and genocides, becomes a foundational aspect of the way one may identify and express themselves, deeply embedded in so many aspects of a shared narrative and the ways that it is expressed (music, literature, cuisine, etc.), so much so that even activities and works of art that celebrate your origin may also come with a melancholy, a hint of this anxiety. I’m reminded of the Chechen bard Imam Alimsultanov and his song about the deportations, “О чёрных днях поведали мне горы.” An incredible eulogy to his people that is absolutely haunting but also expresses how the trauma of those events, of this forced movement, have become an almost inherent part of Chechen identity.

FURQAT: There is a basic feeling that everything used to be fine, and then, at some point, someone spoilt it all. I really feel like this: everything was fine, and then some kind of a civilization arrived, and there’s no natural course of events anymore, no home. You are probably right, this might have to do with some historical trauma.

LESIA: You know, as a result of all my reflections on this, I got rid of such eschatology, the feeling of being in the “spoilt” world, and started tracing certain historical rhythms that make it no longer possible to find out once and for all who “spoilt” whom and when exactly it happened. It was not just a single episode, but lots of them. And just like that, it is absolutely impossible to decide—well, not that it actually matters—whether the Tsardom of Russia originated in Kiev or not.

FURQAT: Kievan Rus’ is just a construct like any other.

LESIA: So is Eurasia.

FURQAT: What else did we want to talk about?

LESIA: About exoticization. What do we consider important to talk about, in general? What do we want to show? What do we argue about?

NASTYA: Coming back to photography, I am concerned that, one way or another, most photo projects are created not from within the community, but by people from the outside. Many of them are very good—what Ikuru [Kuwajima] did, for example. About the boarding school in Salekhard. In general, it seems to be the best project about Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug of all the existing ones. But usually projects turn out to be either very personal (if the author works from the inside) or reveal a big distance (if it is an external researcher). You show up and look at people from the position of the Other.

LESIA: And this actually points at work that needs to be done now, I think. There is a possibility to invite people who will do something, let's say, from the inside. This strategy originates, among other things, from feminism: if we do things automatically, we get 80% of men and 20% of women—that’s why we need to make an effort and do some work in order to make the situation more equal. If we do things automatically, then, one way or another, our project is getting taken over by certain dominant models. So we do need to make an effort and work with locals in different places, invite contributors whom we may not know very well. But this work should be done, we need to engage people who will open up new niches.

FURQAT: Certainly, this seems to be the only way to somehow undermine the overall sociology of knowledge and media production. It is necessary to be conscious about how you choose authors, why you invite certain people. Trying not to focus on those we know and be open—these are the only ways of getting out of the vicious circle. But the fact that the researcher always comes from the outside is a deeply rooted historical situation.

It is necessary to be conscious about how you choose authors, why you invite certain people

NASTYA: On the one hand, it is, but on the other hand, there is a bunch of activist research and other things in the humanities now. Everything that is related to visuality continues to pretty much lag behind. And everyone who deals with visuality at the academy is totally text-centered, this tendency persists to this day—you try to decode the image as text, you try to decipher it the way you decipher oral speech or literature, translating it into text. This is a serious problem.

LESIA: From time to time, among other things, it is also important to accept the possibility of an observer’s position, when some things have already been done. It seems to me that sometimes the decolonial approach also lies in the fact that you recognize the existence of a complex and ambiguous history of colonization, including some significant things done by those whom we now call colonialists. It appears to me that once in a while you need to complicate things, because it actually allows you to find the most beneficial ways.

NASTYA: I totally agree with what you are saying because if we talk about ethnographic collections, 90% of them were formed and brought to museums not in the most adequate way. Sticking to our current system of values, we simply need to throw them out then. Or to move it all to the national museums—where it will be locked in storages, with no chance of being seen or scientifically analyzed. But for sure these collections need to be described and approached differently. You don't have to renounce the object itself, but just to figure out how to speak about it in a different way.

LESIA: And include into this narrative the history of how each particular item appeared in this or that museum—then the picture is going to be more complete. Perhaps, this conversation about the way museum objects should be treated corresponds very accurately to the tasks related to our work with texts and other materials in general.

KIRILL: Well, for example, we can add a decolonial dimension to the museum items section that we created by talking about how a particular object was added to the collection. We can try to open the museological “black box” in order to show in which exhibitions this object took part and in what contexts it was presented to visitors. Clearly, it is a lot of work, but this is one of the ways of interacting with such material. Thus, these texts can become more meaningful and move beyond the form of mere descriptions of cool artifacts we discovered. Such texts do not have to be long, but they should contain some subversive element, some story relevant to the general problems the platform deals with.

FURQAT: Recently, I have started compiling a list of archives that were taken out of my precious homeland and are now abroad, and kind of got a little freaked out by how many institutions keep all these things now. I do not think any high-quality scientific work has ever been done in terms of each object’s analysis, that their history has somehow been traced. All this just seems to be one giant mountain of unnecessary things. It's all pretty sad, yes. If we try to find how to approach this heap and start digging, it will simply be great. Because the quantity of these objects and archives is infinite! This is an absurd situation related to some kind of bureaucratic imperial and colonial apparatus that once decided to store them, and now those are left there gathering dust. This situation is strange and absurd.

LESIA: The very nature of this impulse actually astonishes me—to go somewhere, grab all sorts of stuff and take it away. Who needs it? What a strange desire!

BEN: Yes, but also this whole colonial kleptomania thing is still happening! I mean, the British Museum has been accused of being the world’s largest receiver of stolen goods and the narrative is always that the items were “saved” or “rescued.”  

KIRILL: On our today’s agenda there is a question “what we argue about.” A very interesting one, I believe.

NASTYA: I think most arguments come from the fact that, in a sense, we are trying to play it safe. For example, something may seem like a cliché to us and we are afraid of offending someone. On the one hand, we don’t want to be afraid of anything, but on the other hand, we want to be on the safe side. It is not very clear at which point you become that very person who’s trying to push their own clichéd preconceptions through and end up exoticizing a particular phenomena.

KIRILL: And exoticization is also manipulation. We know what effect the image of a camel, for example, will produce, what emotions and associations the reader may have in connection with it, and we simply launch this mechanism. If such situations arise, it means that we are not doing the additional work, but are simply using “tricks.”

LESIA: Moreover, when we are using certain images that work as clichés, we also dilute the value of the art piece we are showing. For example, a watercolor painting of a geisha has its value and story that can be told in such a way that it shifts these dangerous clichés. Why dangerous? Because they make the sense static...

KIRILL: They drain it.

LESIA: Yes, they drain it and make it static. They do not let it be approached out of the context of the established power relations. So when we present something without having done any extra work, we might be committing a double crime. Not only do we drain and stop the work of sense, but also erase the value of the artwork.

KIRILL: And thus art is perceived at the level of images that cause a pre-formed reaction. You see a geisha and you think—well, Japan, eroticism, and so on.

Suzuki Harunobu. Young Girl Crossing a Bridge after Snow: Calendar Year of the Second Year of Meiwa. Japan, 1765
42.254 / Brooklyn Museum

Nomadic Encampment, probably a folio from a manuscript of Layla va Majnun by Jami. Previously attributed to Mir Sayyid ‘Ali. Iran, Tabriz, circa 1540
1958.75 / The Harvard Art Museums

LESIA: I've actually experienced it, in different ways. You could be communicating with an educated person who claims to have some kind of an intellectual potential, a public role—but your communication keeps slipping through because you are being perceived via their clichés. You could be talking to someone in a different country, and the person simply does not hear what you are saying, because they decode you through the prism of their own preconceptions about the place you came from. This is still the case. I wouldn't describe it as uncommon, it’s actually a rather typical situation. When you are in a familiar environment, you do not notice it. But as soon as you find yourself in a different context, you immediately get into this trap. It is very difficult to circumvent, this requires extra effort too.

BEN: And I think this all just underlines the importance and effort that needs to be put into appropriately framing, contextualizing, and/or re-centering an item or topic. We have to first recognize what the traps are here, what are the consequences of not doing that extra work Lesia described, and then come up with strategies that help us to both clearly see the potential for exoticization and actively work against that, either by flat out, explicitly addressing that potential or by changing the presentation in order to limit it. 

FURQAT: There is one more difficult aspect related to the fact that exoticization is often about the reproduction of images in a bad light—when images can push people towards certain prejudices, racism, or xenophobia. But I think we need to be careful with this. Because when you show works of art, cultural exemplars, it is difficult to talk about exoticization. On the contrary, you show the heritage of certain peoples.

KIRILL: I partly agree, but I think it's a question of presentation. In a sense, it is moralistic to assert that if an image works negatively, then one cannot use it, and if it produces a positive effect, one can. It sounds weird. You need to try to avoid such digression and goal-setting.

If this encounter, this intimate contact, and this mutual involvement take place, there won’t be any slipping through, any xenophobia that flourishes in laziness and insularity

FURQAT: You avoid them, but precisely in order to prevent the multiplication of prejudices, racism, and xenophobia.

KIRILL: In the end, yes, that’s right. But for me it is more important to make sure that my consciousness and that of my addressees would not be slipping through. Complex material—be it a text or a work of art—has requirements from all the people involved in the process of its production or the consumption efforts aimed at unravelling its semantic and emotional connections. This creates an opportunity for those in search to meet—and I see this possibility as more significant than the abstract and distant goals of preventing racism, xenophobia, or whatever. Because, in my opinion, if this encounter, this intimate contact, and this mutual involvement take place, there won’t be any slipping through, any xenophobia that flourishes in laziness and insularity.

LESIA: When senses are not being distorted or flattened, there is no violence, which always begins in communication. Violence is born of spurious knowledge.

KIRILL: And again, coming back to exoticization: some images are already so burdened with context, beyond anyone’s will, that simply showing them drags this whole context out. There is nothing you can do about it, you have to do extra deconstruction work. To avoid the flattening of sense, first you must dismantle the old context and then re-construct it.

FURQAT: I think it was relevant when images were not so numerous and the media were reproducing some clichés. But now, with billions of images available online, it is much harder to impose clichés on people. 

KIRILL: I see it the other way around. Due to increased speed and the pursuit of profitability and social capital, any content producer is turning to manipulative techniques more and more often—clickbait in Internet media, screamers in horror films. And this is not a question of stupidity, but of inertia, in a way, of mental insensitivity to certain things. When you, as an editor, or a photo editor, or an author, or an artist, do not do the additional work of recontextualizing pictures, images, whatever, you do not cultivate this sensitivity. Well, and you are not looking for any encounter, I guess.

NASTYA:In short, if you want to stop worrying about exoticization, you should use your head first.

KIRILL: Right, consider what kind of story you are actually telling when you are showing this camel… 

Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich

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Elizaveta Fokina
Special Features and News Editor at EastEast. Author of non-acid arab telegram-channel. Independent researcher on contemporary art from Arab region. Graduated from the RSUH with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies with Arabic language.
Ben Wheeler
Senior Editor at EastEast. Experimental musician, сomposer and musicologist, co-founder of Mountains of Tongues organization. He performs regularly at venues and festivals around the Caucasus and has contributed to the soundtrack and sound design for multiple independent films. He also organizes the annual Caucasus All Frequency Festival, and hosts and produces the podcast Caucasus All Frequency.
Lesia Prokopenko
Head of Outreach and Partnerships, Contributing Editor at EastEast. Born in Kyiv and currently based in Berlin. She has studied Chinese philosophy and worked in culture and PR.
Furqat Palvan-Zade
Editor-in-chief of EastEast, independent curator, researcher, and filmmaker. Since 2014, he has worked on the syg.ma project – a community-driven publication and an expanding online archive of texts on society and art. In 2023, he started a Ph.D. program at Yale’s Slavic and Eurasian Languages and Cultures department.
Kseniya Petrova
Journalist and growth editor, based in Moscow. She graduated from HSE Master's Programme in Applied Cultural Studies and worked as a writer and a growth editor at Wonderzine.
Kirill Rozhentsov
Managing editor at EastEast. He studied finance at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics and philosophical anthropology at Russian State University for the Humanities.