Young Russian artists on the pandemic and the need for support

Discussion with the Digital Dreams participants

Vladimir Chernyshev. Bus Stop. Installation in tne Nizhny Novgorod region, June 2020

Last summer, Cultural Creative Agency launched Digital Dreams, an open call to support young artists affected by the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis. We present a big conversation between the CCA curator Vera Trakhtenberg and the finalists of the project: members of the Businki Art Cooperative (Irina Afanasyeva, Katrin Kovalyonok, Yulia Shafarostova), Veronika Aktanova, Ivan Heidel, and Vladimir Chernyshev. 

VERA TRAKHTENBERG:For many years now the European thinkers of globalization have spoken of a world without borders. But in 2020 we saw boundaries, both geographic and cultural, become more significant. How do you perceive yourselves in relation to this? Do you live in a world without borders or in one of inner emigration? What does this mean for you as artists?  

IRINA AFANASYEVA:We were just discussing inner emigration. This expression describes our workour workA one-day exhibition about the lockdown and intimacy in an era of social distancing. The project brought the three artists together. You may see the documentation below., specifically that which was done as part of Digital Dreams, just perfectly. I suppose we came together on the back of inner emigration. When the entire world was abuzz with coronavirus news and other topics were not discussed at all, we isolated ourselves from external news and focused on topics that are completely unrelated to them. We began developing practices dedicated to cooking, to everyday household affairs, drawing attention to what looks utterly unimportant at a first glance.

YULIYA SHAFAROSTOVA:People back then decided to shut off from one another, while we decided that shutting off would not suit us. We united, isolating ourselves from what was going on.

Even before the pandemic, we were inner emigrants, so the situation had not changed very much for us. Because of all these problems we strove to concentrate on what we like

KATRIN KOVALYONOK:Even before the pandemic, we were inner emigrants, so the situation had not changed very much for us, except for external government control: it was forbidden to walk the streets, to use public transportation. Because of all these problems we strove to concentrate on what we like: for example, we found time to play with Legos, or we could spend an entire day making dough, with the knowledge that no one will disturb us.

VLADIMIR CHERNYSHOV:I don’t quite understand why we must choose between inner emigration and a world without borders. I suppose I don’t fully understand to what extent inner emigration is possible, if it is to be understood as dissociation from the political situation and from whatever is happening in the country. It is impossible to hide somewhere and live independently. Any artistic gesture, even painting, can be viewed in a political and economic context, because a living person, existing in some concrete conditions, stands behind that gesture. And even if inner emigration were possible, it could be combined with a world without borders. This is because we all live in a digital era and can simultaneously be in several places with the help of technology: for instance, we can hide in the woods and take part in a ZOOM-conference. 

When quarantine measures were introduced and everyone began staying at home, I realized that I have two alternatives. The first one consisted of working in a workshop that I rented together with other artists from Nizhny Novgorod. We immediately came up with some sort of schedule for who could work at the workshop at what times, we carried disinfectants and talked to each other only through masks. The second alternative, the second method of living through the quarantine, was related to my installation Bus StopBus StopThe installation is located on a forest path in the depths of an almost completely abandoned garden area in the Nizhny Novgorod region. It is the third installation produced there within the Countryside Practices series ., which was my entry for Digital Dreams. It is an installation in the middle of the forest; to create it, I left the city and did not interact with anyone except for the workers who helped me. It turned out that I self-isolated in the forest, but if there had been no quarantine, I would have done the same thing: sat in a workshop or built a bus stop. Nothing very significant has changed for me, except for, perhaps, some new habits and a greater sense of caution.

Ivan Heidel. Fragments of Yusleda project, June 2019

IVAN HEIDEL: I agree with Vladimir, we should not choose between a world without borders and inner emigration because these concepts are not incompatible. Interestingly, my work was completed in June 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. It is dedicated to a trip around Russia in a “GAZelle of DeathGAZelle of DeathFor many years, driver Denis Alekseev has been taking bands on tour in his car nicknamed the GAZelle of Death. The money a band earns from gigs is spent on the gas they need to get to the next city.”—it was a music DIY-tour we embarked on with no money, where we covered incredible stretches of territory during a very short time. We often did not sleep, just drove, drove, drove . . . And to some extent it looked like a world without borders, but actually we moved from one box to another, be it the car or the places where we performed. The concept of freedom is quite relative.

VERONIKA AKTANOVA:For me, globalization took place by means of the Internet and it did not collapse with the advent of COVID: social networks and YouTube were around, and they stayed. Perhaps if I had travelled more I would have perceived it differently. What will happen further is important. What will the leaders of countries—ours and those of other countries—do? It is not even a question of the coronavirus. Closing borders due to the pandemic is a necessary move. In the historical context, we may say, it is even a formal move. The political course and the propagated ideology of hostility towards other countries are more important.

TRAKHTENBERG:But what do you do in relation to this as an artist? Do you withdraw or do you continue to communicate with the external world? Contemporary Russian artists have always existed—many still continue to exist—in isolation, and Russian art has a very limited presence in the international art scene. It seems that the strengthening of internal and external isolation, related both to politics and to the epidemiological situation, intensifies this process. 

AKTANOVA:I think those artists who have managed to prove themselves somehow, by getting exhibited before the pandemic, could also continue existing in the public sphere under lockdown. They already have a foundation. Young and beginner artists, on the other hand, could be negatively influenced by this situation, because they have not yet managed to show their work offline and meet other members of the community. The situation is similar when it comes to Russian art: its presence on the international scene was limited, thus it will remain at that stage. It will continue to stay at home in self-isolation.

CHERNYSHEV:I remember the discussion we had in fall 2020 with Moscow gallerists about how we should write a collective letter to the mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin, asking him to change the measures taken with respect to galleries and museums. An artist cannot enter the international field just like that, they do it with the help of various institutions, galleries, and partners. And if their position gets worse, it becomes even more difficult to export themselves. If you work exclusively in the digital field and your artworks can be viewed through the Internet, then you don’t need galleries and the material context is not important for you. In all other cases, the current state of affairs is very bad for artists. 

We have too many white spots on the map inside the country itself. While the borders are closed we could try to form strong interregional connections

SHAFAROSTOVA: I mean, it is difficult for us to be exhibited outside Krasnodar, let alone outside Russia. Perhaps it could be done with the help of some institution. I spent four months in Moscow and those months were more productive for me than years in Krasnodar. That is because everything happens in Moscow: all the gallerists are there, as well as all the audiences. We have Tipografia, of course, and it is great, but I mean that we have too many white spots on the map inside the country itself. While the borders are closed we could try to form strong interregional connections.

HEIDEL:I did not have the time to show my work before the borders were closed, so very little has changed for me. Art has never been my main source of income, unfortunately. For a long time I have thought things through, absorbed them, done some work without showing it—and when, after completing my diploma, I was ready to finally realize some of my plans, everything closed down.

TRAKHTENBERG:Previously many Russian artists—beginners as well as well-known ones—tried to get into residences. Of course, those were cancelled in 2020 and many of my friends did not go anywhere. Do you plan to apply to foreign residences in the coming years and what do you think about this kind of prospect in general? I take it to be a real possibility for Russian artists to be exposed to something beyond their homeland.

CHERNYSHEV:If residences are open, then of course I will. 

TRAKHTENBERG:At the moment many residences take place online. 

CHERNYSHEV:Oh yes. You are soaking in a bathtub, for instance, but you are also simultaneously at an art-residence in Budapest.


TRAKHTENBERG:You know, I teach young artists at the Higher School of Economics, and I do not understand how it is possible to teach them online: they watch you and listen to you, but they are very demotivated; during the lockdown they could not go to their workshops or to exhibitions. Many schools, nevertheless, organized seminars/webinars, which help people to at least keep their ties to the community and meet other members. So, in general, the spring quarantine has shown that we are capable of setting up communications in those conditions and building support systems. There was a huge number of open calls, grants and competitions, among them two CCA projects: Turbulence and Digital Dreams.

In this regard, I have a question—what should we improve in the art community? I am talking about Russia, where the pandemic has raised many questions pertaining to curatorial, producerial, and institutional ethics, as well as financing and support. I address this question to you, the artists, as the main actors. What would you like to change in this system, so that you could live and work in it more comfortably?

SHAFAROSTOVA:We have discussed this as well and agreed that artists should not have any other job. This takes away all the time and resources, and the artist ceases to be an artist very quickly. We think that some kind of systematic support is the most important thing—it could be grants, workships, organizing exhibitions. It could be small, but it is important that it be systematic.

The life of an artist is already maximally unstable; you don’t know if your work will be bought or not and it is impossible to plan a budget

AFANASYEVA:I also think that the most important thing is systematicity. The life of an artist is already maximally unstable; you don’t know if your work will be bought or not and it is impossible to plan a budget. But if you know that you will have access to a workshop at least during a certain period of time, it is important already. You could just work and not think about having to sell something soon in order to make rent or apply to a job which will consume all your energy.

AKTANOVA:I don’t know, I think an artist must work. I, of course, am not against systemic support, grants, competitions, prizes. But why not work? 

AFANASYEVA:I worked five days a week throughout the whole last year and I can tell you that it was the least artistically productive time of my life. When you work according to that kind of schedule, you are very quickly burnt out and can only think about sleeping.

AKTANOVA:I understand. I work as well. 

CHERNYSHEV:And I work too!


AKTANOVA:I have recently been thinking about this. The kind of attitude towards an artist that considers them as someone exempt from work . . . Why? Of course I need money, but I like working, doing different things. I have recently joined a team of set decorators—it is very manual labor. I like this switch. I understand that it sounds utopian and it is true that I have almost no time left. It’s just that right now I am at this stage where I am still thinking about it: I have not come to clear conclusions and cannot form my position. But I think that everyone should work and be useful. 

TRAKHTENBERG:So what should be improved in our system? 

AKTANOVA:I agree that support should be structural. The form of providing support could be very varied. Vera said that we have discovered a new way of communicating using the Internet, one we had never even dreamt of before the pandemic. And we are discussing it with a negative tone. The faster we master this new means of communication, the quicker we adapt to it and begin treating it like an instrument, the better for us. But it is absolutely true that we were not ready for such an abrupt switch. 

Veronika Aktanova. Works from the Broken Pattern series, 2019

CHERNYSHEV: I think a good example of an ideal future can be seen in a letter of response published on the Artguide website and put together by members of regional institutions following a discussion about the NEMOSKVA project. Improving the life of an artist is actually very easy—we need grants and the support of regional institutions. Today there is the Garage fellowship, during which an artist receives a small sum of money every month to rent a workshop and buy materials. More such things are needed. The other possibility, more utopian, I guess, is related to government purchases of art through museum funds. But this is unfortunately not very developed in Russia, especially when it comes to works of young authors. 

Speaking about combining work and art, it depends on what an artist is making. If your product is a material object that requires a skilled approach, time investment at the workshop, then, I suppose, it is difficult to envision an artist who works for money five days a week, turning to art in snatches, and still has a good result. But if your artistic practice is more conceptual, it is possible to combine the two. Dividing people into artists who live some kind of special life and everyone else has always bothered me. An artist is just a person, one who can work and be anyone they like. I do not discriminate between professions and do not think that a work of art should be valued higher than any other works made by human beings. I think those are interchangeable things and that artists and works of art no longer have a special status.

On the other hand, comfortable conditions do not always help create a work. It is possible that constraints could lead to a higher-quality result: you have no time or resources to consider alternative versions and you have to focus only on what is essential. A position of discomfort is more effective for me. There are many grants for artists abroad, while we have almost nothing. On the one hand this is sad, but on the other hand we are used to looking on the bright side and motivating ourselves. And if you are in an uncomfortable position due to a lack of governmental support and regional institutions, it motivates you to produce your most important work.

TRAKHTENBERG:But this position is obsolete! Artists in Berlin received a significant sum in euros; they didn’t even have to fill out a million forms, like in Russia. They didn’t even need to be citizens of Germany or the EU! But they are not motivated by this support; it just lets them work. A government order, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword, it always carries with it elements of someone else’s will. 

An artist is not worse than a salesman, a builder, or a school principal. If those people get paid for their work, why wouldn’t an artist be? 

CHERNYSHEV:I meant government purchases—this implies financing museums to let them buy works for their collections. This practice exists in Russia, but it is done infrequently and generally the museums buy works of famous, accomplished artists who are already doing well.

TRAKHTENBERG: I worked at a state museum for about ten years and left partly because there was no money for government purchases. We often had to ask artists to “gift” the museum something. I think that is unethical. I don’t think that an artist is some kind of special human being; they just do their job, much like everyone else, and their work must be paid for. If they make a work, they should be paid a fee, not, as it was common here earlier, divert a few pennies for themselves while drawing up a cost sheet. We, along with other institutions, are firm in thinking that every person has their dignity and that no one should work for free. 

SHAFAROSTOVA: That’s the thing, an artist is not worse than a salesman, a builder, or a school principal. If those people get paid for their work, why wouldn’t an artist be? It is disgusting when an artist works on the side, earns money, but suffers as an artist, earning nothing. You need to earn money for your activity, since you produce a valuable product.

CHERNYSHEV: The paradox is that an artist often produces useless objects they then get no money for. But the value of modern art is created because the artist or someone else is able to conjure the value of a work. It is not just work hours, turned into numbers, but an added value.

The work of creating an exhibition is not paid for in Russia. But in our current conditions I am more worried about people who work in industry, in schools, in hospitals, in food shops, in delivery services

AKTANOVA: The question of whether we are doing something important and precious is rather controversial. I agree that the work of creating an exhibition is not paid for in Russia. But in our current conditions I am more worried about people who work in industry, in schools, in hospitals, in food shops, in delivery services. They do truly important work, but are fired or not paid their salaries for months. Right now I am, to be honest, more worried about this situation than the position of the artist. I am not at all against art, of course, but the labor of these people is functional, useful, important. And it is natural that during the pandemic, the professions that have to do with art and recreation are the first to go. The beauty industry, for instance. This is because what human beings need for survival takes center stage. I think one has to understand this when we do something like this and not be upset when you are suddenly not needed. Do you understand what I mean?

AFANASYEVA: Yes, we understand and we do not at all compare the work of doctors to what we do. Of course, we are in a difficult position now. And it is clear that the work of many people and professions is much more important to society. But if we set the pandemic aside, go a year back in time, the attitude towards artists was the same . . .

AKTANOVA:Before the pandemic the attitude towards everyone else was the same as well! It’s just that not many people had noticed it. A year later, there were strikes already. Even if we set doctors aside, since the importance of their work is obvious and it is difficult to argue against it. Very many people were on strike and were not receiving their salaries: the employees of the Belgorod oil refinery did not get paid for fourteen months, workers at the Bratsk psychiatric outpatient clinic had their salaries cut in half, in Saratov workers at the construction materials plant have not receive any payments for more than a year, in Yaroslavl, former employees of the Ruskhleb factory are still waiting for their money since the business was closed in 2014, employees of the milling factory in Moscow have not been paid anything for a year, while employes of the Saransk builder GarazhStroyExpluatatsiya were not paid for four months. This is far from everything and I have gathered this information about hunger strikes and industrial strikes just for fall 2019—three months before the pandemic. And this is not only happening in Russia, but in the entire world.

Businki Art Cooperative (Irina Afanasyeva, Katrin Kovalyonok, Yulia Shafarostova). Photos from the exhibition The freezer is not freezing and the washing machine is not washing. Square next to the Tipografia Center for Contemporary Art, Krasnodar, June 28, 2020

SHAFAROSTOVA: I think this is nonsense and would like to proclaim that we are artists and make important things. We are worthy of receiving respect and money for our labor. This is an axiom and we should start from it. Reasoning about how there is someone more important leads nowhere.

HEIDEL: It is just a very political question, and everything we have been discussing arrives at politics. I generally hear complaints that it is unclear how the art-market works; people have the feeling that it doesn’t work at all. It is a very shaky structure, with very little stability. Someone here used the word “adapt”. It would be great if artists had fellowships and stipends, but it would also be cool if everyone had some unconditional income. The government does a lot of things wrong. For instance, in Moscow the free student transport tickets were blocked [during the pandemic] and now students are forced to pay double because they cannot use public transportation. The point is that they still have to go to work, they just end up having less money. 

TRAKHTENBERG: I see that we all say that artists do not have enough support. But we ourselves—people with resources and support—speak, in the name of the institution, about lacking ethics. I am saddened by the fact that basic necessities are not provided for artists and that they are forced to merely struggle to find means of survival. But what could be provided besides support—financial, material, and institutional?

SHAFAROSTOVA: When there is support, everything begins to go smoothly. Artists are themselves capable of organizing, coming up with events, organizing exhibitions. For instance, I have recently received support—a residency and small accompanying stipend for art materials from the Garage. All the girls also received support; I shared it with them. Everything went fantastically: we bought materials, paint, sat together and painted. We had space, we had food, we had everything to just do our job. And it was fabulous!

When you receive support, you think less about the sum you are getting and more about the fact that someone is supporting you. You feel the need to justify these expenses

CHERNYSHEV:This reminds me of my first experience, when I also had a Garage fellowship—it was, I think, in 2018. When you receive support, you think less about the sum you are getting and more about the fact that someone is supporting you—this is important. You feel the need to justify these expenses; this is actually a significant non-material stimulus, to spend the money you receive correctly. This is the other side of subsidizing, which we also lack non-material support that comes as a bonus to grants and stipends. From my experience, I can tell that it was important and timely. And I would very much like to see artists who engage in projects constantly, who have a minimal set of works and a vector for moving forward, receive some form of support. It would really stimulate them. 

AKTANOVA:It is important to make more such projects, competitions, with discussions and, if possible, with cash prizes. That would be great! I personally found it interesting and important to make sense of what I do during quarantine, to receive financial support and to generally speak with you right now. 

CHERNYSHEV:We forgot about this a little, but it was great that it worked out! I recall that I also made my work using my own money, without looking for competitions and funding, and later someone recommended applying for Digital Dreams. And with the prize, I have partly covered my production expenses—this is very cool! 

Translated from Russian by Diana Khamis

Vera Trakhtenberg
Art critic, curator of the Cultural Creative Agency. She worked as a curator of the START project at WINZAVOD. The exhibitions she produced include Phantom memory of a beautiful era, MUZEON, 2014; Sculptures that we do not see, Central Exhibition Hall “Manezh,” 2015; Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Personal File, IEC Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, 2015 (co-curator); Faith in a Deep Crisis, Victoria Gallery, Samara, 2019. Vera Trakhtenberg is also a lecturer at the School of Design, National Research University Higher School of Economics.
Veronika Aktanova
Artist and amateur filmmaker, originally from Ishimbay, currently based in Moscow. She considers herself an unofficial student of Guram Abesadze and Ivan Vyrypaev. Inspired by modernist artists, she began to practice drawing and painting on her own. Graduate of the BAZA Institute (2017).
Vladimir Chernyshev
Artist from Nizhny Novgorod. He focuses on working with the endangered cultural landscape, creating large-scale site-specific installations that do not have final versions and change under the influence of the environment.
Ivan Heidel
Artist and musician. Graduate of the Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia. Works with intuitive and staged photography as well as collage.
Ira Afanasyeva
Artist. Born in Tikhoretsk. Graduated from the Department of Art and Graphics of the Kuban State University and the self-organized Krasnodar Institute of Contemporary Art. Master's student at the School of Design at the Higher School of Economics. Member of the Businki Art Cooperative. She works with printed graphics and textiles exploring the themes of everyday life and coexistence. Lives and works in Krasnodar and Moscow.
Yulia Shafarostova
Artist. Born in Krasnodar. She graduated from the self-organized Krasnodar Institute of Contemporary Art. Member of the Businki Art Cooperative. She works with installation, graphics, and photography, exploring the mythologization of personality and space. In her work, she attaches great importance to local situations and contexts, making them universal and accessible to all. Resident of the workshops of the Garage Museum, participant of the 2nd Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art "A Beautiful Night for All the People". Lives and works in Krasnodar.
Katrin Kovalyonok
Artist. She was born and raised in Kyrgyzstan. Graduated from the Faculty of Art and Graphics of the Kuban State University and the self-organized Krasnodar Institute of Contemporary Art. Works with graphics and video, creates installations with social media material. Lives and works in Krasnodar.