Established in 2008 as a platform for collaboration between artists, activists and academics the Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC) plays an important role on the contemporary art and cultural field of Ukraine. The Center was involved in organizing lectures, debates and screenings for the Open University of Maidan and it was the main partner and organizer of The School of Kyiv – Kyiv Biennial 2015. Last year VCRC was awarded with Princess Margriet Award for Culture by European Cultural Foundation for its activites. We talked with Vasyl Cherepanyn, the Head of the Center and an editor of the “Political Critique” magazine about the transforming mission of the Center, its involvement in the Maidan and in the biennial and about its future plans and perspectives.
Kinga Lendeczki: Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC) was established in 2008 as a platform for collaboration between artists, activists and academics. In the last eight years there were several happenings or, we can even say, turning points that influenced the work of the Center. One of them was 2012, when the former president of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, where VCRC had been based, Serhiy Kvit banned the exhibition of the Center called ‘Ukrainian Body’ that explored the issues of corporality in contemporary Ukrainian society through the works of 17 politically critical artists from Ukraine. After censuring the exhibition the president of NaUKMA ousted the Center itself from the university. How did you go on with VCRC after this?
Vasyl Cherepanyn: The Center was established by a group of M.A. and Ph.D. students and young teachers who were mostly connected through the Cultural Studies Department of NaUKMA. At the beginning it was a university unit and our aim was to cover some type of missing knowledge and propose a new way of thinking and interaction for the students. We inherited the gallery premises of the former Center for Contemporary Art established by Soros Foundation in the Old Academic university building, and our idea was to create a transformable space where academic events like conferences, seminars or lectures can be organized in the form of an art event. It was also important to create such a platform in the university, where students could work and present their research in a certain kind of laboratory format. It was pretty new at that time.
On the other hand we also collaborated with young artists and activists from the grassroots political initiatives trying to create a common platform for and with them. The Center was a very vivid and active place, a lot of people were attending our events and it was unprecedented. At the same time the focus of our initiative was very political, and because of this we always had problems with the university administration as well as with the far-Right groups who were opposing actions mostly about sexuality, LGBT or explicit leftist theories. These conflicts had been growing and the exhibition ‘Ukrainian Body’ was somehow the last straw.
The closing of the exposition and the Center itself was a huge scandal. We were organizing solidarity actions together with our partners and colleagues in Kyiv and abroad demanding the university to reopen the exhibition and VCRC. Instead the university administration cancelled the Center as a university unit, and we had to restart everything from the beginning. We had to start a new life after our symbolic death. We lost our premises that the university provided for us, and we had to learn how to survive in the open social field. But we managed to stay together and two years ago we reopened the Center in a new space. We are independent now.
KL: Although this case happened four years ago, the recent removal of political artist Piotr Pavlensky from the nominees for Russia’s top art prize, the Innovatsiya Prize shows that the freedom of contemporary art and artists is still limited in some part of the Eastern Europe. Who has the control over the contemporary art scene in Ukraine?
VC: Officially, of course, censorship is prohibited in Ukraine. After the closing of the exhibition we made a research on the censured exhibitions since the collapse of the Soviet Union in Ukraine. Most of the cases were initiated by the head of an institution saying that these kinds of works or expositions can be showed, but somewhere else and not in their institution. That is why it was important for us to have our own space and become independent in this sense. Having the space in the city also means that you are present and visible. You can reach the public and you can host an audience. Managing a website or having a virtual space is unavoidable, but it is not enough. A physical space is the key to engage real people in your activities. A physical space is also necessary if you think politically, hence politics is always about body-present.
KL: Another important turning point for VCRC as well as for Ukraine was the revolution on Maidan. VCRC was actively involved in organizing lectures, debates and other events for the protesters. How did it affect your work in the Center? Did it change the role VCRC aims to take on the local cultural scene?
VC: Maidan influenced our life a lot on institutional as well as on personal level. Beside our civil participation in the protest and uprising on the square as individuals, as VCRC we organized a program called ‘Global Protest’ at the Open University of Maidan. Our idea was to propose the comparison of Maidan and other revolutions from the recent years, such as Arab Spring, indignados or Occupy movements and with this broaden the perspectives of Maidan in terms of time and space. Maidan was an answer to the Ukrainian social, political and economical antagonisms and it was the continuation of the previous revolutionary movements starting from the collapse of Soviet Union, such as the Student revolution in 1991 or the Orange revolution in 2004. In this sense it was very unique, but at the same time, it could be also inscribed in last years’ global trends. We wanted to make the Maidan protesters aware that they were not just continuing something in Ukraine, but they were also part of a global change. We organized different lectures, debates and screenings including documentaries about liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. Our aim was to give a comprehensive historical background of the actions and to place them in an international context. Apart from the ‘Global Protest’ program we took the initiative ‘Guard in the Hospital’ to protect injured protesters in the Kyiv hospitals in order not to let the police take them to prison or detention centers.
Although Maidan as a political phenomenon finished two years ago, we are still symbolically staying on the square. After Maidan the most important task for politically engaged artistic and activist institutions, including those collective initiatives that emerged on the square, is to create such conditions in which they can continue their work and become embedded in the society. VCRC maintains one of Maidan’s ideas that is the revolutionary transformation of the public field in Ukraine. Our mission is to give voice to initiatives and present the issues, which are crucially important for today’s Ukraine and Europe, providing them our platform as a space, where they can influence and change the public field in Ukraine.
KL: The Center was also the organizer of The School of Kyiv – Kyiv Biennial 2015. In the Declaration of The School of Kyiv you wrote that the biennial ‘is a continuation of the idea of the Maidan, operating as a political agora in the cultural field.’ Drawing a parallel between the Maidan and the biennial is a strong statement. Can you explain it in more details?
VC: Maidan was the basic reason why it made sense to organize such a huge event as the biennial in Ukraine, which we managed together with the curators Georg Schöllhammer and Hedwig Saxenhuber (Vienna). Maidan as well as the other revolutions of the recent years I mentioned have been answering to something, but the main thing now is what is the question these events should have answered to. Each political action has to be accompanied by a word. The biennial offered a possibility to formulate a new narrative of Ukraine, a self-reflective discourse of the country after the revolution and under the Russian military intervention and occupation, so much needed first of all for Ukraine itself and for the whole Europe. In this sense the biennial was the continuation of Maidan.
Both the biennial and the Maidan can be perceived as a Gesamtkunstwerk, as a multimedia political and artwork that can be also called social sculpture. Maidan was a visual revolution functioning as a total political art installation medialized during its development. It has created a situation when every citizen/protester is an artist: everybody participates independently, and whatever he or she does it serves for the strengthening of physical and visual presence of the Maidan and expanding its shape, so everyone becomes an artist by means of contribution. There is no recipe for how to make a revolution. Everything was built up from scratch, and no one knew what would happen next. Maidan was the most emancipating event that Ukraine ever had.
Visual is political, visual presence has political consequences. Maidan itself was a very powerful image, like a movie or materialized phantasy, a ready-made for broadcasting. That is why it could spread so quickly in the media. An image always aims to become a subject, and the authorities could not simply censor images from Maidan. The presence of the visual is a key why this revolution has won. To reflect on that we made a special visual issue on Maidan of the Ukrainian edition of the “Political Critique” magazine that we publish with our Polish colleagues from “Krytyka Polityczna”. And one of the intentions of the Kyiv biennial was to articulate this visuality and propose a language that can be used to interpret what we have lived through, a vocabulary for self-reflection. In this sense the biennial was a medium for the Ukrainian revolutionary subjectivity to articulate itself.
KL: What kind of feedback did you get on local as well as on international level? Was your message understandable in Europe?
VC: The message of The School of Kyiv was very well received and totally understood on international level. Ukraine has appeared on the horizon of the West very late, at the time of the Orange revolution. The visibility of the revolutionary movements needs to be articulated, we have to narrate the events in order to understand them.
On the local level it is just the beginning. That is why we decided to organize the Kyiv biennial in the form of school. We are just going to the first class, it is time to learn alphabet and to form new words. We can observe now in Europe the shift of accent towards peripheries, what is Europe from the perspectives of its ‘margins’ and being endangered by the wars in its South and East. That is why it was important for us to have the biennial as a means of political translation, how political and educational practices can be translated from Ukraine to the others and vice versa. The biennial was a new type of translation, and it was very important for the local context which has never been subjectified as such.
KL: How did you build this translation in the structure of the biennial?
VC: The translation itself was materialized in the functioning of the schools. We had six schools: the School of Realism, the School of the Lonesome, the School of Landscape, the School of Image and Evidence, the School of the Displaced, and the School of Abducted Europe. The very names of the schools tried to depict some of today’s most important political affects and emotions in Ukraine and beyond, and in this way they were already mapping and framing our political and social experiences. It was also an attempt to find common categories and words in order to make perception and recognition of similar experiences possible. It needs of course further elaboration and development. If we talk about alphabet and language, it is not enough to find a vocabulary. You also have to write paragraphs and texts.
KL: The biennial officially ended with 1st of November. What happened with the schools after this? How did they go on?
VC: In a sense the official end of the Kyiv biennial was just the beginning. After that lots of openings and events have been taking place in different cities across Europe, f.e. in Rome, Prague, Berlin, Vienna, Leipzig, Belgrade, Athens, Amsterdam to name some. Our idea was to invite foreign cultural institutions and organizations to become a part of the biennial structure as ‘international departments’ of The School of Kyiv. Some of the institutions started to develop this idea and inscribed it in their own current programs. On a local level together with other partner organizations we already carried on some of the initiatives connected to the School of the Lonesome, of Image and Evidence, and of the Displaced. But the development of these realms and ideas is a preparatory background for the next big step, the 2nd biennial edition in 2017. I think it will have a different shape, since the biennial is a performative action and you perform it such a way as it is needed by the society on the local as well as on the international level.
Vasyl Cherepanyn (1980, Ukraine) is the Head of Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC, Kyiv) and an editor of the Political Critique magazine (Ukrainian edition). He works as a lecturer at the Cultural Studies Department of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and holds Ph.D. in philosophy (aesthetics). Also he worked as a guest lecturer at the Institute for Advanced Studies of the “Political Critique” in Warsaw, Poland and the Krupp Wissenschaftskolleg Greifswald of the Greifswald University, Germany. In 2015, VCRC has received the European Cultural Foundation’s Princess Margriet Award for Culture for its activities. Visual Culture Research Center was also the organizer of The School of Kyiv – Kyiv Biennial 2015.
The article was originally published on 9 March, 2016 on ArtGuideEast.