Founders of Q rators: Ukrainian artists don’t want to be associated only with the war

Anna Ten is an actress; Natasha Tseliuba is a graphic and visual artist. But over the past two years, they have not only been involved in their own practices but also curating. They have created a curators’ association called Q rators, which organises events in Europe with the participation of Ukrainian artists. Their goal is to promote Ukraine in Europe and provide a platform for dialogue between artists from different countries. In the interview below, the two curators discuss the importance of their mission and work.

How did the idea to create a curators’ association come to be?

Anna Ten: The idea was born spontaneously. We once jokingly said: “It would be great to take Ukrainian artists to Europe.” Later, with all the events that happened on Maidan, this became a more serious challenge. At the time I was taking part in a festival in Paris and suggested to the management of the theatre, which had invited me, that it involves other Ukrainian artists. We were staying performances within the framework of this festival.

Natasha Tseliuba: I remember the moment perfectly well when Anna wrote: “Do you remember? There is such a possibility here.” It just happened that nobody but us would have grabbed this opportunity. And we did this promptly with our own efforts. But it was a risk because we were not even able to pay the travel costs for the artists for the first event. But we tried to squeeze out the most out of these circumstances.

What was the name of the first project?

N. Ts.: We had the idea of calling it “A Disturbed Mass”. We were trying to pull something out of our copywriters’ dens. But it turned out that this phrase could not be translated into French in its true sense. Therefore, we decided to leave it simply: Political Art of Post-Soviet Countries Day.

What did you show at this event?

A. T.: It all coincided with the beginning of military operations in Ukraine – October 2014. In Europe, people were only just beginning to take interest in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

There was no enmity or conflict among the artists from Ukraine and Russia who had supported this idea, there was no enmity or conflict. The artists from Russia also had the idea of supporting the Ukrainians.

N. Ts.: At that time, there was a huge scandal with the Manifesta biennial and Ukrainian artists, most of whom refused to take part. In view of that, the dialogue between the artists of Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and all post-Soviet countries is problematic. The Russian did not understand why the Ukrainians won’t talk to them, won’t work with them. There was rejection from both sides. Talking about this, I would certainly leave out some artists, and I’m talking in general brushstrokes about professionals of contemporary art. So we thought then about the creation of a joint platform where artists would show their positions. These were not necessarily friendly embraces, but rather a dialogue and free discussion format.

A. T.: The artists included Masha Kulikovskaya who staged d the performance called “254” relating to what she was doing during the Manifesta biennial at the Hermitage. Then she was lying on the stairs draped in the Ukrainian flag. In Paris, she asked Russian and French artists to join in.

N. Ts.: Each sewed his own blue and yellow fabric and all the participants were lying in the alleyway under the Ukrainian flag.

A. T.: There was also Alexey Markin, a Russian artist who now lives in Hamburg. He carried out the campaign “Wash the Russian flag”. He stood in a bathtub trying to wash out the Russian flag. It’s a strong symbol – to wash, for instance, the attack on Ukraine from Russian identity and, at the same, time to disassociate oneself from the actions of one’s country.

N. Ts.: There was also an interactive performance titled “Radiosurrealism”. I’m one of the ideological creators of this project. We carried out a campaign/performance on the topic of “feeding an artist is not forbidden”. We found a space with bars and went in to do some incomprehensible acrobatic movements. Outside we put up infographics on how animals are fed in zoos. It was very relevant because many artists were offered to take part in the project, but few were able to afford to get there at their own expense.

Do you feel that you have managed to establish dialogue?

A. T.: I believe that it’s ongoing. To establish dialogue requires much more time. Artists of the November event remain in touch. That’s a success. But this is not the end but the beginning. To create an artistic community is very difficult even within the boundaries of a single country. We are only just laying the foundations for dialogue. Besides, we’re not imposing dialogue, we’re creating the conditions for this to happen.

Why did you choose Europe in particular for dialogue and not one of those countries?

A. T.: In 2014 it would have been difficult to say that it was necessary to invite Russian artists to Ukraine. It seemed to us that it would be easier to establish this dialogue on neutral territory. And for me, living in France, it was much easier to coordinate the trip here, it was the simplest decision in terms of logistics.

N. Ts.: And, on the other hand, it would have been strange to stage events in Paris if there were no demand for them.

So the French are interested in Ukraine?

А. T.: Yes. In November, the opening night of the event coincided with the terrorist attacks in Paris. The context of war in Ukraine, Maidan became a parallel for the French public. A week later they came to see performances staged by people who lived in Donbass.

N. Ts.: Following the terrorist attacks, public events were banned because of mourning and for security reasons. But despite that, an incredible number of people came.

A. T.: One of the reasons for holding such events not only in post-Soviet countries is to show Europe parallels with other countries.

Globally, the Ukrainian issue is either silenced or no longer of interest to anyone in France. And it was in November that people came to us because they were simply interested in learning what was really happening, how the arts are developing, how the war had impacted the development of Ukraine. They were also interested in learning what was happening in Russia and Belarus. For instance, their censorship.

Do you feel artists are tired of war themes?

A. T.: Yes. Even in November, there were problems with the artists of our programme. They said that it was the last straw: too much had already been said, perhaps it was time to stop. But there is a market problem, it can be seen in the art of the Balkans, which to this day are associated with conflict and military operations.

We still have the concept of political statements. But it can be anything: rethinking your place as an artist…

N. Ts.: Rethinking your earnings as an artist.

А. Т.: It is gender, and media, and censorship. It’s not necessary that everything should be tied to the war.

Do you have a goal of establishing a dialogue between Ukrainian and European artists?

A. T.: This is more difficult. The idea exists, but we haven’t yet found the proper form of its expression. Exchanges between artists are difficult, you need partners for that, the involvement of a third party. A more solid budget would be required. But I know that many French artists would have been incredibly happy to come to Ukraine.

What other projects did you have?

A. T.: The second meeting took place in Prague at the Tranzitdisplay gallery, which specialises in political art. The format was slightly different because we invited young artists who did not have huge CVs and portfolios. There were two Ukrainians and four Russians. The next project – our biggest to date – was held in Paris on November 13–22, 2015. Around 15 artists from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Germany took part in it. The opening was a collaboration between Russian and French sociology researchers, political scientists, who prepared a conference on modern protest art in post-Soviet countries. But there were difficulties. We tried to find funding ourselves, but within the framework of the EU, this is problematic, especially in France. There seems to be a belief that there are incredible subsidies for culture here, but it’s not so. Especially when it’s related to political art and conflictual situations. People regard this with wariness and rarely allocate a budget for it.

Sponsors are more aesthetically inclined towards pleasant art than political art and, in our case, auto-aggressive performance.

The aesthetic comprehension of the word “performance” in the programme that we had put together was scant.

A. T.: In addition, performance is not very developed in France. They still don’t know where to include it: is it theatre, contemporary dance or fine art? It is an unstable concept that many cultural institutions wish to avoid because the public doesn’t understand it. Plus, there is a strong classical theatre tradition here.

Due to these reasons, we said to ourselves: enough of inviting people with our own money, and raised EUR 2,300 through crowdfunding. The amount was enough to cover the whole event.  

You know how to save well.

A. T.: We have true partners who are always ready to host artists, feed them and show them around Paris. The “Do it yourself” approach is present in the entire structure.

Have you tried to work with state bodies? The Ministry of Culture, for instance?

N. Ts.: We made a few attempts at collaboration. At best, we did not receive a response. We called, wrote, met. During personal meetings, it all sounds optimistic: yes, of course, send everything, but after that, the dialogue breaks off.

We would like to feel at least a desire to communicate with cultural activists. If there are certain areas, they’re meant to work. But for a start, there needs to be a more horizontal style of work.

А. Т.: The promotion of Ukrainian culture in Europe should happen from both the side of artists and the side of the state. For me, the Ministry should be a support structure. If there were a grants system, an open and independent one, supported by the Ministry, and the conditions created to collaborate with artists, that would be great. But now we’re trying to establish contact with the Ukrainian embassy and the Ukrainian cultural centre in Paris. We’re also holding negotiations with Irena Karpa who is now secretary for cultural issues at the Ukrainian Embassy in France.

Do you have plans for future projects?

A. T.: Yes, we were asked to take part in the International Performance Art Weekend in Warsaw. We’re preparing our programme.

N. Ts.: Q rators appears as guest curators, within the framework of WIPAW we’re organising a whole day dedicated to Ukrainian performance art.

A. T.: We also plan to expand our field of activities. Performance is closest to us, but we would also like to cover other spheres. We are preparing a series of conferences in Paris for the Ukrainian community in France and those people who are interested in the development of contemporary Ukraine. We are even going to go beyond the framework of 100 per cent art to talk about contemporary Ukrainian architecture, cultural trends. We plan to hold three conferences by December, i.e. one a month. There will be various topics, so as to bring the European public closer to Ukraine, tell them more about modern trends, how Ukrainian society is evolving.

N. Ts.: There’s a Ukrainian diaspora in France, but as made evident by their initiatives, they’re more drawn to classical and understandable art and are wary of contemporary art. Therefore, it would also become clearer to the diaspora what is happening now in Ukraine based on the work of specific people, stories.

A. T.: And for us, it is an opportunity to get closer to the diaspora. More about our plans: in spring we’re planning a huge event, but we won’t reveal the topic at the moment. All we can say is that it will focus on representatives of Ukrainian art and will cover many disciplines. And, apparently, we will soon become a member of BJCEM, Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean.

You work to introduce Europeans to Ukrainian art. But often Ukrainian artists are in the shadows even for Ukrainians. Would you like to work on resolving this problem?

N. Ts.: We are. We have a tacit agreement that Anna focuses more on coordination in her country and I focus on mine. We try to get our efforts to cross paths as far as possible. Work is going well in Ukraine. For example, one of the latest events was in Zaporizhzhya. It was always painful for us to hear the comments of the city’s residents and visitors, that they’re an industrial city where there’s nothing beyond the island and vodka. It was very pleasant to unveil the photography exhibition of Zaporizhzhya’s Singurov on June 25 at the LOFT mlyn. He opened the Ukrainian season in Paris, and we showed the same series of works in Zaporizhzhya.  My goal is to show culture professionals who are natives of Zaporizhzhya.

How do you look for artists for your projects?

N. Ts.: Sometimes artists write to us, that they would like to collaborate, sometimes people recommend artists. But I relate deeply to open calls because it expands the frontiers of handshakes. Although it has an underwater theme that can take too long to surface. We try to work with those artists who are ideologically close to us. There can be no total objectivity here, it’s all subjective. We make our choice in accordance with the logic “what would we have done”.

A. T.: There are festivals that don’t have a clear aesthetic concept. Open mic – you want to join, just come up. We don’t work out of principle in such a key, because when you’re not paid for your work, there’s no point in promoting artists that don’t interest you.

What are the selection criteria?

A. T.: The main criterion is the integrity of the artistic message. Art for the art’s sake or the “let me tell you about myself” art is of no interest to us.

I would also like to see an artist who’s taking a risk with something. And particularly in Paris because there are fewer and fewer artists taking risks here so as not to lose a position, subsidies.

N. Ts.: I’m very interested in the social aspect. To what extent is the message that of the majority, or how far does it resonate with everyone.

A. T.: But the social aspect is not everything. After all, we stand for art. We do not stand for the theatre of the oppressed, whoever wishes can have their say wherever they are. What’s important to us is the integrity of the artistic message. Philosophy or political thoughts can be profound, but they should be supported by the artist’s work.

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