Ilona Dergach: Applause.
Editor: What can we learn from the situation of a relatively new state, an authoritarian republic, when it adds a status update announcing the birth of a new Silicon Valley on its territory? Everytime I ask a Belarusian where the funds for all the “innovative changes”, including art galleries, come from, I get radio silence. The essay below relays the events and cultural shifts of the last 8 years in Minsk through the eyes of one artworker. While it doesn’t answer my burning question, it sheds the light on exactly why – I am preoccupied with finding an answer, to begin with.
Translated by Anastasia Kolas
Русская версия здесь
Eight years ago Minsk was unlike any other major city: it had a single contemporary art gallery, a couple of hypermarkets, and two social hubs: the October Square and the Independence Square. However, over the last couple of years my hometown has grown in territory, and such new additions to vocabulary as “coffee shop”, “barbershop”, “gentrification”, “creative industries”, “ecology”, “feminism”, “heritage”, “IT -country” have come to be ubiquitous. I would like to, but can’t, applaud these changes.
It all started in December 2010 when Belarus once again was (re)electing the president. The President’s victory was sweeping, re-elected again he was, and the election day ended with a protest march that moved from October Square towards the Independence Square (until 1991, called Lenin Square). The protest action was concluded by forceful dispersal of demonstrators and mass arrests.
At that time, I was reading books on art history, philosophy, and gallery business. My ultimate fantasy was to work in a gallery, if only as an administrator to start, for a daily dose of exposure to the beautiful and the new. That spring I managed to take part in the competition “Contemporary museum practices 2011”, which gave me a chance to try my hand in event management at the only contemporary art gallery in the city – Gallery Ў.
2011 was the first year in the short history of sovereign Belarus to be invited to partake in the Venice Biennale. And immediately with a scandal at home. The Belarusian Pavilion project appeared to be a nuisance for the Ministry of Culture that seemed to have never heard of the Venice Biennale.
That same spring of 2011, the population of Belarus faced a financial crisis: following rapid devaluation of the local currency they were unable to convert savings into a stable currency quick enough to alleviate the rapid decrease in wages. As if an echo of the 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, people again stocked food, household appliances, drove-in cars for sale from abroad. To save money people bought everything except art. I personally know an artist who did not receive remuneration for a piece purchased prior to devaluation and his work went into a museum collection for near nothing.
April 11, 2011 is the date of an explosion that killed 15 people inside the Minsk metro. The explosion was immediately treated by the authorities as a terrorist attack.
Silent protest actions against the state’s economic policy spread around the city that summer. These actions were coordinated on the Internet and received the name Social Network Revolution. People gathered in the city center, and stayed in groups, silent. The silence was periodically broken by applause: slogans and protests are banned by the Belarusian authoritarian law. The applause became a source of shame for the authorities, represented by the fact that shortly after the silent action took place the president issued a new decree that banned applause in a public space. The same decree gave the authorities new power: giving them permission to shut down any group gatherings and events organized via Internet.
At the same time, the first portal on contemporary Belarusian art — artaktivist.org — begins its operations online. I was lucky enough to conduct various interviews, write articles for related projects and coordinate offline events for the portal.
In the autumn of the same year the case of explosion in the Minsk metro is closed and the suspects are sentenced to death. To this day questions are raised and unanswered in view of the rushed proceedings of locating and arresting the perpetrators, their execution and the assignment of “terrorist attack” classification to the incident. Increased police presence and patrolling has been established ever since the attacks, with several agents positioned at every metro station entrance. The security service is given authority to check any large bags, and if necessary, immediately pass them through an x-ray scan.
Next year, 2012, is declared the Year of the Book by the Belarusian Ministry of Culture. Coincidentally, the alternative culture sector reacts to this by organizing the exhibition “Radius Zero” in an abandoned space of the Belarusian TV manufacturing factory, Horizon. The curatorial group is composed of philosopher Olga Shparaga, art historian Oksana Zhgirovskaya and artist Ruslan Vashkevich. They conduct and present a survey of a decade in Belarusian contemporary art both in and outside of the country, and a year later publish an exhibition catalog accompanied by analytical essays on the changes that took place within that decade (2000’s).
Following silent street protests of 2011 and as a result of the new decree on restriction of public events, the urban space itself becomes sensitive to any changes within its highly policed environment. A performance intervention in October Square concludes with the arrest and litigation of the artist and his assistants. It can be simply said that Minsk residents have lost their right to their public space and the only perceptible activity in their urban environment is the endless sweeping of streets. To this day, Minsk is known for its cleanliness.
Also in 2012, the first Belarusian Triennial of Contemporary Art is held on the heels of the creative workshops at the “Center for Contemporary Arts”. The content of the triennial sheds light on the distinction of what is defined as contemporary by the official government institutions in contrast to private galleries and public. The ever widening gap of understanding of the contemporary aesthetics between these two societal stratas has produced two interpretations of visual and ontological reality that exist in parallel to each other. Their differences emphasizes the impossible feat of conducting a dialogue between the structures of power and the emerging independent organizations, groups and individuals partaking in the development of artistic expression and education in Belarus. The lack of awareness of the contemporary international discourse and absence of an official critical position on analysis of such processes as colonization, integration, preservation of heritage and so on, has an enforced numbing effect on every sphere of cultural practices in Belarus.
In 2013, the country’s economy begins to stabilize. A young curatorial group, made up of an emerging philosopher Vitaly Shchutsky and myself, presents an exhibition project “Minsk: [D] construction”, in it linking a study of artistic and urban environments.
In 2014, the (still) only contemporary gallery of the city, Gallery Ў, presents projects that critique social norms and their influence on identity; projects that address the impact of institutions and the urban environment on the inhabitants; projects that discuss the commercialization of art and the market study of public events, such as sports. This isn’t accidental: the World Ice Hockey Championship is held that year in Minsk, which becomes an excuse for the Belarusian government to try, as if a new seasoning, visa-free entry for foreign citizens who visit the country for the sporting events. Under the same guise, the English language is introduced into the urban landscape: the names of streets, subway stations and maps are installed with signage and directions in both Belarusian and English.
That year, Belarus celebrates 70th anniversary of liberation from Nazi occupation and Minsk serves as platform for international negotiations and conflict resolution in Ukraine.
The portal artaktivist.org closes and a new online archive of Belarusian art — kalektar.org–– launches. State support for such initiatives is not even considered as a potential opportunity. Meanwhile the “last European dictatorship” and narratives of other regional self-exoticiziation continue to be an easy sell for getting funding or attention within the European and American cultural market.
In 2015, what I call neo-culture breaks out. For the first time, the “Autumn Salon” is held in Minsk, where any artist can compete for a cash prize selected by an international panel of judges.
An entire strip dedicated to creative industries emerges overnight: Oktyabrskaya Street (ed. the funding for this string of miraculous developments remains to be the area of speculation). An interesting historical coincidence, isn’t it? The revolution of the XX century, and then the events on the eponymous square, and then the art strip.
Through cooperative efforts of a subsidiary of Gazprom (ed. the Russian gas extraction magnate) and the local authorities, the works of Chaim Soutine, Mark Shagal and Lev Bakst are returned to the territory of Belarus.
The country participates in Venice Biennale for the second time and again not without a small scandal. This time the Ministry of Culture refuses to fund the independent art project selected by the national competition because it is a private initiative.
Belarusian universities join the Bologna process, which in theory is to be the first step of integrating Belarusian education system with the European. However, to date, Belarus has not fulfilled any of the conditions of the process: the transition to a three-stage “bachelor-master-doctor” qualification has not been completed, no new framework to adopt the system has been created; the diploma translation to English is still not issued free of charge; Belarus have not established an independent agency to monitor and review the quality of education; the financial support for students in private and state universities is not equalized; job assignment on graduation has not been canceled; no official legitimacy is granted to the private universities. The register of student organizations by application, rather than by permission, has not been created.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian cultural life is gaining a momentum: crowdfunding platforms begin to operate in Belarus. The Nobel Prize in literature is awarded to the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich. I graduate and present a curatorial project in Lithuania in conjunction with the Gallery Ў.
While Europe is negotiates its policy for accepting refugees during the mounting crisis, 2016 is declared The Year of Culture in Belarus. Stimulation of the development of culture comes through amendments in the legal code. The culture worker is now obliged to undergo state certification, and obtain a certificate which officially confirms that their work/ activity is valuable for the development of Belarus. The commission, of course, is headed by government officials and freelancers like me have to qualify to pass it. I don’t plan on passing it. I am busy with my art blog, independent curatorial activities, and work that provides livelihood. The activity of a cultural worker who does not pass the commission is automatically classified as “parasite”.
The parasite is part Belarusian IRL/ part Kafka character, two in one. Parasites are what Belarus calls its unemployed in an official decree: a person who does not participate in the economic development of the country. Consequently, according to the logic of the absurd Belarusian State apparatus, these people are obliged to pay tax to the state for non-participation in the country’s economy, which covers their access to the universal medical and social services (ed. social service here probably means police, statistically two policemen per civilian capita). Of course, the decree does not include such organizations as artists or photographers guilds, membership for which is, in essence, a hold-over of the Soviet system. Rather, it is the very young, the independent, and the precarious who fall under the span of the decree coming face to face with the system. In the summer of 2016, yet another denomination of the Belarusian currency takes place: this time pennies are entered into circulation, the paper bills are reprinted again. People receive “letters of joy” – the so-called tax letter informing them of the parasite tax.
As the result of many tragedies, (ed. series of suicides followed the decree as people found themselves unable to pay, when those who were ill, and pregnant women, were taxed) 2017 explodes with protests. New amendments to the law are introduced and it turns out that tax collection has began prior to the law being officially finalized. Most of the charges form that period were refunded, but the decree continues to exist.
In 2017 Eurovision-watching public hears “mova” (ed.Belarusian language) for the first time. Also in 2017, Belarus takes part in the “Miss Wheelchair World”.
At the end of the year, the president signs Decree No. 8 “On the Development of the Digital Economy”, which legalizes cryptocurrency exchange, cryptocurrency exchange operators, crypto-mining, smart contracts, blockchains, tokens, etc. The decree creates favorable conditions for economic development for the residents of High Technologies Park, the newly emerged Silicon Valley equivalent but in Minsk, by providing the companies in the Park with tax exemption, including on profits until January 1, 2049.
2018 brakes out in a series of scandals. On the spring Day dedicated to Combating Homophobia and Transphobia, the British Embassy raises a LGBT flag. The British Ambassador to Belarus Fiona Gibb states in her public release: “With this gesture we wish to support the rights of the LGBT community and draw public’s attention the discrimination faced by the LGBT people everyday.” Three days go by and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus responds to the British Embassy with an official statement on their website. The announcement denounces the LGBT relationships as “not real” and more so, go on to specify “We are equally open to all that is useful, necessary and progressive: anything that will improve the life of the Belarusian public and will contribute to the development of society as a whole. We are for — the authentic. They — will not pass!” This was probably the most discussed event in the media and social networks. The Belarusian LGBT activists did not let slide the words of the Ministry and staged several unauthorized actions, all of which predictably ended up in legal proceedings. Notably, however, after punishment of activists, the text of this announcement has been removed from the official website of the Ministry for the Internal Affairs.
In the fall of 2018, Christian Orthodox activists intervene in the programming of the Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet by writing a letter to the head of the Presidential Administration, the Prosecutor General and members of the Holy Synod of the Belarusian Exarchate, and the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox activists demand that the opera Salome by Richard Strauss be moved to another date, because its screening schedule overlaps with the date of an Orthodox holiday. This was the first in the whole history of the theater attempt by a religious organization to intervene in their work.
Similar scandal breaks out at Listapad International Film Festival. Here it is the state machine itself that interrupts the programming of the film festival. For unspecified reason the final selection of films is approved by a newly formed commission headed by the first deputy minister of culture. The film community considers the invasion to be a censorship attempt: many of the initially selected films are removed from the screening list, some directors are banned from participating. One of the directors, whose film is not allowed to partake, shortly thereafter wins a prize at an international film festival in the Netherlands.
Also in the fall of 2018, launched as part of an independent initiative for the online archiving of Belarusian contemporary art, group exhibition Zbor opens in Minsk, having established itself by then with earlier exhibitions in Poland and Ukraine. Visiting the show, anyone at least a little bit familiar with the local scene, could quickly grasp the predictability of the artists list of those included and excluded from it, as if the habits of the state’s machinations continued here too. The realization of this fact officially graduated me with a curatorial MA in art: today, any symbolic territory is a market. Art sphere that sides with democratic values, even if coupled with a dose of anarchism, nevertheless continues to be limited by its developmental habits. It should be remembered that the state of Belarus is only 25 years old, and the vocabulary of a Belarusian now includes terminology the experience of which was not lived here prior to it being adopted into colloquial use. The industrial complex is copy pasted from the economies of the so-called first world, where the production is driven by the majority stakeholders, which levels-out the complexities, becoming a lobbying ground for locked-in groups of interests. It seems that the future of Belarus too, depends on an equally insular circle of those able to agree among themselves amidst the realities of the existential chaos we are living in here.
My curatorial activities, which in the years of my student life were viewed through the lens of the textbook Culture: Management, Animation, Marketing, were far from the theoretical work of Milena Dragichevich-Sheshich. The practice of recent years has made it clear that being a good curator, manager, PR and financier, all at the same time, is not realistic in our or possibly any, reality. The funding often dictates the content. The steps of implementing the project often force the choice between the nuances of artistic research and its marketing. Funds or programs that support the cultural development in Belarus and the region, in most cases, are expecting a predetermined political angle and a thesis about new or known weaknesses of the region, which are to be solved through the successful implementation of the proposed projects thus limiting the scope of possibilities from the get go.
As my 30th birthday nears, I realize that rather than calculating which strategic group I should side with on this territory in order to build a professional career, I would prefer to choose another direction. Together with Yura Shust, a Belarusian artist based in Berlin, we are in the process of launching an online platform saliva.live. It will feature interviews with international artists and curators, who find themselves in some degree of precarity within any of the existing systems. We are interested in representing a variety of voices, thus supporting a healthy functioning of local cultural metabolic processes. On Salive site we hope to include diverse individual positions and offer the participants a chance to leave a trace within endlessly changing social, political and geographical landscapes.