The Art of Regime. Minsk, 15.08.2020. Photo Curtesy of Lesia Pcholka
The School of Mutation within the framework of the iteration We have a situation here: Dmitry Vilensky moderates an online conversation with Belarusian curators Olga Kopenkina, Antonina Stebur and artist Aliaxey Talstou on Tuesday April 27th at 18:00 CET. Join us on Zoom https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81103336056 Meeting ID: 811 0333 6056 – Streaming online on IRI YouTube Channel – Share the FB event
After a devastating bombing or a political victory, there’s no time for art. That is to say no time for contemplative reflection, for philosophy. It is time for action; solidarity or celebration, and anything else seems inappropriate.
Doa Aly, “No Time for Art?”
We are pleased to invite you to the talk with curators Olga Kopenkina, Antonina Stebur and artist Aliaxey Talstou, who will focus on various forms of artists’ organization, activist practices and strategies that have emerged during the mass civil uprising in Belarus.
Since August 10th, 2020, the day after the Presidential elections in Belarus, marked with the state’s fraud to ensure Alexander Lukashenko’s pre-determined victory, until now, Belarusians have conducted a peaceful but fierce political-aesthetic mobilization that was met with the unprecedented use of violence by the authoritarian state. The confrontation between people and the state resembled almost the Manichean dualism of good and evil: a good, peaceful and tolerant nation, most famously symbolized by the march of women-in-white waving flowers, is impeded by an evil force embodied by the mustached male dictator and heavily armed police force – an image that rather obscured the real social and political forces that stand behind the protest than illuminated them.
What became clear, though, is that Belarus is experiencing the cultural renaissance amidst civic unfreedom. The proliferation of street activism, protest-oriented art and political imagery, as unforeseen as it was, has been one of the most astonishing outcomes of the political unrest there. Across the country, professional actors, musicians, painters, book illustrators, commercial graphics and Instagram artists weaponized their skills to make works that instantly became icons of the protest. Their work has often merged with creativity and activism of the regular citizens, who employed aesthetics as a tactics in their everyday protests, seeking to cross-fertilize creative and emancipatory energies, between experiences of suffering and resistance.
The conflation of art and political activism, of course, is not a new thing. From the Paris Commune to Russian Revolution to Occupy Wall Street, artists and intellectuals never simply cater to the needs of rebellious masses – they forge a new creative linkage between themselves and “militants,” and, as philosopher Alain Badiou argues, find new spaces where “politics is possible.” After it became clear that factories in Belarus failed to establish themselves as the central force of the uprising, in classical Marxist sense, artists began to utilize cultural institutions, repurposing them – in a partisan way – into platforms of radical positioning. Many artists and cultural workers abandoned “normality” of exhibiting their works in official art galleries and cultural centers and joined the struggle by staging actions of solidarity on the streets, similar to actors and musicians, who refused to perform on stages of the state-run theaters and concert halls, and instead, played in the outside public spaces.
Discussions among Belarusian art practitioners are centered around the question: What should artists do during a revolution – echoing the debate artists around the world have conducted for decades. In one such a debate, Egyptian artist Doa Aly asks: In time of a revolution, is there time for art? Do artists have to represent themselves – individually, or collectively – within a common struggle?Or, do they become a sort of “martyrs” who “kill” their own practice to blend with revolutionary masses? Does the expression “time for action” really imply “no time for contemplative reflection”, or art?While merging the category of ‘artist’ with that of ‘protestor,’ do artists distinguish their role from any other professional, or a citizen, who employs tactics of “visual activist” in their struggles? Can the new forms of political organizing that emerge during the protest, with its focus on depersonalization and decentralization, protect cultural producers from the state violence and ensure their survival in the future? Other questions are at stake: Can artists disassociate their practice from the idea of fine art market and its neoliberal institutions (private galleries, privately-funded art spaces, cultural hubs, etc.), in a context, where such institutions, as opposed to state-run art centers, foster new communities, while facing the consequence of becoming a target of government’s repressions? When joining the public outcry to release political prisoners, among which are a former banker and cultural entrepreneurs, will artists in Belarus re-join neoliberal capitalism? Or, can they create a “third position,” from which they can negotiate autonomy and spaces of resistance within the capitalist hegemony? Isn’t it the future that calls us now?
Olga Kopenkina is an independent curator and art critic. She was an artistic director of the 6th Line gallery, the first privately-funded non-profit art center in Minsk, Belarus. Based in New York City since 1998, she has curated numerous exhibitions, including “Sound of Silence: Art during Dictatorship” at Project Space in Elizabeth Foundation for Arts, New York, 2012. Kopenkina is a contributor to publications such as Moscow Art Journal, Art Journal, Artforum, ArtMargins, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail, and others. She teaches at New York University.
Antonina Stebur (born in 1984) — curator, researcher. Graduated from the European University of Humanities (2009) and School of Engaged Art “Chto Delat” (What is to be done?) in 2019. Antonina is a co-founder of the #damaudobnayavbytu project on gender discrimination in Belarus, a co-founder of the research group on activist art “Spaika”, member of the “AGITATSIA” research group. She is one of the authors of “The History of Belarusian Photography” book. She is a co-curator of the exhibition “Every Day. Art. Solidarity. Resistance,” which is currently on view in Mistetsky Arsenal, Kiev, Ukraine.
Aliaxey Talstouis an artist, curator and writer. He worked as a curator of gallery CECH in Minsk and a project leader at Status: Role of the Artists in Changing Society project. His two films, Observing solidarity and If the past will not end are currently on view at the exhibition “Every Day. Art. Solidarity. Resistance.” at Mistetsky Arsenal in Kiev, Ukraine.