London-based artist Adam J B Walker: "Mezhyhirya reminded me of The Truman Show"
Adam J B Walker's first trip to Ukraine was in 2017 as a resident artist in the British Council's SWAP UK / Ukraine programme. Following that visit he became very interested in, as a counterpoint of comparison to their functioning in the UK, how the Ukrainian public sphere functions and the importance of art and the arts community to that sphere. He writes about the experience in the doctoral dissertation* he's working on at the Royal College of the Arts. In order to assemble the necessary input for his work from Ukrainian artists and curators Adam applied for a Culture Bridges International Mobility Grant.
* title: "Undermining the inherent inequality of the technosphere: Textual artistic intervention as a vital strategy in enabling resistant agency"
During the mobility project Adam was in residence at the IZOLYATSIA Foundation where he also delivered an Artistic Talk in which he spoke about his most recent art project. A partial list of those the researcher met with during his tour includes curator Aleksandra Pogrebnyak, artists Maria Plotnikova, Vova Vorotniov and Alis la Luna, the Soshenko 33 project curators and artists Taras Kovach and Anna Sorokovaya, the Singulart project curator, Alexey Buistov and Valeria Schiller, curator at the Pinchuk Art Centre.
"I visited Mezhirhirya. This was a strange experience. Clearly there is the kitsch and bad taste of the whole thing, but the bigger question for me was 'who is paying for the upkeep of this place now'? There seemed to be virtually no one there, but the whole estate was immaculately maintained, overly so even. Why is it being kept so perfect? The place felt like a theme park or like something out of The Truman Show or even a cult, with kitschy follies waiting to be stumbled across with no one else around"
Artistic Talk at IZOLYATSIA
Adam says about a potential project focused on Mezhyhirya. He plans to work with an artist-director he's previously collaborated with, Vicky Thorton. If everything works out the team will begin its research this autumn.

An interview with Oleksiy Radynski, the artist and director at the Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC) was among Adam's priorities during the mobility because Oleksiy had produced the Hito Steyerl's artwork The Tower*. Adam had seen it when he was in Kyiv in 2017 (at VCRC) and was planning to write about it. He finds it interesting how very bodily things and very abstract things are presented in the piece. It's seen in the injustice that attends the outsourcing of work by western European countries. It's simple just to send their projects to Ukrainian developers where it's so much cheaper to develop. The film alludes to this both abstractly via the battlefield with its ongoing war and attendant human suffering, and immediately through the physical labour of programmers who spend long hours writing code to meet project deadlines. Oleg Fonarov, the protagonist in The Tower, used the term "body leasing" in his interview with Adam.
* The film was made in Ukraine in collaboration with Ukrainian artist and entrepreneur Oleg Fonarov (Kharkiv). The Tower is a three-channel video based on 3D modeling of dynamic images. A voice-over narrator, hi-tech expert and founder of Kharkiv-based 3D-rendering company "Program-Ace" Oleg Fonarov, talks about his projects and situation in Ukraine and Kharkiv: after the dissolution of the USSR and after Maidan, in the tech market and foreign policy. The Tower used game elements created by "Program-Ace". (According to the VCRC)
The Tower by Hito Steyerl
Photo by VCRC
In his research work, Adam considered the most difficult—and simultaneously, most fascinating—aspect was allowing himself to be drawn into an unfamiliar context bearing as little expectation or presupposition as possible. He saw it as an opportunity to hold to his research interests but in a way that was unburdened by the need to establish something or necessarily appropriate something novel from an established point of view. On the question of whether his mobility project has affected his creative activity Adam explains that he does not cleanly differentiate between research and artistic practice.
Texts are central to many of my artworks. Thus the chapter focussed around Ukraine within my PhD thesis, which I intend to write in a more experimental manner rather than as a conventionally academic piece of text, might shift towards something that would start to fit within artistic activity. I can envisage say a cast of both human and no-human characters operating through some kind of script or something
Adam's lecture at Singulart
Video by Singulart
Adam explains that he feels uncomfortable making statements about Ukraine's cultural sector. During his tour he was more interested in listening to what sector professionals had to say. Yet, as an outsider, he was able to offer the observation that in the Ukrainian context it's possible to see some interesting affinities with moments that have occurred elsewhere.
In particular I've been thinking about the late 80s-early 90s acid house/rave scene in the UK. I was too young to be part of that, but the British artist Jeremy Deller recently made a TV programme "Everybody in The Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992" that explored that period
The events of recent years in Ukraine related to Maidan and Russian aggression, while different from those of the late-80s and early-90s in the UK, do share some common characteristics
The aesthetic of the British music scene, the youth culture that surrounded it and the fashion of the late-80s and early-90s has a strong echo in Kyiv today. For example, in the UK during that period, nightclubs were mostly awful, playing heavily commercial pop music and so the rave scene, which was influenced by Black British sound-system culture, got its start from unsanctioned events on the outskirts of the city or in abandoned industrial buildings. The raves in the Kyiv woods strongly remind Adam of those times.

From an economics standpoint, the UK at that time was undergoing the effects of Margaret Thatcher's neoliberal policies. Mines and factories were closing, taxes on wealth were shrinking and a tiny sliver of the population of London and the southeast of the country benefitted significantly, financially speaking. Unemployment and poverty grew tremendously, particularly in the north. This resulted in both economic setbacks and a cultural identity crisis.

Adam stresses that the events of recent years in Ukraine related to Maidan and Russian aggression, while different from those in the UK, do share some common characteristics. The economic shock, the fear and sense of vulnerability in society start showing up in similar fashion. And the culture of raves emerges as a response to the troubled times and a temporary escape. Yet, to take an optimistic view, these elements can be a place out of which other, hopefully more egalitarian, ways of being in relation to one another might emerge. In those circumstances, art plays an indispensable role, both producing and spreading meaning, and modelling alternative approaches to interaction in society.
To those interested in the Ukrainian and European culture and creative industry scenes, Adam recommends the following:

  1. Singulart. They have exhibitions and a public programme at their gallery space, and also have stuff regularly posted online (youtube etc.). Additionally they run a regularly updated library of texts (which are otherwise hard to find in Ukraine) covering critical theory, post-internet art and such forth, which anyone can borrow for free.
  2. Centre of Visual Culture. Work by members such as Oleksiy Radynski which has, with some effectiveness, contested the destruction of important modernist architecture such as the flying saucer building in Kyiv is important. They also convene Black Cloud Kyiv Biennale 2019.
  3. White Pube. This UK based art critic duo don't have a direct relation to Ukraine (that Adam is aware of at least), but their irreverence toward established power structures is really important. For Adam it felt relevant to e. g. independent art paper VONO.
Cover photo by Adam J B Walker
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