Between East and West?

P1000575Last week, I attended the Institute of Strategic Studies national convention on the EU in Ukraine – experts & delegates from EU members gave evidence to Ministers & MP’s on the value of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union.

The debate was impassioned, and made me feel that I am in the privileged position of witnessing history being made: Ukraine means ‘land on the edge’ and now is a time of great uncertainty as we wait to see if Ukraine will sign in Vilnius.

Ukrainian colleagues and the business community feel strongly that Europe offers the best fit in terms of political aspirations for an emerging democratic state – freedom (of thought/speech/action) really matters when you can remember how it was to live in the time before “freedom”. And association with the EU would certainly accelerate much needed reforms as well as giving access to European markets.

We're keeping an eye on you

We’re keeping an eye on you

But Putin’s Russia is not giving up the former states of the USSR easily: deals on gas & loans to help Ukraine’s struggling economy are the carrot; and the stick? Threats of trade embargos if Ukraine doesn’t join the Moscow-led Customs Union.

Meanwhile the European Union is understandably wary of having another failing economy coming to its party… where Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland et al are propped up in a corner, Britain’s outside in the garden shouting at the neighbours, and the only guest still left on the dance floor is Germany.  Europe has made judicial reform a key condition for the signing in Vilnius, and requests to Ukraine to clean up its act go beyond the release from detention of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the current President’s biggest political rival.

Ukraine languishes at 112th in a league table which measures ‘Ease of doing Business’, with a gnarly tax and legislative framework, and endemic corruption. So although most people are trying to earn an honest living, they are often thwarted by their leadership and the system. Education might offer an escape – around a quarter of places at universities are available for free to bright but poor students, but there’s huge competition, and bribery can still be part of the process of securing the place.

pic of woman

Buying butter & cheese from my favourite “dairymaid”

However, Ukraine has huge natural resources, one third of the “black earth” resource (the most fertile soil) of the globe is here, and its people – on my brief acquaintance – are educated, aspiring, and hard working.  Sitting on the fence between Russia and Europe might be an option, and President Yanukovych is clearly trying to work out which way to jump depending on which side will give him the best chance of staying in power.

But as I wrote this (21/11/2013) the ruling Party of the Regions voted against various key reforms/conditions so it’s now looking almost impossible for the Agreement to be signed.

Visa restrictions currently make it difficult for Ukrainians to travel to the UK or indeed anywhere in Europe, and the costs of spending time there make it prohibitive for many. Which may explain the popularity of cinema here – a chance to travel to new places for 35 UAH (less than £3)? Cinema has been at the fore over the past week as almost every film in the British Film Festival season has played to sell out audiences. I loved the National Theatre’s Frankenstein on film, made available again as part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season;  I really enjoyed the BAFTA shorts, particularly Tumult; and our screening of The Selfish Giant, in partnership with UNICEF, was an opportunity to put the spotlight on the bleak landscape for vulnerable children in the UK, and Ukraine, as elsewhere. 

It occurred to me as I munched my breakfast herring, and spread weird jam on my dark brown bread that I might have ‘gone native’:

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

I can now count to nine in Ukrainian, say thank you & good night in Russian,ask for 100gms of butter,

and read the Cyrillic alphabet which makes getting around a bit easier – although some of the city centre underground has signs in both alphabets, there’s no consistency and signs disappear as you try and emerge at the correct exit without getting lost in the vast underground market areas that surround the central metro stations.

I’ve been going to some of the Young Learners lessons in my free time – giving young people who are learning English the opportunity to ask questions (like “Which architect do you most admire and why?”- so quite searching!) of a native speaker.

Our discussions about arts & culture in the UK and here have led me to think more about why culture matters – the arts are a great way of telling stories about who we are as people, and culture is perhaps the sum total of a nation’s stories. As a nation’s collective memories, it draws on our recipes and songs as well as our theatre, our landscape and traditions as well as our literature, our feast days and the rituals that we still have around birth, marriage, and death… all a shared and valuable part of national identity.

The young people whose parents are willing and able to pay for them to learn English at the British Council today are likely to include some of the business people, politicians and leaders of tomorrow, and clearly the British Council can play a part in encouraging them to value artists, arts and culture – both their own and that of others. In discussions about how British musicians & choreographers are brilliantly mixing up traditions: like clog dancing and hip hop, one student told me that the same has happened with Hopak – a kozak dance that is being reconfigured by young people in exciting ways – so I shall hunt down some clips to share with you.

This week Ukraine lost against France, after beating them 2-0 last week, and went out of the World Cup. And this week Hull became UK Capital of Culture 2017 – hurrah for Hull, which badly needs a boost: youth unemployment is at 40% in the city, so let’s hope that  the next 4 years offer the same boost to Hull as happened in Derry with its Capital of Culture investment.  And fingers crossed for better news for Ukraine in Vilnius, but our hopes are not high.


Harsh realities – on stage and screen

Take, Love, Run by Oksana Chavchenko.   A British theatre director recently worked with Kyiv’s Molodiy Theatre to stage a new play which gives a glimpse of life on the front line in the new Ukraine, where personal and national debts are mounting, and many people take desperate measures as they struggle to make ends meet.

pic of scene from play

‘Take Love Run’ directed by Caroline Steinbeis at the Molodiy Theatre, Kyiv

British Council Ukraine teamed up with London’s Royal Court to encourage new writing from emerging writers like Oksana Savchenko – with a staged reading, and a performance in London in English back in May.  After which Andriy Bilous, artistic director at the Molodiy, said “No Ukrainian director I know would stage this. It’s so dark that they wouldn’t be able to distance themselves enough to do it justice. How can a story about a young family in crisis make you laugh, and cringe, and still somehow inspire hope? It just does. We have to do it.”

The play opened in Kyiv in October, and as shows stay in a theatre’s repertoire for years here, I was able to see the play last week. I read the English translation and set off, not really expecting to enjoy it. But director Caroline Steinbeis had done a great job, making the most of very little by way of lighting & design, and the cast of 8 Ukrainian actors gave excellent performances. The show was sold out the night I went: packed with an audience, mostly in their 20’s/30’s, who were very appreciative, and rightly so. In one of the final scenes, the heroine – despite the awfulness of her situation – begins dancing, joyfully, with the removal man who is taking her furniture away…we share in an unlikely feeling that all is not lost.

[And if you want to get the same sense of joy that only dancing with abandon, no matter what, can provoke, try watching this

Dance Moves for Life, huh? …thanks Pablo!]

Molodist Film Festival prize winner with Natasha Vasylyuk of British Council

Molodist Film Festival prize winner Gabriel Gauchet with Natasha Vasylyuk , Deputy Director – British Council Ukraine

After the success of Gabriel Gauchet at the Molodist Film Festival,  the British Council’s New British Film Festival is about to open in six cities around Ukraine.  Gauchet, a graduate of the National Film School in London, won the top prize for his short film The Mass of Men. Originally French, he now lives & works in the UK, and British Council support enabled him to attend the prize giving to pick up his award in person.

The New British Film Festival is presented with ArtHouse Traffic who run the Odessa Film Festival, and the highlight for me will be Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant.  The film received 5 star reviews when it opened in London 3 weeks ago, and tells the story of two vulnerable children living in Bradford, who end up working for a scrap metal dealer.

British Council Ukraine are working in partnership with UNICEF to present special screenings of the film to mark International Children`s Day in Kyiv, Odessa and Donetsk; which enables UNICEF to raise the issue of the challenges faced by vulnerable children, and fuel crucial discussions amongst decision makers, journalists, business leaders, artists and the general public in an attempt to find solutions for the benefit of children in Ukraine, where nearly 100,000 children live or work on the streets; and 95,000 live in care institutions.

picture of golden globe

At the monastery, with one of the Ukrainian national symbols, kalyna, growing in the background

The promise of eternal life in the hereafter provides, for some, an escape from the harsh realities of life in the here and now.

This week I visited both St Volodymyr’s Cathedral – one of Kyiv’s newer (and best loved by locals) churches, built in the nineteenth century and covered in beautiful murals; and I took a wander around the outside of the Mykhailivskiy Zolotoverkhey Monastery.

picture of crosses

Crosses and domes for sale

Which led to the discovery of where you can buy those golden domes that sit on top of almost every church in this city.

Look, for just 11,500 UAH (about £850) one of those domes can be yours!

I also discovered a whole new park at the top of my street, so here’s a new view of my local church.

Chapel with Andriyivska Tserkva

Chapel with  the church, Andriyivska Tserkva, in the background

Sophie Villy, singer songwriter

Sophie Villy, singer songwriter

My weekend ended at a great gig from a talented singer/songwriter, Sophie Villy, of Georgian & Ukrainian heritage, at the Small Opera, a great venue. 

There  were around 300 people to see her; and, unlike in the UK, there were quite a few children there with their parents, which made for a really different atmosphere than you’d get at the same sort of gig in Manchester.

The Small Opera was built in 1902 and used to be the cultural centre for the tramworkers from the tram depot next door. It’s now in a state of disrepair that makes it atmospheric, and increasingly dangerous; and sadly, its future is uncertain as this article makes clear: Small Opera in decay. I was invited to the gig by Lera Chichibaya, presenter of The Selector in Ukraine, the British Council’s radio programme broadcast worldwide on local host radio stations, who will herself be playing at Wednesday’s Opening Party for the British Film Festival.  See you there, if you’re in Kyiv…

Derry to Kyiv, via Grayson Perry & the Turner Prize.

Adrian Street and his father, 1973 (photo- Dennis Hutchinson) Dennis Hutchinson 2012

Image: Adrian Street and his father at Brynmawr Colliery Wales, 1973 © Dennis Hutchinson, from Jeremy Deller’s exhibition

My recent orgy of visual arts, which included visiting Izolyatsia in Donetsk (subject of an earlier blog), saw me visit the Modern Art Research Institute part of Ukraine’s National Academy of Arts, for their latest exhibition: “Industrial Eden” is the 6th project under the Ukrainian platform “New Directions”, in which more than 30 artists present their vision of utopia built on boundless faith in the scientific and technical progress. The exhibition included large-scale installations, newsreel and documentary video, photography, and painting, and there are panel discussions with artists and curators.

Meanwhile on my desk here sits the picture above, from Jeremy Deller’s exhibition which opened back home in Manchester the week I left, and which explores the impact of the Industrial Revolution (reviewed here: Creative Tourist reviews Jeremy Deller at Manchester City Art Gallery.

Both came to mind when I was listening to Grayson Perry’s recent BBC Reith Lectures (3. Nice Rebellion, Welcome In) – in which he argues that art has lost its ability to be revolutionary and truly innovative (if indeed that’s what we want our art to be)…artists no longer drive innovation and change, it’s technology that is radically altering the way we see and interact with the world.

Perry warns his audience in Derry/Londonderry, currently basking in the positive impact of its year as UK Capital of Culture, that artists are now “the shock troops of gentrification” – and he urges Derry, and other cities that have invested in culture, to ensure that they maintain affordable spaces for creative people to live and work even as the “dead hand of the property developer moves in” to once bohemian areas which have become cool because artists have occupied previously undesirable or derelict space.

Grayson Perry was awarded the Turner Prize in 2003 and is the first contemporary artist to deliver the BBC’s Reith Lectures -still available to download via BBC I-player for radio, which I can get (but TV isn’t available to those outside of UK). He is best known for his ceramic works, print making, drawing, sculpture and tapestries as well as being a flamboyant cross-dresser. (I think he’d love the glam rock cross dressing of Adrian Street!)

Nominated for this year’s Turner Prize is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye who I met at the Pinchuk Art Centre in Kyiv on Friday, where her first solo exhibition in eastern Europe opened, on the back of her winning the Future Generation Art Prize. (The competition is open to all artists up to the age of 35, and applications are invited via

Lynette’s painting practice involves creating one canvas per day, and if not completed by the end of the day, the painting is discarded. Coincidentally, her work is also currently being displayed in Derry as part of the Turner Prize exhibition there. Listen to this account from yesterday’s Pure Culture show if you want to understand more about her work and can’t get to either Kyiv or Derry: BBC Radio Foyle: Pure Culture review of Turner Prize nominee, L Y-B.

Crucial to a healthy arts scene is critical debate, and support for artist development. And there’s not much state support for either here in Ukraine.

1003715 10151513228037021_623939075_nI met the dedicated team at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CSM) who run Korydor the only independent magazine in Ukraine encouraging critical discourse around contemporary culture; and when money allows, they do projects in the public realm, including one earlier this year at the location of the former Yunist factory in Podil, where I live. Which explains why I had come across a temporary cinema, sculpture, music and a little coffee stall in a derelict space just behind my flat, on one of my evening wanderings. CSA organised SPACES: Architecture of Common [Ground] in May, after working with local people who were opposing plans for a new shopping centre being built there.

During the past few years, Kyiv has seen aggressive property development and, with that, the all too familiar destruction of both historical sites and public space, so CSA’s project aimed to develop strategies of revitalization of urban spaces through art practice, and thus to create better dialogue between big business interests and local citizens.

“Ukrainians just start to learn to invest in new knowledge, new experiences, in art, literature, film as with current political situation it becomes more and more clear that big politics and big businesses are caught in a vicious cycle of power games, and funding culture is too big of a luxury for them. In such conditions (self)education, mutual support and desire to change the surrounding reality become one of a few ways out of the fatal Ukrainian circle, where all great ideas and initiatives disappear.

For three years Korydor has followed these principles by touching upon the most critical and burning social and political issues through culture: we write about the quality of life, censorship, human rights and rights to creativity, public dialogue and cultural policies, nationalism and social consensus. We have educational projects: we post videos and transcripts of lectures and discussions, organized by CSM and partners, publish translations of important articles from foreign magazines and online publications, work with young journalists and critics.”  Korydor

As this statement makes clear, the conditions here for small independent organisations are very tough, so it felt very good to connect with 3 Ukrainian women so committed to supporting socially engaged arts practice that aims to stimulate people to actively work together to change their city, and safeguard public spaces.

And I hope to do some work with this team – we are planning a presentation for journalists and cultural commentators and artists about the experience of British cities in the North of England, so that they might learn from our mistakes and our successes.

I will be pointing them towards the work of artists and curators like Michael Trainor, one of the artists who kickstarted the redevelopment of Manchester’s Northern Quarter – Northern Quarter stories; and Kerenza Maclarnan, whose work with Buddleia or in North Manchester may offer inspiration.

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And towards the story of Urban Splash, an unusual property developer from the North of England committed to high standards of architectural design (and community engagement) in its regeneration projects – and in Tom Bloxham, a chairman who understands the value of the arts in the public realm and was Chair of Arts Council England: North West.  Check out his story via Transformation Perhaps the government and some of Ukraine’s oligarchs could learn from this story before too much of Kyiv’s old city disappears.

Visiting Donetsk

I left Kyiv for the first time this week.

Sadly, most of the journey was in darkness, now the clocks have gone back...

Sadly, most of the journey was in darkness, now the clocks have gone back…

A 7 hour express train ride across flat farmlands to the Donbas, the industrial region of eastern Ukraine, where factories and mines – or rather terricones (slag heaps) as the visible evidence of the mining & mineral extraction below – dominate the landscape.

In the heart of the Donbas is Donetsk, a city of more than 1 million people founded by a Welshman, John Hughes from Merthyr Tydfil, who set up an iron works and coal mines there in 1869… the city was known as Hughesovska or Yuzovka until 1961.Ukraine’s mines remain dangerous places to work, and fatal accidents underground are not uncommon – safety standards are not high and equipment is outdated. Check out Hughesovka if you want to read more of the story of John Hughes.

Liverpool is big in Donetsk

Liverpool is big in Donetsk

For an industrial city that flaunts its wealth with a main street full of luxury shops, there’s a surprising lack of cultural venues…one municipal “art museum”, an Opera House that employs a full time company of more than 500 people (and presents just 9 performances a month!), and some strange references to Liverpool.

for fans of alive music...

for fans of alive music…

And yet, at the site of a former factory which produced insulation materials for the whole of the Soviet Union, there’s an amazingly exciting contemporary arts project, IZOLYATSIA Platform for Cultural Initiatives.

Director Paco de Blas shares his enthusiasm for the abandoned spaces now used for exhibitions

Director Paco de Blas shares his enthusiasm for the abandoned spaces now used for exhibitions

The new Director, Paco De Blas, and Communications manager Olga Yefimova both kindly gave up a morning to show me around the site – where exhibitions populate dilapidated buildings, and artworks created through ambitious residency programmes and collaborations with world class artists are visible/audible.

I particularly liked Leandro Erlich’s Invisible Train – an audio piece that creates the sensation, through sound, of a train rushing past on the overhead pipes that crisscross the site.


Huddled in rooms around the factory were groups of artists at work, and IZOLYATSIA is home to IZOLAB, Ukraine’s first FABLAB a small scale digital fabrication workshop with open access to high end equipment like 3D printing, and an environment dedicated to experiment, play and research.

Project manager Konstantin Leonenko showed me a prototype pasta robot, and I discovered there’s a whole world of pasta architecture out there – where engineers & architects are using pasta to design and research new constructions! Check out this spaghetti bridge structure which weighed 98gms, and supported a load of 466kg before it collapsed

pic of giant samovar

Giant samovar at the site of the Art Fair

Thanks to Paco de Blas, Olga Yefimova and everyone at IZOLYATSIA for making one Creative Consultant for the British Council feel so welcome.

A deer made by one of the former employees stands watch over the site at the top of the slag heap that dominates the landscape

A deer made by one of the former employees stands watch over the site at the top of the slag heap that dominates the landscape