Shining Light into Darkness

photo of two people

Sophie and Mike volunteered to make the Star and the Moon which led the procession

In 1982 artists from the UK’s leading celebratory arts company, Welfare State International, went to Japan, in a visit supported by the British Council. Inspired by the lanterns of willow and tissue made by Japanese artists, they brought back the idea, began experimenting with ways of applying a simple technique to ambitious poetic visions, and shared their knowledge widely. Hundreds of thousands of people around the UK have made lanterns and carried them in processions since; and Walk the Plank’s contribution to the XVII Commonwealth Games Closing Ceremony in Manchester (2002) – borne directly out of WSI’s legacy in so many ways – gave lanterns a new global TV profile.

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Young Learners aged 14-16 made more than 100 lanterns

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.           Dr Martin Luther King

 Aware that 2014 is the eightieth anniversary of the British Council’s work in 110 countries around the world, and wanting to mark the end of my time in Ukraine, a lantern procession seemed the right thing to do.

My faith in the appetite of Young Learners to participate in making and carrying their own lanterns was proven when one hundred of them signed up to take part in workshops led by artist Helen Davies (Walk the Plank).

With the support of their English teachers and staff at every level, we unleashed a riot of glue, tissue paper and masking tape in the main Customer Service area of the British Council’s Kyiv office. This visibility was key to the success of the project – and the willingness of the British Council’s team to accommodate the artist’s needs, and the hubbub of 20 youths getting stuck in every evening, was admirable.

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Tissue paper, willow and glue everywhere

Staff brought their own children to make lanterns on a Sunday afternoon, Helen took her lantern-making kit to satellite teaching locations in Kyiv’s suburbs, and by the end of the workshop programme, more than 100 lanterns were hanging from every ceiling of the office (as storage space is limited).

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Procession passes the church on Andriivsky Uzviz

Musicians from Ukrainian street band Toporkestra joined the procession, which was led up the hill of Andriivsky Uzviz by the dancing star and moon, to the park where our young people broke into an exuberant conga before the giant birthday cake was cut, and valiantly distributed to [almost] everyone who took part.

I hope that the images of those teenagers – their faces alight with smiles – offer an alternative and more optimistic picture of Ukraine than we are currently seeing on the news, as the fragile grasp of the new government slips under the pressure of (pro-)Russian provocation. A friend, when asked by a colleague from the British Council in Russia, described her feelings thus: “…. since you asked about how I am feeling about the situation in general – well, to be honest, we all feel very traumatised. The general feeling is being concerned and threatened by a possible invasion from another country that has amassed a considerable army on our borders. Also to have a chunk of our country suddenly taken away when we were at our weakest. This is all very hard to live with, but we are trying. Dum spiro spero.”

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv...

One of the lanterns ended up at the Maidan in Kyiv…

Under pressure, and with resilience, the British Council Ukraine’s staff – who I now feel I can also call my friends – continue to do an amazing job of trying to build trust, and create the conditions for better co-operation between countries… by working with artists, those involved in education, and those who want to learn English.

We all try to do what we can. I hope that writing about my time in Ukraine over the past six months has offered some insights that have been valuable. There’s much that I haven’t yet covered, so I may continue to add stuff, but this post is written from the UK as I have handed back the keys to my ant-friendly flat in Kyiv, used up all my blue metro tokens, and waved goodbye to Ukraine for the timebeing. I will be back soon.

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Museums of Now or Then?

Children playing under giant silk flag at Maidan

Children playing under giant silk flag at Maidan

I was recently asked by Kraina magazine to share some thoughts in response to the idea of a ‘Museum of Maidan’; and last weekend I took a marshrutka to Pereyaslav Khmelnitskyi, the “city of museums” which boasts at least 27 different museums.

Sign for the Museum of Bread

Sign for the Museum of Bread

I only managed to see the Museum of Bread and the Museum of Rushnyk, both contained within the outdoor Museum of Folk Architecture and Folklife, a picturesque location to which various historic buildings were relocated when the Dnieper river dams were built and several villlages were submerged.

Entrance to Rushnyk Museum

Entrance to Rushnyk Museum

The open air museum, and the various small museums within, were maintained with care and with a real attention to detail within displays. So there were fresh rushes on the floors and dried flowers were chosen to match the rushnyk (embroidered cloths) hung on the walls.

To western European visitors, the museums might seem old fashioned – no interactive flashy displays, no high tech gadgets to persuade hyperactive children that learning is FUN; just well-used historical objects placed in cases, or displayed within very old buildings, supervised by even older women. But I found these museums to be totally engaging – purposeful, with a singular sense of identity; intimate and small enough not to feel overwhelmed; and loved.

It made me think about how to ensure museums are places of passion as well as curiosity; of fierce learning and a sense of connection to what’s gone before; arousing the same passions in the viewer as in the collector, and thus defended for the future?

an informal Museum of Maidan is already happening in the square

an informal Museum of Maidan is already happening in the square

“Like Ukraine now, any ‘Museum of Maidan’ needs to face forward whilst respecting the past.  As well as preserving heritage, we need to make space for new conversations in and about the public realm, and for new traditions. How can we use the ‘Museum of Maidan’ to encourage people in Ukraine to participate in, and thus redefine, culture as something that speaks to us about life now?   A Museum of Now, as well as a Museum of Then.

I was particularly impressed by the spirit of creativity maintained throughout the adversity of the Maidan revolution…how people managed to subvert state power and the armed police by making small acts of individual protest that were a creative response to the dominant narrative of showing strength through combat: the piano-playing men and women on the frontline, whose fingers kept playing in temperatures below minus 20; the painted helmets bringing the tradition of ‘petrykivka’ to the protesters’ orange hardhats; the women holding mirrors up to the ranks of policemen, inviting them to look closely at who they were.

Window for blogI propose that the Museum of Maidan is not a place but a series of Acts of Creative Protest that celebrate the collective spirit of Maidan. Rather than a building, full of objects, could there be an annual call out for ideas which results in actions? Ideas shortlisted and winners agreed by a committee of experts who allocate resources to each year’s Maidan Museum of Now?  These small gestures of protest would honour the past by staying relevant to the present, responding to the specifics of new times and new places.

Tributes of candles and flowers brought daily

Tributes of candles and flowers brought daily

Another idea would be to make the Museum an event which involves both a temporary display of objects in public, and a shared civic curatorial responsibility.  People would be invited to bring an object of their choice – something which symbolises the spirit of Maidan to them – which would be displayed in Maidan Nezhalezhnosti for one day only. It might be something they made, or a photo, or a newspaper cutting. On that day, others might contribute by doing something in public like singing a song, reading out a poem, playing a tune for those that attend.

The final action would involve people leaving the square,  each person taking a single object away with them and looking after it at home until the following year… when the Museum opens again, for one day only.  The Museum is then both public, for a very short time, and also private, back in your home, with one object in your care…so the people are the curators, and the custodians of the Museum,and the event serves to remind us that we are responsible for looking after our society as carefully as we do our own homes and family.

Rushnyk on display inside a traditional cottage

Rushnyk on display inside a traditional cottage

Just as the work to create a better society in Ukraine carries on, and isn’t over just because a corrupt President has gone and there’s a new Parliament, so the struggle to create a better world continues beyond this country’s borders as well as inside. I would like any Museum of Maidan to connect with people engaged in peaceful struggle elsewhere: in Thailand or Turkey, Venezuela and Egypt. So could the Museum be something very small that contains fire or light which moves around the world –  kept alight by the care of those who are in the frontline, as a way of reminding us all that we do better if we think about others before ourselves?”

(This text was published in Kraina magazine, 20/04/14; a current affairs magazine published weekly in Ukraine)

 

Podillya to Crimea

pic of lake and grotto

Sofiyivska Park in Uman, named after Sofia, a young Greek woman reputedly so beautiful she inspired her husband to build her this park in central Ukraine.

International Women’s Day is a significant celebration here – I’ve never seen so many people on the metro with flowers, we all got a day off work, and I made a trip to Uman (which happens to rhyme with Woman) by bus with an English teacher friend, Anastasiia.

Our destination was Sofiyivskii Park, created by a Polish aristocrat for his wife, Sofia, on her birthday in 1802. As a child, Sofia had been sold to a Polish Ambassador by her widowed mother; and was bought and sold throughout her life before she married Count Potocki.  She ended up having a tempestuous love affair with the Count’s stepson, which drove the Count to leave Uman, never to return. You can’t buy love, or at least you can’t buy everlasting love, even if you can make an everlastingly lovely park.

pic of lake

The Park was designed by architect Ludwig Metzel “to outshine any other park in Europe”, and it is indeed beautiful. We explored the gardens, grottoes and lakes; saw a red squirrel, warrior beatles, and a woodpecker; and found a man selling handmade wooden trinkets.

An impromptu celebration with rum
An impromptu celebration with rum!

His friends invited us to share rum and chocolate in the sunshine: so we drank 3 toasts – to Women in acknowledgement of International Women’s Day, to Ukraine, and to Love. You could almost hear the Polish Count turning in his grave!

060And from there to Vinnitsa – where we were greeted by a strangely lonely wedding dress on display in the bus station; and a day spent visiting the Museum of Nikolai Pirogov, an eminent surgeon whose home and pharmacy are now open to visitors.

Pirogov's MausoleumBut before the Museum, the Mausoleum – when he died aged 88, his wife had him embalmed, and we were taken into the cold marbled depths of this chapel to view the doctor’s body, now 130 years older, on display in a glass-topped coffin, surrounded by bouquets of plastic flowers.

Fishing in Vinnitsa

Fishing in Vinnitsa

Inside Pirogov’s home, we saw displayed the tools of this surgeon who had tried to mend the men wounded & shattered in the Crimean Wars of the mid nineteenth century. Outside the doctor’s estate today, men fished in the sunshine. I saw the first snowdrops, and my second red squirrel of the weekend; and all seemed peaceful.

But in Crimea now, in 2014, the Russian army is tightening its grip and the schism between Russia and Ukraine is widening.

I was actually supposed to be visiting Sevastopol in Crimea at the weekend, but the trip was called off because of the unstable and worsening position there. The referendum that’s been called for March 16 by the Crimean regional council is illegal, and the self-appointed leader of Crimea has no mandate to represent anyone. People who define themselves as Russian in Crimea number about 56%, (Ukrainians and Crimean Tartars make up about 34% of the region’s population) and it’s unlikely that even all of them want to become part of Russia…but the outcome of this week’s referendum will be rigged.

pic of waxworks

Waxworks of Dr Pirogov at work in his pharmacy

Most of the Crimean Tartars were deported by Stalin, but some have returned since the region became part of Ukraine. But since the arrival of Russian troops, many fear attack.

So do we face the prospect of another Crimean War? At least one colleague at the British Council thinks so and has left his job to respond to the call up by the Ukraine Army who are now training new conscripts for battle.

“Along the whole line of the Sevastopol bastions, which for so many months now had been seething with an unusually active life, had seen heroes released one by one into the arms of death, and had aroused the fear, hatred and latterly the admiration of the enemy forces, there was now not a soul to be seen. The whole place was laid waste, uncanny – but not quiet: the destruction was still continuing…….

Surging together and ebbing apart like the waves of the sea on this gloomy swell-rocked night, uneasily shuddering with all its massive volume, swaying out along the bridge and over on the North side by the bay, the Sevastopol force moved slowly in a dense, impenetrable crush away from the place where it had left behind so many brave men, the place that was entirely saturated in its blood; the place which for eleven months it had held against an enemy twice as powerful, and which it had now been instructed to abandon without a struggle.”

Leo Tolstoy, Sevastopol in August 1855

Culture 3.0 – rebooting the arts in Ukraine

Culture 3.0 lecture, for the Centre for Contemporary Arts, in partnership with the British Council

Culture 3.0 lecture, for the Centre for Contemporary Arts, in partnership with the British Council

I was invited to give a lecture as part of the CCA Foundation‘s Culture 3.0 series, which is aimed at cultural commentators, arts managers and journalists. This module focused on the Creative Economy, and was curated by social innovator Iryna Solovey, co-founder of the platform for social innovation, the Big Idea.

Around 50 people turned up to hear my presentation on how culture can help build community – drawing on my own experience with Walk the Plank and work which engages people as participants as well as spectators. I looked at Manchester as a city that has chosen to invest in culture as a way out of industrial decline; and at the Manchester Day Parade, which has offered a platform to engage diverse communities in a visible celebration of their city.(If anyone would like a copy of the notes from the lecture, please message me)

Of course, the challenge is to work out what elements of my experience, and that of a city like Manchester, can be usefully shared here  – so that Ukraine can fast track its cultural capacity building and learn from our mistakes. How much of what we/I do is transferable? And what expertise gained within the western European cultural landscape is it useful to translate to an eastern European context?

I had a chance to think more about how one can support people to be active in  building sustainable creative communities in the workshop which I led the next day.  The 15 academics, writers, artists and practitioners who took part (shown at lunch in the picture below) were especially keen to hear about practical steps, and tips on best practice in terms of working with disengaged communities. And they have challenged me to think more deeply about how the British Council might work in partnership with them.  Skill sharing and support for emerging creative thinking in the local context is crucial, as well as moments of inspiration from the new and the best UK artists and companies.

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The appetite for learning and professional development here is remarkable – I don’t see that same hunger in the UK, where I think many institutions (and people) have become complacent – and I will take home with me a renewed desire to keep myself in a state of willingness to learn.

It’s worth mentioning there’s not a lot of personal learning going on linguistically, despite my initial good intentions to master the basics of Ukrainian! However, I have found out that there’s only one word (in Ukrainian and Russian) to cover the things at the end of your hands and feets – so instead of fingers and toes, there’s just пальці (paltsi). And at minus 23 they get very cold very quickly when taken out of a glove, whatever they’re called.

Woyzeck, by George Buchner, directed by Dmytro Bogomazov

Woyzeck, by George Buchner, directed by Dmytro Bogomazov

I was invited to see Woyzeck at the Kyiv Drama and Comedy Theatre last week, and went along with Roman Markolia, director of the Sevastopol War & Peace Festival who is in Kyiv to direct a show at another theatre; and Olya Matviiv, a colleague from British Council with an interest in theatre.

Woyzeck: live music played by the actors featured throughout

Woyzeck: live music played by the actors featured throughout

Designed by Petro Bogomazov, who had taken part in the British Council-supported theatre workshop at DramaUA, the show was a fantastic example of great ensemble work from skilled actors, and conjured a darkly grotesque world using live music, highly stylised performance & choreography. Although I didn’t understand much of the text, my attention was held throughout.

And an unexpected encounter in a local restaurant last night led me to having dinner with a Good Witch and a Wicked Witch…two stars of the Kyiv Players’ recent show: The Wizard of Oz which I saw before Christmas.

Kyiv Players Wizard of Oz, directed by Elizabeth Kourkov

Kyiv Players Wizard of Oz, directed by Elizabeth Kourkov

I didn’t have a chance to write up that visit, so bumping into George and Achi gives me a chance to post a photo of them in action, not as English teachers at the British Council, but in costume, on stage, for this very entertaining show,  an annual event in the Kyiv theatrical calendar, and directed by one of the British Council’s teaching staff here in Ukraine.

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. http://www.artcult.org.ua/en/project/12

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 www.futuregenerationartprize.org).

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 http://buddleiacommissions.wordpress.com/ 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 http://www.urbansplash.co.uk/about-us/our-story/our-book. Perhaps the government and some of Ukraine’s oligarchs could learn from this story before too much of Kyiv’s old city disappears.