Alena Papina is a dance artist, educator and curator, researcher of site-specific art, community developer and text writer, founder of Looks Like Dance Company. Her main interest relies in the field of space investigation throughout the body, as well as socially and politically engaged art, development of the contemporary dance community and interdisciplinary interaction with a wide range of subjects of knowledge.
At Rote Fabrik Alena continued her research on site-specificity both in theoretical and practical ways. Seeing Switzerland as a “safe space” during severe Russian protests and governmental reaction against them, Alena found a way not to fall into escapist touristic optics on existing surroundings rather than embodying these two colliding worlds – her anxious home country from Facebook news and peaceful foreign landscapes of Switzerland.
Pro Helvetia Moscow asked Alena to share her Swiss art-residence experience and tell her “artist-in-residence story”.
PH: What is an art-residence for you? Is it a habitual «working» tool, a space where you can get out of the routine environment, a place to carry out certain project, research trip, or a quest for something original, new connections, or….? What kind of residency vision is the most appealing for you?
AP: The trip to Zurich last spring was my first long-term international residency experience; I explored the format and tried every listed option. Now I am planning my carrier the way my projects could easily transfer from one residency to another, enriching my practices. Therefore, I deal with site specific art.
The priorities of the residency are the search for something new and the networking: you realize that the chance to be in another country in such a status is unique, and you want to use this opportunity in full. Given my journalistic background, I have always treated travel as a research trip. I always did my homework very carefully, read various guidebooks, used public transportation, tested food from local chain stores, met and lived with locals, tried to identify their daily routines, delved into the context through dialogues and observation of their manifestations in different life situations. In the case with the residency, there is a layer of cultural mission added up: I think it’s important to share the names and organizations that I have found, to build bridges, to make contemporary dance and contemporary art in general more visible.
I like being outside familiar environment, and especially in different time zones: forced loneliness awakens reflection both on my own practice and on the country of exploration. It also makes a productive effect on the work: less temptation to be distracted by everyday issues, more mental freedom, and inner permission to spend a lot of time on the actual process.
What exactly attracted you in the Swiss contemporary art scene and why did you choose the Swiss context and Swiss residence for your work?
I am impressed by Swiss multiculturalism and compactness: within just a couple of hours, you can find yourself in a different linguistic and cultural field, while remaining in the same country. The contemporary dance scene is rich in experimental artists who are interesting to collaborate and engage with. I felt that I was in an environment of more free like-minded people. I knew some of them personally before the trip, I had heard about some of them and some I knew in absentia. Their approach to planning looked motivating; for example, their attitude towards grant opportunities and constant tours in Europe.
In addition to working contacts, it was extremely important for me that the residency was in a place close to nature, and Switzerland is a real treasure in this sense. Even in bustling business districts, the air feels like at the country house. The proximity of the mountains and the abundance of lakes support the possibility of alternating active, work, and social phases with rest.
What were your expectations on your way to the residency? Which of them were accurate and vice versa?
Due to Covid-19, I had no intention to build any special expectations: it was obvious that only being in place would allow me to understand things, and the situation would constantly change. I wanted to get a comprehensive understanding of the dance community and cultural centers in Switzerland, devote enough time to my own physical practice, find an inspiring place and a collaborator for a site-specific project, make its video footage and arrange post-production, as well as travel thoroughly. This was what happened. The only problem was the reduction of the residence to 2 months instead of 3 — it felt like it took me long time to get started though there was not enough time for everything planned. Three months would be ideal timeframe to do everything without haste – perhaps then the post-production situation would not become so stretched in time as it happened now.
Inside the art-residency: how did you organize your artistic practice?
I correlated what was happening in Russia with my feelings of being in a safe place – neutral territory, as Switzerland identifies itself. I was looking for ways to express this through a specific place, I explored psycho-geography of the city a lot — and this is how I found MFO park in Zurich. I spent a lot of time there to understand how the routine of its visitors works, the ways it looks at different times of the day, I studied textures, details, and angles — in fact, all this later turned into my work with Fabienne Ehrler.
What seemed the most important inside the residency?
The infrastructure and interaction of Pro Helvetia offices with hosts were well established, this helped us save time on the logistics and building bridges between organizations. Many domestic issues were resolved in advance. The most valuable was the possibility of constant access to the studio any time, and I did not have to share it with anyone. But the most important thing in the residency was, of course, the people I met.
Coach assistance: how did the two of you work together? What, do you think, was the role of the coach in your art-residency experience?
I think it all depends on chance: either the match happens with the coach or it doesn’t. There can be various reasons: age, aesthetics, perception, individual character. It is more difficult to change the situation when a coach is appointed without any prior acquaintance – the choice is leveled, and you have to work with what you have. In my case, a complete match did not occur; I was pleased to communicate and spend time with my coach, however, I received full-time assistance with the right contacts that would be in my area of interest from another girl, a visual artist, whom I met by accident.
The balance of the research and “creative” part in the residency — how did you manage it? Which one was in your primary focus: research of the scene or artistic work?
In my case, a 50/50 split is appropriate: I gave the first month to cultural research and networking, and the second to my own practice, preparation, and production. Somewhere between the first and second months, I travelled, which combined networking and getting to know the culture.
How did you document your work in the art residency? Was it a part of your artistic diaries, or regular notes in the phone, or photos? What is your tool to capture the time in the residency?
During the residency, I collected my observations and insights via text apps on my phone and notepad (whichever came in hands first), recorded videos and took photos of both rehearsals and the process. Some of the insights and impressions in museums I voiced on the sound recorder.
I always take a lot of pictures and make posts and stories in my head but, unfortunately, I don’t always keep up with my own pace of life. During the residency, I shared my thoughts and photos via Instagram stories at @pap_pix and archived in the actual stories section marked by the Swiss flag under different headings. They are still available on the public domain; you can check them. I still want to go back to the photos I didn’t post, finish a few collections of stories, and post some full posts. Also, the idea of sharing the collected contacts on the Around Art website is still floating in my head.
It seems that there should have been separate days in the schedule aimed exclusively at reflections: days for memoirs, texts, analysis of photographs, graphic selections. After an intensive residency, I need a post-residency, a kind of transit that allows you to digest the experience gained and share it in a public format, for which there is always not enough time if you immediately get back to your regular working mode.
What were your main discoveries, insights that you «took away» with you at the end of your residency?
It is legitimate to be an artist. Dance performance, considered as conceptual and experimental art in Russia as a whole, is in a very marginal position, and a long stay in such a status as an artist undermines self-esteem, mental resources, and faith in your own interest. Recognition in another country and the opportunity to communicate on an equal footing with curators, producers, artists, critics, to observe their openness and keen interest in many ways gave me a lot of faith in my own projects and the strength to move on while being at home. Rather than experiments on the spot, I want to do more of the high-quality productions; a more thorough approach to working with light, sound, costumes, dramaturgy, inviting people to my own projects, finding funding for all this without any fear.
Echo of the residency: how does the residency experience resonate with your current practice?
Fabienne and I are still working on the presentation of our footage, therefore the residence is still not finished for me: we regularly keep in touch, discuss ideas, set deadlines, move the project to the presentation. The experience gained in the residency shapes my further artistic practice now: I first tried to work with the natural light change, soundscaping and costume setting that would reflect the site, and these trials became my base for further experiments and research.
What is your recommendation to the colleagues who want to apply for residency in Switzerland?
Here is my very detailed post in Russian. I hope it could be useful for those who will apply.
Photo (c) Alena Papina, Zurich, 2021