In summer 2020, Pro Helvetia Moscow launched a FastForwArt open-call; we were looking for projects that could offer new formats of cultural exchange in the drastically changed world. At that moment, international artistic network became especially fragile and, more than ever, we felt the need to create the relevant language to ensure professional communication between Russian and Swiss art communities kept going.
In collaboration with our partners, artists and curators, we started exploring the new formats; could they be something more than common zoom conferences, online broadcasting and digital copies of the offline events. Within FastForwArt open call we received over 60 project proposals from all over Russia and managed to support the most experimental and challenging ways of co-creation such as virtual music rooms, video games, digital audio tours, spaces of care and other unusual forms of cooperation. Online residencies and virtual spaces for artistic collaborations became the whole new ground for experiments in addition to FastForwArt initiative.
At the moment, when the FastForwArt open-call winning projects have been carried out and online residencies became almost habitual, it is important to look back and summarize the immediate results, reflect if the initial ideas were successful, and select the formats for interactions that are in line with the current reality. Were the suggested formats innovative and «working»? To find the answers to these questions, we have released an online dossier «Cultural Exchange: in Search for New Formats». It is a special project consisting of text, podcasts and online discussion, where together with an art researcher Alina Streltsova and the curator of the fulfilled projects, we reflect on and evaluate the results, as well as weigh further opportunities for international cooperation in the field of culture. This online dossier is an invitation to join a paradoxical experiment, i.e., to look back to see the future.
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Digital-illustration: Victor Tyapkov
In the summer of 2020, with international borders closed and exchange programmes suspended, the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia launched the FastForwArt open call in search of new formats for interaction between arts professionals and cultural institutions during the pandemic. Artists, curators and musicians submitted suggestions as to how we could all continue working under these new conditions. However, on closer inspection, none of the points on the lockdown cultural agenda were truly new. The need to give up frequent flying is environmental, not merely brought about by closed borders. The rapid digitalization of all spheres of life has been anticipated since the beginning of the 2000s. The overwhelming number of exhibitions and other cultural events, the demand to produce more and more in an attempt to retain audiences, has already driven many arts professionals to burnout. And in the course of the pandemic, this very demand extended to cultural production in the digital world. It was not yesterday that the art community first recognised the need to regulate its interactions with the audience in a different way. So what about COVID-19? Someone has aptly – and ironically – baptised it as a universal flavour enhancer: it has helped us learn what we have known all along. While the world is waiting and hoping that vaccination and herd immunity will bring us back to normal, it is becoming increasingly apparent that ‘back to normal’ is not what we need anymore; what we need is something else.
Essentially, FastForwArt is the question ‘What else should it be?’ that we addressed to artists and musicians. It is easy to notice that all the winners of the open call put their worlds together at the intersection of virtual and physical spaces, where artists from Switzerland and Russia can meet, experiment and collaborate. It is important to note that they constructed these worlds according to their own grounds and principles, having offered not so much a format for collaboration as their own templates of alternative universes.
Intersections of the real and virtual worlds
The most fascinating aspect of all these virtual worlds is their relationship with the physical one. The You, inter Alia project curated by Alina Belishkina and Valeria Mostovaya gets the closest to the physical plane of our existence. It comprises a set of electronic maps of two cities, St Petersburg and Geneva, with tags, by clicking which you can listen to the monologues of artists connected with a particular location. For example, Aliona Tereshko strolls across Kanonersky Island, Olga Zhitlina finds herself at a bus stop on Marata Street, across the road from the Russian State Arctic and Antarctic Museum, while Françoise Caraco is on her way to the lingerie hardware store once owned by her great-grandfather.
This structure is close to promenade theatre, digital-audio performance walks, with the Remote series by Berlin’s Rimini Protokoll Theatre being the best example. It turns out, this genre is popular and even characteristic of St Petersburg, where one can effortlessly come across individuals listening to Charles Bukowski’s monologues about love, booze and creativity in their headphones in a pub on Rubinstein Street. It is important to note that such walks, disguised as performances, plays or even sports quests, are aimed at fostering the viewer’s interaction with the real urban space, which becomes part of the game, its co-creator and collaborator.
The combined creativity of the individual and the city nourishes the performance. Nevertheless, Lera and Alina’s project deliberately refers the viewer to the lockdown realities, when all movements were reduced to looking at satellite maps and panoramas. Alina Belishkina shared how she wandered around her building listening to an audiobook amid the pandemic and felt how the city space was falling apart and she found herself not even in an imaginary space but in a space beyond imagination. It was this experience of being in a non-place that she wanted to convey through her art project. And it is plain to see that the monologues of the participating artists are only very loosely connected to the tags on the map – at first, it may seem that you can walk the entire route with headphones on, but the artist’s voice suddenly overtakes you, abandons the city space, dives into memories or, say, invites you to overcome blank page anxiety and start writing.
Even if we take into account that these texts were intended for walking around real-life St Petersburg, which never imposed a strict lockdown unlike the European countries, – we get a second city as an image of an inaccessible place: Geneva for those in St Petersburg, St Petersburg for the Swiss. This is when one realises that one finds oneself not in the digital space of satellite maps and not in the streets of a real-life city but in virtual limbo sandwiched in between.
Digital copies of life
What the lockdown did highlight was the difference between arts professionals who voluntarily chose online as their work environment many years ago and novices who came to the digital world to stay in touch with their audiences while museums and galleries were closed. The former view the virtual world as a space of possibilities that easily overshadow everything the physical world has to offer – in digital reality one can be anyone or anything, not affected by gravity. The online environment has its own set of rules, which are fundamentally different from solar-terrestrial physics and should be learned in their own right. The latter are not always tech-savvy, and, when using digital, often fall into the trap of trying to imitate the world that we have lost.
This is how video games ‘for those who have not travelled for a year’ start to pop up, this is how 3D-copies of museums’ physical walls appear on their websites, and this is how a crypto asset which records ownership of a digital artwork, NFT, comes about – even though born-digital art has long prided itself on the fact that it can exist on all computers across the globe and belong only to the virtual space itself, and not to a specific buyer, which has been a form of asserting freedom until now. Is it any wonder that the pioneers of net.art look down on those who predict the advent of digital art, and experienced curators pen articles to warn their colleagues against copying museum and gallery spaces online. The proliferating digital productions get bad press from theatre critics for mimicking the traditional mise-en-scène and refusing to explore and implement the abundant opportunities of the online space. Nevertheless, today’s success of online surrogates, fake emotions and fake experiences is not likely to last. Firstly, because, as previously mentioned, many arts professionals did not transfer to digital willingly and are only prepared to see it exclusively as a substitute for what is not available for the time being. Secondly, because it turns out – or it merely seems so – that there is a lot of free money that any art can fetch without providing any level of quality or depth.
The issue of authentic and inauthentic experience that the online provides is another subject for exploration. And when asked whether we are doomed to copy our ‘real’ life or could come up with something fundamentally new, artists do not reply in black-and-white terms. An example of this is the Spatial ElectroAcoustics Laboratory X Space Emulation Art Label (SEAL) project by Boris Shershenkov. His team also developed an online emulator of a giant concert hall or museum lobby, which allows visitors to access different music rooms. For example, one of them recreates a part of a landscape park in Pavlovsk near St Petersburg, with the score by Loïc Grobéty. Whereas another one displays a staircase in the Moscow Stanislavsky Electrotheatre’s lobby with the music piece especially made for this space by Christian Müller.
Nonetheless, imitating reality is a completely intentional gesture when launching the conversation on what digital space is and is not. What do the words ‘artificial’, ‘natural’, and ‘authentic’ mean in this context? For instance, the actual park in Pavlovsk would look like a pocket of pristine wilderness to the untrained eye, but the SEAL artists Marina Muzyka and Daria Gofman picked it as an object of their installation precisely because it is an illusion: each tree in Pavlovsk was carefully selected like paintings for an exhibition and the alleys were designed to resemble a walk through a museum.
The creators of the project arrive at the conclusion that, when shaping their new habitat, individuals always attempt to recreate the old one which seemed natural and authentic. And today we inhabit an entire hallway of copies, each inaccurately channelling the one that came before. Boris Shershenkov believes that the insurmountable restrictions that digital novices face and are unable to tackle reflect laws of nature. They keep us from accurately recreating the physical world and urge us to come up with something different, something new.
The same applies to sound: the studio works with acousmatic music. The listening experience always depends on where the individual is located in relation to the sound source. With this knowledge, the composer can arrange sound not only in time but also in space: create music that will alter depending on the listener’s location and movements. It may appear that such pieces can only be performed in physical space, since the experience of the audience is, first and foremost, physical. However, concert halls shut down due to the pandemic, and even without it there are very few studios equipped for performing acousmatic music in Russia – as a matter of fact, there are very few of them in the world. Therefore, SEAL tried to recreate this experience online. The digital fragment of the park in Pavlovsk is the graphic environment that hosts the listeners’ digital avatars, allowing them to move around and experience acoustic shifts and turning the music interactive.
This experience is elevated in the virtual room with the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre’s staircase. The Swiss composer Christian Müller created a nine-channel piece especially for this space two years ago. Naturally, it is no longer available at the intended location. But in this case, the artists reflect on the lost and irreversible: architect Daria Smakhtina scanned the real staircase and recreated it online so that by moving the avatar around the virtual room, one could listen to the music piece and experience a new facet of it every time one enters the room. Yet the space itself literally disintegrates in front of one’s eyes, breaks up and fragments, displaying and exposing the workings of our unreliable memory.
Video games as online exhibitions
Another age-old conversation about the virtual world as a space of new possibilities has been going on in the video game environment. For many years critics have been declaring that art has invaded the gaming territory and the borders between the two have been erased. To confirm this they inevitably refer to the fact that MoMA started acquiring video games for its collection back in 2012. This is true, even though the curators place them in the department of Architecture and Design – the museum boasts a spectacular applied art collection – and they also display video games as part of design exhibitions. What matters, though, is the fact that the communities of arts professionals and game developers are insular, closed off and inaccessible, and there is no direct conversation between them. Yet there are two completely different languages, which, ideally, one needs to master equally well to develop games, discuss them and even play. So far, there are few such specialists. Because of this, gamers leave angry comments under articles about non-games or art games, having discovered that they were deprived of the opportunity to change the course of the game, asking for clear collisions and interesting mechanics thinking that their absence indicates artists’ reluctance to learn the ropes of this new medium and make it their own as opposed to following a specific creative purpose. Things are the same when it comes to the arrival of new arts professionals online – experienced users charge newcomers with ignorance.
There are only two possible solutions here. One of them requires the artists to admit that this new space operates under a different set of rules and they need to acquire the necessary toolkit and not rely on third-party developers. They also need to accept that the new space implies a different dynamic with the audience: it is the author of the project that tries to get the viewer’s attention, not the viewer that is required to stand on tiptoes to read a label. But there is another approach voiced by the NotLand curator Irina Aksenova. She believes that the ontological feature of art is to encroach on someone else’s territory and impose its own rules, recreating the relationship system between the artist and the audience inherent to the art world, i.e. that the colonial approach is at the root of contemporary art. It is hard to disagree that contemporary art has become contemporary through the practice of expansion at the expense of other disciplines’ territories: when the artist comes to the theatre, cinema, urban space and makes them their own, imitating and projecting its rules onto another realm.
NotLand is an art project that uses game mechanics to display artworks by Russian and Swiss artists Anna Rotaenko, Till Langschied, Jürgen Baumann, Sasha Zubritskaya and Alexey Borisov. They deliberately focused on the non-game tradition, where the visual environment and ways of moving inside it resemble those in video games, but the system of relations between the viewer and the artist belongs in the institutional context. On starting the game the viewer plunges into an infinite ocean and, having mastered the movement keys, embarks on a search of artworks which constitute insular and autonomous worlds of its own: one can find themselves in the garden of unearthly delights with purring strawberries (you need to climb into a giant cream jug to get there), or in a cave system with torches, mysterious bas-reliefs and screeching music.
Perhaps, it is time we introduced another dimension to this conversation – that of online exhibitions. The discussion on how to organize them was prominent in the art world in 2020. They touched upon a whole range of issues associated with copying physical museum and gallery spaces and 3D virtual tours. Curators and researchers who have been working with digital-born art for many years warned their colleagues against creating artificial and surrogate experiences when skeuomorphic space provides infinite opportunities for playing with exhibition formats and coming up with the most outrageous exhibition environments imaginable.
The definition of an online exhibition is very broad. It encompasses different formats, including video art delivered by USB stick that drops around the world, a series of artist-created instructions that users could enact at home, as well as URLs written in chalk on London’s house walls that take you directly to the artists’ pages. In this sense, the FastForwArt projects are all kinds of online exhibitions, but it is NotLand that is viewed as a logical argument in the dispute between copies and originals, offering its unique display environment. This project works even better as an online exhibition than a video game since it conveys a comfortable and comprehensible system of relations that caters to a museum visitor.
Redefining relationships with the viewer and time
Redefining the relationship with the viewer is the cornerstone of many online projects and a long-overdue need, since the endless onslaught of arts events pulling the audience in different directions and exploiting its fear of missing is not sustainable for either the audience or the art community. The FastForwArt projects offer solutions, and they are complex. For example, You, inter Alia requires that the viewer immerses themselves in the artists’ monologues for hours on end, reads their correspondence, and eventually records their own monologue, which will also be added to the map.
Let’s just say that the project does not delude the audience into thinking that they can familiarise themselves with it on the go, tick it off the list and move on to the next one. The curators insist that the viewers slow down, only to discover that their time has not gone to waste and that time pressure turned out to be an illusion imposed by the current social system.
The P2P project by the New Music Studio collective and its curator Sergei Chirkov requires just as much time and attention. As it happens, they invite the listener to spend more than eight hours of their life listening to a short piece of music, tracing the full cycle of its existence from the composer’s initial idea to the final performance. The process of working on a new piece usually looks like this: the composer gives the musicians the score, they learn it, the conductor contributes his or her own interpretation, and finally the piece is performed in front of the audience. This time the Swiss composer Annette Schmucki submitted a collection of words arranged in thirty-two lines instead of a musical text, explaining that she was not interested in the meaning of the words but in the sounds, the movements of the tongue in the oral cavity, which she interpreted as a dance. Whereas Serge Vuille gave the musicians three unrelated video clips. In both cases, the musicians had to figure out how to play these. The entire process of discussions, proposals, trial and error, and communication challenges experienced by Russian musicians and Swiss composers was made public, and with good reason. After all, even if a concert of modern music is preceded by an introductory lecture about what the listeners should expect, the kind of inner work that is still required of them implies a skill, which can only be acquired and honed with time and effort. So, despite the new experience that both the music collective and the composers gained in the project, it is the audience member who gains the most, developing their musical ear, which would not have been possible otherwise.
Care practices in the art community
The Unaimed Sessions project by the curator duo League of Tenders solves the problem of interaction with the audience in a totally different way. Elena Ishchenko, Maria Sarycheva and invited curator Joana Monbaron vocally and defiantly refuse the public the privilege to attend their discussions with artists. Their carefully put together sessions are kept as private as possible at a time when the majority of panel discussions, public lectures and private views are increasingly opening up to the public – and amateur criticism. Circling back to the discomfort that arts professionals experience when pressured to perform in public, it would be safe to admit that we all feel as vulnerable and exposed as ever, with our kitchens and bedrooms being turned into public spaces. While in the past the audience that attended art events was ready to spend time on a trip to a museum at the very least, now we find that even this minimum threshold has been removed.
People who, in other circumstances would have had something to say, are being forced to spawn lukewarm themes and vague messages. The League of Tenders usually explores the subject of care in relation to communities or groups, i.e. persons with disabilities, who, apart from requiring accessible ramps, also need to feel comfortable when surrounded by people who are different from them. In this case, the care is directed at the community of arts professionals, who, despite performance-induced stress they experience, still want to meet up and talk about things, including complex and painful subjects. An example of this is Sascha Huber and Katerina Verba’s conversation about colonisation and decolonisation, addressing historical injustice and reparation, family history, collective trauma and revenge, without the necessity to fend off verbal attacks from aggressive audience members. They publish transcripts following these conversations, but in fact, the goal of such community-based projects is not publishing documentation on how the artist worked with a group of people, old ladies from nursing homes or employees of a large corporation, – it is fostering a new comfortable environment and those new connections between people that were born in the process, one can even go as far as to say that people transformed by this experience are the end result, the ultimate work of art.
Another care practice pertinent to the art community is online residencies. Although supported by Pro Helvetia, they do not officially fall under the FastForwArt initiative, but they fit perfectly with the concept of commissioned virtual spaces where artists can meet and whose existence is defined by their own set of laws as an ideal model of a new reality. In the pre-pandemic world, placing an artist in a new context was the cornerstone of the art residency concept. It was believed that to create a work in its own right an artist must experience new things, new landscapes, an unfamiliar reality, explore them, meet other people, maybe collaborate with them. This scenario is not compulsory, but it enriches both the artist and the location. Besides, a studio was an important factor – art residencies provide artists with the space to work that they may not have otherwise.
In this context, online residencies that were forced to emerge in 2020-21 can be viewed as a surrogate for missed relocation opportunities. To some extent, this is true: Anna Chefranova, the curator of residencies for illustrators, believes that artists now need a safe space where they can openly discuss current difficulties, not only pandemic-related ones but also, for example, the issues of censorship and self-censorship. And Anastasia Patsey, curator of the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Centre’s International Art Residency in St Petersburg is convinced that if a residency is unable to provide a studio for the artist during the pandemic, it could perhaps financially support the artist in renting one. From her point of view, this new online format should not be called a residency because it could lead to an attempt to study the local context through a Zoom window, which utterly defeats the purpose of an art residency. On the other hand, the chance to familiarise the artist with the local environment in advance of their arrival is valuable on its own. I have noticed that artists frequently complain about the absence of a test visit to the residency. Of course, residency managers usually forward future participants information kits or links to help them navigate the new environment, but again, the sheer pressure of the projects in the pipeline does not allow the residency staff to carry out this stage of preparation to completion, and the artist ends up with a very vague idea of where they are going. I believe that online residencies became a means of understanding how to run an offline residency and, once the borders open, it will remain its integral part. Perhaps the example of art residencies is the best final confirmation of the idea that it makes no sense to wait for things to go back to normal. We finally have the motivation to think about what we want to happen next.
Author: Alina Streltsova, art critic, editor-in-chief of “Iskusstvo” – The Art Magazine.
In six episodes of the «FASTFORWART. Cultural Exchange: in Search for New Formats» podcast art critic Alina Streltsova, together with curators and artists, reflexing over new formats of international cultural collaboration on the example of the winning projects of the FastForwArt open call and other recent initiatives of Pro Helvetia.
1. The first episode is a talk with the curator and artist Boris Shershenkov, the author of the Spatial ElectroAcoustics Laboratory X Space Emulation Art Label (SEAL) project.
2. The second episode is a talk with the curator Irina Aksenova, one of the authors of the NotLand project, created on the edge of contemporary art and game design.
3. The third episode is a talk with the curator and musician Sergei Chirkov, the author of the «P2P On Air» project – a series of online sessions with the participation of musicians from the Studio for New Music and two Swiss composers Annette Schmucki and Serge Vuille.
4. The fourth episode is a talk with the curator and artist Alina Belishkina, the author of the idea of the project “You, inter alia” – interactive virtual walks in St. Petersburg and Geneva.
5. The fifth episode is a talk with curators Elena Ischenko, Maria Sarycheva and Joana Monbaron, the authors of the idea of the «Unaimed Sessions» is a series of online discussion between Swiss and Russian artists, creative teams and artistic initiatives.
Podcasts are available on the following platforms:
Spotify (not for all regions)
production of English version of podcasts:
Executive producer – Vladislav Kupryashin
Sound recording — “Central Sound Publishing House»
Voice actress — Kay Rommel
Postproduction — Partisan Studio (partpost.ru)
Online discussion “Cultural exchange: in search of new formats” – the follow-up meeting of the grantees of the open call FastForwArt, organizers of online residencies and representatives of Pro Helvetia Moscow.
The participants of the meeting are reflexing over the implemented projects, assess what has been done and discuss the further prospects of international cultural cooperation, looking for an answer to the main question of the open call: what are they, new ways of sustaining artistic dialogue and exchange?
Alina Streltsova, art researcher, editor-in-chief of “Iskusstvo” art magazine
• Boris Shershenkov, curator and artist, author of the Spatial ElectroAcoustics Laboratory X Space Emulation Art Label (SEAL) project,
• Irina Aksenova, curator, one of the authors of the NotLand project,
• Sergey Chirkov, curator and musician, author of the “P2P on the air” project,
• Elena Ischenko, Maria Sarycheva and Joana Monbaron, curators of the “Unaimed Sessions” project,
• Anna Chefranova, curator of the online residence for illustrators “Window”,
• Valeria Mostovaya, teacher, artist, curator of the project “You, inter alia”,
• Natalya Ruchkina, Head ad interim of Pro Helvetia Moscow,
• Anastasia Makarenko, communication officer of Pro Helvetia Moscow.