The sun rises above tiny villages. These clusters of buildings seem to have few connections to the outside world except perhaps the train, which might stop once or twice a day. Larger centers are laced with dirt tracks for heavy, dusty vehicles. Amongst abandoned homes are fascinating buildings of intricate design, some crumbling to the ground, others beautifully painted and renovated; vegetable gardens, and chopped wood, cement blocks, power plants and telephone poles made from concrete. All is surrounded by the vastness and beauty of forest and swamps – little disturbed by human intervention. Houses are surrounded by picket fences, as are the graves in the cemeteries. For what purpose do the fences stand? Boundaries between humanity and nature? Boundaries to define what people consider sacred? A feeling of humanity at its fullest permeates the air all through the cars of our long train. We are all in this together – this 23-hour journey from St. Petersburg to the first Arctic Art Forum in Arkhangelsk, Russia.
The Russian adventure began when Ekaterina Sharova and Alexandra Nenko (co-founders of the Arctic Art Institute) invited both artArctica and Katulavatanssit (also see article Katulavatanssit goes Iceland) to visit their respective events; the Arctic Art Forum in Arkhangelsk – organized by the Artist’s Union of Arkhangelsk – and ARTS4CITY (International Spatial Development Forum) in St. Petersburg. Ekaterina was present at the artArctica festival 2016, where she facilitated a discussion with artists on the question of connecting center and periphery through the arts. The Arctic Arts Institute is one of artArctica’s partner organizations, and collaborations will continue in upcoming events.
RUSSIA & THE USA
For many Americans, Russia is a vast, cold and dark empire, associated with fearful authoritarian regimes and a strangling lack of freedom. When I told my American friends that I was planning on traveling to arctic Russia, their responses were: “I can’t say I envy you”, “Be careful!”, “People will steal your valuables”, “If you dance on the streets, you will be arrested”. The visa application for American citizens was no more reassuring. It required me to state every country I had visited in the past 10 years, every job I worked in the past two years, every post-secondary school I had attended, my parents’ names and contact information, any possible military experiences in the past, etc. Thus, I left Helsinki with some doubts.
ARCTIC ART FORUM
The Arctic Art Forum opened with a seminar on design exchange. We heard different perspectives on design from a variety of researchers, artists and designers. Ava from Abanti Design told the story of how she returned to her home in Karasjok, Norway to found and run a successful Saami fashion label. Her advice to aspiring designers was “Follow your heart, be the weird one and do it your own way.” Other fascinating and unexpected stories arose, such as textile artist Margrethe Kolstad Brekke’s search for the mythical 1-meter-long hair of the long lost Lofoten Island Horse.
The discussion following the forum brought up questions about the lives of artists, designers and craftsmen in Arkhangelsk and beyond. As government support for artists and craftsmen is limited or non-existent in Arkhangelsk, they must find other ways of making a living. The new trend towards market economy is bringing new opportunities, and also new questions. How will the artistic traditions of the past be bridged with current societal and lifestyle changes? Do Russian artists and craftspeople in more remote regions such as Arkhangelsk need to become more commercial – change their way of thinking about the work they create?
This line of thought continued in a further discussion on the artist’s lifestyle, and how artists, craftspeople, curators and other cultural workers find ways of making a living when government support is not readily available.
Over the course of the three-day forum, the program was packed full of presentations, exhibition openings, and performances from Russia, the Nordic countries, Kyrgyzstan, Eastern Europe and even Alaska. We learned about Norway’s contemporary art scene, and Oslo’s new Human Zoo museum, numerous festivals, national parks of the Russian Arctic, Intercult and the performance art scene in Sweden. Perhaps the most important moments took place not in the presentations themselves, but in the moments of meeting in between.
Organized by the Artist’s Union in Arkhangelsk, the Arctic Art Forum was made possible due to the hard work of Christina Dryagina (co-curator), Ekaterina Sharova (co-curator), Ekaterina Bazhan (accountant) and Olga Popova (director of the Artist’s Union in Arkhangelsk), and its numerous contributors.
STRANGERS IN THE STREETS
Urban Hitchhiking (a concept launched by Lauri Jäntti and friends in Helsinki, 2016) is about unexpected encounters in an environment where collective rush often hinders the mental space for extemporaneous meetings with new people – the city. As opposed to traditional hitchhiking, in UHH the hitchhiker does not stand still and await a vehicle, but instead the company of a fellow walker. The way this is done is by placing oneself in the midst of pedestrians and sticking up a thumb or a sign. The aim is to share a short (or long) yet important moment with an occasional passerby. Urban hitchhiking can be done by whoever at whichever city in the world.
Due to my frequent, and often intense conversations with strangers in the streets – all over the world – I have been somewhat skeptical towards participating in Urban Hitchhiking jams. In Arkhangelsk, however, I was convinced to try. One member of our group was picked up by the leader of a project building the world’s largest elephant made of plastic bottles – by the North Sea – soon to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. On another solo venture, I was invited to join two wedding parties cheering on their loved ones outside of a church. Although language barriers limited communication, my presence was warmly welcomed. Overall, people were unexpectedly friendly and open to communication. No one in our group experienced hostility of any sort. When I mentioned that I was American, I received only smiles.
In our street dance experiments in St. Petersburg, passersby gave clear signs – either in gestures or facial expressions – of whether or not they wished to join the dance. Many graciously danced with us for a few moments, or then took our hands for a moment to smile and say thank you.
From my current perspective, in the USA, I look back on the Russia trip with fond memories. When I hear a negative remark about Russia, I take the opportunity to tell about our experiences in the streets of Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg, and how Russians are just people, just like Americans. Very nice people in fact – with much inspiration, and dreams for a more peaceful future for all of us.
We may not be able to change our massive bureaucracies all at once, but we can change the way we choose to greet strangers in the street, the way we choose to look for the beauty and the positive possibilities in the environment around us, and the way in which we think. Artistic gatherings – like the Arctic Arts Forum and ARTS4CITY – have the possibility to create free spaces, inside of which people can work together towards better understanding the subtleties of the human condition. Of course basic power structures, and constructs of identity – whether it be nationality, gender, etc – will always be present, but on the personal artistic level, it is at least possible to be aware of these issues in oneself, discuss them with others, and perhaps create something meaningful.
A sincere thanks to Ekaterina Sharova, Christina Dryagina, Ekaterina Bazhan, Olga Popova and Alexandra Nenko, for your important work, and for inviting us on this adventure; and to all of the wonderful new friends we met along the way! Thank you to Arttu Peltoniemi, Lauri Jäntti, Katarina Sjöblom, and Laonikos Psimikakis-Chalkokondylis for who you are – so many unforgettable memories – and again thanks to Lauri for the use of his lovely photographs!
Singer, Cultural Facilitator