Churchill may have actually been on the money when he described Russia as an enigmatic, paradoxical place. In direct contrast to the provincial villages that dot most of the country, Moscow seems to be operating at warp speed: old buildings are merrily knocked down whilst new malls, hotels, sushi bars and plazas are going up at an amazing rate. They’re about to hook up wifi in the metro, and even talking about connecting the entire city, so the masses with ubiquitous iProducts will never find themselves distressingly disconnected from the main hub. On the other hand, it’s perfectly possible to go through the wrong door by mistake and find yourself in grey foyer with a burly babushka jealously (and quite inexplicably) guarding it. You might be forgiven for thinking you’ve somehow stepped back into the 1980s.But what are the future artists and creatives in this city doing? I chatted to 5 young students, all in their twenties, who are studying visual creative subjects at the British Higher School of Art and Design, about their views on creative industries in Russia and their hopes and aspirations for the future.
First of all, what does it mean to be a creative practitioner in Russia in the 21st century?
From a Western viewpoint it’s easy to fall back on long-held beliefs about a highly repressive society. However for the generation of younger creative practitioners, the notion of Soviet artist unions and government controlled art is long redundant.
Perhaps there is a different mentality here amongst those people who lived and worked during the Soviet Union, but now young people are more open, more evolved. (Andrey)
I think our background definitely affects who we are as people and artists, but perhaps this idea of a really separate identity for people in Eastern Europe is outdated and old-fashioned. Globalisation has had an immense effect upon creative people. Now we are more similar than ever before. (Olga)
One aspect that often isn’t touched on when we consider how Russia’s creative circles have started to mirror those in any given country in the world is whether the total dissolution of all those government-organised groups and unions has resulted in the absence of any sense of unity or camaraderie amongst younger generations of artists.
…things like art and design are separate, not united like in the Soviet Union. It’s like every person is out for themselves and only to make a profit. I was at ‘Art Moscow’ (an annual art fair) recently, and the whole thing was very commercial. (Sasha)
Olga, however, is glad to see how the variety of high-level facilities becoming available for young creatives to study, exhibit and network:
Right now everything in Moscow is probably at its most interesting point. It’s good to have our own place here at the school, and to see that now there are contemporary venues for exhibiting, attending exhibitions and going to lectures: like Artplay, Strelka, Garazh, Winzavod and so on.
Danil believes that Moscow is increasingly international, with a multitude of possibilities as influences for artists:
I don’t consider myself particularly Russian – we all live in a big bowl of cultural soup. To create something new in these times actually means to take pieces of everything and throw them in.
The general belief here is that whilst Russia has an incredible cultural legacy and at points exerted immense global influence, it is still lagging far behind other countries when it comes to contemporary practice.
Well first off, I have to point out that Moscow is not really ‘Russia’, so we should view it differently to the rest of the country. In terms of what is happening in Moscow compared to the West I’d say our design and illustration scene is weaker. We have less people that do their work really well. However I’d say that the situation has really changed for the better over the last 10 years or so. (Andrey)
A particularly relevant question for most creative students in Moscow at the moment concerns their ability to find fulfilling work and other potential problems with a market that can be classified as emerging. Views were mixed on the potential after graduation, with some viewing the inadequacies of the local industry as opportunities:
A practitioner’s ability to find work should depend on their portfolio, and perhaps also whether they’re a hard worker. Actually I think it’s easier here for people who are good designers, because we aren’t competing in a market that’s over-saturated, like in London, for example. Plus it’s definitely possible for us to pick up freelance work from abroad. (Olga)
A lot of people leave Russia. Those who stay here may end up stuck in a dull position that won’t challenge them. I think it’s definitely better to go out on your own – maybe set up a small studio with friends. Plus I think it’s 10 times more difficult for fine artists trying to make a living here. (Andrey)
Artists react to things like global economics and ecological problems. This is what affects themes and concerns. (Margarita)
I think the West has an enormous effect. (Olga)
I think our industry is controlled by a small group of people who started doing this years ago. Of course it’s possible to meet young, enthusiastic people at exhibitions, but they have no influence on the market. (Andrey)
The question of whether to leave or stay seems to be one, which pre-occupies many younger people here.
I often ask myself this, and it’s a popular discussion topic between my friends and I. On one hand it makes sense to leave, but on the other, I am connected to Moscow – it’s a great little world. It still seems like there is a lot of potential here. But the thing that makes me uncomfortable here is the political situation – I don’t feel safe. (Olga)
I would definitely leave if possible. It would mean I could gain high level skills, and I could find something to really challenge me. I don’t know if I’d move away permanently though. (Andrey)
I’m not thinking about emigrating. I like it here. (Danil)
I also wondered whether these students were interested in politics at all. The responses were mixed.
I guess maybe I’m disaffected when it comes to politics. This political system is ridiculous… that’s actually the best word I have for it. 4 years ago I already knew who would be president. About a week ago we all found out officially. It’s kind of depressing. (Andrey)
…I used not to care about these things, but then I started spending time with people older than me, and they discuss these things regularly. I think there are different types of worlds in Moscow. One of them is younger people who are inspired by the West. They think that everything is ok. They’re insulated, but they shouldn’t be. They should know the constitution and the law. It’s like they live in a bubble. (Olga)
I was also interested to know what motivates these students to create – apart from deadlines. The answers seemed similar to anything that you might hear in London, New York or Berlin:
I can’t live without it. From a young age I was always doing something: making things – clothes for my dolls, writing stories – I used anything I could get my hands on. (Olga)
Of course I’m inspired by other creative people with amazing work. I’m also fascinated by average people. I study them on the way home – what they look like, how they behave. (Andrey)
Art is created with your soul. All nationalities have a world inside them. (Margarita)
by SUSIE GARDEN
[Susie Garden is our newest contributor. Born in Australia Susie teaches English at the British Higher School of Art and Design in Moscow, Russia. For No New Enemies she will be writing about the Eastern-European art scene.]