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The Future Is Now: Conversations with Leyli Gafarova and Elena Ishchenko

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Read the conversation with Elena Ishchenko

Podcast by Leyli Gafarova

Simon Dove: Hello, and welcome to The Future Is Now, a podcast series from CEC ArtsLink. My name is Simon Dove. I'm the executive director of CEC ArtsLink. And for this podcast series, we asked ten independent artists and curators from different parts of the world, whom we call the Future Fellows, to talk about the current context of their work and to share their vision for how they see the future of arts practice. In this episode, we hear from Leyli Gafarova, based in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Leyli Gafavora: Hi. My name is Leyli. I'm a filmmaker and, since 2016, have co-founded a self-organized, community-based cinema and art space called Salaam Cinema. We do very process-based work, organize different cultural events, mainly concentrating on audiovisual and performative arts. I'm based in Baku, Azerbaijan, as is Salaam Cinema. It emerges from local needs because initially we felt there was a space like this missing in the city: an art space which is not an institute, not a gallery, not a clean white wall space, but a space that we can enter and feel like home.

Since 2015, alternative spaces started to emerge in the city, mainly self-organized forms of local businesses. So cafes where youngsters could go and sit and be themselves. But in terms of our spaces, there was almost none. And definitely no space which would practice a horizontal structure. So even if there were some independent cases, having a male director was often an important factor.

We live in a society that is very much based on hierarchies—your gender, social class, sexual orientation, and even ethnicity play a big part of what you can achieve, even if you have access to culture. So somewhere unconsciously organizing the space was a reaction to the status quo of the cultural state in Azerbaijan. At the same time, it was a reaction to gentrification of the city.

A lot of historical buildings were demolished and made place for these terrible skyscrapers. Even historical buildings were not meant for culture but became space for traditional things like KFC, etc. Out of these realities… and I would not say we had this huge academic conscious plan; it was very intuitive. Okay, we miss such a place, let's do it. And we start and then people start to come with paint and brushes and they wanted to contribute. This is how it became a community space.

There is a huge list of different obstacles. I will just name a few. Unfortunately, we're still in this seventeenth-century situation where you have to be privileged to be able to practice arts. It's mainly people from artists’ families or financially privileged families who can practice art. As I mentioned, hierarchies based on gender and social class play a huge importance in the accessibility of arts, but also with gender.

For example, when we organize educational programs, a theatre laboratory, for half the young women participating, their parents should not know that they're coming to a theatre class. Because if their patriarchal conservative fathers find out that, four times a week, they're dancing with boys, and they have a certain idea about what acting is for a woman, this is a problem. I would not say I have an answer right away how we as artists can fix or solve it but we can definitely address it.

Another problem is institutional discrimination. We have several cases, even in the art institute well-known, well-respected older generation professors, film directors, allow themselves to comment things like: “A woman can never be a director” or, “As a woman, you will make no chance,” or make very deliberate distinctions between gender. I'm not going to even talk about sexual orientation minorities. This is completely out of the question to discuss. We as a collective represent very fluid forms of identities. We want to create a more tolerant, equal, inclusive, and safe environment in the arts so that diversity of people feel safe and have access to practice culture.

As artists, what can we do? A lot. We can address this stuff in our own practice, whatever medium we're working in. More and more, my trust in the institutions—doesn't matter where—has become less and less. I've never felt safe in structured systematic institutions that deal with very different and concrete approaches. There should be more noninstitutional institutes, run by artists with forms of horizontal approach, which is super difficult. There are a lot of beautiful cases we can read about these processes of commoning and self-organized platforms in different parts of the world. But very little we hear about difficulties they are fighting every day because horizontal process is a long process, demands you constantly question your own ego.

It demands a constant active form of attachment to this ideology. And when you have a diversity of people, of needs, of characters, whether someone is an introvert or extrovert, it makes it so difficult, but also so interesting to get to know yourself better, an experiment on a micro scale of how a society can live together, representing different ideas. Because of this autonomous format, we allow ourselves to make mistakes, are constantly trying different strategies in our programming, our approach, our selection process, our development process.

We see the situation of COVID: all these crazy lockdowns, financial problems, people stuck at home sometimes with their very conservative families. We also went through war. That was a huge impact on our psychological state, really difficult. So we drew a line on all our plans and said, “Okay, let's think about how we can create a radically different approach.” For example, this theatre lab we're doing now for several months: we are learning to improvise with dancing and acting two times a week, where the main goal is to have fun. This was like, “Okay, whatever we do, whether you want to do any performance at the end, or performance each week, we are deciding it all collectively.”

But the main purpose is to forget about everything happening outside; at the moment, just concentrate on your well-being, your self-care, taking care of each other, and have a lot of fun. We are not often allowed to have fun. We have to be constantly so productive, create all of this stuff, be everywhere. We forget to have fun. This was not our initial idea, but through the process we understood, the main idea is let's have fun together in a radical form, and see what happens.

It's too early to say what kind of impact it will have. I'm a very optimistic person, but trying to remain realistic in terms of the realities that I'm living in. This twenty-year-old me who could believe that we can change everything and it should be very grandiose and so on—that part does not exist anymore. We concentrate on individual cases. If there is one person who would change somehow or feel better, for us, it's already a huge thing. We, as an organization, are also participating. There is no line between the participants and the organizers of the laboratory, which is super important. We are opening up; we feel better psychologically.

A headshot of Leyli Gafarova.

Leyli Gafarova.

From childhood, you are told what to do, not go find out what you want or go find yourself. The school, your parents, they have programmed your life: “This is what you have to do, and you should not go out of this norm.” When you ask people their opinion, they have lost this touch to tell, not because they have nothing to say, but because they have not been allowed to say what they think or feel for such a long time. It doesn't happen within a click. Even that is a process to open up, to talk, to express yourself, your opinion.

Whatever this theatre will be—I don't know what kind—it'll be a documentary theatre, a traditional theatre, or form theatre. We will just bring different kind of methodologies, but the participants will collectively decide; there will be no director. When we were even talking to mentors that we wanted to engage locally, they just could not understand how there could be a theatre without a director. “That's not possible,” they would say. Our aim is to show that it is possible, and we are going to do it.

I definitely see changes because even now we have self-organized forms in regions, which was not happening before; before it was all concentrated in the capital. We are witnessing more and more participation. This Soviet past is also very interesting, because previously we would think people with the Russian-speaking background, which are more often representing some kind of elite class—let's say that they were more active in terms of arts. But in terms of self-organization, nowadays we see Azerbaijani-speaking youth who is very active also in the field of activism, not only in the cultural field. Culture and activism is starting to collide with each other. Before it was two very different fields.

With artists, my personal opinion is, we have to create solidarity. That's really missing. We are all separately working on our personal thing, trying to survive. We see each other very little. There are some typical divisions of these different bubbles, let's say, but the public is ready to support.

A lot of people have been pessimistic about public support. But it was there when we had threat of demolishment of our building after we started for a few months. It was with public and community support that we were able to save the building. Our only power, only strength, was the support and energy of the community and people coming, bringing food, water. We were staying there overnight.

I define self-organizing a platform as an art project itself. The approach should not have these big, typical defining words. For me it's an art project on itself. Before we were like, “Okay, it's an inclusive space, but first of all, it's a safe space.” So there were some kind of limitations to it: who can come in. It means it's not that inclusive but now we want to try a very radical form of inclusivity and see how would that affect our safety or would that change something.

The huge thing is that since 2015, young people with no art education—no political or even high social background—started to be more active, to take more control of their practices. This starting up of small, even alternative businesses, selling their work, creating an Instagram page, having a TikTok account where they are expressing themselves, this internet played a good role that inspired people to do blogging, share their ideas, discuss. That's an important factor that we are going towards some kind of open society.

That feminism has been also a strong topic in debate is something great. We are having a lot of debate, but now we are hearing about those problems. That's important, but in terms of culture, oh my God, there is so much still needs to be done. I can only speak of small-scale successes: some self-organized platforms practicing culture and bringing it to communities that didn't have access before.

It's not going to be easy, but like I said, I have not made a very big, definitive goal. I'm interested in experimenting with different strategies. Sometimes I don't want to read about other cases or studies that have been made to these practices because I want to develop my own intuition. In terms of, for example, horizontal education: first, I started reading about it, and then I was like, Okay, how can we implement these practices here? The situations are completely different. And then I was like, pardon of my French, fuck it. I want to just try. Let's try through super open communication.

What's going to happen if we try to communicate everything? Let's try to communicate our fears, our anger. Let's try this strategy. Okay, this strategy is not working. And then openly discussing that this strategy is not working, and then asking, what can we do else? Then listening to different proposals. This process is fantastically interesting. And I cannot say it's going to work, or we will achieve something huge, but we are definitely learning so much, and so much about ourselves that it's priceless. I'm optimistic. We all should be optimistic. Otherwise we cannot do anything. We have to believe, to dream and sometimes be crazy, and that's fine. And just do it and really, really believing.

Simon: You have been listening to The Future Is Now, the podcast series from CEC ArtsLink with support from HowlRound. All interviews and postproduction is by me, Simon Dove, executive director of CEC ArtsLink. The specially composed music is by the extraordinary bass player and composer, Shri. This podcast is part of the ArtsLink Assembly 2021: Future Fellows, supported by the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Kirby Family Foundation, John and Jody Arnhold Foundation, and of course, generous individual donors. These podcasts are available to listen to, or download the transcripts at our website, www.cecartslink.org, or at howlround.com.


Podcast by Elena Ishchenko

Simon Dove: Hello, and welcome to The Future Is Now, a podcast series from CEC ArtsLink. My name is Simon Dove, the executive director of CEC ArtsLink, and for this podcast series, we asked ten independent artists and curators from different parts of the world, whom we call the Future Fellows, to talk about the current context of their work and to share their vision for how they see the future of arts practice. In this episode, we hear from curator Elena Ishchenko, who's based in Krasnodar, in Southern Russia.

Elena Ishchenko: My name is Elena Ishchenko. I'm a curator and researcher based in two Russian cities—Moscow and Krasnodar, a city in the south of Russia—and I work as a curator and manager in Typography Center for Contemporary Art. It's an initiative which goal is to create and open an inclusive platform for dialogue and provoking discussions, supporting communities, and developing contemporary arts in the region, in the city. As a researcher, I'm interested in self-organized art initiatives and collectives, principles of their work in theory and in practice, and infrastructures of contemporary art in Russia, especially in non-capital cities.

It's really great feeling that working in self-organized initiatives and communities gave me. So as a researcher, I started to explore these self-organized art initiatives from 2014, and the main point about these collectives and initiatives, the organization, is all of them are based on collectives. And the history of art and initiatives is more about individuals. It's super important to imagine all of this process, the collective, because now, pandemic shows us that collectives and collective solidarity is important for our days.

Always have weekly meetings to discuss our events, our activities, but also we try to discuss our ideological principles and basics. Some weeks ago, I realized that every institution and organization can be structured in another way. Every museum can be horizontal and without hierarchies and be governed without departments and so on. This is the examples, these self-organized initiatives can show that everything can be organized in another way.

The Typography Center for Contemporary Art I work in is a very good example of such kind of initiative. Another one I really appreciate and admire is Moscow International Film Festival, which was organized by Vladimir Nadein, a director, manager, and producer. But last year they decided to restructure their organization and start to work as a horizontal initiative. It's very brave experience, but the same time, the festival, which held this year in August, showed that it can work perfectly without any director.

It's very important not to see this self-organization as a main goal, because we should not forget the principles, and our dreams maybe even, what world we want to live in and how it should work, how all the structures and infrastructures should work. Sometimes it's really very inspiring that you can behave yourself as you already live in this imaginary world. But at the same time, sometimes it's frustrating because you still live in this world.

Any self-organized or horizontal organization, you are more open and attentive to others and more attentive to what surrounds you.

This term is inclusiveness, yes. Artists and maybe institutions play really important role in this process, and the strategies of art institution are very important here because they should be more inclusive and provide equal opportunities for different artists and participants of the process.

And not only for star famous, recognized artists, but for everyone, to be more attentive to local context and explore what's going on, and what artists live and work around your city, your neighborhood, et cetera. This question of quarters, which is really urgent now, it's important to keep in mind. It's not only about men, women, artists balance in your project, but we also need some, imaginary maybe, quarters for artists with children, artists from indigenous people, and who lives and works in non-capital cities. Every time we are making some projects in Typography Center, we always think to include artists from non-capital cities, and our city and region, into the project. Maybe it's easier to find budgeting and money for projects with famous artists, because these events will have better media coverage. But what is really important is to create these inclusive platforms and events and projects.

I see in Russia this division between what institutions doing and what artists and independent curators and small institutions really need, and there were very great discussions last year around the NEMOSKVA project, organized by Alisa Prudnikova. It was always about representation of the regional artist, and that's one of the main topics there: every artist in regions need this big project to be represented, to be visible and so on, so forth.

But is it really the thing that art needs? There are lots of artists, and of course there is this career that we see as something we should relate to, that you should graduate from school, then you should sign a contract with a gallery, then you should do a museum exhibition, then you should go to Venice Biennial. And this is like a prominent career of the artist. But of course there are lots of artists that do not want this career because they just want to do their project, want to live in interesting surrounding, and want to work and have some relative payments for their work. This is really more important than this big project, this international visibility and so on.

Unfortunately now in Russia, lots of these things we should do by ourselves, so it's self-organized, and one of the important initiatives that were again started to discuss during the pandemic is the basic income. This discussion was initiated by a performance artist and dance artist because their work is most immaterial, and they do not have object to sell in art fairs or show in galleries. If we cannot gain this goals as basic income, we still should talk about it, to make it closer.

A headshot of Elena Ischenko.

Elena Ischenko.

Yeah, this system should be transformed. What is important is to make our desires more visible for this system. Because of course, pandemic shows that art market system, and this system of big institutions, doesn't work for everyone. It's super exclusive. It creates possibilities only for few, few, few artists and for few curators and few researchers. If you want more sustainable and just society, we should reimagine it and create another platforms.

Also really important is the redistribution of resources. The majority of resources, especially in Russia, is concentrated in Moscow. And in Moscow, this huge institution, because if you're talking about contemporary art scene in Russia, there are two big institutions of contemporary arts. The first is Garage Museum and the second is V-A-C Foundation. I appreciate them, and they do lots of important work, but at the same time, they concentrated these resources too. They need this project and structures to redistribute their resources, to support artists and communities and small organizations in other cities.

Today's world and today's situation is super interested, and I see this pandemic as a real source for our imagination, this situation where you can reimagine everything and try not to adapt all your activities, but try to maybe deny something in order to create something new, more interesting, and relative to our new circumstances we live in. But the same time, lots of institution and big project are really interested in keeping this old format.

For example, we are talking about this transnational communication, and it's important, but the same time, from the ecological perspective, it can be not so good because it's this carbon dioxide and carbon footprint and so on, but the same time I'm thinking about Venice Biennial. The people who go to this event for two, three, five days, just to see the same audience they have met three days ago in Berlin Biennial, it's awful. This amount of people who go to Venice Biennial, it's quite comparable to the amount of artists who go to the residences in Europe. We shouldn't deny these residences, but maybe we should deny these big international events that have nothing in common with local context, but which serves only this big capital, big institution, and their parties.

We should be more radical.

Last year, there is an initiative which I am part of, called RRR, like triple R. It's about regional art scenes. It's combined cultural workers and curators and artists from different cities in Russia, kind of a platform without any certain goals, but for co-communication. It really gives me and other participants the sense of solidarity and a space to communicate and share our project, our thinking, our ideas. It's a great start to be more visible and create other networks instead of these big institutions and infrastructures.

I'm here for three years, and I see how the situation changed. Every year, it's changing, every month. The audience started to be more interested in our project in contemporary art, and all these questions we are rising and bringing up.

I feel supported by my colleagues and by community. It's important to feel this solidarity, that I'm not alone. That's why this collective project is very crucial for contemporary art scene in Russia, especially because the sense of, and feeling of, solidarity is the thing that make you optimistic and motivates you and keeps you alive in this process.

So we shouldn't stop.

Simon Dove: You have been listening to The Future Is Now, a podcast series from CEC ArtsLink with support from HowlRound. All interviews and post-production is by me, Simon Dove, executive director of CEC ArtsLink. The specially composed music is by the extraordinary bass player and composer, Shri. This podcast is part of the ArtsLink Assembly 2021: Future Fellows, supported by the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Kirby Family Foundation, John and Jody Arnhold Foundation, and of course, generous individual donors. These podcasts are available to listen to or download the transcripts at our website, www.cecartslink.org, or at howlround.com.

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