Kristina Sarkhanyants

South by Northeast: Music Festivals and the Cultural Cachet of Mid-Size Russian Cities

Because of the pandemic, the vast majority of large-scale European and American music festivals did not take place in 2020—and, most likely, will not take place in 2021. In Russia, however, festival life is gradually returning back to normal, and in addition to Moscow and St. Petersburg events already well known to music lovers, new local initiatives are emerging in smaller cities. The main difference between the 2020s and the previous decades is that the showcases of progressive Russian music are not only organized in the center, but also originate in the regions, bringing forth new names that later become quite noticeable on the national level. At the request of V–A–C Sreda, music journalist Kristina Sarhanyants analyze how horizontal initiatives are changing the face of the cities outside the conventional “center,” drawing on the example of two DIY-festivals from the very North of Russia (Inversion in Murmansk) and its South (Platforma in Nalchik).

Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas H. Campbell

The COVID-19 pandemic has gutted the global festival movement: in 2020, the majority of not only the largest international music festivals, but also local undertakings and showcases did not take place. It would be wrong, however, to claim that the coronavirus alone was the so-called last straw: debates about the crisis of music festivals as institutions, and not mere products of the entertainment market, have raged in the industry for many years. Every year, on the eve of the new festival season, journalists rant about the need for changes in the organization of such massive, complex events as Coachella, Glastonbury, Primavera Sound and Mad Cool. We need new ideas, formats and approaches, the pundits say. Well, the post-bubble reality has arrived — get to work and change things!

Meanwhile, the planet’s festival map has long been lit up with points where enthusiasts working with improvised materials and limited resources generate and promote those selfsame new formats and approaches, producing niche festivals with eclectic programs and thoughtful curation that highlight local scenes, while paying special attention to their educational and cultural outreach programs, as well as growing local communities by embedding their agenda in the global cultural context. In Europe, such points of light include Rewire (The Hague), Le Guess Who? (Utrecht), Unsound (Krakow), CTM (Berlin), Sonica (Ljubljana), and Urvakan (Yerevan). Curiously, all these festivals actively incorporate urban spaces in their toolkits and often even in their missions, interacting and cooperating with such seemingly incongruous locations as museums, galleries, theaters, public libraries, swimming pools, greenhouses, etc., as venues for exhibitions, hybrid audiovisual performances, full-length concerts and DJ sets.

Russia has similar events. Among the festivals that approximate their European counterparts in terms of format and scale are Fields (Moscow) and SKIF (Petersburg). However, the very locations of these festivals in the country’s two capitals means they have little potential to shape the cultural images of the cities where they are held. Moscow and Petersburg are themselves mosaics, uniting dozens, if not hundreds of cultures and communities, which in itself can negate or significantly hinder any attempt to underscore a particular identity. Big city dwellers are members of many communities at once, sometimes too many. It is also difficult for these projects to compete with mainstream festivals for the public’s attention, and so they often have to sacrifice their authenticity, for example, by inviting a popular artist to the line-up, sometimes making them fit the festival’s overall concept after the fact.

Organizing and holding such niche events in relatively small cities, remote from the two Russian capitals, both geographically and in terms of resources, ideas, and semantics, is a much more interesting and valuable experience, therefore. In this article, we focus on two such projects — Inversia (Murmansk) and Platform (Nalchik).

“Not the most obvious incarnation for a northern Soviet port city”

Advertising itself as an “uncomfortable festival beyond the Arctic Circle” and uniting communities of artists and curators from Northwest Russia and the Northern European countries, Inversia takes place in Murmansk, which had a population of around 300,000 people in 2020. Murmansk resident Oleg Khadartsev, Inversia’s program director and creative director of the curatorial platform Fridaymilk, says that the festival was the brainchild of a team of people from Murmansk, Karelia and Siberia that coalesced in the wake of UnCapitals, an art expedition and creative camp held in the Karelian town of Olonets in April 2016.

“UnCapitals is about not going to Moscow, but making Moscow come to you,” journalist Nikita Velichko quoted Khadartsev as saying in an article about the event for Afisha Daily. The atmosphere that prevailed at UnCapitals – “a mixture of Red Bull Music Academy and what the IT industry calls hackathons” – inspired the Murmansk native to launch an authentic festival in his own hometown. Zhanna Guzenko and Inna Fedorova joined Khadartsev in founding and producing the project. Ivan Afanasyev, curator of the festival’s musical program, was, at the time, running the label Full of Nothing (2010–2018) and making music in the duo Love Cult. (He now lives in Barcelona, where he is busy doing the solo music project Ivan Zoloto, playing in the dub metal band Petrozavodsk, and putting together a new label, School of the Arts.) Artist Dasha Beskorsaya curated the visual program.

“Initially, we had no clear plan of interacting with the city," Khadartsev said in an interview with V–A–C Sreda. “Rather, we had a desire to express ourselves curatorially and artistically in the space of the united North. Murmansk is our home city and region, but we did not immediately come here [with this format]. It took time to shape a project through which we wanted to make a statement.”

Prior to this, the Fridaymilk team spent several years overseeing a number of different culture and art projects outside their home region. “We traveled around the regions of the Russian North and quite often went outside the country, collaborating with Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish and Dutch partners,” says Oleg. “At some point, we realized that we were ready to say something in our hometown. Meaning that, before then, Murmansk was a kind of base to which we always returned, a place where we were inspired, rested and started new projects. (Basically, it has remained that way.) But in 2016 we had the desire to do something in Murmansk without focusing directly on the city. Personally, I was interested in the subjects of darkness, cold, geographical and cultural isolation, and the relation of human beings with the uncomfortable space of the North.”

But Khadartsev admits that part of the team at the first Inversia was not tasked with reflecting on the city, the Far North or the harsh Arctic, because they were not from those places and had no special attachments to them. “Basically, that’s normal. No one is obliged to deeply love or immerse themselves in the space, specifics and rhythms of life in these parts. If this desire arises, then that’s great. If not, then I can’t make a person love the North and then speak out furiously on the topic. Despite this, I really love and respect our team from the first festival, because all the guys understood what they were doing and were professionals in their fields.”

Inversia’s first three-day iteration took place in February 2017. According to Khadartsev, it was more of an experiment, a groping in the dark for form and structure – in other words, an attempt to present the visual and musical scene of the European North. Subsequently, the team changed: some of the managers and curators changed hats, becoming friends and artists of the festival, while some of the artists, on the contrary, joined the festival’s management. But the leadership core of Khadartsev, Guzenko, and Fedorova has remained unchanged. Starting in 2018, however, Inversia switched directions and tackled new meanings. The curators set themselves the ambitious task of combining the local and global scenes while blurring their boundaries, thus breaking with the sense of culture’s centeredness on brands, names, and locations.

In the course of nurturing ideas for the festival, the team has faced typical problems in organizing events of this scale. For example, all the money that the team has raised to put on Inversia has come from the extra-budgetary project funds, allocated by specialized foundations and cultural institutions. This is a typical situation in Russia: the state either allocates “exorbitant budgets for megalomaniac events with an incredible amount of content, or enthusiasts do something in a garage, basement, apartment, independent gallery or bar for a tiny audience.” There is usually nothing between these two poles, Khadartsev says.

“I don't even want to discuss municipal and regional festivals featuring cheesy bands from local cultural centers, who perform for free or for a framed award certificate, and the ‘creative dead’ from the past who tour cities as headliners. […] We tried to get onto the list of official cultural events in the region, so that it would be easier to plan and negotiate with festival event venues, but that effort sputtered to a halt for some reason. Inversia only warrants mention in the Russian Culture Ministry’s presentations at international conferences, where they have to show their colleagues something of the sort, because the entire art community knows about us and collaborates with us, and standard reports on the work of folk music ensembles at regional cultural centers would bore them to death. [ ... ] Neither the past nor the current governors [of the region] can even imagine that our festival annually draws crowds of tourists and artists from all over Europe and Russia, while receiving several million rubles in financing from sources other than the regional government budget, and that The Wire and the Guardian have written about it [...] But we must give credit where it’s due: the Murmansk Regional Culture Ministry does help us solve some issues.”

The festival thus remains completely independent: it is powered by the efforts and resources of the management team and passionate volunteers. At the same time, Khadartsev emphasizes that the DIY approach in organizing Inversia has no impact on its professionalism. It is important for his team to maintain and grow the traditions and ideas that had once worked for Inversia and have earned the festival a good reputation.

Among other negative factors affecting the growth of music festivals outside the two capitals, Oleg identifies the “new colonialism” and the capital-centricity of cultural life in Russia, as well as the self-stigmatization of people from regional scenes.

“Through correspondence, interaction and periodic visits to the natives by ‘cool’ curators, you feel it physically. All the main events take place in Moscow and Petersburg, while beyond them there is only decay, collective farms and prefab blocks of flats with snow drifting between them. I have less of a beef with the curators, managers, and businessmen who organize and finance events in the capitals. I have more of a problem with those who live outside Moscow and Petersburg, specifically artists and curators, who partly shape such attitudes themselves. The same goes for the capsulized Russian media market and its lack of inclusion in the international festival and cultural agenda. People cannot tear off the blinders of ‘correct’ and trendy media, endless producing the same texts and replicating the same agenda. If working journalists bothered to travel to international festival events and wrote for foreign outlets about what was happening in their own country and abroad, the viewpoint on what is happening in our cultural life would change, I think. Otherwise, every article by a Russian author, published in English, somewhere outside the Russian media, is like a spacewalk. And most often these are articles about art movements in the capitals.”

Inversia, according Khadartsev, emerged in the horizontal belt of the Nordic countries, bringing together artists and projects from the region without regard for Russian agendas and realities. The organizers tasked themselves with creating a platform unfettered by linguistic and territorial conventions, while vigorously engaging with the context and taking into account local know-how and culture.

“It’s hard to pigeonhole us,” says Oleg. “We are not a music festival or a visual arts festival. We are everything at once, a kind of festival of lived experience in which the artistic medium matters less than the impact on the audience and the message communicated by the festival team.”

One of the festival’s crucial principles is the absence of headliners. Inversia offers experiences – not big names – to artists, speakers, and audiences. Of course, there are well-known international and Russian projects involved, but for the festival team they are on a par with local artists.

“It is not at all obvious who we would like to show the audience more on the same stage this year – the fake jazz combo Soyuz or Hey, Gagarin!, a Murmansk math rock collective who got together exclusively for Inversia,” says Khadartsev. “Another example is the Murmansk project Øddo, whose Russian debut took place at our festival, in fact. The guys had been playing really aggressive music their whole lives, from punk to hardcore, but then they got together and did a completely atmospheric, hypnotizing live-coding project, which we first presented at the Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF), and later at Inversia. And then there was Thomas Ankersmith’s brain-shattering performance two years ago on the Lenin, the first nuclear-powered icebreaker. What was more important in that case? The unique ‘here-and-now’ experience that you could never have anywhere else? Or the big name? Or both? Or take the project Vertical Cinema, which before Inversia had been presented in only a couple of cities in Europe and the United States: it is quite complex in terms of production and content. We brought it to the former Palace of Young Pioneers (now the regional center for the development of children’s and youth creativity). At the time, few in the audience really understood the scale of what was happening, but what they saw left an indelible impression.”

Via this mixture of forms and directions, Inversia guides its audience through a specific experience that can be “dissolving, soothing, brain-shattering, unpleasant, aggressive, or enveloping.” What matters is to generate a sense in the audience that even if they are unfamiliar with the names in the program, they are definitely worth hearing. So the festival program includes premieres, special projects (so-called commissioned acts), and so on. This toolkit has eventually formed a community around the festival, and that community is transnational: Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, English, and Russian are spoken every year in Murmansk. Artists, industry reps and the audience wander between the venues, easily interacting with each other thanks to the comfortable environment, created by the festival, for sharing experiences, ideas and inspiration. New collaborations come into being at the festival, and the platform for all this is the harsh and brutal city beyond the Arctic Circle.

“I don’t think this is the most obvious incarnation for a northern Soviet port city,” Khadartsev says. “But we really like the spirit of the festival, which also makes the local community look differently at their city and what happens in it. It is a kind of empowerment for northern artists and young people living in the North. Inclusion in the global agenda gives you the strength to keep going and eliminates the feeling of being stuck. You stop feeling like a loser in the hinterlands, constantly planning on moving to the capital. Well, at least that’s what we would like to think, and we’re doing everything we can to make it happen, so that people in our midst feel like the whole world is coming to them, and they don’t have to go out into the big world to look for adventures.”

When asked whether and how the cultural image of Murmansk has changed due to Inversia, Khadartsev replies that he really wants to believe that it has.

“Institutionally, it hasn’t changed, but in the minds of the public and a specific segment of the city’s populace, I think something has shifted a bit. You can’t ignore the fact that dozens of artists and just cool dudes from all over Europe come to your city every year and they somehow understand and are impressed by it, writing about it in travel blogs, on social networks, in specialized media and big-name international media outlets. After that, it is difficult to sit around ruing the fact that you live at the end of the earth, where nothing happens, and complaining that all the action is in the capitals. I don’t believe in the short term, but I hope that over the long run it will work, that we will gain ground with each subsequent year.”

Next year, 2022, Inversia celebrates its five-year anniversary. The festival team is already making two parallel plans for organizing and holding the event: the first involving a full roster of foreign artists and the second featuring limited participation by foreign artists and a larger contingent of Russian ones in case of continuing pandemic-related restrictions.

“There are several overarching points that we definitely want to show to the audience,” Khadartsev says. “First, the Inversia conference. It has probably been the main event for us in recent years, because it is there that the theme of the festival is fleshed out, and artists and invited speakers share their thoughts. It is chockablock with profound reflection, unexpected conclusions, and powerful performances. The next important thing for us are the Fridaymilk Workshops: we have a good number of them, and they take place at different times, but we usually hold several of them during the festival. Last year, it was the Field Recording Lab, curated by Gleb Glonti, co-founder of the Kotä label, and local musician Slava Krasnov. We also ran a Laboratory of Fictional Documentation with Polina Medvedeva, a filmmaker and visual artist from the Netherlands. The final part is, of course, the musical and sonic part of the program, which will slightly change in the direction of greater awareness of the public and become even cooler. I keep saying it that we are not a music festival, but the music program is an impressive part of the festival.”

The theme of Inversia 2022 is the Northeast Digital Passage. We asked Oleg Khadartsev to share with us a brief explication of the concept.

“The Northeast Digital Passage” is the theme of the fifth international festival Inversia, which will bring together digital artists, electronic and academic musicians, art curators and emerging artists from all over Northwest Russia and the countries of Northern Europe. The festival redefines the geographical and cultural remoteness of northern regions, aiming to foster new nodes of cultural growth away from the traditional capitals.

The Northeast Digital Passage redefines social and cultural relations in the Arctic, offering a new idea of a unified northern region as an intellectual port and creative center, in which artists are the new tankers and transport ships, artistic research, the new energy resource, and cloud storage, the new harbors and global ports.

The festival team wants to create a unified informational and cultural field – an extensive working network of northern artists and curators, united across several northern regions of Russia and Scandinavia.

“The teenagers who come for the post-punk and fans of Circassian music get used to each other”

Unlike Inversia, Nalchik’s Platform festival was conceived, organized and launched literally on the fly. In the summer of 2019, Bulat Khalilov and Timur Kodzokov, the founders of the ethnographic music label Ored Recordings, specializing in the traditional music of the peoples of the Caucasus, came up with the idea of holding an educational and musical marathon in their hometown of Nalchik. They appealed for support to Oksana Shukhostanova from the Art Hall Platform Urban Development Institute, an agency under the municipal administration, who acted as an intermediary between the mayor’s office and festival organizers, and also gave the event its name.

“Platform is primarily a festival of urban culture, and music is only one of its components,” Khalilov says. “In terms of engaging with urban spaces and communities, we have both strengths and points that are sagging and need to be improved. For example, we open new places for fun-filled informal events. So, the first festival breathed life into the almost-forgotten but once-popular Dance Hall. It had been a long time since live music was played there, especially in this format.”

Subsequently, the festival was held in one of the halls at the House of Trade Unions in the city center, where, according to the event’s organizers, no cultural events had ever been held at all.

“It is quite odd, because both the pompous Soviet-style building itself and the hall, with its excellent acoustics, were begging for something interesting to happen in them. Last year, at this location, we staged performances by Utro, Pasosh, Fyodor’s Garden, Alina Petrova and Sergei Khramtsevich, and Foresteppe. And most recently (in January 2021), Platform had a cool spin-off – a collaboration between Ored Recordings and Le Guess Who? For this project, Platform and Ored swapped places: the label was the organizer, while the institution was the partner. A mini-festival of contemporary Circassian music – from traditional to black – was held in the concert studio of Radio House, where folk choirs, orchestras and many more musicians were recorded in Soviet times. Now we (Ored and Platform) are planning to work with regional radio, so we want to continue to do something interesting in these spaces.”

On the other hand, Platform has not yet able to utilize several venues at once, thus immersing the whole of Nalchik in an atmosphere of musical celebration. Khalilov argues that this is a problem of scale and resources: at this stage, the organizers cannot afford to invite many musicians and hold a large number of other activities in the city – for example, educational events (lectures, seminars, master classes, film screenings) and interdisciplinary events (exhibitions, audiovisual performances, theater productions) – in order to engage more locations and more diverse sites.

“I see a problem in the fact that we don’t always manage to involve local communities,” says Bulat. “In terms of music, this happens because the local scene is still in its infancy: we have almost no musicians that we could put in the same line-up with Brom or Utro without compromising the quality. The exceptions are the local traditional music and rare gems like the vinyl DJ RK.”

The organizers also note that interacting with city hall is one of the most difficult aspects of their work. As in the case of Inversia, communication with the authorities often comes down to solving formal issues and proving to officials that the festival has great potential for developing the city, improving its image, boosting tourism in the region, and so on. The Platform team admits, however, that the Nalchik administration provides all possible assistance to their undertaking: the festival receives a considerable chunk of its budget through city hall. And yet, they say, the cooperation could be closer and more productive, thus benefiting, first of all, the city itself. Because, as Platform’s curators emphasize, the main goal of the festival, as well as of Ored Recordings, is to build a community or environment for traditional music that would fit into a contemporary context – that is, to generate conditions in which performers understand how and why to make music, and listeners, where to listen to it. Platform aims to grow communities in Nalchik that will nurture profoundly local phenomena (in music, literature, etc.) that are in demand both at home and globally.

“That’s why we combine traditional music and the provisional ‘stars’ of independent music in the line-up," Khalilov says. “Having Pasosh and Susanna Talijokova on the same stage with dance performances is strange even by the standards of local music lovers. I’m not sure that our audience deciphers this message, but with each subsequent festival, it is noticeable how the teenagers who have come for the post-punk and fans of Circassian music get used to each other and do not perceive different music as something strange.”

Finally, the Platform team regards the negative experience of interacting with local non-folk musicians as another problem. “Many of them send applications to play at the festival, but rarely come to the festival itself,” says Bulat. “It’s strange when people seem to want their moment of glory at the festival, but they don't seem to need it.” He notes that, perhaps, it is a matter of time and soon there will be groups of a suitable format in Nalchik, or maybe something deeply local in contrast to Platform, since the festival is focused on a somewhat narrow albeit woke audience. (According to him, there are other events in Nalchik for mass audiences, including Art Bazaar, Gastrofest, and the Festival of Flowers.) Any of those outcomes would be tantamount to progress in Khalilov’s eyes.

“In terms of interacting with the city and the local community, we look at festivals like Le Guess Who? and Unsound, and among the Russian festivals we are inspired by Bol and Inversia,” Khalilov continues. “Although it’s a young festival, Platform copes with this job at some level. We always have something local on stage. If the festival had more resources, it would be possible to recruit more local musicians to various projects. We are working in this direction, but it is also vital that local content is presented not only as part of a quota or due to having a local residence permit. You cannot make allowances for a musician because they live in Nalchik. I am sure that Jrpjej is invited to major festivals not because they’re ‘exotic’ (although some of the audience, of course, perceives them as these weird Circassians), but because of their unique sound and good material. We think it’s important to show local residents and local musicians that, musically speaking, geography and your home address are not big obstacles. You can find more advantages than obstacles in living in Nalchik.”

Platform’s impact on Nalchik’s cultural image is still difficult to assess — the festival is too new. There are a lot of people in the city who haven’t even heard of it. The organizers are sure that their project and Ored Recordings reveal and highlight an important problem: in fact, there is neither a culture industry nor a clearly delineated media space in Nalchik.

“If you’re promoting a concert at DOM or Shagi in Moscow, I understand that you have to send announcements to Afisha and The Village, and post info on the right Telegram channels and VK community pages, but it’s not entirely clear how you convey information to the Nalchik audience,” Bulat says. “There are no information channels, everything is as spontaneous and quirky as possible. We are working on this aspect, which is also a good thing.”

On the other hand, Platform has formed its own audience, which waits for the festival to come around each year and asks the organizers to invite specific performers (from Ivan Dorn to M8L8TH). There are also fans from other regions who come to Nalchik specifically for Platform. And, finally, there is attention from the media. So, for some locals and outsiders, Nalchik has already become a more comfortable and interesting place to live and visit.

***

Inversia and Platform show that such festivals are able to shape the cultural cachet of smaller cities and can have a long-term positive impact on the images of their regions, but such undertakings need comprehensive support from regional executive authorities (city halls, ministries of culture, etc.) and local medium-sized and big businesses. The history of Inversia is also instructive in the sense that even with limited resources such projects are able to grow from relatively small initiatives into serious institutions representing not only particular Russian regions, but also geographical, cultural and historical regions (Northern Europe, in Inversia’s case). For now, however, we can only imagine how, with the right level of support, such projects could become powerful institutions and brands

In November 2020, I spoke with the journalist and composer Aidar Khusnutdinov about the possibility of holding a festival in Russia (specifically in Kazan) that would be similar in its spirit, aesthetic and message to Le Guess Who?, CTM and Unsound. “Tatarstan’s brand is tolerance,” Khusnutdinov noted at the time, “and its symbol is a mosque and a church standing next to each other in the [Kazan] Kremlin.” Indeed, Kazan seems to be an ideal location for such an event: on the one hand, it is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, and a relatively large and Europeanized city; on the other, Kazan is associated less with Christian culture and heritage, and more with eastern civilization.

Just a month after this conversation, Awaz (awaz means “sound” in Tatar), a music festival at the intersection of the local and the global, was announced for May 2021 in Kazan. Designed to unite local and foreign artists, an educational program, and sound performances and installations throughout the city, Awaz’s venues, in addition to the usual clubs and cultural centers, include a synagogue, the national library and a Lutheran church. And although the festival is organized by a team from Moscow –Stepan Kazaryan, concert promoter, co-founder of Bol and Moscow Music Week, founder of the label Nisha; Pavel Vilenkin, co-owner of the electronic label IDA, club promoter and DJ; and Tatiana Makarov, director of the Moscow Music Week conference and co-founder of the RUSH Initiative (Russian Music Export Initiative) –Awaz has every chance of becoming a prominent and important point on the map of influential local festivals that are rethinking urban spaces as venues and building new communities and cultural identities in these locations.

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