Alisa Prudnikova: “Thinking through 'Uralness' To the Last Detail”

V–A–C Sreda online magazine presents a new, three-month programme dedicated to artistic and cultural life in different Russian cities.

In this issue, we publish a conversation between Daniil Beltsov, the Editor-in-Chief of V–A–C Sreda, and Alisa Prudnikova, the Programme Director of GES-2 House of Culture and V–A–C Foundation and the Commissioner of the Ural Industrial Biennial. Their conversation covershow the artistic landscape of Ekaterinburg has changed over the past twenty years, what role contemporary art has in the life of the city, and constitutes the Ural identity.

—Today, we are seeing a noticeable decentralisation of culture. More and more, regional artistic initiatives are becoming the objects of attention of critics, of spectators, and of artists themselves. And, of course, an important point on the map is the Urals. Could you tell me about artistic life in Ekaterinburg today?

—I think it’s worth saying from the beginning that today I look at artistic life in Ekaterinburg with nostalgia, however I see how the city has come to live with contemporary culture: many institutions and artists are appearing. In 2005, when I came to lead the Ural branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art, we were the only organisation working with contemporary art. In 2016, when I left Ekaterinburg, there were more than twenty organisations operating there. Such evolution over a decade is a noticeable result. There is now a vibrant artistic environment made up of completely different communities. The Yeltsin Centre set a completely new standard for the infrastructures of exhibition spaces, a contemporary art department has been founded at the Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Art, a museum telling the story of the Old Man Bukashkin is developing at the Ural State University, and not long ago I became acquainted with the new Museum of the Underground, which displays the collection of Pavel Neganov, who collected paintings by artists from various cities in the Urals, Saint Petersburg, Moscow. Thanks to this institutionality, internal regional processes are being reflected on—the origins, history, and connections of the city.

Of course, the Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art also introduced its own tradition: local identity came into dialogue with the international context and with curatorial optics. Every two years, our local artistic environment became a part of global artistic production. When we counted up the numbers, we were struck by just how many artists and communities had taken part in our exhibitions. There were around 585 of them in all! Behind this figure lies a remarkable story of professional relationships: it was possible to talk about art with all the visiting curators and artists, to exchange opinions and discoveries, to show them works. Many of these relationships would go on to last for many years, and it’s difficult to overemphasise the role of the Ural Biennial in this. However, there was also another task: to instil the idea of supporting cultural projects into business. For me, as the director of an institution, this has always been a serious challenge—finding partners is difficult, and patronage of the arts does not always mean feedback. The model of the Industrial Biennial immediately led to an opening into another sphere—into industrial enterprise, its role in the artistic life of the city—to interest in these enterprises on the part of artistic institutions. Over the following years the ways in which business and culture interacted altered in principle, and alongside this the industrial theme became of interest to other institutions. In 2010, Ekaterina Degot, an art critic and historian, approached my colleagues and asked where the paintings from the 1930s were—at that time, they were being stored in museum depositories. Today, these works form a permanent exhibition which is the pride of the Urals.

I pay close attention to what “Uralness” is, to how it manifests itself. These questions hang over many territories like the sword of Damocles. I am interested in the Ural artistic optic and in the construction of a Ural identity. The theme is inexhaustible, and the amount of artistic reflection on it is significant. For a long time now, the strength of the Urals has not lain in stones and mountains, but in a working-through of its own uniqueness, and this is what the Ekaterinburg artistic environment does.

An important stage in the appearance of this environment was public art. Naila Allahverdieva and Arseny Sergeev, the founders of the NCCA in Ekaterinburg, curated two important festivals — Long Stories of Ekaterinburg (2003–2010) and OUTVIDEO (2004–2005)—during which the grey industrial daily routine of Ekaterinburg suddenly disappeared. Long Stories of Ekaterinburg invited artists to paint concrete fences as though they were comic pages. It was the first time contemporary art appeared in the regional-city environment, as there had previously been a lack of available conventional spaces—museums and galleries had their own tasks and plans, and there wasn’t space in these for contemporary art. One could say that the “placelessness” of contemporary art determined the form their impulse went on to take. Long Stories became an annual blockbuster, it gave rise to a new generation of artists and to the Stenograffia festival, which still runs to this day. At the start of the 2000s, during the time of the OUTVIDEO festival, the city’s outdoor video screens showed thirty-second artworks once every five minutes. You might ask what there was to this? But imagine, you’re standing at the bus stop, watching an add for a teapot, and then suddenly Kimsooja’s video work A Needle Woman appears, in which the heroine stands with her hair gathered into a pony tail and a straight back. People didn’t understand what was happening, but that wasn’t the point: the main thing was that the aesthetic system of coordinates failed, and onlookers became acquainted with a different visual language.

The Ural CHO public art programme has taken place since 2020. Throughout the city, interesting objects of art appear, and each year the event is organised by different curators. A lot of discussion was caused by Lyudmila Kalinichenko and Ksenia Larina’s work Industrial Baby—the metallic head of an infant on the shore of the Verkh-Isetsky Pond. This object contains the idea of the birth of industriality: Ural factories were always built beside water, it was water that enabled their lives. The work was a big challenge for the still conservative Ekaterinburg public, but such programmes make it possible for absolutely different works of art to appear.

It’s important to say how unique the Ekaterinburg community is: we know how to be friends. Whatever complicated professional relationships artists might find themselves in, they communicate, remain on good terms, provide each other with creative resources. And it is precisely for this reason that initiatives like the Ural Kvartirale are popular there: for a week, artists open up their apartments or studios, so that both viewers and colleagues can get acquainted with their art. Of course, this format is not new, it has taken root in many other cities—however, in Ekaterinburg, these events take place in a special way.

—I think you’re right to mention the role of the viewer in the context of the artistic environment. How did you and your team plan to draw people into the artistic life of the city?

—I remember perfectly how, on coming to the NCCA, the first thing our team did was approach Ural State University as our main partner. We understood that without a large-scale educational programme, NCCA would just remain an aquarium with fifty visitors interested in its work, it wouldn’t go anywhere further. We needed to initiate not just educational but critical discourse around our events. While we were still studying, my classmates and I had thought it would be great if student performances and works remained a fact of art history. The idea came to us when we were returning to Ekaterinburg from the defence of diplomas at the graphic art faculty at Nizhny Tagil—the artist Vladimir Seleznev graduated from there. We wrote to the curator and editor of Moscow Art Magazine Viktor Misiano asking for our student reviews to be published. This story, however, was not crowned with success, and we decided to create our own journal—in the context of the activities of the NCCA, we began to publish Za Art, which helped create academic discourse and turned into an archive of Ekaterinburg art of the noughties—of the art, dance, theatre, and literary scenes.

At a certain point the work of the NCCA became intense, complex, Za Art turned into an institution, and we were fascinated by the idea of searching for new spaces for artistic projects. NCCA was just an office without its own exhibition space. Opportunities to study the international experience began to appear, it was possible to visit institutions and academic conferences in Europe and the United States as part of our academic activities and the writing of our dissertations. At one of these conferences, I had a conversation with a foreign colleague, which revealed the main problem of Ekaterinburg’s artistic environment:

— Where are you from?
— Ekaterinburg.
— Saint Petersburg? (hopefully)
— No, Ekaterinburg.

After this, we thought about how we might create projects that would showcase Ekaterinburg, that would present the city as a place of attraction not just for local but for international communities. We wanted to find a point of contiguity with Dortmund, Liverpool, Lyon—cities close to us in artistic spirit. NCCA organised theatrical and dance productions, festivals of public and video art, and its audience and interdisciplinarity were able to form immersive laboratory formats that integrated art into spaces where people would not normally have gone. So we had to find our own large spaces for ambitious festivals.

We were inspired by the Berlin Biennale of 2006, curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimilian Gioni, Ali Subotnik. It was called Of Mice and Men, and it took place on Auguststrasse, which begins with a church and ends in a cemetery. According to the concept of the curators, all of the Biennale took place on this street. Alongside the traditional KW building, it occupied unconventional exhibition spaces—a former Jewish school for girls, a dance hall, apartments, local clubs and cafes. These were also potentially rich places for the development of NCCA’s space. The Berlin Biennale showed that one doesn’t need any museum to make a full artistic statement. And then we received another lucky ticket: we were offered an empty industrial space for our festival programme in Ekaterinburg.

In 2008 and 2009 NCCA ran two Art-Zavod festivals. The first time, we worked in laboratory format for two weeks, then opened up the industrial space to viewers for one weekend—there were more than two thousand of them, which struck us, given the festival was located very far from the centre. Having looked at our history, my colleague the film and music producer Oleg Kumish opened the ambitious musical Tele-Club on these outskirts, re-fitting the industrial space. It became the best concert space in Ekaterinburg, comparable to clubs in Europe—a great story for local musical culture. In 2009, we decided to choose an active factory for the festival. And that was when the format that would become an international phenomenon while preserving a feeling of regional identity was born—this was how the Ural Industrial Biennial began.

It was important for us that the name “Ural Industrial Biennial” be connected not just to geography, but that it immediately mark the Biennial’s main semantic emphasis—a study of industriality in all its aspects. Engagement with the factory as heritage and as operating enterprise. The definition would prove an inexhaustible theme in the years to come.

In 2015, the Ural Biennial format was used by the curators of the Industrial Art Biennial in the Croatian city of Labin. At first, I was upset that our colleagues had not told us about their idea, but when we met, they recognised that the Labin Biennial was the Ural Biennial’s younger sister, for which the concept of industriality was also important. And then I thought: our format is being replicated, this is wonderful!

I caught every nuance in the change of our audience. In the noughties, its core was visitors with a desire for cultural events. At the first Ural Biennial, visitors wrote in the visitors’ book—which we keep as a record of the time—that the “exhibition is terrible,” “there is degenerate art everywhere.” Today, this is a wonderful archival source. At the second exhibition the reviews were better: now the city needed a biennial, but one with “normal” art. The turning point was the 2015 Biennial—there was a long queue at the entrance, which was a great happiness and joy for us as organisers. I remember how I met a schoolboy copying out the label of one of the works into a notebook. When I asked him why he was doing this, he answered: “I have a date today, and it would be shameful not to know about art.” I was really struck by this, and offered to give him a tour. I think the date went very well. And I remember this episode so well because before my eyes a new trend had appeared: to someone, it was now shameful not to know about contemporary art.

This trend did not appear from nowhere—at the same time as the Ural Biennial, “artist-run” spaces were also becoming popular, interest in contemporary art was in the air. It was also then that Ekaterina Degot said that the Biennial would only really take place if it became a way of life. These words sounded like a challenge… However, now I see that Ekaterina’s prophetic idea seeped into everyday life. Of course, this is not true for all residents of Ekaterinburg, or even for those of Moscow, but today one can say that contemporary art has become a part of everyday life.

—Do you think the phenomenon of the Ural Industrial Biennial is unique due to regional peculiarities or can it be considered as a universal model, one that could be applied to other cities?

—The industrial identity of the Ural Biennial was always interesting to us. During the preparation for the fifth and especially the sixth exhibitions we thought a lot about how to develop it further. During the planning for the seventh we reasoned that industrial identity had led the Ural Biennial to hyper-locality: since its beginnings, we had successfully collaborated with thirty Ural cities, we had thought “Uralness” down to the smallest detail. Reflections on the Ural identity led to us to reflections on heritage. Any factory is the quintessence of the eternal ambivalence of life and death. The factory is a significant image for artistic language precisely because of this dichotomy. For this reason, the fifth Biennial, which was about immortality and organised in an active factory, was a most important conceptual statement for me.

Industriality, in fact, was the beginning of the development of many cities from the Caucasus to the the Far East, and this theme is becoming popular beyond the Urals. Ekaterinburg was the colonial project of Peter I, who sent Vasily Tatishchev and Wilhelm de Gennin to master the Urals, to extract materials, to smelt ore. And in the twentieth century, the entire history of the Ekaterinburg was connected to Soviet industrialisation.

Today, we have the Night of the Factories festival. In 2023, the festival took place in eighteen cities: for one night, abandoned and active factories became spaces for artistic statement. It turns out a unified programme can take place even when the artists and curators are located thousands of kilometres from one another. Alongside this, we ran an important study of the industrialisation of culture, in which we examined the American, European, and Asian experiences of interaction with industrial heritage as a potential space for culture, and the context industriality takes in Russia.

At present, we are concentrated on two important studies. The first is a digital archive that considers the experience of the Ural Industrial Biennial. The second is the strategic design of the next exhibitions. We are interviewing experts and specialists who collaborated with the Biennial in the past and asking what they would like to preserve in the project, what for them was most valuable in it. On the basis of their answers, we are searching for new ideas.

—You touched on the theme of the future. Could you tell me about what the digital archive will look like and what the plans for the next Ural Industrial Biennial are?

—We became conscious of the necessity of creating an archive in 2019. It’s important to mention that our archive will be an opportunity to talk about failures too. In the rage of the two-year cycles we never had the resources to analyse what we had done. The digital archive is our internal analysis of the process and structurisation of material.

What will the next Ural Industrial Biennial be? The team does not have an exact answer to this question, we gave ourselves the possibility and time to take a pause in the creation of exhibitions and concentrate on other formats. Currently we are continuing the art-residency programme that has become our hallmark of our project: based on the results of competitions, artists receive the opportunity to create their works in active Ural factories.

It is symbolic how what we are talking about now intersects with the key ideas of Boris Arvatov. I think that the devise: “To each artist—a factory is spreading and has a great potential.

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