Contemporary Art in the Barents region: precarious labour or creative work?

Roman Osminkin

Contemporary Art in the Barents region: precarious labour or creative work?


In January 2015, Anastasia Vepreva and I were invited to Northern Norway to become acquainted with the local culture and modern art. The conclusions that I drew during the trip are captured in my thorough article Follow the Path of Romanticists/ Adventure of Russian Contemporary Artists in Northern Norway accessible at the Russian web portal Aroundart.


The article offers a coverage of multifarious cultural institutions in Northern Norway, such as museums, galleries, academies and residencies, which work with the most diverse areas ranging from applied arts to media-art and techno design.  The issues of environment, survival of small indigenous communities, sustainable development, and common ownership of natural resources (land and water) are not simply dominant motifs among the majority of contemporary Northern Norwegian artists.  They have permeated into a deeper, formal level of materials and mass media that are used.  These problems have become a certain kind of “politics” of art among Norwegian artists. The term politics interprets the way the French philosopher Jacques Rancière implemented it while discussing the politics of aesthetics. According to Rancière, aesthetics is driven by some politics that are neither representative of engaged political nor mimetic art. The purpose of this aesthetics is the suspension of any direct relationship between the production of art forms and impact on a specific audience. Such a policy of art has logically led Northern artists to question their own artistic subjectivity as a creative privilege to intervene in the “passive” nature. That is why, namely Norwegians, have managed to aesthetically combine bio- and eco-oriented approaches with a wide socio-political agenda. As an example, Anne Ingeborg Biringvad, representing the art of ecofeminism, includes, on the one hand, motifs from folk art and craft in her works, and mass-produced goods such as discarded clothes, tools and furniture. Thus, Anne includes historical anonymity and marginality of women artists in the general context of human relations with animals and nature, and reaffirms the relevance and inseparability of gender, environmental and social concerns in modern Norway.


I have already written, in the previously mentioned material, about the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe whose earlier essay The Last Messiah (1933) was, in various ways, reinterpreted by young artists from the Art Academy in Tromsø. In his pre-apocalyptic essay, the pessimist Zapffe followed the nihilistic line of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, requiring humanity to abandon their fatal delusion of “being biologically fated for triumph”. The modern generation of Norwegian artists offers its own version of such a refusal, i.e.  the inside view of nature, environment, animal, the other and things. On the one hand, the inside view allows us to overcome the modernist impasse of the subject-object model “artist – audience”, and on the other, the relativism of postmodernist program with its subject – subject horizontal relationships (here we can recall Relational Aesthetics popular in the 1990s). There is a great danger to bring this look to the naturalistic evolutionary development of all living creatures on Earth. However, the inside view has solid philosophical foundations in speculative realism (or rather materialism), in particular in the versions of the object ontology by the American philosopher Graham Harman, who denies a person a comprehensive access to the things of this world, and accordingly to exercise over them.


In general, our first trip to Northern Norway has led me to the conclusion that the contemporary art of the Barents region is seamlessly woven into the social fabric of everyday life and is an important cultural and social institution. Its presence is noticeable in not only museums and galleries, but in almost every village and house. This harmony should not cause, however, naive delusions; it is the fruit of comprehensive support of art by the Ministry of Culture and an efficient system of state grants and education. Therefore, contemporary Norwegian artists can rightfully call themselves cultural workers, and demand from galleries and other art institutions not one-off payments, but regular wages. Artists are also involved in the social campaign for introducing the universal basic income system that would allow them to pursue art project irrespective of trends on the trade market. Contemporary art in Russia is far from professional legitimation as a necessary public institution, so the Russian artists are burdened with the problems of an entirely different kind; the art is not recognised as useful work, but there exists a romantic image of a “cursed artist”, who is supposed to be invariably hungry. As a result, the competition for a limited set of resources makes solidarity within the artistic community virtually impossible.


That is why, our first trip to Norway was largely the determining factor for us. Not only did it help us to meet interesting artists and new approaches to art, but also forced us to rethink our own art practice and to acknowledge ourselves as creative workers. On our return, we assembled a half-hour film called “to follow in the footsteps of the romantics”, based on heterogeneous visual material from Norway.  The name clearly refers to a historic ferry line Hurtigruten that emerged in the 19th century, and was known as “the way of the romantics”.  We were privileged to follow it. The majestic fjords and picturesque Northern lights made us experience a growing imbalance between the Kantian notions of the Beautiful and the Sublime embodied in the art of romanticism, and our own art practices with these concepts. Therefore, in our film, the majestic Norwegian nature is presented through the prism of cheap lenses of a smartphone and digital “trash”, whereas the music of the great Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg is mounted with absurd shots of Russian artists inhaling Norwegian gourmets or a Russian poet dancing to the folk song Dubinushka with an axe.


However, the main line of the film was not so much a demonstration of the historical gap between the Kantian and post-Kantian aesthetics (work in identifying media-specific art was done by modernists in the 20th c.). We wanted to depict our artistic frustration that came from so-called “doing nothing” or from the lack of creative demand, which is often more intolerable than the heavy, alienated labour. This frustration occurs when you realise your uselessness as a creative unit, that is, in the absence of the need to produce art either for an order or for an institution. We were not upset by our trip to Norway, but the frustration hit us later, on the return, when it was necessary to re-enter the rat race in which artists partake. It is the system of limited supply and lack of permanent employment. The artists of romanticism felt probably the same, when during the era of the first industrial revolution they were excluded from society, as they were needed neither in the religious nor in the secular realm. What complicates our situation is that the art itself is in the post-medium condition (Rosalind Krauss). According to Krauss, the arts have lost their specific means of expression and communication, and need to borrow them from the mass media and pop culture.


It was in the Romantic period that a “cursed” artist broke with art as a profession that was included in the system of social division of labour, and began to create for the society of the future, which would be able to perceive his art with all the sensual fullness of his manifestation. The apotheosis of the art of the future was to be realised in the “total work of art”, the famous Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, fusion of various art forms in one work.  Fighting against the “spirit of haggling and speculation”, and opposing to categories of virtuosity and skill, privatised by egocentric artists, Richard Wagner called for the synthesis of all arts in the name of a common goal of accessibility of art to the people, where the artist is the people themselves, who formerly did not understand delicate aesthetic matters. Simultaneously, a Nietzsche supporter, Viacheslav Ivanov, and Russian symbolists developed an idea of arts synthesis that is to be reached through unity and mystery. These two components unite actors and spectators as full participants and opens new ways of experiencing the sacred action. However, the Stalinist and fascist institutionalisation discredited Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk and collegiality of the symbolists in the 1930s. It seemed that the avant-garde idea of overcoming the boundaries between art and life in the general action was buried forever. However, in the 1950s and especially the 1960s, the “collective body” regained visibility in the squares and streets of European and American cities in the form of happenings, environments, actions and performances. Today, such artistic endeavours have long been included in the art system and cultural industry in the form of numerous participatory projects– the “live” ethical illusion of establishing social relations by involving the viewer in the process of creating an aesthetic product.


Therefore, Anastasia and I decided not to start our collective experiment by connecting to larger social and cultural narratives, or engaging big audiences, but rather with designing an interdisciplinary art cooperative. Many a young professional entered our group, each representing different fields – artists, musicians, physicists, activists, as well as animals, fruits, things, and even imaginary objects, and named the cooperative erdovoe udozhestvo, which means “innovative, progressive art”. However, without the first letter of the two words. “Progressive art” is a term coined by the famous Russian art historian Alexander Benois in the early 20th century, to describe a decadent-like,  estranged artist who “from his cell calmly watches the play of colours and forms, but does not realise the inner meaning of phenomena, and does not even try to understand them”.  On the one hand, most of us in Russia today, feel, willingly or not, partially decadent as we live in the era of reactionary conservative turn, and therefore feel largely alienated from each other. On the other hand, in our association we wanted to conceive the collective of a new type and to equalise humans and non-humans objects through a chain of random dramatic sketches in different public spaces and social contexts.


Our first Norwegian experience was the play on the Barents-play in Kirkenes in January 2016. The festival is traditionally dedicated to the theme of frontiers and coexistence of peoples from neighbouring countries in the Barents region. We have created a grotesque musical pantomime, in which the unfortunate refugee from Syria (Roman Osminkin) seeks refuge on a cardboard bike, first in Russia and then in Norway, but always fails. Having wrapped the refugee with red protective tape,   a formidable border guard (Anastasia Vepreva) pushes him forcefully out from Russia. Whereas in Europe, a pedantic bureaucrat (Anton Commanders) piles the refugee up with a heap of documents, and offers him to temporarily live in a box. In the end, the refugee suffers, dies, but then rises as a zombie, rips the box, transcends all boundaries and joins the auditorium. The play ends with a merry song, where all the characters perform “a cat dance” and advise viewers not to forget to feed their cats.

Despite the fact that our play was about refugees, borders, alienation and violence, it is the reminder to feed the cats that found response. After the play, a spectator approached us and thanked us, because she remembered that she had left food for her cat for just one and a half days, and left for three to see the Barents-play! All the glitter and poverty (and worthlessness) of engaged social art was disclosed to us. Incompatibility of global challenges is the main message of the play. We face the emigration problem on the one hand, and on the other, everybody’s desire to distance themselves from this problem and stay in their own safe abode where one can stroke his/her little pet to remove accumulated neuroses. Not to feed the phantasmagorical illusions about the social utility of his art, we could follow the already mentioned Jacques Rancière, and assert, “words are just words, and plays — theatre performances”. This will allow understanding that “words and images, history and spectacle are really able to change something in the world we live in”.


The play Animated books has become our subsequent collective experience. This project, more elaborate both in terms of timing and staging, took place in the Stormen within the 1st Biennale of art in Bodø (2016).   We decided to return to the image of Norway as a country of victorious romanticism and appeared in the library space to literally revive several books by the Norwegian classics. Such works as the poem By the cemetery (Ved Kirkegaarden) by the Romantic poet Welhaven Johan, a scene from a novel Daughter of Amtmandens (Amtmandens Døtre) by the Norwegian writer Camilla Collett, who was considered the first feminist of Norway, the dramatic poem Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, and a few other equally famous writings, became animated. To do this, we decided to build a few black cubes and made an installation of “poor” materials inside to reproduce a specific plot of the book. In the cubes, there were several round holes, into which viewers could peep to follow the plot. Norwegian carpenters built boxes, about 2 x 3 meters big. Anastasia Vepreva was a stage designer, I wrote the script, and the musician Anton Commanders came up with the sound tracks to all scenes. Workers were very surprised to learn that the boxes will stay in the library for only one day, but then our curator, Kristoffer Dolmen, calmed them down by saying that these boxes could be used in other exhibitions. We arrived 10 days before the performance and enjoyed making scenery and rehearsing every day from morning to evening. One of the workers became ill on the day of the premiere, so Anton Komandirov and I were forced to carry 30kl walls to make boxes of, to the third floor of the library. In this way, we got the physical challenge alongside the creative one. The play was performed in the form of promenade theatre, the audience was given a map of movement throughout the scenes and they had to follow the actors around the library building. We ran from cube to cube and quickly changed costumes, while the technicians smoothly transported the equipment. Each stage was characterised by its own style of music ranging from classical opera to black metal and hip-hop. The play took an hour, and the time flew for us. After the play, many Norwegians thanked us for a lively interpretation that allowed them new ways to refresh the memory of the great literature, which they read in their youth.

It is noteworthy that, during our stay in Bodø, the American Secretary of Defense paid his visit there. Therefore, the security level had been raised; there were many police patrols on duty in the streets and on the roof sat the guards with sniper rifles. The Secretary arrived and left by helicopter, and we were accidentally taken for illegal immigrants and were “awarded” with passport and accommodation inspection. We lived in a small but cosy house in the camping area with a picturesque view of the sea on the outskirts of the town. We have often seen the police checks of people with Asian appearance in Russia. We, however, felt out of suspicion, as we had Russian passports and were privileged in relation to migrants. In Norway, we walked in their shoes for a second, which was an unpleasant, but eye-opening experience.

After our performances in Bodø, the Norwegian-Russian curator Ekaterina Sharova invited us to Arkhangelsk, Anastasia’s hometown, during Arctic Art Forum. Anastasia Vepreva describes the participation in this international forum in detail in her article In the North, where she speaks about the potential of gaining overall bodily experience by connecting contemporary art with the local traditions and folk art.  In Arkhangelsk, we played again the role of artists-performers: Anastasia gave a lecture-performance in the historical cabinet of Mikhail Lomonosov, and I, in cooperation with local poets, organised an open street poetry reading on the embankment of the River Northern Dvina.


The last joint creative experience of Anastasia Vepreva and I, was a trip to Murmansk at the invitation of the curators of the non-profit gallery of modern art “Ч9”, Glafira Severyanova and Ivan Galuzin.  Here, we abandoned the line collective dramaturgy developed in erdovoe udozhestvo, and decided to make art objects individually on a theme of technology transformation in the era of post-humanism. As an artist, Anastasia has several years of experience in matters of history and technology, the politics of memory and death. For example, in the framework of her residence in the city of Skövde (Sweden 2014) for the exhibition at Skövde Art Museum, Vepreva developed a speculative metaphor of military equipment, which finds its own subjectivity and refuses its murderous functions. In the aftermath of such a “loss”, the military equipment gradually merges with the natural landscape and dies. In the Murmansk project Safe point (rus. tochka soxronienia), Anastasia posed another, even more speculative question: How will the machine (artificial intelligence) behave after overcoming a point of singularity? According to Vepreva, the machines use humans even now to produce a set of data, such as texts, photographs, videos, etc., so that after global catastrophes will “roll back” a broken system (the history) to the previous save point, thus the safe state of the world will be restored. However, since big data consist of a succession of repetitive mathematical iterations, they do not know time differences and social contexts. Therefore, it is impossible to predict how reliable the restored reality will be.


Anastasia Vepreva speculatively visualises one of such examples of not entirely reliable recovery of reality. The arrival of Fidel Castro in Murmansk in 1963, widely reported in the Soviet press, became a significant event for the residents of the city. Historical retrospection consists of several photos, videos and audio objects, parts of which have either been cut or supplemented with commentaries. The arrival of Fidel Castro breaks down into a series of images, flashes and echoes. However, on the loss of their historical function, the material acquires characteristics of artefacts of some other, vague and hardly memorable reality. It is noteworthy that Anastasia Vepreva consistently and continuously applies methods of withdrawal, caesura, and lapse of memory and subtle displacement of reality in her works.  Still, in her poetic project Cotton white, the artist was reading the crime reports of Arkhangelsk day-by-day to find crime scenes, which conventionally fit the newspapers’ descriptions. She photographed them and turned photos into drawings. Therefore, she supplemented these drawings with quotes from relevant articles, whence the personal data, addresses and dates were removed. The artist has added the texts of the relevant articles to leave a clean language of crime news reports.


Exhibition in the Ч9 Gallery on the opening day also witnessed my quasi-academic performance, called Saving the World Has Never Been More Possible (rus. soxranenie mira eshio nikogda ne bylo stol’ vozmozhno). I acted as a living example of the post-humanistic hypothesis, according to which the artificial self-learning of neural network that stores all possible information about us, will soon take us under total control and we would not even notice it. Not only does the neural network  include social networks, but also bank and medical records, phones and GPS navigators, DVRs, tax returns, etc. I put on a white uniform and acted as a fake technician in the laboratory of post-humanism, and collected personal biographical and audio-visual data of visitors for over 2 hours. After each interview, I immediately calculated the life expectancy and extent of the future socialisation in a post-humanistic society of the respondent. Additionally, respondents received a copy of their personal chart. The first “object” of my survey, turned out to be a Russia Channel journalist, who dissatisfiedly sniffed and glanced at the clock and demanded to hurry up, finish my research and give him the result. However, much to his disappointment, I could not speed up the process even for the Russia Channel. The journalist had to play an unfamiliar role of an interviewee and answer many uncomfortable questions about the extent of his homophobia, patriarchal attitude and intolerance.

In general, our (Anastasia’s and mine) trip to Murmansk was very positively perceived by the local artistic and literary community. Many local artists and poets met us warmly, invited us into their ateliers, shared with us the details about the cultural life of their region, and even involved us as participants in art projects. Moreover, I gave a lecture on modern poetry in the Murmansk scientific library, organised a meeting with local poets and performed in the legendary punk club Floating Dock (rus. plavuchii dok) with a song, to which the Murmansk youth willingly danced.


Anastasia Vepreva, after the opening of her exhibition, held a meeting with Russian and Norwegian journalists. Two poles of perception of contemporary art were revealed during this meeting. The majority of Russian journalists showed a fair share of scepticism and distrust of Anastasia’s artistic language. In their opinion, a large number of artists cannot draw “normally”, that is traditionally, nowadays. Therefore, the questions of Russian journalists can be summed up into one: “Can you paint?”. Journalists from Norway, in turn, were interested in quite other matters. In particular, how Anastasia makes ends meet, and where she gets grants. This polarisation of journalistic opinions is largely symptomatic. Anastasia Vepreva, working with different media and new technologies, has no professional art education and belongs, according to some Russian colleagues, to the line of the “poor of the Western-oriented art”. However, in the face of well-known conservatism of the Russian academic tradition and practical absence of modern art academies in Russia, this fact is probably an advantage for an artist. There are few arenas ready to exhibit contemporary art in Russian regions. If in Europe, the lack of demand for young artists is caused rather by a general overproduction of graduates of the art academies, then in Russian regions, it is due to lack of infrastructure, both spatial and educational.

Speaking about the gap in the perception of art in Norway and Russia, we must stress that this break is not inside of art, and has a number of objective political and socio-cultural reasons. In terms of the British theorist, Peter Osborne, we would have to talk about coexistence of different historical, political, and temporal situations in a single global space. In the Russian regional context, the artist needs to start almost any art practice that does not confirm established art conceptions of a lonely artist creating unique works, from scratch. In Europe, in turn, non-spectacular and critical art holds the focus primarily on ethics and political economy of industrial relations within art institutions, and in wider social field. That is why, an active cultural interaction across national borders between the Northern regions of Norway and Russia, is today almost the only possible step to gradually overcome the state of suspicion and distrust towards the contemporary art in Russia, and to acknowledge the figure of the modern artist as a legitimate creative worker.

Translation from Russian: Sylwia Hlebowska

Text in Russian

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