The role of art in times of crisis and social transformation in Ukraine – expert discussion

What is the role of art in the process of social transformation, what can grassroots initiatives and NGOs do for society – these questions were discussed by artists and curators at a discussion held at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

We should change attitude towards IDPs
Young directors, painters, sculptors and designers looked for ways of reconciliation and understanding with internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the framework of the project “Through art to understanding: Kyiv small opera as a cultural and educational space for dialogue and unity”. According to Anastasiya Herneha, head of NGO “Tochka Dotyku”, their mini-plays, art projects and performances tried to break barriers in Ukrainian society caused by the war in the East, and to create a positive, non-discriminatory attitude of the general public towards IDPs. “We researched the responsibility of the artist during the crisis, presented new approaches to the cultural institutions: to implement cultural projects that promote social changes. We conducted film clubs, theater studies, workshops for artists, taught new approaches to create works of art, to understand how a country that is experiencing a conflict can promote reconciliation of the society, how to avoid hate speech,” said Anastasiya Herneha. She said IDPs were directly involved in the development of performances and art objects.

Art should develop alternative schemes of thinking
Lesya Khomenko, artist, co-founder of art group “REP”, curatorial of the association “Hudrada”, believes that art, above all, must work with the language. “We will not understand anything until we give it a name and describe. We have found ourselves in a situation of binary information. Because of the information war, our brain wants to divide everything in good and bad, in very simple schemes. Art is almost a scientific platform to develop alternative points of view,” she believes. According to the artist, art is a slow tool which does not act at once, it is a kind of laboratory producing an alternative scheme of thinking, and this, in turn, requires that artists constantly analyze themselves, deconstruct their stereotypes. “Art has other tasks: not to explain, call to action, not to become an alternative journalism or cultural diplomacy. Our methods may be unpopular and hard, but in order to deconstruct something, art must move away. Criticism of art also requires distancing,” explained Lesya Khomenko.

Theatre and civil society
Anton Romanov, director and co-founder of “PostPlayTheater”, noted that the current Ukrainian theater exists in two versions: either it pretends that nothing happens and continues to stage usual light plays or resorts to “hurray patriotism”, which is not very different from Soviet times, changing only “flags and anthems”. “The mouthpiece in the information war should be the media, not the theater. There is no need to tell the audience that the country is at war – they know it. We must raise more critical issues when speaking about upbringing of civil society and teaching critical thinking. Artists should not say what to do, they are not smarter than the audience. In times of changes artists have to change themselves – and as a result society will change,” said the director.

Museum is a public debate moderator
Oksana Barshynova, curator, head of research department of art XX-XXI Centuries of the National Art Museum of Ukraine, emphasized that the museum should have the courage to shape its values instead of being the state policy tool. “Art should give a person the opportunity to understand the situation independently. Museum is only a moderator of the discussion about human values. That is the reason why it is useful to society in these difficult times,” explained Ms. Barshynova. According to Kateryna Chuyeva, representative of the National Memorial complex of Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred – the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity, culture should be primarily in people; they should be its bearers and creators. “Though we were afraid that a risk of ideologization would appear and that we would be instructed on what and how to do, the Maidan museum became a unique example of cooperation between governmental and civil initiatives. The museum is a laboratory for building civil society – practices that emerged during the Maidan. We have never had such an experience, but civil society needs development,” explained Ms. Chuyeva. According to her, now there are more than 200 thousand material objects, including the infamous “yolka” in the holdings of the future museum.

Public spaces and decommunization
Evheniya Molar, curator of the project Soviet mosaics in Ukraine of “Izolyatsia” Fund, participant of self-organized art movement “DE NE DE,” noted that decommunization in Ukraine has stimulated the research of art space and ideology reflected by it. “Artists are involved in these spaces; they are exploring them and interacting with local communities who either use these spaces or not. They receive food for artistic reflections while traveling around the cities. At the same time they actualize these spaces which used to be cultural objects (e.g. houses of culture), but became rudiments. Cinemas become the shopping centers, and libraries – the commercial offices. We try to bring them back to their authentic functions so that they again should become the objects of cultural infrastructure,” explained Evheniya Molar.

Where is the target audience?
Olga Sagaydak, co-founder of Charitable Fund “Mystetski Nadra”, project manager of the project “PogranCult: GaliciaCult,” stressed the problem of lack of audience for cultural projects. “In Kyiv (the city of 5 million population), only 15 thousand people visited “DonKult,” which included 80 free events. In Lviv – 10 thousand, in Kharkiv – 11 thousand people. When you close your News Feed on the Facebook and turn on the TV, you realize that nobody knows about these events. We are creating this product, and we are also consuming it. We should think how to unite these initiatives into one powerful force that could reach people,” explained Ms. Sagaydak. She believes that there should be a quota on television at least for announcing and informing about such cultural projects.