Alexandra Stepanenko: “Burning Man is the pursuit of a more creative and connected existence of between people in the world”Interview
Oleksandra Stepanenko is a Ukrainian artist, one of the first female muralist in Ukraine, whose works are represented in Kiev and New York. This year for the first time she took part in the event “Burning Man,” the largest international experiment to create a society of freedom and radical self-expression, as one of the founders of the project “Ai.Tlants”.
In an interview with Roxana Rublevskaya, Alexandra told about the problems of street art in Ukraine, the intricacies of participating in international art festivals and their grant programs, as well as about preparing for the Ukrainian “Burning Man.”
What is the reason for your choice to leave the field of graphic design and retrain as a painter and a street artist?
My occupation as graphic designer and 2D graphic artist was a compromise between the altrusitic desire to paint and doing applied art as a means to earn a living in the difficult conditions of our economic situation, which does not favor creative initiatives. I have always viewed this as a temporary measure until I could do work in which I see value and meaning. Traveling through the cities of Western Europe, I saw a lot of monumental paintings, which by that time were very popular, unlike in Ukraine. The texture of the sleeping areas is gray and oppressive, so it was decided to bring the buildings in our city closer to the best seen patterns, because we do not always have the opportunity to engage in large-scale reconstruction and restoration. The skills that I mastered while working in the gaming industry made the task much easier for me.
That is, the work of an illustrator in the gaming industry contributed to the emergence of confidence in the artistic practice?
In technical terms – of course. Having considerable experience behind my shoulders, I can independently prepare the entire layout: first in digital form, showing the client, and then sketching a sketch on the existing square.
Do you always make a preliminary layout?
If I receive such orders or I think its necessary for a monumental painting myself, clients dictatorially demand a sketch (laughs). First, they want to understand what I will do.
Recently, the murals in Kiev have become incredibly popular. When and why did you first start in this area of art?
My first monumental canvas was a collaboration with the artist Grishau on the boiler room wall in the courtyard of my building in 2012, which happened long before the beginning of mass “muralism.” It was a completely experimental macro-level initiative. The organization, to put it more simply, which was very successful, was divided into 4 stages: the development of the layout, informing the residents of the nearby territory, fundraising and the process of creation. To my surprise, 90% of the reviews were positive, which made it possible to resolve the issue of financing. Not only residents of the city, but also the press showed unprecedented interest in the mural, because then the city walls were practically sterile.
Why are there so few women creating murals in Ukraine?
In my opinion, the specifics of creating works of this format is not close to everyone, both from an artistic point of view and with respect to physical efforts. Perhaps the last factor played a role in the current gender proportion in this area, but these are just my guesses. Nevertheless, I know women in this area, I take their example and believe that art will win gender stereotypes.
Many art lovers consider murals too decorative, devoid of provocation and social issues, why, in your opinion?
Muralism was originally born in Mexico in the 1920s and became the reaction of young artists to the Mexican revolution, which proclaimed new ideas, raising the people to the struggle. In addition, everyone knows the first representatives of muralism: Diego Rivera, José Orozco, Carlos Merida. Murals have always been a propaganda mouthpiece, next to huge drawings you feel tiny, and all the slogans are consumed against your will. In Ukraine, the murals really are more decorative.
Why is there a stereotype that real street art is not a mural, but social graffiti is the city’s living voices?
This is the logic, given that these are different genres. Mural – is still a monumental painting, developing as part of an ensemble, which form the architecture, sculpture and landscape. It is technically difficult for it to emerge spontaneously, unlike graffiti, and its creation requires more time and resources. As a result, it is not uncommon for people with access to permits and finances to speculate on this topic, imposing their ideology on the authors. Graffiti is made in one session: writers leave behind a message. Bombers paint cars, residential buildings – this is a protest format of a conversation with the audience, calling to pay attention to the current socio-political problems.
In your opinion, is street art occupation a response of the artist to sociopolitical phenomena or an exclusively design decision, an attempt to improve the appearance of the building?
I feel very keen to the era in which we live, and I am deeply worried about the events taking place around me, so I try not to explore the socio-political situation. In my work, I deliberately choose escapism, flight into the world of utopian scenes, so it seems more decorative. The motivation is the monotony of the architectural rhythm and color solutions of mass Soviet building, which, with the great exception, I consider an aesthetic crime against humanity.
How, in your opinion, is street art to gain recognition in society and professional circles, because many still relate to it biased?
I think that there is a contradiction in this question, street art by nature does not strive for professional recognition. Perhaps this is my idealistic opinion, but most of the performers of the genre, having chosen the street as their audience, pursue other goals: first of all, to convey the idea of freedom and mass character. Although the story is replete with many opposite examples: Banksy, Invader, Ron English, Shepard Fairey, whose names have become common nouns. Ukraine is still a very young state, and just 6 years ago, street art was not considered seriously. It does not imply preparation for viewing and appeals to the collective unconscious. Abroad, many famous artists, leaving their paintings on buildings, raise the value of real estate in entire areas. This phenomenon is called gentrification. When the author’s fan base is great, art of any direction may be claimed.
How to monetize Ukrainian street art?
I think, to persevere, we must develop our own national style. To be active, productive, promote the uniqueness of each author, organically fitting into Ukrainian art. In the era of social networks, only thanks to Instagram and Facebook artists actively promote their names.
What fundamental problems, in your opinion, significantly complicate the comprehension and study of street art in Ukraine?
Our society is traumatized by the Soviet monopoly on art and aesthetics with the standardization of artistic images. The iron curtain has not yet collapsed in the public consciousness, but has enough inertia to be inevitable.
What formed your artistic language?
Deliberate naivety in my plots is rooted in escapism, an attempt to get away from reality, playing on contrasts, and filling with figurative images facilitates this perception. A great influence on me was the work of an illustrator in the game industry. The desire for anatomical precision, realism and aesthetic richness are characteristic of many of my works.
How did your art project Ai.Tlants (2018) come about?
Ai.Tlants is the result of my desire to participate at Burning Man and share my art with the community as an artist, and create a full-fledged art project with the support of BMorg. Initially, the idea lay in the plane of the 3D mapping, and I applied for an art grant in conjunction with VJ Reinish, consulting on specific issues. Alas, we did not receive a grant from the official organizers, which affected the team’s fighting spirit. Since the project was non-profit and was implemented on its own, the first losses were not long in coming. Being an ideological inspirer, in the end, I managed to interest the new team and, refusing the concept of mapping, we started to work. Creating a spectacular video presentation helped to attract the attention of the producer – Yaroslav Korets – the founder of the Ukrainian Berner community, which made our task on the main front – financial, much easier. We managed to get a grant from the Ministry of Information Policy of Ukraine. In the future, we will repeatedly change the concept of the project and lose some members of the team due to the difficulties of USA visa policies. Dozens of volunteers were involved in the work, helping in all directions. Our project, having passed the test of communication and an aggressive desert environment, incessant round-the-clock dust storm, complemented by daily temperature drops of 40 degrees, was completed successfully. Total, in the final form, our team consisted of the following participants: Yaroslav Korets – the producer of the project; Vyacheslav Gudenok and Alexey Tronchuk – welding and construction; Gennady Zhuga and Fomov Roman – electronics; Stetsyuk Vitaliy – design, visualization of the project; Dumik Sergey – audio effects, purchases.
How did the idea of the project presented at Burning Man come about? Why did you decide to touch upon the topic of human interaction with the latest technologies of their creation?
The theme of Burning Man changes every year and, by coincidence, in 2018 the organizers announced the theme “I, Robot”. At that time I was working on the development of a virtual reality technology startup as a concept artist, and it so coincided that together with this team we began to implement the project “Ai.Tlants”. That is, the emergence of the idea itself was quite an organic process, in view of the circumstances, and difficulties arose, rather, at the stage of its implementation. First, we were forced to abandon the mapping technology, because we did not find a specialist who was ready to work in a team: we could not find a common language with someone, some refused when they learned that we did not win the main grant of the program.
Burning Man is a kind of aesthetic rebellion against the predictability of traditional art. What is necessary to get into the ranks of the participants, those who are considered leaders of radical self-expression?
There are unfamiliar social principles at work during the Burning Man event. People come there to give something to others, help each other, implement joint ideas. Our society, which has survived decades of dictatorship, perceives both art and interpersonal relations only within the traditional framework. Burning Man is a qualitatively new level of creative communication, the “ocean of pure elements”, in which there is a place for the complete acceptance of a myriad of creative initiatives and the opportunity to realize any project by joint efforts. It is the desire here and now to come to the aid of others in the realization of miracles of a different nature is the threshold for full entry into the community of Burning Man. True, this is exclusively my subjective vision. The first regional Burning Man pre-party event – Precompression event took place from May 26 in Kiev at VDNG, and in the summer of 2019 first full format regional Burning Man event will take place.
It is important that there is no competition at the festival, there is no criticism, and therefore, there is no sense of competitiveness. Artists from other projects can help. The fact is that the sculptures created during the Burning Man, successfully sold after its completion. They are beginning to be interested in museums, collectors and city administrations. Many installations adorn the streets of Los Angeles, New York. For example, a sculpture by Alexander Milov was purchased by a collector from Budapest. Modern art museums take sculptures to the archives, and especially popular projects are actively exhibited.
Ukraine in 2019 for the first time will become a regional platform for Burning Man. Tell us more about how the training is going?
There are two side-format festival – PreCompression, which takes place in different cities around the world, where there is a community of “Burners”, and DeCompression – which follows after the main event. The policy of these festivals is the same as that of BurningMan: there is a grant fund for the implementation of the ideas of artists. We have already held 2 festival events with consulting support from the American official organization, and in the summer of 2019, from June 14 to 16, for the first time there will be a “Regional Burning Man” held in Ukraine. Now there is a process of choosing a location. The festival has a million grant fund for the implementation of art projects. I would like as many artists as possible to find out about it, and take part in the Burner movement.
Has your work been influenced by other artistic practices? Who are your inspirations?
This list is endless, but the first and main form of aesthetics, for which I hold on, is graphics. My favorite artists are Scott Hansen (ISO50) and Jetter Green, as well as the photo artist Reuben Wu – they all have a certain geometrism and clarity, which is certainly close to me as a person who has devoted a lot of time to graphic design. Also, a direction that is little known in Ukraine is surf art. It combines surrealist plots based on authentic surfing. These are simple to understand, escapist-utopian works by Jay Alders and Rick Piper, depicting the vibrant lifestyle of surfers. Among traditional artists, Nikolai Roerich is very close to me in spirit. In my pictorial art, I am inspired by his etudes, paying attention to the aesthetics of sacredness and deep immersion into the landscape.
Three recommendations that you can give to the future Burners?
I think that the main thing is to be productive in your work, to share ideas with others, to inspire them to transmit this impulse to the world. Do not be afraid to apply for grants. It is much easier than it seems. For example, besides the main grant program, Burning Man, there is one more – Global Art Grants.
This grant can be applied not to the installation itself, but to a process that implements the 10 principles of Burning Man and Civic Ignition. The project must be interactive, that is, provide for complete immersion and interaction with the social environment. Thus, to embody an idea that will receive a grant can be in your hometown.
What topics are included in your research?
I often work with the theme of what is sacred to me: Nature. I want to convey to the viewer universal values in a classic presentation, to let people think about our role in the world. I also often reflect on Zen and deep meditation. I am interested in how harmoniously we could coexist with the world, if they were conscious – they would responsibly treat their actions and words.
Could you talk about your painting practice?
My works, as I mentioned above, are meditative, there are many surreal things in them – immersion, merging with the Universe. Formally, these are landscapes painted in oil on canvas, and the basis of the compositions is often geometric figures. In them, as in the murals, a certain monumentality is felt. I like to put small figures on the foreground in order to demonstrate the insignificance of man before the power of nature and higher powers, his minor role in our world.
Edited by Roxana Rublevskaya