The Art of Being Together: New Sociality and Participatory Practices in Ukrainian Art in 2022-2023

19 грудня, 2023

Anna-Maria Kucherenko

After the full-scale Russian invasion, it became evident to the majority of Ukrainians that coming together and standing united was the only way to resist Russian aggression. Artistic responses became increasingly integrated into the “new sociality,” which is based on constant interaction and co-creation with the audience.

With this publication, ArtsLooker continues a series of informative essays and interviews in partnership with the Museum Of Contemporary Art NGO and UMCA (Ukrainian Museum of Modern Art) about Ukrainian art during the full-scale war in the framework of the Wartime Art Archive.

Art historian Anna-Maria Kucherenko shares her thoughts on art as a means of uniting, as well as contemporary artistic initiatives working with communities to overcome the consequences of war.

Contemporary art researchers understand the term “participatory art” as one that lacks a clear definition and is rather broad in its meaning. However, its key feature is the involvement of the audience in the creative process. Mostly, it is associated with addressing traumatic experiences and the need to work with communities, meaning it is community-oriented and directed towards the public.

The shock following the full-scale invasion caused a new impetus for participatory practices in Ukrainian contemporary art.

On May 8, 2022, in the city of Kolomyia, in the then-vacant building of the Sokil organization, an exhibition titled “Our Apartments, Houses, Cottages, Garages, Offices and Backyards” opened, initiated by the artistic collective Prykarpattian Theater. The show emerged as a result of a workshop where artists invited internally displaced persons and residents of the city. During the three-day workshop, the participants of the collective, along with the workshop participants, created models from cardboard, paper, paint, and glue. The workshop's theme was simple – home and everything related to it. The houses recreated from memory in the Sokil space formed a whole city, where memories and experiences of leaving home were embodied in a collective artistic gesture. Most of the temporarily displaced individuals created models of the houses they were forced to leave due to shootings or the houses where they lived when the workshop took place.

The workshop by the Prykarpattian Theater in Kolomyia took place in the building of the former Sokil organization. Photo courtesy Prykarpattian Theater.
The exhibition “Our Apartments, Houses, Cottages, Garages, Offices and Backyards” in Kolomyia was held in the building of the former Sokil organization. Photo courtesy Prykarpattian Theater.
This artistic practice seems quite symptomatic to me of the wartime period – these are collectives formed after the invasion, with the aim of engaging internally displaced persons and residents of the city in a shared social context, encouraging the discussion of collective trauma. It is art created collaboratively with and for the community, presented in the public space that had previously fallen into neglect: the opening of the exhibition coincided with the day when the Kolomyia Small Philharmonic began giving regular concerts at Sokil for the first time. 

In the book “Community Art: The Politics of Trespassing” (2011), Pascal Gielen writes: “For certain, a community art project has only ‘succeeded’ when it realizes an interaction between the participants it was aimed at. The purpose of such interaction can be political or subversive, social as well as identity forming or, again, therapeutic. In all these cases, the aesthetical aspect serves as a mere medium.”

The shared traumatic experience encourages collective discourse and the shared experience of trauma. The therapeutic and social goals of participatory art projects and practices involve the sublimation of a defined experience, providing assistance to the community and individuals, and creating a safe environment.

During that time, many institutions and initiatives temporarily suspended their regular activities but opened their doors as shelters for internally displaced persons. These newly formed spaces became safe havens for those in need, with many being self-organized. For instance, Soma.maysternya, a dance center and “open experimental and productive artistic environment” in Lviv, joined forces with the volunteer initiative Kitchen and transformed into a shelter and a place for preparing food. At that time, 20-30 individuals lived in the space, collectively organizing their new living arrangements and discussing personal experiences and emotions.

The process of organizing the shelter later took on an artistic form resembling a musical, where participants questioned the balance between necessity and excess, the dynamics of international solidarity, and discussed dreams and desires. The musical took the form of a welcome concert – a series of empathetic messages between different locations, generations, and types of experiences. The musical has no conclusion, as all the videos obtained through this collective effort can be edited any number of times by each participant.

The shift in the art scene has not only impacted the creation of new artistic collectives and groups or the transformation of existing spaces but has also influenced the activities of emerging artists. One such artist is Masha Leonenko, who presented the group performance “Where Are You Now?” as part of the exhibition “How Are You? Exhibition and Discussion” (May 31, 2023 – July 4, 2023, Ukrainsky Dim, Kyiv).
Masha Leonenko, the group performance “Where Are You Now?” at the “How Are You? Exhibition and Discussion” held at the Ukrainsky Dim in Kyiv. Photo courtesy: MOCA NGO.
Preparing for the performance, the artist created a questionnaire where Ukrainian women with different experiences of living through the war answered specific questions and told their personal stories. During the performance, the participants read out the stories that they did not know beforehand and moved around the chairs in the space. It is worth noting that all the participants were not professional performers but people who expressed a desire to participate. Initially, the chairs were arranged in a circle — smaller ones inside and larger ones outside — with the center of the circle representing the “body” of society. At first, each participant had their own place in the space, took turns reading the texts, and then moved their chair and found a new place at the front of the performance, relying on their feelings from what they had read. By changing their location regarding the hall's center, the participants determined the proximity or remoteness of the story they were reading (and the experience of its author) to the “body” of society.

For the audience, the result of the performance is a model of our society today, as well as the way (in others’ opinion) women with different social roles and living circumstances feel in it. For the participants (and the audience), it is an attempt to understand someone else's experience and, perhaps, to comprehend their own.

At the exhibition "How are you? Exhibition and Discussion" in the Ukrainsky Dim, the audience's particular attention was drawn to three chandeliers created by the LISOVA 3 art group (Svitlana Gryb, Serhiy Spizhovyi), an assemblage object called “Vyrii” (Vortex). The story of the work's creation is connected with the return home: Svitlana Hryb and Serhii Spizhovyi lived on Lisova Street in Irpin, from where they evacuated after the start of the full-scale invasion; they returned only in the summer of 2022. The chandeliers were created from found objects that they collected in the destroyed buildings around them. The artists narrate the process of accepting loss: death, mourning and letting go. The work was first presented in the artists' studio, where they invited the local community. Familiar objects from the "past" encouraged the viewers to share their experience, which for the residents of Irpin was mostly traumatic and common. The images traced in the chandeliers became a kind of “safe” trigger that encouraged the exhibition visitors to talk about this shared trauma.

During the “How are you? Exhibition and Discussion” Svitlana Hryb and Serhiy Spizhovyi also held a series of workshops for everyone, where they worked with the participants to create paintings that were later presented in the exhibition. According to the artists: “for the participants, it was an opportunity to release creativity, which has a transformative effect.”
Workshop by the art group LISOVA 3 at the “How Are You? Exhibition and Discussion” held at the Ukrainsky Dim in Kyiv. Photo courtesy: MOCA NGO.
LISOVA 3, “Vyrii (Vortex)” at the “How Are You? Exhibition and Discussion” held at the Ukrainsky Dim in Kyiv. Photo courtesy: MOCA NGO, photo by Yevhen Nikiforov.
New participatory projects and a new artistic sociality are associated with the seemingly invisible consequences of war: a surge in manifestations of care, concern, tenderness, love, and support. The examples of artistic practices from this text, to some extent, correspond to such manifestations: the desire to help another, to unite, to do something together, to talk and go through traumatic experiences together. To care is to act. In her book “Moral Boundaries” (1993), philosopher Joan Tronto, together with Bernice Fisher, defines the concept of care as follows: “...A species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our “world” so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves and our environment…”.

When talking about the above examples of participatory practices in Ukrainian art, I have only addressed experiences that are directly related to physical space and community. The full-scale invasion meant that many Ukrainians were forced to migrate internally and externally. However, having found ourselves in different cities and countries because of the war, social media has become a common space for us to reflect, communicate, discuss, as well as volunteer, spread information and collect for the army and those who need help and support. On her Instagram account (@my_pet_spider), artist Bohdana Zayats has been collecting wartime secrets shared anonymously by different people. In the profile description, there is a link to a Google form where you can learn how to become a participant in the project and share your own secret anonymously. The artist calls it a group art project that began in March 2022.

You are invited to anonymously send a secret that was born since the beginning of the war for a group art project. Your secret can be about fear, longing, hope, anxiety, or even joy. The main thing is that it is true,” — reads the project’s description.

The artist published the secret a few months after it was sent. While some of the secrets reveal details of the sender's personal life, the secrets of other participants are reflections and reactions to certain social events. Some of these reflections are not to be said aloud in a society at war. Anonymity provides a sense of security and a desire to share the most intimate things. Comments under the posts turn into a platform for heated discussions. During the “How are you? Exhibition and Discussion,” the secrets were printed on adhesive paper, and the audience could read them and take them as stickers. Some placed the secrets near other artworks at the show, where they entered a dialogue. Eventually, the process moved to a new level: the audience glued the sticker-secrets together so that they formed a new story, assembled of different others.
“War Secret,” a project by Bohdana Zayats (my_pet_spider). Stickers printed for the “How Are You? Exhibition and Discussion” held at the Ukrainsky Dim in Kyiv. Photo courtesy: MOCA NGO, photo by Yevhen Nikiforov.
Just like with military secrets, everyone can take part in Zhanna Kadyrova's participatory project, Russian Rocket. Stickers with the image of the Russian Kinzhal missile are placed on the windows of various types of public transportation abroad. As it moves, one sees the illusion of a missile flying over peaceful cities and horizons. The project aims to share the experience of Ukrainians who live under the constant threat of rocket attacks with those who have not experienced it. Stickers can be purchased on the Instagram page of the same name, with all proceeds going to the Kyiv Angels volunteer organization.
A sticker depicting a Russian missile at an exhibition in Jurmala, Latvia. Screenshot from a video by Tetyana Lysun and Anna-Maria Kucherenko. Photo courtesy of the authors.
In the history of Western European art, participatory practices, that is, the involvement or cooperation with the audience, are not a new trend. Artistic appeals to the public were symptomatic of the events and trends in the transformation of society. The researcher and art historian Claire Bishop attributes these changes to the “social turn” she describes in her essay “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents” (2006). The social turn in contemporary art can be contextually linked to several historical events that led to political upheaval and social change: the 1917 revolution, the rise of Italian fascism, the neo-avant-garde, the social changes that followed the events of 1968, and the overthrow of the communist regime in 1989. In her book “Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship” (2012), Bishop writes: “...each phase has been accompanied by a utopian rethinking of art’s relationship to the social and of its political potential — manifested in a reconsideration of the ways in which art is produced, consumed and debated.”

Participatory art engages the viewer to become a participant and a co-creator. One of the researchers of participatory practices, Nicolas Bourriaud, believed that art is a kind of meeting space that unites and facilitates relationships between people. At the time of the greatest catastrophe, it is human relationships and interaction within society that become a crucial element of existence, we need others to live. Participatory practices equalize all participants, but create an understanding that we are all an integral, unique part of the community.

Research and development of materials, Wartime Art Archive website development, and media partnership with Suspilne.Kultura and Artslooker are implemented by the Museum of Contemporary Art NGO with the support of the Fritt Ord Foundation (Norway) and the Sigrid Rausing Trust (UK).

The text in Ukrainian is available on Suspilne.Kultura.


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