Joseph Backstein at the opening of Between the Lines exhibition at GRAD.

Joseph Backstein at the opening of Between the Lines exhibition at GRAD.

This winter GRAD Gallery in London hosts Between the Lines, a collaborative project by students from Goldsmiths University and Institute of Contemporary Arts in Moscow. The exhibition is the artists response to a series of workshops and seminars undertaken during a 2015 summer school held at the Academic Dacha near the town of Vishniy Volochek. Curated by Stanislav Shuripa, the exhibition is a part of an ongoing programme of creative exchange between the two institutions. Our Editor Theodora Clarke met with Joseph Backstein, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Moscow, and Evgenia Bonèvert, one of the artists participating in the exhibition, to talk about the Institute’s activities, its summer school and the state of contemporary art in Russia. 

Theodora Clarke: Could you tell us more about the summer residency project you founded which brings together British and Russian artists? Why did you decide to set up this international cultural programme?

Students at the summer school / Courtesy of ICA Moscow

Students at the summer school / Courtesy of ICA Moscow

Joseph Backstein: Our residency project is an important part of our international collaborations and partnerships with different international institutions. The summer school was a very good opportunity for us to bring together students and teachers from our school with other institutions. For example this time we partnered with Goldsmiths at the University of London. The residency is located near the town of Vyshny Volochek, in between St Petersburg and Moscow. We have found this place over 20 years ago. It is beautiful and quiet, surrounded by fields and forest. Artists could spend ten or twenty days with us in this nice atmosphere. It was important also that they could talk to each other directly without any obstacles.

TC: How many artists did you host? And how did you go about selecting them?

JB: We hosted approximately twelve Russian artists and eight British students from Goldsmiths University. Russian participants were selected from our students at ICA, after discussions with Stanislav Shuripa, the curator and one of the professors at our contemporary art institute in Moscow, and other professors. We choose the students with the most interesting work. Another requisite was that they also should speak fluent English, as it was essential they are able to communicate with their international colleagues.

TC: What is the main objective of the residency? 

JB:  Is not so easy in Russia to create opportunities for artists to express their ideas without any problems. We wanted to provide our students with an international context, and to meet their counterparts in Europe. We have been running this programme for many years now, and we started with an art school in Goteborg, Sweden before extending our partnership to include Goldsmiths.

TC: I am interested in what you have achieved with the ICA and this residency programme. You could argue that the majority of artistic training in Russia is very traditional, along the lines of the Imperial Academy of the Arts. I have met several Russian artists who have told me that they acquired their technical skills in Russia but they understood conceptual art only when they went to the West. The ICA plays an important role therefore in promoting contemporary art in Russia today.

JB: You are right, Russian artists have very solid technical skills.  One of the reasons behind the residency was to open up international perspectives and practices to our country’s contemporary artists. It is similar in ideas to conceiving the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art. I wanted to re-integrate Russian art world into the international art scene, because Russia is still quite isolated. That is why we believe that this kind of projects are very important for Russian artists. These are artists from different countries and backgrounds who get to spend time together, and it is an incredible opportunity for them to communicate face to face and collaborate.

TC: Is there also going to be an exhibition of their works in Russia?

JB: Yes, we are planning an exhibition in Moscow as well.

TC: How much does the State support contemporary art? There is an impression in Europe that in Russia it is only the more traditional arts, such as paintings in museums or historical palaces, that receive state support.

JB: You are right that contemporary art is not supported very much. For example, ICA is constantly applying for various grants and it is an independent financial institution.

TC: We are all aware that the current UK-Russia political relationship is tense. I am a great believer in cultural diplomacy and the ability of arts to transcend politics. How were your projects affected by the political situation?

JB: Well we are not affected directly in that our programmes have gone ahead despite this. However, today it is of course much more difficult to secure the sponsorship for future projects due to the financial situation.

 TC: Evgenia thanks for joining us. You are a current student at ICA and participated in their summer school last year. Could you tell us more about your background and how you ended up taking part in this intentional residency?

Evgenia Bonèvert (third from the left) at the opening of Between the Lines exhibition at GRAD.

Evgenia Bonèvert (third from the left) at the opening of Between the Lines exhibition at GRAD.

Evgenia Bonèvert: I was born in Snezhinsk, a Russian city in the Urals, and studied graphic design at the Architecture Academy of Sverdlovsk. After my fourth course at the Academy, I moved to France, where I completed an MA in Graphic design. French education has a different approach comparing to Russia; they taught me to think in a different way. Afterwards I decided to move to Berlin, because I like their culture and language. There I went to a meeting with Taus Makhacheva, where she talked about her work and her studies at the ICA in Moscow. Her ideas and her way of thinking resembled for me the dialogue we had in France during my course. After several years abroad Europe I decided to return to my home country. I was specifically interested in the philosophy of art course, which Stanislav Shuripa teaches, who as my Professor is the curator of our exhibition. 

TC: In this exhibition you present Sous les Pavés, la Neige, a video installation. Could you tell us more about the work and the concept behind it?

Sous les Pavés, la Neige by Evgenia Bonèvert / Photo by Anna Prosvetova

Sous les Pavés, la Neige by Evgenia Bonèvert / Photo by Anna Prosvetova

EB: I have been talking to people about this work at the exhibition’s opening, and it made me understand my work much better. Frequently, an artist creates something, following the intuition and his inner thinking, but explaining it to other people helps to formulate the idea better. It very much reflects my impressions after returning to Moscow. In France we were just discussing art and created new works, while in  Russia I felt that everything is crumbling and falling apart. In my work I wanted to recreate this scrappy reality, formed of bits and pieces of information, that people receive everyday. It is difficult to understand what is going on in the real life based on this information.

TC: Did you make this piece as a result of the summer school with the ICA?

EB: Yes, it is the result of the residency. When I met with the other students, I understood that Russian students tend to produce objects, something tangible, while I believe that the video is a more topical medium and closer to contemporary art today. It was my first time of working with video fragments.

TC: How did you find this experience of working alongside British artists?

EB: I think for me the difference was not so radical, because I have spent time working together with French and German artists. I think the intensity of the residency influenced my thinking process. When you are entering the art world, you would like to try everything, but there comes a point when you start directing your creativity along certain lines, which you formulate for yourself.

TC: There was substantial press in the UK about artists being excluded from Manifesta 10 due to political subject matter. Do you, as a contemporary Russian artist working today, have any concerns about censorship?

EB: I think I have not really had a chance to experience censorship yet. I think it definitely exists, but it is difficult for me to formulate it now. Certain restrictions are hanging in the air and you know that there are themes, which one should not talk about. Even during the residency in the middle of the countryside one always remembers about these restrictions, though it did not influence our discussions or work in any sense.

JB: I would like to add that there is no censorship of our artists at the ICA but I think due to the current environment there is instead a strong sense of self-censorship.

TC: Thank you.

All images are courtesy of GRAD gallery, unless otherwise stated.

Please visit the website to learn more about the ICA in Moscow and their summer school