ODRA talked to the members of the Roi collective – Antonina Kurilovich (A.K.), Varvara Grankova (V.G.), Lyuba Sautina (L.S.), Victoria Khrenova (V.K.), Anna Butenko (A.B.) – who are focused on video art and performance. The all-female group has shared how they support and inspire each other in troubled times and shared their perspectives on video art.
Roi was created in 2017 and has been exploring issues of female identity, Russian tradition and present time, as well as themes of the interaction of people belonging to a multicultural megapolis with the outside world, including nature and society.
The group emerged from an educational program of MMOMA (Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art) Free Workshops. Science 1992, it has been a leading institution in the fields of contemporary art education, implementing new methods of social science, particularly sociology and philosophy, into the system of art education.
ODRA: IS IT RIGHT THAT COLLECTIVITY IS THE CONSOLIDATING AND CENTRAL THEME OF YOUR WORK? WHAT IS IT BASED ON – STUDYING IN FREE WORKSHOPS, THE COMPLEXITY OF THE INDEPENDENT CAREER PATH IN RUSSIAN ART, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
V.G.: Every member of our group is very different from each other. Some were studying in Free Workshops, some were not, some of us are mothers, some are not. We are getting married, having kids, breaking our hearts and continuing to be a part of a group. I can’t say we have only one connection between us, but a hundred little links with each other in different directions, creating a web between five.
A.B.: I would say yes, because we ask ourselves each time discussing the video - what is the point of making this or that particular art as a group and not alone? And we try to find that point and incorporate it into the work, make it felt by us — then it can be felt by the viewer. Some things in life require a group, and art is life. For me, the desire to create art as a group is also driven by wanting to have more meaningful connections in life. The Free Workshops were the perfect place for that. And being in an art group helps personal art career a lot — we share information, connections, we inspire each other, we speak the same art language, after all.
ODRA: HOW HAS YOUR LIFE AND ART PRACTICE CHANGED SINCE FEBRUARY 24TH? IT SEEMS THAT BEING IN A COLLECTIVE IS NOW THE MOST SALUTARY STRATEGY, BECAUSE IT IS EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO LIVE THROUGH CURRENT EVENTS ALONE.
L.S.: Collectivity is the way we create our works. I remember my feeling when we decided to unite in a group — I wanted to try, although I had no idea how it would turn out. It started as an experiment that has been going on for five years. But I also work as an independent artist and in other collaborations, for example, with Rina Volnykh we made an exhibition in MMOMA about an alternative approach to girls’ upbringing. V. K. For me - yes. There is a huge attraction in individual creating. But if I do it in a group myimages/ideas/thoughts go through a group filter. So that only those remain that are relevant forall of us. Which brings me closer to the archetypal commons (which are so desirable for mepersonally since they bear a certain potential of creative power).A.K.: The group is a living being, a vibrant and constantly changing work of art. This experience of uniting the different is so unique. The process of mutual work from the birth of an idea to an exhibition is always an insightful challenge. For me, personal projects do not offer such abundance and often have only vacuum and not a breath of fresh air.
V.G.: That is just so true. It is really hard to do anything these days. It just feels a bit pointless, and unethical. But only the people around are the only thing that is real now. On the other hand, only those who passed away can be completely silent.
A.B.: The community of (mostly) like-minded people is what helps immensely in times of trouble. The results of 24 Feb have just started to unfold. We were a big support to each other during the most shocking first weeks of the said events. Obviously, the time of acute grief is not the time for art. But I personally (hopefully we will agree as a group) intend to get back to the art practice, since nobody is better off not doing their job for long. Of course, the forms and meanings will change. What saddens me is that the freedom of artistic creation becomes more and more just a theoretical concept here.
L.S.: We are not only an art group, but also a support for each other. At the end of February, it acquired a new value. At some point, we discussed the possibility of creating a work in the new realities. But now everyone has different resources, and it's important for us not to force each other into anything.
V.K.: It has added a new dimension. Being in a group is difficult. It means we have to find ways to live and work together (to understand each other). And I believe that is a practice by itself. Doing art together offers me to enter reality where I can meet another person irrespective of all our differences (or I should say - respecting them and using it as a resource).
A.K.: To be together is one of the most difficult tasks, we have overcome many difficulties in order to find in ourselves the understanding and desire to keep the collective alive. I see the most important thing – us, as a group, and value it. I think this is what keeps us going.
ODRA: VIDEOART AND PERFORMANCE ARE GOING TOGETHER IN YOUR ART PRACTICE, OR DO YOU DIVIDE THEM?
V.G.: We are mixing them! What we are doing is a videoperfomance).
A.B.: Video art, apart from being a separate and self-sufficient form of art, also makes it possible for our performances to reach more people. So we mix these forms sometimes to the point of losing the difference. We are more like following our intuition rather than formal guidelines.
V.K.: It is interesting for me how we can go through the performance (which so often stays one as long as it happens here and now) into a long-lasting form.
L.S.: One of our unexhibited works that was first a live performance, then we recreated it in a video in
a new location.
A.K.: I don’t differentiate one from the other, they are perfectly interconnecting. We mix good cocktails).
ODRA: ARE YOU INTEGRATED IN INSTITUTIONAL PROCESSES? WHAT IS YOUR ARTIST STRATEGY OF SHOWING YOUR WORKS? HOW DOES YOUR GROUP INTERACT WITH THE INSTITUTIONS, GALLERIES AND OTHER STAKEHOLDERS?
V.G.: I don’t think we really are integrated in some institutional process. There is a very supportive curator - Marina Fomenko, who organized the festival of video art Now&After. She helps us so much by showing our works! Also as solo artists we promote the Roi too. A.B.: I would not say we are currently integrated like having a gallery or something to represent us, but one of our values is definitely to stay connected to the art community, including the institutions. Creativity feeds on connections, art ideas don’t come from nowhere, they are born from current life and other people’s artworks (historical and contemporary). We love Marina Fomenko, the creator of international Now&After Video Art Festival (held annually since 2011), she is truly our god mother in video art, and another talented curator and art manager Alya Hestanti, who currently works on a career center for young artists under the Russian Art Academy’s school.
L.S.: We slowed down our activities at the beginning of the pandemic, when several projects with our participation didn’t come through. Now we don't have a strategy for promotion, but at the beginning of our activity we were more focused on the process than on the result. Is this good or bad? I don't know.
V.K.: Through the pandemics and after the 24th of Feb we have slowed down. So it is a question that we are facing now.
A.K.: The integration into the institutional process depends fully on us and how much we have actively shown ourselves. It is a difficult task and more for a manager, than for the artists. We noticed that often it influences our art works, when we want more to make something free from the desire to match the expectations of a particular gallery or an open-call.
ODRA: ONE OF THE EVERLASTING POINTS OF CONTENTION IN VIDEO ART HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE DIFFERENTIATION OF VIDEO ART INTO NARRATIVE AND VISUAL. WHICH IS CLOSER TO YOU? DO YOU EVEN SHARE THIS DUALISM OR HOW DO YOU SPECIFY VIDEO ART?
V.G.: I think we are more into visual conception in video. But it's flexible, and depends mostly on the image we want to create. In the Russian language we have a word ОБРАЗ which is something in the middle between a visual picture, intellectual concept and, most importantly, the feeling. Sharing it is our goal.
A.B.: We tend to agree more on the visual, rather than on the conceptual side. As a result, we create art that may be blurry in its concept, which leaves the viewer to decide the meaning. Thus, the viewer becomes a co-creator of our art, to some degree. There can be many meanings as a result, and an artwork and its process of creation becomes endless in time.
Regarding specifying our work, the creation of a group artwork sometimes is such a long and draining process, with having to find a mutually shared idea (and we have had a couple hundred of stillborn art ideas, really, a graveyard of ideas), then find a compromise for all the opinions (and not lose the idea in the process), time for everybody to meet, etc., so that we don’t spend much time discussing definitions. As long as something live is born, we just let it live and unfold. At the moment we have a capacity of producing a couple of good art works a year - this is where working alone might have advantages. Thankfully, quantity is not our priority.
L.S.: The visual component is very important for us. But the works are not devoid of the narrative. Sometimes it happens that by doing one work, everyone invests their own meaning and therefore the viewer has the opportunity to interpret the work with many meanings. For example, when we were cutting weeds with axes in our video “Weeds”, each of us invested her own meaning in this action. With much force, we cut out a big portion of the field within three takes and then for several days could barely move because the bodies ached so much. As a result, this has been our most exhibited work, which can also be credited in a substantial part to the excellent work of our favorite cameraman Alexey Neretin, with whom we produced our most successful videos.
V.K.: I have always been struggling to understand the border between narrative and visual. I think the most intriguing thing for me now is the point where they complement each other. People already know how to tell linear stories and how to put together visual impulses. But ОБРАЗ (and its logics) as I believe can combine them.
A.K.: I believe that visuality is one of our strongest features, an opinion we all share. Our visual style allows for multiple interpretations, as well as gives us multiple forms for expression. This to a large extent permits each of us to preserve individuality, but create something united.
ODRA: WHO ARE YOUR TEACHERS AND INSPIRATIONS? ARE THEY AMONG RUSSIAN VIDEO ARTISTS OR ARE THERE FOREIGN ONES AS WELL? WHAT ARE YOUR GUIDELINES AND IDEAS ABOUT THE FUTURE NOW? HOW WILL YOUR PRACTICE CONTINUE?
V.G.: In some way we are the best teachers of each other. I really feel for Bill Viola.
I know nothing about the future. 24th of February showed us that life as you know it can be ruined in one night, so I can’t even think about long-term planning. I know I will have a solo exhibition in a month, but it still feels a bit unreal and odd.
A.B.: I love Joseph Beuys for his otherworldly shamanic approach, Marina Abramovich for her feminine gut-wrenching trauma work, Vito Acconci for his dull repetitiveness and seemingly absurd videos, life-equaling art of Tehching Hsieh and desperation of Absalon’s Bataille.
As for our contemporaries, I like the advice I have read once: don’t search for inspiration in your current time, because you are already contemporary and we may copy each other subconsciously. Look in the past, get inspired there - then you have a chance to produce something new.
I don’t think our ideas and guidelines about the future will change. As usual, we change, our lives change, we find new forms and meanings for our art. I intend to pay more attention to reaching out to and supporting other people and be grateful for the good we have, as we may find it vanished every morning we wake up. I think this will be reflected in our group practice somehow.
L.S.: I think we are mixing sources of inspiration. It can be a film, a picture, an event or someone's artwork, we also often turn to the Russian tradition. We currently have a work-in-progress project about earth and loss, which we shot last summer, but which seems to sound even more contemporary under the current circumstances.
V.K.: Tehching Hsieh is a great inspiration for me. He came up with a question - and investigated it each time for a year. So he really took time, gave it space for reflection and let it do the work.
Every time he chooses and performs a simple action. But the duration makes the whole process not an easy thing. Not an easy thing for me as a viewer to avoid asking myself the initial question. As for the future - we need to see how we overcome the current situation.
A.K.: I am inspired by a specific atmosphere created by the Russian artist Evgeny Granilshikov, who holds out more like a filmmaker. I want to stay in his videos, relive them, each time in a different way.
Regarding the future, I know for sure — there is one and it will be interesting. We often discuss our takes on the meaning of “forever”, and lately we have talked a lot about us having each other, and we want it to stay that way, we put efforts into it.
Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1980-1981. Performance, New York. Still images from 16mm film. © Tehching Hsieh. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery.
Stefan Moses, photograph from Joseph Beuys’ set-up of the exhibition of collection Ströher at the Neue Pinakothek, Munich, 12 June 1968 Gelatin silver print Image courtesy BASTIAN, London ©Joseph Beuys Estate
Marina Abramovic during the famous performance "Rhythm 0". Naples, 1974.
Photo: Marina Abramovic Institute