Post-National Culture: Life in defiance of concepts

Maksim Zhbankou

Summary

Due to the lack of effective political action and a proper cultural market, the administrative powers of the authorities are still the main instrument for provisionally organising the cultural environment. A logical effect of the general stagnation in the higher echelons of the cultural process is how new non-format artists are being swallowed up by the old “strong” canon. The main resource for recruiting audiences (and boosting artists’ reputations) is something which used to be secondary in the past: media scandals and public conflicts.

The on-going state monopoly over the main channels for spreading cultural information, and cultural censorship are both leading to a reanimation of partisan culture in two dimensions: the myth of the hero, and the domain of cultural activism. The new generation of cultural heroes is choosing not massed attacks, but personal manoeuvres, and a disassociated retreat towards the margins of the inertial cultural process. We are seeing the continued mass reproduction of blurred identities and a multidirectional cultural background.

Trends:
Twilight of the heroes: weak technicians in a time of strong authority

The general situation on the cultural scene is like an extended calm before each new surge of ideological, aesthetic confrontation. The administrative powers of the authorities are still the only instrument for provisionally organising the cultural environment. This was demonstrated in particular by the BelExpo-Art 2012 triennial of contemporary art which was launched in Minsk – an officially approved version of the Belarusian art process which raised lots of questions with its extremely assorted participants and provocative absence of any clear concept.

The main activity of Belarusian artists in this era of terminal stability is the rehashing and expanded reproduction of a cultural mythology that was engineered by others. As a result, the symbolic capital of heroes from the time of national and cultural self-determination is inevitably devaluating.

The former captains of our hearts are quietly shrinking into provincial mass entertainers: Lavon Volski, the best songwriter of the 1990s and 2000s, now works in the clowning cultural enlightenment genre, with his Nazad u buducyniu (‘Back To The Future’) programme on BelSat TV. The leader of the new wave of homespun poetry, Andrej Khadanovich, mostly publishes translations and poetry for children. Ihar Varashkevich, frontman of the legendary band Krama, now plays cover versions in a gastropub. The radical writer Algerd Bakharevich is modestly occupied with his daily roundup of memorable dates on Radio Liberty.

The formerly rebellious rock band NRM played in the preliminary heats to select a song for the Eurovision contest. Following the failed triumph of Masakra (‘Massacre’), Andrey Kudinenko – Belarus’ most creative film director active today – went back to work in Russia. Hard rock band The Toobes – the musical sensation of two years ago – now play more frequently in Warsaw than Minsk, and are seriously considering relocating.

A logical side-effect of the general stagnation in the higher echelons of the cultural process is how non-format artists are being swallowed up by the extant “strong” canon. The most brilliant unorthodox thinker, Valantsin Akudovich, published a weighty Kniha pra Nisto (‘Book About Nothingness’) – an attempt to philosophise “according to the rules.” Objectively, this experiment by an “alien” to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the academic community turned out to be an all-round failure, both from the point of view of the originality of his ideas (constant, limited references to tradition) and the quality of his attempt to join the hermetic, corporate world of “orthodox” humanists.

With the canon of “great” culture depreciating in the background, any innovation seems like something from the past. Another premiere by the Janka Kupala theatre was Miestackovaje kabare (‘Small-Town Cabaret’): a show from the past featuring that maitre of nostalgia, the singer-songwriter, actor and showman Viktar Shalkevich. Zmicier Vaitsiushkevich’s new disc Wojaczek is a double dose of retro: a project based on poetry by Poland’s “damned poet” of the 1960s, which was launched about seven years ago. Winner of the Jerzy Giedroyc literary prize in 2012, Uladzimir Niakliaeu’s novel Autamat z haziroukaj z siropam i biez (‘Soda Fountain with or Without Syrup’) was another missive from a country where time has stood still: notes by the former youngster are interspersed with notes by the presidential candidate. Politics alternates with old-time cinema, spies, underground charmers, girls, the Crimea, lemonade, hepcats, and denunciations. Hovering above this crazy circus is the all-seeing eye of the secret services. The past is the present, and there is no way back because you have never even left.

The old ways are also alive and well at the national cinema studio Belarusfilm. The only “news” was an initiative by the studio’s new head, Oleg Silvanovich, to fortify its former status of junior partner in co-productions with neighbouring countries. Certain adjustments were made, however, as the studio moved into the prestigious art-house genre. It gained some media resonance with its production support for Sergey Loznitsa’s new project V tumane (‘In the Fog’) – a German, Russian, Dutch, Belarusian, and Latvian co-production which was successful at Cannes (winning the FIPRESCI award for best film in the main competition). Since the film was based on a story by Vasil Bykau, it was a pretext to declare a “victory for Belarusian cinema.” However, not one single full-length feature film made by Belarusians was released last year.

The stupor of the local culture industry blurs all assessment criteria and makes any competition pointless: in this country, there is simply nobody to fight with over audience figures, or to compete with over quality. The main resource for recruiting audiences (and boosting artists’ reputations) is something which used to be secondary in the past: media scandals and public conflicts.

Hailed as the “first Belarusian youth TV series” last year, Andrei Kureichyk’s Vyshe neba (‘Higher Than the Sky’) project turned out to be… a full-length feature film, edited and shown to audiences against the will of the United Nations Development Programme, who commissioned it. A work-related conflict gave Kureichik’s crew an excuse to accuse the UNDP of political censorship and infringing creative freedom, and to bombard the media with letters and grievances. All this drew attention to their edit of the footage, which was quickly uploaded to the Internet.

2012 saw the continued formation of a post-ideological cultural field – a territory of weaker (second-rate) players – in which the second-hand zone is expanding in response to political entropy and social stagnation. Old heroes turn out to be “new” (in tune with the changing landscape), i. e. they dry up and fade, and their former fight becomes mere media spectacle.

The return of the partisans: manoeuvres in occupied territory

The lack of any obvious signs of a renaissance due to the ongoing state monopoly over the main channels for spreading cultural information, and unfailing cultural censorship (blacklists cover everything from banning concerts by “disloyal” artists, and monitoring events at the ¡ gallery, to removing “treacherous” film critics from the jury of the Listapad (‘November’) film festival) are all encouraging a reanimation of partisan culture, which has been buried more than once in the past. Conspiratorial tactics, evasive manoeuvres, one-off subversive art actions, spontaneous discussions, chaotic cultural management, the habit of living regardless, and a basic mistrust of state bodies – in practice, all this has turned out to be nearly the only way to create relevant culture here and now. Previous calls to move away from partisan tactics (cf. Artur Klinau) today sound like starry-eyed, intelligentsia fairy-tales from another brilliantly failed “thaw.”

The partisans have returned in “two columns”: as a new old heroic myth, and as methods for cultural activism. The first is a case of renewed attempts to formulate the basic principles of national consciousness, while the second concerns creative self-preservation techniques for a hostile environment.

One example of the reanimation of national heroism was the folk-punk project Ludzi na balocie (‘People of the Marsh’) from Hrodna. After releasing an eponymous debut album featuring rebel songs (seemingly) from the Belarusian People’s Republic era, the musicians (by then a militant project entitled Dzieciuki (‘Lads’)) discovered their concerts had been banned by the administration. The vaguely partisan charm of Ludzi’s rough sound, and the band leader’s harsh public statements seem like a pale shadow of music from the belligerent nineties. The project is derivative, and only capable of impressing neophytes and frightening the authorities, whose views are equally inertial.

Active efforts to raise cinema standards may also be seen as an attempt to foster “partisan” creativity in 2012. They appeared as a series of private, grant-funded “young warriors’ courses,” brief cinema schools and blitz-festivals, such as the One Short Film Fest in February 2012. Content- and format-wise, the open lectures of Uladzimir Matskevich’s Flying University may also be placed into that category – a quick intro for those who find officially-approved cultural fodder is not enough.

This trend was also maintained by the Warsaw Belarusian cinema festival Bulbamovie, which this year augmented its traditional film screenings with a competition for shorts by young film-makers. Kirill Nong’s online debut opus, Snimat na porazhenie (‘Shoot to Film’), was also impressive in this context – a 48-minute amateur movie with gunplay, whose stars are… making an amateur movie with gunplay. They have the technology, but it does not grab you or mean very much.

Currently, independent initiatives of any calibre and orientation are unsynchronised and hasty. There is no hub capable of generating any clear concepts. There is no system for conveying ideas, and no growth vector. This kind of culture is created in a hurry and, consequently, gives birth not to a new elite, but to small packs of ambitious dilettantes. It might be a way to recruit new blood for a cultural production system (although it would need to be polished and filtered first), but no such system exists, so no ideas are being conveyed, just oratory techniques.

New faces: speeches in defiance of the show

The acute sense that previous movements of culture and cultural movements have been exhausted is reflected not only in the chaotic “partisan” events and general stylistic collapse. In 2012, the key figures of the cultural process turned out to be completely new – creative characters on the deserted stage in this era of ideological death. This is life after a nation, or rather in defiance of our previous understanding of a nation.

In this respect, the sensational text My pakalennie LAST (‘We Are Generation LAST’), published online at the start of the year by the young writer and critic Usievalad Scieburaka, was extremely revealing: “We are Generation LAST… Coming next is not a generation of Belarusians, but a generation of citizens of the Republic of Belarus”. Scieburaka convincingly records the death of hopes that “Belarus could be Belarusian”, essentially declaring not the demise of “Belarusianness”, but its more radical, romantic interpretation along the lines of “one nation – one language – one ideology – one path”. The reality has turned out to be polycultural and multilingual, so everyone must redefine themselves from scratch.

The band Lyapis Trubetskoy are still actively monetising their prickly, non-format style. Their latest album Rabkor reduces former fighting hymns to the level of rhymes fit for the unwashed proletariat who populate Lyapis’ new videos. Soviet-vintage protest rock has successfully mutated into a popular yob style – heroic epics straight from the local pub.

The Art Aktivist website is going down a similar path. Initially intending to be an active player on the Belarusian art scene, this portal rapidly transformed into an inessential collection of links and footnotes on the life of the local art community. At the same time, the radical projects of the site’s boss Siarhei Shabokhin are in odd harmony with its pretentiously neutral style, which successfully swaps relevance for decorativeness.

Many projects from 2012 shone with the reflected light of bygone styles. Unwavering nostalgicists Serebryanaya Svadba (‘Silver Wedding’) are still the darlings of the experty.by website, and the band’s latest CD booklet comprises a series of postcards of iconic retro pictures, ranging from the Merchant’s Wife by Kustodiev to Marilyn Monroe. Svadba’s new style is equally archaic: decadent lyrics meet 1990s’ Balkan pop and 1980s’ Moscow neo-futurism. Algerd Bakharevich is busy sifting through the archives: his compilation of essays Hamburhski rachunak (‘The Hamburg Bill’) is a striking experiment in settling scores with Belarusian literary classics. Meanwhile, Siarhei Budkin’s Tuzin: niemaula (‘Dozen: Infant’) project aims to reanimate Belarusian silent cinema through screenings featuring new soundtracks by contemporary musicians.

The basis for the Radius nulya (‘Zero Radius’) exhibition project (curated by Ruslan Vashkevich, Olga Shparaga and Oksana Zhgirovskaya) was a collection of artefacts, a quasi-conceptual presentation of other people’s material. Here, the ambition to interpret the experience of the noughties came out as a selective public opinion poll which resulted in a chaotic exhibition “approved by the art community” and held in dead workshops at the Horizont factory. Material seeking a concept but failing to find it. It is also symptomatic that the Belarusian–Polish design competition We-2012 (Belarusian curator – Mikhail Aniempadystau) did not offer an integral vision of Belarusian identity, but rather a collection of references to everyday life, language, historical facts, and dead heroes.

The most noteworthy new faces in Belarusian culture are locals expertly tuned into foreign wavelengths. The Mahiliou guitar band Akute combined catchy Britpop melodies with affected vocals reminiscent of early J:Mors, added the taste of Belarusian language, removed the politics, and ended up as the new heroes for sensitive girls and “native” boys. This is a decent commercial product for the local market. Recent debutante Palina Respublika is also more than your average girl with a guitar: this is French chanson coupled with Belarusian singer-songwriter traditions, and European indie crossed with Russian romantic ballads. Each element is in the right place, and everything works, although perhaps not yet to its full potential.

Maks Korzh’s sudden emergence was impressive: after just one year on the scene, this “boy next door”, with his good looks and jolly little raps, is already capable of filling 1,000 capacity venues and touring Russia. He turned out to be amazingly relevant with his straightforward lyrics about Saturday-night partying, gloomy buddies, and unfaithful girlfriends. For the “city centre weekenders”—kids with an average education and average ambitions, who live without big money, major-league politics and ideological battles—he was a mirror in which they were not ashamed to recognise themselves. About a decade ago, Seryoga was exactly that kind of mirror, but nowadays it is Korzh, a figure with intuitive culture and spontaneous life choices. An underdog hero of our times of triumphant stability.

A very interesting new band singing in English is Clover Club (winner of experty.by’s best newcomer of the year prize). Compared to the dull hipster retro revival of recent years – scrupulous replays of foreign templates from various ages – this group stands out with their lively, entertaining material, enhanced by the musicians’ genuine enthusiasm and charm. Different patterns of meaning and growth logic are at work here: distinct music by distinct individuals. They have Europe on their minds, not just on their banners and stickers. This is a new island in the Belarus archipelago.

The new generation is choosing not massed attacks, but personal manoeuvres – a disassociated retreat towards the margins of the inertial cultural process. This is not emigration, but a switchover to another broadcasting frequency. Experiments in life and writing in a country swept by draughts of information.

What is “ours” is irreversibly losing its clear-cut markings in terms of values, style and language: here, “Polish” Vajtsiushkevich merges with “European” Vashkevich, “pro-Russian” Kureichyk and “British” Clover Club. There is also new physical theatre, experimental electronica, online video… The competition for national cultural mythologies is quietly turning into a design contest.

Conclusion

The evolution of the cultural situation in 2012 showed that trends underlined in previous reviews have become established and reinforced. The real life of Belarusian creative culture has split away for good from the state, which now only maintains its policing and bureaucratic functions. New Belarusian culture is life after ideology, a partisan movement in a realm of devalued cultural symbols.

Internal emigration – a characteristic trait for unorthodox Belarusian artists – is now transforming into “free swimming”, disregarding the system and no longer hoping for its support. “Individual” artists are converting the new culture into a zone for personal practices, spontaneous situational games that go against any ideological or style barriers. Polystylism and multilingualism are becoming the most relevant forms of “Belarusianness,” and the best tactics for local artists are remixing and recycling.

2012 was marked by expanded reproduction of blurred cultural identity. It saw the final shift from quasi-Soviet cultural provincialism to the polystylism of European-type post-ideological culture. In the future, one can anticipate the definitive formation of a new generation of unorthodox Belarusian artists – “citizens of Europe” who express themselves predominantly through international projects, with very few links to the existing patterns of state cultural policy.