Culture/Triumphs of Decor: Nation as a point and gadge

Maxim Zhbankov


Being one of the most poorly funded spheres of society (0.56% of the annual 2014 budget) culture in its sovereign variant loses even the ghostly opportunities to participate in the social planning and shaping of values. In this situation equally problematic are both innovative and reactionary practices: both do not affect the innermost layers of mass consciousness. The war of cultures is naturally transferred to the sphere of the profane, replacing existential choice with the fight for consumer preferences.

At the same time the work on the cultural archives is becoming more intense, moving from cataloging to conceptualizing. The tradition (including the informal one) starts to be mastered not as an absolute dead canon, but as a natural basis of self-identification of local culture activism. Accordingly, the former struggle for a certain type of the targeted “political” is transformed into a struggle for specific forms of the national culture – ranging from multimedia statehood to trendy versions of cultural autonomy and social mobility.

‘Motherland Light’: dress-making courses

In the absence of a global social confrontation, real market competition and the underlying shifts of people's soul, the cultural partisan struggle is simplified to the size of sound satires (a revived program by Liavon Volski Sauka dy Hryška on Radio Liberty), anti-Soviet couplets by a folk-punk band Dzieciuki (‘Young men’) and blokey chants with foul language about sports and freedom by Brutto – a music brigade under the direction of Sergey Mikhalok. The war with unformatted culture in its turn dries out to the size of administrative pressure of unwanted characters (e. g. prohibitions of Zmicer Vajtiuškevič’s and Brutto’s concerts in Minsk, the breakdown of the presentation of Victor Martinovich’s book in Hrodna, and continuous trials of Lohvinau Publishing House).

In this context, a sharp mass explosion of interest in the local that covered almost the whole of 2014, looks rather a coincidence of a number of external and internal factors than the result of someone's intentional efforts. In the situation of the Russian annexation of the Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, the Belarusian regime needed a preventive Patriotic counterprogramming of mass consciousness. A conventional rehabilitation of the off-pattern ‘belarusianness’ gave a chance to the activists of the cultural alternative for a creative reload of the project. A new generation of Belarusians who were late for the ideological battles of the late 1990s – early 2000s, could make use of a post-political national design.

Commercialization supplemented a former glorification of the Belarusian. The Belarusian as if increased in size. But the meaning of it has rapidly squeezed into quick identification signs: classical embroidered shirts turned into embroidery printed t-shirts, sarcastic souvenirs from Adliha design studio on the shelves of the Ў gallery gave way to romantic badges with national poets Maksim Bahdanovič and Janka Kupala, and ornament samples with lengthy explanations appeared on the video screens of Minsk trams.

Trendy singer Max Korzh – a star of post-barricade generation – appeared on the cover of his new album Domashniy (‘Homey’) in an embroidered shirt. Minsk and Homiel night clubs responded to a series of club parties It Is Cool to Be Russian with a series of special programs It Is Cool To Be Belarusian. Belarusian language courses pop up like mushrooms after a spring rain: Minsk language courses Mova ci Kava split off, its branches and counterparts (Mova TUT, Mova Plus, Lemantar) emerged in Brest, Hrodna, Maladziečna, Niasviž and Homiel.

The mix of national romanticism with market analysis became a characteristic feature of unconditional readers’ favorite of 2014 Victor Martinovich’s novel Mova (‘Language’). In the near future the nation will die, the nationalists will go into battle underground, in the center of Minsk Chinatown will appear and Chinese gangsters will start trading with the best dope – pages of Belarusian printouts. Here a number of several canonical stories of the 1990s appeared – a heroic myth of the Belarusian Renaissance, depressive trash-high-tech-cyberpunk Noir, urban gore and political pamphlet. In all its dimensions the text of Mova is quite simple and therefore ready to be consumed by Belarusian beginners.

The situation is ambiguous: a new market of the local extends the range of consumers of the Belarusian, transforming a war of cultures into the competition of gadgets. But fashion is short-lived. Belarusianness has become a popular trend and enters the field of rough rotation, which makes its future uncertain.

Tomorrow was yesterday: games of the stagnation era

The state system of cultural production and non-system culture activists spent one more next year in the atmosphere of an almost complete mutual disregard. Each party is no longer able to offer the whole scheme of meanings – and thus cannot convincingly compete with the opponent. In this situation, the struggle for the minds becomes purely ritual: stagnation confrontation is a freeze frame that does not assume victory.

The main events of the subsidized movie culture were two controversial projects: White Dew. Return (dir. Alexandra Butor) 1 and Abel (We, Brothers) (dir. William De Vital). 2 In total they drew off the main annual funding, both received the status of national films and both sounded as minor and second-rate. In the case of White Dew. Return it is a pale sequel of an old lyrical comedy. Patriotic thriller Abel turned first a Hollywood run-of-the-mill stuff and after – a public scandal: the budget funding received beyond the creative competition, mostly went to American partners, the film was delivered to the governmental customer with the violation of all the terms, a Belarusian premiere date was announced three times and three times it was postponed.

The alternative culture also worked in a mode of self-repeat with a decorative upgrade. Hramadaznaustva 3 – the first album after the break with the N. R. M. band of cult rocker Liavon Volski – showed a set of the same brand topics (from human alienation to the crisis of state show-business), produced in a depressed key and tinted with an unusually neat sound from invited Norwegian masters. Alhierd Baharevich, the best novelist of his generation, has published a couple of non-original books compiled from the already known essays and columns (Kaliandar Baharevicha and Nijakai litasci Alhierdu B.). The iconic rock band Zygimont Vaza released their album Ahramegapolic recorded as early as in 2008.

In the inertial field of administratively managed cultural preferences any step away from the standard is still considered ‘desecration of Holy places’. The project Re:Pesniary (producer Sergey Budkin) suggested a non-canonical interpretation of Pesniary’s songs and came under heavy criticism of Vladimir Muliavin’s heritors, who prohibited the publication of a number of tracks. A former member of Pesniary band, composer Vladimir Molchan accused the participant of the project Anastasia Shpakovskaya of distorting the ‘author's intention’ in the song Prayer and banned the singer to perform it.

The update of the showcases of the native culture in the reporting period was mainly due to the review of store-rooms. A new trend has become ‘museality’: a post factum semantic packaging and the target display of the already shown. The description of artifacts moved to systematic presentations.

The resonant events – albeit in different ways – were a large-scale exhibition named Ten Centuries of the Belarusian Art (National Art Museum, March-July 2014), a nostalgic art project named Summa Summarum (Museum of Modern Fine Art, Center for Contemporary Art, November–December 2014) and a pretentious exhibition named Avant-gARTe. From Square to Object (BelExpo, Museum of Modern Fine Art, April-June 2014). If the first two projects showed a certain purity of the genre (majestic demonstration of the historical heritage of the nation against the chamber exhibition of experiments of the late 20th c. from the legendary Minsk The 6th Line gallery), the third tried to combine a semi-official Museum didacticism with current art practices, ‘archiving’ the live. In the end everybody was hurt, including the audience.

Along with the updating of the archives the reverse process can be observed: the invasion into the canonical museality of relevant techniques of forming meanings. In this respect the opening of the new building of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk and Ruslan Vashkevich’s exhibition, Come and See in the Palace of the Rumiancevs and the Pashkevichs in Homiel (November 2014 – January 2015) are symptomatic. At the new Museum a basic ideological myth of ‘the Great Victory’ is transformed into the form of installations and multimedia. As for Vashkevich, he mastered the aristocratic space of the Palace in a usual manner of an art troublemaker, having decorated the halls and galleries with his naive and reckless graphics and provocative painting. But in any case the intervention of the senses in the museum field is not able to turn the Belarusian museum into the resource for tomorrow.

‘The new mobile’: hitchhiking, psychedelic, market

Internal disunity and clan-based fragmentation of the Belarusian cultural field negate any models of promotion and growth of certain characters and initiatives. The Belarusian culture remains a collection of disparate signals and closed local groups where the line of success and symbolic significance turn out to be very short – up to the borders of the area of residence of a certain pride of culture activists. In this situation, the most active choose to be creative outsiders. The main vector of this strategy is the rejection of global messages, corporate obligations and systematic support.

A real cultural hero of the year is not a barricade-sports singer, Sergey Mikhalok, but a skinny Minsk guy, Roma Svechnikov, who hitchhiked around the world using pure enthusiasm and youthful insolence. Roma Is On the Way is a series of author reports on 34mag web-site that has become an event primarily because of a new role model. Svechnikov’s type is a mobile single who has no social obligations and public rituals, a person with a zero geo-referencing. The life of a rolling stone is the plan for a new generation that does not appreciate stability. The possibility of ticketless trip looks here a coherent alternative to emigration. And the right to leave is more important than group solidarity.

Similar processes occur on the music stage: the place of the previous ‘warriors of light’ is taken by local shamans and Glass Bead gamers. One of the heroes of the year, according to the resource is Evgeny Kuchmeino (aka project “.K”). He lives in the town Iwye, listens to grunge, noise and black cabaret, writes acoustic nerve mantras close to Bauhaus or to the Russian art rock band Auktyon, sings in three languages – Russian, Belarusian and in one of his own invention. Kuchmeino makes himself and connects to global trends directly. Without aggressive fundraising and speculations on decorative folk spirit.

Another landmark project is a psychedelic trio Тоnqіход, a missing link between the Piesniary and King Crimson. In their album Pradmova (it got four awards at the ceremony 2014) the mind-blowing hyppyish 1960s are compatible with the passion about conceptual art-rock, and archival patterns of Jim Morrison and Robert Fripp go well with new lyrics of frontman Uladz Liankievich. Kuchmeino and Тоnqіход move contrary to the usual local schemes. These are people as if from nowhere, but they are just the bearers of acanonical ‘Belarusianness’.

Mobility as a label of new cultural sensitivity is polystylism and eccentricity, love to street aesthetics and sarcastic posturing, markdowns of heroic rhetoric and the ability to love garbage pop, knowledge of rules and their conscious breaking. This field saw such different people as mincing pop band Akute (Reaĺnaść i sny is the album of the year, according to Euroradio), radical Kiev-resident Belarusian Sergey Prilutsky (a collection of poems Heroj Epohi Stabilnasci and prose Deheneratyuny Slounik from his rowdy alter ego Sirozha Pistonchyk) and ambient folk aesthetes PortMone (the group of the year, according to

‘The new mobile’ are not only the style and creativity, but also flexible forms of marketing. A typical example is a series of informal events under the general label of Jam Market (Minsk, March, June, August, December 2014). Judging by the lack of administrative repression, these initiatives are less disturbing for the authorities than the actions of culture partisan like Dzieciuki. This is in fact easy to understand: Jam Market works in a defiantly apolitical mode of a market of crafts and/or hipster hangouts. At the same time, in form and content they are quite comparable with their Berlin and Brussels counterparts, indicating the possibility of another Belarus – the one without Belarusian Republican Youth Union, Belarusian TV and Special Police Force.

The structure of the ‘third culture’ does not only set the fashion agenda. It marks the reality of the phantom Belarusian culture: a cultural market without a cultural market and a dosed freedom under the supervision of the colonial administration.


The evolution of the cultural situation in 2014 confirms the trends indicated in previous reviews. 4 A general project of nation-building is absent as a fact. Therefore, there is no and cannot be an ideology of a common goal. The culture of a new formation is not created in a traumatic emotional Belarusian ghetto, but in breaks and pauses of a dead canon of the state sample, coming through the language of power and noises of ideologies. The most needed in this situation is not new thinking, but a new consumption: a ‘conscious’ national project takes to the streets to trade badges and t-shirts, ‘belarusianness’ adapted for club fun and traditional entertainment.

The year before the “national” had started its expansion in the ‘lowbrow’ genres. In 2014 it (for the first time after the Renaissance 1990s) received the status of fashion. An advanced Belarusian turned from the ideological culture partisan into a user of pop design. In addition all of the latest jacks and the string bracelets are created, replicated and consumed – as before – outside of the official state culture. This reduces the public effect of the boom of embroidered shirts, making it the property of the engaged (mainly capital) minority.

A chaotic growth of culture ‘from below’ in the absence of a coherent cultural policy ‘from above’ in the long term can lead either to self-organization of a qualitatively new cultural establishment, or to the next wave of cultural colonialism (presumably from the ‘Russian world’). In any case, we will receive new dictators of taste and new formats of native Belarusian culture insurgency.