Social parasites and downshifters: counterintuitive culture

Maxim Zhbankov

Summary

In 2016, Belarusian culture confirmed its secondary status (0.52% of the annual state budget) 1 for the authorities, and fell hostage to economic circumstance. The two prevailing trends in society – growing alienation from the neighbour to the East and a continued drop in the standard of living – have knocked the cultural process off the agenda. Apolitical, prestigious leisure culture and the decorative, militant underground both proved to be equally insignificant and scarcely capable of influencing the situation. The fact that 2016 was officially named a “Year of Culture” changed nothing in that respect, and simply confirmed the total paralysis of state cultural policy.

Owing to the lack of any real prospects for altering the cultural matrix, tactics for “mild collaboration” with the regime, cautious legalisation and meaningful artistic activity within legal limits are now being applied. This widens the range of potential consumers and is paving the way for the formation of a national mainstream. However, due to the political stagnation and reduced support from abroad, such new “middlebrow” culture has a strong chance of lapsing into mediocrity and conformity.

Trends:
Dropping standards: parti-zans and social parasites

Although 2015 saw a range of clashes between state bodies and non-format cultural activists (from the banning of concerts to the court case against Logvinov publishers), 2016 went by in relative peace and serenity. For some reason, it suddenly became possible to talk to the authorities about a concert tour by militant brigade Brutto. Following the murals painted on factory walls in Minsk’s Oktyabrskaya Street, foreign artists produced several large-scale pieces of street art in various districts of the capital.

McDonalds hopped onto the Belarusification bandwagon with Belarusian-language advertising. “Blacklisted” Lavon Volski and Zmicier Vajciuškevič played everywhere from Minsk underpasses to private venues. The Belarusian National Youth Union organised “Embroidery Day” and presented its new range of embroidery-print T-shirts. Even the commander-in-chief himself made a public appearance in an exclusive cornflower-patterned, embroidery-print T-shirt, while the national football team rebranded itself as “The Team Under White Wings”. However, two things prevent us from perceiving this as a sign of the long-overdue “liberalisation”: 1) the state power pyramid continues to have the last word on the fate of any cultural initiatives, and 2) the cultural products it does permit tend to be devoid of meaning.

Signed by the president on July 25, 2016, the “Belarusian Cultural Code” 2 was declared “unique” and “the first in the world”. Nevertheless, it was still a compilation of older state solutions which treat culture as a branch of the national economy, subject to stringent registration and supervision. Consequently, special expert commissions were set up at the ministry of culture to assess whether a given cultural activist could be deemed an “artistic worker”. Over the year, certificates were issued to 26 artists (out of 47 applications), thus exempting them from the “social parasitism” tax (as per Decree No. 3 of April 2, 2015 “on the prevention of social parasitism”). Nevertheless, Roman Zhigaryov, leader of the popular band Akute, was unable to convince the experts of his cultural worth. 3

Having proclaimed 2016 the “Year of Culture”, state cultural managers only managed to offer the nation another bunch of over-hyped “events” – concerts, competitions and ceremonial meetings. According to BelTA, 4 the year’s most noteworthy national cultural achievements included an animated film scripted by BelTeleRadiokompaniya head Gennadiy Davydko, discussions on producing a series about the [Belarusian] Soviet diplomat Andrey Gromyko, and … organising concert tours to Moscow.

The crisis of protest culture cleared some room at the top of the mass-appeal charts for a new standard of works that are critical, but not harshly so. Soft Belarusification has shifted into a new phase: from active, mass-produced peasant bumpkinism to room-temperature-nationalist products. The toytown folk music of Naviband, cardboard indie-cinema of Andrey Kureychik’s Parti-Zan Film, pulp fiction verging on Japanese manga and Gone With The Wind of Viktor Martinovich’s Vozera radasci (“Lake of Dreams”), and collective seances of Mova Nanova all fit organically into the general matrix of a quiet life within permitted limits.

The clear opponent here was the wrong kind of television: the head of Mova Nanova, Hleb Labadzienka, raised a major scandal when he discovered a local petrol station showing a Russian TV channel, for which he officially reported them to the authorities. The bravest on-screen exposé was the story of the mercenary small-factory boss in Sergey Krasovskiy’s film Dushi myortvye (“Souls are Dead”), winner of the Bulbamovie 2016 festival. Naviband’s gentle acoustic ditties provided the best soundscape. Аndrey Kureychik had us believe that all Belarusian filmmakers share the same dream – to get rich quick. The best literary heroine was Viktor Martinovich’s melancholic little girl blue, forever a hostage of other people’s plans. Essentially, with their cautious flight under the radar, these “new quiet ones” were merely aping and multiplying the stagnant parochialism.

There is a new generation of trendsetters, which includes a variety of personae such as Naviband, Viktor Martinovich, Аndrey Kureychik, Hleb Labadzienka, Pavel Belous (head of Art-Siadziba), Mila Kotka (curator of the Belarusian/Brazilian festival Vulica Brasíl) and a new cultural hero, the pensive downshifter Andrus’ Horvat. They are united in their common status as independent, post-protest activists attempting to transform the system virally by slightly redesigning the parochial mental landscape.

To expand on Andrey Kureychik’s term Parti-Zan Film, such practices could be described as “partisanning” – tactical alliances aimed at unclogging the cultural process from inside the stagnating system. A forced rapprochement which will bring no decisive advantage to either side.

Partisanning’s real resource is its new heroes: weak authorities and weak alternatives. The former would like to change themselves, without changing much. The latter are ready to induce change, yet change little. The new cultural situation has basically devaluated the political confrontation and removed changing the matrix from the agenda, along with any notion of winning the ideological conflict.

The lives of others: mixes and deviations

The situation of prolonged cultural stagnation is turning both sides of the former ideological confrontation into one single crowd of extras in a global show. Periodically, this has led to strange alliances that combine the uncombinable. Furious pop-partisan and regime-critic Sergey Mikhalok officially applied to the local authorities for permission to perform in Belarus. Alternative musician and radio presenter Aleksandr Pomidorov began working for the Belarusian branch of the pro-Putin Russian radio station Sputnik Belarus. Sasha Romanova’s (auto)biographical non-fiction Martsev depicted a hero of 1990s’ independent culture – the late businessman and publisher Pyotr Martsev – as a naive political strategist trying to collaborate either with the authoritarian regime or the neighbour to the East.

A show to mark the 20th anniversary of Narodny Albom (“The National Album”) at the Podlasie Opera in Białystok transformed this collection of lyrical, dramatic songs into a rollicking costumed cabaret, which was how the Polish hosts interpreted the material. 5 The ostensibly independent cinema project Parti-Zan Film demonstrated the entire spectrum of banal official “national” culture: an ecstasy of decorative peasanthood, BNYU fervour, dances in embroidered clothing, aggressive product placement of Siabry vodka, and a military obsession with showy battle reconstructions at the “Stalin Line”.

Throughout the year, soft Belarusification morphed into permanent stagnation, leading to a revival of older formats of cultural dissidence – from last year’s emerging trend for “partisan rock” (Brutto, Lavon Volski, Dzieciuki) to intelligent conversational gatherings (Svetlana Alexievich’s intellectual club) and direct incursions into other people’s works (modifying pro-state street art). When a cheeky anonymous artist added barbed wire to an officially approved street-art mural about Russian-Belarusian friendship, it was a definite sign of the times: if you can’t get rid of it – alter the message; get your opponent to work for you; hijack their work. 6

The language of metaphor and allusion was on show once again. Sergey Prilutskiy, a Belarusian expat in Kyiv, published the book Patryjatyzm dla chajnikau (“Patriotism for Dummies”), (supposed) translations of a (supposed) North Korean author, Kim Joon-ho. The best song on Lavon Volski’s new album Psykhasamatyka (“Psychosomatics”) was the dismal Zhorny (“Millstones”): “The millstones turn; peace and tranquillity. Grinding grain into flour”. Zui, a family indie-pop project by Minsk theatre actors, recorded a track with the ironic chorus: “We’re dancing for the KayGeeBee”.

The lack of any real stimuli to upgrade the cultural hierarchy has encouraged an expansion of grass-roots creativity. Continuing to play with street post-chanson, Sergey Pukst recorded an album Nenuzhnaya pravda o belarusakh (“The Useless Truth About Belarusians”) under the new name True Litwin Beat – a salvo of plastic songs with wickedly relevant lyrics. Radical artist Ruslan Vashkevich provided a showy end to the “Year of Culture” saga by inviting Minsk audiences to an outdoor art banquet at a Minsk city rubbish dump. 7

Writer and blogger Uladzimir Sadouski published the first Belarusian-language zombie horror novel 1813, which tells of Michał Kleofas Ogiński doing battle with undead Napoleonic soldiers. His book was published thanks to crowdfunding, which gained ground in 2016 – internal funding also resulted in cultural projects such as Volski’s latest album, Horvat’s debut book, a compilation of rock covers by Stary Olsa, and the aforementioned Martsev.

A combination of industrial wastelands and cutting-edge activists led to a real boom in creative spaces: in Minsk alone, the now-familiar Tsekh and Imaguru were joined by Korpus, Verkh, XYZ Canteen and other, smaller projects. Natural outcomes of this newly created environment were infighting, conflicting interests and struggles for influence which, perhaps for the first time since independence, could be seen as nascent competition in the cultural environment (unprecedented in the official or alternative cultural fields).

Alongside the state film festival Listapad, the Belarusian-Polish Bulbamovie, and the radical Cinema Perpetuum Mobile, 2016 also saw the debuts of КinoSmena and the Totoshka Film Festival, a personal project of filmmaker Ivan Maslyukov, based in Minsk with a series of festival screenings in the regions.

Another element of this new topography was a range of distinct cultural “escapes”: an art zone in Kaptaruny on the Belarusian–Lithuanian border; Alhierd Bakharevich’s literary notes Bezavy i chorny. Paryzh praz akulary belaruskaj litaratury (“Lilac and black. Paris through the lens of Belarusian literature”); Andrey Kudinenko’s outdoor collective film project Khronotop (“Chronotope”); a series of regional art projects by Ruslan Vashkevich; and Andrus’ Horvat’s online postings. Effectively, the cultural process is being decentralised and deliberately cleansed from the aura of Minsk. The spontaneous experiments of Kudinenko’s team, Bakharevich’s poetic analyses, Vashkevich’s art events and Horvat’s subtle, self-absorbed lyricism have one main feature in common – they offer a chance to get off the beaten track for a taste of non-ceremonial, non-textbook national identity.

Conclusion

The dynamics of the cultural situation in 2016 were entirely in line with trends we have indicated in previous reviews.

The state continues to view culture as subject to control and management, preferring to invest not in creative innovation, but in yet more piles of instructions and circulars. An acute drop in the nation’s standard of living and income, together with overall ideological and stylistic confusion, plus an outflow of the most prolific figures from the state sector all indicate a clash between subsidised cultural output and what hypothetical consumers actually require, proving that the current cultural policy is not up to the job. The servile cultural order is increasingly irrelevant, but the same thing is also happening to alternative culture as it adopts increasingly lowbrow mass-entertainment tactics.

Collages and remixes are becoming a natural form of artistic expression in the vacant, stagnating environment – attempts at partisan incursions into the state-endorsed cultural field. They are transforming the previous “war of cultures” into a global show with a diluted ideological message that relies on one-off emotional effects.

Freedom and language are no longer the top new themes. The true confrontation is emerging not between state-subsidised and protest cultures, but between two versions of national identity – the cartoonish, embroidered one (which tacitly legitimises the socio-political status quo) and the problematic, nonconformist one (which is breaking new ground).

The cautious beginnings of competition and self-funding are making non-state creative culture brighter and more dynamic. The former underground is gradually becoming a marketable product; a fact which, in the Belarusian situation, is depriving it of integrity and intelligence.

An accumulation of symbolic post-political cultural capital is underway, which inevitably implies a focus on lowbrow dialects and strategies, as well as an active cluttering of the cultural environment, where global mythologies are being exchanged for localised effects and the chaotic rise of new creative communities.