Three Stories of Art and War II
коли гуркочуть гармати- музи замовкають
The Russian invasion catapulted the Ukrainian art world into crisis, and desperate measures were undertaken to secure staff, collections, and artists. Dreams are deferred but stubborn resilience manifests as a desire to not only protect cultural heritage, but also somehow provide opportunities for continued creativity. Three institutions from all regions of Ukraine—Central, East, and West—reflect on their current challenges, on how they are coping, and what might be in store for the future. When cannons roar, the muses will not fall silent.
Mykhailo Glubokyi, an IT specialist from Kharkiv, Ukraine, is the Communications Director for Izolyatsia/iZone and a board member of Trans Europe Halles, a Europe-based network of cultural centres at the forefront of repurposing industrial buildings for arts, culture, and activism. Izolyatsia is a nongovernmental and non-profit platform for contemporary art. It was founded in 2010 in a former insulation materials factory in Donetsk and on 9 June 2014 the territory was seized by Russian Federation militants and is now used as a prison camp and torture chamber. Izolyatsia subsequently relocated to Kyiv to a shipyard warehouse where it continued its programme as both a centre for international creative industries and Ukrainian cultural activities. On 24 March 2022, Izolyatsia in Kyiv was forced to close due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This interview was conducted on 14 April 2022.
Constance Uzwyshyn, for CJLPA: Izolyatsia in Donetsk, what is going on with the Donetsk Izolyatsia building now?
Mykhailo Glubokyi: It is a prison. Unfortunately, it remains held by Russians. Stanislav Aseyev, who was released, has started looking furiously for people who imprisoned him. He managed to identify a couple of Russians who worked at the prison. As soon as they became public, they disappeared. It is not possible to understand who is behind this now and what happened to these people. Unfortunately, nothing has changed with this place. Now we have received reports that in newly occupied places, like Kherson, they are doing something similar there—building illegal prisons, holding people, torturing people, persecuting people. Unfortunately, this model is considered successful and is duplicated.
Stanislav is in Kyiv now and has joined the Territorial Defence and he is fighting and protecting Ukraine. He has written a book on the prison. It is now available in English, translated by the Canadian Embassy. It has also been translated into German, French, Latvian, and more languages.
The title of the book is amusing because the title in Ukrainian is Svitliy Shlakh (The Bright Path) and this is the street where Izolyatsia is located. So, it is a Soviet name…the ‘Bright Path to Communism’ and of course it became ironic because it is not so bright, and not so positive. The book title is The Torture Camp on Paradise Street. The funny thing is, when Western publishing houses were translating the text into French and German, we were told we could not use the description ‘concentration camp’ because it is a term that only refers to the Second World War and has another context.
This is a prison operating in present-day Ukraine, where horrific torture techniques are being utilised. This prison is, in reality, a concentration camp, beyond whose fencing no laws reach. Life there is lived in humiliation, fear and uncertainty. Wounds and burns marks cover bodies that are filled with pain from broken bones and often too, broken wills…. a secret prison in the Russian-controlled part of Donbas…hundreds of people have passed through…most of them have survived torture by electric shock, rape, humiliation, and heavy forced labour. Several inmates are known to have been murdered. No human rights or humanitarian organisations have access to the prisoners. It continues to operate. It is overseen by the Federal Security Bureau of the Russian Federation (FSB).
One important thing to remember is there are a lot of testimonies by witnesses in the UN Human Rights High Commissioners Report. This can be referenced and can be considered impartial and is proof of torture.
CU: What is happening with the Izolyatsia that had to be relocated in Kyiv?
MG: I am not able to disclose anything about the Kyiv building.
Peter Bejger, for CJLPA: What about the current programming and future programming?
MG: There are several things we are doing now.
The first concerns humanitarian efforts—at the beginning of the war we called our donors to request that funds allocated for cultural purposes be used for humanitarian programmes and we received support from the European Commission, the Danish Institute, and several other organisations. We purchase equipment and organise shelters in Western Ukraine for internally displaced Ukrainians. Our focus now is humanitarian aid.
Secondly, we are a cultural organisation, and we have no funding now so we focus on events we can manage. For example, we organise small events in cultural communities in Europe to talk about what is going on in Ukraine. Most of them are centred around Ukrainian films and include a fundraising component, e.g., ticket sales, and funds are then transferred to volunteer organisations in Ukraine.
One of the most prominent events was our participation in the London Stands with Ukraine March (26 March). We produced a video, with different people expressing their solidarity with Ukraine. There are 15 clips—most of them are artists who are fighting in the war now. We worked with Circa and they are going to publish the full videos on our social media.
We also work with Trans Europe Halles and organised a couple of solidarity events within the network and have created a number of residencies and support networks for Ukrainian artists. Our relationship with both the Institut Français and the Goethe Institute is strong, and we have been in partnership for the last four years. We have been implementing ‘iOpportunis Programme’—a mobility programme for artists and cultural professionals and funded by Creative Europe. It is called Re-Imagine Europe and is very successful.
Regarding Mariupol, our team would like to continue from what we created in 2015. This was a residency programme with ten international artists which we presented at Venice Biennale (fig. 7). We hoped to continue this experience. However, it is now complicated because of the war. It is really crazy now. What is going on in Mariupol is really important to discuss and we would like to repeat this residency, but this time have more Ukrainian artists involved. Since the first residency, almost half of the foreign artists have remained in Ukraine. This says a lot about their commitment to Ukraine.
PB: Izolyatsia today has been displaced once already, and now twice. Going forward, what are your views on the role of Ukrainian contemporary art and what purpose does Izolyatsia have during this time of war?
MG: The role of art and culture is very significant now; we can see that there is a spotlight on Ukraine. The country is in Western media, and it is important to say something meaningful. One of the main roles is cultural diplomacy…to explain what is going on here, what people feel in Ukraine, and how they see the situation. There is a very big need to take down this imperial Russian narrative. The Western world needs to understand Russian imperialism, and what it means…they don’t see it as something bad, something disturbing, something that brings more trouble.
CU: When I met you in the Summer (2021) you spoke about a new art and cultural project called Soledar in a salt mine. What is happening with this project now?
MG: Up to the last moment, the role has been providing humanitarian and medical aid, but now the entire region is not accessible. It is now estimated that over 60 percent of the people have fled, because it is on the contact line and there is a huge chance it will be destroyed. It is a really bad situation now. Some of our team members have fled and are staying in different places, yet there are many who have refused to leave.
I am very proud of how we have inspired Soledar to become active from previous projects. They are self-organised volunteer groups and are preparing bomb shelters, supporting internally displaced people. They are much more active than the city authority and government and they do this from their own initiative. This is great because before 2014 they were sitting and waiting for someone to come to do everything for them and now, they take initiative and are proactive. We see this change in our society in Ukraine.
CU: This war has shown the strength and self-determination of Ukrainians.
MG: Yes, we are determined to fight for the preservation of our identity, our nation, and our sovereignty. The word nationality is very different in Ukrainian than in Russian and how it is used in Russian and Russian propaganda.
CU: Where are you now?
MG: I have one son who is five, he is the reason we moved outside of Kyiv (to an undisclosed location) because it is better he doesn’t see what is happening or hear explosions and sirens. However, my mother is in Donetsk. At the beginning we thought it might be safer for her in Donetsk rather than in Kyiv. However, no one is safe anywhere in Ukraine and it is really frightening.
CU: After the war is over, what are your plans? Would you return to Donetsk?
MG: This is a difficult question. There is obviously a need to do something in Donetsk. The city is subjected to propaganda, without any access to international or independent media, independent culture, or discussion. We have to organise some programmes, to speak to people. It is even more important because we come from Donetsk. This means people are more receptive to us, more open to building and developing, there is a code of comradery amongst us—the people of Donetsk.
However, at this moment and time in war, it is hard to imagine how this is possible. It is all crazy, I was talking to a journalist from England and at the same time he was also communicating with people from Donetsk on Instagram. I was trying to tell the journalist it is impossible for these people to say anything except how they love Donetsk and the ‘so called government’. Either they like their government because of this propaganda or otherwise they are afraid and will get into trouble. They are not free to discuss. Even the journalist cannot understand the fact he is not [getting uncensored material].
It is very important for us to do something in Donetsk, but we do not know what this will look like. We have this plan we started to develop a couple of years ago. We want to demolish the entire complex of Izolyatsia and turn it into a memorial garden. It is impossible to work in a place which has been used to torture so many people and has such bad energy. This memorial garden will talk about Izolyatsia, and it will be the best thing to do.
The British architect Rick Rowbotham, who designed the Donetsk Izolyatsia, has already created plans for this Memorial Garden. We need to liberate Donetsk so we can do this.
This interview was conducted by Constance Uzwyshyn and Peter Bejger.
Constance Uzwyshyn is an expert on Ukrainian contemporary art. She founded Ukraine’s first foreign-owned professional art gallery, the ARTEast Gallery, in Kyiv. Having written a masters dissertation entitled The Emergence of the Ukrainian Contemporary Art Market, she is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge researching Ukrainian contemporary art. She is also CJLPA 2’s Executive Editor and the Ukrainian Institute of London’s Creative Industries Advisor.
Peter Bejger is an editor, filmmaker, and writer based in San Francisco. He was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Ukraine, where he wrote and produced a documentary film on Secession-era architecture of the city of Lviv. Previously, he lived in Kyiv for several years, where he worked as a journalist, media consultant, and cultural critic.
‘Izolyatsia Must Speak’ (Izolyatsia) <https://izolyatsia.ui.org.ua/en/> accessed 5 March 2022.  ‘Dispatches from Ukraine; Speakers: Stanislav Aseyev, Nataliya Gumenyuk, Isobel Koshiw’ (YouTube, Ukrainian Institute London, 3 April 2022) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-Pgy1SpR_8> accessed 4 April 2022; Yuri Zoria, ‘Multimedia Project Izolyatsia: Must Speak Sheds Light on Infamous Donetsk Concentration Camp’ (18 Dec 2021) Euromaidan Press <https://euromaidanpress.com/2021/12/18/multimedia-project-izolyatsia-must-speak-sheds-light-on-infamous-donetsk-concentration-camp/> accessed 4 April 2022.  Stanislav Aseyev, The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, (The Old Lion Publishing House 2021) 2-3.  ‘Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine 16 November 2019 to 15 February 2020’ (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) <https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Countries/UA/29thReportUkraine_EN.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3P4AAb58AFNAPF0zzt4NfTZ_XbHPcpOJIz1Z9XDCxdjPix3eihYU_UkWM> accessed 9 May 2022.  Andrew Anthony, ‘March in Support of Ukraine in London: Everything was Turning Blue and Yellow’ Guardian (London, 27 March 2022) <https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/mar/27/march-in-support-of-ukraine-in-london-everything-was-turning-blue-and-yellow> accessed 1 May 2022.  See CIRCA <https://circa.art/> accessed 1 May 2022.  See Re-Imagine Europe <https://www.paradiso.nl/nl/landing/re-imagine-europe/24828/re-imagine-europe/24831/?gclid=CjwKCAjw9qiTBhBbEiwAp-GE0ZA8h5CHLjRNL--BVsxbM0JfgkqPPhecww0dC85d-a8YsPX34bVaKBoCJwgQAvD_BwE> accessed 9 May 2022.  ‘In 2014, the New York artist and curator Clemens Poole was invited to Izolyatsia and just as he arrived, it was occupied. In 2015 he returned and created a project called Zahoplennya which dealt with the subject of the occupation of public spaces. The timing was unique. Izolyatsia had been taken over by the Russians. We wanted to participate in the Venice Biennale, but Pinchuk dominated the scene. So Poole created uniforms, like an army, and on the back, they had a big sign reading, ‘on vacation’. We all toured the Biennale and invited visitors to take selfies in the pavilions of countries they consider to be occupying powers. A huge number of people went to different pavilions. Some went to the former ‘Yugoslav’ pavilion which now belongs to Serbia. Some went to the Israeli pavilion, and some to the Russian pavilion. A lot of Americans went to the US pavilion to protest American foreign policy. We created a website of photos taken by visitors (https://on-vacation.info). There was a contest on the website to win a trip to Crimea. It was all very political, and a huge number of people were supportive’. Taken from an interview by Constance Uzwyshyn with Mykhailo Glubokyi in 2021.  Soledar is a city in Donetsk Oblast (Province) of Ukraine. The name means ‘gift of salt’ and the art project was to take place in one of Soledar’s spectacular salt mines.