Before the Invasion: Conversation with Vasyl Cherepanyn

I sat with Ukrainian curator Vasyl Cherepanyn on the afternoon of Thursday, February 18 for a conversation via Zoom. The situation in Ukraine was already tense because the Russian army had strengthened its forces on the Ukrainian border and there was constant, alarming media focus on the threat of invasion. Still, everyone hoped it wouldn’t happen. We didn’t finish the interview that day and agreed to continue the next week because I wanted to ask one last question—about the future. I always ask about this not only because I’m curious, but also because it gives perspective and hope. After almost a week had passed, on the morning of February 24, we awoke to news that Russia had launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with air bombing across the country and tanks entering Ukrainian territory. The future had become unimaginable in an instant.

Vasyl Cherepanyn is head of the Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC), an institution founded in Kyiv in 2008 as a platform for collaboration among academic, artistic, and activist communities. Since 2015, VCRC has also organized the Kyiv Biennial. The 2021 edition of this international event was curated by the East Europe Biennial Alliance, a group consisting of Biennale Warszawa, Biennale Matter of Art Prague, OFF-Biennale Budapest, Survival Kit Festival Riga, and Kyiv Biennial. Titled Allied, it revolved around a range of past political alliances to imagine viable solidarities in the future—a political imagination and strategy that proved too necessary, too late, to prevent the atrocities of the current war.

Société Réaliste. Culture States. 2008–2012. Exhibition view from the Allied–Kyiv Biennial 2021, the House of Cinema, Kyiv, 2021. Photo by Oleksandr Kovalenko

Inga Lāce: I would like to start our conversation with the Kyiv Biennial. The first edition, The School of Kyiv, was launched in 2015, right after the Maidan revolution and annexation of Crimea by Russia. And it seems like the 2021 edition was driven by a similar political urgency—by political activism and deep engagement in political discussion. What is the Biennal’s role within the art ecosystem in Ukraine?

Vasyl Cherepanyn: Kyiv Biennial emerged as a side project of the Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC), which is an unprecedented quasi institution in the Kyiv scene because we have managed to unite and keep together so many formats simultaneously, and to maintain an international dimension. Our intention with the first Kyiv Bienn­­ial, The School of Kyiv (2015), was to show our political practices to the outside world, to make knowledge of Maidan translocal. Our strong emphasis has been on educational and discursive formats—lectures and discussions emerge from the fact that almost all of us at the Center have university backgrounds in cultural studies. We have always thought about a general sociopolitical context and how inter-institutional solidarity can be built up; in fact, in the very beginning, we were partnered with almost every cultural institution in Kyiv but then we scaled back. A significant social feature of the country at war is that many of the institutions that were partners within the Biennial either don’t exist anymore in their previous form or no longer want to collaborate. The war has affected the social fabric of the art ecosystem in Ukraine. The international agenda that the Kyiv Biennial promotes is, of course, not accepted by everyone; however, we have managed to gain public support over the years. Within the context of the Biennial, we ourselves have become the other—or foreign in a way—because the local context is unfamiliar to many participants.

IL: How would you describe the effect of Maidan on the Ukrainian art scene?

VC: Maidan itself was a Gesamtkunstwerk, or a sort of a Beuysian artwork; it was a playground for many art initiatives, including the Open University of Maidan, which we ran on the square. It was only after Maidan that a political focus became compulsory and unavoidable in the art field. It’s a beautiful aspect of democracy—in Ukraine, art can have a political impact, unlike in many countries in the West. Perhaps this is because our cultural institutions are not so autonomous as those operating in the West. That’s why politics and art have been so connected and why what happens in art has the power to impact education, and even politics.

IL: I was in Kyiv for the first time last autumn, during the Biennial, and I could feel the heightened sensibility toward all events in the region—much more than I have ever felt before in the Baltics. It was also a lively meeting point for the Belarusian artists and curators in exile, who were facing persecution in their own country. Coming from Latvia, which is under the protective wing of the EU and NATO, I could not fully relate to the alarm at the time. Now I see the grave difference between having that political privilege and not.

VC: First of all, the Russian occupation of the Ukrainian territories is actually in its eighth year, as it started with Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. The horrendous situation we are in right now was spoken about for months beforehand. The threat of imminent military invasion put the whole population in Ukraine under a lot of pressure. However, neither the people in Ukraine nor those elsewhere believed it would really happen. We can compare it to the situation in the American movie Don’t Look Up—we received so many warnings and yet did not take them seriously enough. The ongoing war became urgent to the wider Western and global public when the military threat grew to the extent that it began to endanger the whole European region in an unprecedented way.

IL: There was a lot of speculation regarding what Putin wanted when he started the recent escalation. Before it began, common assumptions were that he wanted attention and to be taken seriously by the West. This sounds extremely cynical to me, coming from a smaller country within Eastern Europe.

VC: It is unprecedented how much we have heard about this one person—about what he thinks, what is on his mind, what he really wants. I am skeptical of this sort of pseudo-psychoanalysis, this so-called Putinology. It may be part of his strategy to keep everyone busy thinking about what it is that he wants. And I have always wondered whether there is, in the West, a hidden, obscene admiration for this Russian “strongman.”

The current situation is also connected to Russia’s national agenda. Ukraine represents an alternative that is not welcome, that in Putin’s mind should not exist. In Western Putinology, however, everybody imagines that Putin is trying to reconstruct some type of Soviet Union, but, in fact, Ukrainians managed to get their statehood before and also within the Soviet Union—so he is actually doing the opposite. Russia’s politics throughout the last twenty years have been about disregarding and breaking the borders set in Soviet times. The war is basically driven by the fear that uprisings in Ukrainian Maidan, Belarus, or Kazakhstan could become too powerful to change what has become status quo in the region and in Russia itself. The biggest problem for Russian authorities is that they don’t have a mechanism for the transition of power. That’s why any kind of revolution, or even its proximity, creates panic. With Maidan, we in Ukraine toppled a corrupt and bloody president. You can compare it to the Arab Spring or any of the other “square-occupation” movements across the world that have created alternatives, and are unpredictable.

Already in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbas, people wondered, “What is the limit of the West? To what extent will the West be waiting on and discussing whether or not to intervene?” There was even a joke that while the European Union was taking its time to make a decision, Russia took Crimea. In that case, we saw clearly that the EU was not willing to intervene until Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian Buk missile over eastern Ukraine. It was only when EU citizens had been killed that sanctions were introduced. When it only concerns Ukrainian citizens, their lives appear not so valuable to the West. To paraphrase American philosopher Judith Butler, whose lives are grievable? As it turns out, Ukrainian lives are not grievable enough.

IL: The pragmatism of global geopolitics.

VC: Well, your willingness to engage changes depending on how close you are to what is happening—and whether or not you are directly affected. Otherwise, it’s just about imposing trade sanctions and not about real counteroffensive steps to stop whatever it is that is going on. That’s why I think the situation is much more dangerous—because of this unfortunate attitude.

IL: I would like to circle back to the Kyiv Biennial. The 2021 edition looked at alternative models of solidarity and analyzed Cold War alliances between the Global South and Eastern Europe, among other issues. Notions of post-socialism, postcolonialism, and decolonization were also incorporated through lectures and exhibitions. How do you see the relevance of these discourses in the context of Ukraine and the region in general?

VC: The problem here is that the discourses around postcolonialism and decolonization are perceived as a way to criminalize Ukraine’s socialist past, which is, historically, a false idea. I also think that such discourses have to take into account the variety of conditions in post-Soviet countries, from the Baltics to Tajikistan to Ukraine. The Kremlin’s attempt to include Ukraine in its orbit has nothing to do with socialism per se, but rather with toxic imperialism. The post- or decolonial trend in the West is about the past prior to the emergence of the nation-states. With regards to Eastern Europe, paradoxically, decolonization is about the past and the present during the existence of the nation-states. The best remedy to treat postcolonial impact in Eastern Europe is to study revolution. It’s a super-revolutionary region—here, the political developments are defined predominantly and fundamentally by the revolution, and almost everything that has taken place in the post-Soviet space after the collapse of the USSR has been defined by fear of revolution or by revolution itself—by the Singing Revolution in the Baltics, the Orange Revolution and Maidan revolution in Ukraine, and by recent events in Belarus and Kazakhstan. I’m here in a revolutionary position—to aid in facilitating better understanding of this region and what’s at stake.

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