After five weeks in St. Petersburg, adventure after adventure, and lots of lessons learned, I feel like I’m on my way to having an absolutely awesome research project (not that I wasn’t on my way before I got here). When I proposed this project, I was working off of a theme that was assigned for our study abroad program. For that assignment, we were looking at sites of memory in St. Petersburg, and developing short documentary films around interviews and filmed footage taken in the city. With that project in mind, I took my site, Pushkinskaya-10, and found a similar site in Vilnius, Fluxus Ministerija, and am now seeking to document their parallel existence with regard to the importance of physical space to artists and the legacy of unofficial art in the Soviet Union.
I first visited the Pushkinskaya-10 Art Center on my first free day in St. Petersburg, Sunday the 19th of June, five days after our arrival. My first impressions were remarkable because they seemed to fit my project perfectly. The place is literally tucked away in plain sight, a somewhat-sacred space fusing studio, exhibition, and living spaces. I saw a man standing in a doorway chain-smoking cigarettes and staring into space, people making music, and little repairs happening here and there. It was mostly empty, but the few visitors I encountered had looks on their faces that betrayed their confusion or serenity with the situation.
Since that first visit, I have returned at least once a week to gather materials for my project. Valentina Kirichenko, the Art Center’s young and organized International Programming Director, who I’ve been in touch with since the project idea came up, was an invaluable resource by helping to connect me to different artists and figures in the Art Center. So far, I’ve conducted five interviews with people associated with Pushkinskaya-10, and each one has been different, both in content, and circumstance.
My first interview was with Sergey Kovalsky, the brain-father of Pushkinskaya-10 and an artist who lives in the art center. I met him a week before I conducted the interview, and he seemed pleased to have people interested in his project. I arrived to conduct this interview with a small army, consisting of Sasha, Jes, Anastasia, and Caitlin. With so much help, there was not much that could have possibly gone wrong. Sahsa was particularly helpful for me, helping to get the questions across, and Jes helped to set up the visuals well. Kovalsky’s responses to my questions were mostly what I expected from him, which was nice, but also planned that way. Because he is a businessman, he has some set answers to these questions, and I had actually read most of his articles already. His big point, however, is his concept of the parallelosphere, which, to explain, takes a lot more than a blog post.
The next two interviews took place the following day, and, armed with only the camera, and Caitlin, I was a little intimidated. The first interview was with Boris Koshelokhov, an aging, chain-smoking, coffee-addict artist, who invited us into his studio with great hospitality, spending the first twenty minutes of our time making us coffee in cups that had possibly not been washed for years. Thankful for real coffee (something that I miss from the US) I accepted. Kovalsky came to watch over this interview, because Caitlin and I, obviously not phenomenal Russian speakers, needed the help of somebody who understood what was going on, so he reinforced our inability to speak with his experience from the day before. Aside from the excess of clutter and possibly contaminated coffee, we had a great time interviewing him and letting him show us his paintings, each of which he photographs.
The second interview that day was much less scary, especially so because we had already survived our interview with Koshelokhov. This interview was with Valentina, who I mentioned already. She was pleasant, and speaks English, which was just nice to know, even though we conducted the interview in Russian. Her responses to the questions were great because she is so young compared to most of the people at the art center, and for that reason, she is really hoping to bring more young people to the center. As a twenty-something who cares about the legacy of nonconformist art, she definitely brought a new perspective to my project, one that was not represented by the aging artists who actually participated in the unofficial art movement.
My last two interviews took place yesterday, and the, unfortunately, did not go quite as swimmingly as the others. The first was with independent filmmaker and actor Aleksandr Bashirov. Sasha helped me set up this interview, because he was acquainted with Bashirov at some point in the past, because they are both a part of the Russian Guild of Film Critics, and met last week by chance at the St. Petersburg International KinoForum. His film company, Deboshir Films (sounds like… debauchery?) has an office at Pushkinskaya-10, which is where we met for the interview. I had been warned about him, and was aware of his eccentric personality, which is why I was relieved to bring with me Caitlin, Anastasia, and Lena, Sasha’s wife. The four of us arrived on time to the interview, only to wait fifteen minutes for him to arrive. The interview was interesting to say the least. As I tried to conduct the interview, he was dead set on giving me lessons on filmmaking, telling me about the tragedy of the television that he had placed in the restroom, which had recently been stolen, and trying to conduct an interview with me, which led me to remind him on three occasions that the interview was with him and not with me. Although I got lost on my interview questionnaire, I was able to get a lot of good thoughts out of him, regarding the way people treat each other at P-10, and about the improvements that have, thank goodness, been made since the art center opened.
The final interview took place later that day after Lena had left us, with a sound artist named Nikolai Sudnik. Unfortunately, it was not I that conducted this interview. I called Sudnik half an hour before the interview to remind him that I was coming, and he asked me to bring him beer. Out of professionalism, I told him I couldn’t, but my beginner’s Russian made me sound stupid to him. When we began to conduct the interview, he objected to my interview questionnaire, saying that it reminded him of a KGB interview, and, therefore he wouldn’t allow me to use that. When I began working from memory, he decided that my inability to speak Russian was offensive, and that his English was definitely better than my Russian. Ultimately, Anastasia worked from memory to conduct the interview in Russian, while I sat there, fuming at his selfishness. He offered very few constructive answers to my questions, and on more than one occasion wandered off the path to talk about his adventures from the night before. Let’s just say that I was glad for more reasons than one when the interview was complete.
I will be heading back to the United States next week with nearly seven full digital videocassettes filled with footage from both Vilnius and St. Petersburg, from Fluxus Ministerija and Pushkinskaya-10, and a great number of crazy interviews. I have a lot of work to do transcribing and translating my interviews, but the fact that I have the interviews done is a relief in itself. The great thing about these interviews was not that they revealed tons of research material, although they did that as well; it was also that they taught me about conducting journalistic interviews. Setting up the interview space was something that Jes was teaching us, but getting onto the scene helped me to find a balance between the time we have, the space available, and the resources. I learned how to overcome technical difficulties, especially with microphones. The most interesting, however, was dealing with the consent forms. Getting written consent for these interviews was nearly impossible because my interviewees were so uncomfortable with signing anything that seemed official. My consent forms were written and translated in my best professional language, and that scared many of my subjects. For that reason, after jumping some hurdles that I wouldn’t have managed without Sasha’s help, I got advice from Jes and Sasha, and decided to conduct the rest of my interviews with oral consent at the end of the interviews.
I am reluctant to say it, but I look forward to getting home, and working on my transcriptions, translations, and video production. In the mean time, I hope to enjoy my last six days in St. Petersburg for all they’re worth!
Check out the rest of my adventures at monikawithak.blospot.com