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The School of Kyiv: What is the use of art?

What is the use of art and its institutions for a society in the midst of a foreign military invasion combined with an intense civic feud, and with the economy collapsing under the damage that is being inflicted both by global financial institutions and local oligarchs?

These questions have been haunting the 2nd Kyiv Biennial—entitled “The School of Kyiv” and curated by Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer—almost since the planning for it began. A month ago, the host institution of the biennial, Mystetsky Arsenal in Kyiv, unilaterally withdrew from the project, citing its inability to guarantee the safety of the biennial’s participants and the artworks exhibited. The curators immediately declared that they would go on with the project independently, in collaboration with the local art community and civic organizations.

In a country that just went through a revolution and is now going through a war, there seems to be a need to use the tools provided by art and its institutions (such as the biennial) to deal with many urgent issues. The School of Kyiv is now being based on a network of self-organized art groups and grassroots communities. Its focus on education and research aims to create a discourse around the ongoing Ukrainian turmoil—a discourse that will go beyond the simplified views of the conflict available in the mass media.

In a press conference on April 17 in Kyiv, Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schöllhammer declared that The School of Kyiv will create “a space of reflection, breaking down barriers, building bridges, and imagining scenarios for the future.” This seems like a bold promise in a situation where the so-called Minsk II agreement between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists is quickly deteriorating into what some fear could be an all-out war between Russia and Ukraine. Even though Ukraine’s capital is located nearly a thousand kilometers away from the current war zone, the repercussions of the conflict are felt in Kyiv in many ways. In the two days preceding the curators’ press conference, two political figures linked to the pre-revolutionary government were murdered in Kyiv, and their assassinations are widely perceived as attempts to destabilize the fragile political equilibrium in Ukraine.

During the press conference, the representatives of the local art scene involved in The School of Kyiv claimed that one of the roles of the project would be to reclaim the emancipatory potential of the Maidan uprising, which was quickly neutralized by Russian military aggression. This would be a major test for the transformative role of art, which has been the subject of passionate debate in the local scene for years—and is now becoming an urgent practical need.


very important initiative - one question - you state “to reclaim the emancipatory potential of the Maidan uprising, which was quickly neutralized by Russian military aggression” - was the obvious Russian Military agression the only force which neutralized the emancipatory potential? or was some other inner and outside forces present? how far you are ready to reflect it?

each uprising and revolution has both its ugly and liberating sides, and for sure maidan uprising had inner and outside forces that could have neutralized it without russian aggression. but this aggression itself is a sign of how threatening and unthinkable this uprising is for putin’s regime. for sure, self-organization, political engagement and self-education are not values in itself - it all depends on what are they used for.

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Can you say a bit more on what the Maidan uprising is, and how art fits into it?

i’ve tried to explain it here a little bit:



good - why it is for sure? what was a political desire of Maidan and what kind of structures it did create for its realisation? - would be great to hear because I guess this is a central issue and we need to formulate it.

Thanks for posting the links

political desire of maidan was mainly directed at achieving more equal distribution of wealth, end of russian colonial domination of ukraine, and end to police violence. it thus can be described as a spontaneously leftist desire that took liberal and nationalist forms because it lacked political language of its own. the structures that it created were actually all structures needed for a parallel society, run by the people and not by the oppressive state: from self-defense to spaces of public debate and education. this tremendous wave of self-organized activity is precisely what was hijacked in march 2014 with russian aggression, when this parallel society became a volunteer movement defending the country. but this is far from the only use that these structures may have in future.

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Walter Benjamin described a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” For him art is a product made by a worker for a consumer, a didactic tool to move the masses. Hello? That’s illustration and marketing, not art. As for “bourgeois hobby etc…” this was written by someone who has no clue and never had a creative experience… so they are stuck repeating what others said that art could be if it was an intellectual trick that could be tamed with words. The curators and critics here literally have no idea of the subject under discussion anymore than if Marxism was touted as a psychoanalytic tool to cure mental illness. Just as the colorblind have no fear of red, yellow, and blue, the pragmatic logician has no interest in feelings and emotions, or traditional ritualistic values that strangely enough we never dispensed with though we tried.

An art based on political convenience may rule temporarily yet will always be highly unstable and liable to a practical revolution. Too much simmers behind the scene. In nature we find that a bee’s dance informs the hive of the location of a field of flowers, including sun-oriented hourly-based data and the caloric value of that patch. Such unconscious yet precise content in the dance of a bee leads to far reaching speculation on unconscious content in the artwork of the naked ape.

I guess it’s quite predictable that we’ve immediately shifted to discussing the dichotomies of Maidan itself, as it’s generally a very common misconception that projects in certain places are bound to have ‘site-specific’ content. This tendency simplifies and narrows both the issues of the area (which, upon closer inspection, reveal more generic qualities that can’t be attributed to Ukraine exclusively, and describe broader cultural and political phenomena) and the capacities of a problematic polylogue (which ‘The School of Kyiv’ attempts to establish and develop). Along with that, one should note that apart from Kyiv the biennial will have more than 12 locations in several countries, very likely including Russia. When we ask about ‘the use of art’, the question has more to do with its discursive (and subversive) capabilities, rather than plain instrumentalisation of its thematic and publicistic surface qualities. There is no final possibility to decide on ‘the most proper’ way to talk about today’s revolutions and wars - but the search for suitable languages results in a whole variety of fruitful and potent routes.

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The use of art depends on the time and battle being fought.

This sounds like an incredibly constructive trajectory that I hope can also project “outwards” into the “transnational.” In other words, the “uncomfortable” situation that the biennial format finds itself in within the Ukrainian context raises crucial questions about its limitations and the discrepancies with its proclaimed aims, which in turn says a lot about the gap between contemporary art’s content-claims and the realities of structures that carry our field. It would be really amazing if the School of Kyiv could use this situation to not only create a more nuanced understanding of the “Ukrainian predicament” but to also put forward a proposition as to what a biennial could achieve if it was modulated to serve other imperatives (e.g. creating more stable and enduring infrastructures locally rather than functioning as a “special zone” for a limited time frame (and of course a platform for capitalization that rarely has positive knock-off effects outside the charmed circles)). Apropos, half of my family lives in Donetsk, so I am acutely aware of the urgent need to subvert destructive master-narratives and in no way do I want to diminish the urgency of that project, but it feels like THAT problem is intimately tied to the larger global problem that we face, namely how can we repurpose the “biennial” format as an available globally distributed “active form” (to borrow from Keller Easterling’s terminology in Extrastatecraft) in order to produce concrete infrastructural results and meaningful impact (beyond the cliched tropes of tourism and nation-state branding). Perhaps, framing the project in a way that addresses the transnational and local infrastructural feedback loop can also help shifting the conversation away from the tired rehearsal of “Maidan’s dichotomies” (as @lesya_prokopenko rightly points out), which in effect orientalizes Ukraine and doesn’t get us anywhere.

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The use of art: Walter Benjamin and Marcel Duchamp rejected aesthetics whereas science shows that beauty and its complex differentiations are crucial for mental health. In the 1970s Abraham Moles and Frieder Nake analyzed links between beauty, information processing, and information theory. Physicist Paul Dirac is quoted saying “if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress”. Denis Dutton was a philosophy professor and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily. In his book and Ted Talk called The Art Instinct, he suggested that humans are hard-wired to seek beauty. “There is evidence that perceptions of beauty are evolutionarily determined, that things, aspects of people and landscapes considered beautiful are typically found in situations likely to give enhanced survival of the perceiving human’s genes.” That answers any question of the purpose of art and hence its use.