A conversation with the ZIP art group from Krasnodar

Alexandra Artamonova

Photographs from the archives of the ZIP group

What do we know about Krasnodar? Among other things, the fact that the city is home to a group of young artists who work under the collective name of ZIP (it is an acronym that denotes the name of Krasnodar’s main art space, situated on the premises of the local factory of measuring instruments, Zavod Izmeritelnykh Priborov) and have created a small autonomy of contemporary art in the city. The summer of 2011 saw the ZIPpers (the group is comprised of Stepan Subbotin, Evgeny Rimkevich and Eldar Ganeyev) found the self-proclaimed Krasnodar Institute of Contemporary Art (KICA). Thanks to that, the city now has its first independent and experimental art space, and a new intellectual/art milieu of the younger generation has started forming around it. In conjunction with KICA, the ZIP group is launching public projects that really work. As part of the project entitled ‘This Workshop Strives to be Exemplary’, an unauthorised pedestrian crossing was painted on a road near Anapa; soon enough it was – now officially – reproduced on the very same spot by the Traffic Safety Administration. Their ‘Zone’ project saw special signs appear to denote specific Krasnodar areas, and that was how the city got its zones of creativity and resistance, aggression and demolition, horror and anger; more and more Krasnodar residents gradually got involved in this play with marked city areas. Despite the somewhat guerrilla-style methods of work, most examples of the ZIPpers’ art practice demonstrate that contemporary art is capable of transforming the situation in a city, a small seaside town and a single village.

At the time of this interview, the ZIP group was working on their new project, ‘The Construction’, in Helsinki. We got in touch with the artists and spoke about subjects like the equal importance of promoting contemporary art in the European capitals and the Russian provinces; the ways of creating new independent art spaces, mounting travelling exhibitions and ‘luring in’ new viewers; we also discussed the principles of self-organisation and cooperation and the reason why contemporary art was not always appreciated by Cossacks and policemen.

In the foreground, 5 ‘zippers’

What were you doing in Finland?

Stepan Subbotin: We were taking part in the Helsinki Festival, one of the country’s largest art festivals that has brought together artists from many countries. The title of our interactive project of public art was ‘The Construction’. It was located in the Lasipalatsi Square next to a modernist tower. Every day more and more new objects were appear there, as if they were growing on top of each other. The end result was a multi-functional architectural object, a three-storey wooden building with lots of different-sized rooms, fenced off around the perimeter. Anyone was be able to use the structure in one way or another: to find shelter from the rain or simply hide away; one of the rooms was a workshop of sorts where you were able to make things; another were house an exhibition; yet another was available for opening your own art show. There was even some room for a barbeque. The main idea of the project is that artists go out in the square and use the space to express themselves but also provide an opportunity for the viewers to do the same. We love it when art starts to interact with people and the city.

‘The Construction’,  Helsinki Festival 2014

Eldar Ganeyev: The form of ‘The Construction’ was quite spontaneous. The feeling you should get from our object is that all these little rooms have appeared out of nowhere, by themselves. They appeared, and this vibrant art life just started to take place inside them.

So basically the project was dealing with pretty much the same things you do in Krasnodar: creating public areas and independent art spaces.

Stepan Subbotin: Yes. We had a round table discussion in Helsinki where we told everyone about creating our own little autonomy, our independent space back in Krasnodar. Which is, to a certain extent, the same thing we were doing in Finland to prove that you can build an island of freedom, a space of your own practically anywhere. ‘The Construction’ project had more to do with interacting with the city square, the urban environment, not so much with the local art milieu.

And yet, as far as I know, there was nothing in Krasnodar at the time when you started doing this: no institutions, no public spaces where the ordinary viewer would be told about contemporary art. It would seem that Helsinki, on the other hand, is doing just fine as far as art institutions, all sorts of organisations and education programmes are concerned.

Eldar Ganeyev: There is never too much of a good thing. Even in a city that is most progressive art-wise you can still meet a young man or woman who hears the term ‘contemporary art’ for the first time in their life. The other day we spoke with this young Finnish woman; she works on an advertisement bus but she has never heard of contemporary art before. ‘What’s that then,’ she says. ‘What is it that you do? Do you play guitars?’ We asked her if she had visited the museum of contemporary art that’s actually 50 metres from the square where we are building our project; she says, no, she hasn’t been there. So that there is always need for promoting art, however trite that sounds. And it was not by accident that we chose the central square in Helsinki as the site of our project: it is flanked by quite a number of summer cafés; people sitting by their tables noticed a commotion in the square and they wanted to find out what is going on there. And it’s contemporary art that is going on there.

Fragment from ‘The Lab’ installation (2011)

Stepan Subbotin: As for Krasnodar, we didn’t have any of that. There were artists who invited other artists to their get-togethers, exhibitions and discussions. It was largely a ‘home-style’ or ‘kitchen’ communication: everybody visited everybody else’s studios where something happened. There was – and still is – a rather conservative city museum with some exhibition halls, etc. We are not trying to provoke a confrontation with the museum; we are simply creating something of our own. The museum employees do visit us and look at what we are doing, of course, but there haven’t been any attempts to borrow from our experience. 

Creating an independent platform where artists could come together, discuss things, hold talks and mount exhibitions was an acute necessity born not from our personal needs but from the needs of the local art milieu. We met at the ZIP Factory where we all rented studio space. So we named out group after the factory. The factory united us, and it was there that we did our first collective projects, free of all the boundaries imposed by museums. But what happened was that the same quite narrow circle of people kept attending our events, and that’s when we decided to create something of a more global scope. And that is how KICA – the Krasnodar Institute of Contemporary Art – came to be born. Today our KICA is the freest and most open platform in Krasnodar, and yet it seems unlikely that we could manage to involve all the interesting young artists working in the city.

This is the pedestrian crossing near Anapa, painted on as part of ‘This Workshop Strives to be Exemplary’

In your opinion, in which direction should Russian contemporary art be developing right now? Should it be subject to the principles of cooperation or should it rather be an individual thing? And what are the problems of contemporary art in the provinces?

Stepan Subbotin: A young artist living in the provinces is very likely to have difficulties finding both similarly-minded fellow artists and an audience. And the best solution, in our opinion, is seeking out like-minded people, creating with them a small community of your own and using it to realise your artistic ideas. The Russian system of public art institutions is quite weak; a young artist often has no idea where to go and whom to approach looking for an opportunity to express themselves. So that is why you need to create your own art space – wherever you can: in the field, in the woods, in a garage or your personal car. We have an ongoing project dealing exactly with this sort of thing: we are telling people that you can practice art literally anywhere. Artists must take over new venues, create new autonomous associations.

Various objects from the ‘Regime Camp’ installation. Almaty, 2013

Eldar Ganeyev: The problem with Krasnodar is that our group is not enough for a city of million. We cover a certain radius but there are so many left outside this circle who haven’t even heard of us or of contemporary art. Sadly, our activities are not enough to create a more extended art-milieu in the city. How good would it be if there were, for instance, some public structures working alongside us on promoting specifically contemporary art.

Stepan Subbotin:  Eldar is right; the city needs a serious global institution. We can devote ourselves to micro-politics; we are perfectly fine with this sort of ‘community existence’; we love Spartan conditions and we don’t need huge budgets. If only someone took on the task of founding and running this institution and build an educational platform, we would go on doing our own thing, dealing with social practices, urban experiments and innovative exhibitions. We did a string of projects that were part of ‘This Workshop Strives to be Exemplary’ exhibition. Some of them were carried out in the village of Piatikhatki near Anapa; it is where our art-datcha is located. Basically, we noticed that there are no well-designed private shops in Piatikhatki and offered to the owners to invent and put into practice their own trademark style free of charge. And then a fruit vendor volunteered who said: ‘Could you decorate my shop-on-wheels instead of painting a shop sign?’ And so we did paint his fruit van. He gave us absolutely no recommendations; the only thing he did was ask from time to time: ‘Perhaps I could at least buy you the paint?’ And so we were painting and he was plying us with fruit: the system of barter exchange in action. People were ready and they wanted to participate. The project dealt with the question of how a guerrilla art movement can work in various milieus. It was a study of different spaces to find out in which space an artist can achieve something and in which one he fails. We offered similar projects to big shopping malls and were rejected. We took part in demonstrations carrying banners and were rejected by some and accepted by others.

Okay, so your art has the power to change at least some things. For instance, an official pedestrian crossing replaced the unauthorised one painted by you; a village fruit vendor is now the owner of an art-van, and so on. But what happens with those of your projects that go further than this, I’m sorry, but still – this Soviet pioneer-style level, this painting this and helping to do that, etc. – the ones that are more politically ambitious? Did your ‘Booth for One-Man Picket’ – the video material of which was shown at this year’s Moscow International Biennale for Young Art – change anything?

Eldar Ganeyev: Well yes; on 6 May when protest rallies were held in Krasnodar in defence of the accused in the Bolotnaya Square case, we joined the crowd in the square with some banners and the picket booth. To be more precise, I locked myself in the booth, rolled out into the square and started campaigning. First we were approached by the Cossacks; then they called the police. Then the police started to ask us very insistently to leave the square. The whole thing lasted forty minutes or so, and as a result I was wheeled to the nearest police stronghold where they interrogated me about what it all meant, why I had been doing it and so on. Finally they let me go but the booth was confiscated for further inquiries; it was tested for extremism and terrorism, and afterwards it disappeared in the dungeons of police. It was only a year later that it was released again, thanks to some good acquaintances of ours. Also, a man from a certain agency kept visiting us and asking why we had done what we had done…


‘Who is financing you?’ – did they ask you that one? 

Eldar Ganeyev: Oh yes, they did! ‘Who is financing you?’ – That is the main question we get asked by practically everyone and everywhere. We had this somewhat mental viewer who worked at the municipality; for some reason, he was convinced that we were given money by the Georgians.

Stepan Subbotin: Actually, the project we are taking part in here, in Helsinki, and the ‘booth for one-man picket’ in Krasnodar are both very telling. Despite the fact that our booth was constructed in keeping with all the rules of one-man picketing, we still experienced strong pressure from the authorities. Taking to the square in a manner accepted in Helsinki or any other European city is impossible in Russia. And ‘The Booth’ proved it all too well once again.

Could it be that the policemen were offended by the design of the booth, reminiscent of a datcha latrine cabin?

Stepan Subbotin: You know, actually it seemed to me that both the Cossacks and the policemen were having great fun at the happening: they were walking around and watching without resorting to any use of force – probably because they were at first impressed by the booth itself, and it was only afterwards that they started paying attention to the slogans.

Eldar Ganeyev: And yet, even though they were smiling, they still wanted to close the booth down, to ban it. Why is it that Cossacks and policemen do not like contemporary art? Because it does not make sense to them.  And there must not be anything that does not make sense. If something does not make sense, how can you tell if it is simple fun or a masonic conspiracy?

Fragment from the ‘ZIP Museum’ exhibition (2013)

All of these art events, both the thing with the shop-keepers and the painting of the pedestrian crossing, are part of the project entitled ‘This Workshop Strives to Be Exemplary’ that brought you a nomination for the 2012 Innovation Award for the Best Youth Project; you did not win back then. This spring you won the Innovation Award for the Best Regional Project. Has it influenced the way you are perceived in Krasnodar? Has anything changed? Also, from the point of view of self-awareness, what do you find more interesting: being the most interesting artists of the year (according to the award) or being the ones who, according to the same award, have come up with the most interesting project in the region?

Eldar Ganeyev: Things have changed indeed. (Laughs.) The Sobaka Magazine published in Krasnodar included us in its Top 25: according to the magazine, we are the best people in the city. (The whole ZIPgroup is laughing now.) So a double success actually. As for what is more important… It is very important to us that we did not win the award personally, as artists: it was the whole KICA movement that won it. And that is the way it should be. Krasnodar is much more visible on the contemporary art map now; more people throughout Russia have heard of the city.

Fragment from ‘This Workshop Strives to be Exemplary’ exhibition. Photo by Vladislav Tarnopolsky

Quite so; it used to be different: everybody knew about the Recycle group in Krasnodar and yet no-one from the Moscow art crowd would visit the city just because of them; the artists came to the capital to ‘make their social rounds’. The way it works now, artists from Moscow are going to Krasnodar to see you.

Stepan Subbotin: They are indeed. The climate is fine in our neck of the woods. The main motto is: art and recreation. Thanks to our supporters and sponsors, a comfortable infrastructure has been formed around us: there are hostels, there is a datcha in Anapa; it is called Piatikhatki [after the village]… In other words, people can come and work here, mount an exhibition and also spend some time by the sea. Last summer, Vlad Yefimov came with students of the Rodchenko School. We arrived in Helsinki practically straight from our art-datcha in Piatikhatki where we had set up a beach exhibition. We parked our van, put out banners and hung the works – and then started to invite people to come and take a look. It has to be said that it was very hot on the beach; all people could do there was swimming, sun-bathing and sleeping. And yet we met a woman who seemed to be very interested. She came over and started asking questions; finally she said: ‘So where do you keep your Book of Reviews and Suggestions? I would like to write about my impressions.’ So we made her a Book of Reviews there and then on the beach.

What are you going to focus on when you’re back from Helsinki in Krasnodar again?

Stepan Subbotin: On developing KICA and other projects. We are planning a series of travelling exhibitions: we’ve got a special propaganda van for promoting contemporary art: flashing lights, a megaphone – the works; in other words – everything that helps attract people (laughs)… Equipped with this stuff, we want to tour the small towns and villages of Krasnodar Krai. We are going to show people some of our works and give them an opportunity to create something of their own.

Eldar Ganeyev: In this respect, we find that there is certainly an affinity to the ideas of the first wave of Russian avant-garde. Although, of course, the whole situation was completely different at the time and many of the avant-garde artists worked with the government. But we do love the idea of changing the world through art.