“Contemprorary dirt” or “The story of how “STAB” betrayed us”
Editor’s note: Sergey Chutkov, journalist and culture manager from Tajikistan, tells story of conflict between him and his former employer “Dushanbe Art Ground”. That story is a good illustration to a status of contemporary arts in Tajikistan.
I wrote the text below in order to share some most recent news from the contemporary art world in Tajikistan. Instead of talking only about art I would rather concentrate on how art people act when they face the real life.
I would like to begin the text with the year 2013 when I first started working for Dushanbe Art Ground (DAG) a contemporary art organization based in Tajikistan. The beginning of my work there was truly encouraging. By midyear we had a small but professional collective of 4 like-minded individuals. We began to work enthusiastically on developing ideas, writing project proposals, raising funds for the organization. By the end of 2013 our 6 month-long volunteer efforts paid off and we received one of the biggest financial support among arts and culture organizations in the region. We were very happy with the successful work and looked forward to starting the big job.
Our plans were huge.
But it turned out that the essence of our organization was different from what it appeared to us. This different essence showed when DAG hosted STAB (another contemporary art organization from Kyrgyzstan – School of Theory and Activism Bishkek), that was announced as a partner in all current projects of Dushanbe Art Ground.
STAB, besides its main activity in Dushanbe (doing a master-class on animation for one local organization), were invited to do a presentation of their activity in DAG office that took place on 18th November 2013. It was quite an ordinary event. STAB talked about its fellowship program, library, critical animation lab and so on. But when the presentation came to an end STAB unexpectedly for the audience did a performance titled “Queer Communism List of Condemned”. There is no point to talk about it. I recommend watching it here instead. There was also a presentation of the production of the abovementioned critical animation lab and the results could be viewed here. I must say that the performance was far from being a standard art presentation for Dushanbe audience. Their reactions weres mixed and different. Some people had a very negative feedback during the discussion afterwards. But there were people who stayed after the event asking about details in an informal conversation.
Taking into account that DAG staff didn’t have a chance to have a comprehensive picture of the event right after it was finished I decided to spend the next working day discussing it with the whole team and find out their attitudes to it. All staff members including the director agreed that the performance was good and very topical. The only problem with STAB was that it did not announce the performance beforehand. For some reason, the responsibility for conducting the performance was placed on my colleague Faruh Kuziev and me though neither of us knew the content of the performance beforehand.. It was the first alarming sign of the events coming up.
Later, the story sees galloping developments. Things were different in the following days. Somehow we (Faruh Kuziev and Sergey Chutkov) found ourselves under the pressure of organization director Jamshed Kholikov and one of the DAG board members. It was unclear why Jamshed was demanding from us letters of explanation requesting answers to the following questions:
“I demand that you provide a written explanation on the situation in the following form in two days:
To the director of Public Foundation Sanati Muosir (DAG) from (name, position)
Letter of explanation
I (name) am giving you the following answers to your questions:
- Who prepared the presentation of STAB and with whom was the content of this presentation discussed?
- Why did you ignore the demand of the management of DAG to provide the results of the workshop on critical animation and the content of STAB presentation for approval before the public presentation?
- If you know the content of the video and the presentation what ideological goals were you pursuing by deciding to accept this materials to public presentation without the management’s approval?
- If you were familiar with the content of the video and the presentation how come it was presented?
- Did anyone subject you to any form of pressure in order to convince you to demonstrate the abovementioned video and presentation?
09 December 2013
“….” December 2013
The weird thing about these questions was that the person asking them was putting them in such a way that made him sound as if he had no idea about the event and had never been present at the event. The other strange thing was that we didn’t fully understand why were we asked to explain anything in the first place. Faruh and I, notwithstanding the whole absurdity of the situation, answered the questions but our answers were apparently not satisfactory for the management of DAG and I found out about that the next night from the personal text chat with the abovementioned board member of DAG. This chat aggravates the situation by adding “threats” from the side of a law enforcement agency and accusations in “anti-governmental activity”. The original chat text is given below:
Fuck Sergey, you and Faruh are such assholes, caused a lot of trouble
Mm, thank you Alisher. I don’t know what you’re talking about and whose words are you saying but thank you for your opinion.
I think you got the situation as it is and very objectively
You’ve let down not only yourselves but also other people, Jamshed and also me. We have problems with the special services. That’s the last thing I wanted. I will of course fix it up, but you are assholes.
Do you want to meet and discuss it?
Well, ok. You mean that it is Faruh and I in charge of all the trouble. So indeed Jamshed presented it all to you very neatly. Cool. Thank you. Good luck.
Jamshed has nothing to do with it.
Then be so kind and explain it all to me. I did not try to cause trouble to you something.
Do you really think that Jamshed needs your stupid letters of explanation… We are trying to help you out and you put out Jamshed and Timothee and me… You made all this mess and have to behave properly. From your letters of explanations it follows that it is not your fault but the conclusion is that all valuables should be watched while you’re around.
Thanks to Jamshed. So you saved us little boys from death. It’s absurd. You don’t know the whole situation Alisher and it was misspresented to you. If you were a friend you’d call me and talk to me instead of reading all that bullshit behind my back, that wasn’t even written to you.
I could not call because I was sitting in a place where I didn’t want to be and waited to talk to people with whom I didn’t want to talk. This fucking shit that you wrote is not for me or Jamshed. So rewrite this fucking bullshit, each of you separately, confess that you were betrayed and that you didn’t know about anything. Tomorrow morning I am going to tell you how much your “activities” are going to cost you and you have to give the letters of explanation and the money… Jamshed might be charged with anti-governmental activity, for you to know, the board members also have problems, but the problem is that I am the only one of them in TJ. If you want to play your fucking games open an organization of your own and do whatever you want, so that there is no more bad whistleblowing.
I am very sorry about all these things. That you had to go wherever you had to go. That they started demanding the money. It is fucking awful and I am speechless. The only things I don’t understand are 1. Why it is me and Faruh who are in charge of everything and why do you talk like we are guilty and everyone else is trying to save us 2. Why didn’t anyone call us… didn’t try to discuss how we could act together and you acted behind our backs – taking into account that neither me nor Faruh didn’t do anything behind the back.
As you can see from this dialogue we used to be in friendly relationships with the DAG board member and of course this message disheartened me. I was being convinced that we were guilty in something and that we have to “confess” and blame STAB in everything (?). Another obvious thing was that our answers were supposed to be sent to the “special services” in a different way from what we have written in the letters.
Faruh and I disagreed with such actions. Although understanding that took us some time and efforts. We refused to libel our partners even when we were under pressure. Further on we warned them that we were ready to publish this story and make it available for discussion. But we were threatened again. First, Faruh was threatened by the director of the organization who said that he had a file with Faruh’s personal art projects and texts and that Jamshed would share it with security services. When this threat didn’t work we were threatened with a legal action against us in case we publicize the story. The letter of the abovementioned board member to me below shows that:
“I want to clarify a few things:
as for the bulling, tricks and blackmailing, what are you talking about? I admit that there is the Facebook chat and I have it myself and you don’t have to cite it all the time. What I wrote about money is the penalties for the organization. Yes it was rude but if you got me wrong that’s your problems. Art Ground will not have any problems. These are not DAG problems anymore. We fixed our problems. As for the organization, my point is that if my name or Jamshed’s name is mentioned anywhere in such a context we will have to bring it up to the court and we are going to. Talk to your lawyer. We did, and shared everything, including Facebook chat, audio and visual files, and the email exchange. By the way, Galina, please send via Jamshed the bill for your lawyer. This service will be paid by my company. I will pay my own lawyer myself.
If anyone thinks that his rights are violated let him go to court, I am going to do so».
As you one can see in this message, the DAG leadership secured the legal support of a lawyer but against its own staff members instead of the potential action from the side of the security services…
Now, three months passed from the beginning of this disgusting story. Not willing to accept it we decided to quit Dushanbe Art Ground and inform our donors and partners about this decision.
All the things described above brought me to the following important conclusions regarding the main points : firstly, DAG director had a negative reaction on the performance and was genuinely scared by the performance and animation and supported by the board member aggressively tried to avoid any potential consequences by blaming STAB and making us write the false denunciation against STAB that were supposed to go to the security services. Secondly, when the “scapegoats” – Faruh and I, were found they tried to quit the controversy clean and avoid any responsibility. Everything was presented to us as a desire to secure us. They tried to turn us into silly boys who did not know what they were doing, who (as the message of the board member reads) “regret what they’ve done”. In the meantime, none of the accusers had no courage to address their claims to STAB directly neither during the event nor afterwards.
After I turn in my request for resignation I asked Jamshed to try to discuss the situation and reflect on it, understand the events and behavior and actions of each side from the discoursive points of view. I was sure that this scare in the face of mythical security services cannot last that long and ratio (artistic intellect if I might say so) would take the lead. All the more, we have not seen any of the security services. But in response to my suggestion I only heard one thing: “STAB betrayed us”.
In principle, this could be the end of the story, in case all I wanted was accusing and condemning someone and if I was “seeking historical justice”. But this is not the point of this story. For me, the main point was to analyze the situation. As I was refused a chance to analyze it collectively I suppose the other side is simply incapable of any form of analysis.
I believe such cases as ours are common in Tajikistan, that slowly sinks into free market and consequently in individualism, against the background of arbitrary power abuse, all-round corruption and power’s fear of any sort of grass-root social solidarity and many people are simply unable to resist or don’t even have the necessary platforms for that.
I can’t say that everyone involved into this controversy is a bad person, in a broad sense of the word. Not at all. The abovementioned board member, director and other people involved are socially good people, well-mannered, with good intentions, respected, well-reputed and educated. No one lives a wrong life and, I bet, don’t do any harm to people on purpose. I myself, can’t call any of them using such words as “evil”, “bad”, or a “ bad villain” in a full sense. On the contrary. Some work in culture, organize events, some earn their bread honestly in advertising, other do art and so on. Some are very active in discussions regarding sociopolitical matters in social media from left-wing or close-to-left positions.
Here, something else is important – how a person acts when he or she needs to “fix problems” when no one sees and no one can build an opinion about such actions and when these “problems” are to be fixed urgently avoiding exhausting bureaucratic procedures. As a result, this person becomes more flexible, in situations when some money can be given as a bribe in order to “facilitate the solution”, in other situations one can close his or her eyes on illegal actions of the powers and oppression or when a potential threat arises, help this illegitimate power. The main goal is to get out of the situation clean justifying it by things like “I have a family, I can’t risk them” or “I have a business and I need to leave the country safe” or “making noise won’t take us anywhere, it can only hurt us like Olga Tutubalina who’s been sued” or “I am a foreigner here and only temporary, I don’t need problems” or “I have a reputation” and so on.
Secondly, it is important to note how a person acts when he or she, in our case a contemporary artist, a public figure. By acting differently and legally from the very beginning director or its supporters would attract attention of the society that is mostly patriarchal in Tajikistan. The STAB performance in its turn opposes this patriarchy. supporting this opposition would imply moving away from the “norm” and coming to a critical position in regards to the social order. He or she starts attracting attention being associated with the situation (STAB performance and an animation film), thinking that most of the members of the patriarchal community we live in and the “norm” will condemn this involvement. It would be the right thing to do to get away from the comfort zone and in our case a fear of a threat from the side of the security services especially when nothing wrong was done. “No, no – he or she thinks – I’d rather do my contemporary arts and receive my little grants”. And if someone claims this comfort zone, he or she will be portrayed as heretics and betrayers. That was the attitude that we’ve experienced.
Thirdly, one must recognize oneself as a subject of political processes in a society. If you don’t recognize yourself there, it is a different matter – you are an object of political relations, implying that you can complain on ill destiny and betrayal of other people, like our counterparts. Political subjectivity of a person or its absence is manifested in situations similar to ours. Such situations also show a shaped, often ugly-shaped world-view and beliefs as a result. And what beliefs do the main actors of our story have? I haven’t had an idea. The only subjectivity I have seen was when we were threatened, when a lawyer was employed, when we were called betrayers, and the breast-beating was shown and the feeling of commitment to something was boasted, yet with no signs of understanding the real issues.
This might remain a weak claim if we talked about average people, not people calling themselves contemporary artists or feminism supporters such as the heroes of our story claim to be.
But what do we have on the table? There are two trends clashing. If you will, there is a Class, queer position of STAB and an opportunist, unconscious and petty-bourgeoisie position of Dushanbe Art Ground Management.
Lenin wrote, that in the midst of diversity of political trends there are only two ideologies: socialist and bourgeois. Lenin also talked about the class consciousness of petty-bourgeoisie that instead of clear solid worldview prefers an ideological mess and consequently always acts based on the current immediate situation in favor of short-term benefits without seeing anything further one’s own nose. Indeed, our own life is either a conscious or unconscious defending of this or that ideology and if one does not defend the ideology of the oppressed majority he or she defends the interests of the bourgeoisie – the ideology of the exploiting minority. That is what we think the leadership of DAG was doing. Along with protecting their material interests they were defending the interests of the power elite and their safeguards – the “security services”.
What can I say about Tajikistan in regards to the described situation and in general? Here, capital successfully appeals to nationalist, patriarchal and religious discourses that results in specific frameworks of behavior norms. Attempts to cross these behavior norms are publicly condemned. If someone decides to dissent he or she faces the “Eye of Power” (Foucault’s notion) that refers not to the power itself but to our perception of it. This Eye of Power delegates to us all repressive mandates. People involved in this story were the real victims of this mandates and acted like defenders of the bourgeois ideology and one of its major repressive institutes – the security services by replacing them in the situation.
Individualism and the principle “it is not my business” flourish in Tajikistan. Everyone wants to do business. First-floor space in all buildings in the city is turning into private clinics, attorney offices, dentists’, small stores and so on. Public services that have to be provided by the state flow into the private sector. The prospects of such tendencies, when everyone turns into a trader at an expense of those working abroad are quite pessimistic. The same prognosis works for not-for-profit sector, when solidarity is moved aside by individualism, opportunism and fear in the face of imagined repressions. As my collegue Faruh Kuziev described our situation: “1937 in one NGO reminds us not only about Stalinist repressions and NKVD. 1937 is a state of collective psychosis and paralyzing fear of masses. It is a world of informants, wiretapped talks and paranoia that pushes people to the brink of losing their humanness, consciousness, to betraying their close friends”.
English translation by Faruh Kuziev