Transformation of Space in Almaty: Interview
[inspic=36,left,fullscreen,thumb]You might have seen posts on Kazakhstan’s art scene by Daniel Gallegos, an American artist who is now in Almaty. I visited Daniel and his colleagues from the Artpologist project Zhanara, Aminatou and Gaisha at Soros Centre for Contemporary Art in Almaty. The project reflects on the transformation of space in Almaty influenced by rapid development and construction, and focuses on artists’ personal work spaces. The incentive for the project was “Love your city. Know your city”, a phrase by Jane Jacobs, an urbanist, and an advocate of knowing the cities, respecting them and understanding how they develop and change.
The group lived in the Center for several weeks, preparing for the exhibit. The location of the center is interesting: next to the wellness centre Luxor, it is surrounded by luxurious villas built by migrant-workers. There is no one in this “VIP-town” apart from workers, guards and artists, reflecting on, as they say, “faceless transformations of the contemporary urban space”.[inspic=39,right,fullscreen,thumb]
[inspic=34,left,fullscreen,thumb]I took some photos there, amazed by the contrasting views that Almaty offers. If you are in Almaty, don’t miss a chance to visit the exhibition and to speak to guys about their very interesting experiences. The exhibit is opening tomorrow August 14, at 6.30 PM with the presentation of the project and will last until August 25. The address of the exhibit is Dostyq street, VIP-town “Alem-2”, sector 110, block B, tel.: 320-12-03/04.
So, who are the Artpologist group? Meet:
[inspic=29,left,fullscreen,thumb]Zhanara Nauryzbaeva, a PhD candidate at Stanford University in the Department of Anthropology, is finishing her field work in Almaty: I am the “anthropologist” in this project, but actually I feel like it’s not that there is a line between an artist and an anthropologist, but like we all have a bit of anthropology in us, in our approaches to life.
[inspic=31,left,fullscreen,thumb] Daniel Gallegos is from Oakland, California: I am a painter, illustrator, “artpologist”, somebody who is interested in cities, the way they grow, transform and develop. So that’s why I am part of this project.
Gaisha Madanova, a student of Architectural College, 3rd course: I am interested in this project because it makes me understand how the world transforms and how I am transformed into this world. [inspic=35,right,fullscreen,thumb]
[inspic=33,left,fullscreen,thumb]Aminatou Echard, Paris: I am making experimental videos, sometimes documentary and now in this project I will do some installations.
About the project
Zhanara: Initially we were fascinated with the artists’ studios, artists who live in Almaty, you know, what amazing and unique spaces those are. I just feel like there is so much in there and it would be really cool to show them. And this is something to be really proud of. But as we started here on the project we came across this subject of the transformation of the city, the construction and how it changes people’s daily lives and we just thought that we cannot ignore that subject anymore.
Kazakhstan and particularly bigger cities Almaty and Astana have changed a lot in the past 3-4 years maybe, but I feel like this year it’s particularly strong, it’s escalating. With construction, transformation of the city is affecting all areas, not only the older areas that are being demolished. And those spaces are being transformed into apartment buildings and commercial entertainment centers, malls, and also there’s a huge number of cars here, so lots of roads are being built to accommodate that quantity of cars. What else is the transformation, the construction affecting?
Daniel: What I’ve seen is that a lot of transformation is affecting every day pedestrians, people who are walking the streets and who take the bus, because what is happening is that a city is transforming into a place for automobiles and elite houses. So it’s changing the way people are living in Almaty, where the culture itself had been a small city, a small culture with very few cars. I’ve noticed that over a year that I’ve been here a lot of people are losing their apartments, they are being evicted or told to move out, so this was something, some part of the subject that we want to cover in our project. But we wanted to do it more on a micro-level; we didn’t want to make an attack on government or rich people or construction companies … It was just based on the idea that people should try to understand the city, and we found that the studios, the artists’ spaces, were something like a valuable resource, a cultural resource that sort of shows how valuable old places are, places where you have lived for at least ten years, five years, two years, thirty years… Spaces that were often given during the Soviet Union are being taken away. They were given by the Soviet Union to the Union of Artists and the Union of Artists had a lot of apartments and studios for young artists to be creative – and this is no longer happening. So we found it very valuable and delicate, like animals becoming extinct, it’s so delicate that we wanted to be anthropologists, you know, study this basis through art, through anthropological practices, to gain a better understanding of how to operate in this city during this massive transformation.
Aminatou: There is something more to the transformation of the city: we are also working with artists in the studios, trying to understand how is the transformation of the city coming inside their studios and how they are dealing with it in their creations. So in the exhibit we try to show both aspects of the transformation of the city: our point of view and try to understand how artists deal with this. It will have our work and the works of the artists – they are creating special works for the exhibit. I will do video installations about two different artists – Galim Madanov and Georgy Tryakin-Bukharov – and yeah, it will be like a portrait of these artists and how they are working in these spaces and on the relations between them and their artwork. You have to come to see it!
Gaisha: I will do a photo installation and I use microspace of the artists’ studios and I want to show how the subject influences the artist and how the artist influences the subject. You know, when you go to the artists’ studios, you feel it shows other characters but some things are the same. When I go to Sadykhanov’s (Kazakh classical artist of the first generation of painters in Kazakhstan) studio I feel like the time has stopped in his studio and it’s very interesting because subjects really can feel the character.
Daniel: I am doing a collaborative work with Aminotou and it’s painting responding to a video and a video responding to painting of Georgy Tryakin’s space. It’s where we again, like Gaisha working on a micro-level, capturing, sort of showing, or, perhaps, trying to convey the space that Georgy works and lives in. Georgy Tryakin’s space is quite unique and we found that his personality, his character, the way he lives in this space and works with it, is something really fascinating. I’ve been making paintings and drawings to get an understanding of how these little things, like a cup of coffee on the table, or maybe a pencil or something, make somebody do work or operate in life as artists. So I am sort of using images, making images from photographs that I am seeing for the last year that I am in Kazakhstan. I’ve had an opportunity to come across and learn – I have learned so much about art in Kazakhstan because there’s a very strong core of artists, so for me – I was sort of immersed amongst all these artists, showing work, drinking vodka with them, making beshparmak with them, and I’ve been able to access community that is very valuable to me and it’s like an exchange: I have to do something to convey the beauty of this delicate culture. So that’s what I am trying to do.
About artists’ community in Kazakhstan
Daniel: In Kazakhstan many of the artists aren’t state artists and state artists are all over the world. Every country has state artists doing portraits of government members, creating the romantic image of nationality and nation. But contemporary artists operate outside of it and there is no market here for them, so… Just on the other side of the mountains of Almaty, in China, the artists make a million dollars a piece from Western art collectors. There are very few people who know where Central Asia is and have little imagination for what happens here, and it’s a very contemporary society, it’s very modern, so it has issues that are very unique to this place. So yes, these guys have very little support, it’s a delicate situation. As cities are developing, they sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Buildings get knocked knows, in the cities where artists were able to live with very little money, suddenly the neighborhoods becomes expensive and they become disassociated from their community. Like many artists in Almaty who during the last ten years have died or have gotten sick or, you know, left the country. So yes, I think it’s a very delicate and very precarious situation for artists here.
On their location
Zhanar: This space that we are here in right now is the new home of Soros Centre for Contemporary Art in Almaty. Previously, they were located in another building in this very nice neighborhood of Almaty called “Tulebaika” near KIMEP University. But Soros Center was negotiating with the construction company for a long time and in the end they were displaced from there and in exchange they were supposed to be given something comparable, and this is the space they received. But the thing is that, first of all, the location – you can see it yourself – it’s at the very back of this elite complex and it’s moved away from the street. It’s a public art center but I don’t think many people just can walk in here. The security services are quite strict: they don’t like anyone who is walking, they are more comfortable with people who drive here.
[inspic=38,left,fullscreen,thumb]Also, about this space being next to Luxor fitness center: we had three artists coming from the United States, one of them is Eve Sussman, famous video artist, they came to the Soros Center. Valiria Valentinovna (Director of the Soros Center) was expecting them – they were not showing up so she went to check outside and she found them near the Luxor wellness center because they thought that was the Center for Contemporary Art! Because it really looks like a Museum, that’s how in big cities the Museums are: located in the center, having fantastic extravagant building. Like in Paris, there is a Pompidou center of contemporary art, which was built by the president Georges Pompidou. So they assumed that Center for Contemporary Art in Almaty should be in a fantastic place, but, alas, then they were brought into this building in the very back of the whole complex.
Aminatou: I wanted to say more about the village that we are in, the complex that we live in. It’s under construction, there are no families living here, or just people who just come here to work: there is us and the workers! It’s important because it’s almost like a ghost city, though there are many people. It’s like a new village that is really not finished, workers live and work here also through the night, this complex is a bit inhabited by other kind of people and for us to work here is getting another view of the village and understanding of what is happening in the city because it’s really strange. Something really special.
Daniel: Perhaps I could describe a little bit, maybe some words where we actually sit. We sit in the front sort of parlor of a house that looks like something from suburban America that has garages and exterior with paint job, it’s far from the street, it’s a gated community and it’s away from Almaty. We feel that maybe the Soros center was placed here on purpose to be away from the public but also the space itself, as Aminotou said, is under construction, so we see many immigrants who work here from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan. So they have to live here because they can’t really be out in public, they are, you know, the third class citizens in this country. I am a Latino, a Mexican, so in my country, in the United States, it’s quite often that the police will stop you to ask you where you are from, and I had this experience happening many times. Imagine, my family has been in the United States for four generations and I still feel like a third class citizen. I come all the way to Kazakhstan and I get stopped because people think I am Uzbek or Kyrgyz. And it’s so ironic that we are in a space that looks so American and these sort of Roman looking villas on a parking lot street with no sidewalks, it’s really an interesting experience to have a chance to be here.
About Kazakh artists’ interest in the exhibit
Gaisha: I think they are interested because otherwise we won’t have them here! We offered to selected artists to take part and some said, yeah, it’s very current now.
Zhanar: Some artists were quite flattered, like Saken Narynov – we were fascinated with his space but for him it was kind of – he was a bit shy, for him it was a working space, but we just kept looking at every little detail, noticing patches on the floor, which were really interesting, and also I feel like other artists, like Georgy Tryakin-Bukharov, he understood the project right away, we didn’t really have to explain because he really feels under pressure from all this and in fact, he offered a brilliant installation, which is going to be a part of this exhibit.
Zhanar: As any project it requires some financing, we looked for funding with very little luck, we needed about $5. 000 for this project to take it on the level that we want. It’s not that much really, but we are still doing it, we are just not doing it at the scale that we could have done it. I wrote to a lot of local companies, and, in fact, a lot of development companies, construction companies, we contacted about 80 companies. It still remains a mystery – in the beginning a lot of people said – oh, Kazakhstan has so much money, and just make a project and put it into a form, create a budget and the money will come showering on you! But that was not the case. So I guess it’s an interesting experiment, now you know, in commentary we can say – look, we tried and this is what happened.
Aminatou: Many people – friends – helped us with logistics and that was really great, but everything else is us.
Zhanar: Also I feel it’s because people asking for money for art – I feel like art is considered as something you do for pleasure but it’s not considered as something that you do for the society; people don’t understand that art adds to an overall quality of life in the society and they just can’t think of outside of their little box – like, what does it bring to me personally, you know. But really, it makes for a better society, of course, the return is not immediate.
Gaisha: I think it’s strange that the government is not interested in art – in many other countries the governments give lots of money for the support of art. Here it’s another situation – they are more interested in construction.
Daniel: But I think this is part of the legacy of the Soviet Union that artists work for the state, so it’s typical for contemporary art that is conceptual and is not really associated with creating this whole party line, identity, and nationalism… Artists like this are generally ignored, so it wasn’t like we were shocked really, we weren’t, we thought maybe we would get some money but we weren’t really surprised. It’s not really in the interests of the people here, well, it is in the interests of the common people and regular folks on the street, and neighbors and artists’ community, but the people with the money in construction business – it’s sometimes may at odds with them to actually re-analyze development in this country.
Znahar: But really, they need it to live in a sustainable society, in a society where you know, they should be interested because it will make a better society to live in because they have to live in it.
Gaisha: And it’s the face of the country.
Zhanar: I mean, so many people go to England or the US and they are shocked that the only image that the country has is Borat. But I feel like – in order to create an image, you don’t have to make it flat, people see through it, it’s made up, and constructed. You just have to help the artists and artists themselves will create that face, a compelling face.
Daniel: That kind of goes along with how this project developed. As we started, it was something, for me at least, one of the things that made me think of an image of the country. Before I came to Kazakhstan a year ago, I saw a two-page spread color New York Times front and back, center-squared add for Kazakshstan and I was shocked that this image is in New York Times. It was the country using an advertisement to promote their country, and I had never seen anything like this, sometimes it happens for tourism industry, but actually a commercial of the country was really strange to me. But this was the beginning of how I tried to understand Kazakhstan. It’s a new country, but it’s also an old country in many ways. When I was getting ready to move here, I was looking on the Internet, looking for books, trying to find pictures of every day life, you know, even in travel guides they don’t really have images of every day life of Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Almaty. So for a project it was sort of great tool to actually find these photographs, videos, and sounds of every day life here, because it really does convey the way of life here, that’s unique to this part of the world. And that’s how our project evolved.
On blogs and new media
Daniel: I started writing a blog on the Internet about my experience of being in Kazakhstan, it was a Travelpod blog – somebody told me that it was free and it was easy to use, the software was easy to upload photographs, so I started writing, it was only for my friends – in the United States people wanted to know where I was going. People had very little idea of what it looked like and how it was. So I built a regiment where I would write once a week, once in two weeks, put a photograph – to document my time so that people at home would have an understanding of what is happening here. But as I went along, I started getting lots of hits (you can see how many people actually look at your page), I was getting something like a thousand people a month. So that’s how it kind of developed and when Leila from neweurasia contacted me I thought – wow, there is actually a certain power to write on the Net. And when we started working on our project, Aminatou and I and Zhanara, when we were in Paris, we had talked a little bit about our project and we will perhaps introduce a blog.
Aminatou: Yeah, I thought that maybe it could be great to create a blog, especially for this project, a blog that could follow us during all the process of the creation of the exhibit from the beginning, the preparation and how we worked together and what is our process. It was meant to be a blog as a kind of art piece, even if it sounds too big, it wasn’t meant to just document our daily lives, it was meant to help us in the art process and create something strong in us. We looked for the way to put videos, sounds, photography, and once we were together in Almaty to start the project, we added few things, for example, we decided to write a blog in three languages and sometimes we do translations. In Paris, I prepared this blog with my friend. I knew nothing about how to create a blog, even if it’s easy, it’s easy once you have it prepared. And she took a lot of time to prepare it and to explain us how to use it, with video and sounds. And her name is Annabela Duarte, a big friend of ours who helped us.
The address of the blog is Artpologist.net.