A mural by the artist Pøbel in Teriberka, Murmansk, commissioned by the Arctic Art Institute (all images courtesy the Arctic Art Institute)

The Arctic Art Institute, founded in 2014 by Ekaterina Sharova and Kristina Dryagina (both residents of Arkhangelsk, North Russia) has held the Arctic Art Forum since 2016 with a view to empowering artists and workers of the region. The fourth edition of the forum, “Ecosystems of the Invisible” is currently being held online, bringing together speakers, artists, and performers working in the North of Russia and Alaska to discuss issues relevant to the region. 

Last month, Anna Bitkina and Maria Veits, curators and co founders of the association TOK presented the symposium, “Interdependency as a Condition.” Curious to learn more about Arctic art and culture, I asked the curators of both the forum and symposium what they consider to be the major issues facing the region, and how they have worked to make them more visible. 

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A mural by Artyom Khazanov, Ulyana Tyupysheva, Fyodor Medvedev in Arkhangelsk, Russia
(Arctic Art Forum 2016, project Babushka; photo by Anna Koshechko).

Ekaterina Sharova (AAI): Several generations of my ancestors have lived in the Euro-Arctic region of Russia. Both my generation and my parents’ have not known much about their own history. These generations have been presented with the general narratives of the Soviet Revolution, the Great Patriotic war, and other stories of military  and state power. Through the organization of art events, symposia, and the digitization of historical archives, the AAI aims to reconnect people and help them unlearn. Since 2016, the AAF has been a regular event aimed at bringing the invisible Northern stories of national and international importance back to the public. 

As an art historian and an educator, I study the ways in which ideology has influenced the collective memory of the people in the North, as well as the unconscious everyday rituals of non-freedom created by architecture and design. I work with the invisibility of Northerners and assist in reestablishing their identity through contemporary art and culture. In 2020, we will present a new book about Euro-Arctic contemporary culture, a new archival research project on Northern visual culture made together with colleagues from the Northern (Arctic) Federal University, and a screening of new architecture films produced in collaboration with the Northern Design and Architecture Center in Tromsø. 

Maria Vyucheyskaja, “Going to a demonstration” (1932-1933)

Anna Bitkina (TOK): Since our foundation, the main curatorial agenda of TOK has involved articulating the challenges of contemporary political reality and the impact of capitalism on social structures, outlining post-socialist conditions, and speculating on potential futures. Many of TOK’s projects are aimed at extending people’s understanding of the Nordic region, as part of our wider examination of the changing nature of the North-Western European context. For example, our large scale project Nordic Art Today: Conceptual Debts, Broken Dreams, New Horizons (2011) united 35 leading artists and curators from the North including Kari Brandtzaeg, Power Ekroth, Birta Gudjonsdottir, Simon Sheikh, Aura Seikkula. The project,which aimed to rethink regional transformations has proven to be the biggest exhibition of Nordic art in Russia for the last decade. 

TOK and AAI have been overseeing each other’s practices for a while. Our collaboration within the IV Arctic Art Forum is a logical step. The symposium “Interdependency as a Condition” consisted of a public platform involving cross-disciplinary local and international participants. This involved unpacking the idea of “interdependency” by looking at conditions in the High North and Arctic, an economically and ecologically vulnerable region crucial for planetary balance. 

Ivan Arkhipov, “Untitled,” presented as part of the 2016 Arctic Art Forum

Maria Veits (TOK): For a few years now TOK has been observing artistic processes in the Russian North, that have been largely stimulated by the work of collectives such as the Arctic Art Institute or Friday Milk (Murmansk, Russia) and initiatives such as the Taibola Festival (Arkhangelsk). With the Symposium we wanted to make these processes more visible both to Russian and international audiences.

Additionally, we wanted to address inner colonial relations within Russia through the lens of the environment and the anthropocene and by exploring positions of the Russian North. The needs of Russia’s North have been neglected for years and its land, people and ecosystems have been a target for environmentally dangerous projects such as, for example, the contested recycling plant in Eco Technopark Shies, close to Arkhangelsk, that was due to process tons of waste from Moscow. The very idea demonstrates the highly consumerist attitude of the center towards the resourceful but unprotected periphery. During the symposium this and similar cases, as well as the response of young local artists, were discussed by curator and AAI co-founder Kristina Dryagina. 

Finally, we also talked about shared global ecological perspectives and challenging the hegemony of the subject over the natural object. This can involve switching from an anthropocentric perspective to analyzing current processes from the position of animals (as discussed by artist Terike Haapoja) and materials such as ice or water (as discussed by artist and filmmaker Susan Schuppli).

AAF Curators Kristina Dryagina and Ekaterina Sharova

Kristina Dryagina (AAI): As a curator, regularly living and working in the Arctic part of Russia, I have seen first hand that the voices of indigenous peoples are unrecorded today. Their significance inside the country is treated only as a semblance, rather than a reality. In 2020, the agenda of annexing the Nenets Autonomous Region to the Arkhangelsk region was widely discussed in the Arkhangelsk region, though the local indigenous people’s opposition to this move was silenced in the media. Indigenous leaders have voiced fears over a loss of autonomy for Indigeous groups in the region and a watering down of languages, such as the Nenets and Uralic Komi languages. Protests against the merger, which were arguably proposed as a means of exploiting resources resulted in its abandonment, for now. This made me think about how important it is to talk about the way of life of people living in Northern and arctic Russia through the art that has been created by Indigenous peoples over the past hundred years. For this reason I curated the online exhibition Arctic Artists Homecoming as part of the IVth AAF, including artists from the Nenets autonomous region and others from elsewhere in northern Russia, who are largely unknown outside their regions or Russia. In an everyday environment where imported political dogmas do not work, it is essential to learn from Indigenous peoples and take their worldview into account for the sake of our own future.

The fourth annual Arctic Art Forum continues with online talks and seminars through December 5.

Mike Watson is an art theorist, critic, and curator based in Italy who is principally focused on the relation between art and politics. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Goldsmiths College and has curated...