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“Hybrid” by Roman Ermakov and Ivan Onoprienko at Creative Space Tkachi, Produced by Katya Bochavar (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Cyberfest, the first and only yearly festival of international media art in Russia, was founded in 2007 by artists and curators Anna Frants and Marina Koldobskaya. Since that time they have brought hundreds of international media artists to St. Petersburg, and in the process raising its international profile.

Traditional post-Soviet art forms are centered in Moscow, but media art belongs to St. Petersburg, the former imperial, and most European city in Russia. Its crown jewel, the Hermitage Museum, a complex of seven buildings owns the largest collection of painting in the world. Because of that distinction any contemporary art executed in traditional mediums like painting or sculpture is compared against its predecessors, often encountering resistance from the classically trained Russian intelligentsia. Despite being the birthplace of incredible and daring innovations in the arts in revolutionary times, during the Soviet reign modern art came to be viewed with suspicion as a capitalist intervention, and most “contemporary artists as public enemies.” Decision makers in culture and the government, now middle aged or older were brought up in that tradition, hence the massive suppression of Pussy Riot. Those in power don’t support domestic contemporary art from traditional genres, thinking it ugly or incorrect. But the art of new technology, free of inherent ideological issues, is seen as emerging from technological progress, and is it supported. Thus Cyberfest has the cooperation of the St. Petersburg government and major cultural institutions such as St. Petersburg State University and the Hermitage, as well as individual and corporate sponsorships.

Brand new Hermitage Center For Contemporary Art, St. Petersburg, Russia

Cyberfest 2012, with all programs free and open to the public, showcased an international video program at the Youth Educational Centre of the State Hermitage Museum curated by Victoria Ilyushkina of Cyland Labs, as well as a series of lectures including one on “The New Aesthetic and the Digital Divide” delivered by this author. There was an international exhibition at the newly inaugurated Creative Space Tkachi, as well as a series of nightly performances. The festival highlighted the first ever Russian new media exchange with Latin American artists, as well as the very first Sound Art program curated by Sergey Komarov at the ART re.FLEX  Gallery. A special international symposium curated by Olga Shustrova using advanced internet conferencing facilities enabled a live time viewing and dialogue with Sweden, Finland, and Denmark at the St.  Petersburg State University Faculty of Art.

Russia is not beholden to Western art, having its own grand tradition of modernism such as the works of Kazimir Malevich with his manifesto “From Cubism to Suprematism” and his 1918 painting “White On White,” Constructivism involving Vladimir Tatlin, the designs of Lyubov Popova and others. Electronic music was invented by the Russian physicist Leon Theremin and graphical sound recording by Russian engineer Evgeny Murzin, the creator of the ANS Synthesizer. During the course of the festival I was struck, again and again how much those roots emerged in the Russian contemporary electronic aesthetic. In terms of sound art, the discordant, often grating sonification of electrical impulses was absent. Instead, according to a lecture by Taras Mashtalir the basis for musical aesthetics comes from “Pythagorean Tuning,” a spiral of perfect fifths corresponding in “Equal Temperament” to a perfect Circle of Fifths, a sensibility reflected in the curation of the “Unseen Worlds” sound art installation at ART re.Flex Gallery

“Unseen Worlds” sound art installation at ART re.FLEX Gallery, curated by Sergey Komarov

Andrey Bartenev and dancer Larisa Aleksandrova, in collaboration with the “Drawn Sound” programming and design team of Patrick K.-H, and Oleg Makarov presented “Danish for 42” a work that reeked of its origins in the visual and performative aesthetics of Sergi Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, despite its mordant black light decor and Max/MSP/Jitter visual effects. Bartenev, an experimentalist, and creator of many provocative, interactive installations had his first US performance with “The Ladder of Red,” which took place at the Robert Wilson Center in Watermill in 2002, and represented Russia at the 2007 Venice Biennale. Aleksandrova won the 2010 National Theatrical Prize or”Gold Mask” in modern choreography as the “Best Performance of the Year.”

Left, Image of “Drawn Sound” by Oleg Mkarov and Patrick K.-H in Max/MSP/Jitter for “Danish for 42” , and, right, a 1924 textile design by Lyubov Popova. 

“Danish for 42” performance in black light with Larisa Aleksandrova.

Some themes which distinguish the overall look of these works are its expressiveness and adherence to more “Russian” themes, with an emphasis on individual performers; a coherent unified strategy or visual reference; and an innate need to collaborate between choreographers, dancers, set designers, and musicians.

Headress from the Ballets Russes, image from the movie Ballets Russes by Daniel Geller

It is due to the relentless initiatives of the curators, and the support of their sponsors that Cyberfest and new media art will flourish. As curator and artist Marina Kolodobskaya said about the situation inside Russia, “It is horrible — but it is not horrible, horrible, horrible.”

Cyberfest 6th Annual Festival of New Media, St. Petersburg, Russia took place at various venus from November 23–28.

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Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.