AN APARTMENT IN YEREVAN. INTERVIEW WITH MARIANNA KRUCHINSKI (THE TYPOGRAPHY COLLECTIVE AND RESIDENCY)
This is a series of publications about residential initiatives launched by Russian cultural actors outside of Russia following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. These initiatives host, among others, artists from Russia. They are not only a response to an urgent departure, finding temporary accommodation, catching your breath and preparing the next steps, but also a way of showing solidarity within the art community and providing mutual support in a situation where help is not expected anywhere else.
This text is a conversation with Marianna Kruchinski, a curator and independent cultural worker who is a part of the Typography collective (the former Typography Centre for Contemporary Art in Krasnodar, Russia that condemned war unleashed by Russia in Ukraine shortly after its outbreak and was recognised as a foreign agent in the Spring of 2022). Supported by Reside/Sustain, Marianna was a resident in Mustarinda in May 2023.
After the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, part of the Typography team relocated to Yerevan. There, in a rental apartment, in June 2022 members of the collective organised a residency for Russian cultural workers opposing the regime. Artists living in Russia with semi-closed borders, an unstable economy, the inability to plan their future and resist things happening in the present without the fear of persecution were and are in need of support. One of the key objectives of this Typography collective’s project is to create a safe space outside of Russia where artists have no obligation to create artworks or develop projects. The residency creates opportunities for artists to familiarise themselves with the local context, continue personal exploration, or rebuild themselves/take time to rest. It provides free accommodation and covers travel expenses. Since June 2022, more than 70 cultural workers have stayed at the residency.
Adel Kim: How did the Typography team end up in Yerevan?
Marianna Kruchinski: Starting on February 24th, 2022 and every day until the departure from russia that happened between March 5-7 for some of the team members, and in the summer of 2022 for others, we met at the Typography Centre, drew anti-war stickers, put them up all over the city on our way to the rallies, and discussed what to do. In 2021, Typography was visited by the Federal Security Service (FSB) officers at least twice. So we realised that when we published our anti-war statement and stopped public activities, we would have reason to leave.
That is how we ended up in Armenia. At first, we shared an apartment with cultural workers from different cities. In April, however, many were faced with new hard choices: either go back or move forward. Together with Styopa Petrosyan who worked on the Typography buffet, we moved into a new apartment where Stepan and Vasily Subbotin from the ZIP group and Lena Ishchenko, curator of the Typography Centre, already lived at the time.
In May, Typography was declared a foreign agent. It became clear that our Centre in Krasnodar would have to be closed. Only Lena and I travelled there since there were rumours about possible drafting and closure of borders for men that could come into effect. For a month, together with colleagues, friends, and volunteers, we packed, negotiated with landlords, and so on. In June, upon returning from russia, it became clear that we would be travelling for some time during the summer. Thus our apartment in Yerevan would be empty – an opportunity and challenge at the same time.
We decided to use the sponsorship money and funds we got from sub renting our premises in 2021, for renting the apartment in Yerevan and making it Typography's new premises. After paying the rent for a year (a thing that helped us survive in another country), there was some money left to cover the travel costs for other artists. And thereby, we organised a residency in our apartment for those who continue to live and work in russia but need a break [Members of Typography choose to write the name of the state with a lowercase letter; they explain their language choices on their website – AK]. We wanted to create situations that would otherwise be impossible for the residents, who have neither the opportunity nor the mental strength to make them happen.
АК: Are you saying that the idea to start the residency was due to the availability of resources and your inability to use them?
МК: Indeed. We did not sit and dwell upon this idea. This was a solution to an existing problem.
АК: Is the main goal of the residency to provide artists with the possibility to catch their breath?
МК: That is just one of them. Another is to create conditions for artists to try and live in a different country: many of those we invite do not even have a travel passport, or do not use it often [there is a visa-free regime between Russia and Armenia so only an internal passport is needed for crossing the border – AK]. There were those who flew for the first time. Conceptually, our primary goal is to show residents traces of the russian colonial project that are still available for research; things close to us that remained overlooked before because of the lack of strength to work with this topic. For example, the geography of the Typography projects included Krasnodar, other regions in russia and even some European countries, but there were no joint projects with Armenia. This is understandable, but still strange since the Krasnodar region is not only a part of russia but also part of the Caucasus.
Residents often ask: "Do you want me to give a lecture, organise a film screening, do something else?" and my answer is: "No, I want you to go through this spreadsheet – it contains a list of institutions, self-organised initiatives, cultural workers, etc. Use the time to get to know someone from the list, learn what they do and focus on, ask them to give a lecture in the place where you continue to live and work." The task of the resident is not self-presentation, but, on the contrary, familiarising themselves with what is happening on the spot.
Here, there is much to learn about the war, humanitarian crisis, consequences of the colonial policy of russia, departure of Armenian cultural workers that happened in different years, their return, and (re-)implemented projects. I have my doubts that those who are now under a lot of stress and censorship in russia can come for a short amount of time and create something meaningful that can help them get out of this crisis; while presenting the results of the work they have done previously might not be relevant here. We do not want someone to transfer or receive knowledge from hierarchical positions of teacher and student. On the contrary, we suggest that our residents listen and think about what can be done together based on the situation. These two or three weeks that residents spend here are only enough to look around, go someplace, meet people and establish connections. We hope that after our residents return, these connections will remain.
Another goal is to keep communication going between those who left russia and those who stayed. Unfortunately, I see a juxtaposition of these two groups. Some think that those who have left are privileged and well-off; they can speak out, and find themselves in a less traumatic context. Those who left, on the contrary, claim they had to leave everything they have worked for behind, and moving for them is a jump into the unknown, everyday discomfort that includes regular apartment and job hunting, as well as new language situations. Residencies can serve as a meeting place, space for discussion and balancing out the two truths. Moreover, our residents can see for themselves how those who left live since we all share the same space.
АК: Could you please tell me more about the conditions? What do you offer, is there a programme? Who are your residents and where do they come from?
МК: Our first residents came from the inner circle – artists and cultural workers who were involved in the activities of Typography, people we can trust and are comfortable with. So, the programme was aimed at interaction, maintaining the dialogue, and exploring the institutions that eventually ended up in our spreadsheet.
In the first months between June – September 2022, we invited students and graduates of the KICA (Krasnodar Institute of Contemporary Art) or those artists and cultural workers who continue to live and work in the Krasnodar region. The list gradually began to expand, so the programme for these 2-3 weeks had to be structured. However, it remained as a joint study of Yerevan as well as the nearest cities: Garni, Dilijan, Vanadzor, and Gyumri.
In fact, we tried to avoid formalising the residency. Everything that Typography does is unprofessional in nature, both in a bad and a good way. KICA has existed for 12 years, and has at least 50 graduates some of whom continue to work with contemporary art. But the structure of lectures and links between the modules of the educational process are free and informal. We have the same here – we do not feel the need to formalise the project, strictly outline it and set concrete goals. For me, comprehending the residency, describing, and presenting it for the sake of getting funding is a separate job in itself.
АК: Not formulating what you are doing on purpose is a strategy too. It gives freedom, chaos, and opportunities for growth.
МК: Definitely. There are situations when expectations do not match. Sometimes the artists cannot understand why we, as a residency, do not ask them to do anything. With us, everything is really flexible: we can do something together or separately, there are no requirements. Many residents, however, are used to the fact that a residency is about submitting applications, receiving acceptance or rejection letters, and if you were chosen – proving that it happened for a reason and working hard to create a cool project as a residency outcome. Unlearning this is a challenge and I believe our residents should go through it.
АК: What is it like for you to live in the same apartment as the residents?
МК: There are three bedrooms in the apartment, residents occupy two of them. One has a balcony and two beds and the other one has a large double bed. When a group comes, two people share one room. My partner and I have a separate bedroom.
Up until June 2023 Zhenya Rimkevich, a member of the ZIP group and one of the residency staff members, lived in the living room behind a screen for 10 months.
In September 2022, when the draft started, a huge number of men arrived in the capital cities of, primarily, Armenia, Georgia, and Kazakhstan. Artists, poets, and other cultural workers were among them. In the last week of the month, the number of people living in our apartment reached 10. It was extreme to deal with the constant presence of other people in the place you call "home" with their own issues, daily routines, lack of plans for the future, fears and traumas. I was lucky I could hide in my own room.
We often have guests over. One of the wishes we have for the residents is to participate in organising at least one dinner. We cook together and invite friends who have moved from russia, or locals. I try to slip away from these dinners at one in the morning at the latest, having managed to wash a mountain of dishes.
АК: You mentioned the wishes you have, but are there any obligations that the residents need to comply with?
МК: Not as a rule. All residents come with specific requests. One artist who currently lives and works in russia and makes soundworks based on the recordings of bird sounds was looking for an ornithologist here who could tell her what birds come to Armenia. We found a birdwatching agency, and the resident went with them and recorded the birds in a national nature reserve. We then made a mix out of it for our radio. [Typography is working on the Radio Fantasia project.]
Another resident was only interested in architecture. She hardly spoke to anyone. Instead, she explored the city and surroundings, photographed the buildings, described their condition in writing, and developed a guide that we now share with the residents. There are those who want to arrange gigs or artist talks that normally take place in our living room. Several residents came with kids: one self-organised children’s project will remain on the walls of one of the rooms – I hope the landlord is okay with it. But there are no obligations. Those who are in the mood to work do so.
АК: Are there any principles that must be followed by the residents and the staff?
МК: Firstly, safety. Sometimes people ask me if the residency has a website or arranges open calls. The answer to both is no. We cannot have those since we do not want to endanger our residents by publishing any results or making announcements.When it comes to mutual responsibilities, we still invite people who our close friends can vouch for even though we have gone beyond the first circle of acquaintances. Therefore, we managed to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings in relation to living together. This, perhaps, is the reason why there were not any house rules until June 2023. After visiting Mustarinda residency (by the invitation of Reside/Sustain) in Finland in May 2023, I was inspired by a document that is sent in advance to future residents and decided to adapt it to our realities. We now ask prospective residents to confirm that they agree with the house rules before purchasing tickets.
АК: Are you running the residency alone, or are there other people involved? If so, how do you divide responsibilities?
МК: Until June 2023, there were three of us. Zhenya Rimkevich, whom we call the gastro-angel of our residence, who regularly went to the market, brought delicious vegetables, fish, and cooked all the time.
This is a job in and of itself, and a very important one. At the same time, he had no obligation to do so and there were no fixed dinner plans. Now Zhenya is renting an apartment with three graduates of KICA, and we jokingly call their place the builders' residence. The strategies and practices of non-cultural work that artists in exile have to do is a different story altogether. Styopa Petrosyan and I continue to work with the residency: Styopa got citizenship and launched an NGO to apply for grants. He also deals with everyday issues like repairing a faucet or a shower, and also introduces residents into the world of CS:GO, as well as his humour. I look for residents, make initial contact, share information, introduce them to the local context, and sometimes accompany them when they meet cultural workers in Yerevan. But building connections is a pleasant job, as opposed to washing floors and applying for grants. For several months now, two cultural workers who were our residents and wanted to participate in the development of the residency have been helping us with the latter.
АК: Residents meet with representatives of the local art community guided by your recommendations from a spreadsheet you created. From my experience, people get tired of repeating the same thing after several meetings, they lose interest. Have you experienced such difficulties? How is the residency’s process of integration into the Yerevan scene going?
МК: There are no such issues. Residents pick people from the spreadsheet according to their own interests. Plus, I am trying to expand it. In addition, this is not exactly an intro session – I normally try to find an event to build a conversation around.
АК: How is the residency financially supported? Do you still have a budget for flights and per diems?
МК: Until May 2023, we used money we earned by renting out the spaces of Typography in Krasnodar. Between June and August Styopa Petrosyan covered the rent and bills with his own finances. We sold some of the things we had left from Typography's venue in Krasnodar to be able to make the arrivals happen in the summer of 2023. Speakers, microphones, foam pyramids that we initially bought for our radio booth supported the arrivals of several people. Two of our friends made donations that will help us make it until the end of August 2023. So far, we are still operating at a rate of 30,000 rubles per visit. Since we buy tickets in advance, most often the expenses for a round-trip are from 10,000 to 18,000 rubles. The remaining sum is for additional expenses. Unfortunately, inviting residents and only offering them a place to live without paying a working grant is not much of a help for cultural workers from russia given the level of salaries in the sector. However, paying rent and utilities, and purchasing some basic stuff for cleaning, as well as coffee, tea, and cereals amounts to 1,100-1,300 euros per month.
АК: Are you supported by any foundations?
МК: Last year, when we were not yet applying for residency grants, there were quite a few sources of emergency fundings available. This year it is more challenging, but it is all the more important to continue with the project. Since the end of 2022, I have been applying for grants, among others for international residencies, mostly because I have almost never seen grants aimed at supporting short-term trips for russian citizens, only for emergency relocation. But not everyone has to leave. I would like cultural workers who continue to live and work in russia for various reasons, to come to our residency at the same time as international residents, make connections, and discuss topics that interest them, exploring the context and the situation in which they find themselves in, and then return to russia full of energy, continuing to resist the regime and supporting their allies.
АК: What are your plans for the residency project? How do you see its future, and within what time frame?
МК: It would be great to make these joint residencies for workers from different countries happen. This international polylogue between european, armenian, and russian cultural workers is something that no one will (and should) initiate now, except, I hope, russians in exile.
Last year, I planned ahead for 1-2 months, and it seemed like a lot. This year, as soon as January, I could say that the residency would continue until June. In June, I could breathe with a sigh of relief, realising we would make it until the end of the year. I think this is something amazing for a cultural project created in exile.