I meet Alexandra Nenko for coffee just after her lecture in the Urban Art Festival that has been taking place in the city in the past weeks. Alexandra is not an artist, but she is heavily involved in changing the city with – and by – art. Half-a-year ago she launched the project Arts for the City, a year-long experiment to bring together European artistic communities in order to work in St. Petersburg’s more remote places.
“The idea is not about foreign intervention”, stresses Alexandra after the first sip of coffee, “but of collaboration between Russian and European creative people”.
This project has partly grown from Alexandra’s scientific work: for more than a year she with the colleagues from the Centre for German and European Studies was researching creative collectives in European Cultural Capitals. Using her contacts and insights into collective creation and public engagement, she decided to try to change her own city using the potential of art.
“The fact that an artwork is situated in the public place doesn’t mean it’s public. Public art is able to reflect the interests of the public”, explains Alexandra.
Urban artists work with the city as material, and citizens as co-creators rethinking and reshaping the space. The artist has become a communicator, a facilitator who helps the public speak and create. This is the kind of “art” Arts for the City is looking for.
The artists Alexandra invites for her project usually have experience of this process of co-creation with the public. Games and artistic walks, a mixture of forms familiar to everyone from childhood, and the urban space – everything serves as platform for bringing new meanings and involvement into the desolate city spaces. To try them out in the context of St. Petersburg is one of the goals of the project.
Arts for the City started in September. And though the number of events they have organized is not that impressive so far – two artistic games and one seminar – a lot of work has been put into preparing those events. Italian art collective Trial Version was the first to come. Their urban game took place in a yard in Viborgskaya Side of the city.
We specifically focus on the remote areas of the city”, says Alexandra. “In the center there is already enough going on. Of course it is a challenge for us, and for the artists. These are definitely not the places you would go to on your first visit to the city.
Interaction between foreign artists and local residents is an issue as well. But even without speaking the same language a common tongue can be found. “Italian artists came up with the ‘Spread the Word’ game and I was very relieved because this format is very well known in Russia”, says Alexandra.
Also known as the Chinese Whisper, the game is popular in many countries. Starting with one person, a word is whispered through a line of people. In most cases, the message shifts significantly as it conveyed from one person to another. In Russia as the Italian artist suggested, the shift in meaning symbolizes the miscommunication that could be associated with the lingering legacy of the Soviet’s definition of “public space”.
One of the main purposes of the game was to recreate the lost interaction in Russian yards allowing the participants to talk about their district.
So-called artistic ‘games’ are not a childish thing. “Every game requires serious preparation”, says Alexandra. She and her team have been collecting information about the district, meeting locals and inviting them to play. Many times rejection was the only response – people thought they just wanted to sell something and weren’t open to dialogue.
Red Triangle is another place on the edge that is full of myths and legends and was chosen for artistic intervention. The former rubber plant is now home for small semi-legal factories, photo studios and rehearsal points. Alexandra invited German art collective Invisible Playground from Berlin to create a game in this peculiar place.
“I wanted to work with the concept of space, routes and local points of interests, the residents of Red Triangle and their image of the space”, says Alexandra who had been discussing the outlines of the game long before it happened. “German artists proposed mixing the technique of video routes and messages from the future. When they wrote to me about spaceships I was shocked. I was trying to change their mind. But they just said “it will be OK” and I believed them”.
The organization of such an artistic event is always a compromise with the artist, says Alexandra. She knows the aim of the project and the local peculiarities, but the artists are the ones that provide the ideas. It is always a synthesis of both.
We come to a place, spend three days in a yard and leave – of course we cannot change the environment there in such a short time.
The artistic interventions that the Arts for the City team is doing can be precedents, trial versions for the future development of the districts and cool memories for the locals, but the main aim of the project is educational. “We educate a team of young, creative and engaged people who enjoy changing their environments and will continue doing so when the project is over”.
The projects do not appear from nothing either – there is always a demand from local activists in the districts. A local journalist highlighting a problem, a resident of an art-space, a local online-community, or just a babushka on the bench – these are the people to talk to. “Local babushkas are especially tough”, says Alexandra, “when then shout at you, you have to really understand why”.
In November outdoor activities became a no-go and the Arts for the City team opted to continue the discussion indoors in the form of seminar. But as soon as the snow melts new projects are planned: Finnish, Danish and Spanish artists are to come and experience interactions with St. Petersburg’s more remote places. Residents of these districts may be pleasantly surprised with what they encounter there!