We have always thought about where our viewer was going. Interview with Alexandra Kiseleva

While working on the series of seminars “Viewer in the context of museum globalization”, we have talked with representatives of large cultural institutions (the Tretyakov Gallery and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts) as well as with members of self-organized art groups. Their approaches to building relations with the audience differ not only because of the nature of the spaces they handle, but also because of the attitude towards a viewer in general. Nevertheless, there is another model of exhibition space in Moscow. Moscow City Galleries Network first started in the 1980s at the initiative of the Moscow City Committee of the CPSU to promote cultural sphere among the population. At that time, it was a chaotic system in which new spaces appeared and disappeared regardless of the will of the Committee or the creators of the galleries themselves. In 2013, the Department of Culture released an official statement, according to which 18 galleries from 10 Moscow districts were merged into one organization. We spoke with Alexandra Kiseleva, curator of the Peresvetov Pereulok gallery[1], about working with local communities and the importance of a social voice.



Alexandra Kiseleva is an artist, curator and poet. She graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute and Joseph Backstein Institute of Contemporary Art. She was a co-author of the Emergency Communication project (gallery at the apartment building stairwell) and co-curated its pavilion at the Here and Now exhibition (2018, Moscow Manege). Head and curator of the Peresvetov Pereulok Gallery (together with Martha Zeich), author of the Free Multiple Art project and the eponymous exhibition.


Kristina Pestova (K. P.): Moscow City Galleries Network was formed in the 1980s, however, at that time it was not an actual network but rather local spaces in non-central districts of Moscow. Visiting Moscow City Galleries Network website, I became interested in the way the creators of the network describe each space: the Peresvetov Pereulok Gallery focuses on its underground past[2]. When you became head of the Gallery, did you think that it was necessary to focus on its history? How do you think Peresvetov differs from other Network’s spaces?


Alexandra Kiseleva (A. K.): When I started working at the Gallery, I did not immediately become its head. I started as part of a curatorial group (Daria Serenko, Oksana Vasyakina, and Sofia Sno). We were immediately informed that the head office would like the Gallery to have a clear strategy. And because avant-garde gatherings took place there, a lot was precisely tied to processuality. Therefore, we chose the concept of art interaction. 


In fact, over time, when I became head, I was finally convinced that this is too strict a restriction for the state space. I perceive the state gallery as a place that is organized thanks to ordinary people paying taxes, and where, to some extent, people themselves perceive this place as their own. Therefore, they often come to curators with proposals or confidently assess our activities. We are, if not a residential area, still not a center as such: the Gallery is located on the first floor of a residential building and, for instance, the windows of our smaller space overlook the courtyard where children play and pensioners sit on benches. I realized that such a concept excludes many things or adds something beyond the scope of participatory art. It was too artificial. 


But clearly, the history of the gallery in the 1980—1990s warms my soul. We are currently doing an exhibition called Peresvetov Pereulok: Sorting the archive[3]. When we first arrived at the Gallery, we started looking for what was left of that time and found that an archive was being collected. It was collected rather casually: these were office folders full of various reports, curatorial sketches, artists' handprints, different plans. This was all gathered most likely because office workers of that time were worried that not enough papers were collected. What if I throw it away now, and then need it? 


When we found this archive, we were surprised how eclectic this place turned out to be in the course of its history: everyone knows the Gallery because there was KLAVA, but then there were many other exhibits as well. This is probably a bit of snobbish to say, but it's interesting and strange to look at the exhibition plan at that time: first, Andrey Monastyrsky, then Colors of Autumn — an exhibition of children's artworks for a competition. Now, when we are making a project about an archive, the image of that Gallery is the basis we use as a platform which will be constantly captured by people and groups. Therefore, this Gallery belongs to no one. Come to think of it, this is probably the fate of the state space. Now, as a curator, I have somehow conceptualized this approach.


K. P.: So each new curator of the Gallery made its concept anew?


A. K.: Yes.


K. P.: When you were told that you need to work out a clearer concept of the Gallery's development, you already had an idea for whom all this is being done?


A. K.: I hear this question quite often: what is your target audience? It seems to me that for many exhibition venues, the term “target audience” is a myth. Sometimes this target audience simply does not exist. To some extent, this is the principle of our work. We strive to work with a local audience for sure, but this does not always work out. Most often it depends on the project itself. In general, we have now concluded that our initial idea of art interaction is reduced to the desire to do social art, that is, to create a space where different social groups can talk about their problems. Therefore, from project to project, the audience changes, although a certain number of people are our permanent visitors because they have grasped the meaning of our projects and the connection between them. 

There is a problem here. I often hear that by giving a voice to a certain group, we isolate and even exoticize these people for others by putting them on display. However, I disagree. On the contrary, it seems to me that if you include people in one unit, then individual problems become simply inaudible. So then the problems of the broadest groups are those being talked about. But from project to project we work on certain social problems, and take on a mission.


K. P.: Have there been any successful examples of such projects? The projects that attracted a lot of people? 


A. K.: There is an idea I heard quite often while I was working on library projects, at that time it was still a novelty: you don't need to go to the center to meet your friends because you can create such a space in your district, like a kind of public living room. We were constantly excited by this idea. But the implementation of such an idea is very difficult because people sometimes come to the area because they live there, not to spend their free time there.


K. P.: Sure. It happens (and quite often) that friends live in different parts of Moscow. Or you come home just to get some sleep and move on.


A. K.: Totally! Sometimes you want to go to a place where you are a stranger to the environment: where there are no memories of specific places or people you can meet in this area, very neutral. People from different places may have a different emotional background, perhaps not always pleasant. But what I have in mind is one project made with locals.


For many years, a local non-professional artist, a geologist by education in fact, has visited our Gallery. He works as a geologist, but has been engaging in art all of his life: that is his hobby. His name is Mikhail Garasko. He met different curators in the Gallery and asked every one of them to organize his exhibition. The interesting thing is that one wall of his apartment is shared with one of our Gallery spaces. But according to Mikhail, curators often disagreed precisely because he was a resident: they thought it would be strange to make an exhibition with Mikhail just because he lives in that house. On the contrary, it seemed logical for our group. We realized then that an exhibition should always be an event. It can be an event for both the artist and the viewer. In this case, they appeared to be on the same level: they shared the joy of what was happening. For Mikhail's exhibition[4], we made a banner with a huge title “Exhibition of Mikhail Garasko” on the side of his photograph, showing the artist sitting on a sofa surrounded by his works. People who only saw the banner came to us because they thought: this is Mikhail Garasko, he is a neighbor, I saw him in the house or the yard. Garasko was nervous when we set up the exhibition, thinking that everything would fail once again. As for us, we were terrified by the possibility that no one would show up at the opening night.


As an unknown artist, we were scared that in that case, he would conclude that he was not an artist at all. We were afraid of the empty space. However, everything turned out to be the exact opposite: it was such a crowded opening! Local people, geologists from Mikhail's workplace, all came. I remember a conversation with one couple, for whom the exhibition was a discovery: they said that they saw Mikhail from another perspective because they believed that he was drawing birch trees, while on the contrary, he was creating very strange, but acutely perceptive social works. It was an event because people changed their view of a person whom they had known for many years.

Another example is Alena Levina’s exhibit, an artist and activist. She deals with the problems of artists with disabilities, since she has herself been in a wheelchair for several years. The exhibition was entitled Welcome to a rehabilitation center for people who have been through a lot.[5Alena doubted for a long time what was more important: either for people at the exhibition to understand ​​a topic that is essential to her and about which she constantly talks, or that she should just be recognized as an artist. And this is a really important point because one would think that the reason we were showing Alena Levina’s art was that she raised the topic of disability in her works. And it could be that for some people, both first and second points could become less significant at different times. As part of the exhibition, we discussed the problems of artists with disabilities in the contemporary art environment. Within that framework, we raised issues of learning, presentation of art works, inclusion. Up to the very beginning, we did not know who would come because the topic is rather sensitive, and we were glad when artists with disabilities came to the meeting. In my opinion, this is an example of the problem raised by a certain social group, which then becomes a problem for everyone. And it seems to me that this is exactly how it should be: to not include these people in our conversation about common topics, but rather let the problems of these people be our common issue.


K. P.: Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that the exhibition schedule in your Gallery is more flexible than, for example, in large museums? Exhibitions can be set up depending on the audience's response and what projects were proposed by the Gallery visitors?


A. K.: Since the Gallery is a state institution, every autumn we have to present a yearly plan. When people come to us with proposals, we always listen to them. Some projects are very difficult to turn down, and we try to fit them into the plan.


K. P.: Do all projects of your Gallery include a public program: tours, artist talks?


A. K.: Events are usually another reason why people come to see the exhibitions. Sometimes there are projects in which we incorporate an event program at the conceptual level. For instance, our last exhibition before the lockdown was a project entitled On our own: an ecological exhibition of local importance (2020). It was originally planned as an exhibition-forum. We used materials from previous exhibitions and didn’t spend a penny on the project. The installation made by Alexandra Kuznetsova was called Environmental Forum. On the one hand, it was a meeting place, a square, and on the other, a kind of irony over the format of environmental forums, which are often not very environmentally friendly in their organization. There were not many objects at the exhibition, the project existed during the public program: educational programs on ecological issues, public talks about recycling, discussions about small business policy, swaps. It was an exhibition that simply could not have taken place without a public program. Sometimes, when we organize an exhibition, we insert some kind of setting, a place that is specifically set up for an event to happen. For example, a discussion about artists with disabilities took place in a part of the exhibition where we reproduced a piece of the interior of Alena Levina's studio. In this context, the studio is the only truly accessible environment. We always think about events. And most of all, we do not only love the format of the discussions, but the format of the conversation, when the audience is actively involved. Sometimes this is very unusual for the invited speakers. 


K. P.: Usually all discussions relate to some kind of presentation. Questions from the audience are rare.


A. K.: In our case, it all started at Ikuru Kuwajima's Repatriation exhibition[6]. We announced a tour about the mechanisms of cultural memory, where we invited Anna Narinskaya. Since the exhibition was about repressions in the Soviet era, we quickly got into a conversation about the perception of the heroic and victory in modern culture. At some point, the audience just erupted: perhaps it was a sore subject. There were people who survived the Second World War, they shared their experiences, some people talked about what their parents told him. I remember that we recorded this meeting to make a video later. And after we started listening to the recording, we realized that the most interesting part was what was said by the audience.


The second event of this exhibition was even more interesting: it suddenly turned out that all of us — both the curatorial team and Ikuru Kuwajima (an artist from Japan who lives in Russia) — love Egor Letov[7]. We decided to hold a meeting Ikuru Kuwajima talking about Egor Letov. That day, together with the visitors, we just sat in a circle, listened to Letov's songs, and discussed them. Of course, we were worried that the room would suddenly be empty or that no one would want to join the discussion, but it turned out exactly the opposite: we sat for more than two hours. It was a new experience for all of us. Oksana Vasyakina even said that she never thought that listening to Egor Letov could be such a collective experience.


K. P.: It reminds me of a book club. In your opinion, how does the viewer feel in your Gallery? Is it easy to make contact? 


A. K.: We have a rather small gallery: two exhibition spaces, a modern graphics shop Sazha and our office. This compactness makes it easy for us to go out and talk to the viewer. Our goal is to meet and conduct an excursion for every visitor, and very few people refuse. If someone goes to our Gallery, and Peresvetov Pereulok is not a very big platform, it is to communicate. And here amazing things can happen: during a conversation, we understand how small the world is. For example, at Ikuru Kuwajima’s exhibition, there was a girl who found a portrait of her great-grandfather in one part of the installation, where there were portraits of prisoners from Krasnoyarsk on tree cuts. I think this story would have been lost otherwise. For us, communication with visitors is also a discovery.

K. P.: Why did you decide to create Sazha?


A. K.: It was the idea of my new colleague Olga Mashinets. She said that people often do not even think of themselves as collectors of artworks. But the available ones are usually not seen as art. There is a huge number of artists who are ready to sell their works for little money, just so that someone possesses these works, needs them. In our shop, the price range is pretty democratic. In a way, this is another way for us to work with the local audience. For a long time, Peresvetov Pereulok Gallery had a framing workshop, it started even before us. We often see people bringing some kind of embroidery or magazine posters for decoration. With Sazha’s help, we suggested that they hang the work of a contemporary artist on the wall of their house, rather than a poster with an antelope made of rhinestones.


K. P.: Alexandra, you said that due to your location in a residential building, locals often come to you, and they are not at all shy about expressing their opinion and giving evaluations about the exhibitions. Do you remember the most unexpected comments people have made? 


A. K.: There was one comment, which was expressed several times and by different people  as an attempt to criticize. Again, the difficulty of working with the Peresvetov Pereulok is that the curators of the Gallery often change along with the concept. And it seems to me that at some point people simply lost an understanding of what was going on in general. There was a period when it was hermetic contemporary art. When I talked to people, they often recalled that time as “it was not for us”. This feeling of tightness and closeness acts even on the simplest levels: how the poster or banner is designed. Now we try to show on the posters as fully as possible what awaits visitors at the exhibition, what locals will see.

At the very beginning of my work, when there was this concept of art interaction, we showed simple spatial works. But people who entered the gallery often did not come for the exhibitions, but to pick up children from classes or choose a picture frame. They might not have known at all that this was a gallery. And, looking around the exhibition halls, they would sometimes ask our administrator: “When will the exhibition be?”. And our administrator who is from the old-school always asked us: “Girls, hang something on the walls, people don't understand!”.


K. P.: Very sincere comment, though! 


A. K.: When you start paying attention to people, telling them about exhibitions, they become more supportive. I think this is the key.


K. P.: You mentioned classes for children — is it something that the Gallery does permanently? 


A. K.: Yes, by the way, it was originally included in the concept of Moscow City Galleries Network. All galleries have compulsory club work. Club work means that people working in the gallery can do classes on topics that they are studying or that are of interest to them. Doing this kind of thing is very interesting. Now I am thinking of creating a feminist club, where everything will be based on the exchange of experience between visitors.


K. P.: Club work sounds much friendlier than a course of lectures. 


A. K.: I think that during all this time we have not had a single lecture. Our format is a collective interaction, not a presentation of just one opinion.


K. P.: Nowadays, there is much discussion about art venues being unified. As visitors, we usually have at least a rough idea of what program awaits us and what we can do when we come to a museum or gallery (exhibition, bookshop, café, classes for children, etc.). Is Peresvetov Pereulok another space in this particular sense?


A. K.: We have everything that you have listed. From a management point of view, this is just a setting that allows the space to earn a budget. But we always thought like this: a person can go to the Garage or Winzavod, where there are dozens of galleries. It is fine if you step into the gallery, quickly look around the space with a single object inside, and then go to other galleries. But to us, it is a disastrous scenario when someone arrives at the Avtozavodskaya metro station, takes ten minutes to walk to the Gallery and in five minutes is ready to leave. Perhaps this is partly why we came up with the concept of art interaction: the visitor should get something more from us. Communication has always been a great point for us as well. 


Since the Ikuru Kuwajima exhibition, we have begun to include special spots where visitors can lie down or sit — spend some time. For instance, Ikuru had a special object on display where visitors could lie on. For him, as an artist, ​​sleeping is generally important; at one time he did the Oblomov project. This object looked just like a sofa: it was covered with a canvas with a printed photograph depicting the coast of Iceland with driftwood lying on it. This driftwood (logs) came to Iceland from Siberia, they used to be felled by prisoners. According to Ikuru's idea, each viewer could lie on this sofa, listen to the sounds recorded on the coast of Iceland, and feel as if she was a log. 


Consequently, during Katya Muromtseva's project about artists living in nursing homes, curator Dasha Serenko came up with the idea of ​​putting a table where one could drink tea. Ever since, every tour of the exhibition always ended at this table — it was a tea place. And it usually turned into a conversation with visitors. It seems to me that this is really what people need. I don’t want to say anything bad, but when you come to Winzavod to visit any gallery, you don’t see its owner, it’s just a space in which you can stay. It's different for us: in the gallery, there is no clear boundary between our workplace and the exhibition. I often catch myself thinking that visitors are walking around the exposition, while our office door is widely open. Probably, this is not very appropriate. But in a way that is the charm of our space. 


K. P.: By the way, this related to the question we mentioned at the beginning — about the target audience. Art specialists usually imagine a visitor, a viewer in a certain way, anticipating the opinion he or she may not even have: as if a potential visitor should not like what will be shown at the exhibition.


A. K.: This is interesting, indeed. When we think about our visitors, we always start from their possible dissatisfaction and immediately turn to how we will overcome it. On the contrary, I now want to include the Gallery in the Moscow Longevity program. On the one hand, you don't know what to expect because there are a lot of different, eclectic things going on there, but on the other hand, there are people, an audience. The only question is what we can offer this audience. Why not offer them something thrilling and interesting? After all, this is the very attention that, as they say, works wonders.

1. Gallery website: https://www.vzmoscow.ru/galleries/gallery_peresvetov/?lang=en


2. KLAVA’s events (famous 1990s artistic avant-garde club).


3. Exhibition Peresvetov Pereulok. Sorting the archive was held at the Gallery from 04.09.20 to 04.10.20. More about the exhibition: https://vzmoscow.ru/sentyabr/vistavka_peresvetov_pereulok._razbor_arhiva/index.php?lang=en


4. Mikhail Garasko's exhibition Life of Toys was held at the Gallery from 05.07.19 to 18.10.19. More about the exhibition: https://vzmoscow.ru/events/archive/2019/iyul/zhizn_igrushek/index.php?lang=en


5. The exhibition Welcome to the rehabilitation center for people who have been through a lot was held at the Gallery from 20.12.19 to 16.02.20. More about the exhibition: https://vzmoscow.ru/events/archive/2019/noyabr/dobro_pozhalovat/index.php?lang=en


6. The exhibition Repatriation was held at the Gallery from 13.04.19 to 14.05.19. More about the exhibition: https://vzmoscow.ru/events/archive/2019/aprel/repatriaciya/index.php?lang=en


7. Egor Letov (1964—2008) was a Russian poet, musician and artist born in Omsk. He was the founder and leader of the post-punk band Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defense).