In February 2019, our director Hadrian and head of architecture Diana spent three weeks in Russia, with Strelka Institute and the British Council, hosting workshops and lectures on City and Culture in 5 Russian regions, Vladivostok, a port city in the Far East; Perm, in Siberia; Voronezh, in the Urals; St Petersburg, the former capital and Baltic port; and Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave in Europe.
Diana shares some of her highlights and lessons with us here:
We feel very lucky to have taken this journey across Russia. We’ve seen the sea at the east and west coasts of this vast country, met many inspiring people we hope to stay in touch with, and visited five very different cities.
For us this was an opportunity, on the 10th anniversary of our organisation, to share some of what we have learned in the UK and to learn from those that we met in Russia. We could reflect on our own practice and see it reflected back in over 20 pitches for projects and collaborations prepared by the participants. We feel that real projects will come out almost every workshop – in some cities we are hopeful that we may see up to three beginning as a direct result of the programme.
They say that there’s a lot that they won’t be forgetting any time soon, and a lot that they learnt from the experience:
At the end of our lecture in Vladivostok, a Local Government official read out her mobile phone number to an audience of local artists, architects and activists and encouraged them to be in touch to explore collaborations. This was in response to an audience comment that the Authorities were hard to initiate dialogue with. We’ve spent so many years of our practice building up relationships with local authorities, and so to be able to start some of those relationships in Russia, that are so valuable to the work we do, was really special.
As is often the case, some of the participants most sceptical about the value of the workshop at the beginning became those who made particularly valuable contributions. An economics student in St Petersburg, a municipal officer in Kaliningrad, a poet in Perm, an architect in Voronezh and an activist in Vladivostok all come to mind as people who managed to really throw themselves into a programme which offered real freedom and challenged assumptions around what formal training can look like.
One of the best things for us about the trip was how each workshop enabled us to achieve an insight into the cultural life of the city through a diverse and very interesting range of people. Looking at specific sites helped us to get a quick grasp of the specific issues facing each city; because people came at it from different disciplines this perspective felt rounded and was able to be discussed through the course of the workshops. It was a powerful and effective way of getting to know a place and its cultural sector – both for us and for many participants who remarked how surprised they were by the new conversations and issues raised by discussing and visiting sites.
We learned that some things in Russia are not so different from the situation in the UK. Whether it was the frustrations around connecting with municipal authorities, the challenges around funding sustainable projects, connecting with new audiences in meaningful ways or the role culture has in shaping city development – thematic issues seem to carry from city to city and resonated with our own work in the UK.
What is of course very different is the scale of the role of local Government and its relationship to the cultural sector. We struggle enormously with issues around cultural diversity in the UK context, whereas in all of the cities we visited participants identified two recurring challenges to launching new cultural projects or engaging with the current cultural offer: the lack of sufficient public transport and the lack of city-wide information about events or networks of cultural institutions.
These workshops were the first time we have condensed our methodology, based on ten years of work, into a short series of exercises. It gave us a chance to reflect on our own practice. Seeing it through the eyes of another place and other professionals is a good way of understanding our own methodology. We feel the experience has helped clarify and refine our own thinking, and we are grateful for this.
We come away feeling thoughtful, humbled and inspired, and hope to pursue similar trips in future to share our portfolio of learnings from our 10 years of exploring the ways artists can contribute to city development.