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We rather live in cities instead of countries 0

Conversation with Anton «Make» Polsky, one of the founders of 

Alexander Kuritsyn

Anton «Мake» Polsky is a Moscow street artist who has travelled the evolutionary road from old-school Graffiti artist to an urban activist.  His ideas and urbanist impulses determined the direction of development chosen for the city by the new Head of Moscow Department of Culture, Sergei Kapkov. The humanization of public space, the "bicyclization" of the capital and work with local communities have been already officially put on the agenda.

Anton has spent seventeen of his 32 years doing street art. For a more academic approach to his subject area (and to find help in his personal battle with unfounded assertions) he graduated from the Art History department of the Russian State University of Humanities  (RSUH), defending his diploma on the impact on the images of cities of street art and public art. 

In his capacity as art director and curator of special projects for the Internet newspaper «The Village», he formulated rather than expounded on the main creative and  recreational trends of the generation born after the collapse of the USSR.

Of Anton's activist merits his manifest «Моscow 2020», about concrete changes that are necessary in the capital deserves mention as do the festival "Make It Yourself", which draws participants frоm a whole range of urban projects with the goal of cooperation and discussion of tactics and strategies of development, and the best known movement to date (invented together with curator Igor Ponossov), Partizaning, which merges art and social work and is directed at an underground redesign of the environment.  

We met in Nizhny Novgorod where Anton was giving a talk "The New Collectivism: the Art of Engagement as an Instrument of Transforming a City and Society" within the framework of the Festival of activist art  "MediaUdar". We talked in between the events of the Festival. 

Anton, you are a street artist with lots of experience. How did it all start for you and how did it develop?  

In 1997, I got the Internet. I was in school at the time and met guys who were interested in graffiti, including Basket, one of the first graffiti artists in the USSR. For the record, the first graffiti wave took place in Russia still in the Soviet period and was related to break-dance festivals. There was a kind of a party group that went from town to town forming a kind of a network through which people exchanged information. It was a lifeblood system. The most advanced cities in the Soviet Union were St Petersburg, Kaliningrad and Riga. Each had its own festival, which provided the impulse. With the fall of the Soviets, it all ended, countries went their separate ways, there were no budgets for organizing and this way of communication between people and cities quickly disappeared.  

The second wave began at the end of the 1990s and was related to the Internet. That was already a global wave that involved not only Russia but really half the world: Brazil, Eastern Europe etc. The Internet provided the opportunity to set up communication, creating in this way a general field of information. And so I got access to the Internet as well.  I looked at what was written about graffiti, saw what it tended to be like, understood that it was my theme and got involved in the process.  At first I drew on the walls and cars of the metro.  All of this at that time took place in the context of hip-hop, of course. We danced, went to drum&bass-parties и and had a fun time. But gradually as it were it dawned on us that we should switch from this wave to studying or working or, just the opposite, seriously get involved in the process. I chose the latter and developed one of the first websites on graffiti where I tried to provide a structure to everything and to describe what was happening in the post-Soviet space. The most impressive and famous at that time were the B-Boys from Da Boogie Crew and SPP from St Petersburg, which, in addition to everything else, had a graffiti store which we went from Moscow to visit and explore like some miracle.

After the website, I put out the first Russian magazine «Outline». I printed it on my black-and-white A3 printer. My mom had a shoe store with its own workshop. There were knives there for cutting the leather for shoes, so I used them to cut the first 300 copies of the first issue. I gave them away or sold them at a ridiculously low price. This helped me feel a certain "coolness" regarding myself and the surrounding environment. At that time, we were also putting together a team called «RusCrew». The idea behind the team was to form our own Russian school instead of the international graffiti that was born in the States and then spread throughout the world. I understood that for that we need to somehow move beyond the limits of the subculture and move in a direction that would be easier to understand for people; to enter in a dialogue with them, to stop writing your own name on the walls that does not say anything, and first started to place my drawings in the context of the city. At the time, I was inspired by the group Os Gemeos from San Paulo. Lacking information about graffiti in Brazil, they were among the first to relate the hip-hop culture with their local culture. As a result, an interesting mix formed, in part imitating American graffiti and in part using authentic Brazilian folklore. Having gained popularity abroad in the late 1990s, they went on a European tour for the first time an the drawings that they left on the walls of Germany in 1999, I really liked because of their contextuality. I decided to take a similar route: to combine the aesthetics of children's illustrations from books of Soviet times – all these cartoonish themes of Pivovarov and Kabakov – with street art. True, I was not a skilled drawer and lacked the appropriate education, but I was fascinated by the possibilities of being creative without any sanction, censorship or exams, that is, to simply do what I liked and be who I really am.

But what made you branch out from street art to activism and work with the urban environment?

We rather live in cities instead of countries. The urban environment is what we are dealing with. Moscow for the longest time was the kingdom of Luzhkov.  All that I loved was destroyed by him: architectural monuments were razed in the name of commercial interests; because of a thorough saturation with cars, tram rails were taken away etc.  Sometimes all this was replaced by something standing, but most of the time there was a maximum of one step forward and two steps back. The entire space was really being degraded and even good beginnings brought about skepticism because of the dominating destructive trends.

I wanted to work with this theme, to change this vector or at least my own mood. I understood that there are cities more run down than Moscow and I simply need to find its potential. And I found this potential behind the scenes. I made a map of the city with routes recommended by me and presenting a totally different city. I took as my manifesto a text about "critical mass" from Naomi Klein's book «No logo». It is a movement from San Francisco which originated in China when a crowd of bicyclists gather and, for instance, they block traffic. The idea of "critical mass" is in the fact that when there is many of us we can change the course of any events. As of 1998, I have been riding my bicycle in summer, which let me be more mobile and direct in my interactions with the city. I made a personal map of the city, marking there various interesting places which are difficult to reach on foot, where it is possible to have a bite and learn about street art.  But the main thing was the bicycle routes. This became a real media sensation: I got phone calls, letters, I was giving interviews. It had a snowball effect. At the same time, I began to head the "Society" section and write about various urban activities on the "Lookatme" website.  Together with a schoolmate of mine with whom we once started to draw graffiti I now took to redrawing the city, inventing a funny navigation system of the most popular routes.  Then «Lookatme» launched «The Village», where I became the art director and worked out a very powerful program dedicated to the bicyclists of the city. Generally, it was there that I could carry out many of my ideas. «The Village» became a model for the engagement with and impact on the life in the city by the Internet media and with its help we influenced the public opinion showing how the city could develop in an active way.  It is because of this kind of media that the urban activists began to put pressure on the powers that be. In many respects, Moscow began to change owing to activist projects, festivals, new mass media and little blogs. At first people were simply sharing their examples, then engaged in discussions, confronting various unusual tactics in one sphere, but later this developed as a kind of milieu which became a link between the public and the authorities. All of this created an interesting phenomenon which turned city urbanism into the most trendy preoccupation. In fact it is civic society which these days sets the agenda in Moscow.  Right now Partizaning is my main project. In short, it is me and my friends curator Igor Ponosov and urbanist Shria Malkhotra who are trying to combine street art and social activity. We put forth this term particularly in Russia where individual, unsanctioned by anyone expression or action can become the key form of social and cultural change. "Copenhagenization" of cities as if by copying is not the only possible way.  It is necessary to feel the uniqueness of the context in which you work and take it as your point of departure. To explore and blow up the environment in guerilla fashion instead of transmitting only the "European" view. 

Аnd what do you think of the criticism of the enthusiasm for urbanism today – as if this trend has been set as a maneuver to draw the attention away from the real agenda, which involves the economy, politics and social sphere?

I think that urbanism and the comfortable urban scene should be issue from self-organization. For that reason, it is necessary to precisely articulate the idea that our goal is not only benefits and creature comforts. Throughout the 2000s, the political sphere was monopolized by the authorities, by Putin's regime, and the cultural sphere was monopolized by the liberal mass media, which were elegantly based on consumption and transmitting more or less the following: "You too can be classy – listen to British electronic bands, read the "Afisha" magazine and take a trip to New York. It was this kind of hierarchy of so-called Western values where everyone is lulled into feeling good. But at the same time, it is worth noting that revolution from above is impossible. You cannot first topple the regime and then decide how and what values will come to replace it.  This mechanism does not work and the example of Ukraine has shown it very clearly. Changes from below, on the other hand, is already some movement in the direction of the future. It is important to create communities with a means of interaction different than before, to create and build up networks, to spread information and forms of behavior and to change the society at the chemical level. People should have the opportunity to discuss important themes: sexuality, exclusions from the overall context, traumatic experiences. Many people do not perceive transformation of the urban environment as political action, although it does change a lot.

What has your relationship with the art industry been like? 

Several times I tried to transfer what I was doing to a closed space. As far as galleries are concerned, the story is that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was no great interest in street art on the part of the art market, and there was no real street art scene. A powerful impetus and a new direction for contemporary art to follow was provided by the first Moscow Biennale. Several galleries sprang up with which it was possible to find a common language. But this story for me got old very quickly. The layering of various conceptions with which the lack of a simple strong idea is being masked, "wonderful" prospects of receiving a bonus, a hierarchical system, which supposedly chooses the most talented artist, presenting him with the hypothetical possibility of getting somewhere at some point – all that leads to disillusionment soon enough. And many people have gone through this. Street art generally does not fit well with the world of "great" art. Galleries represent a fundamentally bourgeois story. I don't mean it negatively, it is so historically. Selling art through a gallery is a response to the increased demand on the part of a new class strengthening its positions. But street art works by totally different principles, it tries to slip away from capitalism trying to domesticate it. Gallerists and curators seek out street artists whom it might be possible to "package", but the real essence of expressing oneself in a closed space practically always leads to the issue of form, losing the important contextual component.  Many of the street artists have gone through a similar experience and have returned to the street.  

But what are the possibilities of "domesticating" street art? One must live on something, after all?

The usual forms of development for the street artist are to exhibit in galleries, to open a store to sell balloons or to decorate sports shoes or facades. But these are rather serious compromises with oneself, which take one quite far away from the original sensation of freedom and self-expression in a city space for which it was all being done. These are important sensations: revealing the city to oneself or travelling by railroads or courtyards, exploring rooftops, you uncover all that potential. Many artists have stopped painting realizing that painting is simply an excuse to explore the city. Sometimes you simply see a wall and realize how beautiful it is, what wonderful texture it has and you begin to consider what you might draw on it so as to  emphasize this beauty. But if you already see it, then you don't need to do anything. Yet a more important problem for the street artists regarding the capitalization of their work, in my opinion, is the articulation of what they are doing. Artists tend not to always answer the question why and for whom they are doing things.

 Let us return to the topic of the Internet: what was it that changed with its stormy development in the 2000s both with regard to the functioning of street art and the city environment?

 The Internet filled all the gaps that existed in the city environment in many cities. In Russia, the street space and everything that was related to collective use were degraded. And everything related to the individual and private was actively being developed: malls appeared, squares rotted away, everyone got their private means of transportation whereas public transportation was removed from city space. The Internet allowed people to get acquainted with each other if they were too shy to decide on it in reality. All kinds of closed societies and groups of people who felt some sort of pressure from the state machinery appeared on the web. In the States, with the ubiquitous use of conditioners, people began to escape to closed spaces because it was too hot or too cold, too humid, too suffocating, too dry, too bright – in other words, too uncomfortable for them on the street. Therefore, they all stayed – and are still staying -- vegetable-like in their cars, offices and houses where there is the ideal temperature for them and are completely cut off from public space. In Jakarta, the situation is similar these days. Everywhere there are skyscrapers, automobiles and shopping malls, but as soon as you open the Internet, more than a hundred requests for friendship pour in. It is understandable that in the situation where people stop walking on the street, when there is nothing to see around and everything is full of advertisements, you can fill the entire city with drawings and only your colleagues will notice it. But if you are orientated towards some end user, the Internet, as an improved model of public social space allows you to fill the gaps of the urban environment. It is enough to make a couple of drawings, take a picture of them and post them on the Internet and they will be seen by people not just in one city but all over the world. When something takes place in New York, everyone talks about it, but if something happens in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod or Riga, then it is something in the alley-ways of the empire and is considered as something second-rate, copied from the supposedly original places of power. The Internet smoothes out such moments, letting people make or say something powerful and important in a small town and share it with the whole world. There are negative aspects, however, too. There was this work by Sasha Kurmaz from Kiev, Make Art and Post It on Facebook. Many of the more straightforward street artists of the old school took it as an imitation, pointing at the lack of honesty in how this statement reaches the public . But I think that the media should be exploited exactly this way. And there is no major difference between the off-line and the on-line. If originally the Internet copied social connections from reality and tried to improve them, nowadays I think it is the other way round; it is important to learn what the Internet has given us and to try to introduce it offline. Many projects of public art, activist projects, are built on creating communities offline.

Where do you see the principal difference between activism in Europe and Russia? And what useful things can be borrowed?

In Russia, it is the element of wildness and youth, a kind of challenge to which you as an activist cannot respond with silence, that seems to me an important and inspiring aspect. Today, we have a strikingly fine situation for those who are looking for adventure: a million problems and a bunch of talented people who are looking for change. The Internet is working, it is possible to travel around the country, to create networks, to visit other countries. I am often inspired by this. Of course, our complicated political regime makes a lot of things worse, but when you read articles about how everyone in Russia is suffering from the bloodthirsty Putinist regime or see that the Dutch mass media talk about how only zombies live here who want to devour everyone, you understand that everyone has been brainwashed and that capitalist culture of city consumption is no better than the totalitarian one. There are problems everywhere but everywhere there also exist possibilities for forming horizontal connections.

European culture, of course is developing in more sophisticated ways. But I feel that Europe has it too good, particularly if you take German cities where it is simply impossibly comfortable. In Italy, there is a totally different context: culture and history are bursting through all the cracks and it is silly to even think of anything of the kind here. When you go to Europe, you feel that everything is quite a bit better there, but at the same time there are things with which it is impossible to do anything, because they have been cemented in place a long time ago; they have been laid as part of the foundation.

It is worth mentioning the difference in time. Recently I visited a friend of mine, Roel van Duyn, in Amsterdam – he is an old guy, one of the ideologues of the Dutch movement "Provo", which, in the late 1970s, simply blew Holland away with their projects, and they really succeeded in changing the country and society. It can be said that it is because of Roel and people like him that Europe of today is the way it is. But after him, a new generation came that had everything "ready" for them: art, and the activism that they undertake more often has to do about lifestyles or some higher matters that don't mean much to people around them. It seems to be more boring. That's why right now it's much more interesting in Russia with our unsolved problems.