Kateryna Botanova: “Ukraine’s mode of existing as well as communication with the world is to change drastically”

At the turn of the complicated and turbulent year of 2020, Korydor decided to talk with the Ukrainian women, who live in different countries and keep working for the Ukrainian culture, about transformation, points of growth, and future (in reality – the very strained present).

We begin this cycle with the talk with Kateryna Botanova, co-founder of Korydor, critic, curator, editor, translator, who has been living in Basel (Switzerland) for four years but keeps working for Ukraine with her texts, projects, or reflections. Since 2014, she has been co-curator and publications editor of the Culturescapes interdisciplinary cultural festival.    

“The Decline of Heroes”. Curator Kateryna Botanova. At Antikenmuseum, Basel. Culturescapes Greece-2017

 

Yevheniya Nesterovych: In 2020, a lot of our internal and external processes were reorganized and some unexpected links between them have come out. How did you as manager and writer manage to balance all those things?

Kateryna Botanova: To tell the truth, not very well. It’s easy for me to write when there is no managerial work. It is, to some extent, this year’s if not discovery then an acceptance of the truth that different people have different writing experiences, and I’m not a fast writer. I can write only when I have a certain time and space in which nothing else is happening. It is necessary to put all the job off or, for me, it is better to finish everything to clear the horizon.

This year I have written few texts that turned out to be very important for me, even, I can say, unexpected ones, as a result of a much lesser amount of managerial work. However, in general, I still try, and, to some extent, succeed in delegating managerial tasks and performing more system-building work on my own.

Ye. N.: So 2020 let you reflect more?

K. B.: Yes, for sure.

In general, this year and the coronavirus pandemic are just like a magnifying glass for me. It was a kind of “magnifying year” (to borrow an idea from Fareed Zakaria). This spring, all of us seemed to experience some pressure because we had to somehow digest the situation, take action, and learn from that experience. I was caught up in a crisis for several months when I seemed to need to write something, say something about it, but there was nothing to say. At that time, I was finishing other texts, not related to the pandemic, but then I took a total break and just went reading. By allowing myself to stop trying to write or think, but just to read, I began to breathe, and only then understanding began to return.

However, this magnifying glass exposed something that had existed before but had been hidden either in the “gray zone” or in blind spots.  We could afford to ignore it because we had other priorities, other attention focuses, or we just genuinely did not pay attention.

For me, this year has demonstrated how lonely, vulnerable, and, to a certain extent, unnecessary, non-essential cultural actors are. For instance, in Switzerland, I’m not really an asset when I try to think and write about Ukraine, about the daily assessment and reassessment of Ukrainian experiences in a completely different cultural and intellectual context, about their vulnerability, about the reinvention of another language that would allow combining all that things, about the constant stretch between two very different and almost unrelated countries, stories.

How to balance these feelings against what is going on in the world right now, against something I have no influence on, something that does not depend on my thoughts or actions? And does everything you say, write, and think at this moment make any sense at all? Maybe accepting this optionality and this total fundamental vulnerability leads to a completely different level of thinking, speaking, and writing. This acceptance prioritizes responsibility to oneself, and only then imaginary (or imagined) responsibility to one’s community or society as a whole.

Ye. N: Is this a partial exemption from this excessive responsibility?

K. B: I don’t think this way, as it is an even greater responsibility. In Ukraine, we still suffer from a deep-rooted performative responsibility that originates in childhood, has external pressure factors, and, in turn, leads to extremely artificial and unproductive discourse.

Ye. N: You have mentioned blind spots that could be ignored before but 2020 made it impossible. What is such a blind spot for you?

K. B: Being privileged is of the highest importance. The pandemic has turned out to be a unique situation at the world level, which has affected everyone. At some point, cultural contexts and prioritized references have lost importance, and being privileged has come to the fore. It is more a question of whether I can let myself not be afraid that I will get sick because I have access to a protection and support system that in case of illness will guarantee to pass this stage as calmly and safely as possible.

For example, I first became seriously concerned about myself and my family in Basel just a couple of months ago, when my son’s two classmates fell ill, and, for 10 days, two classes were quarantined off. Then, for the first time, the danger was quite close at hand, and I began to urgently google the testing centers and look for our family doctor`s phone number.

In the previous months, I followed the news from Ukraine; monitored the rising numbers; witnessed how, at first, Facebook “friends”, then friends of friends, and, at some point, close friends began to get sick with COVID-19. I was reading their accounts, as well as articles about conditions in hospitals, mess with treatment protocols, and lack of oxygen. At the end of the summer, the incidence in Switzerland began to upsurge so rapidly that Ukraine ceased to be a red zone, and I realized that, although I wanted to, I would not come. I do not want to endanger my mother, who is at high risk, and I can afford to contract the coronavirus disease in Ukraine. This is a case of being privileged, the opportunity to live and work in peace, being protected by social security systems, and seeing how friends and colleagues in Ukraine or South America, with whom I had been working all year, suffer from lockdown and virus.

This is a case of global inequality that has always existed, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. What type of government is needed today, should we think about it in the categories of efficiency/inefficiency, functionality/dysfunctionality, or of being people-oriented and humane? And what is humane governance? What is a socially secure state? Countries that have succeeded in dealing with the pandemic are quite socially oriented. They are Northern Europe, some Western European countries, and South Korea. Being people-oriented means creating a security belt not only in healthcare but through economic and social benefits and support packages, the education system, and everything else. It has been a long-standing issue in many countries, and the pandemic has just revealed how they face challenges and what happens when they fail. Unfortunately, Ukraine serves as a model in this regard.

Ye. N.: Do you believe the security effect you are talking about has influenced the reaction of Western intellectuals and general public discourse in the time of pandemic? It seems to me that, for some reason, here, we were not even afraid right away, and in the spring only those who responded appropriately to the extent of the problem who was quite aware of the situation in healthcare institutions because they understood the magnitude of the crisis still ahead of us.

K. B: There are two interesting points on which I wish to comment.

The first is related to the notion of resilience which is understood as endurance or perseverance associated with the ability to learn, to benefit from the stressful experience, and to develop survival techniques. Some ten years ago, ERSTE Stiftung held several meetings in Vienna — a kind of steering group for intellectuals from different European countries, in which I participated. The question was how resilient experiences of Central and Eastern Europe could be comprehended and whether Western Europe’s “sustainable” democracies could integrate them. However, this perseverance has a downside: adaptability and the survival ability suppress the ability to grow and develop because they imply a constant threat that becomes internalized. Risk sensitivity significantly drops because there are just too many risks, and the system is not able to respond to them anymore.

I think this is exactly what you are talking about. Europe’s response in the spring was much more powerful due to the powerful shock from restrictions on freedom of movement, restrictions on activities, and the sudden increase in the role of governments. There were voices pointing to the shrinking of democratic freedoms, the threat of new authoritarianism, the helplessness of national governments in addressing global challenges, and the urgent need for cross-border cooperation. At the same time, governments began to establish special assistance funds and expand the social benefits systems. In the late spring, Ivan Krastev wrote that soon the governments would face a tough choice between humanitarian and economic decisions and the economy would win because saving people without saving the economy was impossible. (That happened, causing the so-called “second wave”.)

At that time, Ukrainians stayed calm: “yes, shit happens all the time, but we will somehow deal with it as usual.”

Ye. N.: Do you think this will influence public opinion and social contract rules? The assumption has been frequently made that the need to do something caused all the premature and illogical governmental decisions because potential voters would not forgive their inaction. Have these potential voters in Europe changed their minds about the situation during the quarantine period? I believe that privileges including unrestricted weekend traveling to the different parts of the world, freedom of movement, working restaurants, and everything else remain an important entertainment in Europe, which was “taken away” for a long time, and many would like to regain this opportunity.

K. B.: It seems to me that, it is crucial not to be tempted to imagine some unilateral “European decisions,” “European models,” or potential “European voters.” Of course, distance makes it is easier to see or imagine some kind of cohesion which, in fact, does not even exist. This is also an important lesson of 2020 for Ukraine. We need to understand that there are no uniform European models. Crisis response approaches, decision-making mechanisms, and the communication systems in various countries or even parts of the countries (and this is only within Europe) differ drastically, and sometimes they are quite opposite.

There is no sole “European voter” either. Let’s consider an example of anti-quarantine demonstrations, when the far-right activists and conspiracy theorists, Russian nationalists with banners supporting Trump and Putin, and antifascists have gathered together. These people would never share the same space under different circumstances. On the other side, there is a significant part of the population that understands, agrees, and accepts the conventionality and temporality of these restrictive measures while respecting others: I accept and wear a mask because I respect other people.

At the same time, Switzerland, where protests and other forms of solidarity are rare, provides an interesting example. When cultural institutions began to gradually close down as the “second wave” unfolded the Kulturschwiegen initiative (Shut Up Culture) appeared. Yes, the support program from local and federal funds to cultural workers and cultural institutions was introduced already in the spring, and all of them made significant efforts to adjust to each strengthening of security measures: they arranged auditoriums, put sanitizers, bought masks, increased the number of support personnel, planned routes so that people who entered and left did not meet, and moved ticket offices outside the main buildings. When, in the end, came the restrictions on gatherings and meetings to a maximum of 15 people which is not a de jure but de facto closure, people came to the center of Basel to participate in a silent demonstration.

It was not about reopening everything but only about explaining the principles behind that decision. Why do shopping malls with a much lower protection degree and poor ability to control the flow of people and wearing masks continue to work? Why are shopping centers allowed to accommodate up to 350 people but a concert hall made for 1.500 can accommodate only 15? The issue is not about “let us reopen” but “recognize our right to understand the decision logic and our rights to be in our profession.” Musicians or actors, sitting at home, lose their identities, even if they receive financial assistance from the state. That is, we will not starve to death, but we will deny ourselves, lose the right to have a voice.

These issues without unambiguous solutions expose these “blind spots,” turn them into questions that somehow need answering. At the same time, it seems obvious that final and unambiguous answers do not exist yet, and the situation is still evolving. Thinking of this was like hasty attempts to understand and give answers to existential questions this spring. Now it’s a bit funny to reread certain texts of writers and public intellectuals, whom I generally respect very much.

Well, we again find ourselves facing an interesting paradox. On the one hand, all this art and intellectual activity are not essential to survive, and artists are not teachers, doctors, or cleaners. However, on the other, reflections, answers, preferably instant, are highly expected. The plurality of different opinions and how quickly they become outdated now also prove that the processes of comprehension, experience, and intellectual fermentation take time. Art in general takes time.

Vernissage Diana Lelonek. Center for Living Things at Buero, Basel. Curator Kateryna Botanova. Culturescapes Poland-2019. Photo: Dirk Wetzel

 

Ye. N.: Did you come across any art projects in 2020 that, in your opinion, highlighted the mentioned “blind spots” or productively worked with this kind of question?

K. B: It’s probably a little funny that, after the first wave of the lockdown, the very first exhibition my husband and I attended took place at the Tinguely Museum. Amuse-bouche. The Taste of Art opened just before the lockdown was introduced. The museum did a series of exhibitions dedicated to human senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and this one was about taste. After sitting at home for a few months, one enters this rather spacious place where there were a few more crazy visitors trying to avoid each other at all costs. Half of the projects are interactive, they are to be eaten, drunk, or touched. There is a wall full of chocolate that the audience bit a few months ago, and now, it is fenced off with a red ribbon, it was forbidden to touch anything. The predominant feeling was agoraphobia combined with an absolute lack of understanding of this performance. What do these taste studies mean for me personally and for humanity in the midst of a global crisis?

Later, we all had to experience lots of zooms, videos, online performances, zoom performances, online galleries, but those were rather attempts to adapt the already existing projects created earlier to the new times and new conditions. Here some interesting questions arise. For instance, the ones about the horizons of institutional planning because it is difficult to imagine quality art projects without this support system: on the one hand, the questions about institutional rigidity that makes these institutions insensitive to the quickly changing conditions of the present and, on the other hand, the thoroughness of preparation and production processes which guarantee quality. There are questions about the dependence of cultural actors on institutional support; about our expectations as viewers while searching for articulations of incomprehensible experiences we are having. It is interesting to think about the continuance of thinking processes and artistic expression.     

This year, there were a few projects that hit the bull’s eye for me. One of them was the last performance by Rimini Protokoll, Chinchilla Arsehole, eyey, created together with people with Tourette’s syndrome. It is a play about the impossibility to control human experience and thus theater, about social interaction as constant improvisation and total inclusion of everyone and everything. The other one would be Wojtek Ziemilski’s online performance (a Polish director whose performance opened the Culturescapes festival in 2019) about so-called LGBT-free zones in Poland and about quarantine temptation to turn off all the political processes which, of course, just keep going. And the Critical zones off- and online exhibition at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, co-curated by Bruno Latour. Both the online exhibition and the enormous discussion and educational online platform worked out fantastically (even though they cost tremendous efforts and resources) overlapping the topic of global ecological crisis and changes in the relationship between people and environment and the events of 2020.  

Opening of Culturescapes Poland-2019. Together with CS director Jurriaan Cooiman. Polish theater director Wojtek Ziemilski and his wife. Photo – Bettina Matthiessen

 

Ye. N.: All the quarantine you’ve continued to work on your project, on the Culturescapes festival about the Amazon. How has your course of work changed and have there been any shifts? People who planned to host events in 2020 mostly lost it all, but you have a long-lasting history and a two-year work cycle. This, on the one hand, gives certain freedom but, on the other hand, requires process adaptation and thinking about the project in general, trying to continue guessing and foreseeing quite a vague future.     

K. B.: Professionally, this year was dreadful: we watched all our partner institutions (theatres, orchestras, museums, and kunsthalle) open and close, changing and adapting their programs almost every week. The exhibitions and performances that have been prepared for more than a year were just canceled or postponed just to be rescheduled for indefinite dates in 2021.  

It is safe to assume that we’ve been lucky because the festival runs as a biennial and the next edition is in 2021. However, we are totally dependent on the cultural institutions in Basel and some other Swiss cities which host our events. During this year, we have outlined at least three scenarios, three risk assessment, and mitigation strategies, and these are not final yet. Again, it’s one of the problems the pandemic has emphasized: cultural institutions are not eternally flexible, not every artistic product can exist in digital space, and no one knows for sure how the situation will change the contacts between people or the perception of intellectual or artistic product.

However, the most interesting point is that the next festival is dedicated to the cultural landscape not of yet another European country, as it was most of the previous years, but specifically the Amazon. Right before the lockdown, border closure, and the halt of air travel, we managed to come back from the most magnificent and fantastic trip of my life, the trip through South America. We covered Colombia, Peru, and Brazil in three weeks, and not just the capitals and the largest cities but also a part of the Amazon. From Lima, the capital of Peru, we flew to Iquitos, the largest city of the Amazon from the Peruvian side, then we moved down the Amazon River by ferry to the border between Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, then flew to Manaus, Brazilian metropolis, the city of two million inhabitants in the middle of the jungle where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon (Werner Herzog shot his Fitzcarraldo about Iquitos and Manaus with its crazy opera theater, the fact both cities can’t help boasting of).   

Together with Chief Hernando Chindoy Chindoy and artists Felipe Castelblanco and Lydia Zimmerman in Bogota.

    

Each festival is a big and continuous process of research and travels, meetings, studio and rehearsal visits. You can’t create a project about the Amazon unless you feel the rainforest, see the river, spend dozens of hours speaking with Amerindian cultural figures and activists, and understand the context. This wasn’t our first trip but shouldn’t have been the last either. And then I came back and went straight into the lockdown. For some time, I just left all these questions be, two months without reading any books and articles on my reading list.     

This year has proved to be quite a crazy combination of shock and gratitude, particularly for the time to reconsider and reformat. It’s become obvious that even if in the next year the quarantine softens or is canceled and the freedom of movement is back to “normal,” the attitude towards intercontinental flights for large groups of people, even with noble cultural intentions, has changed drastically. Nowadays, it’s not just the matter of freedom of movement or availability of flights, it’s the matter of responsibility for climate change and a complete rethinking of locality, matters of financial responsibility of cultural institutions. These issues are much bigger than just the logistic and healthcare ones, they require groundwork of decisions of a different kind.      

On a more theoretical, curatorial level, the experience of immersing into the decolonial critique, into Amerindian (Indigenous nations) cosmovisions and perception of the world and of themselves, was truly fantastic. It was a step into the total interrelatedness and interpenetration of the world where human is just one of the elements (as an alternative to the European anthropocentric world where humans conquer alienated “environment” or interact with it). It is also the possibility to reconsider the processes of modernization, enlightenment, and their “reverse side” (or, according to Walter Mignolo, the “dark side”). Besides the festival program, these experiences will end up as a book, a critical anthology created together with Quinn Latimer, a writer, and critic who was the editor-in-chief of the documenta 14 publications. We want to put side by side different ways of perceiving and experiencing time, history, and space through the images of the Amazon as a forest/jungle and the Amazon as a river/water. These two chapters will consist of visual and textual essays, talks with the Amerindian activists, poetry, and analytical essays.   

Amazon River in Iquitos, Peru.

On the way to the Amazon River in Iquitos, Peru.

     

This fascinates me also because I can see Ukraine’s dire desire to rediscover rationality. Populism and the state of incomprehension, confusion because of what has been going on in the country for the last year and a half fuels the aspiration of the new rationality which comes back as a certain cult of the Enlightenment and modernization as a synonym to normativity, validity, imaginary Europeanness. Thus the discourse of decoloniality and demodernization which has been on the rise in the world is not present in Ukraine as if having nothing to hold on to.      

Ye. N.: Why do you think it happens so? What are your versions?

K. B.: It is very important for post-Maidan Ukraine to articulate itself through constant self-inclusion in European history and the global agenda. This often happens in broad strokes when Ukrainian intellectuals fly through centuries of history in one text or one interview. However, the understanding of European history, the layering of power relations and responsibilities, in particular, intellectual ones, has changed a lot lately. It seems to me that now is the time when it is impossible to think of Ukraine without correlating it with the broader framework of multiple discussions that exist in the world, without trying to see where our local discussions and personal stories come in.

In Ukraine, there is a need to talk about decoloniality, internal discourses of colonization, and how they do or do not coincide with the national idea, reinforcing or undermining it. It is a great challenge to think wider, more globally, and locally, at the same time. Are there other ways nowadays? The nuances and details, the multiplicity of different voices disappear behind wide strokes. It is from such micro-interactions and contradictions that something different, multidimensional can grow. I really miss that in Ukraine.

Ye. N.: (At least this year) you have been following Ukrainian discourse from afar, through media. During 2020, did you come across any stories, attempts, or Ukrainian projects that would work interestingly with this topic and somehow resonate on the global level? Just the way you’ve said – without broad strokes, and working on something really important and personal for the author or authors?

K. B.: This is a difficult question because, unfortunately, this year I have to follow most things from a distance. And this way, not everything makes even minimal sense. I know that I missed a lot, although I know for sure that the next year the intensity of my presence will change – in particular, due to several projects that I have to do in Ukraine.

From what I can talk about and what I have been involved in to some extent, I really like what PEN Ukraine does, it is very important. The editorial board discussed and chose the special focus topics and PEN members, writers, journalists, philosophers, wrote essays, later published in media. The topics, in my opinion, perfectly reflect Zeitgeist: Culture on hold, The future we strive for, Bridges instead of walls.

Initially, it was a series of op-eds that would be published online, but later they started to come out as books. For me, this is a very interesting and valuable experience when very different, often opposite, conflicting, almost incompatible views and reflections on a rather broad and global topic can coexist under one cover. And at least in such an indirect way, it is possible to see completely different stories in contrast, in contradictions, in coincidences or discrepancies.

It is great that such dialogue projects exist in Ukraine. It would also be great to see Ukrainian art and voices from Ukraine becoming more actively involved in European discussions: not Ukrainian presentations in Europe but views and experiences from Ukraine in the context of broader European projects. However, I still do not quite understand how to build other stories and communication models. This is also one of those issues that started to shift from a blind spot to the focus of attention. It is time to say that the way of being in the world, the way of Ukraine’s communication with the world must gradually change, and change drastically.

Ye. N.: It seems to me that during the year we all were looking for some points of support in our heads, cognitive ones, in the first place, which would allow us not to go in circles and increase anxiety but to go a little beyond it. Could you and would you like to share your productive thought constructions which in your opinion, are worth considering in early 2021?

K. B.: I thought you would ask me how to get out of the vicious circle of constant thinking (laughs). For example, I realized (very unexpectedly and joyfully) that I often overestimated the importance of intellectual processes in my life. To read, think, write, comprehend, create some projects… At one point this year, it seemed to be the only thing left, there was no other – no personal communication, no travel, no exhibitions, no performances. There was only the head and everything in this head, the head as the greatest value without which the meaning of my existence would disappear and dissipate. What a path to craziness!

My recipe this year was to allow myself to feel as much as possible, to live every day in contact with myself and everything around me. Can’t travel far? Travel close. In the summer, I was able to escape into the woods several times and live there in silence in a small family house. I had the sea, swimming, reading on the grass under a tree. I ran a lot motivated by a real desire to run, not internal pressure to exercise as before. Several times, we went with my family on one-day trips to the mountains that, fortunately, are many in this country. I learned how to cook eggplant caviar and bake cinnamon rolls which I had never done before, thinking I had all thumbs for baking. I was creating simple and very personal experiences for myself: bought a Christmas tree a month earlier, decorated it a little bit every day, rehanged artworks on the walls, read a lot of fiction… This is also a certain re-acceptance or re-perception of myself through simple little sensual daily practices that allow me to think differently. They give a different horizon of feeling, a different space for contact with myself, with the thoughts, with all those important books, and with the rest of everything. This is my personal recipe for 2021. Don’t allow yourself – or help yourself not – to lose touch with the world that exists outside your head. Not being a completely rational being is not so bad, really.

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