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  • Russia Tiptoes into New Media
  • Ellen Pearlman (bio)
Cyberfest, the Sixth International Festival of Media Art, St. Petersburg, Russia, November 23–28, 2012.

Russia’s first and only festival of new media art, curated by the team of Anna Frants, Marina Koldobskaya, Sergey Komarov, Sophia Kudriavceva, and Victoria Ilyushkina, with the theme At Heaven’s Door, featured lecturers, theorists, musicians, artists, performers, and dancers. In light of the crackdowns on homegrown and foreign artists by the current government, it was an extraordinary undertaking. Technology, understood to be a sign of national scientific progress and theoretically not stained by politics or ideology, is permitted and even welcomed in a number of circles. Thus Cyberfest was able to proceed without incident.

This edition broached a number of firsts, such as the first contingent of Latin American media artists, as well as the first exhibit devoted solely to sound art. Four locations mixing government facilities and private galleries hosted events: the Youth Educational Center of the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg State University Faculty of Art, Creative Space Tkachi, and Art re.FLEX Gallery.

It is important to understand the context of the new media and performance scene in Russia, as tremendous changes have occurred since Perestroika burst forth in the early 1990s. During that special time of transition, in 1992 and 1993 I visited St. Petersburg. Its only independent art scene was taking place along Nevsky Prospket in decrepit and illegal squats. Food shortages were rampant, and the few restaurants that dared to open for business had machine gun-toting guards stationed at their entrances to protect patrons from robbers. In 1993 I accompanied a group of Russian artists to the House of Cinematographers, a former Soviet director and cinematographer’s retreat twenty-five miles outside of St. Petersburg in a wooded village close to the Gulf of Finland called Repino, after the famed Russian painter Ilya Repi. It was a leftover from the era of State-sanctioned Artists Unions that was equipped with a special viewing theatre. Nursing vodka-induced hangovers, we watched videos of Ars Electronica and virtual reality. That was the first time the Russians had ever seen these types of technological developments, though [End Page 49] one curator noted that fine art belonged to Moscow, but the media arts always belonged to St. Petersburg. Now, nineteen years later I was back in St. Petersburg, attending and lecturing at Russia’s own homegrown festival of new media. Luxury boutiques now ran up and down Nevsky Prospket. The food shortages were gone, replaced by well-stocked twenty-four-hour food stores every few blocks, and mega-malls bursting with imported delicacies.

A strong pride exists among Russian artists who draw upon their innate aesthetic heritage when producing performative and new media arts. Their roots are anchored in the development of modernism birthed during the Bolshevik Revolution via the works of Kazimir Malevich in his manifesto “From Cubism to Suprematism,” his 1915 painting Black Square and 1918 painting White On White; constructivism involving Vladimir Tatlin and his Monument to the Third International; the designs of Lyubov Popova, Wassily Kandinsky, Alexandr Rodchenko, and El Lissitzky, among others. This fact was amply on display at the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibit in New York, Inventing Abstraction: 1910–1925, and London’s Royal Academy of Arts 2011 show Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915–1935, both bursting with Russian innovations in art, design, performance, and aesthetics. Some themes that distinguish the overall look of these works are their expressiveness and adherence to more “Russian” themes, with an emphasis on individual performers, a coherent unified strategy or visual reference, and an innate need to collaborate between choreographers, dancers, set designers, and musicians. Given the Soviet legacy, however, there is still resistance to new digital arts within contemporary Russia from many classically trained intelligentsia. One professor at Cyberfest who noted this conundrum quipped, “Classical education is a kind of fly trap: once you enter you are stuck.”Russia has no curriculum in any type of non-traditional media art, but fortunately does possess uncensored internet access.

Electronic music was invented by the Russian physicist Leon Theremin and graphical sound recording by Russian engineer...


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