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Filming in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Last month I was invited to give a masterclass in moving image to a group of young artists in Almaty Kazakhstan, for the ‘School of Artistic Gesture’ as part of an initiative of ArbatFest – an independent arts festival that has been going for seven years in the city. The school was set up by an enterprising curator and educator, Yuliya Sorokina, to help develop a new generation of contemporary artists. The official art school – the National Academy of Arts – doesn’t teach contemporary art at all. It is stuck in the Soviet Beaux Art tradition of art education which may teach life drawing and mural painting, but ignores, or frowns on, contemporary developments – meaning anything from Marcel Duchamp, through conceptual art, via installation, video art, performance, Land art, participatory practices, even photography, up to the present day. Young artists have to fend for themselves – and they are doing just that with the help of ArbatFest.
Several short free courses were laid on by the ‘School of Artistic Gesture’ this summer – in philosophy and history of art, performance art, curating, and moving image, which I taught. The programme is supported by the Open Society Institute. All participating students have been invited to submit proposals to take part in a curated exhibition during the ArbatFest in September in Almaty.

I stayed in the imposing Hotel Kazakhstan, a Soviet icon, reassuringly built to withstand the frequent earthquakes that hit Almaty, using the latest Japanese engineering techniques (in 1977).
The students were a very lively bunch, some of them artists and graphic designers already working in other media. One young man however was trained as an economist but had been writing songs for a cult Moscow rock band, and was full of energy and ideas, and the ability to sort out all technical issues, except the power cut that struck the hotel where the classes were held, on the penultimate day of the course. I decided that I would adapt a very compressed version of my OCA moving image course, Fact and Fiction, for the group. So we started with the Self-portrait. The first evening I showed a selection of self-portrait and portrait films, and we discussed what it means to perform a ‘self’, and how you might do this. As soon as the word ‘selfie’ was introduced into the room, even the most timid student became an expert. Many students only had mobile phones to make their films, but this didn’t prevent them from experimenting and coming up with ingenious, humorous and sometimes poignant films.
Here are a few that were made during the course.

Bipolar self-portrait from Arman Sein on Vimeo.

Package (SelfP_Leonid_Khan) from Lenya Brick on Vimeo.

Aesthetic of face from Askar Kaydarov on Vimeo.
I also took the students to the mountains for a day, to film their own projects on location outside the city, in ‘nature’. It was essential I felt to get out of the stifling city (it was over 40 degrees most days) a city which for most students was their comfort zone. It also helped the group cohere. Artists learned from and helped each other and thought on the hoof about what a camera can do, and how it fits into an ecology that wasn’t man-made.
The second day of the course, I gave an artist’s talk and showed three of my films followed by a Q & A. I had been asked to show a film I shot in Kazakhstan, for a project curated by Yuliya Sorokina, Cornerhouse Manchester and SPACE, London called Central Asian Project, ten years ago. It was the first time my film Capital had been shown in Kazakhstan with Russian subtitles, so that audiences could really understand the voice-over. In it, a woman addresses a ‘Prince’, ruler of the unnamed city (Astana – the new capital of Kazakhstan). She is a traveler ‘from far away beyond the desert, beyond the western seas’ and her observations reveal the city as a palimpsest of the old and new, an autocrat’s vanity project that tries to erase the past, and impose a new ‘dream city’. The film draws on my impressions of Astana, from stories I heard and imagined, but is also an allegory that speaks of other contemporary desert cities, and the effects on a city of consumerist capitalism. At the end of the screening, there was a gasp and silence. A couple of people left. Then the conversation started. Some of those who spoke openly, and later privately to me, were pleased, moved and sometimes shocked that someone from elsewhere understood the contradictions of their capital city, their country, their political and cultural reality. There was also sadness and a many spoke with a wry sense of humour about the political situation. To give a bit of background, the president of Kazakhstan has been in power since 1989. There is democracy in name only, and especially in Astana, constant reminders of the Great Leader. I was concerned that the organisers might get into trouble, but they knew what they were doing and had decided that the risk was low and worth taking. The ArbatFest has already lost its city funding with a new unhelpful mayor, and in any case the gathering was in an unofficial off-beat space, with friendly art lovers and artists who were unlikely to report to the authorities.

On the final day of the course, the students showed all their films, and we had a group crit with visiting curators and friends of the artists. My visit was very stimulating and I am hoping to return in September to see and take part in the ArbatFest. Almaty is a beautiful city with a dramatic backdrop of the Tien Shan mountains, tree lined streets, and a laid back atmosphere. It also amazing food, with Persian, Korean and Uigur cooking reflecting the cultural mix, and amazing fruit – apricots, melons, apples, berries of all sorts – grown locally and across Central Asia. There is a vibrant if small art scene and also, I heard, a great off-beat theatre scene too.

Posted by author: Ruth Maclennan
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