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How to create a collective, with Lugansk Contemporary Diaspora

Lugansk Contemporary Diaspora is a loose collective initiated in 2015 by artists-refugees from Lugansk.

In the picture: Anton Lapov, Evgeniy Koroletov and Nastya Malkina

Lugansk Contemporary Diaspora is a loose collective initiated in 2015 by artists-refugees from Lugansk that work with a variety of mediums such as exhibitions, magazines, films and musical events. 

At the beginning of 2014, a revolution took place in Ukraine, replacing a conservative, pro-Russian president with a European-oriented leader from the former opposition. Taking advantage of the disorder, Russia annexed Crimea as a result of a military operation and, with the help of pro-Russian separatists, started a military conflict in Donbass, the easternmost region in Ukraine, bordering Russia. Due to active hostilities, a significant part of the inhabitants of Donbass was forced to leave their homes. At the moment, part of the Donbass area (2.5% of the territory of Ukraine) is controlled by separatists, who together form the Lugansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic. The military conflict continues to this day, without active hostilities. Away from both sides of the front line, the cities returned to a relatively quiet life – however, a large number of displaced people are still unable to return home.

ABOUT LUGANSK CONTEMPORARY DIASPORA (LCD)

Can you tell me about your life before the conflict?

Evgeniy Koroletov: Before the conflict, I lived in Lugansk and was involved in organizing informal cultural events – I organized graffiti jams and participated in the life of NGOs. In 2013, I met Anton and we started organizing musical and art events, as well as several big parties. We had opportunities, access to spaces, and partners. Other cultural initiatives started to appear in our small town, alongside ours. Before the conflict began, in the spring of 2014, we had a sense of rapid cultural upsurge. At the beginning of the conflict, I took part in peaceful protests – when it was still possible. After the takeover by pro-Russian forces, being in Lugansk became unsafe, so I rushed to flee the city.

Nastya Malkina: I was born in Lugansk. All my life I have lived there. In 2014, I was just finishing my studies at the Fine Arts academy. I hadn’t had time to lay plans for the future. Almost all my cultural activities took place at the academy. I was not very active at that time as an artist. And like many young people, I dreamed of moving somewhere far away from Lugansk. But since 2014 – everything changed. For a period, I was engaged in activism and volunteering. I only returned to Art eighteen months after leaving Lugansk.

Anton Lapov: Between 2010 and 2014, I was involved in organizing musical and art events in Lugansk. I started as an electronic musician and gradually drifted into the so-called “New Media Art”. Looking back, 2013 seems like a great year. I met some guys with whom I started a kind of media-art collective called “Art-Cluster R+N+D”. We did some installations and concerts together. At the same time, I did my first curatorial project – it was an exhibition of local artists inside a historical museum. As Evgeniy mentioned, there were some positive dynamics in the city, and we all had the feeling that something was about to change for the better. I was thinking about establishing a kind of Art-residency in Lugansk and pushing the electronic music community forward. 

In spring 2014, everything turned hostile. All of us participated in pro-Ukrainian protests and it became dangerous for us to stay in Lugansk – we were forced to move West. One evening, I sat in my room trying to make some “creative coding”. Then, from the window, I heard gunshots outside. Right then and there, I realized that I couldn’t keep on making art in such a hostile situation – and so I decided to pack my suitcase.

How did you start the collective?

Evgeniy Koroletov: Lugansk Contemporary Diaspora began with a small exhibition in Kyiv, in 2015. Anton was offered to make an exhibition and he gathered all the local artists from Lugansk. The exhibition was called “Hard Land” and was dedicated to our native industrial region of Donbass. The central work – “Black Olympus” – at the exhibition was done collectively before the start of the conflict, in Lugansk. Each of the participants tried to think about the future of Donbass through the prism of its past. After the conflict, this concept acquired an additional level of depth.

Anton Lapov: Particularly in 2014, it was too hard to imagine anything related to art. We were too busy finding our place in this new reality. In the autumn of 2014, I became part of Kyiv’s art community. In the spring of 2015, I received a proposition to prepare an exhibition about artists of Lugansk, based on the “Black Olympus” project. Even though this project was inspired in a time before the conflict, that exhibition in Kyiv was a trigger for us to regroup and re-establish ourselves for further collective activities as “refugees”. We consider that to be the beginning of Lugansk Contemporary Diaspora.

How did you organize yourselves after that exhibition?

Evgeniy Koroletov: We felt the need to reflect on our experience and to speak about complex topics that concerned us. During a military conflict, the Art community is a good channel for these tasks. We didn’t want to register as an organization or introduce a membership. Initially, we wanted to be open to everybody that wanted to work on the problematics of the military conflict, its roots and consequences. This is what unites us.

Anton Lapov: It’s not so easy to describe the brainstorming process. I think that the key point here is that we all have different competencies and interests. When an idea is coming from one of us, we discuss it together and develop it by adding new layers to it. As our collective is very informal, we don’t have any formal schedule or routine. An average project life-cycle – from idea to realization – takes around 6 to 9 months. Maybe we could work faster, but maybe we wouldn’t obtain the same results. As I remember, “Golden Coal” took us the whole second half of 2016 to prepare and another half a year to find a publisher and organize the presentation. But it was worth it!

Why is electronic music part of the foundation of your collective?

Anton Lapov: My main activity back in the days of pre-war Lugansk was organizing electronic music concerts and parties. Now, we consider one of our main goals to establish connections between different grass-roots initiatives and musicians in Donbass. Music is the best means to break cultural isolation in Donbass, and, in a party situation, it provides an abstract background for informal communication.

How do you approach your creative work? Where do your ideas come from?

Evgeniy Koroletov: Our ideas appear at the intersection of our experiences between military conflict and modern culture. Of course, communication with friends from Lugansk and Donetsk helps us to better understand what is happening. I’m also inspired by news from journalist-friends and human rights activists.

Nastya Malkina: We read news from Lugansk and communicate with friends that stayed there.

Many things that we hear from them are nowhere to be found. And these can be very interesting moments, details. They talk about their feelings, which also cannot be found among the official news. And they won’t tell journalists such things. But they can share them with us.

So, this is a unique opportunity. We can bring their thoughts from there to here. Sometimes even they don’t understand that the things they’re saying are very important. But we feel that it’s important to talk about them, and we are trying to do it.

You have members that live in Kyiv, Western Ukraine and abroad, and now the collective also includes participants from both sides of the separation lines. How many are you now and how do you organize yourselves? 

Anton Lapov: It’s hard to calculate the particular numbers of participants. It also depends on the peculiarities of the project. The core of the collective is just the three of us. Regarding the “BOCTOK” [East] music labels, we often consult with two guys from “Prizma” called Anton and Pavel, and a couple of Lugansk cultural actors called Zhenya and Sergey. Our main channels of communication are Telegram and VK messenger. Usually, we text, but for some crucial questions, we organize video-calls through ‘Jitsi Meet’. 

ABOUT THE GOLDEN COAL MAGAZINE

How did the idea for the “Golden Coal”, a magazine about the underground culture of the young people from Lugansk and Donetsk, come into existence? 

Evgeniy Koroletov: The idea came to me after talking with a friend who came from Lugansk, with whom I later shot a film, called “Severodonetsk”. I realized that the youngsters of the [pro-Russian] republics have no opportunity to speak out. Ukrainian media ignores their existence, and the republics’ media are focused on propaganda and not interested in criticism. It seemed to me that it was important to give the young people of Lugansk and Donetsk the opportunity to speak out. And these are really interesting and important statements for the rest of the country. Ukrainian media ignores their existence, and the republics’ media are focused on propaganda and not interested in criticism. It seemed to me that it was important to give the young people of Lugansk and Donetsk the opportunity to speak out. And these are really interesting and important statements for the rest of the country.

Golden Coal Presentation (Kiev, 2017), photo by Natalka Diyachenko

What was your favorite part of this project? 

Evgeniy Koroletov: That it laid the foundation for creative cooperation with the guys from Donetsk, and that it attracted the attention of foreign media to the modern culture of my region. 

Anton Lapov: I agree with Evgeniy that one of the most important effects of this project was to provide the possibility for electronic music collaboration with “Prizma” – which eventually led us to establish the label “BOCTOK”. For me, as a curator, it was interesting to organize an unconventional presentation of the zine inside a Kyiv night club, in 2017. I consider that experience as one of my best achievements in curating experimental, processual art.

The aim of the magazine was to showcase young people that, despite the war, are still just that, young people, who want to have fun and live. What was the reaction to the magazine?

Anton Lapov: While finding new musicians for our musical events and releases, I often receive feedback from people who had already heard of the Lugansk Contemporary Diaspora because of “Golden Coal”.

Evgeniy Koroletov: While preparing the magazine, we tried to avoid sharp “political” topics. Therefore, the zine was positively accepted by everyone interested in youth culture on both sides, regardless of political views. The magazine attracted the attention of youth from Lugansk and Donetsk to our activities – including those with whom we weren’t familiar with and that became teenagers during wartime. This gave us the opportunity for new collaborations.

Also, more recently, I received a comment from a girl from the front-line city, saying that the magazine inspired her to become a journalist and to not give up in difficult circumstances.

HOW TO CREATE A COLLECTIVE

What are the challenges of organizing a collective? 

Evgeniy Koroletov: We have an informal group without leaders, and that makes its existence very unstable. We have no revenues from it, and we don’t rely on grant assistance – so the investment comes from our own money, time and effort. This is difficult given that we’re displaced people, and that we don’t have permanent housing and work. This year we’re trying to monetize our activities a bit to partially compensate for our investment. We created the “BOCTOK” music label so that we can financially support the independent electronic scene of Donbass and individual musicians by buying their tracks.

We try to turn the minuses of our situation into pluses.

For example, it’s not easy for young people to live freely during the war, but the youth culture of front-line cities is underground and may be interesting to the whole world.

Nastya Malkina: We all live in different places. And we all have a lot of activities: work, study, etc. Different cities have a completely different rhythm of life. If you take Kyiv and Lugansk – these are two poles, with a completely different speed of solving issues. It is difficult to get into one rhythm, gather everyone and immediately solve urgent issues.

If someone asked you “How can I start a collective?”, what would you answer?

Evgeniy Koroletov: Not everyone is comfortable working in a team. But a team provides more opportunities for the implementation of ideas. In the case of creative projects, the collective is an archive of different experiences and points of view. I’m used to working in different groups, but I don’t know how to create them. It seems to me that people tend to unite in interest groups. Therefore, I would start by looking for like-minded people.

Nastya Malkina: Perhaps you should have a common goal and common views on topics. And it should just be comfortable to work with each other.

What helped you to keep on track and not give up on the collective?  

Evgeniy Koroletov: Probably, it’s our collective that helps me to stay on track. As I said in some other interviews, this activity helps me to feel like a human being. 

Anton Lapov: All of our ideas and activities are based on our strong commitment and involvement with the local art/music scene in pre-war Lugansk. So, for us, it’s all a continuation and expansion of our initial ideas.

We don’t do it for hype or whatsoever. Maybe, what drives me further is the ambition, to show Donbass not as an exotic place for photo-safari for foreign journalists, but as a vibrant, creative, and unique community with a strong attitude.

What are you working on at the moment? Do you have future plans?  

Anton Lapov: I’m kind of a “freelance artist/curator” and DJ/musician. For the last two, three years, I’ve been earning money through the fees that I receive for an international art-residency/exhibition project that I was involved in. Also, I do some random “creative coding” jobs and DJ gigs. I’d like to concentrate more on the online representation of LCD and BOCTOK. I am thinking about preparing fun and interactive website. Also, I would like to promote BOCTOK through music media channels, radio, magazines, etc.

Evgeniy Koroletov: Nastya and I don’t have a permanent job. We make a living mainly from  design or illustration. This is not a very stable situation and doesn’t bring in a lot of money. But we can do what is important to us.

We planned several parties in support of the release of the second compilation with electronic musicians of Donbass “BOCTOK” this spring. But because of the coronavirus, these plans had to be cancelled. Therefore, we’re preparing the release of the “BOCTOK” online. Soon we’ll launch branded t-shirts – our old dream. I tried various media – from a movie to a magazine, and now I want to try the format of a computer game. I don’t know if I will succeed at that! 

Nastya Malkina: Since the end of last year, we have been working on the “TroubleSide” comic. There were 2 trial mini-releases. Now we’re working on the third full-fledged one. It is a kind of sequel to “Golden Coal”. The comic somewhat allegorically tells the story of this region and the conflict. The plot is often built on real stories. And the characters also basically have real prototypes.

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