EDUCULT Talks: with Oleg Soulimenko
Oleg Soulimenko is a Russian performer and choreographer living and working in Vienna and Moscow. He graduated in construction engineering before he decided to become a dancer. In 1990 Oleg Soulimenko founded the International Laboratory Saira Blanche Theatre. Their work has been shown throughout Eastern and Western Europe and in the United States and has evolved a deeply sophisticated, strong and provocative performance practice of improvisation. In 2002 Oleg collaborated with Tanzquartier Wien organizing and creating the project “East meets West,” an artistic dialogue between Russian and Austrian artists. In 2010 with brut Wien he originated the exchange project “Music here, Music there: Vienna Moscow” between Austria and Russia, which resulted in showings both in Moscow and in Vienna. His performances were presented in international venues and festivals such as Festwochen, Tanzquartier Wien, brut Wien and Impulstanz in Vienna, Performa in New York, steirischer herbst in Graz, Sophiensaele and Tanz im August in Berlin, the Kunstverein Hannover, Theater Festival Impulse in Germany, Kaai Theatre in Brussels, Southern Theater in Minneapolis, Baltic Circle in Helsinki and Kunsthalle Wien. In 2012 Oleg Soulimenko presented the impressive production “Made in Austria” at the festival Wiener Festwochen. Oleg’s new piece LOSS will be presented this year at Impustanz.
EDUCULT: So my first question to get to know you, is why did you come to Austria?
Oleg Soulimenko: It really happened by chance. It is a pretty long story, and I’m working on a documentary about this. It began in the 90s, specifically in 1993, when I was a dancer and we received an invitation. I actually studied engineering construction, and I used to work for a military factory with lots of discipline. Then suddenly my life changed, and I became an artist with more freedom, more space, more time and a different perception of life.
Then I entered certain experimental theaters and I was quite curios about new forms of theater, and I also continued to study dance and performance art during this time, but it was more self-education. Then my friend and I received an invitation to a symposium in Italy, but we couldn’t get a visa for Italy because the invitation actually came from Germany, and they couldn’t provide us with a visa. In the 1990’s it was already easy to get outside of Russia, but not easy to enter western countries.
So we didn’t get visas for Italy, but a friend of mine with whom I decide to go to Italy said that we could cross the border through the mountains instead. We ended up buying illegal visas to Austria, arrived in Vienna, and we made it through the Alps to Italy. Our first evening in Vienna we stayed with friends of friends and asked them for recommendations for an alternative place. They recommended the WUK, and there happened to be a free performance from Prague. It was kind of conventional, but okay with dancing and not as much being done with the stage. We were super naive, it was only 1994. We came and told them we would like to perform on that stage, as it had many features we did not have in Russia and because there was not much experimentation being done there. So we found the director, and he said he wouldn’t be able to organize our show soon, but he said let’s see if you have a video to show. So we gave him video material, and he liked it, and a year later we were invited to come perform. Many people really liked what we did, and it resulted in artists form Vienna asking to collaborate with us.
EDUCULT: At that time you were in an illegal status here in Vienna?
Oleg Soulimenko: So the first time, what we did was we went to an agency in Moscow, which was legal but the visas we bought were illegal. The agency we went to, we later found out, is one where prostitutes usually go, and that they had connections to the Austrian embassy or the travel agencies there. So we got tourist visas and had to pay extra money for this. Usually you have to go to an embassy but we did not. The second time we came to Austria with a proper invitation and we got our visas at Austrian consulate in Moscow.
EDUCULT: So when you first came you made initial contacts, returned to Russia, and then came back a year later for the performance. In Russia, did people have an idea what the dance scene in Austria was like?
Oleg Soulimenko: No, not really. Most Russian artists knew about America, about Japan, France or Germany… Maybe once or twice I had seen an Austrian dance performances in Moscow before. Later when we came for the first time, I was very open, and I tried to invite many people from the experimental dance scene of Vienna to come to Moscow. I invited people to teach and perform together, we didn’t have money but we could offer a studio and a place to stay. And they could get a bit money from students. Because people were so curious about Russia, many of them decided to come and probably got support from the Austrian state. Many Austrians were interested in what we were doing in Moscow, but not really anyone from an institutional level in Moscow.
Officials watched our video and to them it seemed like we were doing some kind of dirty dancing or something like this. From the Soviet Union time, we were extremely tired of traditional theater and formal beautiful dance, and we wanted to break out of it. I do not think that Russian official culture institutions were ready at that time for something unconventional, experimental and strange but Vienna did seem to have this interest.
I remember the first time we performed at the “New Dance/Work in Progress” festival in the WUK in yard, not at that beautiful stage that we saw on our first time in Vienna and people said things like wow “The Russians are coming!” Then I met a girl here, and I asked her if she would come and live with me in Moscow. She said yes, and came for three months in winter, but after the heavy Russian winter life and art experience she decided no! So for about 3-4 years I was traveling between Moscow and Vienna always with artist visas, which were always quite difficult to get, and then we eventually decided to get married and it became easier.
EDUCULT: So an Austrian Russian connection came to be?
Oleg Soulimenko: Yes between art and love I would say.
EDUCULT: You give the impression that you came to Vienna and just jumped into the scene of contemporary dance, and then swam like a fish, without any hesitation or problems. It seems like you immediately fit right in.
Oleg Soulimenko: Well, not exactly, it did take some time. At that time I didn’t know very much, especially about institutionalization, and I never really knew how to apply to get support for art work. At that time we were into improvisation, and through people and groups with similar interests in the field, we eventually got invited and were able to get more possibilities. In Russia if you organized a performance, first you did not get any financial support, second you have to take care of and carry all of the equipment yourself. Here you come to an institution, they have lights, technicians, they invite the public, and often they can even pay! This way you have more time and strength to concentrate for the process of creation. I was able to realize that the work we were doing was interesting for people. In Moscow with 11 million people at that time there was not one institution responsible for contemporary dance. I had my studio in the Technical University, and maybe twenty or thirty people would come to watch our performance, and we wouldn’t sell tickets or ask them to pay. I’ll, say Austria was quite open for us and helped us to connect.
EDUCULT: If you look at the scene today and compare it to the 90s what changes do you see? Especially looking at the funding and cultural policy aspects. What major developments have occurred?
Oleg Soulimenko: At the end of the 90s and at the beginning of the new millennium the biggest changes came. Primarily from Tanzquartier here in Vienna, when Sigrid Gareis was the intendant for eight years. What she did with her team was to invite quite interesting international artists, some of them were collaborating with the local scene, and Vienna became even more open. Then dance itself also started to change a lot—there were lots of collaboration with visual artists, scientists, architects, theoreticians, and so on. So dance became more than just a visual and physical expression. Dancers and performers from throughout the world, and especially Europe, began working together, from Germany, France, Poland, Baltic countries, Japan, and they became very involved in molding and changing dance here.
EDUCULT: How is your relationship with the audience here? You mentioned in Moscow you had only 20-30 people. Is there an interested, elaborate audience here?
Oleg Soulimenko: Yes, they are definitely here—smart and analytical. Maybe I am comparing it too much with Berlin and Brussels, but there could still be more audience here. But the audience that we do have is very interested in what is happening in contemporary dance and performance art.
EDUCULT: For some time I was quite interested in impulse dance, and tried to organize European cooperation. For you, you mentioned that this also gave you the chance to look more analytically at the Austrian case. Could you tell us a little bit more about that.
Oleg Soulimenko: Actually at first it was a cooperation with Festwochen and I presented it in the cafe at the Donauturm at 165 meters height, then I did a video installation at the Austrian pavilion in cooperation with Impulstanz, then I adapted the performance for the black box in brut Wien and finally got together with Rosemarie Poiarkov, where we did radio play on Ö1.
EDUCULT: I am also really interested in your assessment of what “Made in Austria” means. What are the specifications of the country or Austrian society?
Oleg Soulimenko: I initially had the idea to try and find people like me, people who come from the east, west, north, and south to find their happy place here. We started thinking in terms of clichés, what does it mean simply to be happy or what kind of place is Austria to live in. Why people could be happier here then somewhere else? For me, coming from Russia, I was very glad to do what I wanted to do here of course.
We found nine people with different stories who had come here in different periods of their life, from different places, and I learned that when they came, they found very different things here. For example one person found very sexy or interesting women or men in clubs, someone found a family, someone found work where they could express themselves. There was a man who was virgin until he was 27. Here in Vienna he married and created a perfume brand that makes individual scents for each client. People can come to him and ask for a scent for a particular purpose, seducing someone, being successful, etc. Once he even did “Austrian perfume” for an exhibition, where the three main components he wanted to express were innovation, culture, and nature. If you were to ask me what Austria is for me, and this is something I have thought a lot about, but for me it is made up of so many small ingredients.
EDUCULT: I find it fascinating, but I also want to make sure I completely understand. So you told a story about different people who came to Austria in search of a place to work? The idea of migration might not make any sense at all. Are we talking about migration or about different individuals who decide they needed to do something together with each other. Is the term migration of importance for you at all?
Oleg Soulimenko: No, for me I have no personal relation to this word. I often hear the word “migrant,” and that word is very isolating. It makes you feel like you have to see the world through certain lenses like through a cage or a certain border. Sometimes I feel like when I am in a shop, and I start speaking in my broken German, and then I feel a reaction that word migrant comes. But if I go to an exhibition or to a gallery there I feel like there aren’t any borders. This kind of melting depends on what situation you are in.
EDUCULT: Two things I learned: first, being a “migrant” is really kind of an artificial concept, where others project who you are. But you have no need to use that term at all, and it is also not useful for your artistic work.
Oleg Soulimenko: Absolutely. Also with art and dance now, we are talking less and less about where you are from—your nationality.
EDUCULT: Isn’t that what you experienced at hope in Russia or others in India, aren’t your experiences there an important resource for your artistic work? Or is it more about you as an individual now and your cultural background is irrelevant now.
Oleg Soulimenko: That is quite a difficult and complex question. Sometimes I feel that there are certain periods where I need it, but sometimes I feel that I don’t because it sometimes projects on me or protects me as an artist, where I can say things like: “I am Russian. I was born and I grew up there.” Now I say that I am an artist, living and working in Vienna. But at times where I reflect and try to understand my work, my strengths, then I look at my background and how it has formed me. So sometimes I need it to see why I might do things a certain way, and at other times I want to leave it open, where it doesn’t matter as much. Sometimes people also have clichés. With my work, I often jump to different styles or examine traditional storytelling forms, then I play with my biography. When I work with abstraction I try not to refer to my background.
EDUCULT: Looking at politics, migration has become a major issues with right-wing populists in Europe and Mr. Putin. How do you experience this political discourse going on right now in Austria, and in other European countries like France and the Netherlands. Is this an issue for you at all or in the artistic world does it not carry as much significance?
Oleg Soulimenko: I am not influenced as much by this discourse, but I am touched by the migrant situation. I try to understand and for me there are still a lot of open questions. Many of my artist friends here are very empathetic, they help, discuss, protest. With my Russian friends, especially who live in Russia, I would say over 70 percent view the situation negatively. They say migrants come, they want to destroy Europe, why do we let them? I was curious to know they did not want to support those who had horrible experiences and were fleeing war. Looking at Russia after the First World War many officers and aristocrats fled to Europe too, because they would have been killed by the Bolshevik. They say wow, the situation is very different. You discuss about things, but many in Russia they remain very suspicious of letting Arab people come to Europe. They have a very static picture of Europe and they struggle to see it changing.
EDUCULT: But you personally do not feel affected by this political discourse and if Hofer would have become president, would that have impacted your working conditions here?
Oleg Soulimenko: Absolutely. I think there were certain moments where I thought this could be very difficult or even dangerous. But this feeling was there already for the past 7-9 years. This feeling of being a foreigner, that I might not be welcomed. First when I arrived here I didn’t get any support for my projects. But I was invited to collaborate with some artists and to perform in festivals. Then when someone told me about this possibility, I was really surprised that I could get support even as a Russian who had been living here not for so many years. Now I am sometimes supported from the state to travel abroad to present different projects, which is a huge opportunity, especially when compared to Russia. But in the last years I feel that Austria could become less open, that the focus is more on supporting Austrian born people. There was a festival in Germany I actually got a call that they would have liked to invite me, but they preferred to take an Austrian instead at the end because then they got supported from the Austrian state. This showed me that times are changing, and this will make it hard, with right-wing politicians, and leads to fear that as an artist I would not able to survive.
EDUCULT: I would really like to learn more about the past in Russia in the 80s-90s when there was an elaborate, but traditional dance scene that you tried to change. Did contemporary modern dance earn a different status since then?
Oleg Soulimenko: I wouldn’t say that the scene, but several individual choreographers, dancers, performers have become more progressive. The challenge though, is that they do not get support, funding—there is no infrastructure for them to be visible. There is a theater “mafia”, where the tradition of narration, which is clear for audiences to interpret, is the standard. Experimental abstract works open to interpretation are not the norm. I think this has even gotten worse in recent years politically. This open, democratic way of thinking for yourself has not been welcomed in Russia recently.
EDUCULT: On the other hand, Moscow is a huge city with so many international connections, and one might think in principle that this contemporary audience would be receptive to modern dance.
Oleg Soulimenko: At the very end of the 90ies and the beginning of the new millennium this seemed to be starting, as private funders, like the Ford Foundation, or the Russian oligarchs started to make foundations, and a little state support was able to flow in. But in the past few years even this little bit has been limited with pressure from the state and the Orthodox church.
EDUCULT: So the policy approach has been changed then?
Oleg: Yes, and as a result there is not enough infrastructure to support contemporary dance, even though many young people crave it. They get the opposite of help—they are hindered. One of my friends was invited to organize a kind of alternative infrastructure last year, and she was able to survive in a studio by paying less rent and making different programs related to dance there, collaborating with contemporary music and performance art and educational programs. Then the people who have power came, and took over the place. They have so many deep connections to and now use a space for commercial things. And this is just one story from thousand similar ones.
EDUCULT: I am not sure if you know Teodor Currentzis, with his island. He was able to produce such extraordinary productions there, and now I have the impression that if you live far away enough from the center it can be possible. He is becoming a star with his MusicAeterna.
Oleg Soulimenko: This might have been the case seven, ten years ago. I know, that the gallerist Marat Gelman who moved to Montenegro to organize cultural projects a few years ago had connections with Perm. He curated in the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art. 7 – 10 years ago it was quite a good time. There was a lot of money from oil. Some mayors started thinking about how they could make their city “sexy.” I do not think that this Museum of Contemporary Art functions the same way now even though it was popular, and for people who try to work with contemporary art, it has become harder.
EDUCULT: Let me ask you about your future perspectives. Do you want to stay here in Austria permanently, or do you hope to go back to Russia in the future if things change? Or maybe you are going day by day?
Oleg Soulimenko: Even just a few years ago I thought I would return back to Russia, and I was still traveling there about three to four times a year. The audiences there were asking questions that were grounded in real life experiences; here going to see performances is just another routine, like going to the restaurant. There is no infrastructure there, but I saw so many possibilities. But with Russia today I have the feeling that there is no future for this country, unfortunately. Looking at the war with Ukraine, something is wrong with the country. I do not see myself there anymore. This has been emotional and hard. The nationalism and patriotism, very traditional forms of art take over again, I ask myself what is wrong with Russian culture? Many want the power, think Putin is making Russians strong again, that the people can stand up for themselves now. I see very few good scenarios left, either internal wars breaking out inside Russia, or complete totalitarianism.
Now, my life situation has also changed. I have kids here, I have an Austrian girlfriend, and in the meantime Austria has become a second home. Sometimes I do think about the possibility of living somewhere else, but the city has a magnetic pull—the way of life, the infrastructure, it is the most privileged place that I know.
EDUCULT: So I learned that you see more of a future here than there, because of the circumstances.
Oleg Soulimenko: Yes, both in terms of the political and social situation. A decade ago I had hope that Russia would also get in on this movement of becoming more progressive and open. If you travel 300 miles from Moscow and see the nature, countryside, cities – the strength is there. Then I talk with local people, and they are convinced from the TV that America wants to come and steal their natural resources and that Europe doesn’t have any more spirit and that the Russian soul is very unique. They watch TV and believe the simple propaganda.
EDUCULT: I think it was especially interesting how you relativized the migration aspect in art. You might have a backpack so to speak, but it is irrelevant to your artistic production.
Oleg Soulimenko: What do you think about this? About ten years ago, and when I was in America, there were artists from France, Germany we never talked about this, and they don’t really have these terms. No one was thought to be different because of where they were from. But here it seems to be more important, right-wing populists seems to bring this idea back.
EDUCULT: It seems to be a political construction to find division in society. They want to give some people this sense of security or defense.
Oleg Soulimenko: I remember with Schengen, the Euro, people were surprised. Maybe they were not ready. We did not need to have a passport to fly inside Europe. The borders disappeared. Maybe this was too quick for some people, which gave them feelings of danger and made them want to bring the borders back.
EDUCULT: My interpretation is that we have this kind of fundamental eastern and western identity. This had an iron curtain between them, and when we ripped it down, an enemy died, and we were glad. But then people wanted to know, well who are we against now? Who is the new enemy? And Islam has become of particular importance in this respect. Now with refugees coming from different countries, and the fundamentalists who commit acts of terror, they give this sense now of being the new enemy. This seduction of politics is to build up their profile by having an enemy to speak out against.
Oleg Soulimenko: Why do we need enemies? In art you need to understand yourself through looking and comparing to the other.
EDUCULT: Yes, we need the “other.” And you are an “other.” But I can decide to be enriched by you and my conversation with you—or I could decide I feel frightened and threatened by you.
Oleg Soulimenko: And we know frightened people are easy to manipulate.
EDUCULT: What really has happened, with globalization with the enormous capitalism, technological developments, they have produced huge social change and huge insecurities. Now they look for people who are responsible for this. This can be looked at either in a positive, opportunity way, or in a destructive way.
Oleg, I thank you so much for your time! Good luck to you, and I can’t wait to be in the audience in your next performance at the Leopold Museum on August 10th and 13th.