The art of occupying Krasnodar

The Russian art rebels making us look again

kiuss krasnodar

In Krasnodar – a Russian city like no other – a conceptual “so-called art group” called Kiuss is staging urban interventions to make the familiar strange

Editor’s note: This interview took place just before Russia began a military invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. It is important to remember that Russia is full of people who give us hope for change.

Kiuss are radically changing the way we think about Russia and Russians.

I first learned of the art group online through a psychogeography Facebook group. Within 30 seconds of watching a video (in Russian) of them partying in a mansion they had occupied, I learned more about Russia than from years and years of mainstream media coverage. 

— Psychogeography

How do different places make us feel and behave? Read on to meet the artists exploring locations by walking.

Since forming in 2012, Kiuss have become experts in creating projects that re-cast spaces in their city and find ambiguity where certainty seemed to exist before.

Based in Krasnodar, they stage street activities and urban interventions, even taking over buildings and occupying a water tower to create a cultural centre, ‘The Mansion of Culture’, and gallery, ‘The High of Culture’. 

Whether they are decorating the city with disposable tableware or strange posters, installing threads (pictured above), erecting scaffolding, or drawing the largest cursor in the world on the roof of a shopping mall, Kiuss are always challenging the ‘normal’ frame, making us look and look again.

At the moment, there are two official participants in the group – Max Alyokhin and Dmitry “Kamar” Kramar – but there are also unofficial artists and contributors who fly under the radar. I chatted with Max to find out about how they play with perceptions in the unusual Russian city. 

Welcome to Krasnodar… who’s for a mansion party?

Q&A with Kiuss art collective

Hi Max. Krasnodar is not a city I’ve ever heard of. What’s it like?

To explain Krasnodar, is necessary to understand the specifics of Russia. The really developed cities are Moscow and St Petersburg. In Russia, if a city has less than one million people, it’s not considered a city, but a village. Krasnodar now has around 1.5 million inhabitants but is still a very provincial city. However, there is quite a powerful layer of very interesting people, not poisoned by the bustle of megalopolises. Almost all of Russia has a cold climate, but Krasnodar is the southernmost part of Russia; it is essentially a resort. where half a year is summer, and the other half is something in between fall and spring. Because it is so far south, it is the agricultural capital, so there is always cheap and high quality fruit and vegetables, which also affects the quality of life. After the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, just five hours by train from Krasnodar – which is not much by Russian standards – money poured into the city as a huge number of people began to buy housing here. It doubled its population in a fairly short time.

What is Kiuss?

Myself and my associates founded an art group called Kiuss back in 2012. It’s a made-up word that doesn’t mean anything and sounds strange (at least to Russian ears). We feel alienated from our city. We feel that the city does not belong to us, and we need to bring the city back by self-organised events. We were doing weird stuff on the street, street art, trying different techniques. But at some point, we quietly transitioned from creating objects to creating events, which we have conventionally called The X of Culture, where the name is substituted for X. This is an allusion to the Houses of Culture in the Soviet Union.

We feel that the city does not belong to us, and we need to bring the city back by self-organised events.

What was the first X of Culture?

The Mansion of Culture. We accidentally found an abandoned mansion, took it over for a day, and held an exhibition there with a buffet, a firewalk and a presentation of a literary magazine. We even renamed the trolleybus stop illegally, just by re-tagging the schedule sticker. After a while, the ‘Mansion of Culture’ stop was officially added to Yandex.Maps, Google Maps and 2GIS. The technical support of the services did not distinguish the new sticker from the original municipal one. The police arrived at about 10pm but they didn’t detain anyone, and the crowd went to a nearby park for a big picnic. This spontaneous event spawned a whole series of events where we took over various places in the city and set up some kind of cultural centre there.

The sign on the left says ‘Mansion of Culture stop’ and below is the public transportation schedule

What else did you take over?

For The High of Culture we occupied the Shukhov Tower, a water tower in the very centre of the city. For three years, we have held a series of art exhibitions at the top of the tower. The Shukhov Tower is officially considered a cultural heritage site and is not a private property. The law actually guarantees citizens’ access to the facility. But they did not even know that there was a ladder upstairs, and even more they didn’t think they could use it, although it wasn’t fenced in any way.  So our gallery didn’t open the doors upstairs, but simply pointed at their openness, thereby bringing back this architectural object to people.

The Top of Culture Gallery on the Krasnodar Shukhov Tower, Sad Face Exhibition, 2018

Six exhibitions have been staged at the High of Culture by different artists. We have been clear that nobody needs our permission to do that but people still ask us from time to time. After the first exhibition, the local media asked for comments from the head of the state protection of the cultural heritage of the region and the press service of the shopping mall. Both representatives agreed that the unauthorised gallery does not contradict either the laws or the interests of business. A year later, the great-grandson of famous engineer Vladimir Shukhov visited one of the exhibitions with Shukhov’s great-great-granddaughter.  He is also the president of the Shukhov Tower Foundation and he commented to the local media that he fully supported the initiative and was ready to contribute to the development of the place.

For The Channel of Culture we set up a movie theatre in between concrete bunkers among the ruins of the water intake facilities. We showed  Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and four short films by Buster Keaton.

‘Channel of Culture’ summer cinema | Photo by Max Alekhin 

For The Ark of Culture we occupied a place known in Krasnodar as the “cemetery of barges”. We held an exhibition of 22 artists on board barges and then invited guests to descend into the hold for a concert of synth-pop musician VATSKYY.

So all this occupying, how have the Russian authorities responded to all this?

The Ark of Culture

Russia can be considered an authoritarian or even totalitarian country. There are a lot of hard problems for private business and independent media here. However, the highest degree of corruption in our state prevents it from being effective, this also applies to repression of any kind. Furthermore, Federal Security Service – the only powerful government structure in Russia – doesn’t give a shit about any statements if they do not concern the FSS directly. So Russia has an amazing combination of “tightening of the screws” and slackness.

What role does play take in your practice?  

Psychogeography and street art are playfulness between the city and its inhabitants. Both try to get us out of the automaticity of perception, to see the city anew, to feel at home in it.

I have long been fascinated by semiotics (the meaning of signs and the role they play)  and “denaturalisation” as a goal in the signs and symbols we create in our practice in Kiuss. Russian and Soviet literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky said that with art “we need to make the familiar strange” in order to have a fresh look at things and events that are so familiar to us that we are no longer able to see them in their true light. Following normal ‘rules’, we see with a stale eye preloaded with clichés.

 Our “playfulness” correlates with the thoughts of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze who says that the task of art is to produce ‘signs’ that will push us out of our habits of perception into the conditions of creation. 

We once had a funny situation where we coloured a bus stop bright red and the municipal services subsequently started to renew the colour of the bus stop in the same colour, apparently thinking that this was the right thing to do.

So what’s next for Kiuss? What’s your mission for 2022? 

We have one big project, but it’s a secret…

We’ll have to keep an eye on your website! So, who inspires you in what you do? 

I guess we’re not inspired by anyone. Perhaps if there was someone who was doing the same thing as us, we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing.

Lastly, give our readers some advice. How can they add a bit of psychogeography to their life?

If you want to take a walk, but you are sure that your city bored you, try to execute more than 20 commands on our app derive.stranno.su.

What’s ‘psychogeography’ when it’s at home?

Kiuss respond to shape-shifting times with interventions, so keep an eye on their projects here.

What’s so good about this?

Psychogeography has never seemed more relevant. In an increasingly apathetic society there is a need to revive the joys of discovery, play and self-empowerment. 

How does the place you call home make you feel and behave? For a simple psychogeographic experience, take a walk in silence using a pack of playing cards to determine your route (red for right, black for left). Take pictures. Along the way you’ll encounter treasures hidden in plain sight, maybe some secrets of your neighbourhood and a heightened sensory experience…  guaranteed. WARNING! You may end up grinning madly while filling your phone with photos of weeds growing through cracks in the pavement.

Meet the writer

Richard Byrne is a writer, educator and psychogeographer who wants to share the best stories that no one else is looking for. When he’s working you might find him @p_diversity. When he’s not working, he could be exploring the underworld with his kids on Minecraft or hanging out in Stardew Valley. Richard regularly spends an hour or two walking a very short distance while following psychogeographic instructions. He occasionally has euphoric experiences while walking and is trying to figure out how to have them more often.

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