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2023

ANTHROPOCENE?
ON ARTBAT FEST’S
ELEVENTH EDITION

Since the end of summer, the ARTBAT FEST festival of contemporary art has been held in Almaty, making a solemn comeback in 2023 after several years of absence. A significant number of the artworks composing it are traditionally located within the space of the city, under the open sky. In addition to the public art part, the eleventh edition of ARTBAT FEST includes the educational program Egin (as a result of which new works were created by young Kazakhstani authors, also presented at the festival), and numerous lectures, discussions and several indoor and outdoor shows. The arguments presented in this text were born during the walk through the festival, which I made together with my fellow MATA collective and several other people in mid-September 2023. Due to this circumstance, this article will focus primarily on the part of the ARTBAT FEST that I was able to see myself.

 

Before going into the details of the project, it is important to focus on its general conceptual framework. The eleventh ARTBAT FEST was thematically dedicated to the Anthropocene, that is, this historical moment that we are now going through collectively as living beings inhabiting the Earth. In simple terms, the Anthropocene is an epoch in which human activity becomes a key factor affecting the climate of the planet and its general ecosystem. According to the official press materials of the festival, this year's ARTBAT FEST tried not only to offer reflections on the Anthropocene but also to include its criticism. As for the Egin educational program, which lasted for several months, and preceded the solemn part of the festival, it was dedicated to understanding (de)coloniality. As a result, ARTBAT FEST turned out to be “stitched” from several thematically distant, but still related pieces – all of them are somehow trying to think of the phenomena that provoked modernity.

It seems that if not everyone, then quite a lot of people today are aware of the rapid and irreversible climate change and the existence of the decolonial discourse. In this regard, the conceptual optics that the festival offered were not innovative, but on the contrary, rather quite safe, that is, not assuming great risks for the curators to be misunderstood or irrelevant. Nevertheless, precisely because of the simultaneous presence of both Anthropocene and decoloniality in the themes proposed by the eleventh ARTBAT FEST, articulate artistic utterance, it seems to me, did not come out on any of them. Commendable is the desire of the organizers to initiate public discussions and cover such large-scale contemporary phenomena, thereby giving them even more visibility and significance (at least in the context of Central Asia), however, given the impressive amount of knowledge that is being produced today (including in Kazakhstan) about both decolonization and climate change, in my opinion, the festival did not manage to offer a comprehensive understanding of the above-mentioned issues. And this is when another question arises – if none of the artworks exhibited at ARTBAT FEST were sufficiently “highlighted” in the regional context of the Anthropocene and/or (de)coloniality, then it's probably because of the poorly “tuned” thematic frame, which was too wide (meaning too blurry) so that in the end it could “absorb” almost any subject, thus devaluing the curatorial work, namely the aspect of selection of projects.

 

I make the above statement as a person somehow involved in the processes of contemporary art, that is, from the position of some expertise, which, I believe, I have. However, let's now try to look at this year's ARTBATFEST differently, from the perspective of ordinary people who are not included in the agenda of the Kazakhstani and/or global art world. After all, this was the main purpose of the walk initiated by the MATA collective – to try to get such a spectator experience that would be as close as possible to what ordinary unprepared citizens would experience when visiting certain exhibitions. That's why we decided not to ask the festival organizers to accompany us, although we had the opportunity to get a curator-led tour.

 

So, the first thing that my colleagues and I noticed when visiting ARTBAT FEST was the absence (at least at the time when the walk took place) of a map with the location of all the participating public art objects. We knew in general terms that the artworks should be located somewhere along Bayseitova Street, but we sometimes had to guess where exactly this or that project was situated since it was not always possible to see art even where the information markup was meant to present it. In this regard, the piece by Zhanar Bereketova Elastics (2023), which was simply not there at the time of visiting the festival, and its absence was not explained in any way, will be indicative. In other words, during our stroll, it seemed that the comfortable navigation of citizens around the festival was not exactly a priority for its organizers.

 

Secondly, I was very upset by the artworks’ textual explanations in the Kazakh language, or rather by their quality. It seems to me that in 2023 it should already be clear that even if the Kazakh language is not the first for any of the curators of the festival, this does not mean that one can do with a translation made in a hurry. The Kazakh-speaking audience makes up the majority of the population of Almaty, so it is quite a pity that the ARTBAT FEST team could not allocate funds for a professional editor of the entire text part of the festival. It was particularly sad for us to state that, for example, in the text for the work Biz bar Edik (2023) by one of the participants of the Egin educational program Akzel Beisembay, the parts in Russian and Kazakh did not correspond to each other at all but described two different projects. So again, it seems that in this regard the organizers of ARTBAT FEST also were not very concerned about the accessibility of accompanying explanations for representatives of different language groups of the city.

 

Now let's switch our optics back from amateur to professional and talk about the economic side of the festival, namely the financial resources that were available to its team this year. If you look closely at the press brochure of the event, you will notice quite an impressive number of logos of very different partners who supported the eleventh edition of ARTBAT FEST. Among them are the Almaty city administration, the American giant, i.e. Chevron Corporation, some Kazakh art institutions, and the Russian private company InDrive. It is obvious that various partners and sponsors of the festival provided it with various support – sometimes it was quite material, and sometimes it could be measured in terms of communication or infrastructure. So, omitting the moment of the rather problematic origin of some of the funds with the help of which this year's festival was made, I would, of course, like to have a better understanding of how resources were distributed within the project in general. After all, it is clear that in addition to the production cost of artworks, the organizers had to cover the fees of the artists and the authors of the accompanying texts. At the same time, I know that Kazakhstani participants, for example, were not always provided with a fee. While some international artists were obviously treated in a more respectful way, which was expressed in a comfortable reception in Almaty, in covering their travel expenses and daily allowances, etc. This kind of selectivity in the context of who gets paid for their work and who doesn't is the clearest indicator of coloniality, which the organizers of the eleventh ARTBAT FEST tried to expose. And if the festival team did not have an articulate statement about oppression and extractivism in Kazakhstan and Central Asia in artistic terms, then in structural ones, it seems to me, it turned out to be as lucid as possible. After all, the most profitable locations for the installment of their artworks, as well as financial remuneration, were awarded mainly to foreign contributors.

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