Sofia Kulagina (b. 1998, Togliatti)
I am a fourth-year Cultural Studies student at RSUH (Moscow). In compliance with my academic interest in the topic of politics and culture, I research the transformation of borders between private and public in social institutes, including contemporary art. I believe that participatory museum practices can help humans manifest the importance of their personal experiences.

March 8, 2019

My first day at the project wasn’t easy at all. Mainly because of a huge flow of visitors, even though they spread around the space quite organically, and everyone, individually or in a group, found something entertaining for them.

“Entertaining” is the most problematic word for me in this context. At least two installations in the project imply a game element, which, I think, helps people to interact with the exposition in a “leisure” mode, while questioning the contemplative (intellectual) aspect of the process. As a mediator I had to work on my modality when talking to visitors. I didn’t want to be too dogmatic explaining everything, trying to avoid my own interpretations, but rather wanted delicately, via a dialogue, exchange opinions, allowing the person to free their own “museum unconscious” and at the same time instigate them to analyze their feelings and thoughts.

Communication was complicated at times because it was hard to guess at first glance what kind of experience in art a certain person has. A few times, visitors cooled down my enthusiasm about the project by telling me about their own art historical education and background ))). But such skepticism was easy to overcome by asking their professional opinion about the exhibition. Art historians regarded Bureauas a project for beginners in contemporary art, most of all they were attracted by Ladder Caféand the newspapers by Zhitlina and Tereshkina—an “island of academism” in our, as they called it, kids’ room.

Less committed visitors enjoyed everything that was going on and spent around 30–50 minutes in our space, focusing primarily on Linda’s wardrobes. Interestingly, many saw Collective Stringsand Translation Wardrobeas a single project and space for creative activities, even despite mediators’ explanations about the artists and their concepts. People would constantly try to hung the dolls, shells, notes on the ribbons, which seemed pretty logical. There were many allusions to Mardi-Gras. The masks were not so popular: although people looked at them with interest, they probably were afraid to look silly.

Ladder Café, indeed, operates as a catalyzer of communication in the space. Sometimes there was a feeling that people waited all their life to have the chance to discuss contemporary art and museums with someone! In the meantime, usually it is very difficult to keep the dialogue in one direction: people switch subjects from art to everyday matters and metaphysics. Many questions seem confusing to visitors, perhaps because of translation. Younger people are more open to horizontal communication, while older ones tend to talk and examine, and it is me myself who feels their didacticism.

March 11, 2019

Monday is a low day in terms of visitors, so I could concentrate more on those who came. I found it an effective strategy to begin with a question what the person would actually like to do in this space. To offer them to choose between playing a game, reading a newspaper, engaging in a conversation, or listening to a brief overview of all projects. This way the visitor a priori feels a delicate and flexible approach and becomes fearless and flexible themselves in their preferences. Ladder Cafécontinues to prove its status of a “game changer”: following a conversation over a cup of tea based around a selected subject, the visitors’ optics readjusts to a more critical one. They start showing interest in the newspapers and the public program, promising to come again.

My first impression was that the subjects on the mugs were too sophisticated for many people to discuss, but now I believe that it was the non-triviality of questions that instigated the internal search of meanings and reflection. Oftentimes, new participants joined the already started dialogue between other visitors. And a discussion occurs.

The question what will happen to the cups after the project is a constant subject of discussion. Meanwhile, the key leitmotif of conversations with visitors from St. Petersburg is the comparison of Garage with Erarta, unfortunately, not in our favor. The main argument against us is usually the absence of permanent collection.

March 19, 2019

Today’s agenda is the following: can a museum avoid imposing opinions?

I can’t explain why, but we discussed this issue three times, and all the three times the conclusion was “no”. We talked about the curator’s choice and neoliberal implications in a contemporary museum, the possibility to choose from only what’s on offer.

All the three times I noticed that people have problems with not falling into extreme viewpoints when talking about such things. Some ideas were quite absurd, like, e.g. an artist (Pavel Pepperstein, in this case) “should not have their own mythology, because it means pressure upon the viewer who cannot interpret it freely”. Or, “an artist should create only for people”, “an artist should make something everyone would understand”, and the like.

Nevertheless, I thought I saw some truth in those absurdities. Apparently, people still feel the pressure of a museum narrative. One young man told me one important, as it seemed to me, thing: participatory elements within a single (ours) project doesn’t have much influence and has more of a therapeutic character after you have watched a few curator’s exhibitions where you had zero participation and entailed silent observation and perception. This can be seen as a need in participatory approach within an exposition where the authority of a celebrity artist is so powerful that it demands to be balanced out buy the viewer’s freedom.

Many are hopeful about the Internet.

March 24–26, 2019

Zhilyaev’s board game

April 4, 2019

People started leaving tags on Karoline’s ribbons. It convinced me once again that virtual identity is almost equally important as the real one, especially after I asked a girl standing in front of me:

— If it’s not a secret, why did you leave the link to your Instagram instead of a wish?

— I would like people to know more about me!

April 6, 2019

Discussions around the mug with the question “Can a museum be feminist?” fail again and again. According to my inner feelings, the very intention with which men (and in my case, it was only men) take these mugs is somewhere in between humiliation and the wish to exercise in chatting. But the even deeper problem concludes in the misunderstanding of not the question on the mug but the feminist theory as such.

It seems to me that the reason is not the problem of translation as such, but rather in the necessity to reformulate some things bearing in mind local realities. Feminism has not yet become a common phenomenon and category here and is not taken seriously by many Russians. This is why turning the conversation towards the subject of feminism is in most cases impossible in a museum, since many visitors do not see it as an important issue at all. Visitors ask themselves “Why does feminism exist?” — rather than “Do we need feminism in museums?”

Once again I felt that our project transforms into a labor market. I was offered the chance to collaborate in several projects. Today especially actively.

“We need people with theoretical background. You do this job for free much better than someone would do it for money. Because you are all committed to the idea here.”

Obviously, it is very pleasant to feel needed and be in demand, but the idea that in the field of culture everyone can work only for the idea, frustrates me a bit. It is really sad that we didn’t discuss the mug with a relevant topic. This is an important thing.

It seems positive to me however that this half-playful communication inside the project space helps to form short-term yet interesting connections. It’s a known fact that loose connections are the best carriers of information, which is vital for an education project.

I wonder whether people perceive interaction with us, mediators, within the museum space as something different from communication in the “real world” behind the museum’s walls. Perhaps, people are inclined for a dialogue because our “playful space” exists as a micro-world, a safe space for them, where one can say a bit more than usually, since everything will remain inside this space. So, the question is whether the internal dialogue will continue in the visitor’s mind after they leave the museum—or this experience wouldn’t have significant impact on their real life?

P.S. Queueing to the bathroom, I heard someone say that they are “fed up with the museums’ promotion of equality, feminism, tolerance, ecology, and whatnot.”

As of today, the three most popular questions (in my approximate wording) people choose to discuss will be:

  1. Can Instagram influence exhibitions?
  2. Is it possible to provide access to art without imposing one’s viewpoint?
  3. Can a museum be feminist?