A Practical Guide

How to Sell Yourself to the West?

Ada Mukhina

Let’s be honest. With this title, I’m trying to draw attention to my persona, but also to the topic of my research – the politics of representation in the performing arts. I’m a female theatre director from Russia, who was awarded a Berlin fellowship at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin.

It is an unusual fellowship. You can’t apply for it or participate in an open call, as I often did before. You need to be nominated by a member of the Academy and then be chosen by other members at their annual meeting. It’s such an honour to finally be accepted by the artistic crème de la crème after all these years of endless study, self-advocacy, failures and precarious work, right? But did I really make it? Will my artistic future be bright from now on? In my current performance project, I research the possible conditions of “making it” in the Western art world. Here I present my initial research checklist, where I reflect on my own experience as an example. I am interested in the unique selling points, bonuses, identity advantages that could help an artist successfully “sell” his or her work to the West and how these points intersect with the burning issues of the politics of art. For the purposes of this text, I am looking at the specifics of the Berlin art scene, where I reside at the moment. It is just a starting point of my research, that will culminate in a performance about representation, hierarchies in the art world, gatekeepers, prizes and longing for success, and at the same time access and inclusion by yet unrecognised art practitioners.

Non-German

I am not German. It is not necessarily a bad thing in Berlin, I guess, because Berlin is not Germany. It is Babylon. Look, for example, at all of these artists with multicultural backgrounds at the Maxim Gorki Theatre or … is there any other place? Right, there are some festivals and special programmes at other art institutions here and there. The most important thing is that I speak German. I have learned it for ten years at school in Saint Petersburg. I still remember traditional songs and verses from Heinrich Heine’s “Lorelei”. It’s not very useful in everyday life, I know. However, you can occasionally impress some Germans. For example, I once sang “O Tannenbaum” for the jury of the German Chancellor fellowship! Moreover, let’s face it, even though you can order a drink in English in Berlin bars, you won’t gain access to the professional art scene without mastering the German language. To start with, there’s an absence of English surtitles in most German theatres. And whatever feedback you get back will likely be in German, even though you wrote your PhD in English at one of the universities in Berlin.

Good Pass, Bad Pass

I was born and lived the first 27 years of my life in Russia, which is a good thing. Firstly, people know about its existence. The head of the country makes a lot of advertisements for it. Secondly, I am from St. Petersburg ‒ a fact that art people around the world adore. You’ll often see a veil of Romanticism glossing their eyes when they speak about Dostoevsky and white nights. The city is indeed stunning, and very close to the European ideal sense of beauty because European architects built it. I always introduce myself abroad as somebody from St. Petersburg and not from Russia ‒ because I identify myself with the “Western spirit” of the city more than the “uncivilised” rest of the country. I want to appear and to be accepted as European, meaning “equal”. Although I seldom reach my goal because most of the Europeans believe that Europe ends at its political borders of the European Union and not at its geographical boundaries of the Ural Mountains. Thirdly, I am from the country with a “bloody political regime” that makes Western curators and programmers ask me with worry and empathy in their eyes: How do I manage to create work about feminism and other social issues “there”? That brings me to another point in my “artistic account” aimed at the West. Of course, there are also some side effects. For example, the use of the colour red in my performance might be automatically interpreted as a reference to communism. Or I would be expected to talk about Russian men in power all the time, as if I dream about them all the time and I can’t think about anything else.

Nevertheless, even if it sounds horrible, it is a good set of cards to start out with. It is truly a much better hand than my art colleagues from Belarus have, even though their political regime might be crueler, as was recently shown by the armed police shutting down peaceful protests after the corrupted elections. Russia is the most significant influencer of the region as a successor of the Soviet Union. It has a “bad reputation” and “scary image” nowadays, and a long historical relationship with Germany and Western Europe, including two world wars. Therefore ‒ bingo! ‒ local artists, researcher and scholars get many more opportunities and grants from the West. Some of my Belarusian colleagues, who have lived and worked in St. Petersburg for some time already, are seriously thinking about changing their citizenship to Russian for that reason. My Indian colleague noticed a similar situation working in Nepal, which unlike India was not colonised by Great Britain and therefore has none of the post-colonial funding that is available in its neighbouring country.

In one of the multiple series of my RiskLab telematic performances, my collaborator, the Berlin-based Syrian theatre director Anis Hamdoun, and I asked the audience to share who among them has a “good” or “bad” passport. The interesting thing was that the holders of the “bad” passports immediately knew what we meant, while the holders of the “good” passports had doubts. After presenting some of the possible criteria like economic wealth, visa-free travel and a general protection of human rights and freedoms in the home country, we defined a range or a relative scale of passports among our audience members. Of course, “good” or “bad” passports are relative concepts. However, having a better passport than the one your neighbour has is definitely an advantage. Moreover, try to make the negative sides of your country of origin (such as it being a dictatorship) work to your benefit.

Jail Experience

“You lived in the Soviet Union and you have been published in the West. You could’ve easily gone to jail. Western newspapers make a fuss in such cases. It would’ve helped if your books sold …” – In the 1980s Sergei Dovlatov ironically retold the words of his American publisher in the essay “From USA with love”. Nothing has really changed since then. Jail, arrest or any violent experience would definitely strengthen your position on the Western art market. Unfortunately, I don’t have any. I mean, of course, I don’t want to have them for myself or anybody else. Especially for a young and not-so-well-known artist, you cannot be sure if there will be any fuss in the newspapers because of you. You could disappear without anybody noticing it. So I would be careful with this “wild card”. Yet if you have it, why not to use it?

Other White

I am extremely white. Even pale, I would say. It is undeniably a bonus in getting access to positions in the Western art world, until the point when it becomes an obstacle. For example, when you are asked to fill in a questionnaire about your race by an organisation that genuinely cares about diversity. In this case, I chose “other white” because I also have some Jewish blood. That’s how you stay in the game, folks.

WomXn Director is The New Black

In 2020 a private company of Elon Musk manages to send astronauts into space. In the same year, for the first time, the Theatertreffen festival achieves gender balance in their programme of the most noteworthy theatre pieces of the season in German-speaking countries. What a time to be alive for space tourists and female directors! Helgard Haug (Rimini Protokoll) is one of the directors, whose theatre production Chinchilla Arschloch, waswas was chosen for the programme. She teaches at different universities, art schools and in workshops where around 80% of the theatre students are womxn. [1] Yet somehow, now several years after graduation, the gender statistics have changed drastically. Where do female theatre-makers disappear? Is Elon Musk sending them to a galaxy far, far away? “It is clear that we need to address this imbalance,” says Helgard. “At first, I was not sure, if the introduction of the quotes at the Theatertreffen was the right starting point. I thought that raising awareness among theatres would be a better solution: to pay attention to who you work with, whose plays you produce, who is on your stage. Now I think these quotes have already achieved a lot. They rushed the necessity of the discussion, and they made the position that we stand by in 2020 quite clear. If theatres want to be represented at the Theatertreffen festival, they might also want to increase their chances by hiring female directors. If it doesn’t work otherwise, you need to force them.” Let the Force be with me and other womxn in the theatre market and in space, of course!

[1] Womxn – a term used as one of the alternative spelling of the words “woman” or “women” to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequences m-a-n and m-e-n and to be inclusive of trans and non-binary women.

Consistency of the Argument

“Keep the consistency of the argument over time” ‒ Farrah Karapetian, an incredible visual artist and my host at an art residency in California, told me in words of farewell. What an interesting piece of advice, one might say. In 1988, the year I was born, the Gorilla Girls presented to the world their famous poster The advantages of being a woman artist. One of the advantages listed was “knowing that your career might pick up after you’re eighty”. Do I need to keep being “consistent” for another 48 years these days as well?

A Signature Haircut

 Now on to a real challenge. You would not believe how much hair I lost in Berlin! The city has much harder water than in St. Petersburg. It took me a while to find the right way to handle it: including changing all of my hair cosmetics and buying quite expensive vitamins. Besides, it’s not so easy to find a good hairdresser here, because most Germans I know cut their hair themselves to save money. However, I made it through this, too. Let’s hope that making it in the art world in Berlin will not be so challenging!

*1988 in Leningrad, lives in St.Petersburg and Berlin

Ada Mukhina is a nomadic artist and theatre-maker with a focus on politically/socially engaged documentary and participatory performance. Her practices include directing, performing, curating, writing, teaching and researching. She graduated with distinction from the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts and earned an MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Her theatre work has been presented in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, the USA and Russia. As a winner of the Black Box Residency at the Meyerhold Theatre Center, she recently directed and co-authored two theatre productions in Moscow – Locker Room Talk and Caries of Capitalism.

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