Kyiv as a Dream

Tobias Zielony, Shine, 2017, archival pigment print, 84 x 56 cm, Edition of 6 + 2AP, Courtesy of the artists and KOW gallery.


Kyiv as a Dream

Tobias Zielony and Tasia on Partying.

The artist Tobias Zielony visited Kyiv in 2017 for a series of conversations and portraits of the underground queer and techno scene. His series “Maskirovka” documents the complex reality of Ukrainians and the conflicting claims of diverse actors struggling to occupy the country’s contested symbolic and political space. Zielony uses the term maskirovka, commonly referring to a Russian tradition of covert warfare and military deception, to describe Russian politics toward Ukraine since the Maidan Uprising.

The “hybrid war” in eastern Ukraine has never been officially declared, yet in Crimea the masked special forces, so-called “green men”, occupied Ukrainian territory. Masks also played a crucial role in protecting the Maidan protesters from tear gas, and helped to hide their identities from the authorities. The portraits and still lifes reveal the fragile and treacherous situation in which the protagonists live and act in the city in Kyiv. When we read these conversations today, we can visit a time that is past – and really not. The aftermath of the 2013 Maidan Uprising, reflected in these conversations, is still present. This war, these conversations show, has been going on for at least eight years. This is his interview with Tasia on partying.

Tobias Zielony and Tasia on Partying.

Some people describe the party world in Kyiv as escapism, as creating a second reality, in order not to deal with the violent reality of a country at war. I know you don’t agree. Are there any moments that you remember when the so-called outside world has broken into the reality of the club?

Last weekend at Closer [a nightclub] there was a German DJ called PLO Man. He was playing Chicago house, a very elaborate style, good techniques, and I had this feeling of a magical moment of the here and now. Then I saw, at the culmination of one track, a guy and a girl surrounded by the crowd: he proposed, and they started kissing. It was this kind moment, the coming together of continents and times. House music has been revived from the 1990s. Then the guy from Berlin brought it to Ukrainian people, living through dancing, and this pair got engaged right in front of us. Then everyone surrounded them and started cheering; that’s how we knew they were getting engaged. It’s a nice story. Sad stories are when you witness the guards at the door having to reject visitors who are drunk and still want to get in, or who are arrogant and want to bring in weapons. There are some guys who would surely come in with their weapons.

Did you see anything like that? What kind of weapon?

Yes. A gun. A real shooting gun.

Had he just come home from the war and had it with him?

You never know if he came from the war or if he just had it. In this country, where we have a war, guns are much more easily available. You don’t have to be a soldier to be able to buy a gun. That’s the situation we witness now in Ukraine, in my local area for example. Instead of bookshops and grocery stores, you have flower shops open twenty-four hours a day and gun shops opening.

Our country has a failed social system. The people have built networks of mutual support that take the place of the nonexistent social institutions provided by the nation.

You said something about time, things coming together. Dance, music, and trance can create moments when you jump out of time. In a sense this is the old idea of the avantgarde, where you move beyond time. But to me it seems that Ukrainians would rather say, “There is no tomorrow, so let’s party now.”

I wouldn’t say that’s the way I see it. I would say that for me, time and space are a unity that should not be torn apart or put into contradiction. For me, it’s two measures of the wave. It depends on how you perceive matter, as a wave or as a particle; it depends on where you put the two coordinates — time and space. You have the feeling, when you live into the music, that you are a particle in the larger wave. For me, this escape into the music, into making art, living through art, letting art go through you, is much more a conscious choice than an escape from the war. Because when you get into the situation, you can be forced to kill or be killed at any moment. Getting out of it, and entering into the situation of art, is also a pretty conscious choice where you can live through or become a victim of other things, but you consciously take yourself out of this masculine aggression. So for me, there’s lots of consciousness in this choice. I can see that lots of people have quit their commercial, high-skilled jobs, and didn’t go to the front just to be able to live out their aspirations from earlier times, the 1990s and 2000s. They went into this unstable ground of the art business and became fashion designers, musicians, dancers, party organizers; they became myth creators such as myself. It’s also a world where you can really lose things. You can lose everything from one day to the next.

What do you mean by that?

Money, status. When you are part of an established company, you have the protection of the company’s name and reputation. You also have the protection of health insurance. When you get out into the world of independence, you don’t have any protection, any backup. You don’t have customers because downloading music for free, or going to free parties, or buying clothes second hand are always options in an anarchistic country like ours. So you really trust your people, and they likewise trust you by putting their last money into going to your party, or maybe going into debt to buy your clothes. So it’s what we have now, this war situation, where we are in many ways left behind, left alone by our government, and maybe by foreign governments. The only people to trust are ourselves. This is what we rely on, with a feeling of pride.

Tobias Zielony, Line, 2017, archival pigment print, 105 x 70 cm, Edition of 6 + 2AP, Courtesy of the artists and KOW gallery.

Would you say that the country has achieved more independence since the Maidan revolution in 2013 and 2014? It seems that not everybody is adapting to this new and often wild situation.

There is no “everybody.” There are islands of support and independence and freedom, but also a codependency. Our country has a failed social system. We the people have built non-registered networks of mutual support that take the place of the nonexistent social institutions provided by the nation. So there are sparks of stability, and sparks of normality and support, that we ourselves build and rely on. We don’t see it as stability. To imagine what you will do as a retired person, or the pension that you will get, now seems almost ridiculous since you don’t know how you’ll be living three years from now.

There is total uncertainty about what tomorrow could be like, or will feel like?

We try to envision our tomorrow as less wild and more supportive. More matriarchal in a way. We try to live with this vision and not look at our lives as just today. We try to build this small territory around us, but we really don’t see the day after tomorrow, only tomorrow.

As you’re talking about creating myths and the party/techno scene, is there a difference between the myth of it—the myth that it’s creating itself—and the so-called reality of it?

I don’t see any mythology here. It’s the wave rave coming, and it is techno, house, trance. Those three main qualities or iterations of EDM are tangibly here and they’re a revival from the early 1990s, the late 1980s. They’re not as mythological. Well, the mythology is the earlier part that you build upon, that you take samples from, or icons from. But actually I don’t see much mythology in it.

If you are a techno person, you are a cyborg first, a dancer, and then you have some sexual identity.

I agree. In the West, we’re in this time of postmodernity, but the idea of referencing, picking parts, is very conscious somehow. Whereas here I see it more as a necessity to pick up and create new identities, without a shared framework. Not because it’s fashionable but because it’s how things developed. Why do you think this kind of culture was picked up upon? Why techno and not—?

I have my own ideas. Because it is very imaginative, for one. You can come from a rich background, or a normal background, or an industrial and working-class and deprived-of-everything background and still get into this. It just takes you a few years to learn how to make the music. It takes maybe three or four parties for you to learn how to dance. You can establish yourself without having any great capital, you just have to be able to express yourself through sound production and dancing.

What makes a good dancer?

Being able to trust your body, and express sound through movement. Being relaxed and able to pick up the patterns but also experiment with the basics. It’s important that you know your basics but also important that you’re able to go out of the pattern. And there is nothing better than coming together and celebrating and having this ecstatic, tribal, archaic, Paleolithic feeling of trance, unification. And of course what unites you is love: you want to be united in love, with the people who come from Russia, from the EU, rather than to be separated by war. That’s one more reason to escape into it.

Why is the techno scene the place for the queer community to come out and meet?

If you are a techno person, you are a cyborg first, a dancer, and then you have some sexual identity. Also when you dance together, rub your asses against each other, press your breasts against each other, sweat upon and touch each other, you can’t be homophobic. You cannot be anti-lesbian if you are around all the girls rubbing and kissing. And actually, because you also have this extended consciousness and prolonged feeling of love and unity, you cannot be afraid of the persons you were afraid of before.

Tobias Zielony, Smoke, 2017, archival pigment print, 84 x 56 cm, Edition of 6 + 2AP, Courtesy of the artists and KOW gallery.

Is there a sexual level in it?

Of course! Of course people come to the parties to make friendships, find lovers, of course there is this possibility for social and sexual interaction—to be making unities, or perhaps one- night friendships that don’t end up in real unity. There is this mixture of old ideas related to sexual relationships coming together with new ones. Sometimes the old one wins, sometimes the new one wins, sometimes it’s a combination of the two.

Looking at the techno scene—I’ve been here for three weeks now—it is for me more real than the everyday post-Soviet world. I suppose it depends on who I spend my time with. To me it is the other world that is living in a state of travesty or fake reality. How do you see the relationship between these two worlds? I’m trying to refer to the idea of maskirovka—a situation of military deception, undeclared wars, and uncertainty on all levels of life.

Maybe for me it’s delayed adolescence. We had this prolonged childishness after 1991. We were an independent state, but we had many childish illusions that we could be on sisterly terms with many states that don’t view us as sisters. We were naive about many things. So that was our childhood: the years from 1991 to 2013. In 2013, after the Maidan Revolution and the start of war, we had to become adolescent very fast. I am not saying that we are mature now, either our culture or our state, but rather that the current condition of facing the different sides of our reality can be defined as adolescence. The harsh side, the after-party side, is when you are disillusioned, money gone, just your hangover and your scars.

What gives the best or worst hangover?

Trust and love, of course. You are so ecstatic. No speed or MDMA will make you as ecstatic as love. Conversely, when you are disillusioned about your partners you feel like you’ve lost everything, your trust, not wanting to enter into any love, any party, you can’t find love anymore.

As Slavoj Žižek says, war always repeats itself, the first time as a serious story, then in the form of farce.

We were looking at photos from Maidan, when Ukrainian forces were killing Ukrainian citizens, and you said that the most traumatic thing for human beings is not seeing natural disasters but seeing violence inflicted by humans on other humans. You could say this was an awakening, lost trust and lost love. You look into the reality of the system.

Before 1991 we witnessed the harshness of the old Soviet system toward us, the citizens. And once again we have witnessed all the harsh- ness of the state against us, its citizens. Many have become disillusioned and entered into much more independent terms. You could call it anarchy, but you should maybe view it as permanent or temporary islands of stability and independence. There is now much more autonomy and self-trust and self-reliance among citizens than there was before. The people trust themselves more than the government. The government prefers to see us as cannon fodder rather than as its citizens.

Why was Maidan so traumatic? Can you describe it?

We believed that the elected president and the police, who are paid from our wages, would not start shooting us, or would have disobeyed orders to shoot. Another traumatic thing is that there were hopes that the investigation into the crimes committed by the authorities during Maidan would be successful, that we would see some guilty people pay for these crimes. Yet none among the accused were found guilty.

Does that mean that when nobody is guilty, everyone is innocent?

More than one thousand witnesses saw the crimes, but nobody was guilty. It’s totally absurd. It’s the same absurdity surrounding this unannounced war. Everybody knows we’re at war, we have witnessed the troops coming, we have seen them crossing the border, we know who the aggressor is, but we are not able to call it a war. We are not able to call many other things by their proper names, either. You see the duck, it’s quacking, it’s running like a duck, it’s behaving like a duck, but you are not able to call it a duck.

People call this situation a hybrid war. Let’s talk about masks and the masking of reality. Can you explain the term “green men”?

It’s a term for the invaders who are actually Russian soldiers, but masked as independent soldiers. It’s a hybrid war. As Slavoj Žižek says, war always repeats itself, the first time as a serious story, then in the form of farce. This liberator-man, the Soviet soldier who liberated the Ukrainians from the German occupation in World War II, is coming back to liberate people who are more liberal than he is.

If you ask me, I seriously believe that I am living through the zombie apocalypse, and there won’t be a good ending.

Hence this new liberator is wearing a mask so he cannot be pinned down or identified. Perhaps he knows he’s in an unjustifiable and unsettling position. I have noticed how people here love masks, for parties and such. Is there a reason for this obsession?

I see Ukrainian culture in many ways as coming from Scythian and Semitic cultures, which had this old oriental custom of masks, but also developing from the ancient Greek tradition, since there were many Greek colonies on the north coast of the Black Sea. The Greeks brought a culture and early theories of the mask. So we have a very long tradition of masking and carnivals, to all possible new ends. Through these you are able to live your additional selves. I remember having been fond of masks as a child. I had three favorites: a snowflake, a little fox, and a little devil. Masks are very natural to us: carnival masks, but also protective masks, for instance against the annual grippe epidemics. Consider also the masks against the smoke of war and revolution. There are beauty masks as well; we’re very much absorbed into the industries of fashion, beauty, entertainment, and last but not least, sex.

Are the masks about hiding reality, or are they part of becoming another reality?

For me, virtual reality is always one more reality. It’s not fake or artificial or additional. I cannot say that it is less real. For me, masks are not fake but rather normal.

Could we say that this hypernormalisation of artificial reality might play into the hands of people like Putin?

But everything might play into the hands of war. I’m not an optimist. If you ask me, I seriously believe that I am living through the zombie apocalypse, and there won’t be a good ending.

Tobias Zielony is an artist, photographer and filmmaker based in Berlin.

| stay informed | stay connected


We are in this together – and our newsletter is the best way to connect and be inspired. Competent, constructive, creative. A wealth of insight and guidance in a world in turmoil.


We use cookies to measure how often our site is visited and how it is used. You can withdraw your consent at any time with effect for the future. For further information, please refer to our privacy policy.