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ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2016

Jessica Zychowicz

University of Michigan (US)

Jessica Zychowicz received her Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Michigan in 2015 and is working on her book, Superfluous Women: Gender, Art and Activism After Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming). She also translates contemporary Ukrainian and Polish authors, and periodically writes general-audience pieces on gender issues.



Re-Thinking Cultural Institutions in Ukraine:

New Media, Museums, and Activism(s)

The paper focuses on recent civic activism in Ukraine’s cultural sphere through the lenses of gender studies, visual culture, and history and presents an overview of my current book project. The primary materials are drawn from five years of ongoing firsthand interviews and participatory observation, and also, new catalogues of work published within recent months of which I translated the accompanying essays by Kyiv-based artists writing about the ongoing military occupation of Crimea, Lugansk, and Donetsk. In particular, by investigating civic activism in Ukraine from 2004-2014, my broader project explores how an emerging generation of artists—often referred to as the Third Avant-Garde—are contesting past Soviet and Western connotations with democracy in the local context.  Many of the materials produced by these artists illuminate the conflicted discourses underpinning media images of post-Soviet Ukraine to reveal compelling narratives about nation, the public sphere, and the production of dissidence in an East-West context.


Young people in Ukraine do not remember the fall of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the nonviolent gatherings on Kyiv’s main square against a rigged presidential election in 2004 were a mild upheaval compared to the decline in civil liberties incurred over the decade that followed. The mass demonstrations on Kyiv’s Maidan, or square, in November 2013 were a culmination of deeper grievances that were unleashed in response to ousted President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an Association Agreement that would have moved the country closer to joining the EU. More importantly, this act catalyzed a need for regime change by a polity divided by elites. The troubled outcomes of the Orange Revolution that had once served a limited, albeit formative, function by helping to solidify a democratic identity in Ukraine, have only been further complicated by the conflict with Russia in the region.


The specific stories and artworks I have selected for this paper feature local activists’ perspectives in the decade leading to Euromaidan, offering insights into a history that skirts the grand narratives of nationhood, war, and “progress” currently being promulgated in mass-media about Ukraine. Each chapter in my broader project traces a different scholarly debate on how Soviet and Western connotations with notions of human rights and its terms of equivalence, the former oftentimes positioned in an asymmetrical either/or (for or against) relationship to democracy, making this term particularly difficult to translate. The repetition of false binaries across contexts (national, mass-media, linguistic) also reveal the manipulative surfaces upon which conversation about women’s and gender rights can become limited and stymied. Contrary to these limiting devices, in the years between the Orange Revolution and the events of winter 2013-14, many intellectuals, artists, and others became activists—sometimes against their own will—risking their bodies in the face of physical violence in order to express themselves freely.


My aim for this talk is to offer up critical material for viewing new opportunities for publicly engaged cultural systems. I focus on Ukraine’s younger generation of self-identified feminist and LGBTQ activists’ experiences since the Orange Revolution. Many art-activists have continued to carve out pivotal public sites for making art and history publicly accessible. I will be focusing on recent initiatives by the Visual Culture Research Center, and also, the new Maidan Museum. I will address several factors shaping the discourses at play, including the war, within the visual exhibits being produced by curators at VCRC, an important venue for creative work that has struggled to survive in light of attacks from the regime and has recently embarked on experiments involving reclaiming urban space, setting an important precedent for other institutions in the region.

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