Since Emily is traveling to Russia, Finland and England this summer
we did an interview by email rather than a studio visit.
(Don’t Love Here) is an investigation of a soviet-era planned neighborhood
in St. Petersburg, Russia built around a community of scientists and an
experimental Tokamak thermonuclear fusion reactor or
“earthly sun”. In the summer of 2011, Newman organized
a workshop to engage local children on the theme of their neighborhood, and in
doing so, to consider its legacy, present state, and possible futures. In the
resulting video imagination, legend and utopian aspirations exist
simultaneously with the realities of post-communist daily life.
HH: What is
your connection with the neighborhood of Polyteknicheskaya?
moved to the area reluctantly as a temporary solution to having been priced out
of the city center (where I had lived for four years, having come to Russia
originally on a Fulbright). From talking to friends, I expected the neighborhood
to be depressing and dangerous. Having arrived in deep winter, when everything
was buried under thick snow, I came to see Polyteknicheskaya only slowly, as
Spring emerged, and by Summer I was completely, weirdly, in love.
is more than one way to see, or conceptualize, a place and the different people
who pass through occupy different vantage points. Being a foreigner might
disqualify me from making work about Russia in some sense, but it also makes it
easier to do as I am able to shift between points of perspective in forming thoughts
about the area. Having been born and raised “overseas,” questions of cultural
and national identity have always been central to my psyche, and the ‘love’
that swept over me in Polyteknicheskaya seemed ripe for analysis.
recent work has elements of fairytale and story telling. What is the story of
Polyteknicheskaya's development and what stories are embedded in the video?
stories embedded in the video capture various moments in Polyteknicheskaya’s
(or that bit of land’s) history. The kids we see playing with dolls are
learning about the story of “Karl and Emily,” a pair of suicidal lovers who lived there in the mid 19th century. At that time the area was occupied by
single-family houses with municipal parks, also grand mansions with private
orchards and gardens. There were also factories, farms and the new
Polytechnical Institute. The story plays out like Romeo and Juliet with a
tragic ending and who knows whether it really happened, but it links the
landscape to a time when the area could have ended up like any suburb of an
elegant European city (think Berlin or Stockholm). Karl and Emily were apparently
members of a German community, which attests to the internationality of St
Petersburg before the revolution, and of course, links me to the area as an
ex-patriot with the same name.
the 1960s the area was re-developed according to a Soviet vision of ideal
living. It worked for me. The apartments were just the right proportions, even the
windows were just the right proportions, the view from the windows was just
right (birch trees and a well-lit courtyard), the walk to the playground, park
and metro was just the right length, shops were right downstairs. Twenty
minutes by metro to the center of the city and here you could ride bikes in
summer, ski in winter, walk your child to school without ever crossing a road
and risk radioactive contamination.
HH: In the
video there is an interesting relationship to time. All the images are shot in
the present, and yet the narrative seems to encompass past, present and future
simultaneously. Was that something that you consciously developed, or is time
slippage something embodied by the place itself?
is definitely a phenomena particular to the area though I’m sure it also occurs
in other places. When thinking about my decision to make this work, an image
comes to mind—that of sitting in endless traffic jams on my way to the center
and back home and feeling personally addressed by the landscape. I think this
feeling came from the fact that the landscape was built in the 60s vernacular
of ‘futurism’ –and it followed (unconsciously) that these buildings had been
built for me! I was occupying the
spot envisioned by the planners who built Polyteknicheskaya—but was I the person
they had been built for? Why not? Similarly, the plans I was hearing about
concerning the oncoming “Renovation” also privileged future over present and I
felt dispassionate about them.
started asking people to talk to me about the area, and, depending on who I
asked, I was given detailed accounts of what had been there before the
revolution, things that had happened in the 1990s, what would supposedly be
there next year—not much about the present—even though in some very obvious
cases people were enjoying living there and making use of the landscape in it’s
current incarnation (bikes, skis, sleds tied to cars, tennis in the park, a
shooting range, bonfires and shashlik by the ‘basejka,’ etc).
suppose here lies my position —I support the present Polyteknicheskaya and I
want to draw attention to it before it transforms again. I don’t want to argue
that the area should be preserved as it is—after all, it’s ridiculous to treat
the monuments of the Soviet past with sentimentality as the Soviets themselves
showed none whatsoever in their own treatment of the landscape that preceded
them—I simply want to create an unbiased (if that’s possible) representation of
it as it is, and in so doing, arrest the constant, restless churning of the
landscape, which seems to be treated as an experimental laboratory for living
rather than a place, for one moment.
video is not typically discussed in terms of the "hand of the artist"
in the way that painting is, I noticed that you frequently use models. Can you
talk about the role of the hand made in your work?
EN: I’ve recently realized that indeed, almost all
of my works contain an image of my hand, usually manipulating some kind of
model or doll (or child!). Like my use of wiggle-cam, the presence of my hand
is probably an extension (as well as a metonymic and metaphoric sign) of my
‘handling’ of materials. Faithful to the reflexive tradition, I strive to
create images that forefront the terms of their own making in order to bracket
out my own subjective biases—I suppose!
The game I play with my toy tokamak is to emulate the
physicist’s gesture of making something divine spring from something ordinary. While
I have no understanding of the science they did, I understand what it is to
struggle with materials, and I can also fantasize about successful or
HH: How does
the tokamak function symbolically in the video and the neighborhood?
EN: In my video, I hope that the tokamak
functions this way---first it strikes us as outlandish--a characteristically
Soviet attempt to out-do nature. Because we probably haven’t heard of it, we
assume it’s a failed project and read it as a metaphor for the failure of the
Soviet experiment in general. But then, later on, it’s revealed that the
tokamak is not a failure at all, one of the most likely and firmly backed
solutions to the Earth’s looming energy crisis.
Regarding the tokamak’s status in the
neighborhood--just today I heard a story originating from a young mathematician
that someone once left a handkerchief inside the device and that it’s still
there, whizzing around with the plasma. Offering a different perspective, an
acquaintance told me recently that her daughter was accepted into the Ioffe
Institute, where the tokamak is, but she declined the place because she had
heard that the Institute’s grounds were contaminated with radioactivity,
(probably emanating from the tokamak). These two anecdotes do a better job of
describing the status of the device in the area than I can do myself.