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Artistic Activism and Social Reflection: A Conversation with Pomidor Group

In this exclusive interview, we delve into the world of Pomidor Group, an artistic collective founded in Moscow in 2018 by Polina Egorushkina and Maria Sarkisyants. The group has made waves with its socially engaged projects, emphasizing themes of fellowship, community building, emigration, and a keen focus on socio-political matters. Recently, Pomidor Group relocated to the UK, where they continue to shape the discourse on critical analysis, community development, and pressing global issues.

9 October 2023

Joana Alarcão

To begin with, can you tell us more about the founding of the Pomidor group?

Polina: In 2018 we started to chat during a boring lecture in art school and since then we have been working together. The origin of the group name is quite simple - PoMidor. It's Polina and Maria.

Maria: I remember asking Polina what is the main topic we are going to work on. And she told me that she was not interested in anything but politics. It was very inspiring because I felt the same. We called this genre soft politics. We are multidisciplinary artists and we are choosing the media for the project; it could be an installation, text-based art like in the ‘Speech(less)’, or video art like in the ‘Cut off Communication' project.

Polina: Soft politics involves addressing everyday topics in a way that doesn't provoke aggression, but rather, on the contrary, grabs the attention of the audience, who may be on different sides of the barricades, using humour.

The Pomidor group is focused on the creation of socially engaged projects devoted to themes of fellowship, community building, and Immigration. How do these themes manifest in your projects? What motivated you to create projects focused on these themes?

Polina: Our practice is about creating situations, experiences and spaces. One of our big projects in Russia was Pomidor.Residence. It’s a community art project. We never considered ourselves curators or art managers and the Residence is literally an art project for us.

We started it in December 2021 in Maria’s house where she lived with her family. It was the first home art residence in Russia. There was a studio with all the necessities for residents. 

Maria: There is an anecdote about the handy scientist. When someone meets an academic in a bar and buys him or her a drink and gets an opportunity to get to know something first hand. 

I thought how great it would be if I could invite anyone I want to live in my house and share everything they know as an expert. Then I realized it would be great to listen to them in good company. Thus we opened the Pomidor Residence. 

We had three residential sessions during 2022 and a couple of weekend meetings. Now the project is paused because we left the country in the autumn of 2022.

Pomidor residence. Image courtesy of Pomidor group.

Polina: Emigration became our subject of interest after the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The origin, belonging, and relocation have become an extremely relevant issue for us. The war initiated by Russia against Ukraine has caused mass migration from both countries. Millions of Ukrainians are fleeing to save their lives, while Russians are fleeing repressions and forced mobilisation.

The question "where are you from?" is frequently asked. When we say that we are artists from Moscow, we always have to explain our anti-war position as well. We really want it to be heard and perceived clearly.

Inside the country with acquaintances, you don't have to express your anti-war position (people in Russia are more terrified than it may seem that our country has started the war). However, after moving, you feel the need to start with this in every new person you come across.

Moreover, there's often a question about what actions we, as Russians, have taken to prevent the war. While we do not seek justification, we aim to initiate a discussion about the extent to which people in democratic developed countries can understand citizens of authoritarian police states. And whether they need to.

Moving from Moscow to the UK in late 2022 is a significant transition. How has this move influenced your artistic perspective and the overall project?

Maria: Neither of us planned to move before the war. It was really interesting and challenging being an artist in Russia. 

However, the emigration has given us the ability to speak openly. We feel responsible for using the privilege of freedom of speech. We feel free and safe to make all projects we would not be able even to talk about in Russia due to repressive laws in the country. 

We still don't know how to answer the question of whether someone needs it here. We have decided that even if it is important only to us, we will continue to tell what is happening in our prison-like country.

Speech(less) by Pomidor group. Image courtesy of Pomidor group.

One of your current projects is dedicated to brave individuals who are persecuted in Russia for daring to speak the truth and stand against the war. What can you tell us about this project?

Polina: We create textile flags featuring quotes and portraits. This project is dedicated to brave individuals who are persecuted in Russia for daring to speak the truth and stand against the war. We have chosen flags as a form of project representation. We love this accessible way of expressing support by hanging a flag in the windows or over the balcony of one’s home. And now our flags are hanging in the windows of friends in London who share our anti-war stance. We put paper versions of flags on the streets of London. This way, more city residents can see our message. Each poster has a QR code leading to the project's website, where you can learn more.

Maria: The project SPEECH(LESS) (from Oxford Dict *Speechless - deprived for the time being of the power of speech through astonishment, fear, or other emotion; temporarily dumb; unable to answer.)

consists of hand-sewn flags and «shirts» We divided it into three parts. The first part, bearing the same name, Speech(less)* is dedicated to silence and all that has happened since 24 February 2022, which has made us lose the ability to speak. It’s also about being silent and showing no reaction towards scary or unpleasant facts. The book by Eviatar Zerubavel «The Elephant in the Room» helped us a lot to understand the nature of public silence. The works in this part have form of flags and they are mostly citations from different sources such as news, interviews, books, etc. 

The next part is called Fearless and is dedicated to brave people who have dared to speak up openly against the war and regime. They are now considered political prisoners and have been sentenced to inhumanly long prison terms or are waiting for verdicts in jail. The project takes the form of flags as well.

Maria: The third part of the project is called Headless and is dedicated to intimidation and propaganda. The form is a «shirt» which doesn’t have a cutout for the head. Phrases are on both sides of the shirt sewn in Russian and English. The idea is that the ideal Russian citizen sitting in front of the TV is not expected to have a head at all. 

Speech(less) by Pomidor group. Image courtesy of Pomidor group.

Flags are powerful symbols. How do you see the act of hanging flags in windows or over balconies as a form of protest and solidarity, both literally and symbolically?

Polina: Flags represent places, nations, and military attribution. We make an attempt to create the flags of the future. Not those which claim the land, not state flags, presidential or military standards but those which draw attention to peace, anti-war movements, decolonization and justice. We want to put the individual on the flag, not the nation. 

One of the main focuses of your project is the war in Ukraine, as well as other military conflicts and imperialism, raising important questions about global politics. What impact do you hope your work will have on viewers' awareness and understanding of these issues?

Maria: We feel that people who never lived in Russia can hardly imagine the magnitude of pressure and repressions one can endure veering off the main course of the state. The level of lawlessness the country achieved in the last two decades is hard to believe even for us. So we want at least to let know that many people in Russia do not support the war and use all available means to express their anti-war position. 

Could you share an anecdote or experience that illustrates the impact of your art on a community or individual?

Polina: I'd like to talk about our work from 2018 — ‘HAVE YOU BEEN A GOOD BOY? The future is here’It is an interactive installation.

We created it in response to the news that the social credit system, which had been widely discussed, was indeed being implemented in certain districts of China. Remember that?

In this work, we follow China's example, a nationwide social citizen rating system has been implemented. Ratings are lowered for misconduct, and access to all the benefits of civilization is used by the government as a way of rewarding "righteous" individuals.

Of course, art is one of these benefits and can’t be accessed by just anyone. Only viewers with a social rating of at least 397 (as indicated on the label) will be able to see this work. The text on the tablet screen informs the viewer that they can take a special test to update their rating data and, provided the rating is high enough, gain access to the work.

When attempting to approach the artwork without completing the questionnaire, a warning signal sounds, and a voice announces: ‘’Attention! Your rating is insufficient. Viewing denied. Please note that other works at the exhibition may be available to you.’’

The questionnaire itself is rather unpleasant. Responding to it, many viewers might say, "Why the hell are you even asking me about this?" It's mostly the collection of personal data. However, it includes questions of a very personal nature formulated in official language. There are also questions about third parties, answering which can make one feel uncomfortable.

We tried to make the questionnaire in such a way that the choice of the "right" answer was not obvious. The work was first shown in 2018. Since then, we have updated the questionnaire several times in accordance with the changing global social and political situation.

Maria: We collected feedback from the viewers, observed their reactions to the questions, and how they tried to answer the questions 'correctly.'

We presented this work four times in different locations. It turned out to be very popular among gallery staff, who, as it turned out, attempted to 'hack' the 'survey' multiple times every day throughout the exhibition. They never understood that there were no correct answers, and that achieving a positive citizen rating was impossible by definition.

People began to understand this piece better, especially after the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions. Before this, in my opinion, people didn't feel the extent of information being collected about them by the government. The process of surveillance and data collection on citizens' private lives intensified significantly. The range of punishments and rewards for 'good' or 'bad' behaviour became much broader. People realised that the government does indeed monitor every step they take and has all the technical capabilities for it.

METRO STATION_Terminus by Pomidor group. Image courtesy of Pomidor group

Art often plays a role in challenging repressive regimes. How do you effectively address the difficulties and possible dangers involved in producing artwork that carries social and political significance?

Polina: After the start of the war, we held two more seasons and several events at the Pomidor Residence. In February 2022, the resident was the artist Sasha Kovaleva, working on the theme of death studies. We could no longer discuss publicly the residencial project she was doing due to the enacted law on military censorship. Thus, all our events took on a semi-closed nature.

Back then no one could assess the level of danger of public statements. Terror was gaining momentum. The tension was very strong, and the guests who came wanted very personal conversations, a sense of security, and a friendly shoulder above all. So we organized 'Curatorial Weekend' meetings, where we wanted to discuss with colleagues from other residencies how to continue working in conditions of shock, which had to be held in a closed format. 

Maria: During the third summer session, our resident was a specialist who had studied the Russian-Ukrainian conflict for many years, a participant in the Public Sociology Laboratory. He was accompanied by his students, sociologists. They studied protest movements in Russia and Ukraine, the perception of military actions in Ukraine by Russians, and the origins of the current Russian-Ukraine war: the events in Donbass that began in 2014.

Of course, everyone was talking only about the war. All of us had to be careful and speak only with friends, which undermines the very idea of the project - 'Residency' as a space free from censorship, self-censorship, state, and institutional pressures. In the first residence, we invited unknown people, but after the start of the war, all guests began to inquire who would come.

Polina: Parallel to working on the residency, we were preparing for what turned out to be our last project in Russia — METRO STATION (the project that won't happen). The war made our project impossible; it was more related to our internal convictions. It was supposed to be realised in the “Bomba Gallery” located in a former bomb shelter. The shelter was within the creative space of the Creative Industries Center, Fabrika in Moscow.

The site-specific METRO STATION PROJECT was supposed to be implemented at the end of April 2022. The project represented the opening ceremony of a new station in the spirit of the Stalin-era Moscow metro of the second stage, known for its Soviet lifestyle propaganda. 

The Metro wasn’t just a new type of transport. It was an “underground palace” for the nation. Party decisions, military events, the friendship of nations, and other soviet archetypes and mythologies were reflected in the art wrought into the stations and vestibules of the Metro by the best artists and architects. 

The “successes” of our state in recent years have not been demonstrated in the interiors of the newly opened stations. We wanted to correct that and ironically use it to the best effect, given the policy vector of our state.

The project was planned to be complex and comprehensive, including:

a mosaic panel titled "My Russia" depicting a sun-drenched wheat field with a bare-chested man lying on the ground gazing dreamily into the sky, with a Sukhoi Superjet 100 soaring upwards (the first passenger aircraft developed by Russia after the fall of the USSR in 2008);

а Stalin Empire-style Chandelier imitation, occupying almost the entire "station".

а Light and sound installation depicting the passage of a train through the tunnel;

а performance part: the new entrance hall opening would be filled with people who would look like government representatives. 

The guests of the exhibition, according to our idea, are supposed to feel like strangers at this festival, accidentally stumbling into an official event. 

Maria: This project was conceived long before the war. We felt it was impossible for us to carry out projects planned before the beginning of Russian military aggression in Ukraine. We couldn't continue to hold exhibitions as if nothing had happened. Moreover, using the bomb shelter as an exhibition space felt inappropriate. The humour that permeated the project became out of place. We took a pause, and afterwards, we made a concise statement reflecting how we felt. It was an empty station, only the name of which remained, and the people coming to the exhibition literally encountered silence. Many were leaving Russia and used the opportunity to say goodbye to each other. Everything we wanted to say then was on the wall — the name of the station — “Конечная” (“Terminus”). 

We are very grateful to Fabrika for the opportunity to showcase our project. At that time, Fabrika was one of the few, if not the only, places that continued to exhibit artworks with anti-war messages. Now, even much more metaphorical projects are impossible in galleries; there is a significant risk of falling under the law regarding fake news and discrediting the army, which was adopted by the State Duma on March 4, 2022.

Speech(less) by Pomidor group. Image courtesy of Pomidor group.

From your perspective, what role do you see art playing in fostering dialogue and critical analysis within communities, both in Russia and the UK?

Polina: Our move was forced and spontaneous. Perhaps we are still too immersed in our agenda to focus on the artistic process in other countries. Upon leaving, we were thinking about whether the expectations of artists from Russia have changed abroad. We paid homage to Mladen Stilinović by asking ourselves this question.

On our version of the flag was the inscription 'A RUSSIAN ARTIST WHO DOES NOT SPEAK ABOUT THE WAR IS NO ARTIST.' This piece sparked many questions among our colleagues. Many took it personally, as a reproach to those who stayed, which was surprising for us because it's akin to assuming that Stilinović reproaches artists for not knowing English.

A RUSSIAN ARTIST WHO DOES NOT SPEAK ABOUT THE WAR IS NO ARTIST by Pomidor group. Image courtesy of Pomidor group.

Artists often complicate their creative process, resulting in unconventional and humorous narratives. How do you deliberately make your practice and creative process more complicated? Do you have any amusing or captivating anecdotes about changing your methods of creation?

Polina: We have a work called JOURNEY. An Olfactory installation made from car fresheners about the connection of Russia’s history with its geographical position and large territory. It's one of our favourite project. But, as it seems to us, not many people understand it. It consists of hundreds of classical cardboard “Little Tree” fresheners suspended on different heights by strings. The artificial forest fills the space, trying to mask its consuming emptiness. 

We exhibited it at the Zverev Center in Moscow in 2021. The space was not very large. It had quite an interesting effect. Just imagine a hundred stinking freshener trees, but viewers quickly adapted even to such a strong smell. They said that you realise it was a chemical attack only when you step out and breathe fresh air. For us, this work is about imperialism, because empires have a foul smell throughout all times.

Journey by Pomidor group. Image courtesy of Pomidor group.

Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers?

Polina and Maria: It's difficult for us to wish for anything other than for this war to end. There won't be any statement here; this isn't about art. What we're doing now goes beyond the confines of art; we're simply doing what we can and know how to do.  

Know more about Pomidor Residence here.

Cover image:

Speech(less) by Pomidor group. Image courtesy of Pomidor group.

Pomidor group was founded in Moscow in 2018 by artists Polina and Maria. The group is focused on the creation of socially engaged projects devoted to themes of fellowship, community building and emigration. In late 2022, relocated to the UK.

We view our own work as creating situations, experiences, and spaces for the development of critical analysis and solidification of communities. Besides that, our group focuses on social and political topics.

Before the war, we explored how the state was becoming increasingly repressive, extending its control over various aspects of citizens' lives that would normally be kept outside of its grasp. Currently, in our work, we are focusing on the war in Ukraine, as well as other military conflicts, the behaviour of aggressor countries and its consequences, and the issues of imperialism and colonialism.

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