Conversation with Varvara Guljajeva

Posted by Steve Maher on 24 Apr 13:04


Arlene Tucker (AT): Hi Varvara!  Hope you are having a really good week.  Have you been in Tallinn? Just when I thought spring was really starting to be a reality the weather jumps down to -5 degrees...again.  How has the weather had an impact on your energy or creative inspiration?

Varvara (V): Weather does not really affect me, I am used to it. And actually it is much better to work in the studio when outside is a crap weather rather than sunny one. For instance, in the summer we search more for fun outdoor projects rather than nerding indoors. Well, in the end it turns out that, yes, weather does affects my work flow, but I always try to enjoy all the faces of it.

Photo 1: Public intervention with knitted Kombi in Belo Horizonte Brazil, 2012 in the frames of Marginalia Lab artist residency.

AT: I like this term nerding. That’s new for me. I think I know what it means even though I probably can’t articulate it. What are some nerdy things you have been doing? Can nerding around inside be taken outdoors? What would that look like?

V: Nerdy things are all slow bodily passive, but mind-active processes for me. All our artworks require lots of research, testing and trying things out. One thing is what we imagine in our heads, but then hits the reality when we start to realise a project: writing code, making electronic circuits, producing structures and aesthetical parts. Furthermore, everything has to fit together, move, and respond. So, totally perfect activity for wet-cold-windy weather.

In addition to that, all kind of applications, reports, and other administrative tasks need to be done, too and take a hell a lot of time. I don’t name them nerdy tasks, though. For me they are boring need-to-be-done jobs.

Definitely some development of art projects can be done outdoors and sometimes i do that. However, for the summer period I prefer to do projects that are meant for natural or urban environment and require active building processes. Also it is nice to have a break and do normal stuff, like gardening, grilling and cooking, building, going to sauna and reading a book in the garden or on the beach. We try to spend summers in our summer house, which is in the woods and keeps us busy with typical countryside and houseowner reparation tasks.


Photo: A good example of nerding. Katusepoisid in process at the studio of Varvara & Mar, 2016

AT: Where in the countryside is your summer house?  Have you been going to this summer house since childhood?  What’s an image or memory that comes into your mind when you think of your summer house?  Do you ever go there in the winter?

V: Our summer house is 80km from Tallinn and this is a very recent activity. My parents never had a summer house, just one never-finished house, which was an annoying daily task for me to go there. When I was a child, I absolutely did not enjoy gardening. At the same time, I loved being in my grandparents summer house and my parents friends’ farm. I guess because I had total freedom to be out of four walls of apartment in the city and could explore things. For example, in the farm I liked the most to search for chicken eggs, check what animals were doing, swim, ride a bike, and pick mushrooms (but not berries).

Now when I think on our summer house and have to pick just one picture, I see green garden, sunny day, and me on my summer bed reading a book.

We do go there in winter but don’t stay over a night because there is no sauna and house is not isolated properly yet. Hopefully, this summer or next we fix this issues and we can also enjoy winters there, because it is stunningly beautiful when all is white and nights absolutely dark.

Photo 2: Equipping birds homes with sensors for the Budgie Waltz art installation at Verbene Foundation in Belgium, 2012

AT: Funny how you liked picking mushrooms, but not berries.  It reminds me of years ago when I really needed to find a summer job and started researching if I could be a berry picker.  I looked at the rules and regulations and knew I couldn't do it! Too much pressure, too meticulous! I think I like mushroom picking just as much as berry picking.  I always think of all those people that died or got sick on our behalf. Now we know which ones to eat. Oh.

Have you heard of Kokology?  You made a comment that this felt like psychoanalysis.  Mmm in a good way or bad way? No! I’m not psychoanalysing you, but then… how is that different from getting to know somebody?

Would you like to play one of these and see what answers we get?

V: I played “Caught in the rain” and got this:

"I'd find an awning or tree to stand under and wait for the rain to stop"

You're the type who waits for the other side in a fight to cool off before trying to settle your differences. You prefer to let them rant and rave until they run out of steam. Some would say this is the intelligent approach, others would say it's just sneaky.

I haven’t heard of Kokology, but it reminds me a bit personality and best-profession-for-you tests that i used to do when I was teenager. The answer has a bit of randomness in it as usual.

It made me think about psychoanalysis in a good way. Actually, even I have discovered something new about myself. So, it is definitely good and interesting way to get to know another person or at least get some understanding of him/her. Usually interviews start with the question like is your following one.

PS. mushroom picking is a way different from berry picking: you move faster and your basket gets easier full. I don’t like sitting in one place and picking berries one by one. Half of them I eat, and thus, busket gets never full.

AT: And then it made me think of the topic of the festival.  How do you understand the concept of the 5th wall?

V: Me and Mar has been working with 5th wall since the beginning of our practice, actually: it is invisible wall of networks’, which shapes more-and-more our lives.

AT: Can you speak more about these invisible walls?  What are they? How does their invisibility become visible?

V: This is what we explore in our practice and what keeps us fascinating and motivating. For example, in our art piece The Rhythm of City tick 10 metronomes each in the rhythm of certain city, which is composed by digital inhabitants in real-time. Suddenly, the installation becomes an abstract interface offering a bird’s view on the whole communication in these cities. In my PhD dissertation I call it post-participation when we lose control over participation and our everyday life becomes part of an artwork.

Since the data and networks have often no physical manifestation, we don’t notice or prefer not to think about them. We realise the vitality of it if there is no connection and something really bad happens. But the reality is that our society is highly controlled, predictable, explotated, and vulnerable.

Photo 3: “The Rhythm of Heart” by Varvara & Mar, 2017

AT: So making the invisible appear in different ways?  Are you measuring anything or just revealing?

V: We don’t measure anything. We reveal and present in unexpected manner and make extraordinary connections.

AT: Back to your earlier comment, nice to hear that you think psychoanalysis can be a good thing!  I agree. Making these interviews in an unconventional way has been really good practise on how to read people and feel them from a different approach.  Sidenote: is this really that unconventional? (V: For me it is unconventional, because as I have wrote before, 90% or even more interviews are about my work and not about me. The most they ask is how we met with Mar and started to work together. It is fine, just it gets a bit boring in a long run because i am answering the same thing. I guess for the reader it is not good.)  For example, I couldn’t tell if your silence was out of frustration or boredom or just that you are loaded with work and will get to this when you have time. It could’ve been a bit of everything or none at all and that’s ok. You have agency in this conversation too.

Now it’s my turn.  I’ll play the same game.

How did you respond to the sudden downpour? The rainstorm represents unforeseeable and uncontrollable forces in life. Specifically, your answer shows how you tend to react when a fight breaks out between you and a loved one or friend.

"I don't know how long it's going to keep raining, so I'd run to where I'm going as fast as I could"

You don't care about the end result of a fight so much as getting to speak your mind. You're sure you're right. The concept of give-and-take doesn't figure into your tactics. If they get angry you get angrier.

Whoa.  I wasn’t expecting that analysis!

Varvara, from what you know of me, do you think that answer fits me?  Which answer do you think I would have chosen?

V: It’s a bit risky business to start describing you as a person just by one kokology game :).

First of all, I think this question captures just your current state of mind (tomorrow you might choose a different answer).

But if I have to play the analytic game, then I would say currently you are in a hurry (you have a lot to do, perhaps you are, like I use to say, ping-ponging (it stands for multitasking)), you are eager and still have energy to take a risk (experimenting goes under this too).

Is anything true about this? I tried to be as general as future tellers are :)

Photo 5:  Budgies and their smart homes. “Budgie Waltz” by Varvara & Mar at Verbene Foundation in Belgium, 2012

AT: Wow!  You have a new profession calling for you!  I appreciate that you acknowledged the moment and how we have the freedom to change our minds in a flash.

I do have a lot going on and that’s probably why I just want to get there.  I thought about this question a lot before I answered and looked at the other options.  I figured that I don’t mind getting wet. I know my hair is going to dry and look the same as it always does.  I don’t wear makeup so my face won’t look like the paint is smearing (maybe my eyelashes). I most probably would be wearing my everyday jacket which is oil skinned so I’m all set for the rain.  And it was only 5 minutes away, which is pretty manageable! During the rainy seasons or when I travel, I try to carry an umbrella with me, but I’ve noticed I rarely use it because it’s more annoying to walk with an umbrella than get a tad wet.  I wonder what that answer that would come out to. Gonna find out!

"I always have a foldable umbrella in my bag when I go out, so I'd just use that."

You think you have an answer for every accusation, a justification for every fault. To you, an argument may be just a chance to hone your skills at debate, but to others you seem slippery, frustrating and insincere. But of course you probably have a good explanation for that, too.

Ouch!  What an analysis!

I am getting the sense that both of us are pingpongers.  Where do you get all your energy, your inspiration and motivation to do all the things that you do and to make the art that you make?

V: Honestly, I don’t like pingponging at all. I try hard to avoid multitasking. Since I need to do tons of things at once, I really often discover myself doing everything and nothing at the same time. I am starting one thing, then jumping to the other, and third… never really finishing anything, which makes me nervous. I don’t see productivity, you know :)

So, I try to focus on one task, then move to another. For me TO DO lists function very well, because in the end of the day I can prove to myself that I did something.

I guess I like to get things done and this is also one of my drives: if i go for something, then I want to make it well and also finish what I have started.

Other motivation is unknown, unpredictability and also risk in some extent. Every new project requires lots of learning and testing. On the other hand, there are deadlines, which set limits and pressure. In the end, it feels good or even empowering when from a thought comes out a real thing.

I believe that energy creates energy: whatever I do today, it might be useful in the future. It might be a spark for a new artwork, workshop, or collaboration. And of course, now is easier to operate rather than 5 years ago: I have more experience, more materials, contacts, etc.

Coming back to pingponging, I think it is a consequence of hyper-connective and hyper-distractive post-digital world from one side, and on the other side, is precarious art field with the super lowest wages if any.

Photo 4: ARS Maker Tuesday at our studio in Tallinn, 2017

AT: I really like what you said “whatever I do today, it might be useful in the future.”  Nothing is lost. Everything is in a process. I feel the same way. You just never know how it will realize itself in the future.  Or maybe these percolating ideas just take a lot of time to take shape.

Oh my, we live in a very stimulating society.  Helsinki, with all its greys and browns and tan colored buildings, there are so many screens and transportation buzzing all around.  I think Tallinn and Helsinki are similar in the sense that the city center can be frantic, but then just a couple of kilometers away there are parks and wooden houses.  That’s one thing I really appreciate about this part of the world.

What would be one thing you would take away with you if you were to travel to Mars tomorrow? And never return to Earth.

V: My daughter.

AT: That says so much in just two words.  Thank you Varvara for taking the time to figure things out with me.  I look forward to seeing your art piece at Pixelache in May.

For more information about Varvara and Mar’s project, please click here.