Since Emily is traveling to Russia, Finland and England this summer
we did an interview by email rather than a studio visit.
Emily's video Polyteknicheskaya (Don't Love Here) will be included in Summer Sun
at Taylor de Cordoba Gallery opening Saturday, July 14, 6-8pm
Polyteknicheskaya (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?
EN: I 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.
There 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.
HH: Your 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?
EN: The 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.
In 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?
EN: This 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.
I 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).
I 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.
HH: While 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 miraculous outcomes.
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.