1. À la recherche
The motor force of the work of Nikolay Karabinovych turns on the fulcrum of historical research, or, more precisely, on a series of inquiries into the production and reception of histories—so that what they pivot around is also part of a shiting system of meaning and value. The histories in question are set among a wide array of personal, genealogical, geographical and cultural horizons that converge on what the artist has termed the construction and circulation of “fluid identties” in Eastern Europe ater the demise of its socialist regimes beginning in the mid-1980s. In some works, such as The Voice of The Thin Silence (2018), the quotients of history and autobiography furnish points of departure and gestures of materialization that are directly orchestrated by the historical record.
In this case, Karabinovych and his father made a journey to the village of Shelek (or Chilik) in Kazakstan where his grandfather had been exiled with those iden<fied as ethnic Greeks—along with other displaced minori<es, including Chechens and Volga Germans—a>er WWII. Predicated on Josef Stalin’s abundant and accelera<ng paranoia, the deporta<ons were a mode of state-decreed ethnic cleansing that had begun in the 1930s with the forced reloca<on of some three million kulaks, peasants and minori<es and con<nued apace during and a>er the war when another three and a half million ethnic minori<es were forcibly uprooted and moved on to mostly remote loca<ons in Siberia and Central Asia before Stalin died in 1953. A]ri<on rates were appalling, with as many as 43% of exiles dying en route or in their inhospitable new environments by disease or starva<on.
Ranged along the Black Sea coast and hinterland of present day Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus, the Pon<c Greeks, like the Crimean Tatars and other non-Slavic minori<es (Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhe<an Turks and even a small popula<on of Crimean Italians) were condemned en masse as sympathizes of the Axis powers and systema<cally purged from a region where they had lived for centuries—and in the case of the Greeks for some two millennia. One of the largest deporta<ons occurred from May to June 1944 when some 200,000 Crimean Tatars along with 37,000 Armenians, Bulgarians and Greeks—the la]er numbering around 15,000—were dispatched to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (though Karabinovych’s grandfather was deported half a decade later in 1949, a]es<ng to ongoing waves of cleansing).1
The Soviet displacements were part of the larger wave of reflex xenophobia that defined the first half of the twen<eth century, from the pogroms in Eastern Europe between the 1880s and early 1900s and the Armenian genocide (1915-16) through to the ul<mate atrocity of the Holocaust; but also including the “repatria<ons” of Soviet ci<zens sanc<oned by the Allied Powers a>er WWII, and the war <me internment of Japanese Americans and the McCarthy “trials” of the early 1950s in the US.
Two genera<ons removed from the events of the 1940s, and having lived with almost none of their direct consequences, the ques<on Karabinovych resolved to face was of how to mark or otherwise intervene in the history and experience of his grandfather’s exile. What could be flagged or put into ques<on in this regard; and on what terms and with what possible consequences and effects?
If The Voice of The Thin Silence engages—at least at first—with history as a dark, foreboding and fateful sentence of exile, Karabinovych’s other work unfolds a series of collisions with different—and parallel—
effects of historical reckoning. In Ukrainians: The People Who Couldn’t Go Home, for example, the ar<st makes recourse to a transhistorical nego<a<on between a popular cultural event and a construct of iden<ty funded by a pair of moments—both animated by what we could term export culture—that were brought together by chance in (the recording of) a 1981 concert by the Manchester new wave band New Order (formed by vocalist and guitarist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris in 1980, and joined by Gillian Gilbert on keyboards later that year) at the Ukrainian Na<onal Home, a speakeasy on Second Avenue in Manha]an’s Lower East Side. Around the year that the ar<st’s great-grandfather was deported to Kazakhstan—roughly the same distance east of Manchester that New York is to the West—the émigré community of Li]le Ukraine reached a peak popula<on of some 60,000.
Prompted by a seemingly random outcropping of fortuitous symmetry, the premise of Ukrainians: The People Who Couldn’t Go Home (2018) is built on a gesture of transhistorical overlay already present in the ar<st’s found material. For the VHS tape of New Order’s East Village gig, shot by xx, is launched by establishing shots of a portrait of the Ukrainian na<onal poet Taras Schevchenko hanging above the venue’s stage, a>er which the recording was then <tled.2 This gesture of situa<onal improvisa<on cross- hatches a live performance of emblema<cally laconic Mancunian post-punk with the figure of the Ukrainian laureate—also an ethnographer, painter and illustrator—who was born a serf in 1814, revivified the “Li]le-Russian” language (as Ukrainian was pejora<vely described in the 19th century), and was, like Karabinovych’s great-grandfather a century later, involuntarily dispatched to Kazakhstan.3
2. Axis [“it’s amazing how rubbery you can be when you’re not expec>ng something”]4
The People Who Couldn’t Go Home amplifies the dissonant conjuga<on of these events by subjec<ng them to further rounds of apparently decontextualized insinua<on. The structure of the work thus eventuates by way of an axial rota<on or selec<ve augmenta<on of the historical record that crystalizes another order of rela<onality—governed by neither fate nor decree, on the one hand, nor the jumps and lacunae of transhistorical juxtaposi<on, on the other. Instead, Karabinovych twists and supplements the coincident events that funded his points of departure by means of various principles of recas<ng and restaging. The axis does double service here, standing for both the route between these con<ngencies and the (some<mes rubbery) turns they necessitate and provoke.
For The People Who Couldn’t Go Home, the ar<st commissioned a “cover” of New Order’s “Chosen Time” by eleven members of the Manchester-based Orlyk folk dance ensemble along with two accordionists. The idea of “covering” supplies much of the rota<onal energy of this work: for in addi<on to another group standing in for the “original”—but u<lizing different musical and dance idioms— Karabinovych re-mobilizes the first track on the VHS tape (which broke out a>er the Schevchenko zoom) and thus uncovers and reaffirms the founding cultural elision between transatlan<c post-punk and Ukraine. Further, the grounds of the covering are rooted in a construct of <me pointed to in the <tle of the New Order track. Founded only a year before their East Village gig, following the suicide in 1980 of Joy Division epigone Ian Cur<s, the lyrics of New Order’s first LP, Movement, were haunted by this loss and the ques<ons it provoked. “Chosen Time” seems to allude to these circumstances by nego<a<ng ambiguously between the temporal frameworks of choice and des<ny—which correlate, more or less, with the coordinates we have already marked: the free calibra<ons of the transhistorical, and the tragic eventua<ons of fate. The covering at stake in The People Who Couldn’t Go Home thus posits the overlay of these two reckonings with <me; but refuses the polariza<on between them by opening up other rounds of reference.
In another reprise of the situa<onal logic underwri<ng the Ukrainian Na<onal Home concert and tape Karabinovych appropriated his <tle from a 1978 BBC documentary, Ukrainians: People Who Couldn’t Go Home, a borrowing that simultaneously underscores the associa<on of Ukrainian na<onal iden<ty with emigra<on and migra<on and folds in a humorous allusion to the nocturnal nomadism of the post punk and associated club scenes the US and UK in the early 1980s. In addi<on, a number of satellite pieces comment, some<mes mischievously, on the framing devices of the project itself. Notable is a piece that interposes a copy of the New Order VHS tape between volumes three and four of a five-book set of the wri<ngs of Shevchenko—thus transforming the books into bookends and the tape (now an axis passing through) into a bookmark set in their midst.
For The Voice of The Thin Silence, Karabinovych brought fate into contact with con<ngency by mobilizing another musical commission—this <me from the Berlin-based musician, DJ and producer, Yuriy Gurzhy.5 The ar<st asked for a work in dialogue with the plain<ve, rhythmically innova<ve rebeAko style, an early- and mid-20th century fusion of Greek and Anatolian musical tradi<ons. Rebe<ko emerged as part of the gangster and drug den underworlds of Smyrna, Athens and Piraeus, was associated early on with urban poverty, protest and disenfranchisement and deeply marked by the genocide of Pon<c and Anatolian Greeks in the 1920s and 1930s o>en referred to as the Asia Minor Catastrophe.6 Collabora<ng with some of the Greek inhabitants of Chilik, Karabinovych set up a makeshi> pole in the outskirts of town, topped by a loudspeaker wired to broadcast Gurzhy’s tribute composi<on into the enveloping steppe beyond the city limits.
Bracketed by almost fu<le sonic dissemina<on from a lone high speaker seemingly abstracted from a concentra<on camp perimeter, the ar<st offered the project a poe<c-cum-theological subtext by way of a <tle borrowed from the first Book of Kings in the Old Testament. Here the prophet Elijah is party to a divine exchange on Mount Sinai in the form of what is referred to as a “gentle breeze” or “the s<ll, thin voice of silence.” As the Russian curator and cri<c Viktor Misiano notes, the communica<ve diminuendo (gentle, s<ll, thin ... silent) pointed to in the biblical text is prefaced by a series of violent erup<ons of natural forces (wind, earthquake and fire) which order the experience of prophe<c inspira<on by way of a paradoxical couplet: as earth-rending power is combined with the bea<tude of an unfathomable immediacy engendered by (almost) soundless communion.
As my own grandfather, W. E. Booth Taylor, noted in his study, The PropheAc Word, completed in 1945 a few years before Karabinovych’s great-grandfather was sent onto exile, however one understand the rule of God over history and the larger “Providence that overrules,” these superscrip<ons must always be set against “the deadly peril of [the] na<onal and religious exclusivism”7 that ravaged Europe in the mid-20th century. Yet, the ma]er is not so simple. First, Yahweh’s divine ordina<on is not manifest in the drama<c or sublime reorderings of nature with which Elijah is at first confronted—and in which the scripture insists God was not present (though may have delivered)—but is, instead, camouflaged in that almost impercep<ble “s<ll . . . voice” (some<mes translated as “a delicate, whispering voice”). This voice, secondly, delivers a number of mandates to the prophet about royal and religious succession; proscrip<ons, followed by Elijah, that give rise to a purge from Syria and Israel of all who do not conform to the monotheis<c diktat handed-down by renouncing the worship of Baal. The two anointed kings and Elijah’s successor thus act as territorial and providen<al guarantors of the cleansing from the region of all worship not in conformity with Jewish monotheism.
While Karabinovych’s Chilik project refers most immediately to the disaggrega<on of fu<lity associated with a sound that peters out into the adjacent vastness—a message that is lost, physically, in its own faint resonance, but endures in the form of manifest des<ny—there is a more powerful message caught
up in the paradox of prophecy itself. For any a]empt to legislate the future, especially one for<fied by divine impera<ve, is predicated on the subjuga<on of those who are deemed to stand outside the purview of what will be delivered. In this light, any mode of prophesy u]ered on behalf of a religious, ethnic or na<onal forma<on, is itself complicit with the cleansing—or annihila<on—of whatever or whoever stands in its way. This uncomfortable paradox is one of the several means by which Karabinovych comes to terms with the paradoxical imprint of history and the contradic<ons everywhere apparent in the drive not just to improve or perfect it, but also to remember . . . and revise.
1 K. Korostelina, Social IdenAty and Conflict: Structures, Dynamics, and ImplicaAons (New York: Springer, 2007), p. 9.
2 In 2001 the tape was remastered and rereleased on DVD as New Order 3 16 by Warner Music Vision and London Records, combining the 9 tracks of the November 18, 1981 concert at the Ukrainian Na<onal Home (Taras Shevchenko) with the 11 tracks of New Order’s performance at the Reading Fes<val, August 30, 1998.
3 While in exile in the Russian military garrison in Orenburg, near the Ural Mountains, Shevchenko was seconded on the “Konstan<n” as part of the first Russian naval expedi<on to the Aral Sea in 1848.
4 Peter Hook, last sentence of the entry under 19 November 1981 “New Order play the Ukrainian Na<onal Home, New York” in The Hacienda: How Not to Run a Club (London: It Books, 2014), p. 287.
5 Founder of the band Emigrantski Raggamuffin Kollek<v RotFront (a world music fusion of reggae, ska, dancehall, klezmer, and hip hop) in 2003, Yuriy Gurzhy complied Borsh Division: Future Sound Of Ukraine, released by Trikont in 2016.
6 See, Jim Sclavunos (drummer with Nick Cave's the Bad Seeds), “So good, they made it illegal,” The Guardian, Sunday April 18, 2004 [h]ps://www.theguardian.com/culture/2004/apr/19/guesteditors3]; and Gail Holst-Warha>, Road to RembeAka: Music of a Greek sub-culture, songs of love, sorrow and hashish (Denise Harvey: Limni, Greece, 1975).
7 W. E. Booth Taylor, foreword, The PropheAc Word (London: Carey Press, nd [c. 1946]), p. 7.