Getting away from it all: 5 reasons why small Northern towns inspire artists and creatives

Getting away from it all: 5 reasons why small Northern towns inspire artists and creatives

For years, small towns in Russia have been synonymous with economic stagnation and dwindling populations. But now, digital mobility is making them attractive places for creatives to escape to. The Calvert Journal spoke to the organisers of Uncapitals, a three-day retreat in northern Russia

8 January 2017

Russia is a country of anonymous small towns. In the vast territory of over 6.5 million square miles, a dozen large cities have been gravitational points for several generations, while what lies in between largely remains terra incognita, land you pass by on a train. Large cities with opportunities and culture to offer remain the first choice for the young generation. But as we’re growing more and more connected thanks to digital technology, the new generation is seeking to investigate if there’s more to small towns than economic crisis and isolation. Zhanna Guzenko and Oleg Khadartsev from the Murmansk-based creative agency FridayMilk came up with Uncapitals, a project calling the capital-driven dynamic into question.

Uncapitals takes place once a year in a remote northern town: in 2015 it was Apatity in the Murmansk region, in 2016 it was Olonets in Karelia. It works like a short-term residency: creatives and experts in the field of art, music and digital media from across the Barents region are gathered together to make new work while engaging with their surroundings. In practice this means you might end up in the middle of a forest miles away from anything familiar — which is a truly liberating experience.

Another integral part of Uncapitals is its northern identity: it unites participants from Denmark, Finland, the Faroe and Åland Islands, Greenland, Iceland, northwest Russia, Norway and Sweden. If capital-driven dynamics are a long-standing issue inside Russia, the residents of other northern territories face the additional challenge of harsh living conditions. Exploring their shared northern identity together creates the possibility of forging links between seemingly unrelated countries; a way of facing these challenges together.

Zhanna Guzenko and Oleg Khadartsev talked to The Calvert Journal about their reasons for loving the peripheries.

Stepping out of your comfort zone

“We live in an uncomfortable area, essentially in the Arctic, and we’re always trying to find new reasons and possibilities for staying here and developing the creative scene. When you live in the north of Russia, in Sweden or in Norway, a certain number of your friends and colleagues would go to the south, move to Moscow or Stockholm, and you look at this and start wondering, am I a loser or this is a normal way of life? Uncapitals was created to inspire young artists to stay in the north, cover this area and take inspiration from these landscapes. This is also a decentralisation project: of course there is always something interesting, beautiful and amazing being organised in the capitals, but we love the peripheries because it’s going out of your comfort zone.” (Oleg Khadartsev)

Small towns as a vehicle for creativity

“Small towns can be an inspiration for artists — in today’s hectic world it’s quite difficult to find time and concentration in a busy city environment. Immersing yourself in the local atmosphere can give you a new perspective on things. At the same time you can also be an inspiration for local people. For example, in Olonets in Karelia the music workshop took place at children’s music school, and children kept coming up to the participants, trying to speak English and find out about what all these people are doing.” (Zhanna Guzenko)

Seeing familiar places with new eyes

“Small towns have huge potential for inspiration, particularly for Russian artists as very often they can’t see the amazing things which surround them — they just wait for something amazing to come and sweep them off their feet. Often they need foreign artists to tell them, “You guys have amazing streets, amazing people, beautiful nature — maybe you should look in this direction. Often we look towards the capitals or the west but we should look more inwards.” (Oleg Khadartsev)

Embracing the northern way of life

We live in the Russian North and sometimes people from the neighbouring countries — Norway and Sweden — are closer to us than people from the south or east of our own country. We share a lot of common ground, common conditions, a common mindset. Uncapitals is a project about horizontal links — we always try to find more common things that we share with our neighbours.” (Oleg Khadartsev)

Getting in touch with your roots

“A small town, and particularly Olonets in Karelia where the latest Uncapitals took place, has a soul and you can feel it everywhere; it feels like a kind of family, big, open and friendly. I think creative industries and creativity in Russia are on the rise. There are more artists and they’re trying to find their own way of doing things. They find inspiration within Russia, reflect more on their nationality and identity — small towns are very useful for this as roots are found much more easily here.” (Zhanna Gurenko)

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