Lithuanian artist Gediminas Žygus works with sound, film, and performance. In recent years, they’ve been recording and performing together with Australia-based artist and writer Holly Childs, exploring 21st-century myths around bitcoin, 9/11 and its aftermath, as well as ecologic disasters like the Australian bushfires or the high tides in Venice. Russia’s invasion into Ukraine has also left traces in the duo’s work. They’ve premiered a new video work, which is based on a poem written by Childs when visiting Odesa in the summer of 2018, at this year’s Rewire Festival. We asked Žygus if they could provide us with a playlist of music and sound from so-called “post-Soviet” regions of the world. Much like the multi-part essay Ukrainian curator Kateryna Botanova wrote for us, the following list, which is dedicated to people whose artistic practice does not accord to the established and clichéd categories of a European imagination that ultimately perpetuates colonialist tropes, problematizes the idea of the “post-Soviet.”
Being “post-Soviet” or Eastern European, for me, is an identification I never wanted, something soaked in shame. “Post-Soviet” humanity, as Asia Bazdyrieva wrote, is only a resource for a range of services whose use is negotiated between the West and the Russian Empire. To be Eastern European means being in a Sisyphean struggle of catching up with the West – a struggle that will never be concluded as the promise of being accepted is nothing but an exploitative ideology in itself based on a flaky pledge to protect the ex-colonies against the endless threat of Russian state violence.
It means being dehumanized and made to embody the worst fears the West has about its barbaric tendencies. It means being subjected to a patronizing Western reading of the history of the region that effectively places cultural production in predetermined categories. I could never understand why Western people always wanted to associate my work with the (post-)apocalyptic. Until it hit me that a significant part of the West’s apocalyptic imaginary is sourced from communities that were subjected to colonial violence. I grew up in a neighborhood that became the set for HBO’s Chernobyl. I am not Ukrainian; I did not grow up in Ukraine; for the West, it doesn’t matter. Lithuania isn’t even a place on the map for most people not from the region – as if it was a temporarily independent state at the Russian empire’s periphery.
This playlist is a loose network of my favorite artists who are based in the region or post-Soviet diaspora, who defy categorization by the cultural hierarchies they are subjected to, and who carve out complex voices of their own.
1. Diana Azzuz – “Recursive Gesture” (Standard Deviation, 2021)
First: Here’s the music video to Recursive Gesture, a track by Syrian-born and Ukraine-based artist Diana Azzuz, from the Anastrophe EP, released on Standard Deviation, a label from Kyiv that focusses on the Ukrainian scene. I discovered her music in January, just before the escalation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and listened to it a lot. The different way I heard this same record post-invasion became an auditory embodiment of how everything has changed.
2. Valentin Silvestrov – “Swamps and Marshes” (Megadisc, 2001)
“Swamps and Marshes” is by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov—from his album Silent Songs. I love his intimate composition style, which renders his delicate compositions difficult to perform in classical musical venues. In some ways, his work feels very proto-bedroom producer – as if he’d been composing on a piano in his apartment, negotiating musical gestures within the thin walls of a socialist housing complex apartment. The escalation of war has made him a refugee, moving from Kyiv to Berlin.
3. Galya Bisengalieva – “Kantubek” (2020)
Aralkum, the concept album by Kazakh-British composer and violinist Galya Bisengalieva, is centered around the shrinking of the Aral Sea, which has been called one of the most significant environmental disasters, just one amongst the endless disasters enacted by Russian imperialism. The Aral Sea used to be one of the biggest lakes in the world but was diminished by Soviet irrigation projects over the 20th century. By 1997 it was just 10% of the size it had been in the 1960s, and by 2009 just a thin strip of water existed where there had formerly been a sea. The music video for the piece “Kantubek” features drone footage from the Aralkum Desert, the landscape that has emerged as the sea has shrunk.
4. Lubomyr Melnyk – “Barcarolle” live in Kyiv (2018)
Barcarolle is a piece by the Ukrainian Lubomyr Melnyk whose family fled the Communist expansion and settled in Canada in the 1950s. Melnyk is a composer-pianist, known for his unique piano technique called continuous music which involves using sustain pedal and extremely rapid notes to create harmonic overtones. Thanks to his ability to sustain playing 19 notes per second with each hand, he set two world records in 1985. The performance featured in this video is from a concert he played in Kyiv in 2018. The piano had a special significance for composers working during the Soviet Union era. Some of them were banned from performing, as their work wasn’t deemed to fit the state-defined criteria of modernist music or socialist realism. Working on a piano at home for some of them became the only context possible for composing and performing works that would only later see the light of day after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
5. Zbigniew Preisner – “Dekalog IV”
Zbigniew Preisner is a Polish composer most known for his intimate collaboration with Polish film director Krzysztof Kieślowski (Three Colors, The Double Life of Veronique). Dekalog IV is taken from the soundtrack for Kieślowski’s film Dekalog. He uses unique effects, synthesizers, and unconventional mixing techniques for classical music, which give his soundtracks a rich, spiritual quality.
6. Aldona Orlowska – “Nie Wiem” (Dunno, 2018)
Polish singer Aldona Orlowska’s song “Nie Wiem” was originally released in 2018 but it feels beautifully stuck in the 20th century. I don’t really know much about her, but I have been obsessed with this track, which I feel encompasses so much of the charm the regional pop music, which is not invested in winning the affection of global but only regional audiences.
7. Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland – “2” (Hyperdub, 2012)
Alina Astrova, an Estonian-Russian artist, also known as Inga Copeland or Lolina, was also part of Hype Williams with Dean Blunt. This track is from her 2012 album with Dean Blunt, called Black is Beautiful. For me, Alina’s work with Dean Blunt was formative as an artist, the economical way of composing and creating fun conceptual musical statements was something that opened my eyes and made experimental music and art highly accessible to me. I remember seeing her with Dean live in 2011 in Riga in a haze filled-room, which felt like an elaborate poetic comedy routine, their whole set performed on two cheap samplers – it was the best thing I’d seen in my life to that point.
8. NAKED – “Blade” (Halcyon Veil, 2020)
NAKED is an experimental noise duo of Agnes Gryczkowska (who is Polish-born) and Alexander Johnston. Blade is from the EP Killed by Roses released on Halcyon Veil in 2020. Agnes and Alexander’s work tends to explore various extremes of form, such as their confrontational performances, transgressive musical output and visual aesthetical expressions. Agnes also curated the HR Giger & Mire Lee exhibition at Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin in 2021 which became a cornerstone of Berlin art tourism last year.
9. felicita & Kero Kero Bonito – “Cluck” (PC Music, 2022)
felicita is a London based, half-Polish producer, and was one of the first people to join the PC Music label. Sitting more on the experimental side of hyper pop, they have collaborated with Caroline Polachek on an interpellation of the Polish lullaby “Był sobie król” as well as collaborating with Sophie, Palmistry, A.G. Cook and TOMM¥ €A$H. In 2018 they presented a performance with the traditional Polish dance ensemble Śląsk. This is their recent collaboration with British indie group Kero Kero Bonito.