Pop-Aganda: Revolution & Iconography is the 4th project in the Sites of Passage (SOP) series. The SOP projects are global interchanges for the migration of ideas across political/cultural borders. This project began in the fall of 2018 with my 2nd trip to Russia and a curatorial residency with CEC Artslink, based in St. Petersburg. Most of U.S. artists traveled to Russia in November 2022. As of the opening and the invasion of the Ukraine, we are still trying to get the Russian artists to the U.S.
Like the name alludes to, Sites of Passage asks each artist to take a rite of passage. Exchanges take place between the Unites States and another country, around a topic of conflict. SOP gives the conversation to the artists, the people, to ruminate on. This is the foundation for all SOP projects. The curatorial themes, which become the title of the final exhibition, are left open enough, so that each artist can interpret it as they see fit. SOP projects are always about gleaning perspectives—both for the artists and the audience.
ART FOR THE MASSES
Propaganda comes from the verb to propagate—to breed or cultivate. However, in the context of the word propaganda, it is about breeding or cultivating an idea to the masses. Cultures, countries, religion, and ideologies have been using forms of propaganda since ancient times to disseminate modes of belief. In an age of disinformation, it is hard to decipher “realities” spread, bred and cultivated in the name of facts. Propaganda images often proliferate into Icons, defining an entire aesthetic movement. Artists play an important instigative role in this process. For example, Agitprop (from agitate and propaganda) from Soviet Russia, was a visual and simple way of communicating ideologies to the masses. It moved from two-dimensional art to performance. Agitprop theater and the aesthetic spread to Europe and the US. Over time, it became a label for politicized art. Pop art, like propaganda, is designed for the masses. However, unlike the moral ideas that are connected to propaganda, pop art is about the cultural context of the object itself. Both can be considered Revolutionary.
This show grew out of an age of disinformation and opens in an age of war. Off-script political expression is not allowed in Russia where dissident culture can barely survive in the margins. As we know well in this country, one can’t judge a people by their leader. This show and this statement are historic acts in a historic moment in support of artistic expression. Art must be seen to be heard.
We honor those brave enough to practice in the margins and trust our visitors to map their own migration of ideas.
-Curator Tavia La Follette, April 2022
I am an artist-observer, I consider myself a generation of “children of perestroika.”
Often the heroes of my works are people who become symbols of time, place, generation, event. I’m interested in “man,” questions of identification and everyday absurdity. Connection of past and present. I do not limit myself to one media, so I use and combine video, painting, installation, drawing and other techniques. Art, for me, is primarily a territory of experiment, transgression. I am for risk, trial and doubt, “untrodden territories” Since I received a classical education based on painting, therefore, painting is present in all media, be it video or lightbox.
I understand inclusion in a broad sense as working together to create conditions for equal opportunities and diversity.
In my utopian project, I propose to critically rethink the possibility of connecting to the experience of the other and empathizing with otherness. To represent the practice of non-normative physicality and overcoming boundaries in bodily and mental experience through the ultimate reflection about the body of the tumor and becoming a body with a tumor. To see the tumor outside of common human ethics and mythology through immersion in the polylogue of neoplasms with each other.
We fear and hate what is close to and, at the same time, far from us—what seems dissimilar compared to us, but upon closer examination, turns out to be consonant, with similar needs, a competitor for resources.
This is a utopian project about the possibility/impossibility of accepting the other, about radical hospitality.
I come from a holy place. I offer an affirmation and invitation to space, to take time to reflect on where we are in our lives, where we’ve come from, and who has poured into our journeys. Over the course of our lifetimes, we receive so many messages that dehumanize and distort the realities of how we truly see ourselves. I believe our divine right to wholeness and sovereignty is more powerful than any other political message that has been wielded to shrink, exploit, or harm us in any way. It is the beauty of Black people and the storytelling of Black women and Black queer, Trans, and gender-expansive people that have changed my life and for that I give thanks. My mother’s womb. My great-grandmother’s house on Todd Street in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago, twenty-character building Pittsburgh winters and 21 glorious springs bring me here. This room is a conjure collage of pieces of this iteration of my journey with many hands, hearts, and voices.
Through visual art, community engagement, curation and advocacy Kelliher-Combs works to create opportunity and feature Indigenous voices and the work of contemporary artists who through their work inform and encourage social action. Her personal mixed-media visual art focuses on the changing north and our relationship to nature and each other.
Traditional women’s work has taught her to appreciate the intimacy of intergenerational knowledge and material histories. These experiences and skills have allowed Kelliher-Combs to examine the connections between Western and Indigenous cultures, and to investigate notions of interwoven identity through her work. Personal and cultural symbolism forms the imagery. These symbols speak to history, culture, family and the life of her people. They also speak about abuse, marginalization and the historical and contemporary struggles of Indigenous peoples. Kelliher-Combs currently lives and works in Anchorage, Alaska.
The project is not an attempt at a manifesto. The economic and political meanings behind the project are constantly shifting to better suit the current context. The terms on which The Artist’s Uniforms are made are always discussed with artists in advance.
Untitled viewed the Mattress Factory show as a long-awaited opportunity to connect with artists from both Russia and the United States.
Due to current circumstances, however, this exchange was frozen. The Artist Uniform project could only happen if all its participants were to gather in one space.
The project has been temporarily suspended, with the artists still in agreement to participate. Untitled believes in the unity of the international artistic community. They hope to someday come to the Mattress Factory and continue working on the project internationally.
On February 24, 2022, when Russia began the war in Ukraine, I realized that I’ve lost the country where I was born and that I don’t have a future there. Since that point I am haunted by the feeling that the past is gone forever, that all the things I’ve done up to this point are no longer valid. Therefore, my project for the Mattress Factory had to change. I was initially planning to make a room where people could re-enact my performances based on a set of instructions. I visited my relatives, filming my trip on my phone.
Since the war started, all of this has lost its meaning. I was considering dropping out of the exhibition, because the only thing that I wished for was a stop to the violence in Ukraine. I just wanted all the shooting and the suffering to stop. It’s horrible that it only takes one month to destroy THAT MANY lives. Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve seen how pain can transform into fear, that fear transforming into panic, that panic morphing into anger, with all these feelings collapsing in a sense of powerlessness.
It hurts to think of the similarities between the war and the relationship with my father, the things I’ve once had to run away from. The sense that nothing can help, that there will be no miracle, that the only way for all this to end is to cut all ties and run away.
Violence always causes further violence. The consequences of this will remain long after the war is over. I’m trying to split my personal experience from current events, but that’s proving to be impossible. I wish that no one should ever experience the of lack of safety and ever-present anxiety that was imposed onto me by my father for 18 years.
I’m more or less OK now. I know how to survive even when someone makes my life unbearable. That’s why it hurts even more, knowing that this hell is organized by so many and imposed upon millions. This system will most likely have inertia. Even if one leaves this abusive relationship, it will take many years and much effort to fully understand what has happened and recover.
I am calmed by the thought that all of this is temporary. Even though I am horrified to think about my father’s death, I imagine that when it comes, I will not be crying in mourning. These will be tears of happiness. Because this death will mean that no one and nothing is forever. Russia will be free.
The performance for my father, Eduard, is, thus, dedicated to death.
I am a child of the Cold War born in the United States to Colombian parents. Growing up I remember the 1980s as a time where there was an acute obsession with the Soviets/Russians. They were dangerous. They were our enemies. We were in competition to dominate the world. Times change, and then they don’t.
I grew up spending many of my summers in Colombia. Those trips were punctuated by a trip to China and a trip to the USSR. My experiences in the Global South and the socialist superpowers influenced the formation of my identity as a particular first-generation US American.
My family mythology includes a story of my mother learning to drive on a GAZ69 and crashing into a tree. The desire to understand the history that led to my mother driving a Soviet car in Colombia in the 1960s inspired GAZ COFFEE.
Sunflowers: A Symbol of Indigenous History, Ukraine and Hope
The main service rifles for the Russian and Ukrainian Armies are the AK-74M and Fort-221, both of which use a modified 5.45mm bullet cartridge. The approximate mass of the brass casing from a “spent” 5.45 cartridge is 8 grams, the same amount of sunflowers seeds we are inviting visitors to take and plant throughout Pittsburgh, and wherever their home community might be.
The story of sunflower (Helianthus Annuus) is indeed amazing. The wild sunflower is native to North America but commercialization of the plant took place in Russia. It was only recently that the sunflower plant returned to North America to become a cultivated crop. But it was the American Indian who first domesticated the plant into a single headed plant with a variety of seed colors including black, white, red, and black/white striped.
By the early 19th century, Russian farmers were growing over 2 million acres of sunflower. During that time, two specific types had been identified: oil-type for oil production and a large variety for direct human consumption. Government research programs were implemented. V. S. Pustovoit developed a very successful breeding program at Krasnodar. Oil contents and yields were increased significantly. Today, the world’s most prestigious sunflower scientific award is known as The Pustovoit Award.
By the late 19th century, Russian sunflower seed found its way into the US. By 1880, seed companies were advertising the ‘Mammoth Russian’ sunflower seed in catalogues. This particular seed name was still being offered in the US in 1970, nearly 100 years later. A likely source of this seed movement to North America may have been Russian immigrants. The first commercial use of the sunflower crop in the US was silage feed for poultry. In 1926, the Missouri Sunflower Growers’ Association participated in what is likely the first processing of sunflower seed into oil.
U.S. acreage escalated in the late 70’s to over 5 million because of strong European demand for sunflower oil. This European demand had been stimulated by Russian exports of sunflower oil in the previous decades. However, the Russians could no longer supply the growing demand, and European companies looked to the fledging U.S. industry.
“What kind of Dendy do you have, Nintendo or Sega?”
In the US, this might seem like a ridiculous question, but for millions of kids and adults in 1990s Russia the “Dendy” name truly defined video games. The Dendy Junior was a counterfeit Nintendo Famicom console (a market broadly called ‘Famiclones’) that was released in December 1992 by Russian technology company Steepler, under direction of industrial technology developer, Victor Savyuk.
Digital games were far from a new idea, but they certainly weren’t mainstream. Even the biggest titles in gaming like “Donkey Kong” and “Pac-Man” were restricted to arcades or incredibly expensive home computers. Then, in 1986, Nintendo released the “Nintendo Entertainment System” (NES) in the UK and US markets, launching Home Gaming from a niche Japanese market into a worldwide phenomenon.
“Of course, everybody likes to play games, but in those times, video games were only on computers,” said Savyuk “They were just for freaks or programming engineers. I immediately understood that this was the future…but it wasn’t in Russia. I understood that this was the future in Russia.”
Trade sanctions against the Soviet government of the time prevented Russian citizens from accessing home gaming technologies, and even systems smuggled into the country from manufacturers in China were often damaged beyond repair, leaving buyers with few options.
Savyuk approached tech company Steepler, a manufacturer of printers and business computers, to make a prototype at home gaming system and went on to launch the firm’s games division; “Dendy Co.” Victor Savyuk was the company’s sole employee. All he had to do was figure out how the NES worked, and replicate it for Russian consumers.
Savyuk had no idea what a games console looked like, let alone what tech they needed under the hood, so he turned to a chip manufacturer in Taiwan, who had access to the specs for, and manufactured, the NES.
“We understood from the start that we were selling counterfeit products, but the first thing you have to understand is that in that time in Russia, intellectual property was not protected,” he explains. “The law didn’t protect IP like games or consoles in Russia. There, our business was absolutely legal. But of course, in America and Europe it was completely illegal. And of course, Taiwanese manufacturer did not care about that… They sent me an example in October 1992. I put in the TV cable, switched it on and realised that this would absolutely explode in the market.”
Released in December 1992, the first Dendy console went on to sell about 15,000 units. Not the explosive success Savyuk imagined, but it served as his proof of concept, and Nintendo was silent as the Dendy sat on store shelves.
Nintendo clearly had no interest in the Russian games market, or navigating the complex NATO sanctions against the Soviet Union. Even if they had, the company would have no legal standing in the country.
“The first thing you have to understand is that we absolutely followed the rules and laws in Russia,” Savyuk explains “So I did not need to make advertising for a ‘counterfeit console;’ … I simply made advertising for ‘Dendy console’. ‘Dendy’ was, of course, made as a counterfeit console of the Famicom, but nobody knew that. For people, it was just a box with a Dendy logo, an elephant and it played TV games. Who could have attacked me? Only Nintendo, but not in Russia!”
In May 1993, Savyuk released an updated machine called “Dendy Junior” which is the model you can find on our Gaming Cart as part of the Mattress Factory exhibition “Pop-Aganda: Revolution & Iconography.”
Featuring a new design, lower price and breakthrough counterfeit anti-piracy hardware, it became a smash hit, playing games from the US, Asian, and European markets, regardless of publisher.
“By August we were selling 70,000 consoles a month. We made our first $1m in a month that August. The business was lifted. Everything before in advertisement and awareness of quality and brand name and logistics started to work.”
Ultimately, Dendy Junior sold between 1.5m and 2m units in Russia, putting it on par with the NES sales in the US Market. They were a staple in households all over Russia, with a solid market share in every demographic, not just kids!
In 1994, Dendy Company was invited to visit Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa and its chairman Robert Lincoln in Japan. There, the two companies signed a deal which not only gave Steepler the distribution rights for SNES in Russia, a major win for the company; Nintendo also forgave Steepler for selling a counterfeit machine and agreed to not pursue IP lawsuits against them in any market, not just Russia. With Dendy, Savyuk has single-handedly opened up the Russian consoles games market to the world.
“We started this business in December 1994 and sold a lot of consoles. My real pride in this story is only that I could build this business,” he says. “We kept around 70 per cent of the market for years.”
Our on-site Dendy Junior features a cloned version of the best-selling cartridge “Kart Fighter,” a pirate developed game released some time in 1993 by either Hummer Team or Ge De Industry Co, depending on which credits are most accurate. Widely regarded as one of the best ‘knock-off’ games of the time, “Kart Fighter” uses manipulated assets from the then brand new “Super Mario Kart” and “Street Fighter II.” See if you can identify the sprites they kept un-modified!
“This is how the Russian games industry was born. It’s how Russian people started to play video games.” ~ Victor Savyuk
In conjunction with the Mattress Factory Museum (MF), previous exchanges have taken place between Egypt and the US (revolving around the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy Movement), Israel, Palestine, and the US (revolving around the ideas of Borders, Walls, and Citizenship) and South Africa and the US (revolving around Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs). In recognition of the 250th anniversary of the birth of this nation, the 5th SOP will take place inside the made-up perimeters of the United States, between indigenous artists.