Nnestled in a peaceful green valley, hidden under a glowing canopy of deciduous forests, the morning sun shines over Kiev’s old river port. Beams of light stream into the courtyard of a bright red Soviet-era ribbon factory that is being artfully repurposed during wartime.
For more than a decade, the 19th-century factory buildings at 31 Nyzhnoiurkivska in the Podil district have been Kiev’s go-to place for weekend parties and youth subcultures, welcomed by the local nightclubs Closer, Mezzanine and Otel’. It all came crashing down when Russia invaded Ukraine and most of the people who worked and socialized here left for a safe place to hide, join the military or volunteer to help with the war effort. But today marks a new dawn for the ribbon factory, with On Time, the country’s first large-scale alternative music and arts event since the invasion five months ago.
Looking at an art installation by Kiev artist Igor GoRa, On Time curator Andrii Siguntsov says he brings together those “who use art as a weapon to expose war for what it is and as a kind of therapy for people who get caught up in the war.
“These events and artists are here for the same purpose: to use art and music as a force against the misinformation and violence that is wreaking havoc on our lives, our country and our cultures, and in the process of raising money for our military, both our volunteer groups and our artists whose lives have been hit just as hard by the war as anyone else.”
Nightclubs Closer, Mezzanine and Otel’ all participate by sharing their spaces and pooling resources – together they founded The Ribbon Factory NGO, which will manage the area and a biweekly arts event. According to Otel’s co-founder Pablo Derhachov, the pre-war nightlife and music of the time is not the right tone for the new reality. “If we’ve won the war, maybe we’ll be able to have techno parties again. But the techno scene before that became very commercial and revolved around big names and powerful promoters. Right now we need experimental music and art that is connected to our society and that has a social conscience, so it’s all about building a closer community. War brought us closer and this festival builds on that unity.”
Live on stage in Otel’ we see metalcore band State 62, named after the zip code of their much-missed hometown and hometown of Donetsk, which they left in 2014 when Russian proxies first seized it. “All our music is about the war and the lies that made the theft of our country, the murders, the genocide possible,” says singer Denis when we meet after the concert. “We write about the importance of truth and knowledge, because if we don’t understand the war they have waged in people’s minds, then we are brain dead in society, and we end up dying on the battlefield too.”
In another corner of the ribbon factory is a vaulted brick tunnel where nightclub-goers once came to chill or smoke. Today it’s a gallery and art studio coiled in a cylinder, where 26-year-old artist Nastya Trofimova – with Thugs Rugs Taya and Hlib co-founders – is one of several artists selling unique crafts with a spicy war theme. “We make custom rugs with designs featuring funny, strange, but often powerful symbols of our youth and our society; many came from collaborations with various local artists,” says Trofimova, or Nancy Broccoli as she calls herself on Etsy.
“It’s been so hard for everyone. Losing people we love and also watching helplessly as our business evaporates. At the end of February we thought it was all over – because who needs carpets when people lose their homes and leave the country We take every day like it’s our last day and try not to worry too much but we were lucky enough to find some great new clients abroad mainly from US, Canada and Europe It’s not like that anymore much as before, but we are very grateful for this.”
With the tuft gun in her hands, Trofimova sews bright yellow thread onto a heart-shaped design and offers to try. “Take it, and shoot to love, because with this workshop we want visitors to understand not only how to use the gun, but especially what is behind our work.”
For illustrator and architect Natalia Shulga, who shows her work alongside several other artists at the Closer club gallery, the turmoil and reappearance of the art community reflects her own experience of living under invasion. She moved to Lviv with a good friend who has children. “Life is turned upside down. Some of my best friends are in the military, so I worry about them every day. Some sort of normalcy has returned in a way, but always at the forefront is the concern for those people who are fighting for our survival.
“To survive I have to be creative, so after a while I started working again. For the first few weeks of the war I couldn’t even listen to music, but in the end I thought, okay, how about one song,” Shulga says with a smile. “Even under war we have to live, and that means we appreciate others, nature and art and also music that can comfort us and open doors for us, so really without these things we can hardly live.” She says her art practice was not just work, but “a kind of self-therapy, but when the viewer sees my work on Bucha and Mariupol, I don’t want them to think of me, but of all the people, for example, who died when it became maternity hospital.” It’s literally about that horror and all the pain and fear that came with it.”
Sadness, fear, anxiety, depression. That’s what clinical psychologist and photographer Alla Datsiuk was doing a month after the war broke out. I meet her in one of the many corridors connecting different parts of the ribbon factory; Originally from the currently occupied southern city of Kherson, Datsiuk moved to Kiev, where she studied psychology at Vernadsky University. After the war started, she said she was quick to think about new approaches to her work and the climate of war.
“I decided to combine my two passions – photography and psychology. And began conducting therapeutic photo shoots, which help people feel in touch with their bodies; to get support and compassion.” Datsiuk has been helping traumatized patients ever since. “Vulnerable, sweet, sensitive people of all genders come to me for these sessions and it can get quite intense, with tears of pain and fear, but also some determination and acceptance at the end. Above all, I hope they leave with compassion and love for themselves and others.”
In the gardens on Closer’s dance terrace are beaming faces and smiles of people who, after a long and forced separation, seem determined to hug and kiss each other. One of them introduces himself as 25-year-old Tetiana, a physiotherapist, originally from Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East. “It’s wonderful to be back here after such a difficult long period,” she says, decorating the trees with baubles and colorful foil. “I lost six people who were very close to me, I couldn’t speak for a week and I almost went mad with grief, but this place of art and music and the community of people here fills me with so much love again.”
According to Tetiana, many Russians seem to live under the spell of propaganda. “I don’t talk to many members of my family and old friends, with whom you can’t reason: they say it was Ukraine that attacked Russia first, it just doesn’t make sense.”
As the sun begins to set and curfew approaches, we move under the lush gardens next to one of the outdoor bars, where someone speaks softly into my ear behind my back. “Death comes in many forms,” says the festival-goer, who introduces himself as Lucifer. “To be dead while still alive is the worst death – those are the people who support Putin. My mother lives under occupied Enerhodar, my friends have been murdered, including a dear friend whose entire family was shot.” His voice becomes contemptuous. “You know what, people always looked at me and were afraid or said I was bad, but I would never kill peaceful people and steal their lives. And now the same people suddenly think I’m an angel.”
He shuffles a pack of tarot cards and offers a sip of whiskey. “Despite all this darkness – in fact because of it – love will emerge brighter than before and unlike these zombies who invaded our land, we will live forever.”