the gentlewoman

The Reader

You’d be forgiven for thinking that all that comes out of Eastern Europe is digital espionage and hysterical Eurovision songs – judging by social media alone. But Olya Sova and Anya Harrison, from Kazakhstan and Russia respectively, are on a mission to contradict those old stereotypes and tap the rich vein of creativity that is flowing in Eastern Europe. Their London-based collective the New Social provides a serious platform for Eastern European art, film, music, design and literature. It all started over a love of vodka, which Olya and Anya gladly share with The Gentlewoman’s Richard O’Mahony.

Olya Sova and Anya Harrison

Richard: Describe the New Social – how it started, what are its aims?

Anya: It started as a conversation in early 2014, a slightly hung-over conversation, over lunch. I come from a visual art background and Olya comes from film; we were both working at the London office of Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture at the time, and we were talking about what we were reading. We realised we were both fascinated with the artistic subcultures in Russia during the 1980s.

R: Why the ’80s, specifically?

A: Probably because such a big shift was happening politically, and it was reverberating culturally, among artists, filmmakers, designers, musicians, writers – affecting how they were living, working and creating.

R: Can you name some of those artists?

A: People like Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, who remains an incredibly important force in Russia. So with Olya and my backgrounds, it was a natural next step for us to develop those interests into a film programme and symposium. We spoke with the ICA in London and they were really up for the idea, and it just sort of went from there. Six months down the line in November 2014, we had a completely sold-out programme featuring screenings and Q&As with directors such as Barbara Herbich, Andrey Silvestrov and Alexander Shein. That was just the beginning: it gave us a sense that there was an audience for the material.

Olya: Over the years, we’ve shown works by artists and filmmakers from across the New East, such as Yury Bykov, Marta Popivoda, Emir Baigazin, Ralitza Petrova, Maya Vitkova, György Pálfi and Aleksey Fedorchenko, among others. We’ve been working on the New East film programme for Barbican since early 2016.

A: By “New East”, we mean the vast territory of post-Soviet, post-socialist countries and spaces. Focusing on notions of post-socialism, post-communism and new identities. There are many lingering preconceptions and stereotypes that we want to challenge. Obviously, there’s a personal aspect to it: Olya’s from Kazakhstan originally and I’m from Russia. I left in ’93 and Olya left, what, about 15 years ago? So we’re both looking at places we originally come from but from the perspective of someone who’s based in London.

O: We’re about to publish a book on youth and resistance – the history of subcultures in Russia from 1815–2017. That’s coming out in collaboration with Cornerhouse Publications and the critic Artemy Troitsky this month.

R: Who comes to all these events, screenings and book launches that the New Social hosts?

O: I think there are quite a lot of students, right?

A: There’s real a mix but it’s especially people who come from or who have some kind of connection to Eastern Europe, Russia or Central Asia. There isn’t anywhere else in London or maybe the UK that shows the material that we show; a lot of the films don’t get distributed widely. So we try to create the dialogue around those, inviting the filmmakers and artists to come and present them.

R: You’ve built quite a following; the New East screenings routinely sell-out — what do you think people are responding to?

O: It’s probably the uniqueness of the cultures that we are showcasing. The most frequent feedback we receive is from people normally saying, “We didn’t even know that they existed.” The Hungarian or Polish or even Russian community festivals that happen in London can feel quite unwelcome for English-speaking people; there are rarely translations. So everything we do is in English; we’re trying to be open.

R: You must be aware of the fashion industry’s current obsession with Eastern Europe and Russia?

A: Yeah, Gosha Rubchinsky. There’s a sort of romanticisation of the early post-Soviet period.

O: I think fashion can turn things into a commodity, right? For example, Kim Kardashian posts a picture of herself wearing something with communist-type symbols on Instagram. Like, does she really understand what she’s doing? In this context, identity is really important, and fashion is using it in a really shallow way. At the New Social we’re trying to look at how they deal with their past rather than to pastiche it.

R: Do you get back home much?

A: Because I still have a family home in Moscow, I still consider myself Russian. But when I return, I realise that I’m somewhere between being a foreigner and a local.

O: It’s the same for me. When I go back to Kazakhstan it’s changed so much, even in fifteen years, that I hardly recognise the city where I was born. I feel quite foreign there now. I do miss the seasons, though. I mean proper summer, I mean proper winter, I mean proper autumn. It’s something to do with the air. You do get it in London, but it’s fleeting.

Interview by Richard O'Mahony. Photograph courtesy of The New Social. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!