Yury Grigoryan on Strelka students’ final projects 2011/12

28.06.2012, 16:24
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Q: What are your thoughts and impressions of the past year?

Yury Grigoryan: This may sound strange, but the most important thing about our second year is that we’ve had it. One could say this is the beginning of our history, we’re getting a certain continuity: we had our Year One, and now we’ve had Year Two. You cannot make a powerful statement, let alone make an impact in just one year. In our first year, we were making it up as we went along, we were running much greater risks, it was more of an experiment, if you will.  I believe we have been able to consolidate some things [in the second year], and we have been able to retain some of the best things we had going in our first year. And yet, we were still taking risks in Year Two, we have been able to avoid making a conservative retread of the first year.

We attempted to invent some new things in the process, to experiment – in particular, we started teaching a general-principles course (Studio Generale) which we didn’t have before; we offered more focused workshops, aiming to recreate a research project from the very beginning and to get rid of fear. We have been able to keep some sort of continuity in some aspects, while changing a few other things. Clearly, not everything worked out this year: some things worked, some didn’t. I think that our third year should become decisive in terms of accumulating a critical mass – I would not call it “method,” but some kind of an overall picture of the year and some principles which can later serve as a foundation for continued development of Strelka Institute.

Certainly, a new school does not take a distinctive shape, or develop its unique character in a year or two, it’s a matter of ongoing dialogue, with expert feedback and staff and faculty buy-in. I have to say it’s a great, incredible stroke of luck that we have all been learning together: Strelka, instructors, and all the people involved in building the school from the ground up. It is very important to see the change, cross-pollination, and progress of all these people, and not just our students. So, everybody is learning here along with the students, which makes the experiment more interesting for everyone involved.

Q: What would you like to say about the final presentations of your graduates?

Y.G.: These two days were very positive, everything went along quite smoothly, we have seen some progress in our graduate’s projects, and there have been both continuity from the previous year, and some changes, because the project topics are different, after all. And I think the fact that there have been changes is admirable.

The exhibition format was much more appropriate for final projects than personal presentations in front of the general public. An exhibition is a format that makes it possible for people to revisit a project, look at it again, recall its details, compare it to other projects and things. With a public presentation, the only thing that’s left afterwards is the boiled-down text of the presentation that people can only read to get some idea of what it was about. A presentation is like a fleeting weather feature, or a transitory view from a speeding train that is falling back fast and that you will never see again if you miss it the first time, and you will not get it if someone else tries to tell you about it later. However, many graduates had to condense their display materials too much, which made the narration far less rich than it could have been otherwise; the exhibition could have been a little larger, but this is merely a technical matter.

On the whole, I think the presentation format of the school’s final projects can be much less rigid. There are things in which consistency and continuity are important, but the format of final project presentations – the school’s outcomes – should be different every year – we should experiment with this more, as we are not exposing ourselves to any risk here.

One must realize from the outset what the purpose of education is: is a good graduation project a test of successful education? On the one hand, yes, it definitely is, because if people at a school can produce something significant, something of value, it is a good school. On the other hand, I could say no, because no students anywhere in the world have the power or the experience to come up with full-fledged real, groundbreaking inventions. It would be naïve to expect that after a one-year program, people who come to school with their preconceptions and principles would do work to a standard that would impress and intrigue without reservation professionals in the field.

However, none of this means that it is impossible to do excellent, interesting work with elements of real discoveries and inventions. The overall effect is always somewhat like grand orchestra music: on the one hand, you get information overload, on the other hand, you actually discover many interesting things you had no idea about before. And this is quite important at the very least.

At the same time, one could say that an educational program brings about some personal growth for the student. As I can now see from the experience of our first graduating class, many of the students in that class had a delayed shock; which was like a compression effect, or like inertia. This happens when you leave a school thinking one way, but as you get on with your life, as you recall what you’ve gone through during the program, you still continue to change. It is still too early to talk about the results and outcomes today, because, first of all, this has only been a brief immersion, and second, nobody had tried to do something like this before. So, it is much more interesting to watch the ongoing progress of all our graduates and myself, as someone also learning from Strelka, than any isolated inventions or discoveries that somehow or other come to pass around here, with assistance from our faculty. We cannot control where everybody will be going with it – it would have been naïve to think that we could – the important thing and our goal here is to get the engine started and get our graduates on their way.

Q: What kind of development do you want to see for Strelka?

Y.G.: We are discussing some technical matters, which are quite important in a way, including the matter of making the admissions process more appropriate and fair. After all, education at Strelka is free, but it is also fairly expensive, as we bring in top professors and experts. Practical matters also need addressing, to make sure our outcomes match the level of effort. At the same time, I think I see synergies starting to happen between our four programs: educational, publishing, public and research. This, in and of itself, holds very significant potential.

Another important thing is that Strelka has a fairly substantial capability for generating this potential. What we have here is a certain flow which, I think, is already unstoppable, a flow of self-perpetuating energy from different sources; the amount of energy is not tremendous, but very significant. So we are already seeing some development. I believe that Strelka, as a mechanism once started, is beginning to shape itself: there is a point when you are shaping the design for a building, and then there is a point when the building begins to place demands on you, when you are working for the building. I think this year Strelka is going to reach a stage when it will place demands on everyone involved with it, it will require a certain effort from them, it will build itself, with everybody exerting some kind of impact on the process.

At the same time, Strelka has already developed a life of its own: both in the urban space, and on the educational arena, and, I hope, it will now assert itself in publishing. And, most definitely, it already has a presence in the public and intellectual space as a public venue. And this is very important.

Q: Can you please tell us what kind of Strelka influence on the urban landscape do you currently see?

Y.G.: This school was originally conceived as a school for outsiders, that is, there was no assumption that this venue will generate interest with the products of its intellectual activity. In a way, it was designed with the future in mind. It appeared that there would be no strong demand for the process that would be unfolding here, but this process would gradually bring about change. I don’t know whether it was by pure accident or coincidence, Strelka has had a very strong synergy with the recent changes in the Moscow City Hall. Strelka is now becoming a victim of its own success, to a certain extent. There was clearly a hunger for a place like this – but nobody could imagine it was going to appear. Only when it did appear, did the presence of this independent and small (in terms of size, ideology and people associated with it, and the overall ambiance) island make a strong impact on some changes in the public awareness. Strelka demonstrated a clear alternative to the conventional way.

Take, for example, the match with our research topic, Public Space: when we came up with this topic, we only wanted to introduce city residents to the concept of public space, to tell them and the society about this phenomenon. And it was this coincidence of interests of various groups, of the powers inside the Moscow City Hall, and just within the urban community, and of some intellectuals, that has brought about actual change.

It would be pretty difficult to claim ownership (“privatize”) certain thing, it would be hard to claim something like “This was done at Strelka” — this would be completely beside the point. I believe we can only make the statement about the need to formulate an agenda. The whole idea and purpose of Strelka is to be ahead of its time, to create a future agenda nobody even suspects, to prove, over and over again, that the school’s vision is deep and independent, and that this vision can make an impact on the public progress. This is an interesting goal, but, for the most part, it comes with great responsibility. But it is hard to make a mistake in this, because, if something isn’t interesting and relevant, it simply will not work – the selection criterion is this very simple.

I think this is the main challenge for Strelka – to predict and foresee, if you will, any future sea changes in the public mind, and either promote this change, or try to make some kind of impact on this process. Roughly speaking, this is an exciting discussion of what the Avant-garde is today, how kind of a role it should have. And also, let’s say, of when the rearguard becomes more advanced than the Avant-guard… The important thing is not to get carried away playing with the clichés we have created in the first place, not to generate platitudes, to keep a clear, sober view of things you can impact, and of things you should think that you can affect. I believe our team has adequate intellectual abilities to realize this and somehow keep moving forward.

This is an open process, with a large number of people involved, it has not been “privatized,”  hijacked by anyone; at some point it just has to develop as a public project. Strelka has already been turned over to the public, to the people. And I believe they have to shape this project we have ongoing here. This is a device, a platform of some king, with some opportunities, which are in no way “privatized,” controlled by any one group of people to the exclusion of everyone else, and this, I think, is the most important aspect of the Institute’s development  Strelka has to become fully integrated with the society, retaining its strong independence in terms of generating and promoting new ideas.