© Denys Tsybulko

»We love to talk about solidarity«

The problem is not a lack of interest in Eastern Europe, but in a scarcity of access to its narratives and perspectives, says Ukrainian writer and curator Mariana Berezovska ahead of Unsound Festival 2023.
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    Heroins of Sound
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    Kunstpauser

The internationally acclaimed music festival Unsound has gained a reputation for identifying innovative scenes and radical sounds that defy conventional genre constraints, focusing on emerging, experimental, and leftfield genres. Founded in 2003, it has evolved and hosted events in New York, Adelaide, Toronto, and London, garnering immense popularity among Western audiences and critics, with its tickets being highly sought-after. 

However, what often goes unnoticed is the festival's profound link to the Eastern and Central European context, and its long-standing commitment to collaborating with curators and artists from the post-Soviet region, showcasing the region's vibrant cultural and musical heritage. After all, not only is Unsound based in Kraków, but it also ambitiously organized eleven festivals in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus between 2016 and 2018.

Following this often-disregarded aspect, I sat down with expert Mariana Berezovska to gain deeper insights into the challenges and misconceptions surrounding Eastern European music in the Western landscape through her own voice and experience. Our discussion ranged from the importance of recognizing and addressing Western biases to understanding that our perspective is but one of many. Particularly for Western writers and researchers, we emphasized the need to actively seek guidance and collaboration with individuals from the region, trying to avoid ignorance and the perpetuation of stereotypes.

»The work that I'm doing now for Unsound, as well as other initiatives I am curating at the moment, didn't start just with the war«

Hailing from Ukraine and now based in Berlin, Mariana Berezovska brings a wealth of experience as a professional writer, editor, curator, and co-founder of Borshch Magazine. Experienced in navigating the dynamic intersection between Eastern European and Western cultures (and not only), at Unsound she leads the charge with her workshop Shifting Centres, offering emerging writers the chance to publish pieces on musicians from their region in international music media, while connecting them with industry insiders and editors from Unsound-affiliated outlets. »My ultimate goal is to challenge the established centres of opinion-making in music, such as London, Berlin, and New York,« she says. The workshops are predominantly prepared for participants from Central and Eastern Europe, but all are welcome.

Mariana Berezovska’s experience as an immigrant in Germany for over a decade has strongly shaped her outlook and she goes straight to the point since the beginning of our conversation: 

»The word ‘solidarity’ and ‘community’ are used extensively,« she observes. »We love to put them everywhere, but scrutinizing how the cultural and music system work and if there are actual connections between different communities often reveals substantial gaps, which I would like to address.«

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© Denys Tsybulko

Her mission, however, is not solely a response to the conflict in her homeland but rather a reflection of her broader body of work. She aims to be an agent of change, working tirelessly to bridge the divide: »The work that I'm doing now for Unsound, as well as other initiatives I am curating at the moment, didn't start just with the war. It is, rather, a kind of reflection of my whole work up to today.«

The need for multiple centers

Navigating the Western cultural landscape as a non-native speaker, Mariana Berezovska acknowledges the challenges she faced. »Being a non-native speaker and not someone from London, Berlin, New York or similar cities is a condition that doesn't give you many possibilities in cultural journalism.« Yet, she doesn't view this as gatekeeping but rather a systemic issue stemming from networking rules and funding disparities. She asserts that »everything is a system,« and access to opportunities is often shaped by one's background. 

»It is not true that Western critics and audiences are unresponsive or indifferent«

This is why she is committed to shifting the narrative away from Western Europe's dominating perspective. »On the one hand, music scenes are consistently viewed from a Western European perspective. On the other hand, in our region, there's also a prevalent tendency for narratives to be heavily influenced by Russian scholars and writers. The narratives tend to be constructed based on Russia's perception of its neighboring countries, yet this paradigm is undergoing significant transformation. And there's no way back. This change is not in discussion anymore.«

In response, she advocates for decentralization of the lens through which we view cultures and opinion-making to counteract this imbalance, emphasizing the need for multiple centers rather than a singular hub: 

»I believe that what's of utmost importance is the proliferation of multiple centers: decentralization. I see this as a fundamental approach in various aspects, akin to the essence of decolonization and the aftermath of imperialism. The modern world offers an array of tools for enhanced visibility, enabling us to connect and acknowledge each other's existence in countless ways. It fosters opportunities to recognize diverse centers.«

We are all curious

One glaring issue she highlights is the bias present in Western music journalism when it comes to Eastern European festivals. She notes that when prominent Eastern European festivals like Unsound take place, it is common to see writers primarily from London or Berlin covering the events solely from their own perspective, without connecting with local experts. This occurs even when workshops are organized specifically for writers, with none of them being extended invitations to write about the festival: »If we don't have the financial possibilities yet to have big platforms in Poland, Ukraine, Kazakhstan or other countries of the region, at least we can give the possibility to their writers to reach out to and cooperate with important platforms.«

In addressing this challenge of connecting figures from Eastern and Central Europe as well as Central Asia with broader platforms, she believes that networking possibilities and shared experiences become potent tools for nurturing deeper understanding across regions. From her perspective, cultural exchange plays a pivotal role, driven by a belief in people's natural curiosity:

»It is not true that Western critics and audiences are unresponsive or indifferent. I believe that people are inherently curious. I think we all are.« Rather, her efforts center on initiating conversations and drawing attention to the dynamics of privilege in certain areas and disadvantage in others. Her advocacy extends to addressing diversity and inclusivity within the cultural sphere, particularly among writers: she emphasizes the importance of acknowledging their role in shaping narratives, contextualizing artistic movements, yet this is a segment that often goes overlooked, a solitude that already comes with the craft of working with words. In fact, those working in the cultural sphere often have good intentions but may not fully grasp the distinctive Eastern European experiences and viewpoints. If someone from this region, or a niche genre, possessed a platform to share their insights, Westerners would be eager to learn: The problem is not a lack of interest in Eastern Europe, but in a scarcity of access to its narratives and perspectives.

»What's intriguing is that we're witnessing a similar cultural resurgence in Ukraine, a scene I'm deeply connected to«

When discussing Ukraine's music scene, Berezovska highlights Berlin's role as a fertile ground for diverse artists, especially in underground and experimental genres. She underscores the crucial impact of funding-supported initiatives, likening them to investments in nurturing a new cultural generation able to grow through performance-making and skill development: 

»What's intriguing is that we're witnessing a similar cultural resurgence in Ukraine, a scene I'm deeply connected to, and it fills me with pride. This growth is primarily driven by sheer enthusiasm, as economic support remains scarce, not just for Ukrainian artists but for many in Eastern Europe. European funding exists, but it rarely trickles down to this region.« The cultural world has grappled with the concept of filling quotas, whether it is for female artists, non-binary artists, Syrian artists, or Ukrainian artists. However, it often feels like a temporary effort that lasts for a few years. When we discuss platforms highlighting displaced Ukrainian artists, it's essential to recognize that displacement is not solely external but also internal within Ukraine itself. A new generation is emerging with a profoundly different self-awareness and artistic prowess, and part of Mariana Berezovska's mission is to bring their talents to the forefront.

Ukraine – living in the moment

Ukraine, situated at the crossroads of multiple cultures, exudes an undeniable power and talent. Its vast size and history, intricately linked with Russia in some parts and disconnected from it in others, have birthed a diverse tapestry of narratives. The resilience and anger of its youth, driven by uncertain futures, are propelling them forward and strengthening their voices. 

The aftermath of 2014 gave rise to a narrative that encouraged living in the moment, as if there were no tomorrow, a sentiment that reverberated through various channels. It's important to note that while much of the focus often centers on Kyiv, Ukraine's narrative is far from monolithic, reflecting a complex and deeply divided history. Marian Berezovska ends our conversation with these words: »I am a big fan of diversity of narratives. After all, at the bottom of the issue we are discussing lies the quest of fundings and money. I think that it is important to have honest conversations about creative industries and their economy, consider what is being supported and why, and then to start from there.«

 

Shifting Centers holds two workshops during the Unsound Festival, which takes place October 1-8 in Kraków.

 

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