Jacob Mendez
Jacob Mendez

“Repeat after me.” The project by Ukrainian artists will represent Poland at the Biennale

“I’m Alla. I came after the invasion of our country by the Russian aggressor. I was forced to leave my home and moved to Lviv. This is what mortar fire sounds like. Repeat after me”.*

“My name is Antonina. We moved from Mykolaiv Oblast to Lviv. We have been living here since March 16. This is the sound of the alarm siren. Repeat after me”.*

At 4:00 a.m. Polish time, Russian troops gathered along the borders of Ukraine launched an attack. The war has started. How does it sound? This question was asked by Ukrainian artists who are part of the collective “OpenGroup”.

The second, extended part of the project will represent Poland at this year’s Venice Biennale. Initially, it was a reserve project – however, in accordance with the decision of the Minister of Culture Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, it will replace the originally selected work by the painter Ignacy IV.

Collective “OpenGroup” participated in four exhibitions at the Venice Biennale in 2015, 2017 and 2019. The artists have been associated with Poland for many years and were scholarship holders of the Gaude Polonia program. Their works were presented in many institutions around the world, and the audience in Poland could see them, among others: in the Labirynt gallery, the Arsenał gallery or the International Cultural Center in Krakow.

In 2019, the artists joined forces with Marta Czyż – they collaborated with, among others: during the Konteksty Ephemeral Art Festival in Sokołowsko. Since then, they have been working together on various artistic endeavors.

Further effects of cooperation will be visible during the event. The event will start on April 20 and last until November 24, 2024. This year’s edition has the slogan: “Foreigners are everywhere”. As reported by the Border Guard in February 2024, there are currently one million Ukrainians permanently residing in Poland who found shelter from the war in our country.

– The background for the works prepared for the Biennial is the crisis related to the broadly understood intermingling and migration of people in search of a better place to live, or simply a place where life is not threatened. (…). Their art emphasizes the fact that contemporary cultures develop and enrich themselves thanks to dialogue with strangers, thanks to immigrant artists, thanks to foreigners. – we read in the project description.

“My name is Ekaterina, I am 21 years old and I come from Kherson. I currently live temporarily in Lviv. Air alarm. Repeat after me”.*

The Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security at the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy began distributing a brochure. The document explained how to behave in an area affected by hostilities. The ability to recognize assault rifle fire, the sounds of bombing or rocket launcher fire can save lives.

However, we feel anxiety from the beginning of the film to the very end. This is due to the strange silence and peace interrupted by the voices of the heroines and heroes.

– First of all, the creators asked a question, Secondly, this is the artists’ way of sensitizing us and touching us, says Czyż.

– Some time has passed since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, and we have been struggling for a while “we have immunized” on these images. Whether watching daily news programs or reading websites. Despite this, this experience stays with people throughout their lives. – adds our interlocutor.

“Good morning, my name is Boris and I come from Mariupol. The sounds of war… I want to show you what a plane and a bomb hitting sound like. Repeat after me”.*

– We hid with our neighbors’ children in the basement of our house. Machine guns rang out in the distance, they were no longer so loud. They were in another district of the city. Repeat after me. If you hear it once, you will never forget it in your life. These are the sounds of war in Mariupol* – Boris shared his memories with the artists.

The heroines and heroes of the film talk about themselves in a few sentences at the beginning, and then… “they invite” to participate in karaoke. However, karaoke is not associated with pleasant and stress-relieving entertainment. In this way, they try to recreate the soundtrack of war.

Here we do not hear famous hits, but people imitating the sounds of explosions, cannonades, gunshots and howling. The surrounding silence is the background, and simple things come to the fore “lyrics”. These “texts” there are sounds of weapons. A weapon that can kill.

– In our work, we present refugees from eastern Ukraine who, fleeing the war, found temporary shelter in Lviv. They share their experience of the sounds of war. By presenting simple sound sequences, the manual is still unable to convey the experience of being in a war zone, the experience that was the source of this knowledge. – this is how the installation is described by its creators: Yuriy Biley, Pavlo Kovach and Anton Varga.

The artists decided to present war as a collective experience that affects everyone to a similar extent – regardless of age, social or professional status. However, in their film, the creators decided to focus on the characters’ individual experiences of this disaster.

– It keeps us in constant tension and makes us listen to every sound, every rustle. Sometimes, even in silence, suspicion creeps in – the artists add.

The theme of war in creativity “OpenGroup” has appeared repeatedly since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. In their works, the artists focus on researching the interactions between people, artists and the spatial situation, and emphasize cooperation with viewers and performativity.

Currently, intensive production work is underway. The first recording was made in a camp for internal refugees near Lviv.

The photos are taken outside Ukraine. As we read in the project description, “They remain part of the trauma for them and symbolically expand the limits of its scope”.

– We have been aware for several months that we are a reserve project. However, as per the regulations, we agreed and were ready to present the project if the first one could not be implemented for various reasons. The minister’s decision was a big surprise, but it meant full readiness to work. They are looking for more people who would like to take part in the project. After all, these are not actors, but heroes and heroines of flesh and blood who share their real experiences. At the same time, we are working on the catalog and set design. – says Marta Czyż to Interia.

Movie “Repeat after me II” during the 60th International Art Exhibition, it will be presented in a space arranged as a karaoke bar. The video will be displayed on the side walls of the Pavilion. At any time, only one of the screens will be broadcast with sound. There will be microphones on stands in front of the screens. The audience will be able to approach them and repeat them together with the heroines and heroes “war soundtrack”.

Project curator “Repeat after me II” points out that the situation in Ukraine is a lens that also brings together other armed conflicts taking place around the world.

– There are many other, equally drastic conflicts. We hope that through this project we will tell about the hell of war and its numerous victims. – sums up Marta Czyż.