A keynote address at the ArtsLink Assembly: Greener Grass? published here to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine

ArtsLink Assembly 2022: Greener Grass? provided a platform for over 40 Ukrainian artists, curators, and cultural leaders to share perspectives and ideas for the future of the cultural life of the country. Produced by CEC ArtsLink and the Ukrainian Institute, Kyiv, Ukraine, in partnership with Open Place, Kyiv, Ukraine, it took place in Warszawa, Poland on November 30 – December 2, 2022.

By Kateryna Botanova

Love and Hatred

At the end of November 2022, Polish magazine Dwutygodnik published an important issue. On hatred. Among other contributors, two Ukrainians — the writer Tanja Maljartchuk and the artist Lia Dostlieva. “I didn’t know what hatred meant before February 24,” wrote Tanja. “Hatred is a comatose rage. A volcano without a crater. Darkness that burns.”

Lia wrote: “I think sooner or later we will have to discuss what this hatred is and who it is against; where it starts and when it ends. But this discussion can only happen on one condition: it should happen within Ukrainian society when it has time, resources, and a need for it. It should happen by our rules, in our words, and for us.”

The “Dwutygodnik” issues “On hatred”, screenshot

About the same time, just as blackouts covered Ukraine after Russian missiles destroyed even more of the critical infrastructure, I was approached by a Swiss street magazine Surprise to contribute for their Advent issue. “Something about the war but not too heavy, please. It’s Christmas after all,” asked my editor. So I wrote a Christmas fairy-tale about people who in dark and cold kitchens cleaned and collected pumpkin seeds to be sown in spring. If they got enough seeds, the spring would definitely come. I also wrote about mothers who worked on homework assignments with their little daughters in dark and cold bedrooms under several blankets. They created a fairy-tale about the country of people of light that was attacked by a cruel enemy. But people fought the darkness, collected their little remaining lights, brought them together, and the country was illuminated again. (As the enemy was blinded and died.)

I didn’t make up this fairy-tale, or at least not completely. These two are the real stories of real people, but there are many more, especially now. There are so many brave people that in one way or another collect light to help and care for each other, that have so much love that it’s next to impossible to think about it without tears.

I cannot agree more with both Tanja and Lia. We didn’t really know the meaning of lots of things, actions, and feelings before February 24. Sooner or later we would have to deal with this knowledge, with what is happening to us right now. With both hatred and love that burn and heal at the same time. We need to deal with it on our terms, in our words, facing the challenge of simultaneity.

“…the scope of rebuilding and regrowing society during and after the war is enormous, yet nothing and no one can be left aside”


I just believe that it should happen sooner rather than later, or it is actually happening right now and every day, and every next day. As the art researcher and curator Kateryna Iakovlenko said in the introductory video to this keynote, “Our future has already started on February 24. And we should not postpone anything, we should start acting now.”

It was precisely with this thought — that the future is already happening — that I invited all these wonderful people to share their thoughts with us on video. Because I believe that the only way to tackle this future is to think and act together.

But what does it mean — to have the future that has already started? Does this mean there is no future ahead? Or does this mean that there is just no more future that is away from us, that is decided for us, that is alienated and unreachable? It certainly also means that there is no more luxury of postponement, of putting the tasks off until “better times.” There is not much space for prioritizing one task over the other — the scope of rebuilding and regrowing society during and after the war is enormous, yet nothing and no one can be left aside.

That is one of the goals of our gathering here in Warszawa: to think together about how to regrow, replenish, refill cultural networks in Ukraine and not let it be postponed under the urgencies of everything else. This question is based on another, more fundamental question: what kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want to be?

When I was asking this question to my colleagues in the introductory video, I was not really expecting such a synchronicity of thinking between them and also with my own thoughts. But then, why not? The intensity and urgency of all our joint thinking and talking about our country, society, and culture in time of war created a rich humus of ideas and understanding, linked us in a rhizomatic cultural mycelium where everything and everyone is connected.

So, how should we think about rebuilding Ukrainian culture where all cultural communities inside and outside the country have a place to be? Out of our shared thinking cloud I collected six points.

Thinking cloud

1. Vision
We need to start from trusting the knowledge and experience we as a society already have, thus allowing ourselves to have our own vision and our own perspective. We need to leave the imitation imperative that for years was dictating the social and cultural life fit into the “golden standard” of Western democracy, governance and institutions, that let us perceive ourselves as an underdeveloped country, constantly lacking something, constantly needing a wiser and more experienced tutor.

This doesn’t mean that we do not learn from the others, but rather that we value the knowledge that Ukrainian society already has and is building now, every day.

What Ukrainian cultural actors started in 2014 was a process of emancipation and reclaiming their own culture as a way of comprehending the reality here and now, as a dream of different possible futures. It was a process of decolonizing knowledge and representation by appropriating ways of articulating and imagining one’s own reality.

I want us to remember:

  • all the extensive networking across the country that boomed after 2014;
  • the historical or archival turn in the arts;
  • the collectively discussed and produced cultural strategy — Culture 2025 (that is unfortunately still very viable);
  • the collectives, hubs, and platforms that for years have been an important part of our cultural ecosystem (we used to perceive them rather as a sign of institutional weakness until documenta fifteen didn’t suggest otherwise).

We need to recognize how strongly after February 24 Ukrainian artists and cultural actors resisted imposed pacification and forced reconciliation by reclaiming the power of the arts to bear witness, to retain reality, to be present; how cultural institutions reinvented themselves daily, working as communal hubs and day-care facilities, educational platforms and discussion spaces, shelters, charging stations, tea rooms, and more.

“The war in its cruel way covers vulnerabilities because everyone is vulnerable, everybody is at risk”

2. Inclusivity

War in its cruel way covers vulnerabilities because everyone is vulnerable, everybody is at risk. One side of this is the enormous generosity and support that we can see everywhere these days. But on the other side, it amplifies differences, supports the competition of pain and losses.

The Ukrainian cultural community, as Ukrainian society in general, should be built and rebuilt on the richness of inclusivity — of backgrounds, knowledges, experiences of everyone. For us, unity in diversity is not a theory or a set of nice words. We know precisely how it feels and works: we lived it on all our Maidans and now, through more than nine months of a full-fledged war.

This inclusivity should embrace not only all the minorities living in the country but also the Ukrainian diaspora that has grown significantly since the beginning of the war. This diaspora — me included — is not only a constant support for the country in hard times, it is a constant presence of very strong Ukrainian voices in various countries in different parts of the world. Here, I believe we can learn a lot from the example of African diasporas that play a crucial role in reimagining and reviving the continent and its various countries since the late 1950s up to the present day.

3. Networks and institutions

One of the symbols of this war time will undoubtedly be a struggle for the Dovzhenko Centre, one of the key cultural institutions currently under threat of being hijacked by those in power.

However, this started long before the war; first, with the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, then, with Mystetskyi Arsenal and the Ukrainian Institute. Some of these battles were lost, some won, some are still developing. Why were they so important and why do I believe we need to bring them back to the focus of our attention now? Because one of the main victories of Maidan was bringing decision- and policy-making back into the hands of the cultural community. Before 2014, transparent decision making, fair and balanced public funding, and comprehensive policy creation were simply unthinkable.

Film still from “Bravery of thinking, bravery of imagination, bravery of culture in Ukraine: introducing the ArtsLink Assembly 2022

Transparent decision-making allowed a generation of engaged and experienced professionals to step into the key institutions and literally turn them around or create them from scratch. Public funding gave an unprecedented push for an astonishing number of cultural projects, initiatives, and new institutions everywhere in the country. When it started to crumble, everyone in the network felt the effect. Because this wasn’t about the big institutions, this was about enabling and supporting the growth of a wide range of initiatives and organizations, sustaining and caring for the ecosystem that is at the core of civil society.

Today, it is of the utmost importance to see cultural networks and institutions as carriers of archives and history, as embodiments of cultural memory, and also as pillars of civil society.

The strength and resilience of cultural alliances, networks, and institutions in Ukraine is a sign of the resilience of our society.

4. Culture

All the questions and thoughts that I just shared make sense only against the background of one crucial question: How do we see culture?

Are we currently witnessing a return to the discussions from 2014–15 when culture was relativized next to the threats of the war? If we as a society make a list of important things, where would culture stand? What is more important: funding the army or funding a museum? Donating for food and water supplies or for a book?

I want to believe we all know the answer now, and we know it not from some theory but our own practice: every day we donate money — to the army, to supporting friends, colleagues, and complete strangers that fight, to support the vulnerable, and to the art emergency support funds, generators for public spaces, and books.

I’m fascinated with the case of the fundraising campaign to translate the book on Holodomor created by the two journalists, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Vakhtang Kipiani, just a few days ago. They asked for a total of 100,000 UAH. They collected 150,000 UAH in a matter of hours.

This is happening because the war and the clearly articulated arguments behind it, in their own cruel way, crystallized the simple fact that culture is the basis of our society. It holds memory, thinking, knowledge, and a constant inquiry into our constantly changing identity. Moreover, it has a liberatory utopian power, a power to imagine and reimagine the future that belongs to our particular society and works to support it.

This liberatory, imaginative, utopian, and germinating power of culture should be neither forgotten, nor taken over by rationalizing attempts to justify funding for culture. Of course, culture can generate jobs, contribute to GDP, or support understanding. But that is not what is important about it. It is who we are and why we are still here, fighting.

5. Education

It’s good to imagine that both visionaries and professionals are already being born that way — but actually neither is. Moreover, true visionaries can only be professionals with deep knowledge and understanding of what and how culture really is.

If there was one part of the cultural network that suffered significantly from the war, it was cultural education. The formal educational system was rather outdated and disconnected from the overall cultural context long before the war. Actual cultural and artistic education mostly relied on informal temporary networks of peer-learning, on short-term workshops or training courses, or education abroad, not on Ukrainian educational institutions.

The challenge to restart, basically to reinvent education for cultural professionals is huge. But what we have now and did not have before, is a very vast network of excellent professionals who are getting both education and experience in European and North American academia, art schools, and various cultural institutions. Most of them — if not all — are deeply connected and engaged with the Ukrainian cause, which will certainly increase if given more possibilities.

“This is a real and crucial decolonization — to think and imagine, to be and to act from where you are and where you want to be”

6. Bravery

Last, but not least — all of this is absolutely impossible without bravery. Bravery of thinking, bravery of acting, bravery of imagination, bravery of culture — as one great contemporary Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko said in the video introduction.

Film still from “Bravery of thinking, bravery of imagination, bravery of culture in Ukraine: introducing the ArtsLink Assembly 2022

We have to be very brave to deal with the radical contemporaneity that is happening to us right now, when all the challenges are happening here, now, at the same time, when we need to deal with everything, everywhere, all at once. And nothing can be postponed or delayed into the future. Because the future is already happening right now. And by returning to culture its utopian and visionary potential, by rejecting imitation, rejecting forced and compulsory reconciliation, we are reconnecting, reattaching culture to our own society. This is a real and crucial decolonization — to think and imagine, to be and to act from where you are and where you want to be.

Then it is not important where the grass is greener, because it is us who plants it, waters it, and cares for it — during the war, after the war, ultimately — for the war never to happen, again.

About the author

Kateryna Botanova is a Ukrainian cultural critic, curator, and writer based in Basel, Switzerland. She is a co-curator of CULTURESCAPES, a Swiss multidisciplinary biennial, and an editor of the critical anthologies that accompany each festival, among them Culturescapes 2021 Amazonia: Anthology as Cosmology; On the Edge: Culturescapes 2019 Poland; Culturescapes 2023: Sahara. A member of PEN Ukraine, she publishes widely on arts and culture. More to read here https://linktr.ee/kbotanova.

February 24, 2023
Article Ukraine