Video Art in Kherson

by Max Afanasyev

There beyond the clouds. Beyond beyond beyond beyondddd. To isolate a pure form of  video art in Kherson could be a difficult task. Nevertheless starting from 2002 an annual festival of visual culture titled Terra Futura, initiated and hosted by Kherson Centre Totem. attempts to face this challenge.




Once during the festival regular call out for participation a fine artist from Belozerka village (Kherson region) named Alexandr Pechyorskiy approached Totem with a mysterious video tape. He said that the recording was made in the early ninety nineties by the some lads from Belozerka. The tape contained a fifteen minute film, shot on what could have been the first video camera in the village or possibly the entire country. The subject matter concerned of course the zombies. Especially we noticed the utmost naturalism and the graphic qualities of the make up, which was done with the help of gouache. Some of the scenes made one recall the highly depressive TV series like those by Phychic TV.


Belozerka Affairs




In 1996 several enthusiastic individuals came together and established the studio Totem, the studio's aim envisioned in creating original TV programs. Back then the television seemed to be imbued with certain super-natural powers. You could create and showcase your creations to a large audience. At the time many people heard about the existence of computers but only a few chosen ones had actually seen one. All special effects could be kneaded in a basin, cut out of paper, shot through a steamed up window or drawn upon a variety of surfaces. Analogue won over digital hands down. The digital era was only an expectation.


The first ever film that was already not a film but something different was a video by Max Afanasyev «Do Not Tease the City with Smiles of the Children». This was a story of an urban little Red Riding Hood who went out for a walk and was consumed alive by the city. Its authors struggled to define the film's genre as the latter contained every technical trick thinkable at the time. It was as if they fell greedy or rather broke away from all of the constraints of the form at once. The film was void of plausible subject matter, contained an odd mix of music and sound effects, broken editing coupled with an overall black and white aesthetic.


This was the first work made by Totem outside of TV format. It even got some festival award, having received a certificate that stated «for creative search». This particular wording plagued all of the works produced by the studio at the time. On one hand, the films were not really cinematic yet they all resolved to using cinematic language. The key themes explored by the Totem studio members at the time were urban environment and traces of urbanism in the province. Most of them resolved to associative storytelling. There was a huge number of experiments. Nevertheless one must say that Totem still sometimes produces videos that fall within film genre, possibly not in by essence but rather by form.


If we take for instance all of the works shot between 1998 and 2014, diverse as they might be, we will find very few instances that could remind one of the academic video art, which currently perpetrates most media studies lectures. Kherson-made films largely rely on the cinematic depiction of reality, although they are indeed fragile in their subject matter, display fragmentary, associative and illustration-like consciousness, which departs from the cinematic canon. A large proportion of works reflect on the isolated nature of provincial environment. The most widespread way of showcasing Kherson media art is at special gallery screenings, using boxes set in various exhibition spaces. However, several films had received awards at film festivals where they were deemed cinematic despite the peculiar nature of their format.


Almost video art:

Green man cry




Wedding songs of Kherson region


Almost film:


The beginning

Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

Web Camera




Stas Volyazlovskiy came to the studio in 2003. Since then video art became one of the leading trends among the works produced by Totem. Working together Stas Volyazlovskiy and Max Afanasyev created approximately thirty video artworks the majority of which were presented in different galleries and exhibition spaces. Their first work was shot on the border between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan at a truck drivers' hostel. Here one sees a TV screen with a respectable looking man in a suit and tie who is playing a folk instrument while another man, dressed in the tracksuit bottoms and an Uzbek skullcap drinks his tea and listens to one we see on TV. It is a 40 minute long continuous video, a video about different cultures, different states of being, different characters, set on two opposite sides of the screen. The viewer feels like a voyeur who observes two different realities hoping that the space he or she themselves inhabit is a reality of a different kind.


In 2009 Totem brought together talented young people by establishing Youth Media Club. The club's key aim was to spread media art literacy and provide its members with a hands on experience of working with various computer applications as well as to inspire young people to produce their own work. The most successful results of these experiments were selected by Terra Futura festival, which at that point became the vantage point for the artists of Kherson region, and later the entire south of Ukraine.


Starting from the second run of the festival the showcase was expanded to include two new sections, short film and video art. From the start the organisers divided the festival programming into the daytime and the late night screening sessions. Daytime program was calmer and more sparing on the viewers' nervous system while the late night program contained more radical experiments and adult content. However, as time went on either the organisers' sense of danger has gradually worn off or the audience developed a more mature cultural taste but the fact remains that the festival merged everything into one general program and started screening everything without any type of censorship or any other reservation made in regards to the  psychological or ethic sensibilities of its audiences.


Exorcist by Boris Pasechniy

Mushroom by Vladimir Ragulskiy

Forbidden Love by Yulia Logachyeva

Parallel by Semyen Khramtsov

Somnium by Rodion Krasnovid and Olga Semenyuta

Work Out by Elena Afanasyeva and Mikhail Klyekta


Seminal works and Deviations


«Country house incident». One of the strangest projects in the history of Kherson video art is a series of short films entitled «Country house incident». The first episode out of ten came out in 2005. Totem director Elena Afanasyeva celebrates her birthday in summer so the collective made the decision to mark the event in a working mode by shooting a seminal blockbuster-style film that would encompass elements of horror spiced up with a chase. A country house was chosen for the location. Even though the film was initially envisioned as a home video a certain stylistic approach was found that allowed its creators to imitate contemporary film industry through a series if highly recognisable clichés and repetitions. Inspired by the success of the first episode, Totem shot several other pastiches of this kind making a few more spoofs of specific movies as well as the mainstream film culture in general. Unforeseen by the artists themselves «Country house incident» was picked up by the curators and shown as part of contemporary art exhibitions regionally as well as internationally.


Country House Incident 1

Country House Incident 2

Country House Incident 8 (The Popovichi)


«Rapana». One summer Totem took out young directors to a seaside village called Zhelezniy Port as a part of a short residency with an ecological incline. Semyen Khramtsov's reminiscences: 


«I took with me a tablet and started to show Stasevich (editor’s note: Stas Volyazlovskiy) how it can be used to write and edit music. For instance, I take out the drums and ask him: «How's that?» Stasevich says: «Will do.» I take a few guitar riffs and tell him to take a pick. Stasevich says: «This one!» Later I showed him how to edit the vocals. Stasevich took it all in as a total miracle. We resolved to using our hostel's commercial brochure as our text. Then I made this nice sort of melody and gave it to Stas to listen to. He says: «All I can hear here, Syoma, is «We aren't bent.» That's how the title song of our album came into being».


«Rapana» duo is a radical satire in which the artists play the characters of gay yobs. In an attempt to dress up «tough guys» into bright clothing and gay paraphernalia, the artists create an explosive substance. Even though «Rapana» was set up as a series of short videos, their live concert was highly successful at the Terra Futura festival.


Rapana. «Ichthyander»

Rapana «We ain't bent»

Rapana «Text Message»

Rapana «Toadness»


Museum Projects. Starting from 2009 Totem collective begins to produce video and media art projects for museums. The first project was hosted by Odessa museum of private collections named after Alexandr Bleschunov. The project was titled «An object in itself». The artists were asked to select one art piece from the collection and represent it as a figurative study that would be later shown on computer screens in various spaces of the museum. For each artwork chosen the artists had written a short story that formed the basis of video choreography.


An object in itself


The experience of collaborating with Bleschunov museum in Odessa turned out to be extremely inspirational. Later Totem would undertake a new program titled «New Breath of Culture,» which would involve the artists and museums of three countries, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia. This prompted the participating Kherson artists to abandon their usual trash aesthetics and pursue new ways of creative expression that would fall within or come close to current mainstream culture.



Pirosmani's Stranger

Dance Number 8


VacciNation. Prior to one of the festivals held by Totem three young people approached the organisers with the request to critique their work. These young artists were Sergei Serko, Valeriy Kopysov and Maryana Tarish. The paintings by the two lads represented some sort of transminimal madness with every square centimetre of the field filled with intricate designs and tiny icons. They blew our minds away. We were initially not that impressed by the girl. This prominent trio however soon became known as a highly productive combo VacciNation. Apart from producing countless amount of work in all kinds of media, VacciNation was successful in video art. At first they were avid documenters of their travels and art actions. As time went on certain micro-subjects began to emerge out of this abundance of documentation, later to be shown as independent video pieces. Essentially these videos could be classified as spontaneous performances caught on camera. These involved the re-staging of mundane situations, provoked events, and contained playful improvisation with randomly chosen objects, animals, as well as caught out audiences.

Last Benefit


The only series produced by VacciNation where the authors' abandon their usual active meddling with the plot in favour of dry documentation is a film by Sergei Serko about his alcoholic father. Sergei was not so much interested in shooting the actions of his drunken parent but rather tried to capture a certain atmosphere of an alcohol induced reality. The video contains very little action but a lot of tension and paranoid humour that makes the video depart from the standards one might associate with social advertising.


Fourth Dimension

Fourth Dimension 2


Liquid TV. Liquid TV consists of a wide variety of fragments that illustrate or mock TV reality. In the same manner in which TV mimics real life, Liquid TV mimics TV. All elements used by Liquid TV take roots in the structures of telecasting. These include staged performances, sections of unfinished films, ads for non-existent blockbusters, chronicles, imitations of TV programs, animations, interviews with celebrities, video collages, performances, flashmob happenings etc. Often the subject matter for Liquid TV is prompted by an event overseen by the author during a trip, on a vacation, during a long wait, or while taking a walk with a video camera. While watching Liquid TV the viewer relives the experience of switching channels and is plagued by its unstable plot. The latter may start quite abruptly, get stuck, or end sharply at the most interesting point. This fragmentary nature becomes a signature style for Liquid TV coupled with its abruptly appearing and disappearing hosts.


Liquid TV Volume One

Liquid TV Volume Two 

Liquid TV Volume Three


«Someone else's Mobile Phone». Stas Volyazlovskiy was in a weird mood (as usual). One day he came into the studio and drew with a ball-point pen a mobile phone stuck with its tentacles to a young man's face. The theme was immediately picked up and developed with huge attention to detail. A comic strip was created. Stas wrote a fairy tale. Max Afanasyev wrote the script for a short. The tale was further developed by two recent design graduates into a 3D animation. Max's script was first used to create the first film and five years later the second. This is how «Someone else's Mobile Phone» became a comic strip, an animation, and a short film in two parts.


Gypsy Mobile Phone (Animation)

Someone else's Mobile Phone 1

Someone else's Mobile Phone 2


Face off between two seminal figures in Kherson video art, Stas Volyazlovskiy vs. Semyen Khramtsov. Stas Volyazlovskiy is the recipient of Kazimir Malevich Award, participant of many contemporary art exhibitions in Ukraine, Russia, USA and Europe. Semyen Khramtsov is a professional designer with contemporary art leanings. Both are the founding members of «Rapana» music outfit as well as the artists behind many video projects.


Semyen: I recall my first animation. I found an old 35mm film camera and my old man gave me this lead that you could take sequential shots with. I had these Kinder chocolate puppets, those flat ones, and I drew my backgrounds in water colour and shot this cartoon about the so called «Contemporary Hero,» some cowboy who's giving a banker a tough time. The thing is that we shot all that and put it aside as my old man told me that we needed some fancy chemicals and we couldn't find any. That film might be gone now but I still remember that evening, so I reckon that wasn't a time wasted.


Stas: My first film was also shot on a borrowed camera and was titled «A Walk Through the Cemetery», a very auteur type of film I'd say. I just wanted to capture the atmosphere of this walk that I was taking every day and it was all shot in sepia. So you see me walk, follow my feet and see them disappear from the shot range. It was sort of not very conscious. How did it all begin? I had a Zenith camera as a kid, attended some after school activities, and then it was all forgotten. Later in 2005 I got working in a newspaper and I stumbled upon this digital camera and now I realise how much I missed. I didn't figure out that one could switch on the video… so I didn't make any, but I noticed while previewing a series of images as they flick by that it was already an action. We had a designer in our office who often mocked around and took a series of similar pictures that he flicked backwards and forwards.


Semyen: Like a two frame animation…


Stas: Yep! He would make some parliamentarian wink or something like that and it was very funny. And I thought to myself that one could develop a plot from this. And if one had a tripod that could be so much better as there would be no «falling horizon». the composition would be much more stable… So that's how the «home-made fun» begun. My entire flat was fully covered as a location for all sorts of film. The loo, the balcony, every corner of the flat was documented to be included as a background in a stop motion. A lot of sequences I shot alone, so I greatly benefited from the existence of 10 second delay on a camera. You press the button and have time to run off and get yourself into the shot. But that is hard work I must say. After one video like that you loose weight. My wife told me after I made the film «Lillebror and Karlsson» that I really lost weight. The shooting took up two consecutive days from morning till late night. And this was a total run about starting from the press the button thing to setting up the scene, plus I had some puppets in it that I had to prop up and they kept falling down. They had to be secured so that they would crawl on the radiator or walk but this had to be done in such a way that one wouldn't notice the prop up sticks holding them up. After a job like that you get muscle aches and all sorts of things.


Semyen: My first camera could do timelapse. You set up a timer and it would automatically go on shooting. And my first animation was a documentation of my life and what we were doing in the office. And the sunset. Two of our Kherson TV towers. I would take my camera and shoot the clouds passing, and then in a nick of time you'd get to a sunset. So I reckon that was my beauty appreciation bit!


Stas: Yup, exactly, we're all about beauty appreciation.


Semyen: At first it was important for me to suss it all out from the technical point of view, to master it all. We attended courses at Totem, did different tasks. And then a few years ago I gave up on all that mastery. By the way I gave up on all that mastery when I met you! What's the point in mastery when you now get all these fancy cameras that can do all those super fancy things! I figured there's no point in keeping up. Otherwise we'll all end up shooting the same film. I prefer to show what is unique right here right now... To show a unique person, create a unique situation. So it's no longer important how to shoot.


Stas: Exactly! For instance, Solovyev (editor's note: Alexander Solovyev, Ukrainian curator of contemporary art) recently said that it's no longer important what you're shooting with, the quality is no longer important. You now can shoot your subject on a mobile phone and your video will end up in a prestigious gallery.


Semyen: Exactly! When I first got acquainted with art I decided to shoot an alphabet made of poo. But somehow it ended on the first shot. I shot and shot it well... But when I opened the poo full screen and zoomed in a bit... I kind of felt sick a bit  and I…


Stas: Gave up?


Semyen: Yup, I gave up. There are some things I struggle with purely physiologically. Though generally I think everything has its place… as long as it has an impact… By the way do you have any personal taboos?


Stas: Well, I am not sure. I must fall outside the limits of what is considered socially acceptable, ha-ha! I don't have limits, so to speak. «For the sake of art I am ready to eat shit».


Semyen: I am tempted to make a bet. To shoot for instance a dying old man…


Stas: No. We're not talking about that kind of extreme...


Semyen: Well, I know that in terms of sexual displays you are as comfortable about yourself as a fish is in water, but you must have some kind of limits...


Stas: …We once went out camping with Totem. The students were shooting something and I thought to myself that when they will set out for dinner (there was a picnic going on) I will get naked and do a crab pretending to be an arse on four legs... But the key thing would be for them not to pay any attention to me… I mean this was completely unrehearsed. In the end this became a film titled «Invasion from space». What I am driving at is that there was no initial concept. Only once did I have a script, «The Death of Masturbator». There I really wrote out in great detail what is going to happen. I mean there was a plan. Overall though it's all a stream of consciousness. Do you usually use a script or a storyboard?


Semyen: Well, I did once... Well, I mean... For instance when you want to observe the smoke rising up beautifully, you have to stop breathing… It's the same, I try not to breath when I have an idea. If I take photographs or make a video I try not to think. When I shoot, I try to focus on different elements within the process itself… I try to foresee the future, not to scare it off. I try to shoot this way and that. But I figured that the films which I planned from the start (plot development, ending) I personally do not like. I prefer the ones where the form as well as the idea were born instantaneously and I just captured them. Very often it's only at the editing stage when it all comes together and you add some specific details. What I mean is that during the shoot you just set up some key points and let it all develop naturally.


Stas: Sometimes it happens that you shoot the material and don't know what is going to happen with it. You just get together some valuable pieces. I have my entire computer filled with them. Sometimes you can develop a whole film from a single section that prompted some initial concept.


Semyen: Exactly. You shoot first and then figure what to do with it. It's like in Eastern practices – you have to empty yourself in order to let the greatness in.


Stas: Once I had this film called «Cats against Chinese Shit,» which was explained to me by a Polish curator who told me: «This is an excellent stream of consciousness with a drive». I sometimes watch my films and think – maybe it's schizophrenia?  But sometimes it comes out fun.


Semyen: How do you manage not to laugh during the shoot?


Stas: Not to laugh? I avoid laughter all together.


Semyen: Well I can't…


Stas: That's what I find particularly irritating in our joint projects. You spoil loads of takes. I have to reshoot a lot. You see, when I shoot I believe in my character. I believe that in that particular moment I am this dude from Kherson and I inhabit this character in that particular moment.


Semyen: I can't help myself. I discovered this during Totem workshops. I can't help myself and not laugh. Especially when I deliver some speech... Don't know how to fight this. Even when I rehearse I often mess it up... I am very emotional and I have to prance around a lot and when I overdo it it then becomes a mask. That's my thing. It's like when we shot silent films. That's all about concentrated emotions!


Stas: Yes, silent films are your forte...


Semyen: I now have this idea to make several silent films in black and white.


Stas: I see my films in colour only.


Semyen: Look what is happening here. In real life you are quite a mellow guy. You live a more black and white life while I live more in colour but in our creative lives it's all reversed – you come out in colour and me in black and white. This is what I think... My work takes a lot of time. I think about composition, about design, but all those videos are just a stream of consciousness, like a vacation for the brain. I try not to think about the music too much or special effects. I just feel it. And the work is more about the feeling than the brain. That's what makes it video art!


Stas: I can not call my works pure video art.


Semyen: Well yeah, in my understanding video art is some abstract images…


Stas: I often visit galleries, PinchukArtCentre in particular, and watch video art… Maybe I am daft, maybe I am really provincial, but I stand there for five, ten minutes and get…


Semyen: Bored.


Stas: Exactly! I have to read like two pages of statement to get my head around it. And my own films lack this depth and cleverness. My films are a parody on reality, some kind of reflection on it as a subject. I tend to do whatever I like doing even if it doesn't pay off. It's bad really... But I make what I want.


Semyen: Well, you do bother a lot about it, whether to call it video art or not to call it video art. I just think it is a video and an art at the same time...


Stas: You've done some video art compared with me. For instance the one where the cats are licking the bust of Lenin, the one that was exhibited in Ukrainian House. That's a great example of pure video art!


Semyen: That video got some mixed reactions. Some people dig it, some want to puke...


Stas: The brother of my beloved wife showed my films to his girlfriend… and hasn't seen her ever since. He told me later: «I will never again introduce anyone to your art, though this has been a great lesson, but … I thought my relative is a star so wanted to show off a bit, thank you very much...» You see, people suffer for my art.


Semyen: Once I made this video, dressed up in a village attire («Freelancer from the Province«), ran around the country house, pranced about. The aim was to show it to my clients and test them at the same time. If they view it and say «what a mental case» and run off this means that we are not very compatible. But if they dig my jokes then it will be fun to work with them. So that's how I sort them out.


Stas: Our Kherson films are very different from the ones made in Kyiv or in Europe...


Semyen: Yes, in Lviv they told us that we've got a different kind of films, a different wave... But the screenings there were excellent. People laughed a lot. I really enjoyed it. Both the artists as well as the hosts said «your Kherson films are very different. Our local art is very thought provoking, very conceptual, has many meanings, you have to frown and think hard, but what you've got is very light, simple, and clowny, but it gets people… and it is hard to compare it with anything else that is out there right now. It's authentic».