KRЁLEX ZENTRE DOES NOT EXIST!: Two parallel monologues between Krëlex zentre and Ulrike Gerhardt

Krёlex zentre is a paranormal institution (parastitution) first made appearance in 2012 between Almaty and Bishkek. A nomadic art project in the genre of fake institutions, it builds on cultural traditions of inter-mixed earthly diasporas, their inclusive aesthetics and queer cosmo-politics. Working under the guise of contemporary art, krёlex zentre is engaged in xenographic study of the nascent life forms emerging in translocations, where cultural production fields are weak and subject to significant interference. It acts on behalf of imaginary communities that are not there yet, being overlooked by official records and existing only partially, in the borderlands between the real and the imaginary.

Ulrike Gerhardt: Thank you so much for taking the time for a conversation in the context of our D’EST cycle #2 Postsocialism as Method. Anti-Geographies of Collective Desires collaboration and your newly produced chapter Postsocialist Time Slips, launched in June 2023 at Biesdorf Palace. A few years ago I read the magazine Transitory White by Ira Konyukhova and was immediately inspired by your postsocialist, decolonial and para-institutional approach and the strong love for utopian and transcultural world-building that came across. The first time that we worked together was on the occasion of the Space Ideologies screening, curated by Daria Iuriichuk and me, at The New Society for Visual Arts, Berlin, in the summer of 2020. When I discussed your work with my D’EST collaborator Suza Husse we were absolutely sure that we want to integrate your vision into our ongoing research on the legacies of (alter-)global and postmigrant socialisms.

Krëlex zentre: This is extremely pleasant to hear, and we do not know what to say. We are just two ordinary artists from Almaty who write, read (aloud), perform, make sounds and organise cultural events in various genres. One of us is a trained musician from the state opera house, the other one is an amateur DJ holding an MA in ecology. When we started to work as an artistic duo we were given positions at a fictitious cultural institution called Krëlex zentre. At the time we were unemployed and thought that it’d be useful to be officially employed in  a cultural organisation, even if it’s a fake one. Afterwards there were more people on staff, but they either quit or got fired, as far as we know. However the two of us still have our permanent contracts, under which we receive increased luck, moral support and the promise of a better life, while our responsibilities include continuing to be active in the field of art and culture. In other words, our job positions do not imply salaries but only immaterial things such as the illusion of institutional affiliation. Krëlex zentre itself does not belong to the domain of real – with its real time and space – but to the domain of the imaginary. And our focus has been on how to maintain connections between these two domains – between our actual historical reality that forces us to submit to its conditions, and all those queer times that are ‘out of joint’.

UG: “That’s how we reached the turning point, finally caught up with the reality of the present day, and had to face it in its frightening proximity.” This is an insightful extract from your D’EST screening chapter Postsocialist Time Slips (2023) curatorial introduction. I would like to know more about the context of art production, exhibition-making, and queer living in Kazakhstan.

Kz: In all fairness, our strategy has always been to avoid checking with the so called reality. We  usually try to put our stakes on imagination instead. The point is that oftentimes it’s hard to tell what’s real and what is not, and to what extent. Since our very first public statement we insist that Krëlex zentre “does not exist in reality, which is not entirely true, given the imaginary character of the latter.” So it’s difficult to identify a turning point here. 

We started talking about an art centre at the time when the absence of contemporary art institutions was especially noticeable in Almaty. In 2010—2012 everybody would talk about it: there has been a vibrant art community, but events were rarely taking place, and we all kept discussing this discrepancy. So when we were offered a space in the city centre, it was not very difficult to make it a gravity point for the local community. Krëlex zentre as a physical space existed for only a year and a half, but it was an intense period and the right moment in the sense that for a short time we managed to fill the gap in the city’s cultural life. The artistic community, after the period of booming in the 1990-s, was undergoing typical neoliberal atomization during the 2000-s, with much of the art life taking place mostly in the apartments. Queer lives were even more hidden, apart from the couple of gay bars that we did not frequent either. Perhaps something started to change around 2012, after the Zhanaozen massacre, when young educated city dwellers began to realise the need for publicity and civil solidarity.

UG: In your practice, you work a lot with creating solidary and imaginary zones, landscapes, and even art institutions. You shape an interesting political and queer practice that relates to strategies of world-building and creolization. It is an interesting strategy that during the process of nominal mutation and re-contextualisation, you transformed the word “creolité” into krёling and krёlex.

Kz: Well, we couldn’t call ourselves ‘creole’ properly, because apparently there are Creole peoples out there and we cannot simply claim their identity. Furthermore, it’s not something definite: the word “creole” has specific meaning in each of the many historical-geographical contexts where it is used. There are diverse Creole cultures in all parts of the world, calling themselves Criollo, Crioulos, Kreyòl, Kweyol and so on. As you can see, it’s natural for creoles to deviate from the orthography. There are more than a hundred Creole languages worldwide that emerged as a result of interactions between various local languages with mainly English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch (According to a census carried out in 1977 by Ian F. Hancock (“Repertory of Pidgin and Creole Languages”, in Pidgin and Creole Linguistics, cited by Robert CHAUDENSON, Les créoles français, Paris, Nathan, 1979), there were 127 Creoles or pidgins in the world. including the following: 35 based on English, 15 based on French, 14 based on Portuguese, 7 based on Spanish, 5 based on Dutch, 3 based on Italian, 6 based on German, 1 based on Slavic, 6 based on Native American, 21 to African base, 10 to non-Indo-European (Asian) base.
From: So there is a variety of cultures with their unique histories that resist attempts to unify them all under one “Creole” rubric. Our particular Kazakh creoleness may look more like speculative exercise rather than anthropological fact, but there are solid reasons for us to think in this direction. On one hand, it is inspired by the work of Éduard Glissant and his idea that, while the whole world is undergoing creolisation, there are places where this process is especially intense, and we think that Kazakhstan is one of them. On the other hand, it is based on our own Central Asian heterogeneity, resulting from the history of colonial conquests, mass repressions, Russification, collectivisation, famine of 1930-1933 and mass deportations of peoples during 1930 — 1940-s. On the third hand, there is always an inner heterogeneity of some sort that has to do with postmodern critique of the subject, its integrity and sovereignty.

Being a designation of an imaginary community, Krëlex has an ‘X’ at the end, following the example of LatinX — a term that was introduced by queer communities of Latin America to subvert the gender binary between Latina and Latino.

Krëlex zentre, Nha San Collective, Fehras Publishing Practices, Suza Husse and Ulrike Gerhardt, conversations in the open air, D’EST video art festival, Biesdorf Palace, Berlin, June 2023, photographer: Mika Schwarz

UG: Speaking about transnationality, for the cycle #2 of D’EST entitled Postsocialism as Method: Anti-Geographies of Collective Desires, we have worked with the term “anti-geographies” – how would you interpret and imagine contemporary post-socialist anti-geographies from your perspective? I mean in regards to the relationship they may have to futurist ideas subverting the capitalist-liberal global ethos.

Kz: Maybe we have to start from saying that humans are territorial animals. But ‘territory’ is not a neutral concept, it derives from the practice of warfare, of conquest and defence. Dividing the Earth’s landmass into strangely cut sections of ‘nation-states’ never looked like a good solution, being a legacy of domination of one group over the other. Geography was an invention of imperial voyagers and conquerors; the idea that the planet entirely belongs to a ‘Man’ is their idea. Following Sylvia Wynter, we see the root of the problem in the very concept of human as opposed to animal – an exceptional creature entitled to possess the land and treat everything as ‘resources’. Maybe the old modern principle of state-building – ‘each ethnic group gets a plot of land’ – leads to conflicts exactly because the idea of territory itself is founded on conflict? In this respect we would like to see the imagination of creoleness as a manifestation of ‘post-national’ subjectivity that arises from rethinking the relation between the territory and the self. But however problematic the ‘territory’ can be, we should start from the ‘self’, from redefining the human.

UG: Besides organising exhibitions, events, making concerts, performances, curating video art screening-chapters and other activities, Krëlex zentre seems to have a close relationship to writing and publishing, over the years you contributed to many cultural theory-based queer-feminist and decolonial anthologies, as for instance Postcolonial and Postsocialist Dialogues: Intersections, Opacities, Challenges in Feminist Theorizing and Practice (2022), or Stories of Transoxiana: Creoleness, Compositionism, Transfeminism (2016, only in Russian: Истории Трансоксианы: креольность, композиционизм, трансфеминизм). These publications are widely received beyond local or national circles. This leads to the impression that working with text or creating embodiments of text means a lot for your practice.

Kz: We share a strange belief that all texts are magical artefacts, whether they are performed live (spoken, sung) or scripted (written, recorded). Language may not be just what it seems – abstract signs pointing to concrete objects – it may well be a step towards a deeper level of reality at large, which is neither objective or subjective, nor it is pregiven and already-ready, but rather is actively constructed through our everyday practices, first of all practices of signification: speaking and writing. This view is not very extravagant, it is informed by the ideas of new materialism, material semiotics and philosophical constructivism of some sort. In this view, language provides access to the level where magical transformations become possible, it allows for “doing things with words” as John L. Austin would put it. That’s why everything we do is based on texts: descriptive or prescriptive, poetic or curatorial, artistic or incantatory, mumbling or spell-casting.

UG: During our preparation for the new D’EST cycle #2 Post-Socialism as Method. Anti-Geographies of Collective Desires, you were leading us to an interview with Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora who make a claim for multiple und plural socialist pasts and suggest post-socialism as a global condition and a temporal analytic. I think the concept of “time-slips” (Jaclyn I. Pryor’s book Time Slips. Queer Temporalities, Contemporary Performance, and the Hole of History (2017) introduces the concept of “time slips,” which she defines as moments of experiencing time queerly.) offers an interesting approach to political-temporal relations especially in the former East.

Kz: Our interest in postsocialism stems from the difficulties we encounter each time we try to use postcolonial optics in our region – the area that we used to call ‘post-Soviet’ and that less and less deserves be called so, especially since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. We did not want to enclose our situation within the boundaries of the USSR or geographies of the historical ‘second world’. Postsocialism as a temporal analytic seemed to be an exit from the totality of the victorious ‘capitalist realism’ with its (heteronormative) logic of objectivity, hard facts, universal time and mass (re)production. There are multiple alternatives to that, which are scattered throughout the world’s histories and geographies. Postsocialism as proposed by Atanasoski and Vora opens way for us to think of this multiplicity, to understand the legacy of colonialism differently, to take into account other kinds of relations, other forms of racial and class domination, and other kinds of modernities.

Our own country was born as a socialist one, this is our point of departure, the Central Asian version of Modernité. If you look at the local history of Modern art here, you’ll probably decide that we inhabit a parallel time that does not correspond to the timeline of European Modern art. These discrepancies, ruptures and incoherences constitute the experience of ‘time-slips’ – local realities that seem not entirely real and, at best, can only be expressed through the means of art. No wonder that the book you mentioned is dedicated to mostly theatre and performance.

Screening of “Fountain action” (2016), D’EST video art festival, Postsocialism as Method: Anti-Geographies of Collective Desires,  Biesdorf Palace, Berlin, documentation image, June 2023, photographer: Mika Schwarz

UG: Throughout 2023 you have become more familiar with Nha San Collective and Fehras Publishing Practices, the two other curatorial and artistic collectives, and their different post-socialist heritages and practices. After many years of rather non-synchronized curatorial, academic, and political work, the D’EST project is an experiment to work alongside the politics of friendship. This means we are trying to implement questions on the conditions of our lives, subjecthood, and values, and we are making an effort to share and adapt practices of who we want to become. This also means that in the process of working we become familiar with bordering situations where some members of the group are temporarily opting out, become vulnerable and feel dis/connected. I have the impression that this code of practice shapes the work of Krëlex zentre.

Kz: The politics of friendship is very important for us since we are constantly mixing up private and social. This year we were especially lucky to be a part of D’Est extended family and to have an opportunity to look into the other collectives’ lives and workings. It is always inspiring to see other people facing the same unsolvable problems as us – a sad joke but also a ground for solidarity. Maybe this is what makes artistic professions special: we are guided by the avant-gardist ideal of not differentiating between art and life, so that for us ‘business’ is always personal, and anything personal can become a ‘business’.

If art had a purpose, it must have something to do with searching for new possible ways of living. This is an urgent task in the situation when a lot of old good ways of living – without global awareness, local political involvement and trans-border solidarity – do not seem possible anymore. This can be a difficult task, and you are right about the risks and emergence of ‘bordering situations’. In our view, these risks are part of the job, since artistic collectives are laboratories where people make mutual experiments on each other, and there is no way to guarantee safety. Sooner or later you will be hurt. But at the end of the day it will be exactly your personal pain that will transform you and help you to become a different person. Does it sound like a code of practice? Probably not.

UG: Last but not least I would like to speak about the history and context of the Pearlshower Ceremonial Event (2017), the last work and closure of your screening chapter. I understand the pealshower as a cosmic ritual that teaches us about human and non-human collective desires challenging societal and socio-economic realities.

Kz: Pearlshower is the name that we gave to the annual meteor shower known as the Perseids. What can be a brighter symbol of our cosmic origins than a rain of shooting stars? So we wanted to make a krëlex ritual connected to this event. But even more we wanted to organise a gathering that would resist categorisation, to create a collective form that would be incomprehensible in a certain sense. Perhaps we just like weird formats. When we just started to stage performances we were inspired by John Cage and early happenings (like, the ‘Untitled Event’ from 1952). For example, we made a ceremonial event in the park – an opening of an anti-monument called ‘“100 years 33 months John Cage Jubilee Ceremonial Event”. It was interesting to play with various formats of gatherings and see how acknowledging the format is crucial for perceiving the content. We mixed formats trying to create confusion, to shake the habitual confidence of ‘knowing what’s going on here’. The importance of formatting cannot be overestimated. Take for instance our conversation: from its title it is announced as two monologues between a human being and a non-existing entity. This formatting disturbs readers’ expectations in regard to overall structure, consistency and comprehensibility of the text. And even when there is no structure, and our habitual confidence of ‘what’s going on here’ is gone, there is still a format, still a structure, and we can’t help but hypothesise about “what’s going on here” – is it intentional or accidental, ceremonial or casual, provisional or permanent, serious or humorous, conscious or automatic, real or imaginary, by mistake or by calculation, by editor or by designer, by typesetter or by printing machine, by us or by them, by bus or by tram, by now or by then, by bye or bye dye, by why or by lie or bbbbb or yyyyyy или что-то не так с форматированием бірдеңе дұрыс емес шығар немесе пішімдеуде бірдеңе дұрыс емес ^(E)_Y!@#$%^&*_*

Co-published with NEWEAST platform, D’EST publishing and the POST-OST publication series.

Images: Katipa Apai and Krёlex zentre, Pearlshower Ceremonial Event, 2017, 11’40’’; Krëlex zentre, Nha San Collective, Fehras Publishing Practices, Suza Husse and Ulrike Gerhardt, conversations in the open air, D’EST video art festival, Biesdorf Palace, Berlin, June 2023, photographer: Mika Schwarz andScreening of “Fountain action” (2016), D’EST video art festival, Postsocialism as Method: Anti-Geographies of Collective Desires, Biesdorf Palace, Berlin, documentation image, June 2023, photographer: Mika Schwarz