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Olga Svyatova

I am sitting on a single bed in my babushka’s (grandmother’s) room. It used to be my dedushka’s (grandfather’s) room, but things have changed. Lots of things have changed since the last time I was in my grandparent’s house: now my aunty and my uncle are living at that house too, the dogs got older and aren’t as active as they used to be. Some time ago, the living room became another bedroom for one to have a private space to rest and grief. Grief pervades the air in that house, there are no longer enough people here to celebrate my arrival each time, and every dinner is full of sounds from the TV, an easy substitute for any conversation about my life in so-called ‘Australia’ or any sharing of family stories from the past. I find it ironic because there is a lot of the past in that house and within the remaining members of my family. I am asking my grandmother if we can go through some photographs from the past. Not my own past, but my family’s past. I was always curious about them, and in who these people were before I was born. My grandmother agrees to have a look with me even though it is hard for her. We have been going through these photos for the last few evenings, and after each time I can feel that my grandmother is not asleep in the next room. She is just pretending. I wonder if she knows that each night I am pretending too.

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We are starting slow, looking at each photograph for a couple of minutes. I wait for Grandma to start telling me stories. I am craving to hear more, to know about people who I won’t be able to create memories with anymore. It takes time for her to start, but eventually, she tells me how she and my dad went on that trip to the Ural Mountains with a few other families. How my dad had a pocket Russian-English dictionary with him because he wanted to learn English. Not that Dad was spoilt for choice for English books during the Soviet era. Like many other teenagers in the USSR at that time, maybe he dreamt of going to Europe, England or even America, and wanted to be prepared, wanted to show the rest of the world how smart he had become from under the iron curtain.

My grandmother continues to talk about the past, about my aunty’s school graduation, and about how she went to Stalingrad (nowadays Saint Petersburg) with Grandfather. The photo we’re looking at is from “the fields”. Every summer the whole family would go to work in the fields for a couple of weeks because this was tradition, something one was simply supposed to do. Grandma’s stories go and go; my grandfather took enough photos for us to have a couple of hours to talk about the past. And while I am listening to grandma, I am starting to notice some similarities between these photographs and photographs that I have taken myself.

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See, I am the kind of Millennial who returns to look at the millions of photos that I taken with my iPhone. I do this because I love to remind myself that I am not alone here. I have friends, my chosen family. We have silly parties, we go on holidays, we sit in the dog park watching other people’s dogs run around, wishing for them to come to us. We have dinners, we work together, we have a life together. For very special photos, I have a folder in my iPhone called They. I look at it on the ‘bad days’, to remind myself that I have Them. I have Them all in my life and I am not alone.

I am looking at the photo of my dad. Grandma says he is around 17 there. Dad holds his hands near his chin and immediately, I remember the photo of Harrison, which I took at work, with his hands near his chin. Here in my left hand are my grandparents standing next to each other. Here in my right are Monica and Szymon, standing next to each other under the tree in Robinson. We went on a camping trip there, and spent the first 10 hours trying to find a camping spot because we did not book anything. Classic.

The overlap between my family’s past and my present life continues in these photographs. This overlap brings together something I did not know with something I had experienced myself. My family in Russia which I am going to leave in a couple of days and my family in Australia, who I will return to  in a couple of days.