To Understand Each Other

“In my practice, mutual understanding means that people can learn about each other’s experiences and find something they can relate through, and build some bonds with each other that potentially creates some form of solidarity that can empower all of us.”


Illia is an Art and Social Practice alumnus I have the privilege to call a friend. I don’t remember how our friendship evolved, but we have shared stories, meals, drinks, school projects, and dance moves. Sometimes we get lost in translation—I being from Colombia and he being from Ukraine— but he has always made me feel understood, even in the darkest alleys of homesickness.

In many classroom friendships, some things never get asked, as if life before entering an MFA program was a hazy horizon detached from the shiny present of graduate studies. But being in grad school is just the tip of the iceberg of tons of decisions and life turns that make us converge in the same space/time to share thoughts around the same terms and topics.

I’ve known Illia for two years. We have ideals in common and a shared interest in community exchange and care. But I didn’t know what his journey in art life was like. This conversation is an exercise in understanding my friend’s urge to cultivate solidarity and cooperation through socially engaged art.

Illia during the Sailing Mariupol event. Willamette Sailing Club.
October 2022. Portland, OR. Photo by Diana Marcela Cuartas

Diana Marcela Cuartas:
Tell me about your life before coming to Portland. How did you end up in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University?

Illia Yakovenko: My life before coming to Portland started in the city of Mariupol, in Eastern Ukraine, where I grew up and spent a major part of my life. I studied economics with a major in management in Donetsk, one of the regional centers in eastern Ukraine and a city that also influenced me and that I feel connected to. This was one of the cities that got taken over and occupied during the first Russian invasion in 2014. After finishing my education there, I went to Moscow. I got a job in a telecommunications company as a delivery boy, and because of my management background, I was able to “grow” and became a sales manager. I started learning more about art because there were more opportunities for that than in Mariupol, which was more of an industrialized town without an art school and just a few museums. In Moscow, there were big museums and a biennial, and I had access to all this art from other places. Now, I get that it was primarily sourced from the other republics, similar to how things happen in an empire. You could find Ukrainian or Central Asian art stored in Moscow or St. Petersburg museums in Russia just because they could do that.

So I started to get exposed to art, then I started volunteering at the Moscow Biennial, and eventually, I got into an art program at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art. Since then, I’ve been into art. So, if we go back to how I ended up in Portland, there is a part of my life in Moscow, which is when I switched to art and also into precariousness.

Diana: What do you mean?

Illia: When I switched my career to the art field, I lost my job and my security to some extent. I was also undocumented for a while, and Moscow is very strict with that. The police are everywhere, and if you don’t have the proper ID, they can deport you or detain you. I also became houseless for a while. I had to study and try to navigate the situation when I had nowhere to go. I would stay and crash on my friend’s couches, but there are limits to that. So I’d have to wander at night or go to the subway because it was open until 1AM. Then I’d hang out for 4 hours somewhere in the city in the middle of the night.

I started getting different jobs managing art projects, so I got some money, graduated from this program, and entered another one in St. Petersburg. It was The School of Engaged Art by Studio Art Group. This was when my interest in social engagement started. I remember there were major demonstrations in 2012; people would flood streets like Bolotnaya Square, punch police cars’ tires, and fight with the police for real. Then, I guess the Kremlin and Putin became paranoid that they could lose power and started introducing new legislation, reinforcing the police and getting equipment to suppress the demonstrations. These laws could imprison people for 4-6 years if they’re found guilty of fighting with the police or taking part in protests, creating an even more oppressive and authoritarian climate.

With all these things happening, artists had a special role in supporting the demonstrations by making posters or signs, looking for different ways to call for political action, or making art that addressed the political context. Some of my first art-making was with my friends, organizing an experimental school for gender studies in Moscow because there was a large clash of the Russian government against the queer, LGBTQ+ community, and anything that would be a disruption of the patriarchal gender standards. There were laws introduced that criminalized what they would call “propaganda,” basically anything that would speak about LGBTQ+ rights. People could get imprisoned if the government found that they are doing this “propaganda” for minors. So we were trying to push back and decided to come together and create this school and invite people. 

It was a two-month program with three components: art, theory, and activism. We invited artists to share their art practice through talks or lectures, and we invited philosophers or people from the academy to talk about gender in relation to the Soviet Union. We invited activists to share resources about other activist organizations or events. We had an art laboratory where we produced artwork based on what we learned at this school and the experience of meeting all these people, and we were lucky to get away with it without getting in a lot of trouble. That was one of the first socially engaged projects I’ve been part of creating, curating, and making. We conceptualized it as a social sculpture.

Diana: So, in Moscow you were more exposed to art, and it seems like this was also pushed onto you by the context. I wonder, if the political situation had been different, would you be interested in art anyway?

Illia: I think the political situation made me interested in socially engaged forms of art. Because I was interested in art before but in more conventional forms, still very much confined to gallery or museum spaces. After these experiences, I realized that even in the gallery space, many artworks could convey a political message. After getting more embedded into this community of artists, I realized that people were actually part of the events and tried with their art to support political activism as much as they could. It was not like they just made art and talked about the experience. 

So, my political engagement started in Russia, but by the end of 2013, another revolution was happening in Ukraine. I visited a few times to witness how it unfolded. The Ministry of Culture in Ukraine got occupied by activists and that event changed my perspective completely. I connected with the people who occupied it and went to a couple of meetings where people would gather at this large table to have a very horizontal type of meeting. They were discussing how they wanted to rebuild the cultural infrastructure of the country after the revolution succeeded. It was super interesting to experience that. It was very different from the Russian situation, where you can’t even come close to the Ministry of Culture building because it’s fenced out and the police guard it. 

In Ukraine, after the occupation, you could enter the building; the guard was still there but did nothing because he was just a guy, who I assume was still coming to work because things were unclear. The Minister left the building and never came back. Most workers also did not come back to work, so you could access papers, financial documents, and everything. It inspired me to go back to live in Ukraine to become part of this process of changing the structures because they were very inert, in many ways similar to what the Soviet Union was: a very top-down corrupt system without any input from the art community. But in 2014, after the building was occupied and after the revolution, all these changes started happening, and people from the field started entering the Ministry of Culture, some new government institutions were created, and it became more functional. I got inspired by this change and its potential and moved back to Ukraine and lived there for almost four years before coming to Portland.

Diana: How did you decide to come to this specific program?

Illia: There was another part of my life when I went to Beirut, Lebanon, to another art program for almost a year. There I met Gregory Sholette, an American artist involved in socially engaged work with a very political practice. Meeting him, I learned he runs a program in New York, and the program’s name is Social Practice. Basically, this is how I learned about the term. I was already interested in socially engaged art and how to learn the skills to enable social engagement between people or communities. I was interested in working with people and improving that part of my practice. I started looking for opportunities to do that and found out about the Fulbright scholarship, which I was lucky to get.

When I was applying, I didn’t know much about other programs in the United States. I knew about Gregory’s program and was in touch with him. Initially, I applied with the hope that I would go to study in New York. But, because of the nature of Fulbright, they can send you to any school they decide is most relevant for you based on many factors, trying to find a place they can afford best. Eventually, they just told me where they wanted me to go to study. I learned about the program at Portland State while I was already in the process.

When it turned out they were sending me to Portland, I checked the PSU Art and Social Practice website. I saw they had a partnership with the Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School and the Columbia River Correctional Institute. As an international student, not knowing what to expect in the United States and struggling with the language and many other things, it was good to see that, structurally, the program had these established forms of co-creation available for students; where maybe I could plug in and not have to look for the opportunities myself. Because the whole experience of adjusting to this new environment is already a lot of stress and energy. 

Diana: How did the experience in the program and the Portland context impact your creative process? How is finding community and trying to master “social engagement skills” in this specific Portland life?

I’m curious because your artistic practice emerged as a reaction to the political context you were immersed in before coming here and I don’t feel like PSU Art and Social Practice has a strong foundation for activism or political engagement.

Illia: It was definitely a difficult experience. I don’t want to necessarily say it was a “culture shock,” but it definitely felt very different. Like many things that were relevant to me were different here. I’m still learning and don’t fully understand how to operate in this context. Still, I am staying here longer and longer. It’s always challenging in general, and it’s not even necessarily a program-related thing. It’s just the difference in the context. 

But there are some takeaways from the program, from this local context, and mostly from the people; either students or just people who I’ve met in my journey in the United States. I have learned many things that changed how I think about socially engaged art. Now I think about my practice in a way that not only creates antagonistic statements but also as a way of trying to be supportive of myself and the community I am part of. Compared to what I experienced in Russia or Ukraine, where art often came from this political necessity of pushing back against the government, art can be very vocal and very rough. There is also a lot of trauma but you kind of embrace this trauma and try to… I am trying to find the right words… 

Diana: I’m thinking about the word “urgent.” At least for me, that also comes from a country where the context urges you to take action with your practice, to the point that sometimes it feels like it is kind of a privilege to create outside of those lines.

Illia: There is some art that makes some eyes feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to say it is “violent,” but you do some things and maybe you don’t like them but you still have to do it because it feels like a need to be dedicated to the political moment. I guess I’m trying to say that I have learned that it’s also important to take care of yourself and the community you work with. In this way, my practice became more about care and joy, or at least that is something I try to find for myself through my work. With projects like The Sea of Mariupol (1), I was trying to create a healing environment for myself, but with an approach where I could offer that framework to other people and see how it can be helpful for them to overcome the trauma of displacement. 

Diana: I totally got that with that project. It was healing magic having all these people together, sharing a boat ride. It was a joyful moment that I didn’t know I needed, and it brought me feelings of home. It made me think that maybe because of the pandemic plus the political situation, the need for care has become more urgent too.

I would also like to hear more about the Center for Art and Human Cooperation (2). I love that the mission is “To support mutual understanding and solidarity through arts and culture.” Can you tell me more about the need for mutual understanding, care, and solidarity?

Illia: Because I went through all these experiences, meeting people from different countries and cultures, I have learned some things about the politics and the struggles that those people have gone through, and I can relate to certain things that people share. Even though the struggles everyone is exposed to are different because they involve different configurations of geopolitics, history, race, and all these complexities. They fall differently in different places for different people, but there are factors that are relatable for many of us. In my practice, mutual understanding means that people can learn about each other’s experiences and find something they can relate through, and build some bonds with each other that potentially creates some form of solidarity that can empower all of us.

Because of being in the United States and not being connected to anyone, people have helped me a lot. People from different communities with different experiences have stepped in and helped me navigate different situations. So there are two things: one is finding ways to relate to each other and know more about each other’s struggles, the other is to understand them not only through the mind, but basically to feel for each other. Is there a word for that?

Diana: I don’t know if I’m getting it wrong, but this “feel for each other” sounds like learning through feelings. A connection to share ideas, experiences, or facts by understanding each other’s feelings.

Illia: Things unfold differently in different contexts, but some things are common in terms of capitalism, colonialism, and extraction. People experience these things differently according to their own circumstances, but it is still part of this global capitalism and the extractivist paradigm we’re immersed in, which, eventually, everyone has to address in some way. It is mainly driven to help yourself, but if there is more coordination and solidarity, it would be easier to address these systems in a way that can benefit everyone.

Diana: Why did you choose an institutional disguise as the framework to start the conversation about mutual understanding with The Center for Human Art and Cooperation?

Illia: Part of the need to make an institution came from the fact that I’ve done small projects that get folded into this bigger framework, and putting them together multiplies its symbolic value. But it comes from the need for a sense of security as well. I’m not sure if it’s working out for me so far or not, but since there’s so much precarity in being an artist, an institution feels more stable. It’s more psychological, that, maybe if I express all these things in this form, then I feel more secure, that’s one of the reasons. Also, sometimes, when you reach out to someone and say, “I have this institution,” people get more interested in what you’re doing. But at the same time, it can be a challenge. I remember the experience of participating in the activities of the Ukrainian Day Festival. I didn’t know the organizers very well, and when pitching my ideas, I would bring the institution up, and the response would be, “Oh, but what is your institution? Is it a charity? Is it commercial?” It felt more challenging to explain an institution than just come as an artist. In certain cases, it can make things more difficult because people may ask more questions and can even feel distrust of you as an institution.

Diana: One more question: how do you explain social practice to non-artists?

Illia: I would have some examples of my own work to share, explaining my projects and that I try to create experiences that will help others to learn about the place I am from in a way they can relate to my experience and connect it to things that are relevant to the context they come from. Like with The Sea of Mariupol, people’s social interaction and the social part of the project’s design is part of my practice and the artwork itself. This is how I approach this question so far because everything can be social practice. But basically, social practice is when social experience becomes an integral part of the artwork.

(1) The Sea of Mariupol is a program created by Illia to celebrate and commemorate the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, with a series of community-oriented events at the Willamette Sailing Club to raise awareness of Ukraine’s situation. This event encourages personal connection by sharing experiences and stories during a boat ride guided by Illia in support of Mariupol and its people.

(2) The Center for Human Art and Cooperation (CAHC) is a project created by Illia as an institution committed to supporting mutual learning and solidarity through exhibitions, events, discussions, and other artistic activities to promote cross-communal and cross-cultural exchange.

Diana Marcela Cuartas is a Colombian artist, educator, and cultural worker transplanted to Portland in 2019. Her work incorporates visual research, popular culture analysis and collaborative learning processes in publications, workshops, parties, or curatorial projects as a framework to investigate the relationships formed between a place and those who inhabit it. With her practice, Diana is interested in subverting hegemonic structures by cultivating spaces to invite people to slow down, think together, share questions, and play more.

Illia Yakovenko is an artist from Mariupol, Ukraine and a displaced individual. He is a 2022 graduate of the Art and Social Practice program and a Fulbright recipient. Illia grew up in Mariupol, by the Sea of Azov, where he spent hot summer days swimming and sailing.

The first Russian invasion of 2014 turned Mariupol and eastern Ukraine into a frontline. Since then, Illia directed his art practice to address conflict, heal, and imagine a more equitable, inclusive and safe future. In the following invasion of 2022, the Russian military attempted to completely destroy Mariupol. Illia’s family was able to flee to Europe. Illia’s status in the United States or elsewhere is precarious and uncertain.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207