Minsk might not top many lists of must-see New East destinations: hackneyed images of Victory Day parades and the Lukashenko regime’s ultra-conservative public policy have for a long time defined perceptions of Belarus. Things are changing, though, and with a relaxed visa regime having come into effect for a number of European countries, including the UK, Belarus is capable of proving it has much to offer. So who are the artists, musicians and activists making Belarus a more exciting place to work, live and visit? And what does it feel like to be starting from scratch? We asked photographer, programmer and designer Kasia Syramalot, the creative director of 34mag — an online and offline community documenting the country’s new reality in Belarusian, English and Russian.
“If you’re lacking something, then get off the sofa and make it” — Kasia’s bold mission statement sums up the energy running through Belarusian culture today. From championing music releases, open-air festivals and architectural guides, to in-depth interviews on issues of ecology and civil liberties, 34mag is both kickstarting and promoting the initiatives shaping contemporary Belarus
What is your mission at 34mag?
We think of ourselves as a small media laboratory creating a kind of archive of new Belarusian culture, with the aim to make it part of the global cultural context. It is our passion rather than “work”. As a team, the credit we get from our audience only encourages us to experiment further. Our community grows with us. They won’t let us switch off. They are ready to show up at our events at a day’s notice.
As 34mag grows, how do you stay in the loop in terms of emerging cultural figures?
We put the same amount of effort into reporting a concert from an unknown band we like that we do into our coverage of “big names”. Quite often, 34mag is the first serious publication to cover a lot of these guys. We keep in touch with them and they always give back — for instance, by sharing their releases exclusively with us. Big media functions according to a set of rules they themselves hardly understand. I’m happy that at 34 we’re still able to experiment, set our own rules and break them the moment we feel them unnecessary.
Tell us about 34’s music program and the Piarshak label. Are there many Belarusian artists on it? Could you highlight your favorite ones?
At 34 we have always promoted Belarusian music. Since 2010 we have released over 70 albums. And this year Piarshak has transformed from a musical archive into a full-scale magazine about music. We also do the 34Music Sessions — a series of cinematographic live performances showcasing Belarusian music today in the city’s most vibrant places, featuring emerging and well-established bands. My favorite episode is the one with Wasp’n’Hornet, a band that reunited exclusively for the project. Other favorites are the episodes with Ana Zhdanova, local underground collective Kassiopeya and the acoustic performance from Oleg LSP, Belarus’s brightest rap star. Another talented Belarusian musician, Roma Anglichanin, who mastered the track, sadly passed away this summer.
What are the other 34 projects you’re working on at the moment?
This year we launched the Go To Belarus project. We position it as an alternative guide to the country. Official guides lean heavily on folklore aesthetics, but we decided to find another visual style for ours; one that would show the beauty of contemporary Belarus. It’s quite a task to find good pictures of Belarus. Most of them were made 10 or 20 years ago. This year I travelled and filmed a lot around the country, compiling most of the images we used for the project. Another project is our clothing line. We have already had a few successful collaborations with Belarusian brands, and now it’s time to make our own release.
As a photographer and designer, what do you find most exciting about living in Belarus?
It is almost undocumented. And despite the period of stagnation and emigration that we’ve been through over the last 15 years, a generation has emerged that has decided to build the Belarus they want to live in. In the last five years this generation has gained in strength and boldness. And I’m really eager to stay here and help them grow.
Text: Masha Borodacheva
Image: Kasia Syramalot