Voyage of the Chelyuskin Club: A Conversation with Emily Newman
Brightly colored Russian children’s books line a bookshelf in Emily Newman’s studio. There’s also a key coffee pot, snack area, and an arrangement of colorful kid-size chairs and tables all of which seem to be rare second-hand store finds, but which she tells me are actually just used Ikea finds. In the corner of the room there are painted stacks and fragments of cardboard buildings. On the far wall is a large sheet of paper covered with a children’s drawing of an arctic landscape, which looks like something left over from her project, Voyage of the Chelyuskin Club.
Newman has described the Voyage of the Chelyuskin Club as “an attempt to forge a path of communication between distant generations of Pittsburgh’s Soviet Diaspora—older immigrants and their real or proximate grandchildren. Between these two groups exists a seemingly impenetrable barrier or an uncrossable rift of linguistic and cultural difference—the rift itself an outcome of the elders’ decision to immigrate.” The metaphor for this rift, and the vehicle for its bridging, became the story of the Chelyuskin Voyage, or the story of a ship that sailed from Leningrad to the Arctic only to be stuck in the ice for 3 months before the passengers were rescued, mostly all alive and well. The story of the steamship Chelyuskin, trapped in the frozen sea before being crushed by ice also serves as a metaphor for and an attempt at reconciliation of the promise of Communism with the failed reality as experienced by the older immigrants.
Emily Newman was born in Singapore in 1977, raised in the UK and is currently based between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and St Petersburg, Russia. She received her MFA from CalArts in 2004 and has shown internationally including at the Taylor De Cordoba in Los Angeles, the Anna Akhmatova Museum in St. Petersburg and the Klaus Von Nitchtssagend Gallery in New York where she has been represented since 2004. Her work has been critically reviewed in publications such as Art Review, The Los Angeles Times and Artforum, where she has also contributed reviews since 2007.
Kim Beck: You’ve just finished the filming for the Voyage of the Chelyuskin Club, and the remnants of it are all around us. How did you get started working on it? How did you meet the children and seniors who were involved? I’ve heard your amazing stories about your lunchtime meetings at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). Tell me about those, too! How was language a part of the project? I think you said that your meetings with the seniors started out as English Language classes?
Emily Newman: Yes! I initially encountered Russian immigrants at the JCC when I moved to Pittsburgh after five years in Russia and went there to use the pool. I bonded with a few of them and discovered that their experience of their own grandchildren (totally Americanized) was something similar to the experience I had had raising my first child from birth to age five in St. Petersburg and watching him, weirdly, growing into a Russian boy. (This process is documented in the Newman’s 2011 video-film, Mama Wolf.) After a few years of toying with the idea, I made an application and received support from the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Sprout Fund to formally launch an attempt to bridge this cultural/generational gap using art. The JCC was the perfect headquarters for the project as, over the years, it’s become a roost for elderly Russians – $1 lunch for immigrants!
As I found it conclusively impossible to change the routine of these people, I lucked out when the group’s longtime English teacher went south for the winter and I was able to take over his job. Our weekly conversations eased from writing phrases such as “Giant Eagle is overpriced” and “It’s hard to make friends with Americans” on the whiteboard to the topic of Communism – as an ideology, a place and a time – and their grandchildren’s familiarity with it. Had they tried to talk to them about it? How could it be done? Were they willing to try? The answers to all of these questions were “Nyet!”
KB: So what did you do? How did you persuade them to get involved?
EN: For a while they maintained that the topic was too complicated for children. In some ways they felt tender towards their Soviet past, in others, they absolutely rejected it. As one of them said, holding up her hand: “I build a wall!” Indeed they all had different histories–the parents of some had been party members, the parents of others had been repressed. The kids wouldn’t be able to understand, they were too young for Stalin, that it wasn’t possible for a Western person to even imagine what the Soviet Union was like, that any discussion of Communism that wasn’t a direct condemnation of the system would be an automatic validation of it and that they didn’t want to encourage further Socialist experiments…. The goal of my work with them was shaped by these conversations–we looked around for a way to say something simple about Communism–whether it could be done. Something that would come directly from their mouths as former residents of a disappeared civilization and a colossal experiment in modern history, to the ears of these kids, to be slowly digested as they grew up and maybe recollected and made sense of only when they reached adulthood. Our meetings continued regularly and as we gradually forgot about the outcome of the project but rather enjoyed each other’s company. We found ourselves designing a curriculum and methodology which I was to bring in spoonfuls to a group of 7 and 8 year olds…the anchor was the Chelyuskin expedition. Thus we had the Senior Chelyuskin Club which met on Wednesdays at the JCC, and the Junior Chelyuskin which met on Fridays at my studio.
KB: When and how the Chelyuskin first become the heart of the project? How did you get the kids involved?
EN: We chanced upon the story of the Chelyuskin in the introduction of a book written by the father of group member, Prima Reitynbarg (age 87, of Homestead). The book was a children’s manual on the topic of public transport–we were considering using it to base our kids activities on and Prima had brought it to the English class to discuss. The book’s introduction was written by one of the pilots of the Chelyuskin rescue mission who her father had personally known. I had never heard of 1933 Chelyuskin expedition so they described it to me in vivid detail and it transpired that two of our group had personally known members of the mission: the expedition leader Otto Shmidt, who Prima knew as a little girl, “I used to sit on his lap and play with his beard,” and radio operator Ernst Krenkl, who had been Yan Fink’s (around age 75, of Bloomfield) boss at the Meteorological Institute in Moscow.
KB: It seems incredible, that of all places, here in Pittsburgh you should meet two people who had a connection to the rescue mission. So much of what you’re describing is riveting as storytelling. How did you use that with the group?
EN: We decided that this was a story that would provide an opportunity to talk about Communism in a way that they, the Senior Chelyuskins AND the Junior Chelyuskins, could handle.
The kids were gathered–since my studio is small we kept the group small–four in all. Masha and Sasha are Russian kids whose parents emigrated and have neither of them ever been to Russia. Kharen was adopted from a Russian orphanage three years ago and has since forgotten the language. Isaac is my son and was raised in Russia up to the age of five and has been here in Pittsburgh for the last three years. All of the kids in the group are in first and second grade. They all have a patchy sense of being Russian.
KB: What was the trajectory from idea to conclusion? What kind of research and preparation was involved in the project?
EN: Like an icebreaker, the project was given form by the obstacles that threatened it, giving birth to new methods for smashing through and forging a sight line between the two clubs.
KB: Perfect! The icebreaker was a real boat and a metaphor!
EN: Yes, it worked out that way–first of all, the Senior Club resisted the premise of the project; they also refused at first to be photographed or even to have their voices recorded. Prima even asked me if I was a member of the Communist party and wanted to know who was paying for my research. I think she thought that I was agitating for a renewed attempt at Communism in Pittsburgh.
KB: Prima sounds like a complex and interesting woman. A character in the best and fullest sense of the word, and a real person with an involved history, both complicating and tying your story together. How did you get to know her?
EN: Prima and I spent hours and hours together, mostly at her apartment. After getting to know her, hearing her make off-hand remarks about her parent’s meeting Freud and Chagall and other key members of the intelligentsia of her era, I offered to process her five hundred page memoir through an online self-publishing site in exchange for her help on the Chelyuskin Club.
KB: That must have been a huge job.
EN: Yes! Through our conversations it transpired that she doubted my intentions and even my methodology, which was to teach the kids about the expedition and then give them costumes, puppets and sets in which they would play freely–like a theater in which the kids are both actor and audience. She wrote me a play based on the Chelyuskin adventure, which she wanted me to traditionally stage with the children. When describing my prefered experimental process, during which the children seized the story with incredible intensity, Prima said that it was ‘not enough’ for her. At the final party, however, she pulled me aside and asked that I be sure to credit her with the central idea of the project–that of heroism.
KB: I’m in awe of her. That’s chutzpah! How did things go with the rest of the group?
EN: Well, backtracking, we did eventually find a productive working rhythm and a steady conduit of connectivity between members. In the studio, the kids ploughed through stages of the story as shaped by Sasha’s mother, Irina (who became a central member of the club), the Seniors, myself, and of course Prima through examining primary materials borrowed from libraries across the country. We also unpacked the many online conspiracy theories that exist about the expedition which color the story with the anti-Soviet sentiment that motivated these people to immigrate. (It was a prisoner ship headed for a gulag and Stalin wouldn’t have rescued them if Americans hadn’t also intercepted their SOS signals, etc.) However, for the kids we made things simple, six acts: Life on the Ship, The Ship Sinks, Life on the Ice, The Rescue, The Train Ride of Glory and the Heros’ Welcome. For each stage of the story we built sets with the help of Artur Vladislavovich, a recent transplant to Pittsburgh and Sasha’s grandfather. Unwilling to leave the house, Artur built the basic components of the sets at home (ship, plane and Lenin’s Mausoleum), but he did come once to the studio and met Prima and looked at home at pictures of the kid’s activities on the blog.
KB: How did it work, having the kids and the seniors all together? Did the seniors treat the kids as if they were there own grandchildren? Or vice-versa?
EN: No. (laughs) The groups did not function well together and we were compelled to accept this. During the all-Chelyuskin club meetings that we had (four or five in all), the kids were extra-naughty and the Seniors, although they enjoyed the atmosphere somewhat, could not hold the kid’s attention. There was a lot of yelling on my part “Shhhh! Sit down, listen to Prima!” There were, however, instances of dazzling acknowledgement between the groups such as when Kharen was told that Yan knew the real Krenkl and said “I can’t believe it!” and also when he fumbled for something nice to say to Yan and chose “I love your hair!”. We chose to keep the groups mostly separate, but maintained a constant flow of communication between them through morse code messaging, guest appearances and the final celebration where the Chelyuskinites made it to Moscow and were decorated with medals by the Seniors.
KB: You keep saying “we” as in “we were compelled” and “we chose”–it sounds like you really came to see this as a collaboration with the participants. Did it feel that way all along?
EN: It did feel that way. Both the Seniors and the Juniors fell into very comfortable working rhythms and we spent a lot of time together coming up with ideas, moving the project this way and that. As soon as we found the topic of the Chelyuskin, the crew came together with a sense of common purpose and an eye to where we would finish.
KB: What was the culmination party like? What did you do?
EN: The final party was attended by all the Chelyuskin Club members amounting to fourteen people in all, including parents of the Juniors. We decorated the studio as Red Square with St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s Mausoleum and with branches of cherry blossoms. When everyone was assembled the kids transferred their dolls into a cardboard limousine and drove it through Red Square to the Mausoleum while the Seniors showered the procession with confetti and cheers. Each child was then awarded with a medal by Yan, who gave individualized speeches and wore his real medals along with some theatrical medals which we had made, and a Giant Eagle baseball cap (he has worked at the supermarket for the last fifteen years). The Seniors were very happy and gave touching speeches about the project–I was especially pleased when the idea was expressed (as I’ve mentioned before) that though we won’t know the ultimate effects of the project, that in twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years, these kids will retain something from the experience which came personally from them. We then presented Prima’s finished memoirs which were admired by all. Prima was full of pride as a published author. The children were at this point so full of sugar that they were racing around the halls of the studio building, oblivious to everything.
KB: That’s hilarious and so sweet. Do you think the final piece was the club or will it be documentation or a video?
EN: This is a big question for me–certainly, it has to be all three. In production, balancing these outcomes was tricky. The idea that I was producing an artwork tethered me to the abstract purpose of the project–that the generation of people who participated fully in the Soviet Socialist experiment are dying out and that their grandchildren will learn about it only from secondary sources unless they describe it. In the case of immigrants, the phenomena is further exacerbated because these kids are not positioned to receive the media-produced re-historicization that happens in Russia and the former Soviet Republics. This sense of an abstract purpose drove me through the initial obstacles that lay ahead of the project–the reluctance of the Seniors and naughtiness of the kids–that helped. On the other hand, the clubs themselves were ultimately fun and productive in a way that won’t and doesn’t need to translate into the final artwork–evidence of this is that the club will continue even though I’m moving back to Russia for the next year (the new theme is “Kosmos,” the Soviet space program).
Some of the trickiness though came through as I tried to be both outside and very much inside the process at the same time. For example, when someone started to say something wonderful before I had my recording device going, or before my camera was out, I sometimes had to let it go rather than break the flow of the moment–this was strange. Something funny happened though during the final party–because of an error on my part, the cameraman who was scheduled to film the event didn’t show up. We waited a while and I delayed the start of the party. The elderly club members could sense my nervousness about this, when it finally became clear that he wasn’t coming, they all rallied in support and assured me that I could do it–it was like we all pulled together and actively chose to make a film–this was ideal of course!
Though I’ve only just started to edit, now I’m thinking that I will show documentation of the club’s activities in video and photographs and probably objects and maybe a book. I am on my way to Russia and will be working with a childrens’ theater there to stage the project again and also to hopefully work with St. Petersburg’s wonderful museum of the Arctic and Antarctic. I also hope to work on the same theme and with the same methodology with Russian immigrants in Helsinki. So I’m hoping that a three-part film and archive will come out of this. If it all works out, I envision starting with Pittsburgh and ending in Russia–with the idea that even in Russia, the Soviet Union is a distant place that needs to be actively described to kids by the last surviving generation of people who worked to build it.
Images courtesy of the artist.