Things escalated pretty quickly since January, when I first attempted to interview Vanya Samokrutkin - a creative force behind Ukrainian cross disciplinary art-platform and record label система | system. Between two countries, three languages and very bad internet connection, our initial contact wasn’t very fruitful, mainly because my questions were driven by nostalgia and recent hype surrounding the Ukrainian rave scene. Later I learnt that nostalgia and reminiscing about the past is not in Vanya’s nature, and neither is the Techno Club scene, which is becoming increasingly mainstream.
Originally from Odessa, a bustling town in the south of Ukraine immortalised by Sergei Eisenstein and his famous scene - a pram with a baby falling down interminable stairs (the stairs are still there) - Vanya finds himself in Rennes, a French town 1hr 20 min away from Paris, where he’s been living for the past 5 years. He tells me that setting up his record label in the Ukraine 5 years ago wasn’t so difficult. It felt like a natural progression from the raves Vanya threw in abandoned factories and other repurposed surroundings in Odessa, which are in plenty after the country’s economic demise.
Vanya’s background as an architecture graduate, and later a modern art space curator, set the tone for his events, which married rave culture with visual art, experimental sound installations and live performances, giving exposure to “strange and marginalised artists”. It was just a matter of time before Vanya’s music preferences took a more avant-garde turn. Vanya admits that he only started taking music production seriously when he moved to France. This seems to be facilitated by a perfect combination of better recording conditions in France and a less saturated experimental music scene in the Ukraine. Vanya observes: “There are more opportunities in France in terms of having access to a bigger number of studios and artists etc. But in terms of running a label, it’s more straightforward in the Ukraine, maybe because it’s easier to draw audience’s attention to the project (system). The general electronic music landscape in the Ukraine is much more appealing than in France, in terms of promoting your label - there’s much less competition and more visibility." His unique perception of visual and audio art comes from these separate cultural reference points.
When I ask Vanya about which producers he would like to work with in the future, without a second of doubt he replies: “I’m already working with the artists I ever wanted to work with”. His dream team consists of experimental multi-disciplinary artists such as Pi Doom, City Dragon, Alley Catss, who all released their latest work under система | system label, and are a product, to some degree, of cross-pollination between electronic experimental music and visual art. According to Vanya, his choices of artists are not defined by geographical location but more by their persona. He gives an example of his pivotal creative partnership with french artist, curator, producer, associate professor and Rinse France resident - Elsa Quintin aka Knappy Kaisernappy & Pi Doom, and whose name is featured on many artistic and musical collaborations, including a recent one with Coppelia Press, an independent publishing house founded by Elsa.
It comes as no surprise that система | system’s unorthodox sound appeals to such a wide audience - from academia at Berkley Research Centre in California to progressive youth at raves in the Ukraine. The latter was a major influence on 19-year old producer trblxgrxve from Kiev, “who got inspired by the aesthetics of a techno rave so much that he started recording his album on his mobile phone, not having anything else to record with.”, and later released by system, Vanya explains. Trblxgrxve explores fascination with techno events and everything that comes with it - drugs, late night encounters, dancing, emotions, exhaustion and excitement. Listening to the album feels like walking into someone’s deepest darkest dream. The first track of the release invites you with captivating “without it you can’t live, you can’t eat you can’t breath” uttered in unrecognisably low pitch, instantly taking me back to a gloomy beckoning dance floor in Odessa in the late 90’s, experiencing my first rush of pure euphoria. I think it’s fair to say that if David Lynch did a rave in the Ukraine it would sound like this:
Vanya prides himself on the fact that система | system always supported young, unknown inexperienced artists, giving their art a platform. “For example, one of the main activities of the platform is a series of live casts (live recordings only), which has always been a type of a social project, aimed at giving space to the youngest, most marginal and avant-garde experimental artists so they can freely express themselves. We already have 150 live recordings as part of the series. This subject is close to us and this is something we always have and will be supporting... There are a lot of young artists, especially from the Ukraine, who emerged and were noticed by promoters for the first time after they published their material as part of ‘system live cast series’ ”. Primarily an archive of live acts, this project is also supported by installations, visual and conceptual art shows and live performances.
Vanya himself attributes his musical choices to classical composers such as Alexander Knaifel and pioneers of minimalism - Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley and John Cage, who all had a major impact on him. It is no wonder that Vanya’s own music, produced under his Sytemnapotvora moniker, is very cinematic, evoking a variety of visual associations. One of his recent tracks *Flixbus de rien à rien…*/*Flixbus from nowhere to nowhere* … (think György Ligeti in Kubrick’s Space Odyssey soundtrack) is a prime example of this.
Vanya tells the story behind his track: “Back in 2017- 2018 I was performing in different European cities, Paris, Bordeaux, Nantes, Brest, Milan and many others, and I was travelling a lot with FlixBus, while carrying all the equipment with me all the time - synths, drum machines, acoustic instruments and on top of everything vinyl (a very heavy baggage in the end), as sometimes I would be doing life programmes plus ‘vinyl only’ DJ sets. And I spent a lot of time on my own. This track is about that, or to be more precise - about how I was traveling from one town to another, from one gig to another, from some complete strangers to someone even less familiar - from one nowhere to another nowhere. It’s about my feelings whilst being in this ‘nowhere’”.
For the lucky readers who have never had a chance of travelling with FlixBus coaches, to give you a brief insight after hours of traveling in the most uncomfortable confined space, it leaves you with very little will to live, let alone create an entire album. The idea behind the album *à la recherche du privation perdu*/ *In the search of lost limitations* was born during those times, and explores the experience of integration into new societal structures, each carrying unfamiliar cultural codes and languages.
When I ask Vanya about his opinion on the main driver behind the growing interest in Ukrainian electronic music scene, Vanya disagrees with me. He doesn’t believe that the appetite for Ukrainian music has been growing. He questions the motives behind this hype, and explains that the interest from the West is mainly of a colonial nature. When in fact a lot of Western promoters bring their artists to Ukrainian events but in return give very little exposure to Ukrainian artists at international events and festivals. He highlights that it’s not just the artists from the Ukraine but in general from the countries with less established music scene.
With Kyiv-based projects such as Cxema, Rhythm Büro and Osnova occupying their well deserved centralised spaces, система | system is a truly unique platform, taking up the space somewhere between “strange dance music’’ and contemporary art. It brings something completely different to the table, something way beyond secret location Techno raves, paving the way for unconventional artists from decentralised corners of the country.
We briefly touched on the tricky subject of politics and its influence in Vanya’s work, but Vanya managed to hint his ‘left side’ allegiance and mentioned label’s collaboration with radio Croco (a local French anarchist radio station) on projects supporting refugees. The label’s opinion about rightwing aesthetics is pretty uncompromising, they simply won’t work with anyone associated with ‘right views’.
Right now it seems to be futile to talk about the future of the label; Corona Virus has made it impossible to plan even 1 hour ahead. In brief, there were quite a few plans for Vanya and his label - from new releases to various live art and music events in Brussels and Odessa, further collaboration with Coppelia Press and a project in Paris. With all this uncertainty holding our world in a tight grip, I can’t help but show my admiration for Vanya’s ability to express the reason behind his inspiration in such a poetic way. To my question who or what is inspiring him at the moment, Vanya simply replies: “Covid-19 - and the whole situation, panic, fear, closure of the borders between countries, suspiciousness that has awaken in the society, and most importantly - the fragility of our world, the fragility of our system, the fragility of stability … everything can collapse in a matter of days. The pandemic and its spread are two things that are terrifying and influencing me right now. This is not “inspiration” in the pure sense, but rather a terrifying delight while observing the incredible fragility of being.”