Exchanging Memories

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Here’s a description of the happening by Zhanara:

Our intention for the Memory Exchange was to engage the residents of the Brighton Beach area in the art-making process. We wanted to create a situation where they could reflect and recollect their experiences of coming from the Soviet Union to New York. In exchange for their memories, we offered watercolor drawings made by Diana and Daniel especially for this event. Diana’s drawings elaborated on material objects from her childhood spent in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Daniel captured stills from popular Soviet-era films. We put them out on the table in the middle of the Boardwalk next to the Café Tatiana that kindly provided us with a foldable table.

Our table quickly turned into an object of curiosity. Joggers coming back from their morning run, people taking out their dogs for a walk, residents of the senior citizen building behind us, families with children, parents with strollers, and tourists came over to the table and looked over at the sign “Exchange your memory for art” and drawings. Some quickly glanced over and continued on their paths, while others asked us questions and provided ample commentary on the artworks. When we asked if they wanted to exchange their memories of the Soviet Union and arrival to the United States, a few told that they had nothing to share and in fact they were trying to forget it. They responded that they were happy to be living in the United States and declined to be video-taped or photographed. Those who lingered and looked over the images generously shared their reactions and associations that the images evoked—industrial scenes, toys, cigarette wrappers. My favorite comment was that every third person who saw a drawing with special Soviet bread called “baton” remembered how much it cost. Some said it was 13 kopecks, while others argued it was 23 kopecks. This created an opportunity for people to talk to each other about their whereabouts and the politics of pricing (zones). I was really surprised how exactly people remembered the prices and how the same object was recognized by people from Odessa, Moscow, and Samarkand. Most of them said that the images were very believable and made them remember the material life from the Soviet Union.

Those few who courageously agreed to be interviewed by Mikhail in the presence of video camera came back to the table to pick up their favorite drawing. We took photographs of them with the drawings they took home. The five hours we spent on the boardwalk flew by like thirty minutes! Thank you, Bella, Elena, Irina, Maxim and others who helped out!