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Tobias Zielony
Courtesy the artist & KOW, Berlin

Photographing the queer youth of Kiev’s underground techno scene

Striking images from Ukraine’s creative underground show that partying can be a form of political resistance

Tobias Zielony’s photography sweeps us up into a world where late nights and the mornings after take on a cinematic quality. The latest body of work by the Berlin-based artist, titled Maskirovka, explores the underground techno and queer scene at the hub of Kiev’s youth culture.

Zielony produced Maskirovka over 2016 and 2017, photographing and filming in the capital. Today, Kiev is still suffering from the aftermath of 2013’s bloody Euromaidan revolution, which saw swarms of activists rally together to confront a corrupt government. The political situation is bad – in Eastern Ukraine a war still rages. But, in the face of crisis young people have generated a booming scene of infamous, illegal parties. This begs the question, is all the hedonism just pure escapism? Zielony argues that it’s more – “it’s a form of resistance, of creating a community when the bigger society isn’t functioning.” And it’s not just about partying – the scene is imbued with DIY creativity, people working as tattoo artists, graffiti artists, musicians, fashion designers. “They’re really avant-garde. Maybe even beyond their country.” 

The underground world also acts as an oasis for alternative and queer people, whose differences can be met with hostility from the public. The series’ title, Maskirovka, literally translates as ‘masking’ and is a term used to describe Russian military tactics of deceit. In Zielony’s work, the act of ‘masking’ takes centre stage – his subjects put on masks or apply thick makeup. They have adopted maskirovka as a means to survive and maintain their identities in the face of prejudice. Tobias says that he learned a lot about bravery during his time in Kiev, not only from those who fought for the democratic rights of the country but also from those who identify as queer.

Along with the 42 photographs, Maskirovka includes a short film. Images are cut and spliced, creating a heady montage evocative of the strobe lights that flood dance floors. Sequences of a gyrating boy in a VR headset are punctuated by marching military men, newsreaders, people rioting. The merging of two or more narratives makes it near impossible to gauge any explicit story – but Tobias argues that that’s his point. “I don’t feel like it’s my role to do a journalist’s job.” The artist pushes the boundaries of what documentary is, playing with the fine line between fact and fiction and constructing new narratives in the process. He adds that his work is an investigation of the reliability of the medium itself – “I have the feeling that documentary is more fiction than fiction film.”

In Zielony’s world, characters dance, pose and leer. Hyperaware of the penchant for performing in front of a camera, Tobias actively seeks to capture the dialogue that an individual has with the voyeur. He says that often he can understand more about someone’s desires from what they choose to project than so-called reality. “Even political ideologies are projected fictions.” In an age of Instagram stories, fake news and duplicitous politicians, Tobias Zielony holds up his lens to the definition of ‘real’ and asks the question, does the performance ever end?

Maskirovka is currently on view at London’s Project Native Informant as a part of Condo London 2018 – a collaborative project involving 46 international galleries across 17 London spaces – until 10 February 2018

Project Native Informant is hosting a discussion between artist Tobias Zielony and writer Arielle Bier on Tuesday 30 January 2018 from 1830-1930 in their London gallery. Free and open to the public, no need to RSVP