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Videochat: send nudes. Olya Avstreyh and Jenya Milyukos
From Videochat: send nudes by Olya Avstreyh and Jenya Milyukos (2020)Courtesy of the artists

These Russian artists video-chatted daily to paint each other nude

Olya Avstreyh and Jenya Milyukos documented their daily lives with a series of intimate paintings made during lockdown

Video calling has become a much more normalised form of communication during the pandemic, but it creates an unusual space of distance versus proximity and isolation versus intimacy. It’s a means of connecting with people from all over the globe in new transformative ways, but it can also feel alienating and inhibiting at times. 

During lockdown, artists Russian artists Olya Avstreyh and Jenya Milyukos began confronting these boundaries by spending time together in this digital realm, calling each other every day for a fortnight by video on Instagram. Though they were in different cities, they began drawing each other naked as they talked about their everyday lives and their concerns about the current political climate in Russia. What was conceived initially as a fun, therapeutic way to keep up their drawing practice began to gain new momentum as they formed a shared artistic language to engage with ideas about nudity, censorship, and the female body in a patriarchal society. Videochat: send nudes is an irreverent, funny, beautiful, and rebellious response to a repressive regime.

We talk to Olya Avstreyh and Jenya Milyukos about collaboration, prohibition, the sexualisation of the female anatomy.

I love these artworks! Could you tell us about the background of this collaboration, the intention of the project, and how the idea began?

Olya Avstreyh: Thank you! Me and Jenya met at an MA program in contemporary painting at art school in Moscow (HSE Art And Design School) with no professional background in painting. I think we really started connecting by the end of the year and that’s when quarantine hit. And that actually worked as a powerful driving force for us. We were both involved in a big online isolation group project and then we kind of slipped off and wanted to do something as a duo. 

There was a lot of pressure in the air. It’s almost like, as an artist, you’re obliged to respond the right way when the world is falling apart. It was a historical moment where everything was resetting. So the idea came from within us rather than dictated from the outside. We wanted to reclaim the intimacy of video calls, we wanted to paint, and we wanted to perform an experiment to learn how far can you push the boundaries of mutual trust with somebody you don’t really know. It was a deliberate challenge. We started off with ideas that it should be a game and then developed it into a therapy session type of performance where we inverted the classic artist-model scheme. 

We have a global problem with censorship. The definition of what’s prohibited is imposed upon us, sexualising area of our bodies without our consent. As you say, “The body is not pornographic unless the beholder objectifies it.” Could you share a bit more about how your work responds to this? 

Olya Avstreyh: When we started having our sessions — every day for two weeks – an absurd political case was gaining momentum of an artist called Yulia Tsvetkova who is facing six years in prison for her feminist drawings, some of them featuring nude bodies, that she posted on social media. A big media strike swept through the Russian internet with mottos “free Yulia” and “female body is not pornography”. I think I never fully grasped the way female nudity is taboo in our society. With my own work, I think I elevated the concept of the nude body, my body, Jenya’s body, it all became just a beautiful art form for me. So, when Instagram deleted all of the posts with our drawings and collages, it was like someone just knocked you on the head and dragged you back to reality. This is a big, big conversation about double standards and the puritanism of it all because, you know, male bodies don’t get censored on Instagram, we checked! What guidelines are we talking about, art is supposed to break rules. 

Jenya Milyukos: We started bombarding Instagram with pictures of the project one after another and everything got banned. Now we each have one “survivor-post” where lots of art had to be left out for no reason. We actually had to change some of the collages and cover more areas of the body. 

“It’s almost like, as an artist, you’re obliged to respond the right way when the world is falling apart” – Olya Avstreyh

How is the current socio-political climate for artists in Russia right now? What does it feel like being an artist making work in these conditions? 

Jenya Milyukos: Being an artist in Russia comes with huge amounts of limitations by default. Lots of topics that one could work with are off-limits or simply hushed up. As a consequence, the audience is not up to date or concerned with current social processes and, instead of a discussion, there’s condemnation and judgement. If the subject of your practice is political, in most cases it will be cracked down on. But there are lots of talented artists here who are not afraid to speak up and this show of boldness is catching and inspiring to others, both in unblocking creative skills but also in being more conscious about their civil liberties. 

Olya Avstreyh: It’s sad when an artist starts catching themselves on self-censorship thoughts. People in Russia are so broken-spirited and aren’t ready to let go of the Soviet past. But you can’t go to prison every time you want to make a point like Yulia Tsvetkova or Pussy Riot!

Could you tell us a bit more about your interest in captchas, and how the final aesthetic of the pictures evolved? Did you always intend them to become collages? 

Jenya Milyukos: We wanted to create a quirky game that only we would understand. The main visual was a lotto board that eventually converted into google captchas. We were constantly keeping up with the Tsvetkova case and since in captchas you need to select certain images, we wanted those to be the tabooed parts of the body. Me and Olya were constantly in touch online — video calling, chatting non-stop, dropping memes, and we wanted all this to be part of the project as well. So we ended up doing collages in our distinctive style because it allowed us to use everything that surrounded us during our sessions, it was a mix of paintings, photos, chat screenshots, gifs, digital art. 

Olya Avstreyh: It ended up being a proper online project, we have our drawings in physical form, but they kind of don’t work outside of this world that we created. Jenya brought a lot to the table with collages because she has a background in graphic design and that was also the beauty of a partnership — when you’re constantly picking up from each other and balancing on each other’s strong sides. 

You say you discussed everything about your lives and your interests as you worked. How do you think this ongoing dialogue informed the paintings as the fortnight progressed? Was it a vital aspect of this collaboration? 

Jenya Milyukos: By the end of the project it was really hard to see the difference between our drawings because we kind of merged into one artist. You can tell the difference only by some features, Olya is quite recognisable because I would always paint her hair pitch black. Conversations that we had really helped me cope with a lot of dark moments that I was going through and couldn’t share even with my boyfriend. It was definitely a therapy of sorts. It’s like you have an appointment with your shrink but, instead of getting in that chair, you take off your clothes and start pouring your heart out but your therapist is also naked, and rather than making notes she’s painting your psychological portrait of the day. Bottom line, it was all really fun and I feel quite an urge to resume our sessions because so many unresolved problems have piled up.

Olya Avstreyh: I remember our first conversations were very laid back, we were establishing contact — like what are your favourite show on Netflix right now, what are you gonna do for your birthday. But quite quickly they became extra deep. I would literally confide to Jenya and we became really close. In two weeks, through extreme openness, which was literal and metaphorical, we’ve accelerated the process of how people become friends. On another level, it definitely worked as a social experiment as well of how a friendship and a creative duet is formed. I really miss Jenya and our sessions. 

You plan to continue the project irl in the future. What are your hopes and expectations for how it might evolve? 

Olya Avstreyh: Right now we’re thinking how can we bring this project to a museum format. We want to exhibit it and add an extra layer to it because, right now, it’s definitely more of an online thing. We were video chatting on Instagram calls and recording every session but then it turned out that everything had no sound. Typical. So you can’t actually hear our voices anywhere right now. Maybe we’ll do a proper video where all shall be revealed. Plus, ever since we started, we haven’t seen each other in person. I think something might come up in that perspective too. 

We also have this wild dream that it could be a global thing where other female artists could do the same, like a flashmob. True sisterhood. Imagine how many new vital connections could be established. I’d love to have a session with Jemima Kirke, for example. I’m sure she’ll love this idea. Jemima, if you’re reading this — dm me. 

Jenya Milyukos: I agree, we want to break new ground. But such online sessions can’t be one-offs or, on the opposite, should be like Chatroulette when you spontaneously meet someone online and then lose them in the stream. The hardest thing in such practice is to retain the artistic and pictural element, but still keep a naive and absurd feel to it. 

Videochat: nudes is showing now on the HSE Art & Design School website