An Interview with Filmmaker and Photographer Nikita Shokhov
Above: Nikita Shokhov, still from Klaxon VR 360 film project
Nikita Shokhov is a prominent 32-year old Russian photographer, visual artist and the winner of 2014 World Press Photo contest, currently studying at the School of Visual Arts at Virginia Tech. Nikita’s body of work highlights universal topics, performing visual research on everyday life and its carnivalesque aspects. He explores religion, justice, contemplating and reflecting on phenomena of the contemporary outer world by means of a mix of documentary and staged approaches and optical-based imagery. .art Domains spoke to Nikita about the challenges of talking about black identity, the concept of «post-truth» and his artworks that can be currently seen at CADAF Online.
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Tell us about your creative route and your education. How did you become an artist?
I spent my school years in the town of Kamensk-Uralsky in the middle of Russia. In my late teens I was preparing to work in law enforcement and was studying law in Ekaterinburg. It was a horrible time for me: my entire essence resisted this policing realm.
This was when I started intensively practicing photography and studying cinema classics at a film club. Fellini became my first strong impression in intellectual cinema. I was lucky to have my first professional training in studio lighting and analog photography with a locally well-known pro-American photographer Sergey Rogozhkin, an admirer of Tarkovsky and Cartier-Bresson. He was also the one who introduced me to documentary and street photography – since then, the human figure and a documentary approach are often present in my works.
When I was 19, after graduating from law school and a short internship in a police department, where I was always sleepy after spending nights developing black and white photographs in my bathroom, I became an assistant at a fashion photography studio in Ekaterinburg. I studied cinematography at the Sverdlov Film Studio, taught by “Uncle Slava” (Vyacheslav Ivanov), an anti-Americanist who was a crew member at a Tarkovsky’s production.
But you’ve found your main teacher – Igor Mukhin – at the Rodchenko Art School. What lead to this?
After a few failed attempts to get into VGIK’s cinematography class, I moved to Moscow to study documentary photography at the Rodchenko Art School with Igor Mukhin. This is where I consider myself to have become an artist: I was introduced to the contemporary art and photography scenes in Moscow. Mainly working in carnivalesque-Rabelaisian-Bakhtin documentary tradition, I participated in many photography and art shows, at the same time working as a photographer for publishing houses. The Rodchenko Art School, Olga Sviblova, and the Multimedia Art Museum did a fantastic job pushing us onto the global art scene, introducing us to many international curators and organizing workshops with European professionals.
Tell us a little about your SCAN project.
I started SCAN at the peak of my photography career in Moscow. It was a transitioning project in between still and moving images. While it certainly belongs to the documentary tradition, Scan goes beyond the boundaries of traditional “direct” photography. The use of slit scanning photography allowed me to capture 40 seconds of reality in one image.
Moving objects, such as cars and people, undergo a process of plastic deformation evoking the spirit of photography in the era of “post-truth”. We see a crowd as one united body. My subject matter includes holiday celebrations, political rallies, military parades, and sacred events. These activities, which invariably support dominant ideologies, fulfil the human need for belonging. In this time of social distancing due to COVID-19, images of mass gatherings have acquired additional meanings. SCAN was deeply encouraged by the phenomenon of mass processions: how it was transformed from the manifestation of “carnival” in its more traditional role – an escape from fear – to the celebration of dominant ideologies in the modern empires.
How and why did you decide to start working with moving images?
Watching the Matrix trilogy in my teens was truly the turning point that inspired me to do moving images, involving technologies and futurism and inclined into Buddhism. After the SCAN project, I changed direction and began working with time-based visuals, video installation, involving performative practices, dance, and theatre. The premiere of Hard to be a God by Alexey German, which is a movie but essentially a piece of video art, ultimately pushed me to start practicing moving images.
How did you come to the topic of black identity?
I always keep focus on human beings, society, history; humanist values and justice. When I moved to New York, I was immersed in contemporary art, experimental theatre, and dance scenes. I also studied Black History, Black Studies, a bit of African American dance and literature, and anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington.
I exhibited my first immersive video installation Ice during a theatrical residency The Watermill Center Summer Program. One of the visiting artists was Cornel West. I had a short conversation with him. He listened kindly to my concerns about whether I, as a white foreigner, could create a film on the subject of black Americans. He responded that I should definitely do it and advised me to start by reading The Black Book and some Toni Morrison.
Later I initiated a collaborative VR 360 film project Klaxon on the subject of black identity and womanhood. We call this project “a laboratory of understanding the other”. The viewer puts on a VR headset and enters the intimate world of memories and thoughts of a black woman, going through several stages of her life, contemplating her life-long process of becoming. The most fruitful period of artistic and conceptual development was during studying at CalArts. While Klaxon was already in post-production, I transferred from CalArts to Virginia Tech to focus deeper on six-degrees-of-freedom virtual environments, real-time 3D graphics and interactivity. This is where I am now, having started studying programming language and practicing volumetric optical imagery. A few days ago with a group of Virginia Tech people we successfully finished a mixed reality interactive film Sentiments, my very first 3D, CGI, and interactive piece.
Sentiments is a mixed-reality, interactive story inspired by the experiences of many first-generation immigrant families. You follow the life of a single mother and her son as they navigate their relationship through the early 2000s in America. Sentiments is based on the universal theme of growing up and the hardship of giving a better life to your children. As you relive everyday moments from the past you will come to realize the untapped power that memories hold.
What is the biggest creative challenge you have had to overcome and how did you do it?
The most recent challenge was related to the Klaxon VR project. Being a white male foreigner working on a subject of an African American woman is a very risky situation to be in – it’s very easy to become harmful to the black community even when you have good intentions. I had to do an immense amount of political, historical and social research in several institutions, via many films, books, art, performance shows, field trips, and personal interviews.
I believe it was worth it: I would have never learned so much about the American past and present reality and ethics. There are not enough white individuals who attempt to actively draw attention to the importance of eliminating white supremacy for the sake of everyone’s better future.
Why is it important for an artist to have a website in the age of social media?
I know artists who create their websites as pieces of art, web art. For me, it is a personal independent space on the web, where I can share my portfolio and information about how my works develop. It makes a huge difference compared to having a page on social media. Social media platforms come and go, whereas a website always has an address. Moreover, I know many people who are against particular social media platforms on political or philosophical grounds. Having a page on social media means supporting this particular commercial vendor, and we may not agree with its policy. In contrast, an artist’s website is a rather unbiased source.
Why did you choose .art?
I had a website on .com for several years. A couple of years ago I had a meeting with the AES+F collective who just moved to .art back then, they shared some information about this community’s focus. As a globally oriented artist, I wanted to move to this domain. The year after that I participated in a new media art contest Nova Art in St. Petersburg, where I was gifted my .art domain as a part of the award. .art Domains focus on the professional art world. I find this distinction to be helpful when it comes to highlighting one’s affiliation to the international art community. And I’m very glad that several of the world’s largest art institutions recently moved to this domain.
Learn more: nikitashokhov.art