From Pyramiden with Love

The 2016 Wisconsin Triennial features a short film set in the Russian settlement of Pyramiden. Stephen Hilyard’s Катюша (Katyusha) combines footage from the abandoned settlement and footage shot in Wisconsin to tell the story of a “gift stone” Hilyard discovered in the ghost town. The title of the installation refers to a Russian song written in 1938 whose popularity endures even today.

Pyramiden is, or was, the northernmost town in the world. It is located in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Circle, just 500 miles from the North Pole. In 1920 the Svalbard Treaty granted Norway sovereignty over the archipelago but gave all signatories equal rights to develop commercial activities there. Norway and the Soviet Union were the two signatories who pursued enterprises there most vigorously.

In 1936, the Soviet Union acquired the rights to coalfields at Pyramiden and began to develop a community there. After the mines closed in 1998, Pyramiden was abandoned in the span of two days. As shown in Катюша (Katyusha), the buildings and infrastructure remain to this day.

Pyramiden's infrastructure, though abandoned, remains intact
Pyramiden’s infrastructure, though abandoned, remains intact. Courtesy Stephen Hilyard

Stephen Hilyard is a professor of digital arts in the UW-Madison Art Department. Катюша (Katyusha) can be seen now through January 8, 2017 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Wisconsin Triennial. The three-channel video installation features music performed by the UW Russian Folk Orchestra.

CREECA spoke with Hilyard about the production of Катюша (Katyusha):

What was the inspiration for Катюша (Katyusha)?

It was inspired by my first visit to Pyramiden in 2012. My initial plans for the piece were much simpler than the final version. The changes came about due to various experiences I had during my second expedition to Svalbard, the most important being my chance discovery of the “gift stone” that is at the center of the narrative. I found the stone, just as you see it in the film, at the start of the expedition. This lead me to develop the two characters and the story of their relationship.

The “gift stone”—a plain stone wrapped in a ribbon--as Hilyard found it in Pyramiden
The “gift stone”—a plain stone wrapped in a ribbon–as Hilyard found it in Pyramiden. Courtesy Stephen Hilyard

What attracted you to Pyramiden? What do you think is the continuing relevance of that town/its history?

I was attracted to Pyramiden because it was an entire living community that only existed because of an ideal. It was conceived as a showcase for the Soviet social and political system–by creating a vigorous town at odds with one of the most hostile environments on earth it was intended to prove the superiority of the Soviet system over its Western rivals. The project was both idealistic and coercive; life was harsh in many ways, but idyllic in others. In its heyday Pyramiden was a highly desirable posting which provided workers with a higher standard of living than other parts of the Soviet Union. Many former inhabitants have very fond memories of the time they spent there. On the other hand the entire community was under constant surveillance by KGB officials. When the idea upon which Pyramiden was built eventually failed, the community was abandoned. As a relic of a failed ideal, Pyramiden is all the more poignant because real people were used as markers in a contest of ideologies.

Have you worked with Russia before?

No, I have never worked with Russian subject matter before. The power of ideas to shape our experience of the world has been a constant theme in my work. However in the past these have been more abstract ideals. Катюша (Katyusha) is the first project I have ever done that deals with social and political themes, even if only tangentially. It will be part of a larger body of work based on Svalbard. The other pieces I am currently working on deal with the flip side of the story: the ways in which Norway projected the ideals of a western nation-state onto wilderness landscapes.

Hilyard’s imagining of the gift stone’s origin
Hilyard’s imagining of the gift stone’s origin. Courtesy Stephen Hilyard

How did you produce the installation? Did you shot the video yourself? Did you use found footage?

I shot all of the images and video myself. This took place during my 2014 expedition to Svalbard, during which I spent 7 days at Pyramiden. All of the footage representing the characters’ childhoods in Ukraine was shot in Wisconsin in 2015 and 2016. Many of the shots which appear to be video are in fact digital animations created from still images, using various techniques of 2D, 2.5D and 3D animation.

The installation plays on three monitors. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes not. How was this effect produced?

What you see in the installation are three separate video files, each one played from a separate solid state video player. The players are networked and programmed to keep the three separate videos in sync. These separate “channels” of video were created using a pretty complex setup in After Effects. What went into that setup was a mixture of HD video (that could be assigned to a single screen), 4K video (that could be spread over 2 screens) and animation from still images and 3D models (which could be spread over 3 screens). A lot of what you are seeing is actually created using 2D and 3D animation in After Effects and Maya.

The installation as it appears at MMoCA
The installation as it appears at MMoCA. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz, with permission of Stephen Hilyard

What was your visit to Pyramiden like? What was your impression of the remains of the town?

Spending a full week in an arctic ghost town at the height of the midnight sun is a unique experience. My first visit to Pyramiden was for one day only at the end of a 2-1/2 week expedition around the Svalbard archipelago. During a brief visit like that most people are struck by the strangeness of the abandoned town and its location. It was only after spending days there, alone in various buildings for up to 16 hours at a time, that the poignancy of an abandoned community began to sink in. The ghosts started coming out of the walls and I spent many hours imagining the lives that were once lived in the spaces I was working in. While many of the relics left behind speak to the happiness and warmth of the community that once lived there, the overarching sentiment was of sadness and loss. A community that had been developing for almost 70 years was cut short in two days, once its original function as a projection of the state could no longer be supported.

Such juxtaposition is evident in your final product–of still and moving images, of man-made art and nature, of past and present. How do these themes play out in the juxtapositions you employ?

It was the complexity, and ambivalence, of the Pyramiden story which attracted me to it. It was an artificial community created in a particularly inhospitable location as a pawn in the Cold War. At the same time many of the former residents have very warm and happy memories of living there. They enjoyed a relatively good standard of living, at the same time they were constantly under surveillance from the KGB. The most interesting juxtaposition to me is between the “idea” of Pyramiden as a perfect Soviet town (as seen in the billboards and murals featured in the video, or the square mile of Soviet soil that was imported to grow grass in the town) in contrast to the reality of an arctic outpost that is entirely dependent on the thin life-line leading back “home.”

Remnants of the Soviet Era in Pyramiden
Remnants of the Soviet Era in Pyramiden. Courtesy Stephen Hilyard

How did you come across the lyrics that bookend Катюша (Katyusha)? And how are those lines connected to the story of Pyramiden?

The video starts and ends with verses from the folk song “Катюша (Katyusha).” It was the national song of the Soviet Union during WWII. It is now one of the most familiar songs in Russia, almost always sung upbeat with martial overtones. It is often performed in military uniform. It is forever associated with WWII. It is in fact a love song, sung from a point of view of Katyusha, a young girl missing her lover who is a soldier on the frontier. Its history is as complex as Pyramiden. The song provided the nickname for the Katyusha rocket system, one of the Soviet Union’s most effective weapons systems during WWII. You can find a number of theories as to why the song (which was very popular with the troops) provided the nickname for the weapon. I like to believe that the name is a piece of dark humor, taken from the third verse of the song, which roughly translates:

Oh you song of a maiden,
Head for the bright sun.
And to the soldier on the far frontier
Bring a greeting from Katyusha.

The name is still used to describe mobile rocket launching systems currently in use all around the world. I took the title for my video piece because the song includes both the story of the lovers and the grey bird. The ambivalence of the song is a good fit with the complex story of Pyramiden. You can see a picture of a WWII Katyusha Rocket truck at one point in the video, if you look closely.

What do you hope people take away from your installation?

A sense of the complexity of the Pyramiden story, particular the human dimension of that story. I hope that it speaks to the ways that we all live within structures of ideas and ideals and to the fragility of such an existence.

Obviously your installation is featured prominently as part of the Wisconsin Triennial. Is Катюша (Katyusha) particularly relevant to Wisconsin? How does the project speak to Wisconsin?

My goal in my art is to explore themes which relate to shared human experiences, to the things which connect us to one another. You could call that society, or culture (small c) in the most general sense. With that in mind I would hope that none of my work is particularly relevant to just one location or social group.

Courtesy Stephen Hilyard
Courtesy Stephen Hilyard

How did you connect with the UW Russian Folk Orchestra (RFO)?

I googled! That led me to Victor Gorodinsky, the director of the UW RFO, and the other musicians who all gave so generously of their time and skills. Victor introduced me to Hanna Gubenkova, a very talented singer who became the voice of Катюша (Katyusha). I couldn’t have made the piece without Hanna’s voice.

What did you have in mind when working with RFO on the soundtrack/score? What were you hoping RFO’s music would add to your project?

Audio is an extremely important part of any movie or video art piece. I believe it’s at least 50% of the experience. I wanted to record a custom soundtrack with native Russian speaking musicians who not only knew the songs but came from the culture that created them. I hoped that this would help to tie my story of Pyramiden back to its origins in Russia and the Soviet Union. Victor and Hanna definitely brought this to the project in a way that blended very well with my experience of Pyramiden, a mixture of melancholy and passion which I am beginning to think is uniquely Russian.