No Fun, No Future

Lucy Neal travels to Lviv, Ukraine, for the opening of the Jam Factory Art Center

(Main image: Jam Factory Arts Center on Bohdana Khmel’nyts’koho Street, Lviv)

I faced my front door in south-west London and stared at it for a long time, before stepping through into the house again. I’d been away a week, but it felt a lot longer.

I had travelled to Ukraine to attend the historic opening on 17 November of the Jam Factory Art Center in Lviv. I had been a guest at a weekend programme of plays, exhibitions, discussions, concerts and talks to celebrate the refurbishment of this beautiful 19th century castle-like building in the industrial suburbs of the city.

I’d imagined undertaking this 2000km journey east for a while, but not with a war ongoing. The UK Foreign Office advises British Nationals not to travel to Ukraine. Practical aspects of booking travel, how to cross the border from Poland, downloading an Air Raid Alert app on my phone (as advised by the organisers) all weighed in the balance of saying an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to the invitation.

I first heard about The Jam Factory in 2017, from its remarkable director Bozhena Pelenska, who was part of a network of European cultural partners applying for Creative Europe EU funds [1]. I’d heard her talk about this derelict building being brought back into Lviv’s cultural life: once a distillery and then a jam factory, she’d explained that the surrounding neighborhood retained “a culture of the countryside”. The refurbished site was planned to open in August 2022 as a contemporary art centre with galleries, performance spaces, a café and rehearsal studios.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched on 24 February 2022 by the Russian military under President Putin put an abrupt stop to the plans. Along with Henk Keizer, a key Dutch co-ordinator of Arts in Rural Areas in Europe, I kept in touch with Bozhena that spring, registering the shock of the invasion and the immensity of the role she then held. She was keeping together a team of curators, artists, producers, technicians, actors, builders, carpenters, historians, researchers and writers whilst also keeping her own family safe; being shaken day and night by bombings and witnessing the city’s men being called up to fight. Air raid alerts interrupted our zoom meetings.

In July 2022, I was lucky to host Bozhena on a visit to London, introducing her to LIFT Artistic Director, Kris Nelson, who invited her to LIFT 2022 shows. As severe bombardments spread, materials needed to complete the refurbishment were at risk, stored in warehouses near Irpin and elsewhere. In time, they emerged undamaged. Watching Bozhena keep her line of sight on opening the Jam Factory I promised to visit when the building was complete, honestly imagining this could be some time in the future.

“Should we have waited and put off the opening everyone asked?” I heard Bozhena say out loud on 17 November. With an arts sector displaced all over the country, she said, rather: “We can’t wait any longer…How do we maintain and retain everyone’s skills and keep existing when everyone is so scattered at present?”There’s a need for sense and meaning…we can provide ‘mind shelter’, so we don’t lose our internal senses”, said another curator.

It was this committed defiance to make a space for art and culture at a time of war that I felt I needed to salute. The front line fighting for the most part is currently in the Donbas and in the east. Lviv is in the west, and I decided I trusted the team. I was going and booked train tickets there and a flight back.

Travelling overland took three days via Amsterdam, Berlin, Krakow and then a transfer bus over the border from Rzeszów. All went fine, bar a hiatus in Germany when a Deutsche Bahn workers’ strike cancelled the final leg of my journey onto Poland. A late-night recalibration had me boarding a ‘Flix Bus’ for an 11-hour journey south. I’ll not forget the Berlin bus station at dawn with signs in every direction to Sarajevo, Stockholm, Zagreb, Prague, Barcelona – everywhere!  I was thrilled to be back on this connected European continent of cultures, languages and countries: so much to be treasured, honoured, celebrated, lamented and seen. Halfway through the 11 hours and approaching Wrocław, I chanced my luck, leaping off Flixbus with a short exchange to the train station in hope of catching a train further south. Stretching my legs in a long train corridor minutes later, imagine my delight on discovering, I was not only on the right train but one whose final destination was Lublin – home to the pre-Solidarność first theatre festival Rose Fenton and I ever visited in April 1980 for LIFT’81. I took it as the best sign.

On to Lviv.

On the trip, I had taken Philippe Sands’ book East West Street with me. It made a riveting travel companion; tracking, through a personal family history, Lviv’s serendipitous role through two world wars and collapsing empires in formulating current international laws of crimes against humanity and genocide.

“A map showed Lviv to be right at the center of Europe; not easily accessible from London, it stood at the midpoint of imaginary lines connecting Riga to Athens, Prague to Kiev, Moscow to Venice. It was the crossing of the fault lines that divided east from west, north from south… a city of blurred borders….”

“After a long spell as the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire….the city passed from the hands of Austria to Russia, then back to Austria, then briefly to the Western Ukraine, then to Poland, then to the Soviet Union, then to Germany, then back to the Soviet Union, and finally to Ukraine, where control resides today.”

Given that the Jam Factory is located in a historic quarter where Poles, Ukrainians, Armenians and Russians had all lived, on the long straight road that runs east connecting Lviv to Zhovka, it’s a good introduction. Jewish merchants were granted special permissions here to open taverns to provide food, rest and beverages for the city and travelling folk.

The temperature dropped considerably journeying east and on the evening of the opening Henk Keizer (whom I’d met up with in Rzeszów) and I arrived on Bohdana Khmel’nyts’koho Street more than ready for food and beverage. The hours spent at the border had our hearts thumping a little. Men aged 18-64 are not allowed to leave Ukraine and our driver, going in and out of the country in one day, had been questioned a while.  We bought flowers from a florist for Bozhena and headed straight from the bus into the buzz of the official opening: the energy was high despite the rain; a savvy arts crowd greeted each other with delight; drink flowed and our own elation at finally arriving met the heightened excitement of this huge, historic, creative gathering.

I was in awe of the idea of the Jam Factory before I arrived. In the flesh, it was dazzling: a multi-dimensional world of exhibition spaces, large open courtyard, performance studios, roof terraces, galleries, exposed old brickwork, immaculate signage, a stylish restaurant. A perfect mix of old and newly reinvigorated. We ordered food and noted the young waiting staff being trained there and then, gracefully, on the spot.

Two exhibitions opened that night to visit and revisit over the next days – so much to take in of context, vision, vistas and experience, and not least the public appreciating them.

Our Years, Our Words, Our Losses, Our Searches, Our Us was the first I visit: it is a collective response to cultural and creative identity at a time of war curated with over 70 artists by Kateryna Ikovlenko, Natalia Matsenko and Borys Filonenko. On the way down to the galleries we pass a sign saying ‘Shelter’ in the basement. In physical infrastructure and social conversation, the full-scale invasion, (rather than ‘war’ to emphasise the invasion started in 2014 not 2022) is always present.

Rooms boom with different sounds of bombardment, sirens, jets, air raid alarms and, nestled amongst the exhibits, there is also a grandfather on film in his kitchen talking in detail about making Borscht soup. I’m mesmerised. An artist who fills cards from ammunition boxes with drawings which he sends home from the front; a photo montage of a souvenir tank table light made of salt the artist ‘licked everyday’ until it disappeared.

Two artworks stand out in my memory. Mykola Kolomiiets’ Forgotten Potatoes 2022: a net of potatoes that survived the first weeks of the siege of Kharkiv. Images show shoots and roots trying to bear fruit in a cold, dark basement: potatoes showing “the desire to produce a new crop”, despite there being “no conditions for itIt’s about the experience of failure but also about the beauty of trying”. Here and there, artworks dwell on nature’s ongoing life in local neighborhoods and we hear later how devastating the ‘ecocide’ is across the whole country.

Daniil Nemyrovskyi’s diary is the source of Open Group’s work Repeat After Me (2022): a series of people speaking to camera – now IDPs (an acronym I hear constantly, meaning ‘Internally Displaced Person’) – from Mariupol, where a state manual distributed weeks before the full-scale invasion, instructs on ‘how to act in a war zone.’

Residents reproduce with their own voices, the sounds of weapons, missiles, jets, air raids and bombs they heard as a way to transmit the knowledge of “eyewitnesses and victims of war to those who have not had direct contact with war”. A new manual.

Halfway between exhibitions I pass the beautiful Jam Shop, and buy merchandise: socks and of course, jam, and then climb the Jam Factory’s iconic castellated Tower to find the ‘Historic Exhibition’.

This exhibition tells the story of Josef Kronik’s distillery, opening in 1826 and of the surrounding village of Znesinnia over decades. It’s curated by Harald Binder, Irina Sklokina and Olha Zarechnyuk. Harald is a Swiss historian, owner and philanthropic entrepreneur behind the refurbishment venture.

In just one small room, I’m riveted, reading about the community that built up around the factory, showing the urban, cultural and political terrain from which, the Jam Factory sprang. Watching people enjoying cocktails and listening to Mariana Sadovska’s music in the courtyard below, it’s impossible not to feel 200 years of history click a finger as the building and its quarter come to spirited life, providing food, beverages and entertainment, once again.

I watch the films over and over: archive footage of thriving Znesinnia followed by the capture and decimation of the Jewish community through two world wars; I stare at old maps; jam jar labels; red wax bottle caps and glass vessels. They are all so evocative of fruitful life. A factory worker remembers the distinct smell of jam, and something pulls me in. A recent picture shows the current team in hard hats. Work went on until the last minute. Curators were texting Bozhena mid-speech making, to retrieve artefacts from the building works, still under her desk, to arrange in exhibit cases.

The next day of my visit, an opening party atmosphere settles into talks by key associates and curators called Culture and Reconstruction: Support and Creation of Cultural Communities during Wartime.  Bozhena explains this is the first event to happen in this part of the building and “very moving for that”. Her opening words are prefaced – as at each event – with a request we move to the shelter below should there be an air raid alarm.

The panel is asked about their visions before the full-scale invasion and now, 18 months on. Collectively they’re determined that culture remains at the centre of reconstruction, not at the margins. Many artists are now IDP’s (Internally Displaced Persons), and the Jam Factory plays an active role as a creative home for artists from all over the country.

So much work had been done on the Jam Factory before 24th February 2022 and afterwards, the need for it, grew only stronger. We are vanishing and reconstructing at the same time…We know what is being fought for. Russia wants to make sure Ukrainian children call themselves Russian in two generations without thinking about it” “We’re here because of our armed forces…we understand what’s being fought for.” Cultural erasure is part of war.

In relation to instability, risk and experimentation they acknowledge that “Stability may never exist – anywhere’”. “We enter a zone of experimentation…less and less theory, more and more practice”. During air raids, rehearsals continued in the basement, sometimes with an unexpected audience of others sheltering there.

From pragmatics to a big and bold vision: “A new societal agreement is needed. We see global systems are not working so well…we have to go forwards not back and our practical experimentation is part of that”.  “Who’s going to do it if not us?”

The story of one visual arts curator, Ilona, is telling. After the first siren on 24 February 2022, she went to offer her services to the military at a territorial centre, dressed in yoga clothes, “to be comfortable”. A guard said, “why are you here”’ In sensing she wasn’t needed, she asked him “How can I be useful though?” and he said “What do you know how to do?  Be useful where you are.” So, she took the question home, got in touch that day with a host of galleries and museums in the cities of the east being bombed and began a process of evacuating art works to safe places in the mountains. “We could work quickly because we had the networks and knew people…We don’t need to build community but be a part of community.”

I’m blown away by the collective rigor, practical honesty and creative courage I witness.

I speak later to Ilya Zabolotnyi, who works for the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund but, until recently, with the British Council. After 24 February, Lviv became the hub for many things, including all embassies. With regard to his own time with the Armed Forces, he said, “Yes, I’m on the Reserve List, I can get called up. But…,” he opened his hands out “it’s like the rain – there’s nothing you can do about it”.

Trying to sleep I sometimes note my adrenalin levels. At night, it’s not a good idea to look at the Air Raid Alert app on your phone. As Jan from Prague said, “if it’s stressful for us, imagine what it must be like all the time”.  (Four days earlier in London my husband and I sprang out of bed just before 1am, as the Air Raid app for Lviv went off. I’d not considered that it would nor, that when it did, I’d be unable to turn it off. It really shook us.) 

That afternoon we listen to opening speeches from historian and philanthropist, Harald Binder; Bozhena Pelenska herself, Programme and Executive Director, and Tetiana Fedoruk, Operations and Executive Director, followed by the whole ‘Jam’ team gathering to great applause.

There’s acknowledgement of opening “at the least appropriate time” when many galleries or museums are evacuating artefacts into shelters or attending to pressing needs at a time of war. “We’re opening in this turbulent, unstable and unpredictable time, when planning is reduced to a few hours…. We’re experiencing losses every day, collecting and searching for the right words to describe our pain, the loss of loved ones, despair, which turns to rage and faith and the gathered strength to go on…”

“We cannot regain the stolen and destroyed art, the murdered or unborn creators, but we can record and remember, write down names and memories, speak, listen and write with fervour and vigour as if it is our highest duty.

“Physical space for talks, stories, questions, memories, reflections, and invited Ukrainian curators, and artists to share their sense of this time, which we want to capture exactly, as we live, feel and see it today. We are living and creating here and now, not waiting for the times after victory, struggling for language, listening to difficult experiences, and trying to heal painful wounds, we are creating and redefining ourselves, for those who are not with for us, those are who are with us and those who will replace us.”

On Saturday, the site is packed to the rafters. People take selfies in the sun on the roof terraces overlooking views of the city and we can hardly move between the different spaces: 3,000 people in all. There are tears in the eyes of several of the team we speak to. There has been a pattern of ad hoc art performances here since 2008, but the team are bowled over by people pouring in from the neighbourhood also – of all ages.

At lunch, Liuba Ilnytska Dramaturg at the Jam Factory introduces us to Theatre NAFTA, from Kharkiv and director Nina Khyzhna. They’ve been rehearsing all day and tomorrow night we’ll see their show Nobody Died Today.

On Sunday, Henk and I get the No. 20 bus into the centre of Lviv, exploring the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, the main square and markets (selling embroidered tablecloths, painted wooden toys and…Putin toilet paper). I hear singing coming from both the Armenian and Greek Orthodox Church and venture into both.

As I’ve not stretched my legs for five days, I set off later on a muddy puddly climb to High Castle Hill with views opening up of the city below. The look out at the top is out of bounds due to martial law. I look up at the sky, usually giving a sense of place and freedom on this Earth, and sense the threat it presents, knowing there’s total indifference should you end up as collateral damage to Putin’s bombings.

Neither is the ground safe across Ukraine: 30% of land is mined. People innocently collecting berries in the woods can be injured or die from mine explosions. The Jam Factory are collecting one million Ukranian Hryvnia (just over £20,000) to pay for one of 146 sapper trucks undertaking land de-mining. (More information about that here).

That evening we see Nobody Died Today.  The theatre show affects me deeply. It is devised by its performers (all young) from interviews with volunteers and military personnel mixed with personal experiences of living through an era where everything’s seen through the prism of war. It’s a story they’d thought belonged to their grandparents’ experience and is now theirs. “First survival then art…We didn’t choose this war, but we must win it”. It’s funny, physical and, at the end when acting ‘busyness’ is resolved with complete stillness, very moving.

I enjoy a Negroni cocktail in the Jam Bar with Jan from Prague, Martin from the European Commission and Bozhena. Next morning, I catch the transfer bus back to Poland. There are four of us on board: Harald Binder, Sophia Korotkevyeh, a visual artist conducting a residency in Lublin, Bohdana, our transfer guide and myself. 

We take a detour north to cross the border at a quieter spot. Other border crossings are clogged with lines of haulage trucks, held up by a ‘Polish dispute’. As we’re checked out of Ukraine, into Poland, Bohdana points to military jets taking injured Ukrainian soldiers to hospitals in Europe and jumbo air defence systems pointing back towards Ukraine.

Sophia Korotkevyeh explains how glad she was to be in Lviv for the opening. “People hadn’t felt like that for such a long time – being together, celebrating”. What was that feeling for herself I asked? “Happiness: I just felt happy and realised I hadn’t felt that for a very long time”.

Dear Jam Factory,

I raise my hat to you all. I came to bear simple witness and have brought home strong memories – sitting in your Jam Café listening to your late-night sing-along with Mariana Sadovska, as kitchen staff cleared away for the night. You would’ve been tired from intense days leading up to opening, as well as the context in which you live and work with, as Bozhena would say, “fervour and vigour as if it is our highest duty.”  How to hold loss, lament and creative collective vision day after day? Sing; I thought.

I recall another moment from one of the exhibition’s films. The historic researcher Olha is looking through building floor plans and designs. On a door behind her is a poster which says No fun. No future. These words resonate in my heart and mind today – the experience which allows one to say that during war; how brave, how true; the weight and seriousness of their depth; their meaning; where collective creativity and courage meet.

I wish you – us – all a peaceful future – for I’ve no doubts about the existential nature of your fight for the whole of Europe – and a lot of fun. I want a doorway to safety for the whole country. Your vision, your holding fast, your defiance shines a light just as much as it creates a practical creative hub for so many, including myself. Bravo and so many thank yous. Where our paths meet again, I look forward to seeing you again soon.

With respect

Love Lucy

[1] Creative Europe funding enables networks of cultural organisations to fund research, commission artists, connect peers and create collaborations across the European Union and its partner countries. At the time of Brexit, LIFT was leading and participating in 4 of these networks. They enabled audiences to see new work by dozens of international companies. Through the EU, LIFT accessed hundreds of thousands of pounds to invest in artists via commissioning, presentation, artist labs and networks and more.