Author: Laurent Bigarella
Photo Credit: Yana Franz
Translation: Una Dimitrijevic
“We’re living through one of the most interesting times in Kyiv’s electronic music scene.” As the cold afternoon draws to a close on this Saturday, 20th November, in the Podil district of the Ukrainian capital, Gael is enthusiastically describing the state of her city’s artistic landscape. From a bench at the Closer club where she asked us to meet her, the producer and DJ lists the scene’s major players: labels, radios, clubs, etc. A few hours later, not far from here, one of them will be celebrating two years of existence. It doesn’t have a name, and yet this project is turning Kyiv into a leading player of European club cultures.
The club that doesn’t exist
Located at number 41 Kyrylivska Street, ∄ – or “K41” as its visitors tend to call it for the sake of pronunciation – has been open since November 2019. This club “that doesn’t exist” (as per the meaning of the mathematical symbol that serves as its name) is located in Podil, one of Kyiv’s oldest neighbourhoods. In this part of the city, where many of the capital’s nightlife venues are historically based, like the emblematic Closer and HVLV, ∄ has been housed in a former brewery dating to 1881. From the street, its imposing exterior façades, made of ochre bricks and baring no sign, hint at its vast interiors.
Beyond its impressive architecture, the club plays a major role in the development of Kyiv’s club scene. Nastya Vogan, one of its residents, considers it a real “playground” for local artists. Composer, DJ and founder of a music production school, Module Exchange, head-quartered in the club, she’s in charge of the warm-up for the anniversary evening. She was also chosen to represent Kyiv for NTS, a British radio, to celebrate the club’s second birthday. Two hours of music, exclusively produced by artists from Kyiv. According to her, it’s a rather easy exercise, “since the scene abounds with so much talent”. For this radio session, she has been selecting the music with Recid, another artist from Kyiv’s new generation, and also a regular resident DJ at ∄ .
Endorsing local artists is at the core of the club’s philosophy. So too is the need to connect Kyiv with a more global creative scene. It’s an approach championed by the entire community that gravitates around this place. Bessarion, a fashion designer and dj of Georgian origin based in Kyiv, is one of its most loyal patrons. “I remember the first night that the club organised as a ‘test’”, he recounts. “I immediately saw the huge role that this place would play for Kyiv. Since it opened, a new page in the history of Ukraine’s electronic music culture is being written here.
An attractive scene
The craze for ∄ and the rapid development of Kyiv’s scene notably gained momentum during the repeated lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. From the cosy Косатка bar, Voin Oruwu, another Ukrainian artist on the anniversary party line-up, explains this paradox: “A lot of people started coming to Kyiv at this time because we had a more flexible, shorter lockdown. While clubs were closed all over Europe, we were lucky enough to be able to open ours from the summer of 2020”. These party-goers were mainly arriving from Germany: “There are three flights from Berlin to Kyiv every day. And seven on Fridays,” adds Voin Oruwu, a.k.a. Koloah.
Adrian Maurice Schiev is German and is among those attracted to Kyiv’s artistic dynamic. So much so that he settled there in April 2021 and opened a record store specialising in “hard” electronic music last November: The K Hole, also in the Podil district. “I moved here quite spontaneously,” he recalls. “With the lockdowns, places closing, a rather sluggish club culture… In Berlin, we were going round in circles. Here, the scene is buzzing with more potential, energy and passion.” It’s a scene enriched by complementary actors, where a sort of interdependence reigns between structures. The web radio 20ft Radio is part of this collective spirit. It broadcasts from a container in the Podil district, at the bottom of a cul-de-sac perpendicular to Kyrylivska Street, and is always on the lookout for new collaborations.
A team of five volunteers run the web radio, showcasing the city’s artistic projects. In September 2021, for example, they organised a takeover lasting several hours together with Standard Deviation, the label created by ∄. The initiative spotlighted several artists from this label, which also plays an important role in giving Kyiv’s music scene more visibility.
Standard Deviation: a label to connect Kyiv with a global scene
Launched in the summer of 2020 by the ∄ team, Standard Deviation is a platform serving Kyiv-based producers. This multidisciplinary project offers a space to promote their music, while helping them connect with other artists on the international scene. One of the people behind the label mentions this while talking about one of his latest releases, a split EP by D. Dan (a resident of Berlin’s Mala Junta queer nights) and Omon Breaker: “It’s a way for us to help make Kyiv more visible on the international scene, and to encourage collaborations between artists”.
The Standard Deviation label already has seven records under its belt, with Ukrainian artists featured on each. Released on 1st December to mark the second anniversary of ∄, the label’s latest compilation, Vertex, reflects this desire to connect the local and global scenes. It’s composed of eight tracks, four produced by Kyiv artists (Nastya Vogan, Gael, Recid and Omon Breaker), the rest by international friends of the club, who have contributed in one way or another to its history: Nene H, Sedef Adasi, DJ Tool and Salome.
Looking beyond musical genres, the Standard Deviation label is more concerned with the significance and values of artistic projects. “We intend to promote a diversity of aesthetics. What matters to us is the story transmitted by each project we support”, explains one of the brains behind the platform. The idea at the heart of it all is to “play a social role, to be able to involve our artists at every level”. And even to collaborate with socially-engaged producers, in opposition to a depoliticised vision of club culture. Another person involved in the label’s development shares this vision: “The music and club scene can be political, and offers a powerful tool to build communities, educate the public, etc. With the Standard Deviation label and the club, we’re trying to work towards this goal.”
Beyond the club
Like in most European countries, Ukrainian society is divided. Certain ultra-conservatives manifestly reject a club culture at the forefront of many social struggles. In recent weeks, this hostility led to neo-Nazi demonstrations in front of some clubs, including ∄. The situation resulting from the young demonstrators’ lack of education evidently worries the club community, but its actors won’t resign themselves to it. A few weeks before the club’s birthday, an article in an international online magazine gave details concerning these fascist calls for demonstrations and was criticized by certain locals for the indirect media promotion it offered the neo-Nazis. Faced with this problem, the ∄ team refuses to let the scene be reduced to this particular political climate, preferring instead to play a part in educating its audiences on gender and sexual issues, and even on dealing with law enforcement.
These topics also find an echo in ∄‘s overarching curation. Every 6 months or so, the club refreshes its identity, announcing a new theme and website that reflect the season’s focus. For 2021, the club’s theme was S(t)imulation Zone, the fruit of a collaboration with the CROSSLUCID duo. It was envisaged as “a space to deconstruct the assimilated social structures on sexuality and gender, to transmit a positive message about sex and eroticism, to defy body politics, transverse the idea of intimacy by questioning eroneous stereotypes on sex and different gender expressions.” In addition to online content, a small booklet is distributed for free in the form of a fanzine, both at the club and in other city stores. The 2022 season, Dance Delivery, will spotlight those who energise the ∄ community: its dancers.
With that level of dedication and such a comprehensive project for Kyiv’s citizens, it’s hardly a surprise that ∄ has garnered strong and loyal support from both the local public and international artists who regularly perform there. The Dutch DJ Job Jobse is among them, appearing on the line-up for the club’s two-year anniversary, alongside other non-Ukrainian artists like Adriana Lopez, Ben Sims and Gabrielle Kwarteng. The day after his 4-hour set at ∄, he shared his love of Kyiv and the club on his Instagram page: “This club, this audience, this city… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s the best place in the world right now”. Having designed an unofficial graphic for the club’s birthday, Bessarion also insists on the exceptional work accomplished by ∄ for the city. Gael, a resident of the club’s queer XITЬ. parties shares his enthusiasm.
Community and unity
At the heart of the club’s project, the notion of safe spaces helps to build and consolidate a real community around ∄. “It’s one of the only clubs in Kyiv where I feel completely safe. Going there is like visiting friends. The atmosphere is always safe,” says Diana Azzuz, a DJ and producer. She’s a close collaborator, responsible for the second and fifth releases of the Standard Deviation label. These feelings are shared by another artist with whom she forms a duo, Rina Priduvalova, who also describes the club as a truly safe space for local audiences. There’s a new aspect to this at the moment, with an impressive COVID-19 testing system being set up by the club. Regardless of their vaccinal status, each member of the audience must get tested at the door.
Although absent from social media – the club communicates solely via its website and a Telegram thread with over 16,000 subscribers – a strong sense of belonging transpires when you discuss ∄ with artists or members of the public. The community is characterised by the way its members support each other. As Rina describes: “most of the scene’s actors have regular exchanges, collaborations, and shape an inclusive and united artistic environment”. This enhances the local cultural ecosystem and pushes Kyiv’s electronic music scene in the right direction, far from any form of “competition between artists,” adds Diana Azzuz.
It’s a spirit of collaboration that fosters strong ties between audiences and local artists. Voin Oruwu can sense it whenever he deejays or goes to the club: “People here love local artists. Even during festivals where headline acts are invited, it’s when local artists play that the dancefloor fills up. Our audiences are very supportive.”
This impression was confirmed on the night of Saturday to Sunday, 21st November, for ∄‘s anniversary party. Voin Oruwu played his live experimental techno set in front of a captivated audience that was also galvanised by the opening of a new room, unveiled for the club’s birthday. Saturated with a remarkable play of light and smoke, the raw aesthetic of the space is striking. Exploring this labyrinthine area, you come across many nooks and crannies that the regulars are quick to embrace as their own, some while awaiting the opening of the second and older dancefloor a little later at 8 a.m.
Throughout the night, and late into the next morning, artists from Kyiv and beyond take turns on the turntables, celebrating two years of a club that continues to shape the Ukrainian scene and write its future. It’s a first-rate party, barely marred by the presence of a small group of young neo-Nazis in front of the club since its doors opened at midnight, expressing their hatred for queer cultures and what they consider to be a place for drug addicts and debauchery.
The atmosphere is tense, even more so in recent weeks following an attack on another club in the Podil district, HVLV, by these same far-right factions. But ∄‘s team views this hateful activism from a broader perspective. At the end of her warm-up, which the demonstrations failed to disrupt, Nastya Vogan tells us: “It’s a more widespread problem within society, these young people have a serious lack of education. But I think they’ll eventually find their own path. In any case, they’ll never make us stop what we’re doing. On the contrary, it gives us strength and motivation to take things even further.”
For more stories from We are Europe, sign up to our newsletter down below. In a previous series, we examined clubs from our scene all across Europe. Here’s a conversation shared with Naja Orashvili from Tbilissi’s Bassiani.
About the Author
Laurent Bigarella is a curator for European Lab and behind the Scene city platform.
This article is also available in french, on Trax media.