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«A fishy story», a new animated comics by Heehoos- the artist, leading light and main representative of this genre in Russia- was created for RESPECT 2.0. Watch «A fishy story» right now and read the interview with Heehoos.

Your new comic is about tolerance. When you were working on it were you thinking about Russia or about the world in general?

Well, firstly, it’s not about tolerance. We were thinking about a general project on migration. As a global subject. It was proposed to the authors of comics that they describe the clash of different cultures in a creative way. The way to respond to this clash isn’t through tolerance. Tolerance – from the verb to tolerate – calls on one to endure the different customs of your neighbour. We decided that this was an erroneous position. Let’s learn how to respect each other, otherwise we won’t be getting anywhere. Respect – is short, succinct and easy for young people to understand. Migration is one of the most pressing problems in the world today. It arose well before the world began to discuss Syrian refugees. The mixture of cultures is a fait accompli. Just as you can’t try to put ground meat back through the grinder and turn it back to meat again, migrants are not going to return to their homes. If we don’t try to acknowledge this fact then the situation will lead to terror and to ghettoization.

Do you believe that comics may help people understand this situation?
Comics are a very powerful means of transmitting information. Pictures + text. One can draw instructions about how to build barricades or a submachine gun, or one can draw a very clear manual about how to behave in a society that one is not accustomed to. I believe that if one distributes intelligible comics with basic instructions, for example, «How to make your mark in Moscow», then there will be fewer conflicts. This is no fantasy of mine. It’s been tried in Europe and works perfectly. But in Russia no one wishes to deal with a problem until it gets out of hand.

Well it’s something that has obviously also affected you in your own life- this clash of cultures and searching for yourself in a society you were unaccustomed to.

Yes, this has always been the case for me. When we were younger we settled in Denmark. And according to our customs we brought vodka to our Danish guests- a present, we told them. They smiled and put the vodka away in a cupboard. We were shocked about this. Did the Danes do this because they were stingy? No, it was us who used the wrong social codes. Later we learned that we should have said: I brought it along so we can drink this together. In that case, no question, the vodka is put straight on the table along with the nibbles. These cultural codes are fascinating things. Take a young man from the Caucasus: at home he is an Ossetian, a Chechen or a Dagestani. And amongst themselves they don’t particularly get on with each other. But in Moscow each of them is from the Caucasus and all Caucasians are brothers whereas they see locals as terrifying, strangers that one just can’t understand. A person automatically is attracted to where codes which they are used to are prevalent, signals which clearly indicate “our own-the others”.

Have you ever been intolerant with others? Have you ever had to educate yourself in that respect?

You bet! Here it seems that the first thing is to confess that it’s natural to growl at everything you don’t understand. It’s an instinct, part of our animal nature. Whereas civility and mutual respect come from education. A monkey believes that teasing passers-by with its bare ass is funny whereas an educated person may not agree with such a proposition.

 And how did you deal with intolerance?

 Sometimes I reminded myself that humanity never set itself the goal of pleasing me personally. Sometimes I reckoned that I didn’t understand something in another culture and needed to get to the bottom of things. And sometimes I went and said: listen, neighbour, if you’re going to throw your rubbish in my yard, I’ll throw it back to you through the window. And you know what? All three methods work.

The third one is rather aggressive, no?

Wait, I said that I’d go and explain first that throwing rubbish here isn’t a pleasant thing to do, rubbish which should be put in the rubbish bins. It’s possible- more than likely – that he simply doesn’t know about this. And if the person is normal then usually the conflict ends here. But if he doesn’t respect me and throws rubbish there on purpose, I’m not going to tolerate that. Of course, I’ll try to fix things legally. I pay taxes don’t I? Well, let the police sort things out with them. I remember such an incident. In a refugee camp in Denmark, we tried to explain over a long period of time to some Arab lads that they shouldn’t throw rubbish in our yard. And when they refused to understand, we – refugees from Eastern Europe- went along the corridor and threw all the rubbish back into their rooms. They immediately got the message. While the Danes tormented themselves for years and couldn’t bring themselves to do this: they had a notion of tolerance. “Well we’ll just put up with it, what can we do?” for years they were unable to cope with this, this has been embroidered into their culture for years. I’m not calling for violence. But if a person directly tells me: I don’t understand anything but force, I’m ready to satisfy his needs.

The comics-project «RESPECT» was your idea in 2011. And what is your position regarding the current «RESPECT 2.0»?

I thought up that project even before that time. In 2011 we won the European Union grant and began to work. The first «RESPECT» was very powerful, very effective. But that was a freestyle art project- an imaginative reflection about issues. I saw «RESPECT 2.0» in a different way. My plan here is for comics art to give concrete answers to concrete issues. For example, the comics-workshop «Two diasporas in one school. How to avoid conflict». But those who make «RESPECT 2.0», have their own idea of how it should be. I just launched it but it is run by the art director- another very fine comic artist– Alexey Iorsh.

And you went abroad. As far as I can understand - permanently?

 I developed a firm conviction that nothing could be altered in our life in Russia. And the population doesn’t want this to happen. So I have winded down all my social projects in Russia- children’s camps, teaching, the incorporation of art in community activities. I put the finishing touches to that which is necessary, fulfilled any earlier commitments and after this I won’t work in the Russian Federation any longer.

Why have you settled in Cambodia and not elsewhere?

 It’s warm. Cheap. The people are pleasant and kind. And we’re needed here, the country is developing. Well, and we’re far from Russia. We rented a house and a small art community ArtTraibe4D settled in. Not a commune of enlightened-layabouts, no. Everyone is busy with their creative work. People arrive with their projects and stay a month or two, it’s an interesting experiment.

In the social networks I saw some photographs of a festival which you organised for village children. So you still find a need to work on social projects?

 Well, our generation had this ‘progressor complex’, we were brought up that way. We stumbled upon the village where children didn’t understand the word «animated films», because they had never seen them so we organised an «animation festival» for them. We chose silent animated films at first. Aldashin was very popular as was «Kumi-Кumi» (Mikhail Aldashin – a Russian artist, animator and a director, «Kumi-Кumi» – the animated serial of the director Vladimir Ponomarev. – Editors note.). We all really enjoyed ourselves – both the kids and us– especially when we explained to them what that white stuff falliing from the skies in the cartoon «Varezhka» was. There ice is sold only in the shops and they couldn’t believe that it is ever free, white and fluffy. It seems to me that we need to promote Russian culture, and not some false and annoying ‘kalinka-malinka’ image of our culture.

You left the country once before at the end of the 1980s. And then returned.

 I had some foolish illusion in the middle of the nineties that the country had called me back to build some new, free, society. I returned and for twenty years worked like crazy, launching one project after another instead of ripping off the country by pilfering all the funds like most people did. And then suddenly in no uncertain terms they told me– that’s it, we’ve been toying with freedom. The President remembered that he’s a member of the KGB and Russia turns back into the USSR. So I decided that twice in the USSR is too much for me. Let those who wish to play at living in Orwell’s 1984 do so, I had already got fed up with it in the eighties.

Who will promote comics as an art-form now?

Somehow I think that nowadays in Russia there is a significantly greater demand for the production of barbed wire and the drawing of portraits of the leader than the promotion of comics. The enthusiasts of cartoon stories have always existed and always will – they’ll be promoted without my help. I send them my respect and wish them luck.

And you’re no longer involved in « KomMissia»?

 My personal opinion is that the festival has fulfilled its goals and has gone out of fashion since the end of the first decade of the 21st Century. The festival which I thought up with Natasha Monastyreva has been successful, cartoons are now recognized as an art form and we set up a launching pad for tens of young artists, everything we did was crowned with success. Officially the “Free KomMissia” Festival was closed down by the Tagansky Courts– no, no politics whatever involved here, simply bureaucracy, but this was done in the spirit of the times. So the old « KomMissia » is already no more, and what the new one will be like- well, let’s wait and see. Cherdik and Alim Velitov are working on things and let’s hope that everything will work out fine ( Alexander Cherdik intends to continue the Festival Editors Note).

Which Russian comics artists are interesting for you today?

Oh, what a tricky question, it’s a bit like making a poet publicly evaluate the work of his confraternity. Well, at the moment I have the sensation that Lena Uzhinovaya is beginning to work on a whole new level- she’s becoming a living classic. The graphic novel of Alyona Kamyshevskaya with the epic title «My Sex» really impressed me. It’s something like the coming-of-age diaries of a Soviet girl, I really recommend it. For you yourself as an artist do you need an audience in Russian? A funny question. I think and make jokes in Russian. Yes, of course, a Russian audience is important for me. But if in Russia they don’t completely ban the internet then this audience will exist.

And what will you do outside Russia?

 It’s not that we are planning something, if there is demand for it we’ll work, if not, we’ll stay out of things. I have no real ties to Cambodia. Tomorrow we can go somewhere else. Just yesterday we were discussing whether to live in Argentina or in Portugal for a year. We’ll study a bit of Spanish and we’ll set off. We’ll familiarise ourselves with new aspects of culture clashes.

Text: Anna Golubeva
Traduction: Giuliano Vivaldi
First published: 
Copyright: Goethe-Institute Russia
October 2015

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