“The decisions are made by those who are interested”
Co-founder of “Karma” about bars, big exhibitions and commercial art in Belarus.
Author: Anastasia Runets
Photo/video: Anastasia Runets, Valeria Burko
English translator: Olga Kobrinets
Karma Crew is a community which unites bartenders, artists, musicians, tattoo masters and all people who are not indifferent to culture. The community is constantly involved in major events and arranges its own ones, and you can follow all these on Instagram. The Karma brand itself appeared in 2016 in the format of conceptual parties, and a year later the bar of the same name opened, which later grew into something more and is now an informal creative association. One of the founders of “Karma” Gleb Kovalev tells how it works, also he tells about the "Palace of Art", big exhibitions and what kind of events are missing.
Anastasia: Why did you and Sasha decide to leave the good bars you worked for and open your own one?
Gleb: By that time, we had a formed picture in our heads of how the bar we work in should look like. In reality, many puzzles fell out of this picture. The people I worked with, not all, of course, but most of them, spent a lot of energy and emotions on analyzing what was happening to them during the “work”, and I just wanted to pour gin and tonic and have a great time. I already understood at that moment what the bar’s earnings were built from and knew a bunch of tedious details; I was engaged in all sorts of uninteresting things, then the evening began and it seemed like your job — to make people get high, but they come and think you owe them something. I'm talking about those guys who accidentally had 10 extra dollars in their pocket and they came with all their might to spend it. So, I don’t owe anything to anyone. Well, only myself. All this self-reflection led to the fact that I didn’t like almost everything, except for some people I worked with and who came to the bar. Therefore, we decided that we would have a bar that would filter itself. This is almost the only detail of our plan, which was implemented exactly. Instead of a security guard at the entrance are ten obscure dudes and dudettes that don’t understand what they are doing here and how they look like. It works flawlessly.
A: When you were opening it, did you know that it will become more than just a bar? How did you initially imagine its development and what appeared before: a bar or a community?
G: We didn’t know, we didn’t even count on it. It happened by itself. When we started doing our hangouts, we quickly realized that the alcohol and mixing culture, which we had devoted more than five years, was not so necessary, but instead it would be great to have a good understanding of everything else: tattoo styles, directions of art, little of design, of how the IT industry works.
People very quickly began to engage other people. We promised a lot of weird parties and exhibitions, and we also had, have and will have free entrance. And the prices are lower. It is better to sell two gin and tonic cheaper than one expensive.
We initially had a connection with tattoo culture. Some still consider it marginal, but people from all walks of life, age, and income level make tattoos. The idea came back in 2014. I was sure that this would be a cool sales catalyst. Then we tried to do our exhibitions. I can’t name this wall in the Karma bar with four paintings an exhibition space, but our statement was important: anyone can exhibit here in a live queue, it's free, and if someone buys his painting, he will take all the money for himself. For two years, we sold about twenty works, from fifteen euros a piece to five hundred per series. I don’t know how good it is, but how it is.
A: Bar and creative association - what is the ratio of these things?
G: The ratio is impressive, it is impossible to understand. There were many ideas related to art, but in two years only the bar remained unchanged. This is an opportunity to gather all the people after their exhibitions in, like, the kitchen - and this is amazing. As a cultural label, we are not doing a lot of things right now, and some of them I’m trying to commercialize somehow. It takes a lot of time, and I want to keep a bar, sell beer, hang out on the porch, tell stories. We try to support with our presence part of the exhibitions that take place in the Palace of Art, for example. At some of them, KarmaCrew artists exhibit their paintings, while at others, KarmaCrew bartenders pour gin and tonic. This is the perfect balance, we do both equally well. I like this multifunctionality.
A: One of your Instagram says KarmaCrew is a cultural agency. How does it work?
G: We weren’t sure how seriously we would deal with this, and we still don’t know how seriously we deal with this, and therefore we have chosen this concept because it is not in the legislation of our country. In my head, a cultural agency is a place where you can get a logo, merch and generally have an art performance at a celebration of something in your company. The coolest thing, so far, is the custom of offices. There is freedom of creativity, and limitation at the same time. To say that this is something super serious, I still can’t. This is still an informal association. Now we are at a crossroads, maybe there are a couple of cool art managers who want to sell art - I would be happy.
We can do anything; in the summer we have a lot of festivals, we do graffiti branding, we put DJ-stages together with Radio Plato. Here you give me five words, and right here I come up with an entertainment for you, in which art is integrated, perhaps a bar, perhaps food. I don’t have a case, but I can develop it specifically for you.
A: How does the commercial side of art look like?
G: The commercial side of art looks great. I’m very inspired by brands such as Absolut Vodka, who spend a ton of marketing money promoting artists. I like to act with brands, logos, in general with things when the artist has a limitation in shape or color, and he sketches his vision atop. Sometimes it fits a brand, sometimes not, but it as an art. The hardest part is to sell. In Belarus, this is ridiculous money. Now we focus on dudes who write code or are somehow connected with dudes who write code. First, they have money. Secondly, they have respect for someone else as work. Thirdly, since they have money, they travel more, and they have a more developed imagination, so they can accept what others won’t take very well. Sometimes you give people design, but they get scared and want everything to be gray.
How we find customers is unclear. Usually there is a big party at which I start to convince people of my ideas, and at some point it seems to them that they need art. I often say that the bar provides endless possibilities. We won’t meet here the director of the woodworking plant, but you can easily meet the HR manager of a serious company. Inside the bar you can find an order for any creative profession.
A: In August this year, the Karma: Review exhibition was held. Tell about it.
G: Karma: Review was an exhibition of contemporary young (required) Belarusian (required) art with a party, food court and, most difficult and important, free entrance. I believe that we screwed up in many things, but we gathered about 1,500 people; statistics can be calculated on the sale of beer. We had problems with a partner; I just woke up in the morning and realized that right now I need 800 dollars in cash.
There were about sixteen artists; the place, and this was Lo-Fi Customs before the restart, was just perfect. Plus, it so happened that on that day in Minsk there was not a single major event. As a result, we gathered a lot of great people and showed cool artists, we hung out awesome and got a huge amount of feedback. We prepared it for a month and I received $ 160 from this huge event, but we were delighted anyway. We will be repeating this event with a larger budget, more seriousness and a conceptual line-up. The Review is our small victory and it would be cool to do such an event once a year or two and also invite artists from abroad. Over the past year, I met many cool artists, while traveling, and I will definitely call them to exhibitions.
A: How did this idea come about?
G: I have no idea. Once I knew, but forgot. Probably, we just realized that we have something to show, but we had no place. In general, I often whine about the inhumanity of rental conditions in Minsk. By world standards, the rental in Belarus is beyond explanation. My good friend came, he has a bar in Riga, and this is the best cocktail bar in the city. So, the rental of this bar is 6 euros per square. I’m sure that the rental on Zybitskaya is 40-50 euros. He was lucky with the rental, of course, but in Minsk you just can’t get so lucky.
A: How did you choose the artists?
G: They wrote to us, and we watched the work. Artists have many social problems in their works. I’m sure we don’t know about many cool authors simply because they are not self-confident or simply not mentally prepared. Recommendations help very well in this matter.
A: If we talk about cultural events in general, what’s missing in Minsk?
G: Events with free entrance! And with quality content. Interesting daytime activities are also lacking. In general, anything can be done if there is anyone to do it.
A: We continue the theme of large exhibitions. This year, Karma participated in the Autumn Salon.
How, why, and what did it give you?
G: The salon is an opportunity to show new works, I don’t know what else this can give. The work of Tasha Kapushon won the jury prize. Even Katya Plotnikova has sold the whole series. I love these events, because you can communicate in an informal way and look at different things. You can find gallery owners and crazy citizens there. To some extent, it looks like Karma.
A: In the Palace of Arts, large exhibitions are replaced by the sale of honey and socks. Will this ever change?
G: It is necessary to ask the leadership of the Palace. So far, their most masterpiece is the Meat Courtyard. This is impressive, I won’t say anything else. And socks and honey – well, okay. While you can enter there without crossing yourself, everything is fine.
A: Art in Belarus is not state-funded. How does it exist?
G: At our expense (laughs). When one of the guys makes a new series, the bar can buy them materials for $100-200 to support. Honestly, I have no idea how state funding should work. There is no such pattern in my head. Everyone relies on themselves; there are many private initiatives. We would rather convince large companies to buy custom of offices, it seems to me.
State funding? It would be cool, but first we would like the state not to interfere. I go a lot and convince everyone that art is cool, that this is extra money, extra taxes, that it attracts tourists. And then the dude who fucks the Ministry of Culture appears - and all this work is assured in vain. At least if they wouldn’t paint it over – well, okay. Why waste time and censor something that does't need censorship?
A: You opened the PostBar with concept exhibitions. Tell about it.
G: We wanted it to be a separate place for a quiet, atmospheric parties. Not all expectations were realized, the lack of a bunch of bars around is a real problem. You need human traffic. When we do events there - everything is super, when we don’t - everything doesn’t work the way we intended. However, we learn and draw conclusions. Being “conceptual" for example, is also not so simple. A dude comes and says: I want to play right here. I sit down and tell him that he can do anything at all: have collaboration with the artist, put the video on the wall, make a blue light. “Yes, yes, yes,” he says, “super.” But what do we see at this party in a month? Nothing. I want to press the button, I don’t want to do something difficult. And I definitely have to get paid, like any artist!
This, of course, doesn’t apply to everyone, in Minsk there are many DJs and producers of a very serious level. Maybe I'm just mistaken, but the contrast in the number of people is very strong. Now, I hope we will do more art and less DJ history, because for this place in this format it doesn’t work.
A: Was there such situation when someone drinks in your bar in the evening, and the next day comes
back and offers a cool business deal?
G: There was. Come and say: paint our office. We, like, say: okay. We come, watch a brand book, conclude a
A: How did the artists appear? Where and how do you find them?
G: Artists appeared after I went to the presentation of IF ONLY magazine. I met there with Lera and Yana. A week later we met, I told them that I want to change paintings on the wall of the bar once every two weeks, and we just started to do it. They introduced me to the artists Tasha Kapushon, Griss Lugard and Vadik Fin. These three people inspired me to become interested in what is happening in the art environment.
A: How should the picture look loke so that you hang it on the wall in the bar? And who makes such
G: We definitely won’t take naked girls with “Molotov Cocktails”. I have many questions not so much to the content of the work as to its design. Sometime we didn’t even exhibit anything for several months, because boys and girls brought some scraps of paper, and they constantly fell off. This is your art, you want to show it and you waited for 9 months, and now you don’t care. For me, attitude to your work is a very important indicator. This wall was painted by Tasha Kapushon and Griss Lugard so that, if anything, nothing could hang on it. The message of work is that this is the only bar that has a heart.
The decision is made by those who are interested. Some people prefer to just say: this is shit. But that doesn't work.
A: Which way do you want to develop?
G: We have a kind of pause for a second. Now there is an idea to do some morning atmosphere in Karma so that you can work there. There was a lot of talk about the gallery, but it requires a lot of investment and it is a big risk, plus the Post Bar format is not fully understood.
Now we are launching “dirty Thursday”! We will call different non-musicians. This is not even a party, but a joke on a party. This is done to once again show the advantage of communication.
A: Are there any ideas that are getting dusty because the audience is not ready for them? If so, what
should change and when will you be able to implement them?
G: Of course yes! A whole bunch. So far, there are huge problems with a venue, a friendly price of $800 a day
- and you understand that it will be a failure. At the very beginning, Sasha and I agreed that everything we do should not go into the red. Minus 5 bucks is a failure.
And about the lack of understanding of the public - it seems to me that we are working with very understandable art, people perceive it very positively. On the super odd occasion, we didn’t have such an event that no one came to. When people come, it’s clear that everything is not in vain. I don’t even know how we can scare people away. Well, perhaps only with a paid entrance.