Ted Efremoff, The New Connecticut School

TEdThis conversation presents the work by the multidisciplinary artist Ted Efremoff, part of what the curator Olu Oguibe defines as The New Connecticut School.
The New Connecticut School, as defined by Oguibe, embraces artists brought together by their desire to practice away from the pressures of the big cities. It centres on themes such as a sensitivity toward the environment, as well as a bond with the place and its inhabitants. These are all artists who live and have studied in Connecticut. In addition to Ted Efremoff, Olu Oguibe also included Colin McMullan and Lani Asuncion.

Born in Moscow, Russia, Ted Efremoff moved to the USA at the age of 16.  In 2005 he graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in Artistic Practices.  A multidisciplinary artist, he sees stories as a way to travel through space and time, metaphorically and literally.  His artistic practice is based on direct interaction with the public and on the organisation of collaborative activities aimed at building crucial relationships between people.  This conversation concludes a cycle of interviews with artists from The New Connecticut School.

You might also be interested in:
A conversation with Lani Asuncion
A conversation with Colin McMullan
Olu Oguibe talks with us about his work for Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel

  • A conversation with Ted Efremoff

  • A 2 minutes excerpt from our conversation
  • Crossing the Danube
  • Mother Tongue Trailer
  • The Healing Blues
  • Crossing the Danube

  • The Healing Blues

Tiziana Casapietra: The first question is about this New Connecticut School that Olu Oguibe mentioned to me. Of course, there is not a real school meant, as a building.
Ted Efremoff: Yes, yeah.

TC: So, if you could please tell me why he considers you, Colin and Lani to be part of the Connecticut School.
TE: Yes. Well, first of all, Colin and Lani and myself we all went to the University of Connecticut, we all had this program. Then Colin and I did some collaborations that had to do with community engagement and we chose this vehicle of a boat through which we engaged with community and built a boat and sailed it and told stories about the town where we both lived. So I think for Olu it’s like a conceptual frame. I grew up in Moscow, in Russia, and I lived in Philadelphia a big part of my life. So when I came to the University of Connecticut I really enjoyed the sort of engagement with the land around here and I feel that maybe when I was living in those large cities I was always drawn to the countryside somehow. I wouldn’t say that I am averse to working in cities but I am very interested, especially lately, in the slow movement and the slow food movement and also meditation and kind of an ability to be present in the world without being torn in many different directions by technologies and things of that nature.

TC: How can you do that? It’s difficult, I would like do the same but sometimes I feel the pressure of our times that are constantly changing so quickly in terms of geopolitical assessments and migrations and environments and technologies. So how can we slow down? 
TE: I agree. Well, one thing I think is that we are a very smart animal.

TC: I don’t know.
TE: For instance, human beings have been able to use the Earth’s resources more than any other animal of this planet. We are able to find out what is important to us and to mine those things and to gather those things.
We grow rapidly, we expand rapidly, we use resources rapidly and that allows us to expand but we are not smart enough to understand our own impact not only on the planet itself but on ourselves as well. So I think there is actually a certain amount of information that we can process without sort of melting down and normally that’s maybe as much information as two people talking to you at the same time; that is enough to process. But if you get three people talking to you at the same time you already start to lose your focus. And so with all these technologies we have invented we are now overloaded by this information. For me personally it’s just I can feel it physically, I can feel it in my body when I am overloaded or when I am in peace. So it’s very attractive for me to sort of fight the culture of overload that I feel energetically.

TC: Ok, then would you like to share with us something about your work, your approach to art and maybe the project you are working on at the moment.
TE: Yeah, there are two projects that I’m interested in talking about. One is called “The Healing Blues” project and another one is called “The Mother Tongue” project. So I guess up until about 2004 I was a painter, and I did  landscapes and cityscapes something of that nature and some of them were sort of semi abstract. Then I came to the University of Connecticut masters program. I became interested in sort of experimenting and at the same time to support myself as a painter I was a carpenter so I built things. I started to build environments and I started to use video in those environments and started to have people interact with those environments. And the work really was about tribalism and territorialism. So I thought also as this smart animal, we have not evolved past our tribal and territorial impulses. So then it became very interesting to me and I kind of discovered that this is much more interesting for me to work in this way and to work experimentally and to engage people on their terms. So at that point I made the decision that media was not going to influence how I work so I wasn’t gonna select – I work in video, I work in performance or whatever. So I feel the freedom to work in any way possible. So I can write an instruction for someone to perform something or I can make a video or I can make an installation and that frees me. I think like what is bouncing around of my head comes out in different ways, which is very freeing to me. So the latest works are social practice works and I really love engaging with people and the most interesting things to do for me is to engage with communities that are somehow marginalized.
So communities that are oppressed in some way or marginalized in some way. And so “The Healing Blues” project. I was living in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is in the Piedmont region of the US. Then there is kind of blues there, it’s called the Piedmont blues and it’s a little bit different from the Mississippi Delta blues. The Mississippi Delta is more isolated and the Piedmont has other influences. Other different American music influences that area so there are very old blues festivals there and to promote these festivals they asked artists to create work that would talk about the blues.
At the time I was already engaged with an organization that helps the homeless that is called the Interactive Resource Center in Greensboro, North Carolina. They are a day center and they are remarkable because they have all kinds of interesting programs. For instance, they have a writing workshop for homeless folks, they have a newspaper that homeless people put out for others who are living on the streets.  They have an artist collaborative where homeless artists make work and then some of the funds that they make on their art comes back to the collaborative, to buy materials and supplies and things of that nature. So it is a very innovative center. So my idea was: who in Greensboro, North Carolina, is actually experiencing the blues right now? And this is the homeless community and so the idea became let’s get blues musicians to get together with the homeless persons, together they write a song and they both get copyright on the song as co-creators. Then we create an album and then we sell that album to fund the Interactive Resource Center or to help fund the Interactive Resource Center.
There is a very interesting museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. It is called Elsewhere museum and it’s really a social practice space and so we have a sort of a series of cafes where we invite homeless folks and blues musicians to get together, learn about each other and write songs together. Then I asked a colleague of mine who, at the time we were both at Greensboro College in North Carolina, and he is a musician, Dave Fox. So he produced the songs and produced an album and that album is called “The Healing Blues CD.” One individual who is a homeless storyteller on the album, we had series of meeting at the IRC, and in my original idea nobody was gonna get paid, the blues musicians don’t get paid, the homeless people don’t get paid. What this guy said during the meeting you know, “I’d like to get paid, I’d like 25 dollars for my story” and then the director of the IRC at the time, she said “Well, we’d like you have most of the money from this project to go to the homeless folks”. So then we made the decision to give half of the money to the organization and half of the money to the storytellers. So they received about 300 dollars honorarium for their stories and copyright on the album. The second project I’m very engaging with right now is called “Mother Tongue.”

TC: What is your mother tongue?
TE: It’s Russian.

TC: So you are bilingual.
TE: Yes, actually my grandmother is an American who went to Russia in the 30’s and stayed for fifty years, married there. I was brought up and I learnt Russian and English simultaneously I would say. Then, so we lived in the Soviet Union and although we travelled a lot within the Soviet Union, like we went to the Crimea, we went to Georgia, Estonia. We really could not leave the parameters of the Soviet Union. Since the wall has fallen, I live in America now, I became very interested in exploring Eastern Europe. I travelled a lot in Serbia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, all these other places. The language is also interesting to me, it’s slightly different everywhere I go. I had an artist residency in Bulgaria and it was in a town called Oryahovo. Oryahovo seats on a hill and it overlooks the Danube river and it looks to Romania, so you see Romania. And at one point when I was on this residency, I thought, a lot of the work I’ve done has been about borders and this sort of territorial nature we have. So I thought it would be interesting to cross this border and since the Danube is a flexible border, I thought, well I can swim across the Danube. The title of this piece was called “Crossing the Danube” and I swam across the Danube from Romania to Bulgaria, and I had some interest in Bulgarians because that is actually the direction that tribe originally came from. They came from the South and crossed the Danube into Bulgaria where they settled. That piece was called “Crossing the Danube” and I kind of started to understand the Danube to be this divide, this cultural divide and geographic divide and a natural border. Another time I was teaching in Germany and I was afterwards going to travel back to the residency in Oryahovo and I thought “Well, actually, how can I travel?” and I thought “Oh, the Danube starts in Germany” and then I can go to Oryahovo and then I sort of came up this idea from this project “Mother Tongue.” So I travelled down the river on all different forms of marine transportations, from the Black Forest in Germany to the Delta, Ukraine and Romania. In each country I interviewed people, I had an audio recorder and I asked them to talk to me about the river and then their neighbors on the river. So for instance if I am in Hungary I ask people how they feel about the Austrians and the Serbs and the Slovaks for instance. Then I asked them how they feel about borders in general and about the possibility of no borders.

TC: Yeah, such an issue nowadays.
TE:  When I started the project it was about three or four years ago and I traveled down, everyone was saying “Well, we are in Schengen space, there are no borders anymore; we can travel at any points.” But then with the recent war in Syria and other things, many of these countries are securing their borders now. 

TC: It’s quite a sad situation now everywhere in the world, but in Europe it is even worse, the feeling we all have is quite sad.
TE: Yeah, well I think that there are really two major positions. One is why should we close our borders, these are people and they are experiencing difficulty and we should support them. Another position is these people can hurt us and we need to protect ourselves. So the way this project looks: it’s a video and describes the Danube for about an hour, from the beginning to the end, let’s say 5 to 6 or 7 minutes in each country. It just shows the river and its surroundings and then overlaid is audio of people talking about these issues. When I started the project people primarily talked about the Schengen space and the openness, but now this year I was in Hungary for a month finishing the editing of the video, and you hear a lot of things about the right wing party wanting to close down the borders.

TC: If you feel like adding anything else to our conversation, please feel free. 
TE: Well, I mean I can reiterate that I think that these very smart creatures that we are, are able to mine the world for humans, for what we desire, but we are not quite intelligent enough to understand the scope of the damage that we do and I think our own sort of tribal and territorial nature prevents us from evolving together as a group and to also be cognizant and mindful of other groups of living things that we are on board with. So really what I think about is how humanity needs to evolve beyond their impulse to protect only their own groups because in this way we are actually destroying the planet where we are living.
I’m interested in doing another project in Rome.  I want to give cameras to people who are refugees living in Rome and I want them to create like a guide. I want to create a guide from refugees for refugees on how to navigate the city of Rome. Because actually Rome I think was founded by a refugee and there are so many architectural references to war and slavery and displacement, like the Trajan’s Column for instance.

TC; Let me know if you are coming so that I can come to visit you.
Yes, that would be wonderful.

TC: Ted, thank you for this conversation it was very interesting.
TE: Thank you.


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