About the Project
'HSE University's Age-Mates'

2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of HSE University. Many of the university’s peers—those born in 1992—now work and study here. Thirty-year-old HSE graduates work in various fields, from business and fintech to IT and contemporary art. As part of the new ‘HSE University's Age-Mates’ project, some of them have shared their stories and talked about what they like about the university.

Art historian and cultural scientist Alexander Salenkov graduated from the HSE University School of Cultural Studies with a Master’s in Visual Culture in 2018. In September, he will be returning to the school as a lecturer. Alexander spoke to the HSE University’s Age-Mates project about inclusion and the importance of making sure that people with disabilities are heard.

Why did you choose the Master’s in Visual Culture at HSE University?

I graduated from the Faculty of Art History of the Surikov Institute. At the same time, I was an external student at Moscow State University in the night school of the Department of General Art History. When I found out about the Visual Culture programme, I knew that studying would significantly expand my research interests. At the time, I was studying modern poetry and Moscow conceptualism, wrote a thesis on the video performances of Dmitry Prigov, rhetoric and authorial recitation. I wanted to continue studying modern poetry in an interdisciplinary combination with contemporary art.

At HSE University, the topic of my master’s thesis was ‘The modern poet as a multimedia figure: representation of the poet in the context of 2000s festival culture’. My Academic Supervisor was Ilya Kukulin, a famous philologist, literary scholar, and literary critic. He supported the idea of writing about the formation of the image of the poet during recitations at festivals. I tried to examine how the figure of the poet changes in an environment where a text, the author’s recitation, and the co-presence of the author and the audience start to interact with new agents of poetic expression: sound art, performance, multimedia installations and other forms of proximity to modern art. The rich and fascinating culture of poetry festivals in the 2000s offered new formats of authorly recitation and signified a new social framework in which the poet is a mediator of events who has aesthetic, social, and sometimes political significance.

Photo: Daniil Prokofyev / HSE University

And after your studies, you taught at HSE University for two years?

Yes, I conducted a research seminar entitled ‘Research Methods in Art History: Theory and Practice’. Together with art history students from the School of History, we examined key texts and cases in institutional critique, which is a major field of contemporary art.

Institutional critique formed in the second half of the 1960s, and was the catalyst and the epicentre of outstanding and very successful artistic projects and names. Artists focused their interventions and ‘attack’ studies on issues concerning the boundary between institutions and the art market, as well as the agency of participants (artists, audiences, curators, collectors, sponsors, etc). Institutional critique found and made visible once-hidden mechanisms of the overlap between living and non-living, subject and object, assemblies of the constant reproduction of capital and self-organisation and the private/collective labour of artists both within and outside of art institutions. We analysed these and many other topics in the seminar.

I hope to continue this seminar in the coming academic year as a course of lectures at the School of Cultural Studies. I was invited to teach by Yuliya Biedash, who is a philosopher, spatial and urban researcher, and Academic Supervisor of the Bachelor’s in Cultural Studies. When I was a student at HSE University, I was fortunate enough to attend her courses, and now we will be working together. It is very nice that former students aren’t forgotten.

What’s more, I will conduct a research seminar entitled ‘Disability Studies’. I have big hopes for it, because it will be the first attempt to talk about this relatively young but, in my opinion, very important trans-disciplinary field at the university level in Russia

The seminar will examine various biological, political, social and cultural representations of disability using an intersectional approach, ie through overlapping aspects such as disability, gender, childhood, history, sexuality, trauma, abuse, education, ecology, law, etc.

Photo: Daniil Prokofyev / HSE University

I myself have a vision-related disability. We won’t speak about people with ‘special needs’ or ‘developmental issues’. I believe that disability is not a limitation, but a phenomenon that we should study from different perspectives. At some point, I realised that this subject is closer to me both physiologically and psychologically. I can say something about it from a position of experience, not just from studying the material or having professional skills and competencies.

To what extent is the topic of disability stigmatised in academia?

Government social and cultural policy regarding people with disabilities in Russia is built on paternalistic distribution of knowledge and procedures of bureaucratic control. The sector related to care, treatment, medical rehabilitation, and early, middle, and specialised secondary education for people with disabilities is developing, but there is no open agenda supported by the government. Unfortunately, Russian state universities and academia in general exist in this information vacuum. There are admission benefits and an increased state bursary, but things like the systematic recruiting of tutors, which is vital to the educational process and academic mobility, are not provided for. It’s less a matter of stigmatisation than one of indifference.

Nevertheless, there are state and private museums in Russia that actively develop inclusive programmes, popularise art by people with disabilities, make their spaces accessible, and cooperate with experts, volunteers, and foundations. All of this is done to attract people with disabilities to their space. Now, any self-respecting museum must have an inclusion department. A huge amount of important work is done in this field, though of course it has its own problems. In my opinion, this comes down to the fact that marketing strategies for one art project or another, as a rule, are limited to formats of participatory leisure.

People with disabilities can be viewers, listeners, recipients, consumers, nominal participants… but not subjects with influence or any apparent degree of agency

I think that an important task for museums today could be to re-examine the institutions and ways of making distinctions that are accepted in modern art, where responsibility for their actions and qualification of their actions are not only in line with the institution’s interests, but in line with lateral connections and initiatives by people with experience.

Photo: Daniil Prokofyev / HSE University

How was HSE University in terms of inclusion when you studied there?

We had a very good seminar dedicated to issues in the rehabilitation of people with disabilities. And that is probably all. That’s why my course is so important to me—I dream that Russian universities will have full-fledged accredited programmes in disability research that will help not only researchers, but people with personal experience to develop this field together.

For example, the first dedicated educational programme in this field appeared in the USA in 1994. Within 10–15 years, hundreds of programmes in various countries were accredited, had academic clout, and had seen large numbers of graduates who had dedicated their lives to this field. Unfortunately, this wave has not reached Russia.

Did you meet any students with disabilities while studying at HSE University?

Yes, although not very many. That may be because of the workload, as HSE University master’s programmes are very intensive. Plus, the Master’s in Visual Culture was primarily text based. We wrote several texts per month, which is a lot compared to other programmes. But that is wonderful, because ultimately, the most important thing for researchers is writing and publishing texts. And we did that.

The intensiveness of the programme was quite tough for me, and I had to take a leave of absence to finish my thesis. But I have very happy memories of my studies. HSE University became my second alma mater. There, I found teachers, an environment, new friends and the opportunity to progress in achieving my goals.

What is your current goal?

Apart from teaching, I would like to study and talk about the culture, art, and daily lives of people with disabilities. I am certain that they have their own intrinsically valuable culture. Their individual experiences linked to disability change their perceptions of life, art, and artistic creation. I think that the conventional majority of people know very little about this culture, daily life, and art.

Photo: Daniil Prokofyev / HSE University

Should this kind of art be treated in a specific way?

The main problem is that people with disabilities are normalised. An accessible environment is created for them, and this results in a conventional norm of inclusiveness. Creating a comfortable environment of difference without making an effort to identify and clarify the interests of specific people with experience or broader socio-political groups normalises disability as an ailment. The rationalisation of disability in categories of vulnerability, weakness and failure forms an intentionally marginal position for people with experience as a norm for their existence. And this is paradoxical, as in an age when human life is increasingly measured in relation to medicine and science, the understanding of what is ‘normal’ should be expanding and receiving more intrinsically valuable representations.

All kinds of platforms and spaces could give people with disabilities a space for expression, a place build on the idea of participation and solidarity so that they could have a publicity resource to talk about what disability is. You have probably heard the famous political slogan coined by the American researcher, activist, and rights advocate James Charlton: ‘Nothing about us without us’.

To me, this is precisely what the vital field of disability art is about—art by people with disabilities that has different formats for representing/presenting disability as a mainstream field

Art institutions do not assign any special status to such projects, but rather try to adapt their inclusive programmes to the most successful and notable works of artists. I see a specific outcome in this: the development of socially and politically significant art that strives not only to entertain viewers or to exist solely within its own artistic borders and the reproduction of capital, but to ultimately transition from the exclusion of disability to its autonomy.

Which of your researcher colleagues work with the topic of disability?

There is Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova at the Faculty of Social Sciences. She is a lecturer and a leading researcher in the fields of disability sociology, the sociology of professions and social work. Thanks to her efforts, collective monographs were published on various issues and aspects of disability in Russia and CIS countries.

Are any of the authors people with disabilities?

Yes, absolutely.

Would you like to be well known in the academic world, including as a researcher with disabilities?

Ultimately, what matters is acknowledgement of the fact that disability is not a special characteristic or a limitation, but rather an internal opportunity for change—a phenomenon that you must cooperate and coexist with. Publicity, openness to dialogue, and clarifying and studying disability are the things that will allow us to resist the inevitable process of normalisation.

Would you like to research this topic at HSE University, not just teach it?

Of course. I would like HSE University to have a centre that could attract people from NGOs, museums, medical institutions, research centres and laboratories.

In your opinion, what is an ‘HSE University Person’

It has always seemed to me that HSE University as a brand, as a university, unites people in the principle of a democratic environment. It isn’t people uniting around a brand, but rather a brand uniting around people. I think an ‘HSE University person’ is an independent scientist who works at HSE University and its numerous research centres, laboratories, and departments and who builds their academic career without worrying about being swallowed up by a brand. A HSE University person is a highly educated, professional specialist who remains free, partly thanks to the opportunities provided by the university.

What would you like to wish HSE University on its 30th birthday?

I wish for the return of academic mobility and international cooperation, as well as for the launch of new, in-demand programmes that will interest undergraduates, doctoral students, lecturers and researchers.