Some friends, artists PK, recently approached me to participate in a project in New York. They’ve reached out to artists all over the world to work on content for something they’re calling a Mirrorscope. The device is basically a video monitor they plan to install in bars around Manhattan, giving bar patrons the opportunity to have the artificial experience of an iconic cinematic moment: the down-and-out guy/gal drowning his/her sorrows in a glass of beer/whiskey/what-have-you.
The problem is, I think this iconic moment is an American fantasy. I’ve been charged with finding the essence of this thing here in Kyiv, but where is it? Kyiv doesn’t express this sadness, or to use the word preferred by PK, sehnsucht, in the same romantic way that we do in America. This is not to say it doesn’t exist, it’s just to say I haven’t found it in the same places you expect to find it in America. Like so many cultural constructs, this classic moment may or may not play out in our personal lives, but it exists strongly in the psyche of the nation. We’ve seen it so many times represented in our films, TV shows, songs, and books, that we have superimposed our own experience onto the myth. Of course people all over the world are exposed to archetypal American situations because of the prevalence of our media culture, but each society applies the ideas of our aggressively marketed culture on itself in different ways.
We perpetuate our culture at home by building and running bars that look like the bars in the movies, and then going to them in order to act out the roles we see in the movies. Outside of our country this picture becomes a little awkward. The “American Bar” abroad is about as authentic as the “Irish Pub.” It is a place where foreigners go motivated by a stubborn cultural habit, and locals go to meet expats reenacting an absent cultural identity. Both parties endure the kitsch of these places because it stands in not for something physically extant in the source culture, but for something agreed upon by the national imagination. The pub back in Ireland may not be physically that different, but because the entire society has agreed on the function and character of the space, the kitsch disappears, and the cultural construct of the bar becomes authentic.
So I’ve realized the question is not where this bar is in Kyiv, the question is where is this feeling in Kyiv? Or maybe even, does Kyiv have a particular public place for this feeling? Maybe the sources of melancholy and longing are so different that I don’t recognize the methods for dealing with them. Probably though, like a typical American, I’ve been looking for sehnsucht in all the wrong places. After all, it’s not about what beer is on tap, or whether there’s bourbon or nastoika on the shelf. It’s about a cultural consensus that agrees: this is the place where you can go to have a drink alone, when you really need a drink. And then maybe it’s not even about the drink. Alcohol itself means a lot of different things for different people. This is what makes dealing with an archetypal experience with a specific cultural association so difficult. In the end I believe that people are the same all over, but that sameness is in emotion and spirit, not culture and psyche. Those things mediate between who we are as people and who we are as societies. I believe I can find the same thing that interests PK and their Mirrorscope because I believe in this sameness, but I don’t think Kyiv keeps it in the same place. Still, as an American I’m naturally going to use my cultural background as a starting point for my investigation…
So Kyiv, where can a guy get a drink around here?
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