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  • Antonina Stebur

"I felt like I was always driven by shame": how to learn to read again

Text presented as part of exhibition

Curator and researcher considers reading as a gesture of interruption and political practice on the example of the project Chitanka (Ulyana Bychenkova, Anna Shcherbina) and the reading scores of the Problem Collective.

"I felt like I was forever driven by shame": how to learn to read again

Reading is a fundamental practice of learning, integration, and cultural engagement, and a basic skill that we most often acquire before entering elementary school. We are taught to recognize and distinguish letters, put them into words, isolate images from words, understand whole sentences. But this practice is not neutral in itself, it teaches us to fit in, introduces us into the circle of "our own". We are taught to first read linearly, without skipping a word, to adapt in reading to the general rules. Learning to read also teaches the mechanisms for excluding and normalizing these exceptions, when we are asked to single out the main and subordinate sentences in the statement, to determine the main idea of the author or author (as a rule, the author), discarding other ideas as less important. In a social sense, the practice of learning to read offers a view of the world as a hierarchical environment and invites the practice of this hierarchy. For example, when in elementary school you need to complete a reading speed task, it suddenly turns out that not all readers are equal in front of the text and among themselves, that we all have different reading speed and it is assessed differently. It's not normal if your speed is below normal. (But who came up with it?) Or when the class takes turns reading the text in paragraphs or roles, students – from excitement, lack of experience, or for other reasons – begin to stray, their reading practice is rated as unsatisfactory. Then the mechanisms of social hierarchy are launched in a single community. In other words, the practice of reading is always a political act. And although we tend to think of reading as a natural, or rather, inherent ability of modern man, it works politically as a reproduction and normalization of the mechanisms that ensure social order. That is why many experience a sense of anxiety when faced with unusual or complex texts, or recall with fear and pain the process of learning to read at school. We feel an alienation, a set of imposed rules and practices.

Since reading is perceived as a basic cultural skill, reading in a different way seems strange or at least not serious to us, and if we try to read the text in any other way in public, this may threaten to be excluded from what Sarah Ahmed called the “common table of happiness”, because you thus question the social order and, as the researcher notes, deprive those who reproduce this order automatically by threatening "both everything that gathers around the table and everything that is located on it".

It is all the more interesting and important to isolate those practices that offer other methods of reading or a different organization of reading and discussion of texts, since, on the one hand, such practices allow us to see how the reading process itself constructs the subject of reading and reproduces existing social and political structures, and on the other hand – to offer a different view of the world, to compose existing relations in a different way. And here it is precisely the practices of contemporary art that will be especially important and interesting, since its tools contain the tools of political imagination and play, which makes it possible to overcome the marginalization of other forms of reading, since the artist is already marginalized in some sense and takes a position "on the side of the weak".

Chitanka, photo documentation of the practice as part of the exhibition "I drove up to a city that I did not know yet", Dnipro, 2021. © Photo: Yulia Tsiban.

One of these practices is the Chitanka project, initiated by Ukrainian artists Uliana Bychenkova and Anna Shcherbina, which is a regular readership meeting of artists, researchers, and activists. They proceed from the thesis that the text has materiality and is a political pleasure, devoid of its utilitarian meaning. The intention to form regular meetings and propose a different practice of organizing reading was the desire to overcome frustration in relation to complex conceptual, theoretical texts. Choosing a feminist optics as an approach that deals with the deconstruction of any power structures and hierarchies, as well as overcoming the dictates of subject-object relations, Chitanka offers a method of more inclusive, friendly reading. Practice means sequential reading and discussion - the reader herself decides when to stop and start a discussion. Thus, everyone present finds themselves in the same conditions, it does not matter if you read the text, it is discussed sequentially in sentences or paragraphs, without the desire to immediately determine the author's main idea and reject other judgments. The search for ideas and thoughts that are important for oneself is not divided into right and wrong, but is determined in a collective discussion. Chitanka abandons the traditional form, when the one who knows more explains to the "less knowledgeable" what exactly the author wanted to say. All participants find themselves in a "not-knowing" situation. Readers manage to organize their reading practice in a less repressive way, reduce the level of frustration in front of complex theoretical texts, and introduce theory into their artistic or research practice.

© Problem Team: Reading Method, 2021 / © Photo: Chiara Rendek

Another example of a different organization of reading and a different way of reading is the practice of reading the Belarusian . In their work the artistic and research group offers various scores for reading a list of works that were presented in the pavilion of the International Organization for Relief of the Revolution (IORR) at the First All-Belarusian Agricultural Exhibition in Minsk in 1930. It is known that the pavilion was dedicated to the history of political violence. However, except for the name of the artist and designer of the pavilion Alexander Ahola-Valo and the bureaucratic, at first glance, completely impenetrable and uninformative list of the pavilion exhibits, almost nothing has come down to us, there is practically no photo documentation of the exhibition itself.

Based on the early Soviet reading huts and the practice of eliminating illiteracy among peasants and workers, the Problem Collective invites us to forget how to read traditionally and try scores that are based on completely different ways of working with text. For example, the reader might read only the vowels in the list, or replace all the nouns with the word "red" or some kind of gesture. The participants seem to be rediscovering ways of reading, being in the position of a reader who has not yet acquired the ability to read. The "problem collective" comes from the gesture of "not-knowing" as a position from which political and social changes can begin.

Collective reading and re-reading, as well as the ways in which this simple bureaucratic list of exhibits are read, translate the text from a dry, official document into an artistic and political context. Method of Reading does not seek to reveal the original meaning of the list of works or to reconstruct the pavilion, rather, the idea is to create new forms of collective interaction and new emancipative practices, free from the acquired reflex of the habitual positions of our bodies.

© Problem Team: Information Stands series, 2020–2021 / © photo: Oleksandr Popenko

Moreover, the list itself, placed in a new context, can form complex systems of links and references, connecting, for example, several events that occurred in different time periods. Thus, at the A Promise of Kneropy exhibition in Bratislava, the Problem Collective activated the list of exhibits of the IORR pavilion, linking it to a series of strikes and boycotts that took place during the protests in Belarus in 2020–2021. One of the reading methods involved searching for resonant words and phrases between the list and , which included a poetic-political manifesto about the invisible strike, statements, documents and images of labor movements, strikes' links to nature, reproduction and reading. Thus, at first glance, a formal document, not intended for thoughtful reading, in a situation other than conventional reading practices, opened up new opportunities for the analysis of political events, overcame the alienation between the abstraction of the text and the concreteness of historical events, found gaps in the bureaucratic list and allowed let them through their own experience and empathy in collective reading practices.

Being a politically motivated practice, a shift in the habitual ways of organizing reading or the method of reading can become a starting point for other social relations, where it is the "not-knowledge" of habitual, conventional forms of reading that becomes an important unifying factor that removes the practice of exclusion and hierarchy, and ignorance itself is the beginning for transformations and search for new forms of collective organization.


  • 1

    I felt like I was always being shamed, was the phrase my partner said when talking about his experience of learning to read in elementary school. He describes the experience as one of the most uncomfortable and frustrating of his childhood.

  • 2

    Ahmed S. Feminist High-Rises (and Other Self-willed Subjects). – Art magazine No. 108, 2019.

  • 3


  • 4

    From the manifesto Factory of Found Clothes.


  • Antonina Stebur
  • Problem Collective