Fallout Dogs:  An Interview with Julia Oldham

Fallout Dogs: An Interview with Julia Oldham

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Oregon Artist Julia Oldham has returned to Portland ‘Pataphysical Society with the debut of her latest film “Fallout Dogs. The film paints a portrait of Pripyat, Ukraine after the Chernobyl incident, as documented by its population of stray dogs. Charting their movements and activities, as well as those of the small population of residents who have returned to their homes after the nuclear fallout, Oldham tells a story that is both touching and devastating. She is “fascinated by Chernobyl as an example of what the world might be like without humans, and what would become of our structures and changes to nature.” 60 Inch Contributor Lusi Lukova sat down with the artist and asked questions about her experience in Ukraine working alongside these animals.

Lusi Lukova: “Fallout Dogs” marks your return to Pata PDX. Your previous exhibition,“Farewell Brave Voyager” also placed dogs as central characters in the show. There you chronicled “Laika the Soviet” space dog one way flight into outer space, and animated her final living hours. What draws you to narrating broader themes of grief and life and loss through these animals?

Julia Oldham: I have always been particularly drawn to canids of both the domesticated and wild variety, perhaps partly because I grew up in a very rural area with a pack of four dogs -- who partially raised me! Dogs are some of our closest animal familiars, and they have adapted alongside us for thousands of years, deeply affecting our species. There’s something so interesting to me about this connection; are we commensal? Symbiotic? I’m drawn inexorably to the way dogs have had an impact on culture, progress and our understanding of the world. The themes of life and loss that you mention develop naturally as I tell these stories and honor the canines in them, because my strong feelings for these beings overflow into the work.

My research for “Laika’s Lullaby” led me to discover that the scientists preparing Laika for her launch, knowing that it was a one-way trip, felt deep reservations about what they were doing. They fell in love with this little Moscow stray. One of the research team brought Laika home to play with his children before the flight. Dr. Adilya Kotovskaya cried as she pet Laika for the last time and secured her into her capsule. Decades later, one of the lead scientists, Dr. Oleg Gazenko, said that he thought they should not have sent Laika to space, that not enough was learned from the mission to justify Laika’s death. I found these accounts moving and heartbreaking, and I wanted to create a requiem for this beloved little dog whose life was sacrificed.

LL: How does your personal life/practice meld with your artistic/creative practices? Phrased differently, where do you often find inspiration for your projects?

JO: Like so many artists, I have a hard time creating boundaries between life and work. I live and work with dogs and interact with a big community of people involved in shelter work, rescue, training, and various types of dog research. A lot of my ideas and inspiration flow directly from these connections and the conversations I have with my peers. I am also an obsessive reader and hiker, and I find that these two activities are my most fruitful methods of research.

My interest in the dogs of the Chernobyl who are the subjects of “Fallout Dogs” started with a Nature documentary a saw years ago called “Radioactive Wolves,” which is about the way that the Exclusion Zone, now mostly devoid of people, has become a strange kind of nature preserve. Wildlife is flourishing in this space that humans have evacuated, and there is a particularly healthy wolf population there. I was so fascinated by this, and I started doing some research, thinking I might try to do a project about the wolves in Chernobyl (which I might be doing this next year, if a few collaborations and grants fall into place). Along the way, I came upon articles about the stray dogs living there and how they are cared for by the remaining Chernobyl workers and the Self Settlers, who are people who refused to evacuate after the Chernobyl disaster and stayed in their homes illegally. I didn’t realize that there are still thousands of workers addressing the ongoing contamination issues, and I started to daydream about the relationship between these workers and the strays. I wanted to meet these dogs and the people who love them, and so I started to plan my trip to Chernobyl to do just that, and to film what I discovered.

LL: You seem to place dogs, above other animals, in these highly esteemed and brave positions in your work. Do you see them as bittersweet martyrs for much of the destruction and negative impact humans have on our earth, or more as just unlucky bystanders?

JO: I think of dogs as our witnesses. They will be here by our sides through progress and disaster, and they often suffer because of it. I think canine bravery does come across in the work I make, though dogs have never consented to the jobs we have given them in times of war or in the name of scientific research. I think that’s a really important distinction to make.

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LL: What was your first impression upon arriving to Pripyat?

JO: Seeing the purely Soviet urban planning of the abandoned city of Pripyat this past May was so different than seeing a city like Tallinn that has some Soviet elements but mostly historical architecture and planning. Pripyat was founded in 1970 and developed as a city for the Chernobyl Power Plant workers to live in, and its design reflects the utopian ideals of Communism. The high rise apartment buildings are all identical and densely constructed, and social spaces such as swimming pools, theaters and cafes are walking distance from the apartments and can accomodate large numbers of people. Wide, paved boulevards allow for easy commuting for power plant workers and for celebratory parades. The buildings are all cement, brutalist forms, and there is public art everywhere: mosaics, murals, stained glass and sculptures. The artwork is socialist realism, depicting a well-oiled society, happy, hard-working people, and of course Lenin.

The emptiness of this utopian city is unsettling and haunting. I had the strange experience of feeling like I was in a city from the future, but an abandoned one, as if I had travelled far enough into the future to see both the utopian pinnacle of society and the subsequent demise of the human race.

LL: You mention needing a translator to navigate conversations you had with current residents and pet owners -- how was that relationship cultivated?

JO: To get into the Exclusion Zone as a tourist, which is what I did, you have to go through a tour company that employs government licensed Chernobyl guides. Chernobyl is a very tightly regulated place, and these companies are able to do all of the paperwork to allow you to legally enter. I contacted one of the companies with my request for a 5-day private tour focused on the stray dogs that live in the zone. Serendipitously, Ludmilla Jurascho, a woman who had been caring for the dogs for a number of years in the zone and knew them all well, was a guide who sometimes worked with this particular company that I contacted. The tour coordinators connected me and Ludmilla for a tour. Ludmilla was a guide, translator, dog wrangler, and, ultimately, a dear collaborator in my project.

LL: Ludmilla seems to be a powerhouse of a character, taking on the role of primary caretaker of all of the dogs in the area. Could you speak more to her as an individual and to your relationship with her?

JO: Ludmilla is a young, energetic Ukrainian woman who wears punky clothes and has short, pink hair. When we first met each other at the entry point of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, she gave me a big hug. I was instantly drawn to her warmth, wonderful sense of humor, incredible compassion for animals, and her strong and unique sense of self. Ludmilla carried a big white shopping bag of goodies with her everywhere: freeze dried livers, kidneys and tracheas. She referred to this bag of treats as her “stinky stuff,” which was totally accurate. She also brought loads of kibble to feed hungry dogs that needed a full meal.

Ludmilla gave us a traditional tour of Chernobyl so that we understood the context of the place we were visiting, but the majority of our time was spent visiting dog packs that we could interact with and film. Because the dogs tend to pack up where there are workers to feed them, our visits brought us to unusual places where tourists would not typically spend time, like security checkpoints, tiny grocery stores, canteens, dormitories, and a decommissioned railroad station. Everywhere we went, the dogs all knew Ludmilla and would begin to bark and dance when they saw her. She knew all of their names and shared stories about each of them. She knew their personality quirks, and which dogs got along or tended to fight. Her knowledge of these dogs was comprehensive, and there is absolutely no way I could have made Fallout Dogs without her.

Over the course of the five days of filming, we had a lot of very emotional experiences together. Chernobyl in itself is obviously a place with an extremely tragic history, and the interactions we had with animals in the zone ranged from joyous to deeply sad. We discovered a very young litter of adorable puppies that we ended up visiting every day we were there, and we had bittersweet feelings of adoration for these cute little babies and sadness that they would now also be strays who might not survive the harsh environment of Chernobyl. Ludmilla was contacted frequently by Chernobyl workers who had seen sick or injured dogs and cats, and Ludmilla did her best to help them, but not all of these animals could be fixed or saved. A cat that had been mauled by a dog died while Ludmilla tried to dress its wounds. A favorite dog of hers was discovered to have contracted a deadly tick-borne illness. Ludmilla put all of her heart into trying to help the animals in the zone, and seeing that process was at times truly heartrending.

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LL: Did you and your crew personally also live in the town while filming?
JO: The crew was just me, my partner Eric and Ludmilla. Eric and I stayed for 4 nights in a little inn called Desiatka that is located in the town of Chernobyl in the Exclusion Zone. We ate all of our meals at the inn, and occasionally ate in one of the worker canteens. The food at the inn was traditional Ukrainian fare: soups, potatoes, vareniki (pierogis to most Americans), banush (similar to grits), and cabbage salad. It was filling and tasty, and kept our energy up all day.

A pack of dogs lived at the inn, and we got to know them very well. This group of three greeted us every morning and every time we came back for a meal. I became very attached to them and always fed them the leftovers of my meals (which I could never finish).

LL: The segment "Puppies" in the film really struck a chord with me; you juxtapose the anguish of knowing that dogs rarely live past the age of four so beautifully with the hopefulness of the cycle that occurs each spring and summer when the new litter of pups is born. Are we as an audience meant to feel the sorrow, the depression that comes along with knowing the inevitable doom of life, or are we to be encouraged at the potential for joy, that despite everything life is still managing to flourish there?

JO: Seeing the puppies in Chernobyl was very bittersweet. They were, of course, incredibly precious, joyous creatures, and we loved to visit them. It was spring when I got to play with these puppies, and I knew that many of them would note make it through the bitterly cold winter this year. In an ideal situation, there would be no more puppies born in Chernobyl, and the population would wind down so that there would be no more suffering. The strays live very difficult lives, and although I loved them and am so glad I got to meet them all, I would not wish the lives they lead on any dog.

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LL: For each specific section of the film, was there a certain dog you choose to follow? It seems to me that, left to their own devices, the dogs must have formed packs and chosen territories.

JO: The dogs form packs where there are workers, because they rely on people to feed them. Most of the packs were between three and ten dogs, but there were also a few dogs that would strike out on their own, such as Mashka and Tarzan, the dogs featured in two of the chapters of my film. Mashka brought us on a tour of Cooling Tower 5 near the Chernobyl Power Plant, and Tarzan led us to the Duga, a gigantic structure that was designed as a radar system to detect incoming missiles. In another chapter of the film, I visited the home of Self Settler Valentina in the settlement of Chernobyl, who graciously allowed me to film her playing Soviet victory songs on the accordion while her chihuahua Danna sang along with yips and howls. There is a chapter that is all about Ludmilla and her beautiful relationship with the dogs, a chapter about the puppies I met, and two segments that explore villages and highlight the activities of the many dogs living in those areas.

LL: Could you notice a palpable affect the radiation had to the genetic makeup of the dogs? To any of the other residents?

JO: Not at all. Any effects of radiation that were present in the bodies of the people and animals in Chernobyl were entirely invisible to me. There is a scientist named Tim Mousseau who is researching genetic mutations caused by the radiation levels in Chernobyl, and he has discovered that some birds have smaller brains than they should. The birds also develop cataracts at a higher than normal rate, and there is a surprisingly high incidence of albinism among them. I did not see anything like this, though, in my limited exploration of the zone

LL: Your mention of the "haunting and rewilding [of the] city" resonated quite strongly with me; there is something to be said for finding solace and refuge in the refuse. Your soundtrack of tinkly piano and harp(?) notes really added to the overall eerie and haunting tone of the film -- apart from directing and filming, you also scored all of the music, yes?

JO: Yes, I scored the film. The recurring tune that you hear throughout the chapters and that is featured prominently in the chapters about Ludmilla and about the puppies, is a tune I would hum when I thought about my dog Lucius, the first dog I adopted as an adult. Lucius died in 2013, and I still miss him so much. I have been wanting to use my Lucius tune in a film for years, and this ended up being just the right one. I make up a lot of little tunes in my head and turn them into soundtracks. I combine my own tunes, usually played on a little glockenspiel or a baby piano, with digital compositions and sounds and samples that I gather and piece together. I do sometimes work with professional musicians as well.

LL: Why choose to avoid adding voice over to the film? You even avoid any sound of dogs barking throughout the film. For me, this created a(n appropriately) sterile effect to my viewing experience; I was both observer and an active participant in the film, but it also eased some of the very real anguish I may have experienced had I actually heard the dogs barking or the residents speaking. Was this your intention?

JO: I knew with certainty that I did not want human voices in the film. The sole exception is at the very beginning of the “Ludmilla” vignette, when she is saying “Boroda” (the name of the dog she is petting) over and over. This is because I wanted the film to really be about the dogs’ experience. The lack of barking sounds is partially practical. The ambient sound in Chernobyl includes a lot of industrial noises and chatter, and these overlap with the majority of the dog sounds I’ve recorded. While I find that interesting, it wasn’t what I wanted to highlight in Fallout Dogs. I wanted to be able to use music as a storytelling device, and as a way of translating what I felt about my experience into an aural, emotional context.

Of course, I do record Danna’s barks during her performance with Valentina! That was another reason I kept the rest of the vignettes free of ambient sound. I wanted the sound of their performance to disrupt the dreamy, musical sequences of the rest of the film and make them feel very present, as if you are right in Valentina’s house with her.

LL: In a previous artist bio, you are described as finding "the potential for romance everywhere." As a "lover, wanderer, and scientist" how did those selves meld for you while filming "Fallout Dogs"? And did you find what you were expecting to find?

JO: Going into the making of “Fallout Dogs” I did not know what the experience of filming was going to be like. That was a little bit scary, because I’m someone who typically storyboards or writes a script to guide my work. That just wasn’t possible with this piece since I had never been to Chernobyl before and really had no idea what the dogs were going to be like, where they lived, or what Chernobyl was going to feel like or look like. I pursued the project with a strong sense that there was an important story to tell about the dogs there, but I didn’t know exactly what it was yet. Because of all these unknowns, all of my previous methods of making kind of went out the window, and I found I had to allow myself to be in the moment, capture what was in front of me, and let go of control. That was an incredible challenge. I was truly a wanderer in the Exclusion Zone, and being there was one of the most moving and overwhelming experiences I have ever had.

Portland Pataphysical Society is located at 625 NW Everett #104, on the corner of NW 6th and Everett. Their gallery hours are most Saturdays, from 12pm - 5pm, and the First Thursdays of each month, from 6pm - 8pm. Fallout Dogs runs through February 17, 2019.  For more on the exhibition: https://www.patapdx.com and https://www.juliaoldham.com/index.php/portfolio/1/.

Images Courtesy of the Artist.

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