In the warm afternoons and slightly chilled October evening of 2007, on and under the city streets, in parks, next to fountains, in shops and abandoned buildings; international artists engaged the general public of Tbilisi with contemporary art. This was the project “One Stop”, taking place above, or slightly below ground along roughly one stop of the Tbilisi metro. Our idea was to install a temporary structure as a “British Pavilion”, for cultural exchange, and tea and biscuits.
At Pushkin Park, next to Freedom Square, we set up our British enclave, with tables and banners and bunting and Union Jacks. We stopped people and offered them tea. It was constantly on the brew, in a big enamel pot that never got cleaned out, continually topped up with more tea leaves and water, like a tannin accumulator. It was almost undrinkable. The Georgians are not used to tea with milk; and so we served it thick and black, with cups half full of sugar. To all of us this was a fairly foreign way of taking tea, but as they knew no different, they accepted it, along with every other oddness we offered, as typically and traditionally British.
Rachel was swapping pictures of English dogs for pictures of Georgian dogs. Jo was attempting to exchange memories. David, in homage to the street sweepers, tried to offer his services to as an English cleaner. I desperately tried to communicate and delicately offer spindles of wool to people to wind and unwind between us. Charlie did the performance ‘Laughing Bear’. Dressed from head to foot in a white boilersuit, and wearing a white plastic bear mask, Charlie stood on a podium performed a kind of laughing yoga.
Koba was a short, fair haired man with a face older than his years. He latched onto us, getting involved with any aspect that he could. Except to say ‘no problem’, he could speak no English. We didn’t speak Georgian. We communicated through gestures, eye contact, a dictionary and Lado, a charismatic local artist who not only understood English, but what we were doing. When Charlie had finished being the bear, Koba saw an opportunity and wanted to have a go. And so Koba became the bear.
As Charlie’s had been, his laughing was rhythmic and constant and forced. Ha-ha-ha/Hee-hee-hee/Ha-ha-ha/He-hee-hee. Jumping from the podium, he proceeded away from Freedom Square. I followed him with a camera. He approached people, trying to shake their hands, and collect encounters for the camera. He sometimes hid, and then jumped out to scare people (as scaring is what a bear should do). He gathered people. He chased them. He put his arm around girls’ shoulders as they giggled. He clowned with street furniture and vending machines. He danced. And laughed. And laughed. Ha-ha-ha/Hee-hee-hee/Ha-ha-ha/He-hee-hee.
He was so aware of what he should do, to engage with people, to play, to make laughter, and to make images for the camera. He lay down by the fountains outside the parliament building and then marched along, chanting his laughter, until a security guard approached. Koba then laughed his way back to the square. Ha-ha-ha/Hee-hee-hee/Ha-ha-ha/He-hee-hee.
He played the bear with total commitment, making the performance his own. When he removed the bear mask, it would reveal sweat pouring from his face, and he would simply wipe it off and then replace the mask. He persevered, even in the face of hostility. He invented. He didn’t stop to ask why, or what it was for, or what he would get from it all- it just made sense to him to do it.
Charlie left before the end, and told the others to hide his bear mask, concerned that Koba would not be able to stop the performance, and that somehow it might lead to trouble. It was difficult to know what he understood about what we were doing. Along with the pleasure of his involvement, was a discomfort- of an erosion of boundaries, and an uncertainty of the effects of his involvement. But despite our differences, and lack of shared language, I felt a kinship with Koba, in his outsider-ness and un-rootedness, his vulnerability, and his commitment to play. There was a belonging and not belonging, rawness, and a warmth and longing with a loose connection. And here he was, from nowhere, made visible, in a sense, though becoming invisible, hiding in the guise of a clowning bear. He was a brilliant performer. As it came close to leaving, I wanted to find out more. And so, with Lado as tranlator, I interviewed Koba the Bear of the Tbilisi streets.
Koba was a man from Soukhoumi, Abkhasia, a refugee. He had lived in Tbilisi, for 14 or 15 years, changing places when he got bored. He lived on the streets. In the winter it was hard. By day he would try and sleep in the metro stations, because the metro was always warm. At night, he found other places. Sometimes, in the city, it was possible to make fires. He did get lonely. He told me how he kept his distance from people, because he could not afford to get close to them. He told me that sometimes people were kind to him. He told me how difficult it was to find work. He told me about how he wanted to get a passport, so he could go to Turkey and find work. He told me how difficult it was to get this, and that he could not handle the procedures. He told me how much he enjoyed the performance. It was for pleasure. It was some kind of funny things. It is play, games. He felt like it should continue, and wanted to continue with the game with us. When he was the bear, people were very good to him, and he felt normal. Also, in the performance, he met lots of people. Before, people would not approach him, but after he had taken the mask, people paid more attention, talking, chatting and making contact with him. Physically, it did not hurt to be the bear, but sometimes it was very hard to laugh. But once he was in the game, when he had the costume on, he could not stop. He had to continue to laugh, and to get attention from people. But in real life, the main attention he needed was help from the government to get him a passport. They would not give him one without a piece of paper from Soukhoumi, which he could not travel to get. For the time being, he was stateless, and without official identity. He was illegitimate. He didn’t, officially, exist.
Had we not arrived and set up in such an informal manner, had we demanded registration forms and evaluations, had we had anything more official other than just permission to be there, I am sure Koba would have stayed away from us. He was far from feral, but conditioned by living loosely for so long, and being displaced. As fellow outsiders, striving for connection through play, we were in a safe territory- and he had no fear of trespass.
We sat on Freedom square and I asked Lado and Koba what freedom was to them. Lado said that in Georgian the word ‘freedom’ means something like ‘to be director of your own head’. If you are a really good director, then this is freedom. For Koba, to be without a job, he said, this is a kind of freedom. You can go anywhere, he said, nothing is stopping you.
Except, I said, the lack of a passport. He wanted to know if he could come to our country. He wanted to join us, and to continue to perform. I said he couldn’t. It would be too difficult.
We couldn’t smuggle a bear home. I, however, was free to leave, and leave I did, in my metaphorical ship. I sailed back home from the east but at home I felt out of place and still adrift. When art and life are so mixed up together, you can become lost, and what I was doing- well- it didn’t really fit in places. What emerged from it was so fleeting, and so uncertain, so mutable and resistant to being framed, or anchored down. Its value could not easily be recognised, or capitalised. And so I cast off, for a while, from making art and then abandoned ship.