Feature Interview: Hassan Kurbanbaev (I/II)

“Displaced” to collaborate with a series of Netherlands-based organisations dealing with substance use and harm-reduction strategies, Hassan is set to explore concerns such as ‘problematic’ substance use involving young men who have sex with men (MSM) in the day and age of ChemSex and life in Amsterdam's Drug Consumption Rooms (DCRs).

Hassan Kurbanbaev, Portrait © Juan Aguirre Fernández-Bravo

Hassan Kurbanbaev, Portrait © Juan Aguirre Fernández-Bravo

This is your first residency abroad. What are some of your initial impressions upon joining the AFEW Culture Initiative in the Netherlands?

This isn’t a regular residency or artistic project for me or for Misha [post-production and photography assistant], but rather an ongoing experimental process. I don’t think I realised the challenges of finding a ‘bridge’ between the visual arts and social/health issues at first, but now the feeling is sinking in. Amsterdam is an entirely new environment for us, and even though this is already our second month here, we are still figuring things out to come up with an entry point into the photographic project.

I personally feel thrust out of my comfort zone and plunged into a series of topics that are complicated to grasp, let alone analyse while taking into consideration everyone’s sensitivities. The shock didn’t necessarily come instantly upon landing, but rather as a gradual occurrence: every day presents itself with new situations, new problematics while carrying out my research at the Trimbos Institute and Mainline Foundation, and different realisations while volunteering with clients at De Regenboog Groep’s AMOC [safe drug consumption facility and drop-in centre].

Judging by the research you have gathered by now with our partner organisations in the worlds of substance use and harm reduction, how would you compare your experiences in Amsterdam with those back home in Tashkent?

I believe societies are structured very differently in the Netherlands in comparison to Uzbekistan, where government institutions and their authority comes at the top, with socially-motivated organisations, collective necessities and individual choices all being subjected to a top-down hierarchy. In contrast, I get the feeling that the human factor and the needs of marginalised groups do come at the forefront of Dutch policy here, to a greater or lesser extent.

In the case of people who use drugs, taking illicit substances does not automatically cast you aside the rest of society in the Netherlands, given that there are certain support structures and collectives in place to listen and support you when in need. Does that make Amsterdam the best place out there when it comes to such ways of dealing with drug use and harm reduction? Maybe not, but I don’t think such support systems even exist back home in Tashkent, so there clearly are different approaches to the same matters at stake here.

Which ideas and elements are you taking into consideration when deciding on the format of your intervention for the AFEW Culture Initiative?

For my work, I want to emphasise the importance of the human factor as part of the research I've undertaken — not the disease (HIV/AIDS), not the procedures or the institutions in and of themselves — but the choices, necessities and overall perspectives of the people who use drugs. I am less concerned with demonstrating facts or tendencies through my artistic creation, and choose instead to visualise the ‘realness’ of my interactions with people who use drugs through a collaborative effort with the clients at AMOC.

The specific format of the intervention is still to be refined, I just know that it needs to prioritise and represent the subjectivity of people who use drugs on their own terms.