"I still haven't told my mom that it wasn't me who painted that bird."
Sergey Balovin is a Russian artist who is on a mission to prove the economics otherwise. Coming from a family of geologists, a small incident that happened at school when he was younger set his path to become an artist.
Bringing the old barter system back, Sergey started the very popular “In Kind Exchange” project in which he is traveling the world without any money but by exchanging his art to everything he needs. From plane tickets to clothes and food. His project has attracted a lot of attention in the art world both positive and negative as expected. In this interview, he discusses the what when hows of this crazy journey and how it has altered his way of being.
You can follow Sergey on his Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and his website.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in Russia in Voronezh, it's a small city not far from Moscow. I am almost thirty now and I have been studying arts since I was a child. When I started arts school when I was eight years old and I have studied painting ever since. I went on to work as a teacher at the State Pedagogical University and then I moved to China.
Are you based in China now?
I was based in Shanghai. Although I am in another part of China now as a part of my trip/project. In a few days I am leaving to South America. I am going to Mexico first. Then to Argentina and Brazil altogether for three weeks. After which I will go back to Russia...which means my trip is done. Travel the world money free!
You're from a family of Geologists. How did you end up in the arts?
Yes. I’m the first artist in the family and it’s a funny story how it all started. When I was four years old I went to kindergarten and the teacher asked us to paint birds. I didn't manage to do it, I was sitting in front of a white sheet paper and my teacher ended up drawing the entire picture...just to show me how to do it. Eventually my mother came around to pick me up and saw the picture of this bird and thought that I had painted it and decided that I was clearly talented and should be an artist.
I didn't tell her that it is not my art work, and from that moment she believed in my talent and a few years later when I suggested that I wanted to go to arts school she was very glad and she said “Yeah, yeah, yeah! I know you are talented!” So she ended up supporting me.
When did you finally tell your mother it wasn't you who painted that bird?
I still haven’t told her it wasn’t me. Haha! But now with this interview...
It was kind of a shameful moment. But you never know these small things sometimes have a very big influence in your life and fate. Maybe if it didn't happen I would have never become an artist.
"If something is boring me, I either change it or stop doing it. This is my principle of life. As it should be."
Do you think that is the moment you realised you wanted to become an artist?
That moment was the beginning of believing in my talent and I think that belief helped me. It was a huge support. When somebody believes in you it makes a huge difference. But at this point it was more of a hobby but after a while I realised I don't want to do anything else. All other jobs seemed boring and being a painter...well not that boring.
I don't like to do anything that I don't like to do. If something is boring me, I either change it or stop doing it. This is the main principle of my life. As it should be.
How did the "In Kind Exchange" project come about?
It started it in Shanghai, China. It was a random case. I rented an apartment in Shanghai which was almost empty. I met my neighbour next door who was also from Russia who had been living in Shanghai for six years and was packing up and moving to Israel. But she also had a lot of things that she wanted to sell or give it away. The first day I moved to the apartment I went over to ask her some questions about the landlady and the apartment over some tea.
That's when I noticed an easel in her apartment and said “Wow, that's exactly what I need, maybe you can sell it to me?”
She said “No, this is a gift from my friends and I don't want to sell it.” So I said "maybe instead of selling it I can paint a picture for you in exchange for that easel." She really liked my pictures and she agreed to the idea. She also decided to give me a few other things like cups, teaspoons and plates.
This gave me the idea that I could do this as an art project. I started to wonder what would be the best way do this kind of exchange because I didn't want to just do commissioned works like everybody else.
I thought I could end up doing portraits because that is what a lot of people ask for and it's one of my favourite genre of art as well. I ended up on a Russian forum online in Shanghai and put up some pictures of portraits I had done and asked for anything exchange especially for furniture for my apartment. In just a few weeks I ended up furnishing my entire apartment and more importantly for me a whole lot of new friends.
This is when it really took off because I realised it actually works. So I thought I could do a lot more with this. Even to the point where I don't need money and could do everything for exchange.
"After the idea took off, I said to myself 'OK. This is it. I won't use any money from today.'"
I said to myself, “OK. From today on I won’t use money.” I also wanted to do a world trip and I just went online and wrote if anybody wants me to come to their city they just need to invite me and I’d go over and paint them and their friends. I told them that they could even have big events in exchange of my art. The only condition I had was that you had to somehow get me to my next destination, whether that was a plane ticket or just dropping me off in a car.
I got around one hundred invitations from different cities. I realised that a lot of the destinations were quite close to each other. Especially in Europe where even a student could afford to send me to the next destination.
So, you have not used any money of yours at all in this trip?
I don’t have any money to use. To be honest sometimes people give me money instead of a gift. I accept it but it's usually for something specific, for instance instead of buying a ticket they give me the money to go buy it. So I have done that a few times. But not my own money.
Once I finish this trip I will make a detailed map about how I got from each city to the next and how I survived those trips. Sometimes it was by car, sometimes by plane, but if that was not possible I have even hitchhiked.
The most expensive gift so far is the flight ticket to South America. For that I offered a few oil paintings.
Normally people offer to buy my flight tickets, but this time I had tickets to go to the USA from just random people, nobody I know. Unfortunately my visa got rejected. Instead I asked if somebody would like to send me to South America. I want to finish the world trip as soon as possible. That's why I offered some oil paintings for exchange instead of fast sketches. I got my flight tickets easily by doing this.
That is quite something! What happened to your US trip?
I told the guys to take insurance just in case I didn't get the visa. Which I guess was a smart choice in the end. But at the very least they get their money back and once I go to Russia I will try to get another visa and try to make the US trip happen as well.
"Once I finish this trip, I'll make a detailed map about how I got from one city to another."
Are you against money?
A lot of people ask me this question but It's not really about being against money. It's nothing to do with money at all in fact. But It’s about not being fond of the current situation in the art world. It is very complicated to be an artist today.
It's complicated to sell, to have a deal with galleries and exhibitions, it has become a business. I see a lot of people who buy art today and they are doing it as an investment rather than for any artistic value. That's what I am against rather than money. That is what this project allows me to do. To create art that has a unique story and without thinking about the monetary value of it. I like the idea that everybody can have an art piece and not just those with a lot of money.
Do you face a lot of criticism because you're going against the "mainstream" idea of the world?
Of course. All the time man. If you just google my name and read the comments on some of the articles about me, you will find a lot of people who are uncomfortable with my way of things and who think that I do nothing and I get everything for nothing. It’s funny how many people think other people are dumb to be just giving me things for nothing. Well their beliefs and ideologies don't stop me from doing what I want to do.
You can watch Russia Today's documentary about the project here.
What is the most bizarre thing you've gotten in exchange of a portrait?
I get a lot of crazy things all the time. The first one was probably a drum set. A full on concert drum set. Another time a beautiful girl gave me her driving license. I asked her why she is giving it to me and she said “It’s not valid anymore.”
Over the years I get a lot of funny and “useless” things but just as much in terms of very useful items too. It’s not that different to buying things actually. I mean, people always buy things that are of no use to them.
What are the most difficult times you have faced during this trip?
Although the trip is based on asking. Most of times, people are inviting me rather than me asking for anything. So now I only go where people invite me to.
However there are times when things change. One of the most difficult times I had was in India. The person who invited me was a Russian guy who said he can host and feed me. I usually stay 3 days to a week in each city but he said I could spend the entire winter there. In return he asked if I could paint portraits and make my exchange in his restaurant that he owned in Varkala, Kerala.
I started becoming involved in the business rather than doing just portraits. He ended up asking if I could decorate the restaurant and do some art shows there. I even started to do it, I was full of enthusiasm and I thought this was another experience and at that time I was happy to do it.
But eventually he started to send some money to the co-owner to develop the restaurant. Then I started getting involved in the money side of it and that is really not my cup of tea you know. There was a lot of misunderstanding between the Russian and Indian co-owner and I decided to move on.
"I could be doing this for the rest of my life or get bored and move on. It's really about now."
Tell us about your project "Petit Something Small."
Haha! that is another project that I started with Louise Morin, a French artist. The idea was to do an exhibition that would represent the artworks of Russian and French artists. I thought I could showcase some small sketches of artists, the kind that you do in a pocket notebook when you just have a random idea and sometimes eventually end up in a big idea.
My partner agreed to this idea and I started to collect Russian artworks, but when we met up to share what we had found it was a completely different story.
She had misunderstood me because instead of sketches she literally started to collect “something small.” Haha! BUT, this turned the project into a whole different animal and ended up uniting 40 artists from all over the place like Brazil, Germany, China, US and many other places.
All these artworks would fit into just one suitcase because everything was so small. In fact they all made something small specifically for this show and it was incredibly successful and we ended up doing shows in Russia, France and even China in different cities and museums.
It was hilarious because technically our items could be classified as contraband since we crossed borders with artworks. Normally when you take any art piece to another country you have to sign a lot of documents and special permits. But because everything was so small it was just all packed into a suitcase and nobody questioned us!
How long do you intend to continue doing "In Kind Exchange?"
I could be doing this for the rest of my life or one day I could get bored and just move on. Right now I want to finish my world trip and get back to Russia and do an exhibition to share my experience with people. I plan to include portraitist, photos, gifs and peoples stories as part of the exhibit.
But at the same time I think I will keep doing it. I like the idea, I like how it works, I like to meet new people, give and receive gifts. Even if I do start using money again I think I will still continue to use the idea of exchange.
What's the biggest thing on your wish list?
You mean the most expensive? it was probably the flight tickets to South America. But so far I have gotten a MacBook and an iPhone, which are are very expensive as a charge for a five minute sketch. But I don't really want to keep track of that.
What has this journey taught you?
I think the main thing that it has taught me is to not be afraid of losing money. A lot of people are afraid of that but I don't think that is the closest thing to the most terrible thing that can happen in your life and this project/trip is the example. You have to believe in people.
What advice would you give to young artists today?
Don't be afraid to try something new. Don’t be afraid to go against the norms. Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams. Don’t be afraid at all.
What is that one thing that keeps you going?
Love I think. I absolutely love people. And I think they love me too. Haha! That's very important to me and I think that's what drives me.
What does success mean to you?
Freedom. Freedom to chose your own path and create your own story the way you’d like it. If you can sustain that freedom, you are successful.