17. März 2020

“Make sure to feel good about yourself”

When we heard about Polina Bachlakova through a mutual friend at the female network HER Copenhagen, to us it felt she was like an agent on a secret mission. The 26-year-old is born Russian, moved to Vancouver, Canada in 1995, and is now based in Copenhagen, working for SPACE 10, a research and design lab creating ideas for better and more sustainable ways of living, fully funded by IKEA.

Polina, at her very young age, is responsible for all the storytelling that comes out of the lab. She says a “mixture of luck and ambition” brought her there, but having a quick look at her portfolio, anyone would be deeply impressed of what she already has accomplished. “Back in Vancouver, where I grew up, I started writing about art and music for magazines at a young age, 16. Throughout my BA, I did school part time and worked at an agency part time – so effectively, my first professional job was at 18 years old. I also got involved in the gallery scene, co-running an art gallery, acting as a Curatorial Assistant at a local artist-run center and doing PR for a commercial gallery. This was all before I turned 21.”

She moved to Denmark aged 21, stumbling upon VICE, where she was hired as a writer and able to produce “tons of articles”, for both the magazine and its music platform Noisey. She worked also freelance as a journalist writing about feminist issues for diverse international publications, which is how she finally met the co-founder of SPACE 10.

The red thread tying Polina’s work together is her political attitude and “vision of a future that is anti-colonialist, intersectional, feminist, inclusive and deeply engaged with both the challenges and opportunities of the shifts our societies are seeing today”. Besides her job, she is passionate about sex worker rights (“a feminist issue”) and volunteers for the “The Red Van” – a NGO and mobile safe space for street-based sex workers in Copenhagen. Meeting her in Copenhagen for The White Cube Art Project, there was one thing first and foremost, that we were dying to know!

Polina, how could you achieve so much at such a young age?

I am insatiably curious, a hard worker, and ideologically motivated to advocate for the changes I want to see in the world through my work. Moreover, I never had a ‚back up plan‘ – I come from an immigrant family, so the idea of, not working for my living or asking my parents to pay my rent was never an option — financially but also in terms of family values. However, I have calmed down a little bit in terms of being workaholic! I am glad I spent my early 20s achieving so much, but now I value a balanced life more. I can live by my values in my work but also have the energy to cultivate deeper relationships with my friends, family, partner and ultimately myself. 

Do you feel like you can influence the future in a way?

I think it is our responsibility as people on this planet — especially people like me, who are very privileged (I’m white, educated, live in a wealthy Nordic country, come from a middle class background, have decent socioeconomic means) — to at least try to influence it for the better. Otherwise, what are we doing with our time?!

What do you think is most exciting about your work?

Since starting at SPACE10, I have access to an insanely wide platter of knowledge every day! This takes me out of my comfort zone or ‚immediate‘ areas of interest. I can now confidently explain the benefits and risks of Amazon’s Alexa, or debate the merits of quitting meat as a climate conscious move; 1.5 years ago, this was not the case. So, I would say learning and creating in equal balance.

Being able to breathe life into ideas that are rooted in the desire to make life better for many people. In terms of how I feel – to be able to live by my values. This isn’t the case every single day, of course, but overall I feel I’ve been lucky and hardworking enough to now find myself in a place where I can speak my mind, convey my opinions and translate them into work that is shared around the world. It is satisfying to work somewhere that makes room for people like me to voice our opinions and have them come through in our output. 

What is your passion?

My number one passion is to tell the stories of people whose voices are not always heard or represented in society, and advocate for their rights. Either through journalism, which is the quickest or easiest way, but also through my work with a local NGO called “The Red Vann”. To make an impact, storytelling is one part, but actually doing physical work for the causes you believe in, and getting your hands dirty, is equally important. Unrepresented to me are minorities, like immigrants, sex workers, etc. As in the rest of Europe, we have quite a move in society towards anti-immigration.

Why is this such an important issue to you?

A) I am a leftist feminist and sex worker rights are most definitely a feminist issue and B) I believe that the stigma around sex work, which makes people’s lives dangerous every day, comes from institutionalized misogyny, racism, patriarchy and homophobia. These are all things I hate and want to spend my life fighting against. 

So how does it feel in the White Cube? 

It feels like a calm oasis in the city. I like that you chose Den Roede Plads, because this square is very emblematic of the good things about Copenhagen. It is very international; it is for everyone regardless of social background or class. I feel quite connected to the square and all it represents. The light is simply beautiful. 

What convinced you to become part of The White Cube Art Project?

It reminds me that every woman from an outside perspective is strong but strength does not come from one thing or one move that you make. Strength is character, and personality. I am thinking about the many steps it takes to make everybody strong in their own unique way.

You meet so many different people and hear so many different stories. Do you think it is more important to be emotional, or objective as a journalist?

I think the more emotional you are the better for the story and the more you can advocate for what you believe in. However, the more emotional you are in your work, you are at a higher risk that the piece is not published or that your team disagrees with your creative vision. I think about this a lot. Would it be better to distance myself? Or is being passionate about certain people and causes the reason why I can do a good job? I do not have the answer to that. 

What makes you cry?

One movie in particular makes me cry every single time. It is called 120BPM and it is about the aids crisis and activism in the beginning Nineties in Paris.

Generally, moving art makes me cry. There are books, which are very special to me.

Which books?

Have you read any of the work of the South Korean author Han Kang? 

She has a very simple way of writing about difficult topics. She has a book called ‘The Vegetarian’; it is about a woman who develops an eating disorder. Art makes me cry when it simply points to the vulnerability of the human experience. The pain that we all share in our lives. I am a Scorpio, you know we are dark! 

What makes you angry? 

Internalized misogyny and patriarchy that you experience in daily things, like dynamics in the workplace or offhand jokes that people make or biases that people have as result of privileges that often are given to men in power positions. I see that a lot and I am quite sensitive to it. Close mindedness, people who lack the curiosity to challenge themselves, to challenge their viewpoint, or to see other perspectives.  What makes me angry in the world are borders, anti-refugee policy, stigma against women in minorities… I could go on forever!

What makes you laugh?

Dark cynical humor makes me laugh; memes on the internet make me laugh, good writing can make me laugh as well. Embarrassing things that I do…  Yes, there is a lot. 

What are your rough edges?

I can have a temper and be quite blunt. I am not nice when somebody makes me mad or when I see something that I believe could have been done differently. I can annoy people because I phrase things in a way which is… you know… not rude but people perceive that as more aggressive than I thought I said it. And I can be schizophrenic a little bit; one day I’ll be super passionate and excited about where I am and the next day I’ll be like ‘What am I doing with my life? …

What do like best from yourself? 

I am a loyal person, friend, and co-worker. I like my passion but also my willingness to work on it. I am hardworking and actually stand up for what I believe in, I am always trying to live by my values as much as I can and I am always hungry to learn more.

I like the fact that I read a lot, because getting to know what makes me tick in the world is so important.

Did you have a strong mother?

My mum is super strong. She was an adoption coordinator and then became a documentary filmmaker in Canada. She is the most hardworking person I know. She will not let anyone do anything with her films; she writes, directs and edits herself. It is her way or the highway, and she will let you know. Maybe that is where my temper comes from.

She has been very influential for me, building everything in her life herself, and always pursuing the story she wants to tell. However, I also saw the cost of it, and that is degrading family relationships, degrading relationships with friends, less patience for things outside of work. I am very much aware of that. You can put your heart and soul into work, but taking care of the people around you and everything that is not related to work is equally important because without that you have nothing.

You were born in Moscow and raised in Vancouver, Canada. Now you live in Copenhagen. What are the main differences?

Vancouver and Copenhagen are very different. I have been here five years now, and I still view Copenhagen as probably the most socialist place you can find in a very globally capitalist society. It is amazing in terms of free schools, paternity and maternity leave, help, easy ways to buy apartments… it is a livable city!

None of these things exist in Vancouver, because it is so new and so North American. Being there is a little bit like a capitalist nightmare. It is super socially unequal; people leave because there is not much opportunity, even though it is a beautiful city. Moving to Copenhagen was like a revelation. “Oh it doesn’t have to be like that?”  You can fight for a society in which the government does take a lot of your money, but at least the money allocates in a way that makes your life better.

Is there a funny thing about you? 

I am obsessed with food to an intense extent. I am constantly talking about it; I think maybe that is funny for other people. I think I will go into food in some way later in my life. I am always asking people what they ate on a trip, or where certain food is from.  “How can I go on this food tour of this random countryside town?” 

What do you hate?

I really hate the sound of pencil writing on paper, or chalk writing on the ground. Especially if the pencil is not very sharp, that grating feeling. Moreover, I am extremely arachnophobic!  I hate spiders! 

I still remember what I wore for my first kiss, probably because I am passionate about fashion and I am working in fashion. Some friends of mine work in music and they know exactly which song they heard when they kissed the first time. Do you have something like this with a book, a journalistic text, or a story?

Many books represent moments in my life. I have a coffee table book of a Swedish photographer named Anders Petersen. Do you know him? It represents the time when I just moved here. I was sent to Stockholm and saw his contrasting, harsh and vulnerable work for the first time and I was so moved that I cried. I think I was also moved because I was alone and did not know anyone, but Stockholm was still so beautiful.

Do you have an emotional connection with a favorite piece in your closet?

No, but there is a book that influenced my attitude towards fashion very much. “No Logo” by Naomi Klein made me quite conscious and aware of the role of brands and the role of marketing in life. It made me angry, it triggered my need to investigate how we live and criticize the things we buy and rely on for our lives. It really solidified my drive here. 

Do you generally have a special piece that reminds you of a moment in your life?

I have a golden crown that my ex-boyfriend from Canada gave me. We had a super volatile relationship and when we broke up it was horrible for many reasons. That crown is a representation of the old Polina dying, because he gave it to me before I moved here.

It really means a lot to me as this thing which I can look back on fondly, but also reminds me why I left Vancouver and who I am now as a person who has actually uprooted from there and built a new life here.

Speaking about music, what is the beat of your life?

It is a huge part of my life. I used to be a music editor, I have been writing about music for years. I am still super passionate about it; all my friends are either into the music scene or musicians. Discovering new diverse music is extremely important for me. As for the beat of my life, it depends on my mood. In the summer, it is probably some nice Afro funk, for the winter maybe techno. Generally, I love psychedelic rock.

Do you have a favorite color?

I love aquamarine, shades of blue green. In my home, I prefer deep reds or burnt yellows… more a Southern European vibe. My partner is from Marseille, we go there a lot and I really love the colors. It is beautiful! In my wardrobe, you would see many black, white or minimal colors. 

What would you teach your future daughter, if you had one?

Do not let any outside parties define how strong or brave, sensitive, weak, or whatever you feel.  It is quite simple, but I would tell her to feel comfortable in her skin. Whoever says that we should not feel comfortable in our skin, I think it is a lifelong process I getting to that comfort. Today, luckily, we are seeing brands actually take a more authentic point of view on women; there are not only 15-year-old anorexic models. Still, that comes with its downside, because any kind of marketing makes women feel like they have to be more than they are.

My number one lesson for my daughter, to make sure to feel good about herself because she lives in her body and her mind for the rest of her life.