Connecting cultures

Connecting cultures

An art project aims to bring different countries together via the stories of ordinary people.

Published: June 8, 2011 (Issue # 1659)


By shifting and rotating the Magic Table, visitors to the Pro Arte center can select a location on the interactive map and hear stories from that place.

With only 20 percent of Russians ever traveling abroad, notions of other cultures and peoples are often limited to impressions gained from television, books and magazines. The Magic Table project that opened Monday at the Pro Arte center in the Peter and Paul Fortress aims to kill three birds with one stone: Improve visitors’ knowledge of geography, reveal interesting aspects of American life, and broaden spectators’ horizons.

The Magic Table is an art installation that features an interactive world map on its tabletop. By rotating it and shifting the angle, visitors can choose a location on the map and play with the scale. The invention is already popular in the U.S., and is often purchased by children’s museums.

This time, however, the artists JD Beltran and Scott Minneman have gone even further, and made the journey more exciting by adding extra details.

“Scott invented this table, the map,” said Beltran. “And then I had the idea of adding stories to the places where they happened”.

Beltran and Minneman began by visiting San Francisco and Cleveland and asking high-school students to describe the most memorable moments of their lives. Some of those moments had occurred outside the U.S., when the young Americans had been visiting relatives or traveling abroad.

Sometimes the artists used different tactics to get the stories.

“We went out one day with a video camera and just stopped people in the street and got them to tell us what they really liked about Cleveland,” said Minneman. One woman they asked turned out to be a witness of the Kent State Massacre, in which the National Guard charged anti-Vietnam war protesters at Kent State University in 1970.

“She was living in the dormitory that overlooked the place where the students got shot,” said Minneman. “She came in the day after we had done the videotaping and she told us the story. She’d never told that story publicly before. Sometimes the table becomes very cathartic, with people telling stories they wouldn’t otherwise tell.”

In St. Petersburg, the stories “aren’t so dramatic sometimes” according to the artists, but are still remarkable for “showing what kind of life they use to live, and the war.”

“It was quite difficult, because most of the stories have no links to the city itself, but rather to the people, ” said Polina Dubchinskaya, one of the Pro Arte students who participated in the project. “The stories turned out to be rather abstract, as emotions are usually what matter.”


Visitors can adjust the scale of the map to get a closer look at other cities.

The Magic Story Table project aims to establish new links between people living on different continents and help them to understand each other better.

“I think that the importance of certain events for Russians and Americans is different,” Dubchinskaya told The St. Petersburg Times. “It seems to me that we have different values in our perception of life. These values reflect the country and its mentality, and are better than any guide book. When you are interested in a certain country, first of all, you wonder what kind of people live there. This project has come closer than any other to portraying the objective perception of people living in a certain country.”

The St. Petersburg stories revolve around various locations, moods and emotions. But what unites all of them is the people, despite their different attitudes to the city, their various favorite places and ways of life. And it is this that makes the project so interesting — the diversity even within just one town. A portrait of the city painted by its citizens, Magic Story Table is reminiscent of scenes from the films “Paris, je t’aime” and “New York, I Love You.”

The stories are written in both Russian and English, and are accompanied by the author reading it aloud.

One of the featured stories is by Minneman himself. The artist describes his arrival in St. Petersburg with the Magic Table project.

“Unlike a lot of other international airports, where you could be anywhere, St. Petersburg is an older airport. It feels different, you really realize that you are somewhere else,” he said.

The artists are currently accepting contributions from St. Petersburg residents. Stories should be sent to

Stories should be one or two paragraphs long and be no longer than 150 words. The project’s organizers ask that contributors specify the location of the story, and send a photo (less than 1 MB in size) of themselves by email.

The Magic Story Table runs through June 11 at the Pro Arte center in the left side of the Nevskaya Kurtina at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Tel. 233 0040, 233 0553.

Leave a comment