Different Shades of Withdrawal: Conversation with Nikita Kadan and Joanna Warsza

David Riff

David Riff [D.R.]: Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, MANIFESTA 10, whose public program you curated in St. Petersburg this summer. The entire MANIFESTA 10 has been very controversial and caught up in the politics of our time. Two of the invited artists decided not to participate, while one collective withdrew, and a portion of  MANIFESTA 10’s audience - we will never know how many - didn’t come because of the political situation. I was invited to come and participate in some events, but stuck to the decision of only guest-editing Manifesta Journal 18 and taking a critical distance. Yet you took on the invitation to curate the public program, and I’d be very curious to hear about your misgivings and motivations for working under such difficult political circumstances. Did you ever think of quitting? Of course, I am also very interested to hear how your public program looks now that it is actually happening and generating controversy on a daily basis…

Joanna Warsza [J.W.]: First there is a general consideration beyond the politics of the day, namely the intensive time frames of today’s biennials. The public announcement of Kaspar König as the MANIFESTA 10’s curator was made in August 2013, only ten months before the opening, and only four months later, in December 2013, did he invite me to curate the public program. At the time, I had exactly the opposite questions than I do today: I thought I was going into the most apolitical project ever, but in the mean time, it turned out to be the most political project I’ve ever been involved in. Paradoxically, it is raising the same questions as the Seventh Berlin Biennale, curated by Artur Żmijewski where I was associate curator; namely, how can art react or perform in the face of political reality? After the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s engagement in the Ukraine, the invited artists and I faced exactly that reality. We decided that we should not leave without confronting the questions it raised. The issue of boycott or withdrawal has been much discussed even in the MANIFESTA 10 team and among the participating artists, especially after Chto Delat’s statement of withdrawal, which as it intended, politicized the situation. I was recently talking to the German critic Helmut Draxler, who said that withdrawal is only political when you leave after stirring turmoil and trying to challenging hegemony through a counterhegemonic gesture in art. Chto Delat’s withdrawal was rather an artistic gesture, made out of the fear that the exhibition would not be political enough, but performed perhaps too early. So there are different shades of withdrawal.

D.R.: Nikita, I would like to address the question to you. Given the current situation and as an artist from Kyiv who has been significantly linked to the political processes of the last ten years, which kinds of institutions do you feel you can work with in Russia today? How does the question of boycott play out for you?

Nikita Kadan [N.K.]: I am not withdrawing from all artistic activity in Russia. But right after the annexation of Crimea, we postponed a planned project at Garage together with Lada Nakonechna and Mykola Rydni because of the political situation. In the current situation, there are projects I can afford and projects I cannot. If they are committed to being against the Putinist consensus and against the war with Ukraine, I participate. In the case of different private initiatives independent of the state, I make my choices depending on the situation: is it really necessary in an artistic and political sense? As for projects contributing to the ideological facade of Putinist Russia and its normalization on the international scene, I will not participate. For me, MANIFESTA 10 is such a project.

D.R.: Yet one could argue that MANIFESTA 10’s public program is giving a platform for work that challenges the Putinist consensus. For example, choreographer Alexandra Pirici speaks of appropriating the neoliberal notion of “soft power” to shape art’s counter-hegemonic agency under such harsh conditions. Can platforms like MANIFESTA 10 challenge Putin’s ideological facade, if they are used properly?

N.K.: For me there is no essential difference between MANIFESTA 10’s main project and its public program. I understand the position of Russian cultural workers who want to use MANIFESTA 10’s publicity to address a broader audience, but what in fact can they address? There are many examples of the most primitive manipulations of the audience’s perception, such as different wall texts in English and Russian or the anti-Maidan, Putinist comments made by Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovsky on Kristina Norman’s work. [Norman installed the iconic Christmas tree skeleton from the Maidan in Kyiv to St. Petersburg’s Palace Square. Piotrowksy interpreted the resulting readymade as a warning against chaos and “anti-constitutional” political action.] All these examples pay the price of compromise. Compromise is deep within us on some microlevel. Certain critical statements can be made in a way that is understandable to art people, but the local audience only gets an adapted version. As Gleb Napreenko says in his article, MANIFESTA 10 is checking to see how loud we can speak critically in Russian society without being overheard by power, which doesn’t want society to hear these critical messages. This compromise leads to the preservation of consensus, and it also influences the participating critical actors; their speech is not one that changes the audience but rather the speaker.

J.W.: For the participating artists and me, this was a dilemma: should we stay or should we go? We decided to stay, constantly asking ourselves how far we could go. The biggest local tragedy and perhaps a reason for us to stay is that Ukrainian issue is completely silenced, and it almost makes you want to strangle the people who are indifferent to the Ukraine. The people in the MANIFESTA 10 team are educated, sensitive, and open-minded, but there was still a certain unwillingness to take a political stand, as if your voice did not count. This is what I felt generally in Russia. If you look at these depoliticized people, they actually represent the subject of politics in Russia today. When if not now? That is, if you believe in what you are doing, and you want art to make a point, why not address this audience and use the “soft power” of art to create a seductive situation in the sphere of de-politicization as we see in Russia. A situation of collectivity arises and it clearly has a political message, but it’s not a political message in the first place. It is making a detour through art in order to forge political thinking. I know you will tell me that it is naive and it can be appropriated, and perhaps you are right, but we all agree that we should try and play with the context and terms of MANIFESTA 10’s imperial setting.

Kristina Norman, Souvenir, 2014. MANIFESTA 10 Public Program commission. Photo courtesy of MANIFESTA 10.

D.R.: What about the issues of censorship, self-censorship, and appropriation? Were there instances when you were told that you couldn’t go any further? Did you feel yourself bending more than usual; becoming more Aesopian, more elusive? Furthermore, what about the appropriation and distortion of works in the program that Nikita has just mentioned? How have you experienced all of these moments?

J.W.: Coming from the West, there is the idea that in Russia you will be censored all the time, though censorship obviously doesn’t just exist in Putin’s Russia. In the West, it’s often delegated to political correctness, and there is also a lot of self-censorship, which could be seen in the Berlin Biennale. It’s a black-and-white division to think that censorship only exists in one part of the world, or that it’s always direct. To give you an example of how censorship works: at the opening, a Ukrainian artist called Maria Kulikovska did an intervention that wasn’t part of the program; she laid on the steps of the Hermitage wrapped in a Ukrainian flag until she was taken away by guards. The reaction of the Hermitage staff was “So what?” I didn’t fully anticipate this kind of censorship through indifference, where any gesture is simply belittled as childish. That also happened a lot in the public program. As for the Kristina Norman tree, I am convinced that no matter what Piotrowsky says about it, it will speak for itself, and the much-tabooed word “Maidan” appeared in many related news and newspapers. Pavel Braila’s melting of Sochi snow on the same square should provoke a similar reaction. There is something in these works that cannot be appropriated. Think of Christoph Schlingensief’s Ausländer Raus installation in Vienna, where the public had to vote on which foreigners to deport while watching them in a Big Brother-like container. There were so many statements that interpreted and twisted its meaning, but in the end, the real meaning of the work will come through. It’s the same with Norman’s tree. People see it on Russian television, some in growing horror—it’s there, and it’s making a statement. I don’t feel it’s now been fully domesticated and that now we should leave.

N.K.: Part of the time during the protests in Kyiv, I was in Vienna and took part in some Ukrainian diaspora activism demanding sanctions against the corrupted authorities in Ukraine responsible for the violence on the Maidan. The Ukrainian activists did the same: they laid down in public places wrapped in national flags. People from those institutions and banks had the same “so what?” reaction. There is a strong lobby in Austria against these kinds of sanctions; lots of Ukrainian money is in Austrian banks. It’s the same situation as with France selling the Mistral aircraft carriers to Putin and Kaspar König’s contract with MANIFESTA 10. Something is happening, we don’t like it, we don’t support it, but we have to do our jobs. A cynical purely economic element enters into play: the element of professionalism, and it will always say, so what? Piotrovsky’s anti-Maidan comment is not coming from a frightened Russian bureaucrat; he is a respectable voice in Russian society; an iconic imperial intellectual responsible for one of the symbols of Big Russian culture, which has let contemporary art onto its territory, inviting it to step inside. I have read Kristina and Joanna’s statements, and these voices are so much weaker than the voice of Piotrovsky. It’s really like you are speaking from the belly of the wolf that has eaten you. And that you asked to be eaten.

Pavel Braila, Golden Snow of Sochi, 2014. MANIFESTA 10 Public Program commission. Photo courtesy of MANIFESTA 10.

J.W.: When I first saw Piotrovsky’s statement, I too was very angry because he was attacking the Maidan. Then I read it again, more calmly. I first met Piotrovsky when Kristina and I went to see him and to show him the film with Alevtina Kakhidze.

I asked whether he wanted to see a text and he said “There will be no censorship in the Hermitage.” It’s true. His statement is being read as an appropriation, but where in his statement has he eaten us? Instead, the fact that he commented on the work already shows that he is frightened, and that something went wrong or not exactly according to plan and created a disturbance. I think we should read it as such.

N.K.: Why do you think he could be frightened? Are you that horrible? This is an intelligent, ambivalent work, but no more than a regular work of critical contemporary art.

J.W.: Yes, but it’s standing in the middle of the square that most represents Imperial Russia, in the front of the Winter Palace and at this moment of time.

N.K.: This square, and those who are responsible for it, have their voices and they appropriate and adopt all the critical content of MANIFESTA 10 with the strongest of mechanisms. You are within the belly of the wolf. But can’t you be on the outside? MANIFESTA 10 isn’t the only institutional opportunity. Why participate in this construction of an ideological facade? Why go there directly?

J.W.: For the participating artists and me, the point was precisely to play with this ideological facade; to challenge it. We weren’t just doing business as usual. We can only do art; all we could do was put up this tree—take it or leave. Of course, you can say that it’s just critical art, and that it’s doomed to fail. But still. Take what happened with the Biennale of Sydney. Renzo Martens was saying that one should not simply leave but stay and fight with the tools and conditions of the situation. This is what we tried to do.

D.R.: In other words, to bridge what seem almost irreconcilable positions. Nikita, you were suggesting that spaces outside must be sought; spaces where one is not eaten by the beast. Henri Lefebvre would have called them “representational spaces” beyond the “representative space,” spaces of self-organization where we speak on our own terms. Both Chto Delat and Nikita’s group REP come from that context. Indeed, I found it intriguing that MANIFESTA 10’s public program involves a lot of things from that context. It not only works on the Palace Square but also with formats that Piotrovsky and Co. don’t notice or care about. To me this emphasizes that indeed, another mode of representation and reflection is possible. Nikita, you’d probably say that that’s being appropriated too. Is it somehow still possible to work “in the margins” of such a big project?

N.K.: If that project is involved in building cultural diplomacy to normalize the policies of an aggressor who is in the process of invading another country—no way. You can work with the political opposition, and you can deal with private structures, but you can’t take part in the Olympic Games of such a country during the war.

J.W.: Yes, but Nikita, the private structure and the state have the same source of power in Russia, which is a plutocracy. Capital and power are bedfellows and are more or less the same thing.

N.K.: Private structures are not obliged to participate in the construction of an ideological facade. However, MANIFESTA 10 goes to the very place where the Putin regime represents itself as it wants to be seen, and you want to do partisan practices there, but of a special kind, involving a partisan compromise. You go to the authorities and say “Let us intervene here and there,” and they say “ok, go ahead, but we will make our own interpretation that will be heard much better than yours.”

J.W.: Yes, but Nikita, in the case of a private structure, you are also building your arguments of why you are collaborating with them, as am I, in my case. I do believe that it was right to try to challenge the situation, since I had agreed to do so in the first place. Maybe that was a mistake because Putin was already there in December. Since I was there, I decided to confront the situation. The only thing we have is to be transparent to ourselves. We know that Putin is on the board of the Hermitage, but then again, we are foreign agents, and it would be something completely different if a Russian curator were in my position. As a Polish person belonging to a tradition of resistance against Russian imperialism, however, it is hard to accuse me of being a Putinist curator. In this situation, we can not allow the biennial to do its “business as usual”. We can only continue if we try to make a point and refer to the current political situation. We don’t pretend that we are Pussy Riot, Pyotr Pavlensky or Voina, as much as their work has contributed to a new and vivid artistic language in Russia. We are not them; we are not partisan artists and curators. We are precisely saying that we are exerting soft power and promoting criticism of the conditions in which we are working. This is very different from the position of Pyotr Pavlensky, who refused to participate in even the oppositional Ukrainian-Russian summit organized by Dmitry Vilensky of Chto Delat, a summit in which you participated. He said that he would stay silent throughout MANIFESTA 10. He is not creating a strategy to legitimate his position, as we are. To conclude, the most we can do is to be honest. If one day you can no longer look at yourself in the mirror, you have to leave.