David Riff [D.R.]: Over the last months, we’ve seen a drastic global shift. Some call it a “fascist-clerical turn,” while others speak of a conservative revolution from above. The fact is, in Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political zig-zag between authoritarian nationalism and maintaining good relations with the West has veered decisively in one direction, buoyed by a resurgent nationalist imaginary. Yet when I talk about how bad things are, I feel like I must be exaggerating. Really. The sun shines as the leaves on the trees slowly turn dusty and yellow, and my family walks in the same park, and life only seems a little less pleasant. Everybody talks about patriotism and Putin’s high ratings, but there aren’t that many people with those black-orange-black-orange-black Colorado-beetle ribbons, are there? How much of the current shift is about media-war and hysteria, and how great is the impact in everyday life? How resistant is everyday life to commands from above; how obedient? How distant is the war? How noticeable are the changes?
Gleb Napreenko [G.N.]: Even if the polls show that Putin’s ratings have gone through the roof, we should be very careful in interpreting that information. Yes, the country is in the grip of conservatism, inertia, and a fear of change. The same person who experiences paroxysms of patriotic fervor in the spirit of “Crimea is Ours,” for the want of at least some kind of identity to believe in, also feels a deep dissatisfaction with the situation of life in the country at large. He or she represses such feelings, alarmed at the prospects of losing that identity and stability, and always asking, “Who, if not Putin?” The most unexpected ideological constellations can be encountered by talking to people in public transportation in Russia’s cities: there is nostalgia for the USSR and nostalgia for the Tsar, liberalism and hatred toward the oligarchs, and the like. Ideology is always contradictory, but it also always hides its own contradictions while, more importantly, it hides the contradictions of reality itself. Such unevenness characterizes not only the ideology of each individual subject, but that of all Russians: it isn’t quite clear who these famous “masses” are; different regions and social groups have different opinions, so that any monolithic “Putinist majority” is a myth of the Kremlin’s ideologues. One shouldn’t deny the potential for change in people’s minds, though that potentiality might never be realized. How shall we actualize these potentialities, and can they be actualized at all? These are still open questions. If we’re talking about our circles, including those on Facebook, almost everybody was somehow swept up in the wave of politicizations over the last years and in the protests of 2011–2012. It is especially depressing to discover one’s own powerlessness and the pressure of repression after such a euphoric, intoxicated feeling of togetherness, after indulging in the joy of public political representation. In Putin’s third term, power really has shown its authoritarian essence. Yet this authoritarian essence has its roots in 1993 and the Yeltsin-era, and didn’t just take shape yesterday.
Alexandra Novozhennova [A.N.]: Your question already suggests that the sphere of ideology is at a certain remove from what we perceive as “real” life: coffee, leaves on the trees, and so on. Well, of course, if you don’t happen to live in Donetsk, Ukraine. Yes, there is the illusion of a rupture between the urban everyday and the media. As an experiment, some people actually stop reading the news and notice that life suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. They stop taking sides in distant conflicts, and they stop investing their intellectual energy in aggressive discussions that make it seem like the civil war is already knocking on the door, though it’ll probably still be a while before then. I think that there are problems here, however (especially if we’re talking about life in Russia). You can stop reading the news and keep drinking coffee while going for a stroll, but as soon as you mention work, let’s say in the cultural industry, you immediately begin to feel the changes in the most concrete way. In the field of art, this means that only the most brutally neoliberal institutional organism can survive by insisting on the autonomy of art, which in reality is not autonomous at all but depends upon the neoliberal urban context and the apolitical consumption of food and exhibitions. As soon as people try to take a different position in that organism, if they try to raise the degree of criticism, or think about how the institution might work politically, generating not consensus but change, the reality of the conservative turn can immediately be seen. They will see that there is no place left for them in public space. Of course, you can drink coffee and go for a walk, but you can’t inscribe yourself into a more or less stable institutional structure if you aren’t going to work to reproduce the existing consensus. This is something the last MANIFESTA taught us. Whenever the illusion arises that there is no connection between the exaggerated escalation in the media, and peaceful reality, it’s not a bad idea to simply remember which place we can afford to inhabit in this society, in its life and its structure. That is the level where reality shows itself.
Viktor Misiano [V.M.]:I understand your question as an expression of perplexity at the many layers of today’s reality. In fact, there is no clear explanation or exhaustive definition for what’s going on, making it impossible to understand today’s world without admitting its incomprehensibility. Its contradictions are hidden. There is no discursive integrity, only permanent agnosticism, and these are the hallmarks of our time. You mention the Ribbon of Saint George as being the new symbol of Russian nationalism, but have you ever noticed that it is also used to adorn expensive Western cars? Vladimir Medinsky, the Minister of Culture, says that Russia isn’t Europe, but at the same time Ca’ Foscari University in Venice has awarded him an honorary degree. The news on Russian state television bubbles over with anti-Western propaganda, but it’s immediately followed by an American thriller. The young man in the trendy clothes who came to fix my e-book yesterday first told me what a great guy Putin is for defending us from America, and then gushed with enthusiasm at the prospects of Apple soon releasing MacTV. It’s amazing how the recent burst of nationalism goes hand-in-hand with the recognition of the cultural and technological hegemony of the West. Nationalism, and not only in Russia, was always the dark side of the global order, and the rationality of neoliberal capitalism, based on procedures of evaluation and prediction, were always no more than a superficial layer hiding trauma and dark fantasies. We knew this all along, but now these two dimensions have become visible at once, forming strange nets of varying contrapuntal intersections. Even more, this net of hidden counterpoints contains even more contradictions. That’s exactly what makes our time so interesting but also so dangerous…
Andrei Parshikov [A.P.]: Three weeks have passed since I got these questions, and a lot has changed since then. On the eve of the 6th to the 7th of August, Facebook exploded with pontifications, whining, and apocalyptic prophecies regarding parmesan cheese, dry-cured Spanish ham, and oysters. Things have quieted down since, but it was precisely at that moment, and not the day that Russia announced it had decided to annex Crimea, that the intelligentsia’s consternation reached a critical mass. Of course, everyday life hasn’t changed that much. Over the last two months, there are fewer and fewer people with black-orange-black-orange-black Colorado ribbons, but there are now official representatives of the patriotic National Liberation Movement who careful observe every opposition demonstration and disrupt its orchestration, unafraid to dirty their faces in the mud. It’s also important to mention that Russian television (which I watch not just to stay informed but also because I enjoy it as an extreme sport) stopped blowing up the themes of Ukraine and the anti-terror operation, and has also stopped using the word “Novorossiya” [literally, “New Russia”]. Now all they talk about is beautiful Azerbaijan and its tomatoes and the milk farms of the Moscow region, where, it goes without saying, udders almost burst after August 7th. My point is that even a month ago, the changes were more than apparent, but now, there’s something like a pause, though the tension hasn’t gone away in the least. Everyone is pausing a little and waiting to see which way the spring will uncoil when it’s finally released after having been wound up for so long.
D.R.: Let’s talk more about the potential impact on cultural production, of the recent legislation restricting freedom of speech in the public sphere. People outside of Russia generally don’t know that it doesn’t just concern the dissemination of propaganda of LGBT lifestyles to minors, but extends from harsh sentences for unsanctioned gatherings to punishment for “Liking” extremist materials with prison sentences. The list of extremist materials seems to be growing daily, as the Russian parliament tries to place restrictions on all sorts of things: on anti-religious polemic, on revisionism vis-à-vis the USSR’s role in the Second World War, on anti-patriotic sentiment, on cursing in movies, on books, or on works of art, and even—according to a particularly loony initiative—on words of foreign, that is, non-Russian origin. How much of this is simply legislative craziness? Furthermore, how much should artists try to fight back?
A.N.: There are so many prohibitory initiatives and their majority is so absurd that it is quite pointless to react to each and every one of them. It seems that no law, no matter how absurd, would ever provoke a significant outburst of dissatisfaction leading to change. The new legislative initiatives are perceived as media-noise through which one can obliquely understand the government’s current direction. At the same time, the struggle against them isn’t entirely pointless, as long as it doesn’t become an end in itself as a struggle for rights in the abstract sense. For example, Elena Gremina, the director and stage-writer of Theater.doc has started a strong campaign against the law that bans cursing onstage, and clearly, she isn’t fighting for the abstract right to curse in public, which would be pretty stupid, but for the critical role that has fallen to documentary drama with all its literary peculiarities in Moscow over the last years. Gremina doesn’t stage picket lines or collect signatures; she uses the resources available to her, which are her theater and her reputation in the media, inventing different moves within the situation at hand. She is taking risks, and at the same time, setting precedents. That kind of struggle seems important to me.
A.P.: Putin’s prohibitions have been building up the population’s mental tolerance to governmental legislative inventions for at least two and a half years, now. After the signing of the law against the propaganda of non-traditional values, a few colleagues and I used municipal money to organize the First Moscow Gender School in the Muzeon Park. This was the height of the hysteria regarding that law, and I had to answer complaints from ordinary citizens every day. I had to tell them that our school was not propagating homosexuality to minors, and that entrance was eighteen and over. In fact, three other laws make it really hard for me to live in this country: the law on demonstrations, the law against offending religious people’s feelings, and the law against separatism. It’s just that they can be interpreted in the broadest possible way, which means that work of any project automatically sets off self-censorship of the strongest kind. These are really very scary laws. As for the laws controlling the internet, this law really is very murky and concerns the mass media rather than simple citizens who find themselves in jail for “liking” something on Facebook. We’re on our way to having a walled-off internet as in China, but not as quickly. There aren’t enough servers for now.
V.M.: Still, the problem is that so many laws are being passed at such incredible speeds that no one can even follow their appearance. There is also no control structure capable of grasping the symbolic production of such a large country or documenting all the abuses of the viral spread of prohibitory legislation. Many laws are passed according to the ideological consensus of the moment, but the situation is changing so quickly that old laws are quickly forgotten. If just a few short months ago it was important to fight non-traditional sexual orientations, it is now important to out a ban on any public criticism of the Russian annexation of Crimea. LGBT activists can now do pretty much anything, as long as they don’t speak out against the annexation. Moreover, this legislative cascade looks so grotesque that it discredits itself: it seems so carnivalesque that it is not serious to take it seriously. Finally, Russian society today is quite complex: there are still social settings, many of them in fact growing, where these laws are simply ignored. In other words, the state doesn’t take into account that we are no longer living in a modernist disciplinary society, a fact that many political activists and their mouthpieces ignore with their all-too-direct criticisms. They find themselves in jail not because they’ve broken the law, but because the state put them there, in fact breaking its own laws.
D.R.: What about the role of contemporary art? Here, there has clearly been a major shift. If in recent years, the Ministry of Culture supported a certain kind of art as a symbol of modernization and the legitimization of local bourgeois elites, the course has changed since autumn of last year, when the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky visited the Moscow Biennial at the Manege Exhibition Hall and condemned the show. It reminded lots of people of Nikita Khrushchev’s rampage against modernism in 1962 in the same place, only that Khrushchev was ultimately more sympathetic to the artist’s concerns. Since, the Ministry has taken a clear course against contemporary art in its memoranda, recommendations, and public appearances. Yet at the same time, the Presidential Administration walks back the more radically conservative, nationalistic programs, and projects like MANIFESTA 10 at the Hermitage or the Youth Biennial in Moscow still open with government funding. Where will this zig-zag land? Are these projects the last big public events before art goes underground, or retreats into VIP salons? Will big public projects with state support still be possible, despite Medinsky’s threats? How afraid should we be that our entire field of practice has been banned altogether? Or should we worry more about being instrumentalized?
A.N.: I think Mendinsky’s rhetoric is not ideologically prohibitory but rather connected to an economic-instrumental view of culture. It’s just that the state (on a federal level) will not finance anything that doesn’t have an immediate propagandistic effect—that is, if it doesn’t serve the reproduction of itself in its current state (examples of these are festivals of Cossack dancing, exhibitions at the Hermitage, the Bolshoi, or the “Romanov Dynasty” exhibition, and the like). All other initiatives will continue to exist on private money if they don’t cross the boundary of the permissible; completely dependent on the consumerist logic of urban space (called “the eventful city” by urbanists). This doesn’t mean that the state won’t support anything that might be called “contemporary culture”; MANIFESTA, for one, proves that the state assumes that there is a place for that “contemporary culture” (and even a refined, subtle, smart version of it), and that it is ready to pay for it in part, but that place is as isolated as possible and rather symbolic or arbitrary. Such a culture will inevitably find itself suffering from anemia.
A.P.: Interesting question. Moscow seems to be in a highly privileged position, first of all, and the fact that the Hermitage is celebrating its three-hundred-year anniversary with a MANIFESTA should already tell us that islands to represent the elite and possibly the world community are needed and still exist. Indeed, there is Medinsky, but he’s a clown for the Moscow intelligentsia; the laughing stock of the middle class and the creative segment, for the entire oppositional part of the population. Not only that: he is like a clown lighting rod that personifies politics in his personality-show, so that the population might joke, laugh, and wonder out loud at his antics, training a certain social attitude towards him but not towards what he represents. Therefore, in the end, nobody is about to put a ban on contemporary art, but alternative trash will creep in. Let’s hope that contemporary art benefits. Even if you don’t really like the Russian avant-garde and hate Peter Greenaway, you’re still bound to like his recent show in the Manege better than the exhibition Steps by Glazunov’s academy, where people just have no culture of making exhibitions whatsoever. Also, Moscow has the progressive urban cultural adminsitrator Kapkov, who still isn’t finished building his Pleasantville, and while work is still under way, art will be there to help.
V.M.: Putin came to power in his third term through a political project that was inspired by the idea of rejecting the democracy of representation in favor of direct democracy, as strange as that sounds. He was going to cede leadership of the ruling party to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and found a Popular Front, triumphantly stepping to its head. He would declare war on the elites, demanding their nationalization, in that they would deny themselves ownership of property and bank accounts abroad and so on. The cultural bureaucracy’s critique of contemporary art has a similar nature. It accuses art of being elitist, cosmopolitan, and too-far removed from the needs of real people. However, though Putin’s project has successfully realized itself in a uniting nationalist mobilization over the last months, it is still unfinished in a political sense. It is unclear how to reform political institution to realize direct democracy, except by turning representative democracy into pure ritual (which, as we know, is the case). A sense of self-preservation has prevented the state from trying to fully nationalize the elites. Something similar is happening in culture: the cultural bureaucracy cannot dismantle a Westernized artistic and cultural infrastructure, because that would mean having no infrastructure whatsoever. The political, economic, and cultural elites resist the current course on all levels and in different forms. I myself observed how the governor’s office of St. Petersburg supported MANIFESTA 10, despite having a reputation as the most contradictory city in Russia. Actually, this municipal government is well aware of that reputation, and they really want to shake free of it…
Keti Chukhrov [K.C.]: It is quite obvious that private initiatives will thrive under such conditions. However they can peacefully co-exist with numerous government-funded public venues. In other words, contemporary art as practice will not retreat either on the part of the producers (artists, curators, heads of institutions, and the like), or on the part of those who govern cultural politics and commission it on the bureaucratic level. The specific trait of today’s Russia is an imaginable mutation: along with the austerity measures and the obscurant censorship the state invests in public or educational programs: the example could be the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art (MMCA), the National Center for Contemporary Arts (NCCA), the Moscow International Biennial for Young Art, or Strelka (which is actually a private institution, but was launched on behalf of the governmental cultural initiatives). Each of these imply that censorship can go hand in hand with the quasi-enlightened programming. Therefore, not only will contemporary art not recede in Russia, it will occupy a hegemonic position in legitimizing the “progressive” cultural politics of a national state, which will not necessarily be the projects on national issues, but on the contrary, might even touch upon neutrally-leftist topics, including social-democratic rhetoric, urban studies, and public art. The reason for this is not only the instrumentalization of art on the part of state bureaucracy and/or private owners, but contemporary’s art’s aesthetic and political vagueness in general. Art gets instrumentalized so easily because over the course of its history it has lost both its radical modernist negativity, and its touch with the reality that would allow it not just to intervene, but to construct life. That’s not to mention the sensuous mimetic contact with reality that it had abandoned even long before these two losses.
D.R.: Obviously, there is a tradition of resistance in post-Soviet Russia to cultural restrictions from above on all levels. Non-conformist artists (that is, artists working “beyond the law” of a certain aesthetic and topical canon) have had very limited access to public exhibition space, little ability to set up public events, and almost no chances to travel. Nevertheless, the art community has developed and at times has even thrived, as artists have developed formats such as out-of-town site-specific actions or apartment exhibitions to make, document, and show work to one another. In some ways, this Apartment Art seems to be resurfacing, as are what you, Viktor, have once called “confidential practices.” How viable are they today? Can artists find refuge there, or is it harmful and regressive, understandable as that may be?
A.N.: I think it would be a big mistake to retreat entirely into art like that. It’s also impossible, simply because today’s world is far too open to allow such utter escapism. We are all visible and interconnected. Try going to an apartment exhibition, and a million snapshots will immediately appear on your friends’s Facebook pages, if they were also there. Today, the private-public relation is fundamentally different, and narcissist self-marginalization in a circle of friends won’t guarantee you a proud position of independence from the “rest of the world.”
A.P.: Yes, if there is such a turn, it’s usually very harmful, especially if the reasons are political. The reason for the revival in Apartment Art lies elsewhere, in the boom of young artists. Within three years, several art schools have opened to produce young artists at an enviable pace, though nobody needs so many young artists in Moscow, where there are only five or six respectable galleries, and three or four museums. They’ve just graduated and really want to show their work to the public and to one another. That’s the real reason. There hasn’t been a turn to super-private spaces as of yet.
V.M.: Looking back on the experience that I called “confidential communities” in the 1990s, I have noticed one thing that we didn’t realize back then. The communities of those days arose on the ruins of Soviet society, and identified themselves as a model and paradigm for a more stable infrastructure in the future. That is, their main value—namely that the production and exhibition of art remained in a para-social, anthropological dimension—at the time seemed as if it were the compensatory, and even detrimental result of external conditions. This is precisely why the art world accepted the governmental-oligarchical infrastructure so unequivocally in the 2000s, trading in its communities for corporations. The infrastructure itself seemed to be the foundation for any artistic order as well as its critique. Paradoxically, this is why the institutions could not be criticized, because they would just create the conditions to perform an institutional critique.Contemporary conditions are no less contradictory. The state has created a new status quo by touching upon an old, national trauma. The art world answers by addressing trauma on an individual rather than on a collective level. Hence, the complicated relation of artists to the idea of a community: trauma is a subjective experience, while communities—or better yet, society—is most often the source of that trauma. On the other hand, by unlocking the very foundations of subjectivity, traumatic experience opens the subject to a search for empathy, understanding, a friend, a counterpart—that is, an Other. These new connections have no institutional horizon, at least, not the one that existed in the 1990s. Now, confidentiality realizes itself in nearly literal terms, losing its old metaphorical meaning. This is a new post-activist form of solidarity that we have yet to understand fully. Finally, there is another important moment. As the state construes its solidarity with the national masses and finds itself in opposition to the institutions, the institutions themselves evolve in an interesting direction. They undergo radicalizations and consciously or spontaneously begin to take over critical functions as well as opening themselves up for criticism. Of course, the Russian version of this new institutionalism is spontaneous, unreflexive, and inconsistent. Yet there is a characteristic detail: when I first put out a call for participants for the first Curatorial Summer School in Moscow, most of the applicants named the Tate Modern in London, England, as their ideal of an art institution. Three years later, their ideal was the Van Abbemuseum in Einhoven, Netherlands.
K.C.: Obviously the authoritarian state gradually manifests more and more totalitarian traits. This is complemented by a Cold War rhetoric. Such a condition could be considered a motivation for art, culture and humanities to go underground. At least, such is the historical background of cultural practice during totalitarian policies. However, if we look back at Soviet history, not much from underground art and culture of the Soviet period has remained viable for the present. This is because claiming to be “underground” means claiming one’s own exceptional position and condition, and then voluntarily or involuntarily acknowledging the ethics of a closed community based on skepticism and suspicion. To my mind, however, despite all irretrievable cracks in social space, there is one history, one world, one art, one culture, and the like—implying their versatility to the full. As for the present, the moment, the retreat of the intelligentsia would not imply any drastic change, or even be a remedy of resistance. The reason is that unlike in the 1960s and the 1970s, when the issue might have been non-representational politics and its subversive impact, today politics or culture cannot be efficient without visibility. The argument against this assumption might be that the practices that might be completely suppressed de facto already seem to be underground. I would dispute such an assumption by claiming that the “underground” is a consciously and voluntarily chosen standpoint, and a state of mind, rather than a position in relation to authority. The present modes and media of cultural production, as well as ethical and social habits, do not suggest that there is any demand for such a standpoint and hence that it could be viable. By the same token, any shift to Apartment Art as a new space of production would not construct alternative values. It would just represent art in the conditions of a poorer economy.
D.R.: One thing that’s clearly changed since the time of Apartment Art is the advent of neo-capitalism and its coterie of robber barons and minor oligarchs. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, we saw a rising demand for contemporary art from precisely this profile of clientele, and the emergence of new kinds of spaces, educational platforms, and discussion formats that cater to them or to their view of culture. At times it seemed like art had become a total spectacle; a gentrified zone where all the producers are banished to the kitchen; a star chef or two aside. Now as state-run institutions become precarious or suspect, some influential critical artists are revising that opinion. Recently, for example, the Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan announced that he’d much rather collaborate with a private initiative such as Winzavod or V-A-C Foundation than the NCCA, which, in recent years (and even now) has often been a bastion of critical discourse and engaged culture. Indeed, V-A-C Foundation is currently funding one of the Meeting Points exhibitions by What, How & for Whom/WHW about decolonization and political turmoil in art from Africa and the Arab world, while Garage has also been generally friendly to critical and engaged art since the arrival of its new director. How much hope should we place in the support of a “progressive bourgeoisie”? What would your strategy be in that regard? Do you agree or disagree with Nikita Kadan?
A.N.: There is no way of coming to a clear principle such as “I only work with private institutions but never for the state.” Each institution has its specific way of functioning and providing different possibilities. This is something you should decide according to the situation, moreover because private money and state interests are so often symbiotic.
A.P.: There are two stories that could be witty comments to your question. The first is a memorable speech that Charles Esche gave at the Exodus panel during the steirischer herbst festival in Austria a few years ago. He said that the intelligentsia’s only option is to create an international network of artists, architects and computer specialists based largely on capital from the small-to-middle-range bourgeoisie, as the young segment is still interested in identifying itself by going to contemporary art exhibitions and “reading books by Agamben with pretty covers.” By educating this group, one stands a chance of creating a new world elite. This is a point I found myself agreeing to, in principle. As for Nikita’s point of view, it makes more sense to take a position such as that of Teresa Margoles, who doesn’t accept budgets for commissions or exhibitions until she can actually talk to a person whose view of the world she accepts. That’s why it’s quite hard to work with this artist in Europe, where so many exhibitions have corporate or state sponsorship.
K.C.: I think that imagining oligarchs supporting the real initiatives of left politics in the nineteenthth or twentieth century would be naïve. The worldwide tendency is rather about claiming the leftist rhetoric on behalf of the enlightened bourgeoisie, rather than patronizing progressive initiatives in culture. This is not yet the case for Russia. The Russian private foundations still function according to a system of patronage. However, the fact that projects supported by the V-A-C or the Stella Foundation often deal with critical theory or leftist thought does not lead to intensification of leftist thought and practice. On the contrary, we have to face the lubrication of such practices on the ground, even though it might be involuntary on the part of the leftist agents themselves. Another interesting option is a converse possibility: something still unusual for art and its institutions (see the texts by John Roberts on the Second Economy). There are the cases when an artist herself generates the platforms and conditions for an alternative economy, which although is inevitably inscribed into the macro economy, it is still able to ground its production on the logic of non-monetized exchange. The best example here would be the Timebank by e-flux, or the SvobMarxIzd and Tranlit projects here in Russia. Alternative economies either become a cultural or even artistic achievement in themselves, or they serve as new grounds for artistic production.
G.N.: This question, like the previous ones, asks what we should do under today’s situation of reaction. They are all ethical questions, but they concern aesthetic practices. Here, you are indirectly asking us about the meaning of contemporary art, or the lack of meaning thereof. Which institutions can we deal with, and whom should we avoid? Where can we exhibit? Whom should I support in the situation of having to choose between several evils? All of these are ethical choices that everybody needs to make on their own. For one, I cannot answer Kadan’s question: the choice between Garage or V-A-C, or the state institution of the NCCA, just sounds like a choice between bosses. As Jacques Rancière has shown us again and again, the contemporary aesthetic regime only allows art to be itself in relation to non-art, for example, ethics, politics, or history. An aesthetic position can only be articulated in the context or space of non-art; it only makes sense there. From an ethical position, we all stand accused of inconsistency, opportunism, or escapism. Yet art can only happen in a place where one can discuss these conditions; where one can reflect upon the place of one’s utterances and the territories in which these utterances are produced. If such reflection is taboo or impossible, art loses its meaning, and it’s time to run. The most reflexive, complex, radical art under present conditions is always full of both the senselessness of “slackerdom” and the utmost seriousness of truth; the source of its attraction as well as its emptiness. Even in the main project of the current MANIFESTA, which to me seemed to be purely mechanical in its reaction to the political expectation and the demands facing it, there was a place for reflexive works of art like Francis Alÿs’s Lada Kopeika, which was dedicated to the very act of viewing the former USSR from a European perspective.
D.R.: Over the last years, activist practices have become more popular in Russia after a period of formalism and aestheticism, and many people were talking about the renewed importance of Moscow Actionism from the 1990s and its “terrorist-naturalist” tactics. Groups such as Voina and Pussy Riot reclaimed the medium of intervention in a very spectacular way, and for a while it even seemed like the competition in radicalism that we had once known was back. Somehow a new zero-point was Pyotr Pavlensky’s performance where he nailed his testicles to the Red Square. At the same time, we’ve seen the spread of more differentiated social activist practices that are less concerned with intervention, in addition to their institutionalization, such as the “Creative Time”-like formats used by the curator Tanya Volvkova’s Mediaudar. Has the changing political situation given actionism and art activism new “leases on life”? Is the institutionalization of such practices a problem, and if so, to what extent? Does it render them transparent to power? Or does it give them a voice that they might otherwise lack? Furthermore, how effective can actionism and activism be as a political alternative to more static exhibitions in Russia today? Can such ephemeral activist-artist projects work, as long as they don’t take the course of direct confrontation?
A.N.: The institutionalization of these practices often simply looks stupid. Their classification as a separate kind of art requiring special festivals and generating subcultural communities seems to me no better than the classification of different species such as science art or formalism. That only obscures the meaning of such pursuits. Unlike the actionism of the 1990s, which was all about fidelity to the historical avant-garde in art, it is more productive to look at today’s activism as a type of civic behavior in a particular political context.
A.P.: It seems to me that the heyday of “artivism” has passed ever since Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina got out of jail. First, I thought it was over when Voina got the Innovation art prize, but no, Innovation is only relevant to the community. The story about Pussy Riot and their cathedral songs really circulated all over the world and made the political prisoner punk performers into no lesser figures than Khodorkovsky. Anything anyone might do after Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina shook hands with global pop stars and US presidential candidates is understood as a public relations gesture, and only later as a statement—and even then, only through a negative-critical optic. On the other hand, Artem Loskutov’s stupid action on the secession of Siberia has been a success. The media are so tense right now that there can be explosions at the mere flick of a match.
G.N.: Art fulfills a variety of functions other than aesthetic ones, such as when a certain kind of community forms around art. That is the value of events like Media-udar or Feminist Pencil, but that’s also their biggest problem, as the community formed around them risks becoming subcultural and closed. For many, it seemed like most of Media-udar’s visitors were somehow personally involved in the event. Art’s social and aesthetic functions can be summed up in the word “mediation”: the artwork effects mediation in the gap between art and non-art, or in the gaps between people. The main threat to art in Russia (and not only in Russia) is the loss of a space for mediation; the total closure of art in self-reproduction disconnected from any “outer reality,” which includes both the normalizing institutionalization that you refer to, as well as any exodus into the underground in response to censorship. I wouldn’t risk a prognosis, but if there’s anything worth fighting for, it’s that gap; that space beyond a circle of friends and beyond the autonomy of art, if fighting is still possible. In that sense, I felt Kristina Norman’s work at MANIFESTA 10 to be very successful as a work, and its success lay in the embarrassing story of Mikhail Piotrovosky, whose commentary turned the work’s meaning upside down. This opens a battleground for the struggle of interpretation, which is actually that same space of mediation. It is in that space that a society’s heterogeneities and disagreements reveal themselves. Maybe, at least, a limited public sees that art can still demonstrate the potential of dissent hidden in the false monolith of Putin’s consensus.
D.R.: My final question is a little sad and self-legitimating, but the present developments make me think a lot about emigration and diasporas, as so many of my students and colleagues prepare either to leave or to depart into a kind of inner exile at distant houses in the woods. I find myself wondering whether it might not be more interesting to work in Kharkov, Ukraine, or even Kyiv (where lots of people speak Russian) right now than in Moscow. Do you think the current developments will prompt a wave of migration or greater flux in terms of the geographical mobility of artists? Or, on the contrary, will it isolate Russian artists and cut them off from the rest of the world? How do you feel about working in the Ukraine—would you consider it? Are you considering emigration?
A.P.: My answer will be very brief. It’s probably more interesting to work in Kyiv than in Moscow today, but it is also a lot scarier. Many people, myself included, are pretty much panicking, and imagine a new Caribbean Crisis from which there is no exit. That goes without saying. My friends and I all keep open visas for Schengen states and the US, if ever we have to ask for asylum.
V.M.: I first faced the problem of emigration in the mid-2000s. The cultural authorities, still rather glamorous-corrupt than national-patriotic, told me that I’d do best to look for work abroad, because no one would work with me here. They did everything possible to make me believe in the seriousness of their intentions. The atmosphere of triumphant conformism was such that there was scant space for judgment or action on the Russian scene. For six years, my second home has been in Italy, where I spend at least half of the year. The situation today is much more dramatic than it was ten years ago, but that’s what makes it interesting. In the past, I simply didn’t understand what to do in my own city, if I didn’t know how to cheat or steal? In the current agonistic situation however I see that my presence can be relevant, and that there is interest in my work. It could be that the experience of emigration taught me to look at reality dialectically. Bertolt Brecht once said that the emigrant is a natural dialectician.
A.N.: We need to find ways of acting in the situation as it is, but travel for the sake of travel, or openness and communication are not means in themselves. As for artists, I don’t think anyone can be completely cut off from anything. Of course, there will be an interruption in “cultural exchange,” but it’s interesting to see what role art or criticism can play in the remaining spaces. Artists migrate because that’s how the art world works; its infrastructure forces them to relocate to wherever there are schools, residences, and exhibitions. I don’t think artist’s travel will be affected by recent political events.
K.C.: I think it is quite predictable that agents from the leftist intelligentsia would create some sort of transnational multitude exerting at least oblique impact on the emergency zones. Much more interesting for me would be researching, as well as socially and existentially experiencing, the fields of reactionary populism that overlap with most impoverished areas in provinces or smaller towns, and which form the majority of Putin’s electorate. This shift of the oppressed masses to governmental politics, as well as their nationalist rhetoric, causes the split in the left: if people detach themselves from such masses they appear to be elitist and liberal; if they, on the contrary, support them, they fall into the trap of superseding the criticism of the oppression with nationalist ideology. Education and enlightening programs would seem here the third way—and this way is very important. However it often turns out to be a palliative of an imaginary social democracy; and hence such an educational and political intervention should be paired with a sophisticated, sensuously involved, modest and self-critical study of such fields.