Chto Delat? / What is to be Done?

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The collective Chto Delat (What is to be done?) was founded in early 2003 in Petersburg by a workgroup of artists, critics, philosophers, and writers from St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Nizhny Novgorod with the goal of merging political theory, art, and activism.

The group was constituted in May 2003 in St. Petersburg in an action called “The Refoundation of Petersburg.” Shortly afterwards, the original, as yet nameless core group began publishing an international newspaper called Chto Delat?. The name of the group derives from a novel by the Russian 19th century writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and immediately brings to mind the first socialist worker’s self-organizations in Russia, which Lenin actualized in his own publication, “What is to be done?” (1902). Chto Delat? sees itself as a self-organized platform for a variety of cultural activities intent on politicizing “knowledge production” through redefinitions of an engaged autonomy for cultural practice today.

The array of activities is coordinated by a core group including following members:

Tsaplya Olga Egorova (artist, Petersburg), Artiom Magun (philosopher, Petersburg), Nikolay Oleynikov (artist, Moscow), Natalia Pershina/Glucklya (artist, Petersburg), Alexey Penzin (philosopher, Moscow), David Riff (art critic, Moscow), Alexander Skidan (poet, critic, Petersburg), Oxana Timofeeva (philosopher, Moscow), and Dmitry Vilensky (artist, Petersburg). In 2012 the choreographer Nina Gasteva has joined a collective after few years of intense collaboration. Since then many Russian and international artist and researchers has participated in different projects realized under the collective name Chto Delat? (see descriptions of each projects on this web site)

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Chto Delat? collective in Kronstadt in 2005
Standing: from the right: Oleynikov, Gluklya, Timofeeva, Shuvalov, Tsaplya, Riff, Penzin; Sitting: Magun and Vilensky

 

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The School for Engaged Art – what is it?

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a Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung project

initiated by Chto Delat

 

How does one become an artist?

Why become an artist?

What could art be today, and what could its role in society be?

We are not sure that we know the answers to these important questions and that’s why we started this school; in order to face these issues together with a young generation with whom we need to share our urgencies and concerns.

What do we want from the art school?

First of all, we have no illusions about miserable situation about current stage of artistic production today, but we do not want to coop with this state of things: a free play of all type of différance. And despite of this objective situation we want to share our belief that art is essential for all human becoming, art is always a gesture of negation and a call to the world to be otherwise — thus the role of art in society has always been crucial. And it was and still is a legitimate ground for the crucial quarrel what is the truth.

But what is this role today, when all the borders between art and life, art and media, art and social studies, art and activism, have been destroyed and we have fewer and fewer opportunities to formulate not just the notion of art but even its location?

What kind of knowledge is important to gain to become an artist?

How can this knowledge be evaluated?

Who are the experts who make judgments on what is good and what is bad art?

We feel a strong unease with the current process of academization of artistic education. Maybe it is because none of us (the artists who initiated this school) have ever properly studied art as a discipline. Or maybe we keep believing that art cannot be taught, that it must rather be practiced.

This is why we would like to modestly continue the good old tradition of artists of one generation trying to inspire younger generations with their own beliefs, fears, hopes, love and poetics.

Just to commemorate a long list of such initiatives we want to mention a few – UNOVIS in Vitebsk, Black Mountain College in the US, Soviet confidential circles around dissident artists, Bauhaus and numerous other similar initiatives (1) which left behind tangible and sometimes invisible results. The most important of them have always created a change in communities of enlightened people whose presence in societies made a difference and inspired hope, even in the darkest times.

What kind of art education is possible in the Russian context, where basic democratic freedoms are highly strained and the level of state and everyday violence is steadily increasing? In a situation where there are no academic programs in contemporary art and no institutions (or support) that are concerned with politically engaged practices in art?

We continue to think about art that engages in all the painful processes of the development of our society, about art that cannot hide in the secure ghetto of institutions and proper curriculums. Art that abandons the formalist approach to politics, art that is able to tell stories about humans which touch others, and communicates not just with trained professionals but with a broad audience. To achieve this, we need to obtain knowledge from different disciplines, and then use it in a most heretical way. We need to marry poetry and sociology, choreography and activism, art history and militant research, queer studies and drama theory, political economy and the sublime, artists’ labour rights and romantic visions of art’s mission and so on.

Our project is unique because we want to maintain fidelity to the leftist tradition of modern art, and at the same time escape narrow “old school” approach to politics. We want to experiment with true egalitarian practices of emancipation which succeed despite all the traps of real politics. We think that it is time to build a viable alternative to the private interest of oligarchs, corporations and senseless public entertainment. The 10 years of activity of our collective, and the positioning of the sponsors of our school – “Rosa Luxemburg Foundation” clearly place our educational program on the side of leftist politics in their universal approach to the vocation of human beings.

No one has asked or invited us to open a school – just in opposite – there are many forces which did their best here that this project would never happen. And our school is far from having any standard facilities as a proper art academy. We wish we could have an equipped, permanent base– with classrooms, studios, proper wages and so on — but it is not the case. But our school operates under quite generous conditions – it is free (we even provide a travel and accommodation’ grants to participants outside St. Petersburg), it can provide all teachers a decent remuneration for their labor at highest local standards and we are able to integrate into our activity most remarkable teachers from all disciplines.

The school operate as a module structure – we meet with participants one week in a month – a very intense time during which we run all of our seminars and tutorials, and also mount public presentations and lectures. We have 5 permanent courses composed for one year –The History of Modernist Art (Andrey Fomenko), Aesthetics (Artyom Magun), Body Studies and Choreography (Nina Gasteva), Critical/Poetical Writings (Aleksander Skidan) and English for Artists with Emily Newman. The rest of time we dedicate to practical seminars with 3 tutors (Nikolay Oleynikov, Tsaplya Olga Egorova, Dmitry Vilensky). And of course, we invite occasional guest-speakers for topical discussions with our participants and in the context of public presentations.

From the outset, we established that we would not focus our program on the development of individual projects of our participants (although we of course consult personally with students about their own work as a matter of course.) We decided instead to try to build new forms of collective work – to create knowledge in order to conceive and spread ideas of possible new communities. These ideas are far from the imagination of neutral positivist space of knowledge. We believe that our school is a not a place for learning about whatever is considered good in contemporary art – instead we demand that our students take a position in a world where the main battle is the fight over ideological tendencies. In this, we strive to shape and defend our own tendency with all our means, inherited and new, in the process of mutual learning.

 

Notes:

  1. see a very comprehensive list of initiatives listed in Anton Vidokle’s article:

https://attachment.fbsbx.com/file_download.php?id=149548778587897&eid=ASsfQTKVs91qoa6fqLV2MzGNt9v4LGaLe9ZdC7zM0D0FxUFYTngX5pU4o4pSPPk9IdQ&inline=1&ext=1381786961&hash=ASs-3OzDFaNB_mNN

 

 

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