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In the streets of Saint-Petersburg, one has always to watch one’s step, so as not to fall into this or that pit. But sometimes we raise our eyes and look up one’s leaky roof onto the large Petersburg sky. The sky gets closer.
Today, just before the pompous festivities of the 300th anniversary of Saint-Petersburg, it is about time to think about the future of our city. Its official cultural politics is the suffocating conservatism. Its main focus is all sorts of restauration work; the opening of memorial desks, and speculation on the”great history and cultural traditions”. Since 1991, that is since the city got its old name back, no single new building was build that could compete with the masterpieces of the modern architecture, and what is built is nothing but the cowardly imitation. No single influential journal or newspaper in these 10 years. The situation in the visual arts is somewhat better, thanks to some private initiatives and to the Western funding.
The rhetoric of the “Renaissance of Saint-Petersburg” invokes the “early 20th century”, meaning mainly the decorative, safely dated, aesthetics of the “Mir Iskusstv”, Diaguilev’s theatre, the poetics of the symbolists and acmeists. The main “brands” of the cultural and tourist industry are the “White nights”, “Akhmatova”, “Mariinski theatre”, and the “Hermitage”. As though there would never exist Meyerhold, the Russian futurism, Filonov, Bakhtin, the constructivist architecture. One can easily extend this list.
The excess of the historical feeling degrades into the antiquarian, uncritical attitude to the past and covertly subverts the present. It subverts the possibility of the future – of the project, a draft, that would, in a utopian way, anticipate and affirm the future.
Once, being a capital of the Russian Empire, Saint-Petersburg was a name of a bold project, of the “jump to the West”. Now this project is archivated and abandoned. In spite of some symbolic acts that would restore its greatness, the city is still largely seen as a tomb, a necropolis of the aristocratic prerevolutionary culture. The creative people may not be content with such situation. We need a large movement of the people involved in culture, those who are interested in the renewal of the urban space of Saint-Petersburg. In this work, one can rely on the experience of the “peredvizhniks” and LEF, of the OBERIU and the situationist International in France, on the traditions of the Leningrad non-conformist art of the 1950s-1980s.
People we address (artists, writers, musicians, actors, scholars) live their intense lives mostly in the narrow circles. The intelligentsia tend to retreat from the public sphere, as they used to do already in the Soviet times, and still do, due not least to the support of the Western foundations. As a result, first, the public sphere is occupied by the illiterate bureaucrates, second, the very artistic or scholarly life risks to die out, being cut from the channels of its reproduction.
Therefore, we have to carry the new art into the streets and squares, making of it a public, and therefore necessarily polemic, gesture. We, today’s Petersburgians, see our city not like the corrupt officials see it – we see its horizon open into the future.
We have to work on the persistent transformation of the city environment – streets, squares, houses, sculptures, transportation, journals, collective actions. The city authorities, on their part, should involve the modern avant-guarde artists while planning the city space. The contemporary art, with its orientation on humour, but also on direct action, on social criticism, may help secularizing the city and opening it up.
It is important for us to join our forces in the positive act of developing projects of the city as well as in the negative gesture of refusal – refusal, for instance, to participate in the official celebration of the jubilee, with its ice-cream festivals, wrestling competitions, and the dogs exhibit. We invite everyone concerned by the city to join our effort in organizing a series of artistic actions, performances, discussions, texts, aimed at the transformation of the city space and of the cultural politics. Such joint effort should allow us, after the festivities are over, to persist in the work of the renewal, to free a new city space, without roofs or barriers. We ask you to react and to tell us your support.
Artemy Magun, Evgenij Maisel, Alexander Skidan, April 2003