David Riff (DR): In a recent text, the Moscow critic and curator Ekaterina Degot argues that while “the capitalist system of art institutions is oriented toward the [singular] product, the communist system of art institutions was oriented toward [collective] creativity. This is why the communist system did not consist of galleries and collections, but of communities and groups, ranging from the artist’s union to the narrow “circles” of nonconformist art. All of these groups were organized according to the principle of the autodidactic circle.” Do you think it makes sense to talk about continuities of a “communist model” of art, and which vector of development do you see in this model? What happened from the late 1980s and 1990s, when there was an explosion of community-based art? And where is this experience heading today?

Viktor Misiano (VM): I would agree that it is of crucial importance today to show that the Soviet artistic experience is not peripheral, that it is part of modernity. It is indeed possible to achieve this by insisting upon the uniqueness of Russian art, which – unlike Western art – is incomparably more deeply rooted in the tradition of the avantgarde. However, on the other hand, one can also demonstrate how closely international and Western artistic processes are related in terms of typology. In this sense, the Soviet system of art – including both the official Artist’s Union and the underground – recognize themselves rather magnificently in the analyses of Pierre Bourdieu, who was able to uncover the presence of different types of markets in culture, one of material, the other symbolic. From this perspective, there is much in the experience of the Moscow underground corresponds to the practices of Fluxus and many other phenomena in Western art, all of which tend toward the creation of closed communities, oriented toward inner communication, i.e. toward the formation of a symbolic market. One can pay attention to the fact that not only the official Artists’ Union appeared as a corporation stagnating under economic protectionism, but that something of the sort happens to any artistic establishement; it is, in fact, enough to look at American corporate collections or even the exhibitions at major museums in order to understand how the market is often controlled by an encapsulated group of people and institutions and oriented toward a very limited selection of names for years at a time. At the same time, objectivity demands that we recognize that the Artists’ Union and its Artistic Foundation (Khudozhestveny fond) were hardly strangers to the mechanisms of the market; in fact, they were a laboratory of market relationships. Actually, the Moscow underground was also structured in terms of the market, and here I am ready to testify as an eye-witness; its market institutions – and I am sure that future researchers will be able to prove this – were not, in fact, very different from those of the Western system of art.

If we focus more closely on the subject in question – the problem of communities – typological similarities in terms of sociology can be found on both sides of the “Iron Curtain”. Beginning in the 1960s, Soviet society was hardly monolithic or faceless, but was woven from a multitude of closed yet mutually intersecting communities. In this sense, one can actually apply the definitions that post-modern sociologists have offered in appraising Western society, the “tribal society” of Michel Maffesoli, for an example. Without taking this social context in account, the practices of Andrei Monastyrsky and “Collective Actions” cannot be understood in full, since the essence of their work consisted in problematizing this polysynthetic society, broken up into circles and communities, in relation to which (including the community of the Moscow underground) “Collective Actions” took a meta-position, to use their terminology.

If we try to answer the question as to what happened in the 1990s, then we could say that this social complexity disappeared when Soviet society collapsed. Post-Soviet society is characterized by an extremely schematic, primitive quality – it found itself divided into a Lumpenized mass, a certain aggregate of mafia-type communities, not to say brigades on the one hand, and disoriented, hysterical loners on the other.

Thus, it is only logical that once it was deprived of both state protectionism and any real capitalist market, the artistic milieu attempted to differentiate itself from the Lumpenized masses by creating communities whose function was two-fold. On the one hand, they held the character of “competing programs”, to use a term of Anatoly’s from those years, pressure groups, whose members championed their interests in a situation of social and economic chaos. At the same time, on the other hand, these communities fulfilled a compensatory function, replacing the social relationships that had dissolved. It is this aspect that I was concerned with when I theorized on the phenomenon of “confidential communities”, to which I relate the experience of a number of my own curatorial projects, as well as Dmitri Gutov’s “Lifshitz Institute”, the artistic groups that Osmolovsky organized, as well as a number of other initiatives.

One could also be more specify and say that these initiatives that took on the quality of community were themselves a part of the artistic community at large, the tussovka, the “in-crowd”, the scene, which, in and of itself bore a performative, simulative, compensatory quality…
Can we speak of these groups as “inoperative” communities, using Nancy’s term? Can we call them “idle”? Probably, especially if we accentuate their performative productions, their ephemeral practices, their non-artefactual products, or their non-disciplinary type of organization. But of course, the answer is also no, especially if we pay attention to the social significance of their work, at the pragmatism that motivated them, at the presence of the symbolic capital that they were producing…

AO: If we’re talking about the 1990s, I can say is that there was, in fact, such a thing as collectivity, but that it existed in a kind of hysteria or paroxysm, as Viktor would say. In my attempts to organize collectives, about 90% of our energy went into interpersonal relations, beginning with arguments and ending in fistfights. Conflict, in the end, was really the essence of these collective bodies. As the artist and critic Vladimir Salnikov once noted quite aptly in one of his articles, the relationships within these groups were a lot like those among teenage gangs; that is, the main principle of such relations is that in order to be a leader, you have to be a hero, to take risks, to always be at the forefront of the attack in order not lose authority in the eyes of your peers. I have called this type of heroism the “mobilizational” principle. Your heroic performances would mobilize your friends, especially when they came to bail you out of jail. The thing is that community based on this kind of mobilization cannot exist for very long. First of all, nobody is a “terminator”; nobody can work in constant conflict with his surroundings for very long. Second of all, it is impossible to enter into any kind of long-term creative, theoretical, or ideological relationships, if you’re constantly forced into heroism in order to mobilize your community. We couldn’t sit down around a table and just talk …

There is also another problem with collective projects. The Western European, capitalist machine of representation operates according to the principle of constructing subjectivity, that is, it attributes collective art-works to one author. Under the conditions of capitalism, such collective activity is always a form of resistance, because it attempts to create its alternative system, right down to the personality itself. But no tribe, group or community can survive in an isolated state; it needs to enter into some form of dialogue with the capitalist machine of representation, which immediately begins to differentiate and divide this community according to its own laws. More often than not, the capitalist machine of representation doesn’t favor ideologists, authors or creators, but the most vivid actors or the most competent managers. So what I’m really saying is that the relationship between the capitalist machine of representation and the group leads to inner conflicts. When we founded the “Extraordinary Control Commission” in 1998, we had already made this experience, which is why we felt ourselves to be a political group agitating “against all parties” rather than an artistic community. But the problem is that we lost, that we were crushed by the FSB. In the end, I think that a collaborative project can only work if it really resists the capitalist machine of representation by refusing to show its work in museums and showing its work in its own museums. But of course, this is a utopia, which is somewhat infantile.

This is why I’ve turned away from such practices now, and have begun working with the Stella Art gallery, which I feel is the most progressive form of artistic life here in Russia today. This collaboration could be considered as a new experiment in collective work, because I’m entrusting them with the means of collaboration: through Stella, I can take part in all kinds of collaborative projects and group-shows, but they are the ones who are responsible for these relationships, formalizing them. After all, I don’t have access to all of the resources required to engage in all of these collective communications; I’m not an institution, after all, so that the gallery becomes the place that is capable of administering and formalizing collective relationships. I derive real pleasure from this interaction, but on the other hand, it’s hardly easy; it’s like a mine-field full of dangers, which is why it’s a real experiment for me…

DR: Perhaps it makes sense to analyze both Anatoly’s recent turn away from building and working within the framework of communities and the efforts of our group “What is to be done?”, which are directed toward developing new forms of collectivity rooted in the emergent structures of alternative forms of social composition, not only in Russia, but all over the world. Both seem to be motivated by one and the same phenomenon.

It seems obvious today that the “relational aesthetics” of the 1990s are in need of a fundamental critique, even if – in my view – this doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the thinking of autonomism or a complete admission of “defeat”…Incidentally, this critique of collaboration is not only taking place in Russia, but pretty much everywhere.

For an instance, I recently read a great article by Stephen Wright in “Third Text” where he writes that the kind of interactive projects prevalent today often block genuine, politically significant collaboration with performatives. This ties into what Anatoly has said about “heroism” in an interesting way.

Wright also notes that for the last 30 years, art has been redefined as a “set of competencies and practices that are considered morally neutral”; this is problematic, because these “practices” can easily be integrated into the capitalist economy, which is more and more interested in flexible, post-disciplinary techniques. According to Wright, such instrumentalizations of collaboration “can be avoided only if the ethical horizon against which collaboration takes place is explicitly defined.”

Which “ethical horizon” are we in need of today in general and in Russia in particular? How can this horizon manifest itself in art?

AO: I’m currently writing something about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. One of the ideas I’m exploring there is that the striving toward autonomy in art leads to the crystallization of aesthetics and ethics. The absence of ethical orientation-points is only possible in environments where ethics and aesthetics are not separated from one another. Crime, in this sense, is when ethics switch over to aesthetics, when aesthetics begin to justify crime. So if we begin to crystallize out aesthetics, this will affect ethics in an oblique way, because we can’t affect ethics in their pure form outside of religion. Since this has become impossible, art plays an extremely important role, affecting ethics through aesthetics.

Unlike in the West, art is not perceived in its pure form as art, unlike in the West. It is always perceived through some other codes, through the codes of politics, show-business, or mass-culture. Take, for an example, Kulik. But in Russia there is no place for a person who is just doing art and no-one really knows what exactly an artist actually is. This is why I feel that in Russia, here and now, it is an extremely radical political challenge to establish the autonomy of art.

DR: But doesn’t your insistence upon autonomy make you politically passive?

AO: No. I’ve simply become a proponent of a more realistic position. For an example, Clement Greenberg’s article “Avantgarde and Kitsch” is a vivid example of a realistic position. Here, he writes that art always belonged to the rich and powerful of the world, and if you’re involved with art, you belong to the rich and powerful anyway, because they’re using you and they have the money and time to do so. We have to come terms with the obvious fact: capitalism has triumphed. You have to realize where you stand, who you’re talking to and under which conditions. If you don’t agree with these conditions, you have to create a political organization. But political organizations and art are two different things. I’m not actually refusing to take a civic position; I can still collaborate with the political parties I prefer. But not as an artist, but as a citizen. Politics doesn’t need artists; it needs good managers and creative professionals. Right now, I give lots of ideas to Ilya Ponomarev, the leader of the Communist Party’s Young Wing, because I like what he’s doing. I give him these ideas free of cost, without any authorial signature. It would be cynical to use political parties to implement my artistic ideas, as Limonov does with his National Bolsheviks.

VM: I see the situation differently. The artists’ civic position really isn’t decided through his party-membership card. Instead it is primarily a question of your existential and ethical experience. There are moments in which your civic position will manifest itself as political indifference, but there are also moment in which indifference is simply the triumph of conformism, which is directly reflected in the feasibility of your creative product.

In the 1990s, capitalism was triumphant in the sense that it proved capable of de-ideologizing society, enfettering it with the media spectacle. In this spectacle, the aesthetic and the political dissolved into one another, while the ethical was simply deprived of any substance. This is why forms of neo-ideological protest – including those that Anatoly was involved in – turned out to be media spectacles, which is, by the way, exactly what made him develop his program of non-spectacular art in his search for a non-conformist position. This is also why one of the forms of a consequent non-conformist position could also become political indifference, which consciously declines any form of medialization. This, for an example, is the position Yuri Leiderman was defending throughout the 1990s. This desire to leave behind medial forms of communication pushed other artist with an ethical sensibility to insist upon the political and ideological quality of their work and to make affected, obscurantist statements.

The specificity of the situation today consists in the fact that on the one hand, a system of art is in the process of forming, supplying the artist with a professional distance to the media-industry. On the other hand, social movements are also ripening, and these social movements are capable of accumulating and politically articulating non-conformist motivation. From this, it follows that the sustainability of artistic statements is not proven through its medial effect, but through the expert-reaction of the art-system. At the same time, the ethical and non-conformist impulse pushes the artist toward the deconstruction of this system and its inner analysis.

At the same time, it goes without saying that the ripening of social movement in the political context does not yet raise the question of art’s party-allegiance, but offers the artist the opportunity of participating in a broad dialogue on political perspectives and the development of new social value. Here, there is a great need for the artist’s voice, speaking both as a citizen and as an artist. However, this statement can no longer be affected, fanatic, or obscure, but needs to be communicative and dialogic.

From this point of view, both Anatoly’s efforts and those of the workgroup “What is to be done?” are highly symptomatic. Anatoly is attempting to critically assimilate the experience of the art-system’s formation, while you are trying to integrate art into a broad discussion of a critical world-view. It seems as if you haven’t even realized in how far your position actually compliment one another!

DR: But even if we seem to have reached a point of dialectical opposition, there must be some synthesis, some interest we all have in common…

AO: This common, or as the spin-doctors say, our point of consensus, is art. Because, first of all, it is what we understand and love. To me, art is an a priori affirmation. It is the point at which we can begin to collaborate, but it is also the point where some kind of differentiation takes place. Who loves what and why? This is what we have to talk about, actually.