Published at the catalogue of Chto Delat? solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Baden-Baden
[…] one must assume the inheritance of Marxism, assume its most “living” part, which is to say, paradoxically, that which continues to put back on the drawing board the question of life, spirit, or the spectral, of life-death beyond the opposition between life and death. This inheritance must be reaffirmed by transforming it as radically as will be necessary. Such a reaffirmation would be both faithful to something that resonates in Marx’s appeal – let us say once again in the spirit of his injunction – and in conformity with the concept of inheritance in general. Inheritance is never a given, it is always a task. It remains before us just as unquestionably as we are the heirs of Marxism, even before wanting or refusing to be, and, like all inheritors, we are in mourning. In mourning in particular for what is called Marxism.1
– Jacques Derrida
“What is Communist art”? This straight, but strange, question is asked in the midst of a recent Chto Delat? performance at Smart Project Space in Amsterdam, instigating a collective discussion on artistic methods, forms and aims. The question is straight forward in the sense of its relation being object and method, communist art – although this might lead to a number of complications, as is evident in the ensuing discussion itself – but perhaps also slightly strange due to its specific injunction of time, placing the method and object in the present tense – what is communist art – and deliberately not the past, indicating communist art as something actual rather than historical. The question thus has an untimely timeliness, only accentuated by the title of the event in the context of which it is posed: WHERE has communism gone?, which certainly implies a past tense, if not a passing, then the least a transposition, and clearly echoes the work of mourning proposed by Jacques Derrida in his meditation of the withering of Marxism in his book Specters of Marx – The State of the Debt, the work of Mourning, & the New International from 1994.
The Communist Practice of Art
This event was itself actually a theatre play, based on the principles of Bertolt Brecht’s famous learning plays – certainly a prime historical example of communist art if there ever was one – as well as a preceding, highly intensive 48 hour workshop where the participants/performers developed the script. A method that has become one of the cornerstones of Chto Delat?’s practice. However, the invocations of time we are confronted with here are multiple and possible of synch, into which various references and notions of something named ‘communist art’ are posited. These various strands are not so much layered onto each other, though, as they are running in parallel, as if we were watching several screens each depicting their own historical moment, and at their own pace – which may very well be the group’s own definition of, or should we say proposition for a communist practice of art at this particular historical moment. This staging of diachronicity in WHERE has communism gone?, as well as elsewhere in the work of Chto Delat? can be illustrated in how the discussion of communist art, past as past, becomes crystallized in the discussion, but in the form of obscurification and displacement, such as the sudden move from a discussion between the actors on the stage, and a sudden internet transmission of an outside voice, introduced as “our comrade from Moscow,” an intervention from the theorist David Riff, whose contribution functions as a sort of doubling of the stage, where the projection creates a new image space, separate from that of the actors and their props, in turn transforming them into spectators along with the seated, presumably passive, audience. This is a sort of alienation effect, where everybody is suddenly spectators, but not in a reductive or passifying manner, since, as it happens, you can talk back to the projected image and the amplified voice, just as the actors one stage immediately begins to discuss with it, interrupt it and dialogue with it and each other, turning listening into an active and collective endeavor for the group, and by implication, for everyone in the audience, too.
Even if the projection is a cinematic effect in aesthetic terms, it does not follow the politics of cinema and its one-way mode of address. And yet, like the cinematic image, the projection is made up of images and sounds, the combination of the two always equaling politics, according to a famous dictum of another communist Brechtian, Jean-Luc Godard, who has also served as a continuous point of reference and source of inspiration for Chto Delat?(such as in the piece Two Plus Two, and its paraphrasing of Godard’s One Plus One). Of what does this particular assemblage of images and sounds by David Riff then tell us about communism and art? As it is, we do not actually see the speaker, Riff, on the projection, but rather a few images, reproductions of classical paintings that he discusses and dissects, thus giving his intervention the form of a brief lecture on the style of realism in 19th century painting, and its possible relations to communism. We are thus transported out of the present, and presented with the inheritance of an art-historical example to be followed or reneged. Riff may be speaking to us live, directly from Moscow, which is another time zone, obviously, but since the context of the play is Amsterdam, and the images shown are classical, he may as well also speak from a different time period altogether, not just a different political space and historical moment. Indeed, Riff rephrases the question “what is communist art?” into “is this communist art?”, looking at the painter Courbet and his relation to the Paris commune. However, Riff makes his turning of the question through a shift from Courbet’s famous socialist realist paintings of laborers to his later still lifes: Is this communist art? Could it be, that these seemingly non-topical paintings are communist, not only since they are made by a revolutionary, but also since they are made after the defeat of the commune, and are, as such, acts of mourning the loss of communism? Riff asks if such paintings, stylistically and terms of motif later exploited by petit-bourgeois artists like Cezanne, actually have a communist history as well, although one of defeat and entrenchment, as works of mourning, and, by extension, that a communist art must inevitably, today, must be works of mourning rather than the triumphant image production of something like Soviet socialist realist art.
Needless to say, this leads to a huge discussion within the performers of WHERE has communism gone? about what communist art could be today, whether the play they are engaged in is communist, and directly implicating the larger context of Chto Delat?’s general practice, forcing one of the producers of the play, Dmitry Vilensky, to leave his position in the auditorium, and join the actors onstage in order to explain himself, his author and subject position, as well as the aesthetico-politics of the group. Two things needs to be added to Riff’s remarks here, though, that will further consolidate and complicate Chto Delat?’s artistic and political position. A simple thing and a strange thing. First, realism as communism: If it is accurate there is a politics of mourning at play in still life painting, one that has not only to do with the vanitas aspect of the project, but also with immediate historical, political context, such as the demise of the Paris commune, here not as depicted, but present through its absence (and the absence of any content matter whatsoever apart from the act of painting itself as acts of memory and living on), is there not also a politics of representation at play in the selection of the still life as motif? In order words, are the not an equality of things in the world, objects and subjects alike in Courbet’s selection of everyday objects such as fruits? To be exploited for painters like Cezanne, granted, but again with a positing of a process of democratization by claiming apples as valuable as anything else, such as religious or state symbols etc., which was, after all, the great promise of modernist painting – itself now lost, to be mourned or not, like the utopian project of communism (as modernism)? We must then ask what this methodological failure of modern painting indicates as much as the failures of constructivism, socialist realism or for that matter brechtian dialectics means for contemporary practices of image production and politic-making – regardless of whether they are seen as one move or totally separate entities? The second addition is, seemingly, much more simple, and establishes a direct corollary between Courbet’s late work, after the fall of the commune, and the current practice of someone like Chto Delat?, after another fall, that of a specific empire, namely: is this work (in a double sense of the word) of mourning, then, post-communist art?
So far we have discussed the idea of failure, or at least passing, in conjunction with communist art, tying in with a much larger theoretical discourse, and sometimes discussion of aesthetics, the notion of post-Communism, surely one of the major issues of our time – but here ‘our time’ must be translated as ‘our space’, obviously: the field of cultural production engaged with the issues of politics of representation and the representation of politics. In other words, the so-called post-Communist condition is not a general term, such as postmodernism, or for that matter, post-colonialism, even if it is parallel to them. Indeed, the issue is whether the term can at all be seen as generalized, if it has a universalizing claim or not. On the one hand, the post-communist condition would apply as a description on the political and cultural situation of the former communist countries in Eastern Europe (including Russia, naturally), ie. the end(s) of actually existing communism, which would indicate that the term has a specific time frame, after 1989, and a concrete geographical location, the former Eastern bloc.
Conservative commentators and liberal boosters usually refer to this process as, incredibly enough, ‘catch-up modernism’, implying a very specific idea of time as geo-political, namely that communism was out of time, or just a pause or stumbling block on the historical path to liberal democracy and market economy, understood as modernism per se, that the former communist countries now have to catch up. Contrary to this view, there is, needless to say, another reading of the specificity of the historical time of the former communist countries, namely the theory of post-communism that sees communism as modernism, and thus parallel to the fordist modernity of the United States, as in the well known analysis of Susan Buck-Morss, among others. Where Buck-Morss sees the cold war as basically a tale of two cities, both each other’s double (and double negative), the perhaps most expansive theorizer of the post-communism, Boris Groys, precisely wants to reclaim this other modernity, and its conditioning of the west, in a sense resurrected the second in contrast to the first world and the third world, and thus in another understanding of globalist entanglement than found in the theories of post-colonialism.2 Post-communism is thus a postmodern condition that has political, identitarian and aesthetic consequences beyond the historical time and place(s) of real existing communism, ie. Eastern Europe, and, particularly Russia (as the Soviet Union) until the fall of the wall. However, it is none the less bound to the this space and time configuration, in the sense that ‘communism’ as an ideology cannot be separated from the existence of the Soviet Union, and the specific space of experience that it consisted of.
There is also another, more abstract understanding of post-communism, from writers as diverse as Boris Buden and Nancy Fraser, that sees it as not only as a specific location, nor only as a specific timeframe, but as a general, universal condition, but always particularized differently. For Fraser, for example, the post-communist condition is a condition of loss, characterized by “an absence of any credible overarching emancipatory project despite the proliferation of fronts of struggle”.3 As a postmodern condition, or should we say malaise, post-communism has thus not only to do with a specific space of experience, whether historical and lost or actual and uncertain, that post-communism as the former East, the past space of communist regimes and lives, as well as the present societies in transition (whether leaning towards integration into the market and parliamentary democracies via the EU (most East European countries), or re-configuration itself as a new global player through hyper-privatization and -centralization of power (such as the case of Russia), or simply disintegrating as state, institutions or economy (Byelorussia, Moldova and parts of former Yugoslavia)), but also with horizons of expectations, with possible or impossible perceived futurity.
These conceptions of the post-communist condition not only informs the work of Chto Delat?, but are indeed also informed by the group’s activities in more ways than one. Not only does the staging of the Brechtian learning play unfold a discussion of where communism has gone – or is perhaps then now located or moving towards – but these debates are also constantly ongoing in their occasional newspaper, also called Chto Delat?, each issue with a different theme, sometimes connected directly to a contemporaneous art production of the group, and always with a plethora of positions and contributions from theorists, activists and artists on the given subject, be it Brecthian aesthetics, collectivism, labor, struggle and so on. The crucial component is always how such discussions are revisited, contradicted, circumscribed and so on, and, moreover, always actualized, in both the temporal and spatial sense of the word: what does it mean to work with and work through these always international issues at this particular time, current Russian society, and this particular place, again, current Russian society? It means a particular grounding, even if the ground is a groundless one, and that one must therefore think of projects in terms of their horizon rather than ground. The newspaper thus functions as a particular platform, as making problematics particular, as well as producing a particular rather than generalized public. This newspaper cannot produce a bourgeois public of reason, for obvious historical reasons, nor make pretensions towards it in order to claim democratization, for deliberate political reasons and desires, and works, rather, as a counter-public, and thus with a particular, tendentious production of political subjectivity and social relations, drawing as much upon the privately located culture of dissidence from Soviet times as on post-68 notions of counter culture.
It is this conjuration and combination that is Chto Delat?’s proposal for a contemporary leftist analysis and critique of our present situation, what we can call a post-communist reading of Marx, that do not depart from Marxism’s basic forms and meanings (including Brechtian aesthetics), but rather a critical reevaluation and actualization of some of its basic tenets. In other words, post-communism employed as a critique of post-fordism. In terms of artistic method Chto Delat? are thus engaged with staging as actualization, and, not, as so many of their Western contemporaries, with the re-staging of political events in the form of re-enactments. This is clear not only in the employment of Brecht – they do not stage any of Brecht’s plays, instead utilizing the (politicizing) method of his learning plays, but its also present in how they relate to political history and its connection to current events in their use songspiels, from the Perestroika Songspiel of 2008, dealing with a crucial moment in the history of the Soviet Union and its demise, to the recent Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX of 2011, that takes in a Western Museum (But with a major collection of Russian avant-garde art).
The first of the group’s songspiel, about Perestroika, is a crucial case in point: rather than revisiting some of the legendary and heroic events of the October revolution and its aftermath, they zoom in on another event, now largely overlooked, or simply seen as a minor detail on the road to Russian parliamentarism and the end of the Soviets, which Chto Delat? reclaim as primary, not just in terms of political history, but also in an understanding of the contemporary situation as represented in The Tower Songspiel of 2010. The idea of democratic reform, actually in line with the very idea of the Soviets, are seen as being as relevant and politically urgent in Russia 2010 as it was in 1987-91, and if the characters taking center stage in the former, all displaying different social strata, and differing positions and aspirations, such as the militant, the nationalist, the democrat, the entrepreneur and the feminist, are being updated as or supplanted by the gallerist, the artist, the oligarch, the priest and the politician in the latter, the task remains one of mourning as a politico-aesthetic resistance strategy. But the issue is not one of nostalgia, but rather of fidelity to a primary political moment, which constitutes not only political relations, but also subject positions.
By insisting on the moment of perestroika as not just something to be returned to, but itself as a return to some basic ideas and ideals of communism, rather than the beginning of the end of communism, Chto Delat? are drawing upon the philosophies of Alain Badiou, and his concept of ‘fidelity to the event,’ which means that we are always subjected politically to the revolutionary event, always after the revolution, even when it has not happened yet, or, as I think Chto Delat? would say, we are always already post-communist, even if we are communists or happened to live through historical communism as subjects.4 Indeed, the transposition of time is present in the Perestroika piece, where archival footage of people’s protests and gatherings, from the Perestroika, all silent b&w amateur films, are appropriated with inter-titles stating the year of their production, and equipped with a soundtrack of piano music, making it appear even more historical, almost ancient, as 1987 was really 1917. This is no plain artistic conjuring trick, but rather a way of enfolding history, contingency and potentiality, stating how time is always ‘out of joint’, as it were, when dealing with political events (in Badiou’s sense of the word).
The devastating critique of contemporary Russia found in The Tower, which concerns itself with the construction of a huge Gazprom tower on the harbor of St. Petersburg, despite widespread public protest, as an ascertain of a new, capitalist Russia crushing the will and the hopes of the people, is thus not only despairing, but rather tragic and mournful as an act of mobilization and, indeed, consciousness-raising. A similar approach we find in the installation piece What Is To Be Done Between Tragedy and Farce?, 2011, with its timelines and diagrams depicting the social developments in Russia in its transformation from communism to capitalism, which shows not only a growing economic inequality, but also a resurgent state apparatus and a triumphant nationalism, as visible in the continuous growth in military spending since 1991, and what supposedly was the end of the cold war and the arms race. If it was indeed the arms race that brought the Soviet Union, as popular history would have us believe, and the West that then won the cold war, we may ask ourselves a different question now, 20 years later. Not least in the light of the so-called credit crunch and ensuing economic crisis that may show a US empire in rapid decline, if not in its death-throes, we can perhaps now say that the what we witnessed was, surely, capitalism defeating communism, but maybe not in the sense of the USA winning over the Soviet Union as competing nation states – from a nationalist point of view, rather, Russia – that is the new, resurgent national security state – can be said to have won the cold war…
The Russian Ideology
Whereas The Perestroika Songspiel, The Tower and What Is To Be Done Between Tragedy and Farce? creates a trajectory of contemporary Russia and its immediate past, what amounts to something we can term the Russian ideology, the Museum Songspiel takes place in the near future in Holland. This film, shot and centered around the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and its collection of Russian avant-garde, actually tries to take literally a fantasy once expressed but its director Charles Esche, who once imagined a museum becoming an asylum for refugees and illegal immigrants, on the one hand taking over the symbolic function of churches, that are mostly occupied as safe houses in such situations, as well as reflecting a Marxist desire to move from mental production, usually posited as the function and ideology of art and image production, into an alteration of material production and conditions, ie. the museum taking on a revolutionary role. However, in Chto Delat?’s songspiel this can only end in tragedy; first of all we will never know the intentions of the occupiers, nor if they accept the historical role the organic intellectuals of the artworld, director, curator and artist alike, try to assign them – the subaltern still cannot speak; secondly, the museum as a state institution cannot escape contemporary governmentality in what Chto Delat? terms ‘national democracy’, even if the agents within the institution attempts to do so, and the refugees are unceremoniously ejected – this action takes place off screen – by the proper policing authorities. But the most damning critique of the piece is actually held over for the audience, reduced to mere consumption of images, the pair of visitors seen in dialogue at the end are first incensed by the event, and discuss whether they should protest, but quickly dispenses with the idea, since “this does not concern us”…
At first glance, the Museum Songspiel may be seen as a comment on the anti-immigration policies of Holland, that actually go hand in hand with an outspoken anti-contemporary art cultural policy, and imaging its effects a few years down the line, but at the same time it is also a translation of the Russian situation onto the core of liberal and social democracy, Holland, viewing the suppressive state system of Russia as a template for national security policies elsewhere, and the elimination of everything from the state that is not market incentives or security measures, including the traditional bourgeois cultural public sphere, such as the museum as an enlightened white cube. This is, then, Chto Delat?’s version of post-communism as a, if not universal, then universalizing condition, however it plays itself out particularly and site-specifically. We can also call this their stating of the Russian ideology, obviously referring to Marx and Engels famous polemical diatribe against contemporaneous philosophy, The German Ideology.5 Here, they famously lambasted post-Hegelianism for ideological blindness, separating the imaginary from the material, and instead make the case for historical materialism, and dismissing the then-current German idealism as mere false consciousness, as well as criticizing national ideologies as a misconception of the forces of production, favoring a political internationalism as the only possibility of true socialism, or communism. In their work, Chto Delat? seems to be engaged in a similar critique of the contemporary Russian situation, not least in the false or sinister ideologues of The Tower, while simultaneously proposing a post-communist reading of Marx. If The German Ideology is historically located before the advent of actual communism, in its historical form of the Bolshevik revolution, and, they would add, the originality of Perestroika, then Chto Delat?’s Russian Ideology is surely placed after the event of communism, after its passing, but maybe before its return? Ideology is, then, something to be located, seen as implemented in political spatiality, such as the nation state, but only so as particularization of productive forces and contradictions, and thus to be analyzed, deconstructed, criticized and aestheticized as exactly that expression of capital, no more, and no less.
Which returns us back to the question of where has communism indeed gone, and its relation to Derrida’s politics of mourning. Where Derrida sees Marxism as in terms of the spector, the ghost and the revenant, Chto Delat? suggest another avenue, seeing disappearance in terms of consciousness as in The German Ideology. But rather than opposing consciousness to false consciousness, in WHERE has communism gone?, they combine a post-structuralist reading of Marx that would deny any such dichotomy with a Freudian reading, instead doubling consciousness with the unconscious. As it is suggesting in the play, communism has not disappeared, indeed like Derrida’s specters, it cannot disappear since it was never ‘real’, and has thus moved to the realm of the unconscious, always reappearing and expressing itself like an unconscious. Deconstruction is thus supplanted by dream interpretation, an altogether different set of procedures, and, naturally, problematics and uncertainties. Should this be understood in terms of the individual’s dreams and desires, and as inscribed in oedipal relations(and thus, as political resistance, the anti-oedipal)? Or is the communist unconscious more of a collective unconscious? And, finally, should we understand the communist unconscious as desire or drive, with the parallel to the mental, and the latter to the material? Perhaps this will become explored in Chto Delat?’s future activities, artistically, and politically on the other side of the current horizon of Russian ideology.
1. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx – The State of the Debt, the work of Mourning, & the New International , New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 54.
2. See Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002, and Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, London: Verso, 2010.
3. Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus – Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition, London: Routledge, 1997, p.3.
4. See Alain Badiou, Saint Paul – The Foundation of Universalism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
5. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, New York: International Publishers Inc., 1939.