In this issue, we want to show that this problem demands a more detailed analysis.

This is worth doing not for the sake of an academic review of how certain terms are used, but to resolve the most pressing issues surrounding the continuation of emancipatory practices in a world gripped by a serious, protracted crisis when it comes to the emergence of political consciousness. We believe that one should start with the old maxim (whose sense fades with every passing day) that the acquisition of consciousness is the prerequisite of all progress and emancipation, and that all conscious awareness of the status quo and the totality of the world is a representational act.

In the specific historical situation of March 2012, when we are forced to bid farewell to the euphoria generated by the wave of popular uprisings from Russia to Egypt, we see that the “scoundrels are celebrating victory” again (to paraphrase Alain Badiou). And so we try to understand what it is that leads, again and again, to the end of the most brilliant, courageous, radical and honest civic movements. Could it have been otherwise? What should have been done differently? Where were mistakes made? We pose these same questions in the realm of culture. How has it happened that, after many long years of socially engaged art practices, we see that people simply have not noticed their presence and impact on societal life, while the insolent domination of the art market has grown to a previously unimaginable scale, having proven capable of instrumentalizing the most radical forms of politically engaged art.

To give even an approximate answer to these difficult questions, we need once again to examine the problem of political and aesthetic representation.


The rise of mass protest movements in recent years has clearly shown that neither Putin nor Mubarak and Ben Ali, neither the bankers on Wall Street nor the IMF, neither the media elite nor the political parties, neither the deputies nor the artists and intellectuals – none of them – represents “us,” nor can they or should they represent “us.” They cannot represent this “us” that presents itself as a multitude of citizens who refuse formalized modes of political unity, who insist on a singularity fundamentally irreducible to all forms of representation, who seek to preserve their individual autonomy to make and pursue decisions while simultaneously attempting to acquire a new experience of collectivity, of unity around a common cause.

You cannot even imagine/represent us(Вы нас даже не представляете) has become the operative slogan of the moment, the ultimate expression of the demand to end a system based on the principle of delegation, and of the recognition of symbolic representation’s impossibility. The protest movements have been dominated by a tendency about which Jodi Dean and Jason Jones write, “Rather than recognizing representation as an unavoidable feature of language, process for forming and aggregating preferences (always open to contestation and revision), or means of producing and expressing a common will, these tendencies construe representation as unavoidably hierarchical, distancing, and repressive (and they think of hierarchy, distance, and repression as negative rather than potentially generative attributes.” We could analyze this tendency and show how its take on representation continues a debate, long familiar to emancipatory movements, on the nature and sources of authority and power. Paraphrasing the well-known question, “How to change the world without taking power?” we might ask, “Can we change the world without resorting to a politics of representation?” This central question, which has long haunted all civic movements and activist art, is largely a symptom of the political dysfunction that afflicts new movements, rendering them hostages of the traditional anti-authoritarian trend that has led to organizational paralysis on the part of emancipatory practices when faced with neoliberal expansion and economic crisis.

Meanwhile, neoliberalism is busy solving completely different problems and has proven more politically sophisticated. Its spread is largely due to its flexibility in combining different, seemingly mutually exclusive concepts of democracy, governance and sovereignty. At a time when the left is incapable of elaborating and pursuing its own politics of hegemony as “paradox,” capitalism is quite well prepared to tactically mix different principles – direct and representative models, corporate governance principles and open source, rigid authoritarian methods of suppression and soft regulation. Thus, in false guise it adheres to the formal ambivalence found in the constitutional bases of any modern democratic system. [1]


If we translate these processes into the realm of art and culture, we discover a profound similarity. We see how the neoliberal policy of privatizing and manipulating the commons also wields its authority in the field of symbolic production and consumption, subjecting them to a unified attention economy. [2]

In contemporary critical art theory, representational practices have been questioned and, as a rule, accused of manipulating images, interpretations and attitudes in order to preserve the exclusive power of a privileged minority of experts. Reacting to this state of affairs, a number of progressive cultural institutions developed various methods in order to implement a policy by which they rejected their traditional representative role and strove to become places where different individuals and groups (primarily those excluded from the representative spaces of public politics) could deliver their messages to society in the most unmediated way. Relational aesthetics, community-based art, art therapy, interventionism and many other civically engaged art practices have reduced the role of the artist or curator to that of a professional mediator who opens up these spaces to “facilitate” spontaneous utterances and participation. As in politics, we are dealing here with the same questions about forms of power and the relationship between the principle of democracy and delegation.

In art, this is revealed as a clash between the sovereignty of immediate manifestations of creativity and the established regime for their representation by art institutions. As in politics, this essentially democratic conflict has always been the main driving force behind the development of art, setting down new boundaries between the realms of what is recognized and what is not, between what has already been represented and what is struggling to be represented. Indeed, the radicalization of this issue has always consisted in the complete rejection of representation, which is tantamount to a rejection of the project of art. [3]

The question of whether the project of art has been completed vis-à-vis the forms in which it established itself during the emergence of modernity is more pressing than at any time in history. This conclusion is forced on us, first of all, by an analysis of new forms of production and the distribution of artistic utterances in the context of globalization. It is likewise clear that all forms of ideology are historically conditioned and finite. The debate about representation must thus also be a debate about what new system of creative production might arise from the old, and to what extent it would be able to inherit the highest expressions of art’s emancipatory spirit rather than become an inexhaustible resource of unaccounted creative excess, channeled free of charge into the creative industry’s bulging projects.

In art, as in politics, we see that the constitutive impulse of movements that refuse to develop their own politics of representation is delegated by default to institutions of power. It is for this reason that the “occupation” of art spaces by direct manifestations of social activism operates more in opposition to the idea of “occupy everything,” serving rather to encourage the unlimited expansion of the “attention economy” as it encroaches on the sovereignty of creativity.


Taken as a whole, the essays in this issue of our newspaper tell us that a change in perspective in art and politics is needed as never before.

Rather than endlessly rehashing debates about how we can escape from the clutches of all power relationships, we should try to imagine and begin to establish new forms of power relationships that would be subordinated to the common good and that society would be able to control and change when they require revision.

Rather than endlessly appealing to the mythical consensus of direct democracy and assemblies that represent no one knows whom, perhaps it would be wise to worry about developing systems of representation, forms of hegemony, democratic centralism and elected institutions for organizing structures of another kind, ones based on the dialectic of participation and representation.

Rather than believing that people’s imaginations can be inspired only by the immediacy of actions “here and now,” we should try and create images representing situations “there and someday” that would inspire them to fight no less intensely and passionately than any “here and now.”

Together, all these things might lead us to experience an event in whose aftermath history’s course would run differently from the way it is now.



Thanks to David Riff and Alexander Skidan for their invaluable help in writing this text.

1. It is interesting to note how paradoxically the principle of sovereignty is formulated in Article 3 of the Russian Federation Constitution: “The people shall exercise their power directly, and also through the bodies of state power and local self-government.”

2. See The most important aspect of attention economy theory is the notion that there is a limited supply of human attention and different players in the market compete to possess this resource. This is a quite accurate description of how value is produced in contemporary art.

3. See any number of texts by Boris Groys in which he provides a brilliant, detailed analysis of this problem.