Lolita Jablonskiene: I would like to start our conversation with a historical note, taking a glance at Alexander Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club. After all, you chose to reference its title in the name of your project. I know that you have some interesting and rarely published material on Rodchenko’s Club? What is it and why does it appeal to you?
Dmitry Vilensky: The idea of the Activist Club diverges from the original concept of the Workers’ Club introduced in the USSR in the mid-1920s and represented by the famous piece made by Alexander Rodchenko. Created in 1925 for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, it was never produced in real life. So it was a sort of a model of how such a places should be organized.
The piece introduced a western bourgeois audience to the completely different method of www cultural activities in workers’ free time in the USSR (such as “Lenin’s Corner,” a space for gatherings, or the performance of “Live Newspapers,” etc.) The task of the workers’ club was to orient the workers in issues of political struggle, and introduce them to a different type of aesthetic experience. It critically undermined the obsolete idea of an idle consumer, who, through the experience of the art object in the museum, could elicit pleasure and “emancipate” herself from shabby everyday existence. It was about building a space based on educational methodology and creativity. When we were preparing our first approach to the concept of an activist club, in Paris in 2007 (actually, this was imbued with an intriguing symbolism because Paris is the place where the original Rodchenko Workers’ Club disappeared after being given to the French Communist Party), I came across a publication by bookstorming.com and Galerie Decimus Magnus Art Editeurs (www.michelaubry.fr/livres.html), meticulous documentation of the reconstruction of Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club done by the French artist Michel Aubry. It was very inspiring to see one of the most famous works of the Russian avant-garde in an amazingly detailed reconstruction. Also, it shed light on many details of the composition that were not visible in the historical photographic documentation of the project. Of course there have been several recent attempts to reconstruct this piece. Christiane Post attempted something at the 6th Werkleitz Biennale; there was an installation by Susan Kelly, “What is to be done?”; and a reading room at the exhibition Forms of Protest, at Van Abbemuseum. I was not interested in reconstruction but in a process that I would call the “actualization” of the concept of the workers’ club, how it could be fitted into the space of a contemporary art institution with all its limitations. So this self-imposed challenge was almost the same as the one the Soviet government had once placed upon Rodchenko: namely, to show the bourgeois public another means of producing the space where art—and aesthetic experience—can come together with political learning and subjectivation. Or, to put it another way, how the artist can claim the true value of art. Another aspect of my inspiration was the current discussion on the concept and role of social centers. This was one topic of discussion at the recent conference at MACBA in Barcelona, “Molecular Museum. Towards a New Kind of Institutionality,” which tackled the relation between museums and social centers. I think that for all of us who consider art works to be more than objects of pleasure and entertainment for the rich, but as an important experience that can transform a person’s subjectivity and make them feel more free and human, the concept of the social centre, as a place where we can reveal the pure use-value of art and ignore its exchange value, is more important than the concept of the museum. The museum emerged in an epoch when the new bourgeoisie was the revolutionary class in society. Now the new social centers strive to serve a broad caste of oppressed people and give them a chance to appreciate culture within a framework of fighting for their rights of recognition. The discussion about the future of social centers can be connected with the concept of the workers’ club developed in the Soviet Union because they share an approach to the value of art and the people that participate in its production. Today, the situation is more confusing, what with all the changes in class composition and the placement of the factory inside the society as a whole. So I think that there is a desirable space where we can imagine and demand the hybridization of museums and social centers. LJ: Sharing a common experience of the Soviet past, we both know that Rodchenko’s project was a semi-utopia. It was never introduced into life, however. Workers’ clubs or workers’ culture houses, political corners et al. did exist in the Soviet system of organizing the political education and leisure time of workers. How would you account for your choice of Rodchenko’s Club as a prototype or archetype instead of some nearby culture house that still bears signs—and the memory—of workers’ bodies and the ambiguities of such places? How do you measure the effective balance between the utopian and the prospective in your Activist Club?
DV: Perhaps I would be more inspired if I was trying to develop a functioning social center, rather than working in the institutional art framework. I share Charles Baudelaire’s inspiration, as embodied in the passage, “It is an immense joy to set up house in the middle of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.” Once, for me, there was a moment when it sounded almost achievable, when, after an exhibition in Dresden, there was a chance that my construction-module could be moved to a place where it could serve its intended function. Unfortunately, it never happened.
In reality, such things are hard to implement because there are very few resources for their realization and, frankly, the Russian social and political situation is incomparable with the Western European one: chances for non-institutional work are very limited. So, Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club is impossible to imagine without the whole post-Revolutionary situation—it is deeply rooted in the context of its time. That’s why the idea of a workers’ club is useless today. For me, the shift from worker to activist is important. Historically, the worker’s identity had a marked political position, but I doubt that it does now. Today, political subjectivity is shaped inside and outside labor relations, and the position of the political subject is determined more through one’s stance as an activist.But the idea of the transformation of the privileged art consumer’s leisure time into the learning time of the oppressed is still worth attempting to actualize. And in this way I am very inspired by the situation that has emerged recently in different social centers in Europe, where activists are building their own environments for self-educational activities, centered on cinema, and on reading and discussion spaces. But I am often disappointed by the trashy imagination of the spatial production that is normally realized in such centers, squats, and protest camps. I personally feel good inside them and of course prefer them much more than the over-hyped lounges that are so much adored by the new “creative class,” which are so disgusting in their cozy hedonism. I think that such spaces should be organized differently. As my friends from Universidad Nomada postulate:For quite a while now, a certain portmanteau word has been circulating in the Universidad Nomada’s discussions, in an attempt to sum up what we believe should be one of the results of the critical work carried out by the social movements and other post-socialist political actors. We talk about creating new mental prototypes for political action.(https://transform.eipcp.net/transversal/0508/universidadnomada/en)The same approach should be developed in relation to spatial practices. In this particular installation of the Activist Club, which was realized for an art institution, we were trying to demonstrate how these “spatial prototypes” could be realized. And I hope that is one of the possible ways in which art can be developed today.
LJ: What kind of activities have you been organizing at the Activist Club? Talks, debates, and exhibitions? Anything else?
DV: First, in the institutional framework my constructions serve as contextualization modules that provide viewers the chance to experience the artwork produced by our collective in a proper setting. These are spaces where we screen our film and video works, distribute newspapers and other printed materials, where it is possible to accommodate seminar activities and discussions or run sociological research involving the public. These are spaces for contact with the public and their feedback, and the structure of the spaces is organized to serve these needs. Also, I call them “take-away spaces”—we welcome any collective in need of a place for gathering and screening something. They can use them for their own purposes.
LJ: “Engineering” (social and aesthetic) was a key concept for Rodchenko. How do you relate to it in both its social and aesthetic ambition? I believe that, for the Constructivists, being an “engineer” meant being in the avant-garde of the new age and the art revolution. How would you describe the identity of the contemporary artist-activist?
DV: I am not sure about “engineering.” I think in our post-Fordist time it is even more confusing to talk about “engineering” than it was in the days of the mass Fordist mobilization of labor forces.As such, it is not engineering but the process of self-organized education that enables a new class sensibility—that is, new skills that facilitate a new subjectivity. Currently, in this time of the crisis of political activism and the growing pressure exerted by the capitalization of culture, it is still could consider in a wake of old discussions. Should artists produce for the proletariat or should the proletariat produce its own art? I think we need to reconsider the role of the avant-garde artist as a historical figure and try to analyze how this role relates to the contemporary figure of the artist-important for us to demonstrate our fidelity to the history of human emancipation. For me, this struggle lies at the core of aesthetics and art. Also, the idea of the transversality of the struggle (see Gerald Rauning’s important book Art and Revolution, published recently by Semiotext(e)) is something that should shape the position of the activist. Defining an “artist-activist” is a difficult and ever-returning task that we should consider in a wake of old discussions — should artists produce for the proletariat or should the proletariat produce its own art? I think we need to reconsider the role of an avant-garde artist as a historical figure and try to analyse how this role relates to the contemporary figure of the artist-activist.
I think that this definition is really important. As Jacques Rancière once mentioned (and I fully agree with him): If the concept of the avant-garde has any meaning in the aesthetic regime of the arts, it is […] not on the side of the advanced detachments of artistic innovation but on the side of the invention of sensible forms and material structures of life to come.This is exactly the main concern of the activist-artist, who is not trying to dictate to the masses what art should be, but works in close connection with resistance movements and tries to find a form of representation for the vitality of struggle and social transformation and disseminate it back into the movement. I think it is about constructing an organic exchange between art and the everyday experience of people. Art can gain experiences from the everyday and at the same time penetrate the texture of people’s consciousness and life, helping them to understand their place in history and deepen their process of becoming.
LJ: I am deeply interested in your concept of “self-education,” both its tradition in Russia and its Futurist ambitions. You relate it to the activist position, don’t you?
DV: Yes, I really do. The theme of self-education flows from the notion of self-organization. What do we mean when we talk about this notion today? Self-organization is a collective process of taking on political functions and addressing tasks that have been excluded from the field of real politics or pushed out of public space. Thus, the process of self-education is inseparable from the positioning of collective dissent within the existing order of things. It demands the transformation of the status quo. Self-organization searches for a form through which it can express the voices of dissenting subjectivity.Since self-organization demands something lacking in a concrete historical moment and a concrete local situation, its most important characteristic is the lack of knowledge. At the same time, the lack of knowledge does not entail the rejection of cognitive approaches that are already known. The state of a creative lack-of-knowledge is the point of departure for action.Practices of self-education have been extraordinarily important in Russian history. Often semi-illegal and in opposition to official institutions of power, such intimate circles were able to formulate some of the most striking phenomena in Russian thought and culture. Notwithstanding their marginal position, they made an invaluable contribution to the historical victory over the repressive state structures that in Russia always intertwine with capital. Their experience still inspires us today, as we once again look for ways to educate ourselves in the current atmosphere of growing coercion, state violence, and direct repression.
LJ: Your Activist Club has been installed on several occasions already. Does it change each time? And, if so, how site-specific does it become? Rodchenko’s project, I believe, was based on a universal concept that could be “exported.” Thus, it was no coincidence that it was donated to the French Communist Party after the Paris Exhibition. Finally, how do you balance the didactic and the participatory elements of your project?
DV: For our group and for me, the participatory moment is very important. So what we are building are the spaces where the viewer can encounter the work of art in a proper and (as we understand it) educational setting. I do not think that this necessitates a universal “concept,” but we should try to develop a method, an approach to the production of the space that can have a universal dimension. And I think that these claims for universality are sometimes misunderstood as something totalizing or exclusive of any difference. But you do not have to be a philosopher to recognize that is not the case. True universality is built upon singular, local, and differentiated experiences, exactly as Marx noted (in The Communist Manifesto): “From the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”
So all realizations of activist clubs in different contexts are different but they share a universal approach.
LJ: In one issue of the Chto Delat newspaper that you publish (the issue on “Critique and Truth”), you explain your strategy as “making spaces where the group can carry out its work, spaces that are largely independent from the system.” What are these spaces and what is their potential? In the outline of my project for this issue of the Printed Project I have pointed to the hybridity of spaces that surround us. I will give you an example. When I was working in Moscow implementing a special project for the 2nd Moscow Biennale at the Winzavod Contemporary Art Centre, I had constant encounters with migrant construction workers who lived and worked in the same complex. Their huts were actually scattered around the Biennale venues, and one could not avoid the feeling of both being together with them and deliberately ignoring their presence at the same time. How does your Activist Club function in regard to the hybridity of social space?DV: It could be anywhere, but the issue of space and its potentiality should be considered alongside the issues of the possibility of the situation that might arise in the space. Regarding your experience, if by any chance you encountered a strike or a protest by the migrant workers that would block the opening of your show, what would you do? Stop working in solidarity or hire other workers who would help you make your deadline? My answer to this challenge would be to produce a space of the exhibition that maintains the potentiality to be transformed and welcome a different sort of activist activity: the workers could take it over if they felt the need for it. Such spaces could be useful in a crisis situation. Or you could imagine another situation where these workers would have an organization, and they needed a place where they could gather and share their experience and meet activists who support their struggle. If we consider art spaces to be truly public spaces, then they could serve these needs and at the same time maintain uncompromising aesthetic quality. That would be for me an ideal model of what you called hybridity of space.
This text first appeared in Printed Project, Issue 10, edited/curated by Lolita Jablonskiene, chief curator at Vilnius’s National Gallery of Art (www.printedproject.ie).