Dmitry Vorobiev (DV): I would like to discuss tactics for appropriating spaces that, in recent memory, have proven viable among creative young people and artists in our city. I have in mind not only temporary take-overs-street performances, pickets, grassroots festivals, graffiti and sticker culture, political demonstrations-but also attempts to secure reclaimed spaces-from squats to alternative cafes, clubs, and independent art centers. Other forms we know of only from the western context . . .
Dmitry Vilensky (VD): Like what?
DV: Like sit-ins, for example, when students take over a university as a way to negotiate with authorities, or when one squat growns into an entire alternative neighborhood . . .
VD: You’re right about sit-ins: even the term itself isn’t widespread. Although we organized something of the sort during Marat Guelman’s Petersburgers exhibition, in Moscow (at the 2005 Art Moscow fair). Before that there were only interventions, like Alexander Brenner’s: you break into a place, take pictures or make a video against the backdrop of some Soviet-era holy relics, punch someone in the face, yell some slogans, and then make tracks, or get the shit beat of you. The sit-in-an intellectual form of (re)claiming space whose goal is to force power to enter into a dialogue with different rules-is something that really hasn’t been practiced in Russia. But I wanted to ask you a question as a sociologist. Why haven’t all these practices been more widely employed during the post-Soviet period? Examples of resistance, of creating one’s own space, are out there, but why are there so few of them?
DV: Compared to the Soviet period, nowadays there is more breathing room, but the air conditioners have been turned on, so to speak: the very possibility of thinking about acting collectively in public space is being confiscated. As part of our legacy from the Soviet era we’ve inherited not only the notion that “personal initiative is punishable by law,” but also an aversion to collective forms of action. Plus, “alternative” everything is now mass produced. Unlike in the 60s, being a stilyaga (a “mod”) isn’t dangerous; on the contrary, it’s not cool to not be one. But not all alternative styles have been consumerized. In our country there are lots of subcultures that are practically invisible in the public and political sphere; the most radical but also the least well-represented of these is DIY culture. The very idea of reclaiming space that we’ve been talking about is now simply taboo. In the past, such practices were also few and far between, but each of them either formed or significantly fortified the subcultures. . . . We could compile some kind of user’s guide, a manual entitled What to Do in Petersburg. This might be a guidebook to weird places and alternative clubs as well as a catalogue of ideas-what seemingly impossible things you can do in the city, how you can use it in ways it isn’t meant to be used. One could condense virtual-reality practices, turn real life into a quest, a game that changes not only one’s take on the city, but the city itself. It’s quite risky to base a book like this on the practice of “spatial hacking.” It’s precisely in this instance where a direct parallel emerges with the way The Chronicle of Current Events and other samizdat periodicals were put together. . . . Collecting material, creating utopias, and trying them out will enable us to map the limits of the possible.
VD: That’s a great idea for our newspaper. When we talk about the situation with space, about the possible and the impossible, we need to talk about concrete examples. A group of Petersburg anarcho-punks reclaimed an entire floor of a building-the Give Capitalism an Enema squat-and right away a lot of folks realized that it was possible. And so now those people who still have some imagination are crazy about setting up squats: they wander the city checking out abandoned buildings. Likewise, we really hope that the example set by our What Is to Be Done working group will show that many things are possible in the cultural field. You can self-organize, put out a newspaper, make raids into institutionalized spaces, run your own events within their framework, and then fall back, only to pop up again somewhere else. All of this is realistic, and we’re ready to share our know-how with others. But I often get the feeling that few people care about all this: it’s a lot easier mentally to keep to yourself, to retreat into cozy isolation. I have to confess that I’m often disturbed by how alternative cultures, for all their superficial bravado, are really committed to comfortable conformity. Plus, all too often autonomous subcultures and autonomous artists end up adopting traditional, tried-and-true attitudes to power and to space. You wind up with art for art’s sake, one more club of friends. It’s all very sweet, but . . .
Autonomy or Reservation?
DV: Wait a minute, it’s not that simple. Who says that autonomy’s a bad thing? It’s magnificent. It’s almost a law that, with time, all such initiatives either collapse or institutionalize. What happens when you’ve reclaimed a space and have managed to stand your ground? You either keep standing your ground illegally, like the anarcho-punks, or go legal, like the Pushkinskaya-10 art center (in downtown Petersburg). Then an institution inevitably emerges: administrators, accountants, a structure for determining who “we” are. And now they’ve got a wholly respectable establishment on their hands-or, at minimum, they’re forced to wear a mask in order to keep their grip on the space they’ve reclaimed. Defensive strategies make it possible to survive in a sociopolitical environment that’s remained alien, and this self-limitation turns such spaces into reservations of culture.
VD: Can we say that the only zones that are alive and kicking are the ones that stay open-ended and thus consciously preserve their internal and external conflicts? Any reclaimed space or new initiative becomes significant only when it tries to expand and transform. The moment of globalization is vital. What this means to me is that places that aren’t integrated into the international context are uninteresting by definition. But even this has to be approached as a problem, not a cause for euphoria: alas, we’re creating this super-duper international space, but at home we have an audience of only three people, with whom we haven’t connected in a long time because our workspace is a series of airplane seats and hotel rooms. Everything essential that’s happening today is in this search for a balance between local action and international cooperation.
DV: Let’s get back to our local realities. The former squat at Pushkinskaya-10 has now become a “cultural center.” As you see it, they’ve mirrored official institutions like the Union of Artists, for example. But could something different have come of this?
VD: That’s a tough question. I think it could have been different. A lot of alternatives really do vanish both physically and from our memories. In reality, the question is bigger: why did we let slip a number of possibilities that arose during perestroika? It’s easier to assess Pushkinskaya. They staked out a place in a fairly typically way. This is our space: this courtyard, these studios, these two or three galleries. We’ve set up shop, the boundaries of our space are determined by agreement with the outside world (the mayor’s office), and we’re not going to yield an inch of our territory, but we’re not going to expand, either; we have an agreement. It’s tempting to say that any genuinely vital space is alive only when it’s being reclaimed and redefined. So we’re looking at a tactical move: not administration, but constant evolution; not incorporation, but contestation.
DV: But there’s another side to this. We shouldn’t forget about the net effect created by a multitude of initiatives, even if, as you see it, they haven’t realized their potential. Qualitative shifts occur once the number of reclaimed and consolidated spaces reaches a certain critical mass. Here in Petersburg it’s clear we haven’t yet reached this critical mass. And so, in Russia’s so-called cultural capital, there aren’t any youth neighborhoods or culture districts.
VD: When it comes to spaces, what’s important to me is the moment of negating the status quo. This sort of situtation obviously has something in common with the experience of Soviet dissidents. In their code of honor there was an article about refusing to cooperate with the system. This position is unworkable today if only because any action is possible only within social relationships, and that always means being involved with the already-existing forms of power and capital. But the possibility always remains of refusing to enter into a normalized space. This exodus contains a moment of unknowability, the moment when you don’t know where you’re going. Of course, it sounds romantic: the freedom to roam.
DV: “And we’re traveling, and we’re traveling for the fog, for the fog and the scent of the taiga.” During Soviet times many people were clear about what places to leave, where to go, and what you’d find there. In the forest around the campfire the gap between boss and employee disappeared. You could stop being afraid that you were being spied on. . . . Today our elusive Cowboy Joe (remember that joke? he’s elusive because no one wants to catch him) can, à la Solzhenitsyn, “live in the truth,” but who gives a hoot? Moreover, there once was a sanitary cordon between what you could say and what you couldn’t. The authorities reacted severely every time the dissidents tried to cross that line. But if you want to drop out nowadays, go ahead and drop out: no one will miss you. Scream as loud as you like: no one will listen. The lonesome cowboy is a metaphor for the condition of the dissident in our new world. He’s marked by power’s absolute indifference to him. Is an “exodus” that will be noticed possible? Or is that one more myth? A myth about the senselessness of direct action, that you won’t be taken seriously?
VD: It seems we’re talking about different things again. You’re describing the situation of today’s “soft” subcultures. Let’s try and not forget the viciousness with which any kind of unsanctioned political activity is shut down in Russia. The way pickets and demonstrations are broken up, the way the police raid anti-fascist squats with help from the fascists, the unbearable pressure that independent trade unions and journalists face. The lonesome cowboy isn’t a symbol of exodus: he doesn’t represent a negation of existing conditions.
VD: If you look around it’s immediately clear that the way world is set up is quite disgusting. But why do people oppressed by capitalism not feel disgusted by it? Especially when you consider that, in comparison with the now-past experience of totalitarianism, basic forms of protest have become possible as well as new technologies for communicating that protest. Despite the glaring injustice, however, you get the feeling that everyone’s satisfied with everything. . . .
DV: It depends on what changes we’re talking about. There are tons of examples of people resisting and making their own spaces in this country. If we’re talking about the oppressed masses, then without any outside encouragement they’ve long ago begun reclaiming space-in particular, by beating or killing outsiders, or extorting tribute from them for the privilege of being on their turf. Just like in other countries, this is the work of mooks and young unemployed men, who turn their own neighborhoods into ghettoes by “patrolling” the parks, killing dark-skinned people, mugging the middle class, trashing park benches, etc. Meanwhile, there’s been little progress in terms of the artistic and progressive-youth tactics for reclaiming space that we listed at the beginning of our conversation. Lots of things are possible, but something has to spur people into action. You talk about being disgusted by what’s happening. But even here things aren’t so simple, and I’ll give you an example. Our mutual acquaintance Liza works as a tour guide from time to time. Once she was with a tour group and they came to Nevsky Prospect. Her tourists said to her, “How lovely it is here!” Lisa replied, “Are you kidding? Are you nuts? It’s awful here. Just look at how disgusting it all is!” She could see. They couldn’t.
VD: Were they foreigners?
DV: They were Russian students, young people. They were thrilled by the snow, the lights, Nevsky. . . . The tour continued. “Look to your right,” Lisa told them, “and to your left as well: all you see are shopping centers and expensive restaurants. It’s dirty here. And look at the unbelievable numbers of cars-can you smell the exhaust fumes? And there are some homeless people.” Within an hour several of the students felt quite horrible. Their virtual world had crumbled, the picture on the free advertising calendar had turned into a nightmare. It’s quite difficult to teach someone to perceive this space as disgusting. But I understand Liza: nausea is a philosophical practice. You have to practice a long time before you can comprehend it. VD: I agree with you: the moment of political enlightenment is very important. But disgust is a somatic sensation. Can you teach someone to feel it? Sure, you can teach various ways of analyzing space, you can show how its construction is rooted in the political. But will this lead to a disgust towards capitalism? Let’s think about exactly how another space begins. Here I agree with John Holloway: the scream lies at the beginning of any subjectivity. It can be a naive scream, a bloodcurdling scream, but it’s the scream that fills up this space. Can you teach people to scream? I think that we’re almost powerless here, and this is the fundamental problem: everyone has to get there themselves. Protest also begins at the somatic level: “I can’t take it anymore! I need air! I need space!” After this you have the psychological effect of a lonely cry being picked up by other people, and it’s only after this point has been reached that you can take this choir of voices and record it, organize it, rehearse it, reproduce it. But why is no one screaming? Is it that everyone’s satisfied, or has contemporary capitalism learned how to nip the cry in the bud?
DV: If we talk about “everyone,” then in Russia their screams are quite audible. People scream and shout at the authorities so that the latter will meet even a few of the obligations they’ve taken on themselves to maintain and improve public space. But the powers that be are busy with their own affairs; they can’t be bothered with dirty courtyards and stairwells. And this is what people are most worried about. When all their energy is wasted on such screams then nothing is left for more serious political action. The neutralization of the scream and the changes on the somatic level you talked about are also possible as outcomes of ideological conditioning. Biopolitics is a good example of this. Look what’s happening now: “Your armpits shouldn’t smell: it’s shameful! Your teeth will fall out if don’t chew sugar-free gum!” Why isn’t anyone screaming? Per Althusser, the ideological apparatuses-the same ones that power produces both intentionally and unconsciously-have done their work of repression. These apparatuses teach you how to view the world in such a way that you don’t notice your alienation; they train you to be a happy conformist and use the handy grab bag of opinions they give you. The result is that this absurd world appears natural. But is this world of weekend idiocy really so secure? Who knows, maybe a little boy will turn it upside down with the words “The king is naked”? Or maybe it will be a brilliant conspiracy, or an act of totalizing ridicule? Maybe none of these things can work today because capitalism is immune to commonsense criticism (read Slavoj iek). When the gap between the self-presentation of power and what goes on in the real world has become so apparent then it’s worth returning to the time-tested ideas of that great theoretician and strategist of political struggle, Antonio Gramsci, or to dissident practices.
VD: Let’s think about what parts of our history we can use as a base. I’ve long been intrigued by the experience of the dissidents. Paradoxically, we’re in quite similar situation right now: it’s not public space that’s being politicized (we went through that stage during perestroika), but private space, although it’s clear the two are interconnected. What does our activism today amount to, whether political or artistic? It’s a first step, as it were, maybe the only possible step in a new situation of normalization, one that aspires to total control. Power acts not to repress manifestations of discontent, but to create a situation in which even the glimmer of dissent is impossible. How can one not agree with capitalism? It’s almost a law of nature, after all. Soviet socialism had a similar logic of “naturalness,” so we’ve been through all this already. Beginning in the 60s, however, more and more Soviet people began to have serious doubts about where the country was headed and how it was run. On the other hand, these moods were intertwined with a sense that power, to use a simile, is like the weather. We can’t control the weather, after all, although we can make sure to carry an umbrella; we can enclose our balconies in glass so that our apartment is a bit warmer in winter. How did people attempt to create their own spaces during Soviet times? They’d go out to the dacha and listen to Voice of America. They’d hang cool pictures on their walls, invite their friends over, get drunk together and curse the Party. They’d grab a guitar and go to some empty lot to play a little rock and roll. . . . That’s about it. What’s your sense of the degree to which the masses understand that something’s wrong?
DV: We started by discussing isolated examples of reclaming space, so I’d rather not use the word “masses.” I do sense, though, that today “the masses” suspect they’re being hoodwinked. The dangerous dichotomy between “us, here on the bottom” and “those guys up top” has survived from Soviet times. Today’s powers that be have inherited a society that’s easy to control, but this ease is more appearance than reality. Society wants to be left in peace. It’s almost a Latin proverb: “Power plays tricks on the people, the people play tricks on power.” Although the process of restoring the authoritarian system is now underway, it’s the 21st century out there: one’s response to the new, refined mechanisms of repression should be no less paradoxical. One has to lean heavily on the positive outcomes of globalization and obtain new freedoms-first of all, the freedom to think. A free consciousness enables you to act, to choose your own future from a multitude of possibilities. That’s why the “new dissidence” is synonymous with “Cognitive dissidents”. Not much is known about cognitive dissidence-it’s the name of a bar in one of William Gibson’s cyberpunk sagas-but I think that we become cognitive dissidents by cultivating a free, non-normalized way of thinking.
VD: There are lots of analogues with Soviet-era dissidents, but the situation today is more tangled. The protest practices and their spatial analogues we’ve been trying to discuss are more and more bound up with the world of capital, with alternative lifestyles and radical chic. . . . There’s less and less recognition of the fact that protest is a practice of the oppressed, that it’s a manifestation of the various ways they struggle to realize their ideals. When ever tougher “antiterrorism” laws are being passed that equate any form of anti-state activism with terrorism, however, any encroachment on power’s monopoly of physical space entails real danger for those doing the encroaching. Just as in Soviet times, to manifest one’s dissidence is becoming riskier, and that means that the stakes of the struggle are more serious.
DV: All the new movements began with an alternative district or street. English punk rock was launched from a clothing shop on Kings Road. “Garage rock”-the forefather of the alternative musical scene in the US-really was hatched in people’s garages. We’ve been so caught up in discussions that we’ve forgotten that to have a rebellion you need some kind of primer, a node of crystallization. I don’t mean just social tension, but a place as well. You know, sometimes I imagine this cafe, the Red Nerd. I’d work as a bartender there, just for the heck of it. If a couple dozen such hangouts pop up-the Green Nerd, the Gay Nerd, etc.-then there’s a chance that a youth neighborhood will emerge. Don’t look at me that way: I’m kidding. First of all, we have to ask ourselves what we really want. That’s how utopias are born. And the method for testing them is called sounding. We’ll take soundings, we’ll see what the utopias taste like. If we get kicked in the teeth, then we’ll know we’re headed in the right direction.
VD: I don’t at all agree with your fun little plan, with how you imagine it’ll all come together. I wouldn’t argue against the value of thinking and imagining: they always precede action. By concentrating on the everyday life of the city, you ignore the fact that the western alternative scene emerged via politics, and Russia can’t be an exception to this rule. It’s not just one more new place that’s important, but its potential for growth, the reasons for its being there. Spaces should be reclaimed in order to liberate them, not to create another comfy “alternative” leisure activity, although in our situation even this is a serious step forward. I’m not against the politics of small causes: you can learn something from it as well. But right now, at the global level, the oppressed need their own strategy. Maybe Gramsci is what they need again?
DV: Or Gramsci read against de Certeau, who’s re-read Foucault, Wittgenstein, and Bourdieu, like the house that Jack built. And lots of other folks, the ones who unmask Domination by reopening the sources of commonsense. But this is like a bad dream: capitalism morphs constantly, it tries over and over again to show that it’s the only possible order, that it’s unshakeable. It’s as if there’s no point in rebelling because power doesn’t have a face: everything is infected by power. But this isn’t true, is it? Cognitive dissonance is like a minor political satori, a state of enlightenment. When you see the unresolvable contradiction-do you see it?-you become a dissident.
Dmitry Vorobjev (born 1974) – sociologist, lives in Petersburg
Dmitry Vilensky (born 1964) – artist, member of workgroup “Chto Delat?”, lives in Petersburg