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#12: (Im)possible Spaces

Sergey Sitar / David Riff /// The Re-Discovery of Post-Soviet Space

 

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David Riff (D.R.): “Post-Soviet space” is a very popular term, but few people actually bother to explain what it means when they use it. Most often, it is little more than a collective representation of the vast geopolitical zone that arose with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I feel that this is far too vague. In the best case, post-Soviet space becomes an imaginative accumulator for a phantasmagoria of the past, a vicarious experience seen at an untouchable distance. Working to disambiguate the term, we could ask, with Henri Lefebvre, whether “post-Soviet space” forms a language, a spatial idiom of its own? Was there such a thing as “Soviet space” as a specific mode of producing the domiciles, institutions, and “common places” of socialism? (Lefebvre seemed to think that this was not the case.) In short, how would you define “post-Soviet space”?

Sergei Sitar (S.S.): It would probably be best to separate these questions out into chronological order. We can begin by clearing up the specificity of “Soviet” space in relation to “Western” space (in the time of their global competition), without ignoring their similarities. It makes most sense to understand them as “evil twins” that produced one another in the same industrial epoch. I think it might be productive to see the opposition between Soviet space and Western space from the vantage of “Hegelian” and “Kantian” principles. In Kant’s critical philosophy, space is understood as a resource and a means (for organizing experience) – something like “fossil fuel,” hidden from reason in the depths of the a priori. Understood in this way, the American cities from the period of rapid urbanization – from New York to Los Angeles – make a very “Kantian” impression. Everything begins with a homogeneous street grid at right angles (space appropriated or captured according to a rational principle). But then, everyone does what he feels like doing; there’s competition and diversity (guaranteed by the relative legislation of the rational mind). The meaning that all of this produces is just as self-evident and absurd as the famous Kantian “starry sky” (which is probably where the American star-spangled banner comes from). During visits to Western cities, one constantly falls prey to the feeling of some kind of redundant, mannerist, even sybaritic hallucination, whose most extreme manifestation is obviously Disneyland or the “themed mall.”

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David Riff (D.R.):“Post-Soviet space” is a very popular term, but few people actually bother to explain what it means when they use it. Most often, it is little more than a collective representation of the vast geopolitical zone that arose with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I feel that this is far too vague. In the best case, post-Soviet space becomes an imaginative accumulator for a phantasmagoria of the past, a vicarious experience seen at an untouchable distance. Working to disambiguate the term, we could ask, with Henri Lefebvre, whether “post-Soviet space” forms a language, a spatial idiom of its own? Was there such a thing as “Soviet space” as a specific mode of producing the domiciles, institutions, and “common places” of socialism? (Lefebvre seemed to think that this was not the case.) In short, how would you define “post-Soviet space”?

Sergei Sitar (S.S.): It would probably be best to separate these questions out into chronological order. We can begin by clearing up the specificity of “Soviet” space in relation to “Western” space (in the time of their global competition), without ignoring their similarities. It makes most sense to understand them as “evil twins” that produced one another in the same industrial epoch. I think it might be productive to see the opposition between Soviet space and Western space from the vantage of “Hegelian” and “Kantian” principles. In Kant’s critical philosophy, space is understood as a resource and a means (for organizing experience) – something like “fossil fuel,” hidden from reason in the depths of the a priori. Understood in this way, the American cities from the period of rapid urbanization – from New York to Los Angeles – make a very “Kantian” impression. Everything begins with a homogeneous street grid at right angles (space appropriated or captured according to a rational principle). But then, everyone does what he feels like doing; there’s competition and diversity (guaranteed by the relative legislation of the rational mind). The meaning that all of this produces is just as self-evident and absurd as the famous Kantian “starry sky” (which is probably where the American star-spangled banner comes from). During visits to Western cities, one constantly falls prey to the feeling of some kind of redundant, mannerist, even sybaritic hallucination, whose most extreme manifestation is obviously Disneyland or the “themed mall.”

Hegel, in turn, defines space as “difference understood indifferently,” that is, as an ecstatic surmounting of all differences in favor of reaching the highest level of abstraction. This, of course, reveals an eschatological outlook so characteristic for his thinking, which ultimately leads to the postulation of “time as the truth of space…” In the framework of the project “Shrinking Cities,” [an examination of former industrial centers all over the world, shown at Berlin’s Kunstwerke in 2004], we studied about 10 small and medium sized towns of the depressed Ivanovo region. What amazed me most wasn’t necessarily the monotony of their standardized housing or the similarity of their spatial configuration (by the way, not one of these towns actually follows a rigid grid plan), but their outrageous uniformity on the level of infrastructures for everyday life and culture/education. While the aspect of everyday life has been reduced to a bare minimum (in comparison to that in the “West”), culture is somehow “pathologically” hypertrophied. The tiny, dying town of Yuzha with a population of 15,000, in which the first private cafe only opened in 2004, has three public libraries that operate regularly. The town has its own museum and its own newspaper. There are four high schools with countless activity groups, sections of institutions of higher education, an athletic center with a stadium, a dramatic theater, orchestras and rockgroups, a folk-choir, and a whole plethora of small cultural institutions, including, for instance, a “society of poets.” All of these are somehow interwoven with the municipal authorities, and through them, with the federal power-center. And it was basically like this in the Soviet period. Then again, in the Soviet period, the arteries of this network circulated ideological information that was produced in the center, while today, the whole “point” (or “content”) is really far from obvious. One gains the impression that Russia with its structures of power and organization remains integrated into a certain kind of “communitarian” body whose main activity is that same Hegelian self-cognition, in the course of which entire villages and city-blocks sporadically fall into the void of alcoholic oblivion, into a Buddhist “black screen.” Then again, in fact, this “self-cognition” finds its inner impulse in that same Buddhist-Hegelian absolute negation, the negation of any kind of self-evidence or self-identity whatsoever, expressed as something like “Fuck all this shit!” In a system like this, space is not a means but an end to itself. The fulfillment of space as a goal is also simultaneously the moment of its sublation (for example, in time, through the annihilation of space’s “time-emitting incompleteness”, or in some other way). A touch of characteristically Hegelian suicidal heroism is hardly coincidental here, which might be why the leaders of Hamas decided to visit Russia before any other place…

D.R.: I think the Hegelian metaphor of interiorization or re-collection (Er-innerung) can be quite useful in rescuing “Hegelian space” from an overwhelming negativity.  At the end of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, the Mind dissolves and submerges into “the night” of its own materialization […]. As the mind immerses into history as space, it gradually embarks through “a sequence of spirits, a gallery of images, each of which is endowed with the full wealth of spirit, and thus moves so slowly, because the self will need to penetrate and digest this entire wealth of its substance.” The black screen you mention actually contains the Er-innerung of all histories of the past. To Hegel, writing history transforms the negativity of complete expenditure to a positive aspect of identity. This notion is not only important to understanding the remains of the Soviet Leviathan, but also how Soviet space itself was articulated. Following a Leninist-Hegelian paradigm, Soviet culture tried to interiorize “the best” of bourgeois culture, assuming that it contains the repressed residue of revolution, which the making of history now needs to unlock. Anyway, we could try to apply this paradigm to late Soviet and post-Soviet space, even though it would take a whole book to do this properly. It might help us to understand how the language of Soviet space has been internalized as cultural competency, how it is reproduced under new conditions of globalized capitalism, and how it can be recaptured or liberated…

S.S.: Yes, but we should also be careful about our intentions. To my view, an uncritical immersion into rhetorics of ‘recapturing’ or ‘liberating’ space (or language) in post-Soviet Russia would all-too-quickly bring us into a position that we called “Kantian” above. This position is seductive because it was articulated and stabilized so effectively by 20th century avant-gardes of every ilk. To simplify, it can be reduced to two points: a) space exists and is accessible, it only needs to be liberated (just as Kant liberated the space of philosophy from outdated prejudices, just as the European liberated North America from its indigenous populations); b) genuine cultural production is inseparable from the assertion of the critical autonomy of the subject (or “subject-group,” as in Deleuze and Guattari). To paraphrase a famous formula by Lefebvre, one could say of this position that “[its] liberating element was metamorphosed into exaltation.” It’s not so much that I see some kind of ethical flaw in this approach, but in my opinion, it considerably narrows and schematizes our perspective. In order to avoid this, we need to leave behind a certain type of squeamish-superficial relationship to such a specific Soviet phenomenon as “centralized and unified cultural production,” which was (and still is) based upon the network of cultural institutions we talked about above. In the Soviet period, the center installed three networks through the Soviet Union: a network of educational institutions, of libraries, and of “houses or palaces of culture.” All of these networks still remain within state’s economic circuit, while, at the same time, they continue to serve as a platform in the process of development of the local mass media. By the way, one of the result of the Perestroika was that contemporary art was also institutionalized in Russia under the aegis of the state, in the form of network of “centers of contemporary art” in all major cities […]

The “arborescent” character of this general cult-structure – which has always doubled the structure of power and has borne the burden of forming the world-view and self-identity of the ‘masses’ – gave rise to the following paradox: in the language of the average citizen, the expression “to go to the district” or “to travel to the province” meant to move from any place on the territory of district/province to its center (capitol). As we know, the All-Union Exhibition of Economic Achievement, or Moscow in general represented the entire Soviet Union. In other words, Soviet space already essentially represented something quite distant from the Euclidian or Cartesian model of space: it expanded to the centers and contracted to the periphery, repeatedly reproducing all elements of the periphery in each center. At some point, the craters of the cultural centers crept outward and flowed into the “center that is everywhere”, that is, they evenly flowed out into the global space of All-Union television and radio. Moscow Conceptualism was “reflecting” this, more than anything else; – as Boris Groys has justly noted, its problematic is all about the “technology of medial representation” (relation between image and text etc.)…

D.R.: Then again, it seems to me that the approach of Moscow Conceptualism to representation stems from the return of categories like interior and exterior, center and periphery… From the late 1960s onward, the “common space” of exteriorized revolution appeared as a collection of absurd “commonplaces.” “Inner space,” in contrast, was an aggregate of air-pockets in the very cultural institutions you mentioned and the safe-havens of domestic space proper. By the 1970s-80s, as the Moscow Conceptual School was emerging, it seemed that the depleted “official” culture of revolution could be “interiorized,” penetrated, and digested. However, it soon became clear that the resulting potential was overwhelmingly negative. The interior of “second culture” suddenly appeared as a periphery with an empty center, a room with a hole in the roof. Even its atomized (formerly communal) subject had flown off into space, as in Kabakov’s famous installation…

S.S.: Kabakov’s communal subject really had flown off into the space. A little like the hero of the TV-series “Ghost in the Shell,” it began to circulate in the channels of satellite communications, where it soon encountered its vis-à-vis, the American consumer, who turned out to be just as “deterritorialized” by CNN et. al.

However, in this case, I think we should be more interested in the concrete “infrastructural” dimension of continuously modernizing and all-encompassing communicational strata, – constituted by the aforementioned enormous ‘cult-machine’, which has been reproducing the symbolic order since times immemorial, and which still is determining the most basic and stable contours of our conversation’s object, post-Soviet space. At the brink of the 1990s and in the period that followed, it really did go through a period of relative destabilization, “watering down” and “openness.” For example, in that period the (official!) county newspaper of Yuzha (called “Shining Path”) had published a series of articles with the general title “How Mankind Appeared on Earth and Who Controls It.” The source of these mystical insights was indicated by the newspaper as “messengers” of otherworldly, galactic forces with names that are very difficult to pronounce. There were hundreds of thousands of publications like this throughout the country at the time. Sadly, such “ecstasies” were not always so chaste; the papers would also write that the KGB was ‘remotely raping’ and forcefully changing the outer appearance of people through secret UHF generators, for example […]

D.R.: Such phantasmagoria arises from the contradictions of spatial disintegration. Planning institutes were cut up into small private businesses; subterranean underpasses were transformed into low-cost shopping arcades, endless rows of stalls with junk… On the other hand, there was also a “collective” sense of possibility, which seems to have been thoroughly disappointed, or – on a more hopeful note – interiorized again…

To me, it seems that a great symptom of what happened in culture (and the outlook onto formerly “common” space) can be found in provocative artistic performances like Osmolovsky’s legendary action on Red Square in 1991, where he orchestrated the laying-out of the Russian profanity khui (=cock). Actions like these tried to detourn a routinized set of representations, thus indicating what seemed like a great representational potential for a genuine, radical democratic revolution, […] or – as time passed – to show that the Perestroika was already burnt out like the Russian parliament after it was shelled in 1993. By now, most artists (including Osmolovsky himself) have turned away from such interventions. This is symptomatic. If you tried to build a barricade today in the center of Moscow without permission, you’d be arrested immediately. Anyway, as post-Soviet society stabilizes, it becomes clear that the Soviet experience of space – both official and “non-official – actually contributes both toolkit and material for constructing a locality compatible with the world market: its fragments are intermixed with new (market based) modes of production. By now, it seems like there are many different projects of control afloat. All these projects coexist somehow and even seem at odds with one another, but can also be subsumed under the neoliberal logic of a market economy.

Moreover, it is symptomatic – and I think this has to do with the difference between Hegelian and Kantian paradigms – that there is very little “critical-creative” sociology of the type that was and still is very popular in Western art after the “spatial turn.” Your examination of Ivanovo in “Shrinking Cities” was one of the few examples that went in this direction, but it seems to me to have thoroughly interiorized the methods of Moscow Conceptualism. Which methodologies do we have at our disposal in approaching post-Soviet space critically, politically, pointing toward possibilities of the spaces we inhabit without immediately meaning the possibilities of capital’s endless expansion? Can critical methodologies “free” space at all? And what about art?

S.S.: I’m afraid that I will have to seek the help of Henri Lefebvre yet again in order to “ground” the rather common poetic image of contemporary Russia as a helpless maiden in the hands of two double-dyed executioners, bloodthirsty Global Capital on the one hand, and the Soviet Leviathan “back from the grave” on the other. But first, I’ll say just few words about the influence of Moscow Conceptualism on our research. You might remember that that among other pieces of “esoteric slang,” the discourse of the Collective Actions group (and especially Andrei Monastyrsky’s novel “Kashirskoe Shosse”) actively uses a descriptive-analytical category called “consensual reality.” Basically, this is the same thing as what a Marxist-Leninist system of coordinates names as “objective reality.” However, in this case, the application of this epithet is not only a gesture that expresses its author’s belligerent relationship to Marxism. For a while, I did not know what to call one of the central projects in the framework of our study, which was, in fact, dedicated to uncovering the procedures of stabilizing reality through spatial practices and communication in a concrete locus (Ivanovo), and in the end, I decided to call it “Consensual City.” I have to say that this name initially evoked a negative response from some of our progressive-minded Western partners in the “Shrinking Cities” project: consensus?, they said, and what about discord? It was very difficult to explain.

It was only after the project was completed that I unexpectedly came across a passage in “The Production of Space” where Lefebvre describes the integral of spatial “moments” rendered intelligible through social praxis with the exact word “consensus,” while underlying the primary nature of this “consensus” in relation to the “subject.” However, what seems even more important (applicable to both our research on Ivanovo and the tradition of conceptualism) is Lefebvre’s notion of “texture,” with whose help he, on the one hand, includes spatial action into the family of other signifying practices, and, on the other hand, underlines the “holographic” specificity of this action, which (on the path to space-as-consensus) synthesizes a large number of “systems” and “sub-systems” of meaning in the framework of a certain “supercoding” that “tends toward the all-embracing presence of the totality.” One can find something that resonates very well with this concept in Pierre Bourdieu’s “Practical Reason” (1998), where he clearly shows how the interrelation of a small number of basic constructive elements and zones of traditional folk domiciles provide a matrix of meaning from which the entire amazing multiplicity of “life constants” of its inhabitants then unfold, thousands of everyday notion, already connected into an intelligible whole from their very outset.

Against the backdrop of this problematic, which has captivated me since I was at university in connection with architectural theory, the politicized Actionism of the 1990s always seemed to me to be very much a product of its time, but this might also be why it never seemed very effective; the “loud” actions of Osmolovsky, Brener, and Kulik in those years were reminiscent of the behavior of certain especially zealous soccer-fans, who run out onto the pitch during especially tense matches (during World Championship finals, etc.) and scamper around like madmen (sometimes – completely naked) until the guards don’t come and tie them up. Can one qualify an act like this as an effective attempt at reclaiming or “detourning” the space of a sport or a match? I’m not so sure. And obviously, the problem isn’t the scale of the action. But then, this metaphor raises a question that is far more fundamental and “absurd” – can one free the space of a sport, and does this space even need to be freed at all?

[…] Many “paradoxes” of contemporary culture (e.g. the globally spread pattern of urban redevelopment that entails transition from art-squats to elite gated communities) suggest that there is no any fundamental contradiction between the strategies of the artistic avant-garde and the economic logic of capitalism. They both express the “Kantian” paradigm we have been talking about, which – as we’ve basically already said – a) is oriented toward the “capture of space” and b) replaces the texture of codes that Lefebvre describes with a more universal and abstract axiomatic (for Kant, these are formulas of space and time, a table of categories, a universal ethical imperative, etc.). As you’ve probably guessed, the term “abstract axiomatic” comes from “Capitalism and Schizophrenia.” Basically, like Deleuze and Guattari, I am ready to laugh and to cry when I look at capitalism’s global successes, while admitting that the term itself – like the “classical avant-garde” – freezes up on the historical threshold that threatens to destroy its “absolutely minimized” identity. In my view, the paradigm of creation ex nihilo (or “revolution without power-seizure”) can take on the role of capitalism’s “being-other.” This paradigm was developed quite intensively, among other directions of thought, by the religious mysticism of all principal traditions. It transcends the Kantian principal of “foundational stability of substance,” which, in turn, presupposes the necessity for the “capture,” “encompassing,” or “making free” of space. Kant himself went beyond the boundaries of this basic foundation through the category of the thing-in-itself, but a discussion of this category would, in turn, lead far beyond the boundaries of the “space for a dialogue on space” that we have here.

D.R.: I think our dialogue has been extremely captivating, but I can’t get rid of the impression that something very important has been left unsaid. Perhaps today, it is very important not to accept Marx’ diagnosis of capital as something that annihilates space, creating a unified plane of immanence where interior and exterior no longer exist. For now, this annihilation is still a project, a tendency, even a telos, but it can be averted. Even if we rapidly seem to approaching a world in which politics are impossible, especially in post-Soviet space.

Here’s why Hegel’s idea of Er-innerung seems so constructive to me: people make space possible by creating or producing it, perhaps not with reference to Big Others of history or “pure reason,” but in reference to their own growing awareness of their immanent surroundings, and the traces and languages these surroundings entail.  This sounds awkwardly abstract, but has concrete implications, especially for the relationship between space and politics. While it may be objectively impossible to “reclaim the streets” in post-Soviet conditions, we can try to reconstitute an inner space of political potentiality, just as we must attempt to understand the “inner logic” of the outside. Neither Hegel, nor Kant, nor even Deleuze are the “enemy within.” All of them can be helpful in creating spaces where politics are possible, in squats, on newspaper pages, or even in bourgeois restaurants, where we can argue about the topoi they raise without feeling that we have already made a fatal compromise by mentioning their names.

S.S.: I would like to support this line of thinking in the sense that here in Russia, it is extremely important to constantly re-discover (or as you say, re-interiorize, re-member) the boundaries of one’s concrete sphere of intersubjectivity as something that coincides with the boundaries of the social and physical world, – and something that simultaneously does not block the intentional resource of universalities. And this is exactly what we tried to base our approach in “Shrinking Cities” upon, with more or less success.

Sergey Sitar, artist, writer, art editor of the magazine “Project Russia“, curator of the exhibition “Shrinking Cities”, lives in Moscow

David Riff, born 1975 in London, art critic, translator, writer, member of the workgroup “What is to be done?”. Lives in Moscow and Berlin.

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