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#8: State of Emergency

David Riff /// Where is the Hope in this Dialectic?

In Russia , the last three years have been a period of artificial economic and political consolidation over the representative sphere. The New Russia needs to look more respectable, modern, and fashionable; never mind the nationalism and the criminal past. The main thing is to look good for the global marketplace, to play at “law and order”, and to render all of the very real social problem-zones invisible. During the last 6 months, the struggle for the means of producing visibility has been undergoing a paranoid radicalization. Highly visible politicians announce extraordinary measures and make frightening promises, all of which concern the visible future : “You won’t recognize this country in a couple of years.” It is important to realize that this shift in representational politics does not only apply to governmental strategies, but affects all areas of cultural production. For an instance, the new Russian elite requires a new means of representing its legitimacy, one of which is – possibly – contemporary art. The need for representative unity justifies the temporary implementation of extraordinary measures, a purge, not only to stimulate society’s atrophied tissue, but to declare sovereignty over the field of visual production, to coerce an extremely fragmented milieu into consolidation. What is needed is a biennale .

In Russia , the last three years have been a period of artificial economic and political consolidation over the representative sphere. The New Russia needs to look more respectable, modern, and fashionable; never mind the nationalism and the criminal past. The main thing is to look good for the global marketplace, to play at “law and order”, and to render all of the very real social problem-zones invisible. During the last 6 months, the struggle for the means of producing visibility has been undergoing a paranoid radicalization. Highly visible politicians announce extraordinary measures and make frightening promises, all of which concern the visible future : “You won’t recognize this country in a couple of years.” It is important to realize that this shift in representational politics does not only apply to governmental strategies, but affects all areas of cultural production. For an instance, the new Russian elite requires a new means of representing its legitimacy, one of which is – possibly – contemporary art. The need for representative unity justifies the temporary implementation of extraordinary measures, a purge, not only to stimulate society’s atrophied tissue, but to declare sovereignty over the field of visual production, to coerce an extremely fragmented milieu into consolidation. What is needed is a biennale .

The reader may find that the comparison of a “big event” (biennale) to a coercive “state of emergency” somewhat exaggerated. The discourse of “big events” seems to point in quite the opposite direction. However, one often wonders whether these “big events” are not actually appropriating a neo-internationalist language in order to mask a far more ambiguous and complex relationship between the global and the local. At times, it seems like a state far more closely related to the coercive-representative strategy of globalism than to its tactical inversion. Yet, thankfully, one of the biggest problems facing this strategy is that its mass-medial language simultaneously demonstrates “business as usual” and “catastrophe”. While this could be said of the mass media in general, it is especially true in Russia today, where the state pursues a far more overt strategy of strictly regulating and manipulating knowledge than in the West. The problem is that this strategy itself is very difficult to control. When it runs amuck (and in Russia, it seems to run amuck most of the time), the desire for political visibility is frustrated by grotesque images of a society lurching toward socio-political and cultural disaster. However, the international community doesn’t care, just as long business continues to run smoothly. All of these “slip-ups” can be written off as the “natural” development of the problems on capitalism’s periphery.

Take, for an example, the organizational process of the Moscow Biennale. Throughout the last 6 months, the Biennale has been plagued by the kind of negative visibility that shows globalism at its worst, as a misalliance between a local elite – corrupt and ready to resort to illegal measures to assert its sovereignty of the local field of high-cultural production – and “global art”, represented by a group of curators whose all-star cast is meant to prove that Moscow is finally capable of dialogue with the international art world. To articulate some of this negative publicity in an extremely condensed form: a number of documents published in August 2004 showed how one of the biennale’s curators, Viktor Misiano, was removed from the curatorial group as the result of a bureaucratic intrigue with a highly local flavor. Misiano’s exclusion was effected through a denunciatory letter to the Federal Agency of Art and Cinematography, whose tone was reminiscent of the Stalin era. More significantly, this letter bore the supplementary signatures of the prominent artists Oleg Kulik and the group AES+F. These signatures reveal a growing rift in the artistic community, which the representative coercion of a biennale will probably not be able to heal.

There are two “camps” who do not only differ upon what kind of art to produce but how to use the global and the local in order to produce it. Artists like Kulik or AES+F have always subscribed to the mainstream version of globalization. In an international context, their glamorous provocations openly function as ethno-pop, perhaps because it is designed for consumption by a new local elite. Kulik, for an instance, no longer needs to bark and bite like a dog but can calmly float in the sea of transparent desire, surrounded by stuffed animals and nymphets. This taming of one of Russia’s more interesting artists of the 1990s is just as symptomatic as his affirmative signature on the denunciatory document mentioned above. One can indeed imagine that Kulik or AES+F, might, at some point, might become the representative-artistic faces of a new state and a new elite, in some surreal blend of Putin meets Saatchi.

The other camp, to simplify, consists of a limited number of critically oriented artists and intellectuals who insist upon the need for rethinking the position of art’s engaged autonomy. Their tactics often reflect the local nature of the multitude of dissenting positions characteristic for capitalism’s periphery. For them, there is nothing wrong with participating in “big events”, because these might generate new modalities of communication, possibilities for re-thinking history as a continuum of real emergencies (Benjamin), not only as a history of constant oppression by coercive declarations of dominance, but rife with emancipatory awakenings from the comfortable dream of the global bourgeois interior and its decorative trappings. This group, which is in constant danger of invisibility anyway, now has all reason to fear being marginalized even more than ever.

Between these two positions, there are many honorable artists who couldn’t care less about “the politics of representation” or the “representation of politics”. But nevertheless, they too are the hostages of the situation that has arisen in this way. Some day soon, the “party will be over”, and the global in-crowd will move on to some other place. But it is probable that the bureaucratic-arrogant relationship to the artistic community, which events like these are based on, will remain the norm of local existence.

There are other contexts surrounding the biennale, which are equally symptomatic of this growing rift and of the biennale’s coercive nature . One of these consists in the biennale’s relationship to its “fringe”: for an instance, a combination of typical local corruption and global high-handedness has prevented the realization of the project “Camouflage”, initiated by the Petersburg curator Olesya Turkina, from opening under the aegis of the biennale. Though the project was accepted at first, it was then rejected because it was seen as an infringement upon the biennale’s monopoly on global representation. The project was declared “too international” and “too qualitative” (!) to receive the biennale’s support in its realization. Another disturbing moment is the fact that the vernissage of the biennale is slotted to take place on the same day as the re-opening of a controversial, state-led trial against the curators and artists of the exhibition “Careful, Religion!” (see M. Ryklin, in this issue). Neither the Ministry of Culture, which is entrusted with the organization of the biennale nor the international curatorial team have made any statement in defense of these artists or the Sakharov Center , which is one of the most important human-rights cultural institutions in Moscow .

Paradoxically, the Biennale’s theme – “The Dialectics of Hope” – was presumably chosen to reflect both sides of the story, both versions of globalization. Yet the processes mentioned above – and the silence of the international curators – make many wonder: have the Russian bureaucracy formed a strange new alliance with local curators, fancy galleries, private, state-subsidized museums, and artists intent on establishing their hegemony over Russia’s global image, cost it what it may? If this is so, then what will it lead to? And what of the Western “stars”, called in as “urgent”, external representatives whose function is “solve” the problems of the Moscow art scene, but prove incapable of speaking out in defense of the most elementary democratic procedures? Where, exactly, is the hope in this dialectic?

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