1. An Historical-Ideological Critique

1.1.Characteristically, the word “autonomy” has been present actively on the left ideological field since the 1970s. Autonomism as a recognition of the workers’ sovereign revolutionary force, which does not require help from a bureaucratic party. Autonomy as a tactic of detecting and arranging free spaces – internet, alternative media, squatting and so on. Since then, on different levels and various platforms, the discussion has focused on a topic that some groups of Trotzkyites then called “entrisme” (from French “entrer”- “to enter”), an oppositional strategy, which academic intellectuals like to call “subversion”. Entrisme describes the logic of secretly penetrating the system, making critical use of its local deficiencies and weaknesses, which need only be expanded and widened.

1.2.The crisis of the Great Revolution’s project after the events of May 1968 has effected a kind of moratorium of dreaming a “radically Other” society. For the lack of clear perspective, the boundary between “belonging to the System” and “not belonging to the System” has become a central problem. The question of actual practice was reduced to the neurotic quandry of whether to enter or not to enter, to participate or not to participate. To penetrate imperceptibly, much like to a termite, to loosen or to liberalize the System, or  to escape, to create points invisible to “the agents of the matrix “, to open vents for so reign power which does not need someone else’s paternalistic gaze.

1.3. In this sense, it became clear that the concept of autonomy (as non-entrance) was neither opposed to the abstract non-freedom of the idiots integrated into the bourgeois order, nor did it stand against any of the abstract certainties of the institutional capitalist context – and of contemporary art, for that matter. Instead, it is simply a counterpart of other critical strategies of that time, and nothing more. At this point, we will refrain from discussing the comparative efficacy of these two lines of resistance. Instead, we will ask whether we are still under the authority of these historically determined codes of critical knowledge-practice, or whether – 30 years have passed by now! – we are in need of a new perspective.

2.Our Local Experience

2.1.In Russia during the 1990s, continuing into the present, we have witnessed the curious interplay of the two lines of resistance described above or the “distorted” forms of their realization. The atmosphere of the early 1990s was defined by the joyful acceptance of non-autonomy. Nobody wanted, as within the Soviet underground, to create an independent zone in a boiler-room or as a guard in a kindergarten. The order of the System and its borders suddenly became problematic, as positions of inside and outside could not be established. Before serving as a point of concentration, all social spaces had simply been levelled out by the logic of primary capitalization. The elementary poverty of those years hardly offered any opportunity for survival; it lay in sharp contrast with the the profits of “successful” places. (It is indicative that the same platforms once inhabited by the former “underground” now became shelters for beggars).

2.2. It was only later that a strategy of behaviour, reminiscent of Western “entrisme”, appeared. The part of the intellectual world that gravitated toward the left cultivated an image of the “rascal” or the “shifter”. (Here, “the left” means the sense in which it was then still possible, when local “capitalism” was still an abstraction, when society hadn’t yet been re-stratified). The shifter–“entriste” was defined as the person who slides between social layers and groups, has casual and irregular sources of existence, penetrating the system, parasitizing on its resources, but constantly undermining patterns of “correct” integration. At last, the System “made in Russia” at the end of the 1990s began to develop certain borders. And soon, against the general backdrop of “stabilization” and the depoliticizing of the masses, some kind of perverted “autonomist” ideology, cultivating privacy, escape etc. appeared and became a widespread phenomenon. Most likely, this order does not have the same legal and normative frameworks as in the West. Instead, it is tends to have an exclusively psychological character, which makes it symptomatic.

2.3.In my opinion, in beginning a discussion of the project of original, politically reflexive autonomy, it is necessary to take into account this entire context: aren’t we being compelled to ask this question? One might say that in our local context, ironical “entrisme” and “autonomism” have become dialectic moments in the development of the intellectuals’ political consciousness. In this concrete historical sense, from which one cannot distance oneself, “autonomy” is a necessity, although it is no more than a moment of transition. It needs to result in another position. Against the backdrop of the monstrous educational rift between “intellectuals” and the “masses” in the post-Soviet system, the cultivation of autonomy simply seems inadmissible.

3. Art for the Sake of the Others’ Autonomy

3.1. In those fabulous times when artists like Kulik and Brenner were constantly creating a situation of “scandal”, the interest to contemporary art on the part of the mass-media was an almost unique legitimization, creating shaky conditions for its social recognition. Now, as entertainment radicalism becomes irrelevant by virtue of the internal logic of artistic development, seeming reactionary in the sense that it caters to the appetites of media, after all of the noise has died down, its opponents have occasion to make contesting statements. “Contemporary art is a deceit and fraud “: you could read something like this in the conservative press, when a group of fanatics destroyed the exhibition “Beware! Religion!” (I will not discuss this show’s quality here). Yet, in taking the position of the Other which problematizes your own existential status, such “freaks” are asking a truly important question: what exactly do artists do for the others? Even if they have inherited an enormous degree of freedom of action and speech from the avantgarde, haven’t they become isolated in the exhibition spaces of their cherished “autonomy”? Isn’t the appearance of new, distinct groups of artists simply an autistic experience of the fact that their own true opportunities have been immeasurably reduced?

3.2. In its external projection, which does not define itself through the formalistic language of aesthetics, art deals with imagined sociopolitical meanings, which are impossible to place within the repressive logic of institutionalization. For an example, Castoriadis recently developed the theory of “imagined institutes of society”. Riding the wave of situationism and l’action direct of the 1960s (for an example, students come into a bourgeois restaurant, but have dinner standing up, not sitting down), autonomy is understood as the project of autonomizing sociality itself; the “eternal” social institutes are desacralized and all social establishments are freely defined by individuals. Should art develop such models? – It seems to me that such models do not simply trace the logic of the avantgarde. Their logic is not the logic of a spatial contiguity (of an avantgarde caught in constant “transgression”); instead, it might be considered as the logic of coextensivity. Autonomism is neither formalistic isolation nor old-fashioned аvantgarde expansion – all strategic vectors of the dilemna to enter/not to enter. Instead, it consists in the very precise search for society’s proto-independent zones, an exploration of those imagined meanings which are concentrated  around the power centers of alienating institutionalization. (People dressed in aqualungs, in a sterile office space, as though emphasizing its suffocating atmosphere? A Berlin dervish, entangled in the everpresent power-lines of public-security in the building of the Reichstag? Other random examples of works by contemporary artists?)

3.3. Here, it is also necessary to recollect the old Hegelian-Marxist concept of the contradiction, which sees conflict as a counterbalance to the peaceful Kantian formalism of the autonomy of the aesthetical. The openness to contradiction, which creates a diagonal slash through the identity-frameworks of the artist / community/ institutions, removes the neurotic problem of detechting one’s own borders, of constantly orienting oneself toward the System’s alarm-sensors. Having tasted a mere sampling of contradiction in the field of its own homogeneous emancipation, constantly aware of the Others’ shortages in freedom and imagination, radiating the energy of the huge archive that documents nearly 100 years of autonomist battles, art may indeed be capable of quitting the game of ritualized codes of resistance, which it has inherited from the last century.