Published at the catalogue of Chto Delat? solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Baden-Baden

(see here:

Singular Together!

Viktor Misiano: In one of the latest issues of Chto Delat you and Alexei Penzin discussed the ways that a new subjectivity is shaped. Indeed, how can protest consciousness suddenly emerge in a passive, apathetic society, which is what contemporary Russian society is? One possibility here (almost the only one) is traumatic experience, a personal encounter with flagrant injustice and cynical lawlessness capable of instantly jolting a person from their civic hibernation. Alexei defined this process as a kind of “metanoia,” a “transfiguration” that happens in an explosive, uncontrolled, revolutionary manner. Hence my question. How did it happen that a group of artists and intellectuals living in apolitical Putinist Russia united into a group that programmatically defends political goals? What “metanoia” could lead to the fact that during the second post-Soviet decade creative people began criticizing the regime – not, however, in unison with rightist/liberal public opinion, but speaking a language that had seemingly vanished into the past, reviving terms like solidarity, soviets, non-alienated labor, and communism? Moreover, what matters here are not even the gestures of fidelity to the communist legacy, because they have occurred (albeit extremely rarely) before and after Chto Delat’s emergence. The important thing is that until very recently you were the only example of an artistic practice that consistently identified itself with civic activism. So what were the circumstances, what was the trauma that led to the formation of your working platform?

Dmitry Vilensky: It seems to me that this was a process, on the contrary, and that this process had a particular genealogy and its own organic character. Looking back, I see that 2003 was an important year: a lot of initiatives, both in Russia and on the international scene, emerged then. In fact, in the nineties most of us shied away from political issues in our work. I’m talking now about the “older generation” within our group – artists Gluklya and Tsaplya, poet Alexander Skidan, and myself, people who were already around forty in 2003. All of us were shaped in the perestroika period and the chaos of the transformations in the nineties. In addition, we lucked out because we lived (then as now) in Petersburg, a city where the political authorities and capital had no significant impact on contemporary art or influenced it in a ridiculously sloppy way.

The nineties opened up a number of possibilities for self-realization, opportunities we didn’t fail to take advantage of. We initiated a number of projects – exhibitions and nonprofit venues – thus accumulating experience in founding our own cultural space. As for a political stance, in the nineties it was quite difficult to develop such a stance responsibly: when society collapses it is hard to develop civic practices. “Anti-capitalist” activism became possible later, when the Russian capitalist model per se took shape in the wake of the 1998 default crisis and Putin’s ascent to power.

It was then, at the turn of the decade, that all of us had the sense that a situation fundamentally different from the nineties was arising. Unlike the liberal euphoria ten years earlier, the sense arose that institutional work was necessary. And indeed this was when the private foundations, galleries, and festivals began to emerge that shaped the new space for art and generated the possibility of cooperating with them or resisting them.

Our collective has its origins in a collective protest action against celebrations of Petersburg’s tricentennial. What actually caused our indignation? The imbecilic program of culture events planned by the local cultural bureaucrats for the anniversary celebrations. In our view, there wasn’t a single event capable of making people reflect in the slightest way on our city’s past or its possible future development. It was a total triumph of conservative idiocy that was at odds with our imaginations. Plus, this was reinforced by unprecedented security measures we’d never encountered before: the entire city was shut down, and the police carried out documents checks everywhere. There was a total sense not of a celebration, but of an occupation and a state of emergency. All our friends and acquaintances decided to leave town during the celebrations, but somehow we came to the decision that we had to speak out publicly, to carry out some kind of protest action and express our stance. Everyone (there was a fairly large group of people involved) agreed we should hold a demonstration at a train station with the slogan “We are leaving the city” (that is, to make a public gesture of exodus), travel to the outskirts of Petersburg, and perform the symbolic act of founding a new city. We collectively authored two texts, “Manifesto 003” and “The Refoundation of Petersburg,” in which we formulated our vision of the city’s cultural policy and development, and our reference points in the past.[1] The energy generated by this political campaign and mobilization might be seen as the transformative impulse that led to a new awareness of our collective potential.

It later became clear that very few of the people involved in that action were ready to undertake serious collective work. It happened that the only people who stayed were the ones who had known each other for a long time. (We’d known each other for something like ten years and had very close personal relationships with one another.) I could see clearly that we should begin with a periodical publication: I understood that it was important to focus on projects that could be implemented using our internal resources, that did not require outside funding. The idea of a newspaper, which everyone vigorously supported, proved to be the ideal means of expression. Printing costs were quite cheap then; it was unnecessary to get a publishing permit; we could do all the work ourselves – writing, editing, translating, layout and design; and we could distribute it for free. So originally it was this totally DIY project.

That is, a new community emerged that did not just want to make a name for itself: we set ourselves the task of fighting for our position and changing the situation. I think this original drive was palpable in the first issues of the newspaper and generated serious attention.

The title, Chto delat? (What is to be done?), was also not chosen at random. For us, the simultaneous reference to Chernyshevsky (questions of self-organization and self-education) and to Lenin (the role of periodical publications and the role of intellectuals in politics) seemed like a precise response to the development of new capitalist relations in Russia and the emergence of new types of protest subjectivity seeking out their own organizational forms.

People often suspect that, since the newspaper is bilingual, it has from the start been aimed not at the local situation, but at integrating us into the international system. It has always been odd for us to hear these accusations because from the get-go we understood that the art system is integrated, a single thing. We were simply uninterested in doing something “for export” or “for domestic consumption.” It was clear we had to act on the basis of a search for the unity of the local and the global, while also paying mind to the urgency of the inner logic of our own development and the local context. I think that we immediately sensed intuitively the entire problem and necessity of cultural translations. We managed to take advantage of and problematize our privileged position, which has enabled us to exist in both contexts simultaneously. Moreover, the fact that David Riff and Thomas Campbell (the only two politicized western cultural workers living in Russia) joined the group has helped us to feel constantly involved in the international situation.

At this time, the Russian situation – in which the economy was being pumped full of fresh oil money – was working in a different direction. It was during those years that the local art world formed a specific isolationist discourse that corresponded precisely both to the logic of the Putinist political development of the country (the inflation of a rhetoric of national exclusivity and revanchism) and to the economic situation (the emergence of a new class of super-rich who sought to import western models of luxury consumption). Therefore, for us it was natural to once again undertake as it were a kind of exodus – this time from the Moscow-Petersburg art scene – in order to form new audiences and address a public that existed primarily outside the art world, for whom we quickly became bastards because we demonstratively refused to play the games everyone else played.

To openly display one’s leftism was not only a challenge in the sense of an artistic gesture; it also meant adopting a dissident civic stance. For my generation, this was a kind of return to Soviet times, when any honest artist was incapable of having anything to do with official culture. In the same way, for us the contemporary Russian art establishment had become a grotesque likeness of late-Soviet official culture, to which it was necessary to oppose other values. So this was not a particularly unique experience for us: we simply returned to our dissident youth. Yet at the same time, in the 2000s, we had more opportunities to realize ourselves, and we saw ourselves as part of an overall movement. Immediately after us, other new civic initiatives arose with which it was interesting to cooperate: among them, the Pyotr Alexeev Resistance Movement (2004), the Institute for Collective Action (2004), the Vpered Socialist Movement (2005), and the Russian Social Forum (2005). It was they who became our main reference group: we still draw our political legitimacy from our relationships with them and with a number of newer initiatives that have clearly arisen under our influence.

At the same time, having positioned our project as international, we began discovering new themes and areas of struggle: the theory of the multitude, immaterial labor, social forums, the movement of movements, urban studies, research into everyday life, etc. We also encountered past thinkers (such as Cornelius Castoriadis and Henri Lefebvre) who practically were absent from Russian intellectual discourse, as well as newer figures that were much discussed at that time (such as Negri, Virno, and Rancière). There was a strong sense of discovery, and this always gives one a particular energy. All the more so because we always had something to say, and the inclusion in our group of young, evolving professional philosophers (Artemy Magun, Alexei Penzin, Oxana Timofeeva) stimulated our intellectual work and our level of reflection to a large extent. We consciously strove to take the position of Russian cultural leftists who were open-minded and focused on involvement in international cultural activist networks, and we have been successful in realizing this aim.

Strange to say, there is this common opinion that a leftist stance is a way of staking claim on a particular market demand – that it is enough to declare yourself a leftist and the grants, projects, and so on just start rolling in. You have to know nothing about the scene to think this: in reality, a leftist identification makes professional life (including international professional life) much more complicated. Its consequences can extend to complete exclusion – to Berufsverbot (profession ban), which is what we have achieved in Russia. Moreover, the space of art activism still remains the strictest system, with quite harsh codes of entry. To become part of it, you have to make a huge effort: without this effort, your work immediately loses its legitimacy. But here the question of whose side you find it interesting to be on immediately arises. We made this choice quite early on.

VM: I remember that during the early stage of your collective work, in 2004, you organized a presentation of the first three issues of Chto Delat newspaper in Moscow. During this presentation (I testify here as a witness, because you invited me to moderate the discussion) you were the object of an overpowering allergic reaction. Audience members attacked you for the collective character of your work. (This, apparently, was the real reason for their hostility.) In fact, during this period (the mid-2000s) the Russian art world, which in the transitional nineties had lived for the romantic ideal of community, had begun to re-organize into a different type of social association – into a corporation. And whereas you began to insist on the value of solidarity, other Russian art figures, faced with the emerging reality of the market and the demands of the authorities, programmatically insisted on their own status as individuals. Whereas you consolidated yourselves through involvement in the tradition of critical thought, through ideological affinity, through ethical mobilization (and hence you called yourselves a “platform”), the people involved in the corporation known as “Russian Art” conceived of themselves as a community through involvement in a common assembly line. You subsequently justified your collective practice with the manifesto-like video work Builders and the issue of your newspaper entitled What do we have in common?[2] It’s worth mentioning that both that piece and that issue of the newspaper were produced for the exhibition Collective Creativity, which programmatically identified the problem of collective creativity as the core issue of the past decade.

Hence my question. What do you see at your group’s (or platform’s) contribution to the common search for collective values within world art in recent years? Have you succeeded not only in declaring alternative values to corporate hegemony, but also in actually generating other, non-corporate forms of life? Are you safe from the accusation that, while criticizing the practice of individual copyright and the reduction of creative work to production and marketing, you have involuntarily interiorized the object of your critique? Have you not become a mini-corporation (albeit an alternative one)?

DV: We have nothing in common with the hierarchical logic of corporations, submission to the established rules of the game, making profits, and the pursuit of the beautiful life. On the contrary, we try to violate these things constantly and establish our own rules, which run counter to the former and seriously impair our career chances as they are defined by the mafia-like codes of the art world.[3] Unlike the majority of western collectives at our level, a gallery does not promote us. We work with a Creative Commons License: all our video works and texts are freely available online for educational and non-commercial use. We maintain a clear set of rules for interacting with sponsors and partners. You might call this an arm’s length principle: the inadmissibility of their intervening in the work process, our reserving the autonomous right to distribution of works, a ban on advertising by sponsors in our publications, and so forth.

All these things are signs not of the emergence of an art collective, but of an institution. This institution, however, is what I would want to call a “new type” institution: an institution that consistently advocates art’s use value (rather than its exchange value) – its educational role and its capacity for transforming individuals and society. In general, the issue of institutions/organizations is the central question of political and cultural life. Only through them is the formation of other, “extra-capitalist” (the prefix extra- describes current practices of struggle more accurately than the prefix anti-) potentials possible.

Considering our abiding interest in reinterpreting the theme of the avant-garde, we might agree with Rancière’s statement of the matter: “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.”[4]

Therefore the ideological struggle – culture’s role in shaping individuals and their self-awareness in the world – is so important for us. It has always existed, and now it is a no less important front of the struggle. What can we oppose to the unbridled promotion of art-market commodity fetishism and the commercialization of education and knowledge? Only the consistent establishment of mechanisms for forming values not subject to market logic. But in culture, I think, this potential has not yet been realized.

I would describe our experiment in collectivity as an attempt to create what contemporary political theory calls an ensemble of singularities – that is, to organize a “collective we” in such a way that it doesn’t dissolve each unique voice but, on the contrary, so that each member’s unique voice resonates along with the others and attains its full strength. But this immediately entails complex questions of direction, structure and improvisation, democratic centralism, discipline and collaboration.

VM: Speaking of an ensemble of singularities, when one listens carefully to Chto Delat’s “chorus,” one indeed notices that it obeys the logic of polyphony: each individual vocal pursues its own musical motif without disturbing the unity of the opera magnum. You are united in your desire to proclaim the relevance of the avant-garde’s legacy, to restore its revolutionary significance, to restore its political tasks to it. This was extremely important at a time when the artistic mainstream in Russia insisted on the so-called autonomy of art and, although it returned in parallel with you to the modernist traditions of the twenties or the neo-avant-garde of the sixties and seventies, it reduced this only to a stylistic revival. At the same time, you have done tremendous work in reinterpreting the Soviet experience. Focusing on the so-called thaw period of the sixties, and perestroika in the eighties, you detected their historically under-realized (and, hence, ever more relevant) democratic potential. Here, you once again came into conflict with the prevailing moods in Russia, as political officialdom had begun speaking of the Soviet Union’s military greatness, while the liberal opposition continued to insist on the seventy-year-long “black hole in history.”

What I wanted to talk about now was the individual intonations with which each of you sings this oratorio of “Communism” (in the discussions and texts on the pages of Chto Delat, in your individual and collectively produced works, etc.). The intonation of melancholy is so clearly audible – a “leftist melancholy,” to borrow Benjamin’s term. I find this intonation extremely congenial: it stands for fidelity to a desecrated past, but it also indicates its vast complexity and ultimate transience. But certain of your voices are tuned to a different key: they resound with an exalted loudness and contain a forced rhetoric appropriated from the Soviet past. What summons this intonation into existence? Is it an attempt to oppose “heroic enthusiasm” to a sluggish, hedonist “moral majority”? Is it an attempt to sublimate in an emotional outburst the insoluble complexity of the problems we face? Or is it caused by the influx of strength that comes from clarifying one’s goals and liberating oneself from the protracted confusion that lasted throughout the nineties? Perhaps it is generated by an opposite impulse – by carefully concealed despair?

I also ask this question because nowadays neo-communist rhetoric, albeit of a quite sophisticated variety, is in demand. In certain segments of the culture industry, communism is “cool” nowadays!

DV: Indeed, our enthusiast and Stakhanovite thrust is something many critics accuse us of. I think this intonation arose naturally when our collective was emerging along with the new forms of the “anti-capitalist” movement. They demanded a search for new kinds of political demonstrations, and a number of our works attempted to utilize these. At the same time, I think we’ve managed to balance such emotional statements with serious attempts at critical analysis of events and a clear understanding of the specificity of the historical moment. All of this can be described as an attempt to “rub history against the grain” – a favorite pastime of many leftists. However, this is not simply some kind of melancholic pleasure for which one can give up many other pleasures. Above all, it is a wholly different understanding of which way the “grain” is running. So there’s a wonderful paradox here: during reactionary moments in history, when it seems that there is no way to see the real configuration of forces and vectors of development, it is vital to insist on a different vision.

I don’t agree with your hypothesis about the “ultimate transience” of the communist idea. I think (and here I wholly agree with Badiou) that communism is a vital trait in humanity’s species being – its perennial striving after the fullness of a liberated existence. This is not just something that will happen one day; on the contrary, we are capable of sensing it at the darkest moments in history, despite all the despair induced by the situation. But I don’t think everything is so gloomy now: the world hasn’t experienced such a period of transformation for a long time, and despite the real dominance and triumph of reactionary forces, many exciting things are happening in the world. This was and remains the appeal of the ideas of Negri, which challenge us to see, behind the façade of Empire and corporate globalization, the emergence of new forces continuing the struggle.

Many would now agree that the main nerve of the struggle is the desire to defend and develop the space of the commons, whether this means defending from privatization natural resources (water and mineral resources), the digital commons, the education system or, of course, culture, which should remain beyond the games of speculators and serve the common good as humanity has defined it from time immemorial. It is on this front that we position ourselves in culture and politics. Whether we’ve been successful in this or not is another matter, but the fact that communism has become “cool” is partly the result of our work, which has presented the culture industry with a set of practices and statements that are not so easy to shrug off. I don’t think it’s productive to think in terms of demand, fashion or instrumentalization. Besides, this accusation can easily be turned around: you say that our statements have been instrumentalized by institutions of power; we say that it is we who have become strong enough to use the culture industry’s production machines for our propaganda. It is impossible to verify the truth of these contradictory assertions within the current historical moment. What matters is that all of us who are developing the communist paradigm try to live in a temporality different from contemporaneity, and it is this that distinguishes us from other contemporary phenomena that insist on their extra- or post-historicity. We try to live in history and make history, not some kind of temporary trends. And we understand that the real stakes worth playing for are not speculative recognition from the here and now, but the debate about the possibilities for shaping the future.

VM: Then it makes sense to discuss how a “communist temporality” is rooted in the poetics of your works. In general, your poetics is distinguished by an integrity that was presented in rudimentary form even in your earliest works and already then contained the logic of its further development. Right from the outset, direct political action and/or its dry documentation were vital components of your works. These were invariably combined with a research effort that took the form of project-based art or intellectual reflection. The pages of Chto Delat newspaper became the place where these four components met. Finally, as your ensemble of singularities acquired the experience of political action and reflection on it, your collaborative work itself became the subject of research. We might put it differently: you critically analyzed society, countering it with forms of life generated by your collective projects. In turn, these forms became the object of critical analysis so that they themselves and reflection on them became facts of artistic representation. Moreover, none of these components is primary: each of them complements and conditions the others. Methodologically, the tradition of post-operaist thought has been extremely important for you: it was there you acquired not only a well-founded description of late-capitalist reality, but also a theoretical legitimation of your poetics. Whereas the post-operaists defined immaterial labor as the most advanced form of modern productive forces, you, following Benjamin’s definition of the “author as producer,” appropriated immaterial labor in your work, based on the fact that the most progressive artists are those who interiorize the most advanced productive forms of the day in their work. Further, I assume that the following occurred. You were faced with the natural task of making immaterial labor the subject of reflection – that is, not only appropriating it, but also estranging it. The only way that artists can estrange their own artistic means is to reveal their artistic nature. This, in my view, is the explanation for the component of aestheticization, theatricalization, the will to fiction that has entered your later works. To what extent do you recognize yourself in this schematic description?

DV: It’s all very well stated, and I think this is a fundamental observation about the significance of “theatricalization” as an important turning point in our work, which happened around three years ago. In fact, our early works were also largely based on developing the principle of estrangement, but they still maintained a real documentary basis. At some point after an international discussion[5] that seriously questioned the poetics and ethics of activist documentalism, we began looking for ways to develop the realist method: we understood that it was worth sharpening the inevitable fabrications and artificiality of any documentalist approach. This led us to adopt the techniques of staged work, theatricalization, and amplifying the surrealistic component. I think that, once again, this was a quite natural development, since from the very beginning we had been focused on developing the methods of Godard and Brecht, which was required to respond to certain material changes occurring in the world. It became clear that in order to preserve the documentalist-activist, research-based thrust and ethics of the work, we needed to introduce elements of fictional narrative, to shift to more complex and larger-scale forms of describing the totality of society’s structure.

We might say that this was also our political response to a certain objective tendency towards “mannerization” in contemporary art and the clear sense that the political situation, after a short burst of direct-action activism and exaltation over the possibilities of grassroots movements, had quickly reached its saturation point and once again demanded the rethinking of a number of both aesthetic and political positions. This in fact is what led to our recent works – the series of songspiels and new modes of exposition involving elements of fresco, the creation of a complex mythical pantheon of spirits (we largely owe these wonderful designs and characters to Nikolay Oleynikov’s consistent work), and a representation of various sociological data about Russian society based on an analysis of statistics (we have a quite strong and interesting research group involving Thomas Campbell and some young sociologists).

Another important prerequisite for this stage of development was our serious disappointment with mainstream “participatory art” and the so-called activism of NGO artists, which we criticized as a dead end that instrumentalized art on the part of a liberal and social-democratic politics that had shown its aesthetic and political limitations. Despite their obvious, continuing hegemony in the critical space of art and knowledge, we decided it was worth doing something different. Notwithstanding our overall personal respect for the artists and activists within this current, we wanted to show that art today is capable of impacting society in a more complex and, hopefully, effective way. That is, we became interested in making art that becomes a social fact precisely because it offers society a different level of reflection and estrangement in how it looks at itself. Despite our frequent productionist reduction of aesthetics, we have never doubted that aesthetics remains a vital component of art’s unique potential to impact society and individuals. Despite the exhaustion of formal techniques, we are still captivated and excited by the possibilities for organizing an exhibition – its multi-layered compositional “madeness” – the combination within a single space of films, architecture, wall paintings, texts, newspapers (as contextualizing commentary), seminars and learning plays, elements of the library, and so forth. This recomposition of discrete elements of the commons, which is open to viewers, gives us hope that art is still capable not only of inspiring, but also of influencing something. I have been greatly encouraged by Boris Groys’s recent remark, which is an unusually precise formulation of our longstanding convictions: “[I]f there is an attempt today to redefine the art scene, to redefine professional art activity, to redefine the existential condition of art, then the only possibility of this redefinition is the emergence of a new Socialist/Communist perspective.”[6] We are trying to make our own contribution to make this possible, to not reject the project of art, which is one of humanity’s most exciting achievements.


[1] These were published in the first issue of Chto Delat. See Artiom Magun, “The Refoundation of Petersburg,” and Artemy Magun/Evgenij Maisel/Alexander Skidan, “Manifesto 003”; accessible at

[2] Chto Delat 9, What do we have in common?; accessible at

[3] See “A Declaration on Politics, Knowledge, and Art”; accessible at

[4] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 29.

[5] See Hito Steyerl, “The Articulation of Protest”; accessible at; and Realism! Online Magazine; accessible at

[6] Jarret Gregory and Sarah Valdez, eds., Ostalgia (New York: New Museum, 2011), p. 59 (exhibition catalogue).