Could you please describe the current situation for critical/engaged artist (groups) in Russia today? Which obstacles are the most important ones?

There are not only obstacles but serious offensive measures against all critical or oppositional voices. Frankly, I must say that we were not prepared that the situation would escalate at such a speed and in such a very oppressive direction. The main problem is the almost total control of all public spheres. Just take into the consideration the recent case of the arrest of our newspaper. On the evening of August 27, the new issue of the newspaper Chto Delat (No. 19: What Does It Mean to Lose? The Experience of Perestroika) was confiscated during a police raid at the printers in Petersburg. This raid on the printer’s workshop was connected to an earlier incident, when a Petersburg activist was arrested by Petersburg police at the gates of the Petersburg seaport for handing out flyers to workers. The flyer aroused suspicion because it contained material critical of the Russian-Georgian conflict, and the police raided the printer’s workshop where the flyer had been produced, discovering the most recent edition of Chto Delat. They confiscated the entire edition of 3,000 newspapers and detained me for questioning. The situation really did look pretty absurd, because we produced this issue as a part of our project for the U-Turn Quadriennial in Copenhagen, and it’s one of the most artsy issues we’ve made so far; it contains almost no references to the current political situation. Instead, the issue is dedicated to the problematic of perestroika, whose hopes and outcome the authors subject to critical enquiry. The security officials’ suspicion was aroused by the “political look” of the paper and, in particular, by the libretto of a film-opera by the Chto Delat workgroup in which a nationalist, a democrat, a revolutionary, and a businessman debate the fate of the Soviet Union and its present outcome.

The case had been handed over to the attorney’s office to investigate whether the newspaper is in violation of the Russian constitution, which contains paragraphs against extremism and the incitement of ethnic and religious hatred. The entire edition is still in custody, and was not distributed at U-Turn and October Salon in Belgrade, and I doubt if we will manage to rescue it quickly enough for the other shows scheduled for this month.

This is a new reality for engaged artists working in Russia today – quite opposite the situation of nice inclusion and support, for whatever is radical-critical in cultural production, that is the norm in the western world. But this norm is also quite often under threat too.
What are the most urgent questions for the engaged left-wing activists in your context?

I think the most urgent issues here are the issues of education, the establishment of activist research structures and the distribution of knowledge in different forms outside of the control of the authorities.

Today, education values are obviously in crisis all over the world. One of the symptoms can be found in the decline of both theories and practices based on the disciplinary, humanist ideal of education, which traditionally empowered subjects with not only a sense of civic rights and responsibilities, but also the means for changing and overturning the present state of affairs. Learning solidarity, dignity, historical subjectivity, and the ability to participate in political life is no longer an irreplaceable part of the educational process. Moreover, disciplinary autonomy no longer shields this process from market encroachment, especially when its basis in state funding erodes. Education has effectively become an instrument or bargaining chip used in corporate market politics, which are only interested in producing a cost-efficient, obedient work force. The growing servility of education to market demands represents a serious threat to emancipatory tendency in society’s development.

We can resist by spreading and producing alternative forms of knowledge that continue and further develop the emancipatory traditions found in a variety of educational practices, thus unlocking the potentiality of a new constellation in society’s forces of production.

Such tendencies find their reflection in contemporary art. We see them in the manifold refusals to engage in mythologizing and in commodity fetishism, and by the construction of non-hierarchical collectives, as well as the desire to found artistic practice on various methods of militant research. New “subjects of dissent” in art and culture seek to create “spaces for participation.” Such projects in contemporary art have an inalienable self-educational value and might even provide a real alterative to the hegemony of schools and academies.

Practices of self-education have been extraordinarily important in Russian history. Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel, “Chto delat? / What is to be done?” (1863), offers a brilliant literary example. Often half-criminal and in opposition to official institutions of power, such confidential circles were able to formulate some of the most striking phenomena in Russian thought and culture. Notwithstanding their marginal position, they made an invaluable contribution to the historical victory over monstrous, repressive structures. Their experience still inspires us today, as we once again look for ways to educate ourselves.

And last but not least, the left still has to overcome its inability to speak in a language that ordinary people can understand. This is a very complicated issue that I address to myself as well. We became too elitist and subcultural.

What roll does art play for you / your group in this context?

I think that art has a sort of a self-imposed task of transforming the space of fun and spectacle of the contemporary cultural industry into spaces where the oppressed can learn how to think about the world and gain class sensibility through aesthetic experiences. So for me it is important to establish a link between artistic creation and real social struggle. We do it through the printing and distribution of the publications, the on-line platform and blogs, screenings and seminars and sometimes even through the shows. So it is a complex activity but you can hardly do in another way.

How would you distinguish the roll of language in your practice compared with performances, videos and visuals?

I would not separate one mode of the mediation of sense and emotion from another. We should use all of them together. A text in a newspaper is impossible without a graphic space where it can live, films are impossible without text inside them and so on…. Again, it should be about the construction of the composition of different elements. All that we are doing is a linguistic production and this is important.

Do you see any emancipatory potential in the west-European critical (art) scene?

There are a few practices that are definitely keeping this promise, but very few. The so called progressive institutional art scene, even in its best examples, is too often compromised by understanding itself as emancipatory. It has too many ties at the everyday level with the petit-bourgeoisie and too controlled by capital. Despite a growing precariousness, the west-European critical (art) scene still maintain a very privileged position in the society. And right now the gap between activist and cultural worker is growing – it is hard to bridge the very unprivileged and marginal world of political activism and the very prestigious and privileged position of the critical artist who is involved in all that big projects cultural industry.

Regarding the very glorified art movement at the turn of the century, do you think / believe that some ideas or practices of this emancipatory-utopian project have any influence today? Particularly in a society shaped by global capitalism?

Of course the practicies of historical avant-garde are still very inspiring and important point of departure for all artist who want to continue to understand art as a part of the struggle for the human emancipation. But of course the situation is much more complex as it used to be a 100 years ago and we should recognise it.

There are a few practices today that developed methods and that positioned artistic work anew in society but they are rather singular and never constructed an art movement as it was in the days of the avant-garde. I would say that the construction of an art movement would be an important task for today but unfortunately this is very hard to realise in reality. So I think that we have to reconsider the concept of avant-garde again but again very few artist are ready to think about it.

In 2006 we have published the whole issue of Chto Delat? Under the title “Debate on Avant-garde” and I am sure that these discussion is very important to continue.

Second, I agree with recent remarks by Brian Holmes and must say that we should rethink the idea of the global capitalism today. There was a certain moment of time after 89 up until nowdays when it looked like that neo-liberalism with its global utopianism constituting a new totality of worlds order. But is this the picture of the world that we have today? We have so many regional Imperialisms and I think that right now we are facing a completely new structure of world power compared to what it used to be recently, or better to say a crisis of old global market economy…. These make artist and activist positions even more complicated and vulnerable then ever before, including the “sweet days” of the global capitalist utopia of Empire without centre.

Do you see any group taking on the roll of the labour movement and do you share any practice with them?

We are quite traditionally more interested in the emancipation of labour, or more precisely, in transforming labour activity into something else – something more creative, more human….

It was quite obvious for many people that we do not just need a labour movement but the full transformation of the idea of labour and life. That is why we are such big fans of the Italian Autonomists, with their idea of the refusal of work.

The situation is tough. The colonization of life by capital has reached the point of totality, or bad totality. But at the same time, I agree with something our comrade Artem Magun wrote in a recent text: “In today’s society, almost all the material conditions are ready for everyone to become intellectuals, to make the very division of intellectual and non-intellectual labour disappear. But meanwhile, the utopia is realized in the opposite sense, “history advances with its bad side” (Marx, Poverty of Philosophy) and the intellectuals turn into “immaterial workers” who are even more vulnerable to mythology and political technology than the average uneducated workers: they have enough leisure and detachment, to learn, but not enough to think – that is, to reflect on the world as a whole, from a distance. Today an intellectual should throw away the posture of an unrecognized elite and realize – after the pertinent hesitations – his/her place in the camp of the oppressed.” We can follow Virno’s line of thinking, when he put it very clearly that today, in post-Fordist societies, the most typical demands of communism: abolition of work, dissolution of State and etc., is being put forth and forms the material base for the “communism of capital,” which, in turn, is based on the exploitation of the common…. The main issue is how people, within micro-communities and society at large, manage to redistribute the incredible surplus value of their living labour – how to distribute it for the people and not for the profit of the few? In that sense, we are living in a time of the paradox: on one hand the production of the common is proliferating, but at the same time the commons are shrinking.… So I think, and noticed from everyday observation, that today most people could classify themselves not as communists but as “commonnist” because the main struggle that is taking place today is the fight over the commons. And I would say that in art and culture, this struggle is the most obvious. All the speculations around the democratisation of cultural production and transformation of the public sphere are about this. And I think that our activity with Chto Delat belongs very much to this process. What we do is all about making art works that are consciously conceived as not “being for the rich” but are open to everyone who wishes to engage with these types of aesthetic and activity.

How do you think it would be possible today to shape a socialist consciousness?

The socialist consciousness is always shaped by the unity of the struggle and intellectual agency. Again, the main problem is how to make visible the inevitable antagonism between labour and capital. And to share these visions with people, enabling them to think society anew in a permanent stance of becoming. There are some traditional means for doing that – class struggle, education, and aesthetic experiences that teach people how to be free.