Published in Neue Review, 2005, Berlin


Frédéric Maufras: The first Moscow Biennale took place throughout the city from the 28th of January until the 28th of February, particularly in the former Lenin Museum on the Red Square, and in the State Schusev Museum of Architecture. Previously announced as the biggest art event in Russia, this new biennial was reduced to a show of 41 young international artists selected by six European co-curators (Joseph Backstein, Daniel Birnbaum, Nicolas Bourriaud, Iara Boubovna, Rosa Martinez, Hans Ulrich Obrist). It seems that there were several problems during the preparation of the project. They first hit Viktor Misiano, editor-in-chief of the “Moscow Art Magazine” (the main magazine on contemporary art in Russia). Also an internationally renowned curator, Misiano was in the team of the “ Berlin-Moskau ” which was shown both in Martin Gropius Bau and in Historical Museum in 2003 and in 2004, in recent years he has curated the Russian pavilion in Venezia. V.Misiano was kicked off as a co-coordinating curator of the Biennale after the other coordinator, Joseph Backstein (the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art) sent a denunciation letter against him to the Russian Ministry of Culture. It seems that more generally, the Biennale has been the theater of a catastrophic screenplay linked to the political trouble of today’s Russia. The newspaper published by the group “Chto delat? / What is to be done?” was one of the rare observers to report this phenomena in Russia. Dmitry Vilensky, you are one of the instigators of the group, what could you say about the Moscow Biennale?

Dmitry Vilensky: I think it was the most controversial event in cultural situation in Russia recently. I am personally not a big fan of huge global events but I would admit that sometimes they could have a progressive role for developing local situations. Actually in Moscow at the beginning, when we first heard that our Ministry of Culture would support this type of event all of sudden, we were very inspired. I am not just talking about a narrow circle of artists and intellectuals who were associated with the “Moscow Art Magazine” – as far as I remember it was widely spread feeling: “Wow, now and we will have something like a real international event”. Victor Misiano decided to publish a whole issue dedicated to the problematic of a “big project for Russia”, where he managed to gain a broad spectrum of opinions on how, why, and for whom this event should be carried out here. I am on the editorial board of “Moscow Art Magazine” and remember well this heated process of discussing the situation that always starts with rather deep question like “who we are?” and how we should find an unique format for this delayed event. Then as you know a lot of shit has happened and the way how the Biennale was finally realized is far away from any reasonable consideration that we had here.

It is a long story, but to make a long story short: the biennale did not offer any substantial link between global and local issues and demonstrated the arrogance and hypocrisy of the contemporary art world at full. As you also might know most of curators visited Moscow just for one time and for a couple of days…

Maybe someone would mention that nobody actually cares right now about what is happening – it should be a lot of money spent/shown/stolen, nice socializing, and good-bye… Maybe this was a good strategy for activating the Russian gallery business, but I still adhere to the naive feeling that art cannot be reduced to the gallery affairs, that purely was proven by THIS biennial. In this case, our marginal circle of local critical-intellectuals was totally disillusioned by the real appearance of the “big deals” and has become even more marginal that it used to be. But we keep on fighting.

FM : I entirely agree with you on the confusion in today’s biennial format, which mixes global/local issues and public funds/art market without any clarity between them. And the Moscow Biennale has been certainly the worst case of this in recent years. It seems totally symptomatic that the “introduction”‘s catalogue by the co-curators was stamped with a resignation principle about all these issues. On my return from Moscow I re-read what Hal Foster, art theorist, Princeton University professor and contributing editor of”October” review, wrote in his introduction of The Anti-aesthetic. Essays on postmodern culture : “ This apocalyptic belief that anything goes, that the “end of ideology“ is here, is simply the inverse of the fatalistic belief that nothing works, that we live under a “total system“ without hope of redress-the very acquiescence that Ernest Mandel calls the “ideology of late capitalism“. ”. Astonishingly, the introduction of the Moscow Biennale’s catalogue was the more political essay one could have read in institutional criticism for a certain time : it was celebrating the end of all hope both in art, in economics and in politics! Then, nothing to do with the title of the Biennale : “Dialectics of Hope”! But the cynicism was mostly constituted by the context of the event (what is happening in Russia now…). For sure, the Moscow of 2005 is not exactly the Berlin of 1933, but the way the Moscow Biennale has been recently presented, could remind us what Walter Benjamin wrote about the “aestheticization of politics”, particularly when it appeared more and more like if some people wanted to use the event as a proof of “modernization” and of “democratization” in Russian politics. In that way it is totally incredible that the project’s forewords, on the Moscow Biennale’s website, are the following : “One of the most obvious consequences of political and economical stabilisation in Russia is the growing interest of the Russian society in contemporary culture, and more precisely in contemporary art”. Personally, I disagree with Benjamin’s objection to this, the “politicization of art” principle, but the least would be to question the responsibility of the art critic and of the curator in such an ideological situation that the one occurred with the Moscow Biennale…

DV : I do not think that the “case Moscow Biennale” is a pure ideological – it is much more complicated. We should take into account the difference between the models of cultural representation in Russia and in the West. Here, I would say that these models are not yet established and there is no social agreement between the cultural elite and the power about what culture is and its role in the society. The Moscow Biennale has happened in this unregulated zone not because of the political consensus, but mostly due to the will of couple of persons who manage to persuade the State to do that.How and why? No one knows. In reality, the cultural field in Russia is so far away from ideas of “modernization” or “democratization” and stuck with conservative and fundamentalist modes of culture. In this context I would say that what is definitely a catastrophe and a big failure in Western context, in Russia could be considered as a reasonable step towards the idea of civil society. But what we saw in Moscow was really something strange – it was not a populist show (sure that for the most of public it was rather non-transparent – and what was most disgusting in the show that the organizers did not make a minimum effort to help general public to understand the work of artists, simply reducing the show to the collection of more or less attractive images), it was not the show with political vision or will that takes a position against established order (but can we really establish a critique based on this fact? Can we put an example of big event in the West that really overcomes rather acceptable ideas rooted in social democracy?) and last not least this show did not play a role of trigger of contacts between cultural actors from Russia and the West.

But at this point may be I am wrong – we are now in a process of making this text and in some way, this is due to the Biennale.It is also interesting that for us – I mean the workgroup “Chto Delat?” – the Biennale happened to be very good event for a tactical intervention. We did not participate in any project (apart from alternative show “Hope-Stop!” curated by Alexander Sokolov in Zverev Art Center that almost nobody saw) but at the same time because of our publication that at the moment of biennial was the only one source of information and critique that directly attacked the legitimacy of the whole event and many people were interested in it – so we won a lot of very inspiring contacts.

Also interesting to analyze the role of artists involved in the Biennale and their current position in general. I am not just a cultural activist but also an artist and know the system from both sides. And I think that artists in the most cases become hostages of the system. I know that many artists-participants of Moscow Biennale would not accept its framework and context. But do they really care? And what means of production of meaning they have at hand to redress their messages in a wrong context? Do they really believe that their work is so autonomous that nothing will spoil its reception? I think that artist share the responsibility for the whole show, because they can reclaim a position of executing control over power machine. And they must do that. Let’s take for example the work by Clemens Von Wedemeyer. It is interesting that his work was considered, by many different people as the best work at the biennial. And I think that Clemens deserves it. As you might know his film was specially done for Moscow Biennale and he managed to critically touch upon a really important issue of the current political situation. Also it was very important that his film was realized in Russian (I can hardly imagine how he managed to work on the sound track without any knowledge of the Russian language) and has uncompromised visual quality with a strong reference to Tarkovsky’s and Sokurov’s aesthetic. So this piece really shows that international artists can carry responsibility being represented in local context and their art work can provide a communication platform between global and local context. But I think it was just a single example of such a work. I will not discuss the works made by Boltanski and Viola that in some way were perfectly accepted into local situation, but in comparison to Clemens’ piece they did not challenge.

FM : To answer one of your questions, two recent exhibitions (Momentum festival in Moss, last year and “Whatever happened to social democracy” in Malmo Rooseum) show that it could be possible to question the limits of political ideas. In Moscow we couldn’t tell the same, the Biennale met two kinds of censorship. The official one, it was forbidden for artists to deal about four topics : V.Putin’s personality, religion, anti-semitism in today’s society and Chechnya. And a more obtuse one : some “critical” projects, like the exhibition “Camouflage” by Olesya Turkina and Evelyne Jouanno, have been cunningly braked. And, I think it is a part of my work, as an art critic, to make pointed remarks on this kind of things. For sure, even such a situation permits some positivites. As in any resistance context. When Le Pen arrived at the second turn of presidential election in France in 2002, that made the anti-fascist mobilization grow or, for taking another example, when there is a G8 meeting, it motivates alter-mondialist people to meet too.

Few artists proposals, indeed, kept their radicalism in the Biennale, like the film by Clemens Von Wedemeyer you mentioned. Why? I am not convinced it is only their fault. I felt disappointed by the way Tino Segal’s piece was shown, stuck in front of Irina Korina’s work. Then “This is good” could appear like a simple critique of sculpture, which is not exactly the case, and unfortunately lost a great part of its conceptual impact. I know that Tino is used to being extremly careful with the exhibitions’ context. Even if I found that his piece was badly shown, I don’t think he shares the responsability of the way the Biennale happened. And I am not sure the works of John Bock and Michael Beutler where shown in better conditions… Of course, artists have to struggle for not becoming hostages of any ideological or/ and artistic system, but it doesn’t seem so easy in biennials. On the other hand, in the actual “art system”, critics and curators seem more free for protesting, and then it is totally incredible that certain people stayed totally dumb. I don’t put them all in a same block. I know some of them don’t want to take too strong a public position but when they can help someone who does want to, they do so. Otherwise, I am shocked by those who behave more cynically, but many people are persuaded that resignation is the only possible attitude today. And the Moscow Biennale became this incredible meeting point between a cultural event which has gone towards the interests of Putin’s authoritarian bureaucracy (after V.Misiano’s eviction) and a kind of huge postmodernist manifesto. With several colleagues we recently published a focus on “après-postmodernity” in the Brussels review “L’Art même” and two essays stressed on the necessity of a new kind of engagement. That concerns both artists, critics and curators. It seems that the modernist and postmodernist modes are now totally obsolescent, if happily we all have different points of view, it is time to stop being manipulated by ideas we haven’t chosen. Making artworks, thinking and living with it, is our own choice, not something we do for promoting ways of life and thinking, groups, governments we might disagree with.

DV: Here we are coming to the issue of solidarity that is very important for reconsidering the whole conditions of cultural production. The call for solidarity is usually an appeal from a marginal position. And I believe that there is a strong potential in the international solidarity of margins vs. globalizations of the centers. I mean it is a way of calling out for support when you are rather marginal in the local political situation and the question of your survival hinges upon your ability to mobilize mechanisms of international support. That was actually the case of our workgroup in a time of Moscow Biennale. But we have failed to come into the live contacts with any actors involved in the preparation of Moscow event. But at the same time we, as a group, were invited to speak at the conference “Klartext” in Berlin in two before the opening of the Biennale , where we happened to be the only participants from Russia and found out that our newspaper drew a very positive response from many people, who actively share our position and they expressed solidarity with us. That really helped us to survive in local situation.

It is nice case but actually I remember that we have hoped a lot that the group of international curators who for many times emphasize their personal friendship with Misiano did nothing to resist or to protest his eviction from Biennale curators team. In this case they all happened to be in one boat with Russian bureaucrats, with all this local corrupted gang. And this openly showed that curators might have less room for expressing their protest or executing pressure on the system. And do we remember any effective boycotts of biennales, exhibition-projects or institutional activities worth mentioning? It doesn’t not matter, how bad and senseless they are and in which direction they seem to be heading. My experience in organizing such open protests have been very negative on the whole. At the beginning almost everyone is saying that the project has no sense, and they see no reason to participate, but finally everyone is smiling and taking part in the event that they were opposing. It seems that you have no way to reveal your protest in our heavily competitive world; at times, it even seems really stupid to stand up against what is “just another show”, especially if this “show” doesn’t place your (cultural) existence in question.

Perhaps it makes sense to think of politics as something beyond sympathy, as something based on an empathic experience that leads to the “existential” root of any genuine politicization. (The moment which the critic Dietrich Diedrichsen identifies when someone stands up and declares that “I can’t live like this anymore”, meaning “I can’t live knowing that the others live like this”, or “in fact, nobody should live like this, no matter whether they belong to our group or not”).

The question, then, is: can art practice be understood as a conduit for the kind of empathy that leads beyond the closed community of friends, beyond sympathy for some disconnected other, beyond performances that mean very little once these part of thespectacle is over?