Marina Gržinić:: Let’s start with an unusual question, namely I would like you to describe yourself in terms of context, education, space and artistic ambitions. More than who Dmitry Vilensky is, what does Dmitry Vilensky want as an artist and editor of the journal Chto delat?

Dmitry Vilensky: I am an auto-didactic artist, from Petersburg. I am 44 and it means that half of my life was spent during the Soviet era – I was exactly 22 when Perestroika began. I belonged to a circle of so-called Soviet dissidents who were involved in the process of resisting official soviet-bureaucratic power. This means that we developed a very specific culture and the practice of confidential circles and different political strategies of exodus and conspiracy (being opaque to the power structures….), and it is strange see that these skills acquired during the Soviet era are in demand again.

My position on art? I hope that an antidote to the situation of economization of culture could be found in art that is concentrated not on producing objects, but on forming a subject for whom creative activity becomes a means of self-education, critical learning about the world and formation of tools for the struggle for human emancipation. I hope that my art makes a modest contribution to these tasks. Editing the newspaper is part of my activity where this tendency is revealed in its purest form.

M. G.: What was the main trigger for beginning the publication of CHTO DELAT?

D.V.: We started our project in 2003 when the situation was drastically different from the way it is now. I think it was the first art publication project in Russia that was conceived as an international publication, which would establish a place where cultural and political translation could occur. This project also appealed to a reconsideration of the idea of what is political through collective experimentation with different research methods and editorial practices. We were all concerned about how to overcome the narrow ghetto where art is fetishised as a commodity and proclaimed instead, the idea that art is an important component of the social and political struggle. So we consciously rejected the space offered by new commercial galleries or corrupted state commissioned art projects and thus stayed within the terrain of different self-organized initiatives in activism and culture and so-called progressive international art institutions that are attempting to keep the promises of social democracy. Unfortunately, this orientation makes the existence of the group rather hard because here in Russia such a scene is quite undeveloped and prone to the growing pressure of criminalization and state repression. So this was our gesture of dissidence towards commercial and state run cultural corporations.
It is difficult to say exactly why I did this or took that step – I think that I was rather angry and could not stand these disgusting forms of dominant social and cultural behaviours. Some people feel very comfortable inside the art world system – but some (unfortunately only a few) feel that they just scorn the vernissage crowds; glossy faces of dealers and gallery owners and so on… And those that enjoy such a convivial atmosphere feel your scorn and pay you back with hate – and that is fair enough.
Therefore, in this situation I would say that we manage to gain a sort of local reputation in some way comparable with the reputation of old soviet dissidents. Of course our historical situation is still incomparable to the days of state socialism (we’ll see how it will change and how the new Putin authoritarian politics will develop after the elections and how far they manage to execute control over the entire public sphere). Nevertheless, there are many features that make such a comparison legitimate. What is also important for me is that we manage to gain a decent reputation among Russian political activists through direct participation in a few campaigns and social forums, in the progressive circles of academia (gender studies, cultural studies, sociology where we manage to win the positive attention of the most influential liberal scholars) and through a small, but politically engaged general public and a few art experts, whom we respect. In addition, we are doing our best in a tradition of soviet dissidents to use our international credibility to place pressure on local cultural institutions, unfortunately, not that successfully.
As I have already mentioned, internationally we have reached many goals that I have considered an inspiring task from the beginning. We have for the first time started genuine collaboration with many westerns who somehow share our approach to art and culture. Moreover, this is for us, I would say, a unique experience of exchange. So for us participation in a new international net-working in art and activism is very important, but still I would personally judge this privileged position by how we manage to redistribute the knowledge we gain in this collaboration to influence and change the local cultural situation. I wish we could do more as there are many things to be criticized – in many situations, we are losing some good opportunities because of the lack of mobilization and lack of time – but that is not an excuse…

M. G.: What are the references in the background coming from art, history and politics that you reused to conceptualize such a journal?

D.V.: You know that for the artist, from the periphery of the capitalism, it is not enough just to do art. It is important to analyze and translate the context of your life and cultural and political background. I think that here the last attempt done in this direction was undertaken by soviet conceptual artists in the late 1970s. So one can say that we have actualized a different set of practices known from international art history as a detour (I worked with comics and newspaper graphics), a tradition of productionism, and a history of Zhivaya Gazeta (Live Newspaper), conceptual political art, different zines and DIY printing culture, estrangement methods and so on…

M. G.: Why is the production of knowledge today more important than ever?

D.V.: I would not say “more than ever”, it was always important, but today the issue of knowledge comes to the fore – that is why it is legitimate to speak about the knowledge economy as a driving force of contemporary capitalism. For me the more relevant question is: who is producing knowledge? To say the “general intellect” or “oppressed struggling class” is too vague, because I think that knowledge is produced through the complexity of dialectic relations between institutions of power and counter-power. I do not believe that knowledge can be produced through DIY practices (but they can be important for some methods of knowledge production in general). In addition, it is important to note that the issue of knowledge production is inseparable from the issue of knowledge dissemination – and the provision of common access to knowledge is the most important thing. It is not enough to simply instrumentalise the institutions of power and push them to do our shows, publish our text, support our films etc., BUT the question is how we can change the structures of domination and subaltern through the production of common knowledge.

M. G.: The question that is for many of us so interesting is the specific space of Russia. Putin’s Russia. The Russia that shows a totalitarian blockbuster face that can survive only as such? How would you define contemporary Russia culturally and artistically and today politically?

D.V.: It is a big question, but to make a long story short, the most interesting thing about Putin’s Russia is how it manages to combine the archaic instruments which terrify and oppress all forms of critical opposition (via army, jails, hospitals, police, secret services, fake construction of aggressive popular mobilization and so on) with very innovative and sophisticated methods of control. There is a prejudice that such a combination cannot work well, but in Russia it does. That is why the term totalitarian has nothing to do with reality. You can call it post-totalitarian if you wish, but there is a big difference. One thing that is missing and unimaginable within this new configuration of “real politics” is a genuine democratic process that appeals to civil society. In addition, here we can find a crucial difference between how Western and Russian society operates.

M. G.: What are for you the most important theoretical, philosophical and political texts, those few that provide you a background, stimulate your work and make you function?

D.V.: Hard to say, I am more influenced by art works or shows, or films, than texts but there are some that I could mention if you will – many things by Badiou, Ranciиre, Virno on Multitude – and current things published on I find inspiring and important… And right now I will return back to Debord…… he is very refreshing and very profound, maybe because I am involved in a collective work making a new art piece based on his writings… Moreover, the weirdest thing is my reading of the concept of socialist realism (and discussion around it) which I discovered to be very relevant today in many ways….

M. G.: Symbolic capital is important and referring to it, you state clearly that your engagement is not a Utopian wish but a direct materialization of a certain reflection, still where do you get the money to publish the magazine? On the other hand, it is much easier and cheaper to do this in Russia than in the West. We are personally interested in this answer or a conceptualization as Reartikulacija is a self-organized journal, and the question is, precisely because of money, how long would it be possible to resist under such conditions? The state did not grant us the money we applied for to develop the project, only ourfriends, supporters and donators are those who support the publishing of the journal for now. What is the limit within all such similar projects?

D. V.: Of course, the battle is taking place here and now but, as far as I understood your question, the matter is to recognize your own potentiality and possibilities of action. The decision to work with a newspaper is primarily motivated by the fact that you can always carry out this project by relying on your own forces – the print costs are rather conceivable if you share the expenses between 10 people and your labour power is always readily available and of course, free distribution helps immensely in achieving good visibility. In our situation, it was the only solution for realising something locally and for linking this project through translation internationally to the circle of people close to us. However, of course you can hardly do it with the same intensity for years. Somehow, it has happened that we managed to negotiate support of the newspaper with different institutions. Therefore, our situation is rather special because the newspaper finds its way as a special means of interpretations that combines well with our art works – films, installations and objects and it very much depends on the funding that we gain through art institutions. Frankly to say, until now we did not manage to publish a single issue supported by sources outside the art world. Nevertheless, we did a few publications without any support or with the support of German student unions or several anonymous activists or capitalist donors. It also says a lot about the role of art as a trigger of exchange between different fields of knowledge.
The borders? You feel many limitations – for example, we do not publish any ads and there were a few cases when people were eager to give money, but they wanted something in return I, something we can’t accept. I think that the most important limits are the internal lack of mobilization. That is why it would make sense to bring in temporary editorial groups. This new composition would give new energy and ideas and importantly, new forms of distribution because you combine different networks. Another danger is, just imagine if we established ourselves as an NGO in Russia, we would be definitely smashed by authorities very quickly although we are doing the majority illegally and in a shadow economy which helps us to survive. You might notice that we do not have any official registration for press media, the minimum principals of conspiracy are becoming more and more important, and not only in Russia.

M. G.: Exist a mistrust of any kind of civil society in Slovenia, while, on the contrary, you ask for the democratic process in Russia to be turned towards and invested into the sphere of civil society. In which way do you define civil society and what kind of democratic process precisely do you have in mind?

D.V.: That is a real problem – I agree. Nevertheless, I think that we are in danger of misunderstanding the term. I use a term “civil society” in a more Gramscian way. For me civil society is a society able to oppose the establishment power and develop emancipatory practices from below in dialectical negotiations and direct fights with administrators of power. Yes, civil society does not exist in Russia even not in a liberal form. However, we still have to continue our work, I would say very paradoxically, as if existed and we keep addressing this imaginary society. It is a kind of prescription in the same way we say that everyone is an artist, everyone is an intellectual – we should insist that society be transformed in such a way to implement these desires.

M. G.: It is obvious from all that you have said so far that this radical engagement of yours is motivated by the desire to get an answer to what is to be done; I think we share a direct chto delat and reartikulacija platform. On the other hand in Slovenia, the sphere of dominant theory is greatly driven by the logic and claim that is better not to politically and actively engage at all. The proposal in Slovenia is to insist on a pure potentiality that we can cultivate at home, while being completely disinterested in the social and political. Therefore, we are seen from this point, as atavistic leftist structures that will sooner or later understand, how cosy it is to sit at home and opt to do anything. What is your position on these points?

D.V.: Yes, the situation is not that optimistic at the moment, but still allows one a lot of space to operate. The kitchen is always a cosy place, but it is always a boring place. Political activity has always had an appeal because it is simply “sexier”. By this I mean the state when you are in a fight, in danger, when you take a risk of losing or winning, when you believe that what you are saying is true at least on a historic horizon. I am quite sure that people can’t stop practicing political lives. It does not matter how much pressure the new modes of governing put on people. We saw that even under the most terrible political circumstances of totalitarian times, resistance continues. In addition, I agree with many philosophers regarding the point that genuine political life is a struggle for freedom, one against oppression. It is about the “joy of being communist” simply to say and I believe that it is a sort of generic feature of human beings and it does not matter how marginal it is at any given moment. The question is whether you feel this joy or not…