First published in PROJECT RUSSIA MAGAZINE, 2005 

In place of a commentary to the projects "Drift. Narvskaya Zastava" and "Shrinking Cities". Excerpts from the roundtable at the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA), Moscow, February 18, 2005
Discussion was organized by the magazine "PROJECT RUSSIA" and the workgroup "Chto delat? / What is to be done?"

Alexei Muratov (A.M.) Our plan is to kick off by talking about the projects presented to you today before going on to discuss a wider range of issues relating to artistic investigation of the environment.

Nikita Tokarev (N.T.) ‘Shrinking Cities’ included a competition of ideas. Were there works from Russia and did they win?

Sergey Sitar (S.S.) There were 30 applications to develop projects relating to Ivanovo, two thirds of which came from Russia. This was 15 fewer than the number of applications regarding Manchester and Detroit. The bulk of proposals were dedicated to Germany. The project was organized by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, so, of course, the project received the broadest coverage in that country. I participated in the work of the jury during selection of applications. In the end, five of the 30 applications concerning Ivanovo were selected. Subsequently, however, not one of the Ivanovo projects made it through to the winners.

N.T. How do you explain this?

S.S. Given that in Russia there is no context for discussion, research, and reflection on the subject of shrinking cities, it would have been wrong to expect something supernatural of Russian participants.

Dmitry Vilensky (D.V.) When shrinking cities were discussed at the Berlin University, the very large auditorium was full to overflowing. But here in Russia, as we see now, this is a problem that not many take an interest in.

S.S.  And it should be said that for us Russians who are involved with this issue it’s not done to regard urban shrinkage as a disaster – but rather as an altogether objective process.

Boris Kagarlitsky (B.K.) But from the point of view of the sociologist, it really is a disaster.

S.S.  Why?

B.K.  To show that from the socio-cultural point of view, there is a moment when a shrinking city risks turning into a ‘Bermuda triangle’. Aesthetically speaking, this is a truly curious phenomenon. But from the point of view of management, such spaces become at best zones of dereliction where no one is ready to take responsible decisions, and at worst something resembling a horror scene from a cyber-punk film such as Blade Runner. The shrinking cities chosen for the project – Detroit, Manchester, and Ivanovo – are typical examples. In Manchester and Ivanovo the textile industry is dying because it cannot compete with China, Thailand, etc. The problem is not that the industry has fallen into decline, but that these corporations now have new forms of production and management. And they have made these changes largely in order to break the unions and pay lower wages. If in the old days workers were linked not just in terms of technology, but also physically as members of one large community, today a companies consist of workshops which may be scattered all over the world. You can imagine what this means for architecture, for urban planning, for the social structure of a city, let alone for the worker movement.

S.S.  What does it mean?

B.K.  It means that the existing social communities, which took shape over the course of centuries, are disintegrating and falling into lengthy decline. Communities that once had a common history and common goals are falling apart into a number of individual lives: someone will try to stay with the factory, someone else will switch to another field of activity – to trade or security; someone else will take to drink; and someone else again will set up his own business from scratch. In declining cities there is always no shortage of people exceedingly busy in some fairly primitive business.

S.S.  I want to talk about rotation of occupation. One and the same person may be simultaneously involved in completely different fields. The Ivanovo poetess Al’bina Deryabina, for example, writes poetry, grows flowers on her allotment and sells them at market, and, on top of all that, she still has some kind of nominal position at the factory, where she occasionally turns up and receives a small salary.

B.K.  She’s a proletarian, petty bourgeois, and intellectual in one person.

Viktor Misiano (to Kagarlitsky): You and I once had a discussion on this subject under the heading ‘Concessions to an Organic Intellectual’. The interesting hypothesis was advanced that what Gramsci had in mind when he talked of the organic intellectual may in fact come to pass as a result of the intelligentsia becoming involved in manual, physical work. This conversation occurred several years ago. And now, it seems, this is exactly what has happened.

B.K.  The situation today is different. In the old days people did not know where we were, who we were, or how we came to be in this position, but now everyone knows – and can even understand where we shall end up. The problem is not self-consciousness, but the will – or rather, the complete paralysis of the will. Chekhov’s Three Sisters is even now a biting image of Russian provincial life in a state of paralysis of the will. The story is that three sisters want to go to Moscow. The play ends with the three sisters not going to Moscow.

D.V.  Population shrinkage is still a marginal phenomenon in Russia. At the Narvskaya Zastava we found a situation where even when the factories were half-closed there was still no shrinkage; rather, the population was growing. There is active migration, and this is giving society an altogether different social configuration.

S.S.  It’s not so much the demographic trend that’s important, but the fundamentally different type of settlement found in Russia, as opposed to Europe. In Europe space is like a chessboard: you can only move something from one space to another; and the whole forms a system in which there is total connection between different loci. In Russia we still find an enormous ocean of space with links stretched out from one part to another.

N.T.  Glazychev famously advanced the thesis that, strictly speaking, there are no cities in Russia. This may be a radical point of view, but there are good reasons for thinking it to be true. Most cities in our country grew out of villages as a result of forced industrialization. And they never became cities in the European sense of the word. In France, for example, the number of cities has not changed since the XIVth century: the situation has not altered for the last 700 years. There is nothing surprising in the fact that our cities are shrinking more or less unnoticed by society, since these urban formations are largely artificial. For me, however, the most interesting aspect of this project was the way it recorded the process of how a city is transformed without any augmentation of its physical mass. The city undergoes radical changes, but without a single new building being built. This is a very serious change of focus for urban planning and architecture.

S.S. Mikhail Rylkin once talked about ‘incorporeal transformation’.

A.M.  The Narvskaya Zastava is undergoing just such an incorporeal transformation. Deindustrialization is also a process of shrinkage – only not demographic, but economic. How do artists assess shrinkage? Who are they closer to – sociologists or architects?

D.V.  For me the key moment in our project occurs when you find yourself face to face with a real person. Can you do something for him? Do you give him a voice or not? How does recoding, neutralization happen? These are the main questions in our project. But it’ll be some time, I imagine, before the general public starts taking an interest in such things.

Igor Chubarov (I.C.)  You raise the question of the link between social policy, social work, and art. We have seen artists and architects come up with several strategies for such links. The simplest is when an area previously closed to art, an area which previously had never been visualized, suddenly becomes an artefact or even a form of art. An example is the work of Boris Mikhaylov. He works with the down-and-out, has had a huge number of catalogues come out in the West, but it would be inconceivable for him to be published here in Russia. Here this is regarded not as art, but as speculation, pure stage effects. No one is prepared to admit that a social problem can be tackled in an art project and can make a project successful from the point of view of art. ‘The Narvskaya Zastava’ is interesting precisely because it attempts to investigate areas to which no one pays any attention: subjects which are not so shocking as down-and-outs, but which contain in concentrated form some of the most important questions of art and social policy.

D.V.  Yes, it’s quite true that what in the West is identified as art is not perceived as such here. We did some art research, for instance, and displayed the results in the Museum of the History of St Petersburg – and what happened? Apart from a few jokey little articles, we got no attention, there was no discussion, and no analysis. What is my role as an artist investigating the city? There is an English word ‘trigger’, which in Russian I think is best translated by ‘initiator’. An initiator of certain processes. The idea of the Avant-Garde – that the boundary between life and art will disappear, – has been revealed as utopian. However, Sergey’s project and our own project may be defined as Avant-Garde in spirit, because they do not erode this boundary, but try to stretch the limits of art as wide as possible. And I have a utopian confidence that modern visual art has developed a kind of interdisciplinary space where it’s possible to take a non-academic approach to architecture, sociology, etc; and that this amounts to a synthetic project which forces people to think and so stimulates society. The only question is: how ready is the audience for serious stimulation?

I.C.  People who live at the Narvskaya Zastava do not ‘see’ themselves, have no self-image. And their paralysis of the will is a result of the fact that in their immediate habitat there is nothing happening: the only glimpse they get of real events is on the television. Art, however, gives them the chance to change their attitude to what’s going on round about them, to love not what’s on television but that which is somewhere nearby. ‘Take art to the masses!’: do you remember this call?

D.V.  In the present situation I would say this call should be replaced with its opposite: not take art to the masses, but take the masses to art. There may be some luxurious galleries opening in Moscow and there’s the Moscow biennale, and so on, but art that is intellectual, responsible, that tries to experiment, has been left out in the cold. This is one thing that needs to be stressed. Another is that I believe politicization of art to be one of the fundamental processes. But look how differently this is understood here and in the West. When Russians talk of politics, for them this means Putin, the Government, or Parliament. But in actual fact politics is us. Us sitting here is already politics. Politics as communication, as the arrangement of certain constantly changing social ‘compositions’.

B.K.  Do you know that politics, according to Aristotle, is the art of managing a city.

D.V.  Boris’ favorite word today is ‘management’. I’m very surprised.

B.K.  When you catch me talking about management all the time, this is a very serious accusation. Why? Because for people from the political Right politics is a matter of management. For the Left it is a matter of communication. And the leftness of artists is due to the fact that for art communication is the problem of problems: there can be no artistic act without communication. Crisis and decline are situations where the communicational system breaks down. Decadence may be very elegant. But for me the breakdown of communication is the destruction of meaning – not abstract meaning, but my own meaning. But crises also contain a positive potential. Traditional Chinese has no concept of crisis. So, when they had to translate texts by Western writers – who ever since the 19th century have adored writing about crisis – they had to invent a new hieroglyph. And this consisted of two already existing hieroglyphs – those meaning ‘danger’ and ‘possibility’.

prepared by Alexei Muratov, Yana Soldatenkova
translated by John Nicolson

Alexei Muratov (A.M.) editor of the magazine "Project Russia"

Dmitry Vilensky [DV] 
artist and member of the workgroup ‘What is to be done?’

Sergey Sitar [SS]
architect, co-curator of the Shrinking Cities project

Boris Kagarlitsky [BK]
political scientist

Viktor Misiano [VM]
editor-in chief of Moscow Art magazine

Nikita Tokarev [NT]

Igor’ Chubarov [IC]