In recent months, our friends have often asked us (members of Chto Delat collective) to comment on the situation around the realization of Manifesta 10 in Petersburg. We have had many personal conversations, skypes and mails but now, it looks like it is time to summarize things in public.
I have already written a critique on the boycott position (recently updated call to boycott Manifesta can be seen at the official web-site of AICA: https://www.aicanederland.org/manifestas-unfortunate-choice-of-location/), and my position has not changed: a boycott focusing on the local attack on LGBT rights will not benefit but rather harm both local civil society as well as the potential audience of contemporary art in Russia. Putinism never took seriously such measures. Without further discussing why the boycott doesn’t work, it is quite clear that if the goal is to repeal repressive legislation, one needs to use more sophisticated and complex modes of pressure by creating new zones of public life where all forms of confrontation could become visible.
So, what could be done with Manifesta here?
We have received and accepted a pre-invitation of Kasper Konig to participate in his exhibition. It is very important for us and we are in a process of developing a full scale project around our old film “The Tower: a Songspiel”. This musical was realized in 2010 and it was our reflection on the civic resistance to the construction of the Gazprom Tower in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately the film has not lost its political actuality – four years later, we still face the shameless greed of corporation like Gazprom, the disgraceful clericalization of public life, a glut of sheer physical violence, the conscious destruction of civil society and its social space. Our work focuses on finding an artistic language for reflecting and opposing such issues, and therefore often meets a cold reception from Russian institutions, aside from some exceptions. Thus, it is crucial for us to show this piece to the local public. It was never shown properly in Petersburg, and the visibility that Manifesta-Hermitage could provide would vault into above the safe horizon of invisibility into the realm of broader political and artistic significance. This is a minefield of dangers, including direct censorship, at the first sign of which we will have to withdraw from the show.
Also we are looking forward to participate with our new School for Engaged art (1) in different forms of collaboration with the Manifesta Public Program as long as it makes sense for our mutual interest. At the moment, it looks like that our possibilities of collaboration with the Manifesta’s Educational program is not welcomed from their side.
As locals, we see ourselves as alternative hosts and representatives of the city, and are sure we should try to use the project for local good. The Manifesta will come and go, and ultimately, we are more concerned with what will happen in its wake. There are obvious differences between local and international positions on the project, and these differences and tensions could be played out by those who is able critically reflect them and be involved on both sides.
I keep hoping that the presence of the Manifesta could trigger a variety of unpredictable situations, and it makes sense to use them as an attack on the outrageous conservatism of local cultural life at all levels.
There is still a good chance that the public and educational programs of Manifesta and some of the works in the exhibition will be able to raise awareness and will be not be censored or self-censored by the organizers. We do our best to involve the most interesting local projects (including LGBT initiatives), with goal of amplifying their presence through the Manifesta platform.
We remain openly critical on how both the Manifesta Foundation and curator Kasper König are tending to evade any clear political statement, instead choosing to stick to the good old tradition of art’s autonomy (2), which culminates in the position of a conservative museum like the Hermitage. It is true: if Manifesta would not collaborate with Hermitage it could hardly set foot in Russia.
However, the issue what is conservative and what is not in Russia is far from settled and will stay unclear until the end of the project. In any case, Manifesta will be a test site for the new contemporary art program in the Hermitage, and will show whether they really can produce a space for development of new forms of public engagement with arts and values different from locally accepted norms. (3)
Is Russia in 2014 the best place for the realization of an elegant museum show of modern and contemporary art under the roof of a prestigious museum? God knows… Paradoxically, it is probably the only place where such maneuvers could gain some fresh meaning no longer available in any Western context. Speaking from this perspective, we could hope that Kasper König’s Manifesta might generate local impulses comparable to another blockbuster, Jean Hubert Martin’s “Territory of Art” at the St. Petersburg Russian Museum in 1990. This exhibition was a crucial experience for anyone who shaped the art scene here in the decade that followed. But today is not 1990, and the cheerful spirit of late perestroika seems a distant memory. What is needed most today is a language which could challenge the current oppressive political and aesthetic climate in Russia. This language has to be poetic, sophisticated, but also needs to be direct. Confronting Beuys with the Imperial collection or moving Matisse may be both too subtle and too affirmative for the Hermitage, the embattled Winter Palace of Eisenstein’s movie.
At a meeting with pre-invited artists, Hermitage Director Mikhail Pyotrovsky literally told us that the country was passing through a conservative turn, and that we would all be part of the battle between good and evil. This statement quite impressed our foreign colleagues who are not so familiar with such mysteriously militant rhetoric – but he was right. Surprisingly, it looks like Pyotrovskty’s stakes in the project Hermitage-Manfesta have a far more grounded ideological position compared to Manifesta Foundation’s vague speculations around “dialogue”. Pyotrovsky is more than aware of Russia’s current culture wars, knows how to act and what kind of values he stands for. We (the locals) feel it too and this is why we consider our participation in Manifesta as a very important and specific local fight for the legitimacy of our basic professional activity. (4)
Manifesta X is taking place in a city where contemporary art has never properly existed (5)
The city is famous for its ultra-conservative cultural politics. There is a total absence of funding for any initiative in contemporary culture – culture that certainly existed in the turbulent 1990s, but simply could not survive this desperate and suffocating situation. There are no local institutions for contemporary art, and that makes the situation quite unique: how could it be that in a city of 5 million inhabitants with such a great cultural legacy, contemporary art is out of the picture? There is no critical art institution that could draw new constituencies for contemporary culture, generate dialogues between generations, and preserve and make public local cultural archives. The situation is deteriorating together with new draconian legislation on independent NGOs, paranoid house searches of “foreign agents” whose task is to destroy our beloved sovereignty, as all official channels openly declare a conservative patriarchal turn in Russian official politics (6).
How was Chto Delat able to operate for more than 10 years under such conditions?
The Chto Delat collective appeared with goal to counter this situation. In many ways, the group itself is a late outcome of cultural developments in the mid-1990s, when a new local scene first came into being, full of energy and expectations. Bad economics and conservative control over the cultural apparatus did not allow the situation to grow.
Chto Delat was one of the first if not the only local phenomenon (7) which broke out of Peterburg’s isolation but paid the price of being excluded by the local art community. In Petersburg, Chto Delat could not realize a single exhibition project since 2005. All our efforts were spent on organizing seminars, screenings, informal schools and being involved in local activist life, which no one else from art world ever even noticed. But we aren’t complaining: it was very healthy to work with a different audience and to escape from a narrow and depressive local art scene. We are very glad we could trigger at least some different processes beyond the confines of that environment.
Our involvement with Manifesta is mostly shaped by our local position. Manifesta will come and go but we want to stay. So, we care and want to develop some reasonable forms of cultural life and we need our communities to grow. We clearly understand that it might be not our dream situation but we have made a conscious decision to collaborate with Manifesta on different levels (8) and try use the situation for developing our own lines of local cultural politics which we can continue and protect, as long as we will manage to shape our uncompromised presence in this very complex and unpredictable situation.
So, now in February 2014, we are taking this risk of getting involved into real art politics and facing all the possible consequences.
1. See on the school text here:
2. This message was clear in a series of Manifesta public discussions in Petersburg December 2013. The presentations here did not tackle a single issue of the current political and social situation in Russia, but instead centered around how to revitalize the glory of an imperial Museum at the moment of its 250th jubilee.
3. The Manifesta Foundation is an institution with a huge untransparent budget, usually paid by hosting country local bureaucrats who decide on the agreement with the foundation. Manifesta never appears somewhere on demand of constituencies different from a cultural business deal. The Manifesta has mastered its own brand and this brand has a certain claim among cultural bureaucrats who praise and treat it as a kind of “Olympic games”. The Russian press has often emphasized that our city has almost never spent a penny on contemporary art in last two decades, but that it now bought a Manifesta as an Olympic games of arts and is paying more than 3 million EUR for it (150 Millions RUB), by the way, still “peanuts” in a rich city as ours. Of course, this decision would have been impossible without the lobby work done by director of Hermitage Mikhail Pyotrovsky. The museum is celebrating its 250 year anniversary and has just opened a new wing for contemporary art. This new gigantic space has no collection and needs public attention – at a moment when the exhibition at the General Staff building is not popular with museum visitors (mostly tourists) who need to pay for a separate ticket to get to the show in another building.
4. Recently, Russian Minister of Culture Medinsky said that the state would not fund performances and installations, since they were alien to Russian culture. Never before, not even under the harshest Soviet repressions against modern art, were entire genres stigmatized as inappropriate.
5. I was quite surprised that most of our colleagues do not know one single name of artists or curators from our city. Even the names of our local cult artist of the 1990s who are dead now and will be part of the show – like Timur Novikov and the New Academy are not known at all.
6. Strangely, the neo-liberal form of cultural development is also not blossoming here despite often visits of Calvert Forum and senseless celebrations of the a few and shabby creative clusters shows its true value in the recent raid on the cultural center Chetvert clearly showed how local business understands its cultural and social responsibility – using cheap street gangsters, openly criminal lawyers nicely cooperating with police officers, local business turned a small and acclaimed cultural center (which was selected to participate into parallel program of Manifesta) into a “clean” real estate object. The local biggest exhibition venue – the Manege – is closed for the renovation and its small contemporary art department is shut down. The unique local Zubov Institute of Art History is undergoing restructuring, and its best researchers have been fired. The list of dramatic losses in the cultural field over the last months could be continued for a few pages.
7. The story of New Academy of Fine Arts is another example but with a different meaning
8. David Riff a member of Chto Delat was appointed as guest editor of Manifesta Journal, and is currently developed the publication’s 18th issue around the subjects of self-censorship and deconditioning. Plans are underway to make this issue bilingual, though this too depends on Manifesta Foundation’s decision making and funding. Artyom Magun (member of Chto Delat) is an editor in chief of the series of books “Art and Politics” and he could be involved into publishing programs of Manifesta with the publishing house at the European University.