poverty/poor/the poor/ – addressing these concepts immediately places us within the harsh confines of dialectical relations. It compels us to think in terms of oppositions:
weak – strong
little – big
fragmentary – whole
infirm – all-powerful
poor man – rich man
extranormative – normative
oppressed – oppressor
colonized – colonizer
and so on.
We know that the problem of poverty relates to theology – a certain religious view of the way the world is organized, though at the same time liberation theology sees in poverty both the source of sin and the potential for salvation. But not the kind of salvation that translates certain qualities into their opposites (that which is poor becomes wealth and strength); salvation understood as a mystical, transformative event, negating all divisions and leading to the creation of a new world, in which the oppositions of the previous world have been dismantled. How can that happen? In the past, this type of transformation was called revolution, the coming of the messiah, or kenosis. The term “kenosis” signifies Christ’s self-abasement through becoming human, to the point of willingly accepting the agony of the cross and death. Kenosis represented an act of self-abnegation – Jesus renounced his unlimited divine power, becoming embodied in human form and assuming the image of a slave, while yet not ceasing to be god. By this act, he demonstrates the possibility of a new type of transformation, constitutive of his authority: refusal of power for the sake of obtaining what is greater than power – justice, the equality of each with all, surmounting life’s finitude. More recently, similar theological premises have often provided the foundation for a multitude of philosophical conceptions – consider Badiou’s criticism of Agamben in his book Logic of Worlds, where he speaks of “being as weakness,” a weakness that at the same time corresponds to what Badiou calls the “delicate, almost secret persistence of life, that which remains to one who has nothing left.”
The project of contemporary art (of its founding) is in large measure built on a laic, secularized understanding of kenosis. Art “shrinks itself,” overcomes its own “power”—renounces spectacularity, visual puissance, totality, and presents itself as plain, weak, and victimized in the hope of affirming the principles of radical equality, social transformation and, last but not least, its own resurrection in the archives.
In contemporary art there is at present practically no discussion of poverty, while on the other hand there are many conversations about precarity, speculation, and possibilities for overcoming those problems. Very few people are ready to think, act and radicalize their precarity, to turn down guarantees of stability and success and insist on intensifying their marginality, on the discipline of fragility, on the asceticism of instability and self-denial.
It is important for art to constantly question the ethics of representation: can – and should – the artist show the poor, the orphaned, all those who are deprived of the possibility of speaking for themselves, and if so, how, and to what end? Art has been concerned with this question for a very long time. The only answer to this ethical problem is solidarity, to discover indigence in ourselves. That is precisely what allows an artist to escape the traps of moralizing, didacticism, and hypocrisy. Because we always have the capacity, regardless of the privileged status of “cultural workers,” to know and to demonstrate the transformative tragic experience of poverty. In the words of Jerzy Grotowski, this condition of the “naked,” “unarmed” experience of life is revealed as redemptive within the context of the new secular, laic ethics.
In our project we seek to demonstrate realistic, narrative artistic practices and an ethics of representation that enable us to analyze and bring to light different facets and gradations of poverty, to talk about the phenomenon of destitution in a contemporary society no longer able to see the dignity of the poor or to conceive of the possibility of its own liberation. An impoverished world of impoverished desires and impoverished living demands to be exposed, and consciousness and faith awoken– the ability to see, feel, and conceive of the kind of world that this world can become.
A word on the specifics of this place and its work. When we, the teachers at the School of Engaged Art, began thinking about the subject of poverty and the poor as the overall leitmotif of the spring semester, we started out by considering the following factors: the location of the school at Ligovskaya 50, the obvious signs of a new wave of pauperization in this country, and the subjective factor of perceiving ourselves, the participants in the school, as poor people, living in a very constrained economic situation.
Ligovskaya 50 is a unique closed space, located in the center of Petersburg, near the railway station of the Moscow line. When you turn off of Ligovskaya to enter these narrow back streets, you are struck by a sense of finding yourself in some other world, the world of a little Russian provincial town. This neighborhood of former railroad warehouses (previously warehouses of the industrial magnate Kokorev), which was privatized into various hands and by some strange – typically Petersburg – chance managed to remain unchanged, surviving all the waves of consumerist development that have swept through the city. Now it is a neighborhood of “class D” office spaces, wholesale shops selling bargain consumer goods, shawarma stands, cafeterias with cheap meal plans, dance studios offering instruction in widely popular dances, machine maintenance shops, various kinds of “grey market” businesses and a relatively new scene of “underground” bars and clubs. Artists’ studios and creative industries have never existed here, nor do they now. On weekend afternoons (the time when our festival begins) this area presents a quiet, deserted space, with a few barely visible traces of workaday hustle and bustle. All of these factors have to some extent contributed to our decision to immerse ourselves in this environment and observe how it responds to the presence of artists.
At the same time, our project is not likely to be a harbinger of gentrification, where enormous funds and the appetite of many investors have failed to bring it about. If for no other reason than that in contrast to being oriented toward producing beautiful, smart, and critical objects, the works presented by participants in the School of Engaged Art are rather capable of seriously “galvanizing” [agitating] the art lovers of our city. Furthermore, they are made not for those people, nor for the humble denizens of the neighborhood who inhabit it from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM and are then in a hurry to leave it behind. These works address those who, like the participants of our school, are not ashamed of their empty pockets, their lack of a car bought on credit or a mortgaged flat. The pathos of these declarations also is addressed primarily to ordinary people who have not yet the time or energy, in the apt phrase of one of the festival’s most provocative slogans, “to go out in the street and reclaim hunger.” When they do so – but not because they read Agamben or saw a performance piece, – then, chances are, we will be able together to discover one common language from among many. For the time being, we await those who are ready to “reclaim hunger” with us. Otherwise there is no chance for anything to work out. Including art.