#9: What do we have in common?


Jean Fisher and Dmitri Vilensky /// A dialogue on collective agency, how to invent new social spaces and a radical public

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DV: In your article “Art and the Ethics of In(ter)vention’ , you speak of the need for new configurations of collective action against what is perceived as accelerating alienation, not just of labor but of the spirit. Of course, for us as a group this is very important. We come together to reclaim collective agency. It would be good if we could talk a little in this direction. How do you see the relation of this agency to the dominant power? How can they dissolve its dominance? Which means of production do they have in their hands?

JF: I waver between pessimism and optimism on this issue! In recent times we have witnessed violence committed between communities struggling over conflicting national narratives – Northern Ireland, the Balkans, various African states, to name a few – undoubtedly fuelled by state economic and political interests. Nonetheless, there has been a move towards some ‘resolution’ of these problems, in part because globalisation itself has changed the stakes, such that ‘local’ issues are now seen to be part of the ‘global’ landscape – ecologically, politically and economically – and have to be reconfigured accordingly. When one thinks of collective action against the ‘dominant power’, however, one is immediately faced with the question, where is this power located? Up to the 1980s one could still identify state institutions and elected officials as targets for political activism; but the power exercised through invisible, transnational corporate interests in collusion with some sectors of the media is rather less easy to confront. Part of our impotence and ethical outrage is witnessing the blatant hypocrisy of the state, which is perceived as acting as a buffer zone for these interests rather than attending to the welfare of citizens.
However, there was an optimistic moment at the turn of the millennium with the mobilisation of collective action like the Mexican Zapatistas, Anti-Capitalism and Reclaim the Streets, which seemed to confirm Hardt and Negri’s thoughts on the mobilisation of the ‘multitude’ or Agamben’s identity-less ‘community’ that would by-pass the rigid structures favoured by the state. An interesting facet of these actions is that they took advantage of the communications technologies of power (as did later, of course, Islamic ‘terrorists’!). I was also interested in how these movements were conducted in the spirit of Bakhtin’s popular carnivalesque, but unhappily this approach to change has been overshadowed by an escalation of atrocities, which feed into now overt state promotion of fear. We are all now hostage to two quasi-religious fundamentalisms.
Have there been signs of such mobilisation in artistic practice? Yes, insofar as only the market clings to the myth of the transcendental artistic subject, and more artists are willing to form collaborations with non-artists and address public issues, as Documenta11 was bold enough to show. The question is, as you say, can artistic political intervention lead to collective agency? In itself, I would say no. At best it can inspire a new vision of reality. The difficult part is how to translate insight into action. Under technological-capitalist hegemony, organising the Big Revolution seems no longer an option, so we are left with the hit-and-run tactics of guerrilla warfare. If there’s to be resistance, it has to happen from the more ‘local’ level by processes of diffusion. There is also the question of how to change people’s consciousness in the face of the power of the media. As we saw in Britain this year, even the more ethically aware news media can be silenced when they challenge state policies, so that they are finally forced into ‘self-censorship.’

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Builders (2004)

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a video project by Chto Delat?

realised by Tsaplya [Olga Egorova], Nikolay Oleinikov, Dmitry Vilensky

This video project is inspired by the painting “The Builders of Bratsk” (1961) by Viktor Popkov. As a Soviet art critic once accurately noted, “the paintings main theme is the ‘resurgence of life.'” By today, this piece has become an iconographic symbol of self-possessed, concentrated people, not only standing on the brink of great changes, but capable of making sense of this transformation and realizing it.

See related materials in the publication of Chto Delat “What do we have in common.”

It is important to note that the workers on the painting are not shown in the process of working, but that they are taking a well-deserved cigarette break. They have interrupted their work and now have the chance to consider both the relations that govern it, but also the significance it will have to the transformation of society at large. This is exactly how the painting was read in its time, as an interpretation we would like to return to today.

Our project’s goal is to apply this ideal image to contemporaneity. We invite the spectator to return to the composition of this painting and to suggest a new version of the process of its creation. We want to show (through a slide show and sound track) what might have preceded this moment, in which they took on a pose that turned them into a symbol of certainty, strength and belief. What was it? Hard work? A conflict in production that found its own solution? Or maybe even a hidden love story? Maybe it was all of these things at once, and maybe none of it happened. Our goal lies in constructing a situation in which people today (ourselves and our colleagues from Chto delat) become “ideal,” stretching to reach this image.

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Oleg Aronson – Oxana Timofeeva – Alexei Penzin /// As subjects, we always come in last

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Alexei Penzin (AP): The word “community” first somehow became significant in the context of the post-Soviet period, when old notions or words like the “collective” were rejected and the necessity arose to define the new forms of social relation that were arising. But then again, there is a great deal of nostalgia for the collectivity of the past, even if this nostalgia cannot yet give itself a name. At present, the state is actively trying to develop and utilize it, pontificating on “uniting against the threat of terrorism”, for an example. Recently, the public sphere that was opened up in the 1990s has been re-appropriated by the state. As a consequence, much of the critical-intellectual milieu finds itself artificially ghettoized into small communities. But at the same time, there is a demand raised both by a broader public space as well as the state, and this demand is connected to a wholly uncritical nostalgia toward collectivity.

Oxana Timofeeva (OT): Nostalgia for collectivity lost is actually nostalgia for the childhood of humanity, for some golden age. So my childhood was Soviet, which is why I often remember it as a happy childhood. But there are also more refined attempts at nostalgia that eviscerate or emasculate the past, reducing it to some ideal form, getting rid of any excess, and finding the iconic notion of community behind which the “countenance of the divine” would loom. In its pure form, community always bears a religious character.

AP: This nostalgia actually appeals to idealized constructions that present communion or community as a certain type of happiness, a bliss in common that we relished in the past. Can we think community beyond nostalgia, subjecting it to a renewed examination from our specific historical condition?

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Jean Luc Nancy – Artem Magun – Oxana Timofeeva /// The Question of the Common and the Responsibility of the Universal

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Artem Magun: Dear Jean-Luc! In how far the community changed, in your view, since 1986 ? Among other things, we might speak of the world’s repolarization and repoliticization. In this landscape, there emerges not only the question of solidarity and being-in-common, but also the question of collective action, of action that would be both constitutive of the community and effectively realizing it. Can we imagine action, common praxis, that would not be “work” (in Arendt’s sense), production, oeuvre?

Jean-Luc Nancy: The community has changed before 1986. I think that it started to change when the collective relationship to the active transformation of history shifted. Instead of aiming at a community produced in the praxis-type action, one moved attention to a community of gestures or symbols, a community of expressions or manifestations, rather than of action: this, in fact, corresponds to a community of existential, spiritual, or aesthetic testimony. This is true, for an example, of the Lettrist international, then the Situationist international.  This is also true of the process of weaving discrete, loosely organized relationships among people with a similar feeling of the world, but without a program. (This kind of groups has always existed. It was precisely the community defined by action and program that was a new phenomenon, emerging with the French revolution out of what had earlier been a political faction. But in this “faction”, the “cause” was usually the coming to power by a person or by a group, and not a general intention related to society and world. At the same time, the national and international communities reached a point of disaggregation, where they were once strong, and the smaller infra-national communities reidentified themselves as defending the cause of “minorities”.  Speaking globally, the general and generic being-together of a  “communism” to come dissolved at about the same time, because it had either dispersed or recrystallized into many discrete elements. Hence, there appeared the necessity of thinking being-together as such. The “collective” became problematic because of the very large numbers involved (these numbers have perhaps never been truly thought through). A humankind with a perspective of soon numbering 10 billion people, and with the intensification of communication all over the world – both change the entire mode of “being-together” as such, a mode that had previously been posed in a very determined fashion.

To say this in slightly different words : manifestation or performance have been substituted for operational activity. But at the same time, the question on the nature of relation came to the foreground: if the “common” is no longer dominated by finality (“total man”, “society without classes”), in what does it consist? We are not finished with this question…The action that is not work and does not produce an oeuvre is  political action, in the sense of Arendt, indeed, in the sense of exchange among citizens. This presupposes the city (cit?) : but where, today, is the city? Citizenship has partly vanished during this very same transformation, to be replaced by the new “communitarian” identities that block the political being-together for the sake of a fusion or of an essentiality of the “common”….

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Glucklya and Tsaplya with Alexander Skidan and Dmitri Vilensky /// A Certain Number of Figures

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To sacrifice oneself, to expose the king, and to come out in psychological attack – this is the mind-bending madness of Talev’s style. It’s only a shame that there are so few figures in chess. Laughably few.

Sergei Spirikhin, “Possibly, Beckett”

Alexander Skidan (AS): I would like to start with a simple but cardinal question. What exactly is the Factory of Found Clothes (abbreviated to FNO in Russian)? Is it a fellowship? A collective? A community? Or is it something more? How do you think of yourselves?

Gluklya (G): We’re a group and this says just about everything…

AS: Two is a very strange constellation; usually a group consists of a number of people, three as a minimum. From the earliest days of the first Christian communities, the spirit of collectivity has been defined by the presence of a third party. But two isn’t quite a community, or a collective. At the same time, the “Factory” in “Factory of Found Clothes” implies a process of production that involves an entire multitude of people, some of whom are completely anonymous and unknown. They can come and go, but like fertile topsoil, their presence in the background can give rise to something that is later given the name of art. This is the kind of growth of collectivity that I would like to talk about with you today.

Tsaplya (Ts.): In the very beginning, in 1995, we used to say that FNO is a “well-organized day-dream”. And we didn’t only construct this space of the “daydream” on the territory of art, but in life at large. Of course, this was so typical for Petersburg, but at the time, it was important for us to create a game with rules that might seduce other people aside from ourselves. This, actually, is what happened, which is why FNO made the impression of being this huge organization.

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Viktor Misiano – Anatoly Osmolovsky – David Riff /// Which ethical horizon are we in need of?

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David Riff (DR): In a recent text, the Moscow critic and curator Ekaterina Degot argues that while “the capitalist system of art institutions is oriented toward the [singular] product, the communist system of art institutions was oriented toward [collective] creativity. This is why the communist system did not consist of galleries and collections, but of communities and groups, ranging from the artist’s union to the narrow “circles” of nonconformist art. All of these groups were organized according to the principle of the autodidactic circle.” Do you think it makes sense to talk about continuities of a “communist model” of art, and which vector of development do you see in this model? What happened from the late 1980s and 1990s, when there was an explosion of community-based art? And where is this experience heading today?

Viktor Misiano (VM): I would agree that it is of crucial importance today to show that the Soviet artistic experience is not peripheral, that it is part of modernity. It is indeed possible to achieve this by insisting upon the uniqueness of Russian art, which – unlike Western art – is incomparably more deeply rooted in the tradition of the avantgarde. However, on the other hand, one can also demonstrate how closely international and Western artistic processes are related in terms of typology. In this sense, the Soviet system of art – including both the official Artist’s Union and the underground – recognize themselves rather magnificently in the analyses of Pierre Bourdieu, who was able to uncover the presence of different types of markets in culture, one of material, the other symbolic. From this perspective, there is much in the experience of the Moscow underground corresponds to the practices of Fluxus and many other phenomena in Western art, all of which tend toward the creation of closed communities, oriented toward inner communication, i.e. toward the formation of a symbolic market. One can pay attention to the fact that not only the official Artists’ Union appeared as a corporation stagnating under economic protectionism, but that something of the sort happens to any artistic establishement; it is, in fact, enough to look at American corporate collections or even the exhibitions at major museums in order to understand how the market is often controlled by an encapsulated group of people and institutions and oriented toward a very limited selection of names for years at a time. At the same time, objectivity demands that we recognize that the Artists’ Union and its Artistic Foundation (Khudozhestveny fond) were hardly strangers to the mechanisms of the market; in fact, they were a laboratory of market relationships. Actually, the Moscow underground was also structured in terms of the market, and here I am ready to testify as an eye-witness; its market institutions – and I am sure that future researchers will be able to prove this – were not, in fact, very different from those of the Western system of art.

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Dmitri Gutov – David Riff /// Complete agreement is the ideal of the human race

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David Riff (DR): How did the Lifshitz (1) Institute form? Was it your own initiative? Or did the group come together collectively? Could you tell me a little about how you came together?

Dmitri Gutov (DG): The “Lifshitz” Institute was conceived as a social movement that concerned the discovery of a new phenomenon, namely Soviet Marxism, primarily of the 1930s. A small number of people discovered that there was, in fact, such a phenomenon, a phenomenon that was completely original, substantial, completely incomprehensible and forgotten. Our idea was to re-read old Marxist texts with new eyes, as the final chord of the Communist drama was fading.

David Riff (DR): How did the Lifshitz (1) Institute form? Was it your own initiative? Or did the group come together collectively? Could you tell me a little about how you came together?

Dmitri Gutov (DG): The “Lifshitz” Institute was conceived as a social movement that concerned the discovery of a new phenomenon, namely Soviet Marxism, primarily of the 1930s. A small number of people discovered that there was, in fact, such a phenomenon, a phenomenon that was completely original, substantial, completely incomprehensible and forgotten. Our idea was to re-read old Marxist texts with new eyes, as the final chord of the Communist drama was fading.

All of this happened toward the end of the 1980s. Many people probably still remember what was going on in the country at the time: anti-communism was rampant. If you read Lenin, people looked at you as if you were an idiot, and if you chose works that were written during the epoch of Stalinism, it simply seemed scandalous. The “Institute” was founded on the initiative of Kostya Bokhorov and myself. It was very important to find at least one other person to discuss what actually interested me. But we didn’t found any kind of formal organization.

By the early 1990s, public disinterest in and mockery of Marxism had reached its apogee. It was then that Kostya and I decided to turn our efforts into an organization, to search for allies. The shelling of the parliament in the autumn of 1993 and the complete triumph of liberalism only made us even more determined. The name “Lifshitz-Institute” appeared in early 1994. At this point, our meetings attracted an extremely broad and colorful group of people: students, political activists, doctors of art history, professors of philosophy, Duma representatives, radical artists.

Our idea was very simple. All we wanted to do was to drop a seed (who, for us, was Lifshitz) into the solution of the time, so that related phenomena would crystallize around it. It was our goal to collect those who were interested in classical Marxism and the communist view of art. All of the meetings that took place then had me in a state of constant stress. I just can’t convey exactly how unfavorable the times were to our idea. It seemed impossible to find any common language, and the perspective of spreading Lifshitz to any kind of broader public seemed incredibly dim.

After 2000-2001, when the situation changed yet again, there was a new upwind of interest in Marxism, and we continued our vigil with the next post-Perestroika generation.

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Alexei Penzin /// From Commonplaces to Community

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Why should we speak of “the community”? In its everyday usage, this word simultaneously carries a note of nostalgia and the aftertaste of an almost inadmissible pathos.

We constantly hear trivial words on the “international community”, the “scientific community” or the “expert community”. Can this word be endowed with any other kind of meaning, a meaning that would not simply point toward the attributes of some group of individuals or toward the fact of small “groups” and their coming-together in “societies” and “collectives” of a more complex configuration? Even in this usage, the word community does not correspond to “society”, nor to “group”, nor to “collective”. It still hides a shifting meaning in the shadows of its commonplaces, a shifting meaning capable of bringing us to the epicenter of the political and philosophical thinking of the last decades. For this thinking, the conventional opposition between collectivism and individualism already appears as all too naive. Today, collectivity is carefully modeled by the power of the state, while individuality is guided by the market’s “invisible hand”. Both collectivism and individualism would be incapable of becoming anything more than a failed attempt at escaping a certain kind of “biopolitics”, a strategy of controlling the masses, which does not only affect consciousness, but life itself, the body and its basic habits, its automatisms.

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Radek Community /// In Search of Our Dream (not finished yet)

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By now, we can already say that the Radek Community is our attempt at answering the question of what the community is and how we can be together in the contemporary world. Throughout our entire history, we were always burdened by one and same pressing question: are we really realizing the potential that collectives seem to entail? Are our efforts really all that different from ordinary individual attempts to interact with this world? I am absolutely convinced that this question is inevitable for any community. Once it has asserted its identity in some way, once it has presented the world with evidence of its existence as an independent space for communication, no community ever finds itself at that euphoric point of complete clarity again.

We could even assert that every history of a community’s becoming is also the history of its falling-apart. Once it has arisen and has manifested its own existence in a broader social context, the group is doomed to constant repetitions of self-identification. This leads to a constant delineation of boundaries, a constant battle for independence, a war with the rest of the world. After all, the alternative communicative practices that form the nervous tissue of any community are not reinforced by the kind of mechanisms that stabilize the belief in the meaningfulness and necessity of the outer world’s dominant practices. Seen in contrast to these, the community seems spectral or illusory, and sometimes even contradicts them directly. Any pause between the community’s acts of self-identification is yet another occasion to call its existence into question. Because the rest of the world never comes to a stop.

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Artem Magun /// Res omnium – Res nullus / Common thing – Nobody’s thing

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What do we have in common? What does the common mean? How can we invoke this common, realizing it and by doing so, maintaining its existence? Contemporary global capitalism realizes total communization, the exchange of people and things, but this communization takes the form of a rupture of all social connections. In departing from its initial revolutionary impulses, Soviet “communism” created an alienated, unjust system as a consequence. By the 1970s, this system brought on the atomization of society and the victory of an ideology of individualism and consumerism, comparable to the situation in bourgeois societies. But the Soviet experience also had another side: the “common” or the “collective” really was not appropriated fully; in the bureaucratic system of collective irresponsibility, it often turned out to be unneeded, belonging to no-one

The Soviet landscape – a landscape that continues to entrance artists, directors, and writers to this day – is a landscape of abandoned construction sites, empty lots, or the open street-doors of Petersburg, where one could easily urinate or drink a little bottle of vodka…In many senses, the common remained vacant and free… In spite of itself, through a “trick of history”, the Soviet regime achieved a free common where it was not looking for it…Of course, all of this was uncomfortable and ineffective, and the new bourgeois prophets of the Perestroika began by pointing at this scandalous trait of Soviet “communism”, suggesting to privatize it in order to tie humanity more closely to the material “base” of its surroundings. But for now, none of this has worked: the new private owners have little respect for the world of things, which is why they have subjected this world to predatory exploitation (based on the same disrespect), while disrespect for the public sphere is so much of a part of our very existences that we still hardly worry about the environment in our everyday lives; we never fix up our hallways and are rarely capable of uniting for any action in protest.

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