Uninhabited Spaces of Democracy

Uninhabited Spaces of Democracy
Moscow/New York, 2006
Ekaterina Degot/Elena Sorokina
Elena Sorokina (ES): Lefebvre argued that a politics of space exists since space is essentially a political category. The actionism of the 90s completely fits this mode: many artists used public spaces both as sites and as political commentary. Anatoly Osmolovsky, for example, often performed his actions in places that came with a certain historical and ideological baggage-on Red Square, or outside the Russian parliament building; his actions thus desacralized both old Soviet and new "democratic" spaces. What kinds of spatial commentaries are being made in contemporary Russian art? What forms of artistic reflection on post-Soviet space can we point to? Thanks to Ilya Kabakov, for example, the communal apartment, which had become a symbol of Soviet claustrophobia, is now a contemporary art icon of Soviet space, while the actions of Osmolovsky I've mentioned delineate an absolutely contrary method of using space and working with it. What's happening nowadays?
Ekaterina Degot (ED): In their work with the communist heritage artists today really have been evolving from recognizing it as a collection of symbols and material artifacts (which, of course, applies to the antiques market as well)-this is how the Sots artists of the 70s and 80s saw the Soviet Union-towards imagining it as a particular type of space. The transitional stage was the period when artists focused on monuments. In the art of the early 90s we find many heroic-comic attempts on the part of artists to erect themselves on the sites of absent or discredited monuments. Osmolovsky climbed onto the shoulders of the enormous monument to the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (thus returning, as it were, the revolutionary impulse to this martyr of the avant-garde, who had been illegally "appropriated" by Stalinism); and he secretly made his way onto the roof of the Lenin Mausoleum, where Stalin and Brezhnev had once stood. Alexander Brenner went to the spot where a monument to KGB patron saint Felix Dzherzinsky had been removed from and attempted to yell out to passersby, "Citizens, I'm your new commercial director!" An important detail in this last case was the fact that you can't get close to the place where the monument was without violating traffic rules (and without risking your life-the traffic around the square is usually heavy).
All these actions involved the abandoned "apex" of a space understood hierarchically, as a pyramid of power. This corresponded to the traditional view of the USSR as an antidemocratic tyranny that functioned by means of ideological control. That's how people thought in the early 90s, when it seemed that Russia was headed towards greater democracy than had existed in the USSR.
At the beginning of the new century, however, it became clear that, on the contrary, Russia was moving away from the potential for democracy that had been planted in the Soviet Union. This potential was actualized precisely in the 60s and 70s in the form of a powerful grass-roots activism that was directed not towards the building the state, as Lenin had conceived it, but against this state (samizdat culture, unofficial culture, the dissident movement). Nowadays, artists, thinkers, and, to a great degree, ordinary citizens identify the Soviet past not only with the state, but also with this abandoned social principle. And in art it is space that serves as the symbol of this principle.
ES: It seems to me that the projects in the public space of such young artists as the Novosibirsk group CAT or the Kiev group REP are to a certain degree reactions to the problems you've described. Their interventions in today's "democratic" demonstrations not only appropriate the collective space of such demonstrations in another (non-ideological) way, but they also underscore the carnivalesque spirit of such events and thus respond in some way to the abrupt shift in status of social space. What particular projects did you have in mind?
ED: From the outset communist art was conceived as an art of gigantic public spaces. The specifically communist character of these spaces is recognizable even today, when all you find there is the wind blowing empty plastic Coke bottles between the enormous public buildings from that era-music academies, libraries, palaces of labor and culture. Simultaneously exposed on all sides, this communist space was meant to dialectically unite within itself two vectors: the horizontal dimension of egalitarian social interaction ("brotherhood") and the vertical dimension of a powerful social dynamic ("flight").
In practice, "brotherhood" and "flight"-in other words, friendship and career (upward mobility)-proved incompatible. The extroverted, radically open (international) character of Soviet space also turned out to be a utopia. But it's exactly this utopia that artists are engaging with now. They acutely experience its absence not only in the antidemocratic and closed Russia of today, but also in the globalized world, where democratism and openness often turn out to be their contraries. For example, working with those Soviet spaces of democracy that never were wholly inhabited, the group What Is to Be Done, in Petersburg, the hometown of the "betrayed proletarian revolution," travels to traditional working-class districts, where they hit the streets wearing signboards bearing quotations from Brecht (the performance Angry Sandwich People, or The Praise of Dialectics). The Moscow video artist Liudmila Gorlova (in Happy End) shoots weddings that are celebrated these days right on the street, on an enormous square, near Moscow University, that has stood empty for many years.
Olga Chernysheva's installation Panorama deals with the dramatic collapse of the integral space of human relationships. The pictures incorporated in the installation refer to the Cinepanorama, a well-known Soviet movie theater in which the old "circorama" (cycloramic) multi-projector technology, first employed by Disney in 1957, was technically and conceptually perfected, in 1959. (Themes of brotherhood and friendship were central to the Soviet movies made specially for this cinema.) It's telling that this economically inefficient technology (half the footage is "wasted": people don't have eyes in the backs of their heads) was left undeveloped in the "society of the spectacle," where it was soon ousted by the super-spectacular, single-projector IMAX technology. In "unspectacular" communist society, meanwhile, where art was oriented more towards a integrated, spatialized sense of the collective than towards the individual's line of sight, circorama flourished for quite a long time. Based on the principle "all for one and one for all," this system of human relations, which survived in Soviet movies of the 60s, where we see a cult of disinterested friendship and non-competitive amateur sports, is recreated in Dmitry Gutov's installations-for example, in the volleyball net and shuttlecocks of Smash!
ES: I want to try and outline the terms "post-Soviet" and "post-communist" art. The inflation of national identities on the art market has led to the search for new models of representation. The active generation, development, and marketing of national identities functioned like outsourcing: western technologies for constructing national identities were incorporated at the local level; the cheap labor force of "developing countries" manufactured the identities; and then the finished products were sold on the western art market. As you correctly note in one of your articles, Soviet ideology was universal. That's why the post-Soviet "nationalization" of art and its subdivision into national sub-components is a simplification of an extremely complicated situation.
ED: In fact, artists who grew up in a country that had declared an end to ethnic divisions (even if this declaration was only partly fulfilled) experience the politics of national identity as forcible ethnicization. In this sense, the category of space, of place, is opposed to the category of "roots," of "ethnic traditions"-you might say that space doesn't have a fatherland. This, in part, is the meaning of the outer space motif in Soviet art and of the work by Kabakov you've alluded to, The Man Who Flew into Space. But while Soviet unofficial art worked with space as a profoundly personal, intimate category (even if the space in question was outer space), post-Soviet artists see space as social. This is exactly why the privatization of social space-former Soviet space-no longer elicits a positive reaction from contemporary Russian artists. They no longer identify with the process the way they did in the early 90s, when you subjectively staked your personal claim on a monument by climbing onto it. Olga Chernysheva's photo series Plots can be read as gloomy prophecy of the social apartheid that's come into being right before our very eyes: only the sky resists this regression and remains common property.
ES: In Chernysheva's Plots I'm intrigued as well by the image of the border, which is what marks the transformation of space into territory. The artist's meditation on the theme of "guarding the borders" of plots of bare land takes on an especially interesting overtone when we relate it to the law on private ownership of land, passed in 2001. This law violated one of the central taboos of the Soviet age: "Land to the peasants!" was one of the main slogans of the Revolution, and the abolition of private ownership of land was Lenin's first decree after victory in 1917. The reintroduction of private ownership after a hiatus of eighty years means that the problem of guarding property-one of the main problems of any capitalist society-becomes quite acute. In Russia, this takes on rather extravagant forms: the paratrooper toting a machine gun at the entrance to a supermarket, or the metal detector at the front door of a gallery. The ornate fences of barbed wire, tin sheeting, and other makeshift material that Chernysheva has photographed visualize just these attempts to draw boundaries around private property and to protect that property with all one's might-even though the height of the fences and their homemade look are no guarantee of real effectiveness, but rather are meant to scare people away.
At the same time that Chernysheva turns to the image of former state land which has been subdivided into plots, the artists Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djoumaliev discuss post-Soviet territory, whose new borders create the potential for conflict between the former "brother republics." In their work Shadows, the artists draw on the facts of a real armed clash on the Kyrgyzstan border in order to comment on the tense atmosphere along the artificial national frontiers of post-Soviet Central Asia, which the Soviet authorities drew up without any consideration of cultural or ethnic realities. Continuing your metaphor, we can say that here as well it is only the sky, which looks down on the shadows and bodies of the dead, remains outside the logic of territorial redistribution and conflict.
 Ekaterina Degot is an art critic and curator, based in Moscow
Elena Sorokina is independent writer and curator, based in New York