Equal in inequality: true art knows how to wait av Dimitry Vilensky
Dmitry Vilensky questioned by Ana Kuzmanić, Petar Jandrić. Edited fragment from the forthcoming book by P. Jandrić: Learning in the age of the digital media. Rotterdam: Sense, 2017
Chto Delat (What is to be done?) is a collective that includes artists, critics, philosophers, dancers and writers, merging political theory, art, and activism. The name reflects seminal works of Chernyshevsky, Lenin, and Freire, situating the collective “to a radical education of the oppressed”. The collective was founded in Petersburg in 2003, with the following core members: Tsaplya Olga Egorova (artist, Petersburg), Artiom Magun (philosopher, Petersburg), Nikolay Oleynikov (artist, Moscow), Natalia Pershina/Glucklya (artist, Petersburg), Alexey Penzin (philosopher, Moscow), Alexander Skidan (poet, critic, Petersburg), Oxana Timofeeva (philosopher, Moscow), and Dmitry Vilensky (artist, Petersburg). In 2012, the choreographer Nina Gasteva joined the collective. In their projects, Chto Delat often collaborate with other artists and researchers.
Chto Delat work across various media and disciplines. They publish newspapers, record radio plays, create theatrical performances, make films, produce graphics and murals, organise conferences, publish books, engage in philosophy and art theory. In Petersburg they run The School of Engaged Art, which also runs shorter workshops and educational programmes throughout the world. In this conversation, the collective Chto Delat is represented by one of its main driving forces and founding members, Dmitry Vilensky.
The irrationality of the rational
Ana Kuzmanić & Petar Jandrić: In a recent interview with Gerard Raunig (Vilensky and Raunig, 2008), you situated influences of Chto Delat at the intersections of three important books, stating that the collective was originally named by Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? (1863), but it draws equal inspiration from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? (1902), and Paulo Freire’s and Adriano Nogueira’s Que Fazer. Teoria e Prática Em Educação Popular (What Is to Be Done: Theory and Practice in Popular Education) (1989). These works span more than a century and function in different ideological frameworks – most importantly, none of the authors are amongst us anymore. What does it mean to ask Chto Delat? in the early 21st century? Which lessons can we learn from the past, and what are the unique challenges of the present?
Dmitry Vilensky: To ask What is to be done? In the early 21st century means a very simple and modest thing – to position yourself on the side of the leftist tradition. We can draw many lessons from the past, such as the confusions of self-organization and party politics, the collapse of real socialism, and the disasters linked to dire crimes committed in the name of the left. Today, the most acute challenges are related to how we can keep thinking and practicing life outside of subjugation to capital and profit, and how we can create new types of organisations that could effectively combine horizontal and centralist structures. The underlying issue in these challenges, in my opinion, are the complex relationships between unity and difference.
AK & PJ: Perestroika Songspiel analyses the complex relationships between freedom, democracy, repression, capitalism, communism, and human nature. Another film of yours, The Lesson Of Disconsent, critically reads texts produced by the anti-psychiatry movement, and explicitly links questions of social organisation to human nature. What, in your opinion, is the relationship between capitalism, communism, and human nature?
DV: I would say that human nature is very ambivalent – we are all kinds of angels and devils, and often at the same time. I think that the desire for communism is very generic for human beings, inasmuch as we are all naturally inclined towards mutual support, respect and justice. Right now there are many speculations which demand the rejection of old-school models of politicisation based on the idea of human subjectivity It looks like we need to finish the Anthropocene period and move on to a new political composition of all non-human phenomena. It is a very poetic idea, but practically speaking very difficult to imagine in terms of its realization in a time of growing conservatism – when possibilities of post-humanity is completely obscured by sheer violence of archaic forces. But human nature is not given, it is constructed and reshaped; to me it looks like we live in a period when this reconfiguration touches on the anthropological base of our life. And this is a central struggle of our time lies: how do we envision and construct this change together with trees, animals, earth and all that new stuff coming from technology, like robots, artificial intellect and so on.
AK & PJ: In the project Activist Club, you insist on a temporary character in your school. An early issue of your newspaper is dedicated to autonomy zones (2003), and in the Chto Delat’s exhibition at Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden (2011), you exhibited a book on anarchism right next to a book on Leninism. What is the relationship of your work to anarchism?
DV: There are many forms of anarchism. Anarchist traditions are based on the idea that the State should wither away, and that people should unite through local communities of neighbours and producers, coincide with (and reinforce further) the basic ideas of communism. Therefore, Chto Delat comfortably sits within these traditions. Having said that, we strongly disagree with certain traditions of anarchism that situate human beings and human societies outside of power relations. Instead of trying to understand the nature of power relations, and instead of working towards transforming the existing power relations into something that would be less destructive and oppressive, these anarchist traditions coincide with (and further reinforce) capitalism.
How to be equal in inequality?
AK & PJ: Education is one of the main elements of your work. The concept of learning play, for instance, heavily relies on the radical educational traditions of Paulo Freire (1972) and Augusto Boal (2001 & 2008). Obviously, these traditions were born in significantly different contexts of the late 20th century Americas. What are the main challenges of aligning these traditions with the current situation in Russia and Europe? What does it mean to be a radical educator in your context?
DV: Being a radical educator in the current repressive situation of Putin’s Russia means to create spaces where all possible issues excluded from the general public sphere can be pronounced and practiced. It also means to introduce another generation into various (radical) ideas, that are mostly secluded from them. The challenge is not just to preserve and protect a certain type of knowledge, but to find ways for this space of knowledge production to grow, despite obvious repression. And, of course, it means to run experiments in equality, and to believe in people’s universal ability to learn despite different backgrounds, experiences, and levels of mastery. In conclusion, being a critical educator means to be equal in inequality. We try to build a very specific confidential community within our school – it is based on a certain form of mutual trust and respect and, a lack of fear in demonstrating your own vulnerability
AK & PJ: Your personal educational trajectory is a bit unusual. In a recent interview, you said:
I work outside of proper academic settings. I have never studied, neither art nor theory, I have no degree. In short, I feel like a bastard who always comes in from the back door, because I am too loud. And I was never afraid of doing different things that I never learned but felt the urgency to do. (Buden and Vilensky, 2010)
What are the main pros and cons of working outside of formal educational systems? What are the consequences of such an approach to your personal life, and for Chto Delat? projects at large?
DV: I think that this situation is very historically constructed. In the Soviet Union, people of my generation had no access to academic systems of education in the field of contemporary art. Actually, contemporary art did not exist within the Soviet academic system at all! Therefore, we are all self-taught – and that bears various consequences. Probably the most important consequences are that we deeply understand what it means to navigate within the world of contemporary art without an institutional framework. We cannot de-school ourselves because we have never been properly schooled, and we do not need to un-learn because that would annihilate the importance of our vernacular knowledge.
Also, this position does not equally apply to all members of Chto Delat. For instance, all philosophers working with the collective have ‘proper’ degrees and work as professors within the traditional academy. This situation creates a certain imbalance in regards to experiences and the everyday dynamics of the collective.
This position is politically rather strong and also very contemporary – these days, all cultural workers need to develop openness to new situations and politicise precarity. There is no doubt that we lack a certain kind of systematic knowledge – but I believe we can compensante this through the collective work in which one’s own shortage of knowledge always corresponds to the knowledge of the other, who could provide you with deep insights into different positions. Then you are collectively developing views and articulating them through the art practice.
AK & PJ: In Border Musical (2013), a migrant mother pays the highest price for migrating from a Russian mining town to Norway – and she is then separated by the authorities from her only son. This opens a wide array of questions regarding cultural construction of responsibility. Who, in your opinion, should be responsible for education? What are the areas of responsibility of the individual, and what are the areas of responsibility of the State?
DV: I think that the general school curriculum should be developed at a level of consensus within the society. Of course, the curriculum can be permanently challenged by marginal groups. Yet, it should be updated according to the political will of the majority, because it is the issue of society at large. It is very often the result of a conservative consensus as we see in many places like Russia; but then as we have learned from history, marginal groups can create certain forms of knowledge that execute a pressure and one day I believe they manage to challenge it. This applies to all aspects of education, including arts education. Students need to learn the major narratives of art history, and the true question in art production is to determine what belongs to and what sits outside this general big narrative.
However, this does not mean that we take the major narratives of art history for granted. At all times, we must re-examine things which are being repressed and pushed outside of the major narratives – this creates a vital setting for future development of arts and knowledge. And it happens through the struggle of narratives, and its power to win the crucial number of supporters. We see how through the second half of the 20th century more and more marginal issues (feminists, LGBT, colonial subjectivity and so on) are coming to the fore and transforming the hegemonic position. It is very important in culture to keep in mind that we are all part of an ideological war for the radical equality of all excluded phenomena.
AK & PJ: For Illich, schools should be replaced by educational infrastructures offered by new information technologies. What is the role of computers in your educational practices? More generally, what is the educational role of information technologies in the society at large?
DV: To a certain point, Illich’s ideas today sound very neoliberal. Because neoliberalism seriously and consciously attacks the institutions of knowledge production, instrumentalising them for the goal of profit. And educational infrastructures are a much better fit for this than any traditional academic institutions. We see this tendency everywhere – endless courses that develop more often on-line, to eventually substitute the proper school system. It does not mean that we need to defend the old system of education – no, we should try to transform it but without undermining a comprehensive structure of knowledge and claim to the universality of knowledge which is the base of society and political becoming.
And of course we all use computers and other digital technologies such as cameras and sound recorders. Right now, the most important technologies are communication platforms and social networks, because they have become the major means of production and distribution of art. And we use them too.
AK & PJ: Since the beginning of Chto Delat, you continuously publish newspapers that explore various topics related to your work. These newspapers seem to serve various purposes from dissemination of ideas to preparation for educational activities – and they also send a clear ideological message. Similarly, in your film The Lesson Of discontent, the protagonists sing: “We are not a performance. This is propaganda, this is political action. We are not here to entertain” (Chto Delat, director Tsaplya, 2011). What is the position of propaganda in your work? More generally, what is propaganda in the contemporary society?
DV: History teaches us that it is very difficult to differentiate between propaganda and art. We could simplify your question, and assert that the whole system of contemporary art is sheer propaganda for commodity fetishism. In this context, a bit of counter-propaganda cannot hurt… At a more serious note, however, we always try to create works that have many layers. Some of these layers – predominantly the communicative layer – might be treated as propaganda. However, our works definitely have at least a few more layers that are more subtle and ambivalent.
AK & PJ: What is the relationship between your artwork, political engagement and education?
DV: Well, we always take as point of departure the unity between entertainment, inspiration and education. They are inseparable for us – there is no political engagement without inspiration, there is no education without proper entertainment and artworks are material (and immaterial constructions) that serve this unity. A lot of serious art does not care, or reject, any form of entertainment but I guess that it is wrong and as far we care about some change in society we should think about a certain form of personhood.
True art knows how to wait
AK & PJ: Your 2011- piece Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX talks about migrant crisis. In the piece, migrants are locked into a glass room – almost like animals on display in a Zoo – and the artist and the curator decide to present the migrants as artists in order to save them from prosecution. Chto Delat is based in Russia, and also works quite extensively in Western Europe. Would you say that Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX contains some elements of autobiography? How do you, an artist collective from the East, feel while working in the West? What does your work mean to people in Petersburg or Moscow; what does it mean to people in Berlin or London?
DV: Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX is indeed autobiographical. The dystopian character of this film was created in a very simple way – we just transferred some nightmarish elements of our repressive everyday reality into another context, and imagined a quasi-normal situation: what if ultra-nationalists had come to power in Europe.
It is hard to generalise the perception of our works. In Russia, Chto Delat is obviously one of the most influential and sustainable initiatives of creating counter-culture and wide community – consequently, at home, we get much less recognition as artists. In the West, I think, we are very much appreciated by the artistic quality of our works and we also strongly legitimated both by academic institutions and the activist scene, and this double recognition seems to be caused by the transversal nature of our activity. There is something deeply paradoxical in that we have managed to become and remain interesting both locally and globally while being located in a fairly boring place – Russia, St. Petersburg.
This is a fairly heterodox position, considering that we have worked for eleven years without any gallery support, without any national support, without any relations to private collectors, foundations and dealers; that we live far from major art centres (including even Moscow); and that we never appeared at fancy arts events, such as openings of the Venice Biennale or various art fairs.
AK & PJ: These days, there is a lot of discussion about the precarisation of arts production caused by the combined effects of information technology, globalisation, and capitalism (Standing, 2011 & 2014; Taylor, 2014; Buden and Vilensky, 2010). What is your response to such precarisation?
DV: The precarity (and even poorness) is the condition of our life and existence. We always try to mobilize artists and cultural workers to fight the bad condition of their work – we co-organized the May Congress in Russia, Artleaks platform and experienced how difficult it is. And we also see how the situation is getting worse even for established artists. Instead of (and together with) discussion, we need certain efforts for organisation and solidarity and we keep working in this direction too.
AK & PJ: Your works are sometimes built to analyse contemporary issues, and sometimes seem to offer various (communist) futures. What is the relationship between your art and our social reality?
What, in your opinion, is the social role of the artist in and for the 21st century? How far, or close, is your art from utopia?
DV: We are trying to re-invent realistic practices, and our works are a mixture of critical realism with some utopian urge – you might call it communist realism. However, the core of Chto Delat position is the negation of the current order and the call for changing the world on the basis of radical emancipatory politics. Today, this vision is perhaps far from our reach. Yet, we believe that one day its time will arrive. As Guy Debord  once correctly said – true art knows how to wait.
Petar Jandrić is Professor in Digital Learning and Programme Director of BSc (Informatics) at the Zagreb University of Applied Sciences, and visiting Associate Professor at the University of Zagreb (Croatia). His research interests are focused to the intersections between critical pedagogy, digital cultures, and arts. Personal website: http://petarjandric.com/.
Ana Kuzmanić is an artist based in Zagreb and Associate Professor at the University in Split (Croatia). Ana's artwork critically deconstructs dominant social readings of the reality, and her latest projects are focused to ideological constructions of childhood. Personal website: http://akuzmanic.com/.
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Chto Delat er invitert til festivalen for å holde KONGRSSEN 30. juni og 1. juli på Langøyene.