ARTMargins Online Blog
Schooling at Home and Abroad: Chto Delat's School of Engaged Art, or Winter Notes on Summer Impressions
The Art Collective Chto Delat, based in Saint Petersburg, has been around for twelve years and is quite prolific. Members have participated in many of the major art biennales in the world and among others they have had solo shows at the Institute for Contemporary Art (2010), London, and the Vienna Secession (2014). Naturally, such an inexorable career has raised some doubts about the group's self-professed leftist agenda. in the case of the Chto Delat, criticism is, not only inevitable but also useful. Such criticism is inevitable on the one hand, because making left political art is always caught up in dialectical contradictions. For example, how can matters be put in such a way that the art work may catalyze and influence political discussion without putting artistic imagination in shackles? Because isn't it in the end precisely the workings of the artistic imagination, not the 'message', that evokes political passion in an artwork? The paradox is productive also because self-positioning within the field of art is such a decisive element of Chto Delat's practice. Especially Dmitry Vilensky, the group's organizational head, regularly invites and responds to criticism through programmatic statements and theoretical texts. If you are a supporter of enigmatic or "self-explanatory" art by reclusive individuals, Chto Delat might not be your cup of tea, but if you see art – as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu did – as a social field, where, as in all of such, left hegemony can be won by a critical, self-reflexive practice (the prototype of which, for Bourdieu, was Hans Haacke), you may be able to find merit in the group's success.
Berlin Summer School: in the courtyard of Franz-Mehring-Platz 1*
Another aspect without which the activity of Chto Delat cannot be judged fairly is the fact that the group's function in the national Russian, and even more so: in the local Petersburg context decisively differs from its role in the exhibition spaces of the global art world. Since 2013, Chto Delat has been reinvesting the cultural capital it gained in the previous decade by establishing the "School of Engaged Art". Of course this will not convince critics of the sincerity of the group's motives – can anyone think of a more 'cocksure' move than an art group asserting the need for a whole pedagogic system which only it can provide? We should, however, recognize that such a discussion on a merely abstract level is quite pointless, or rather very much determined by subjective beliefs, and that a critique of the practice in question is more rewarding.
I visited the School of Engaged Art, which is, like Chto Delat, based in Saint Petersburg, at the occasion of a summer school "abroad." It took place in the beginning of August 2015 in the publishing house of the newspaper Neues Deutschland, which is quite an important monument to the architectonic, and up to a certain degree, also to the cultural legacy of the German Democratic Republic. Nowadays the building on Franz-Mehring-Platz, erected in 1969-1974 according to plans of Eberhard Just and Edgar Hofmann, accommodates Neues Deutschland, the MEW-publisher Karl-Dietz-Verlag,1 and, for the time being, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation (RLS), one of the party-affiliated registered societies in Germany. RLS, which is affiliated with the party Die Linke, has, for several years, focused on the potentials of the intersection of political education and art in Eastern European Post-Communist societies, with Chto Delat being an obvious choice for collaboration from the start. Still, the contrast between the office atmosphere in the building and the flock of about thirty artists, most of whom under thirty, was stark. When I arrived, the students, left to themselves by their teachers, were preparing the closing presentations for the following day in several groups. In the case of faces unknown to me, I was trying, mostly unsuccessfully to find out where everyone was from by listening to the students' accents in English. A list, given to me later, showed that most of them had come from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, some were based in Berlin. Only a handful of artists were from Western Europe. This is a good thing – that an artist group from Russia can use Berlin, this cultural hub for Eastern Europe, to deterritorialize the art world this way. For a few of the artists, having their living and travelling expenses covered by RLS made it possible to visit Berlin for the first time (the more established artists in the field being well-travelled, of course). Using the nostalgic ever-running paternoster of Franz-Mehring-Platz 1, these most heterogeneous people floated freely through the building, changing between the conference room, assigned to the school, and the courtyard, where, sitting in the shade, one could easily bear the exceptional summer heat. Later, while the young people were working on their performances together with their teachers, (Dmitry Vilensky, Olga Yegorova, Nikolai Oleinikov and the more recent member, the choreographer Nina Gasteva), the contact person from RLS delivered a message from the office saying that they were welcome guests, but were not supposed to litter the courtyard. The message was received as quietly as defiantly (it was perceived as undeserved). Alas, some minor tensions were to be expected. Vilensky had fought hard for the school to take place at Franz-Mehring-Platz 1; the RLS originally wanted to assign a different locale. The event, according to Chto Delat's wishes, was to have a symbolic party-affiliation with the Die Linke via the RLS. The founding question of Chto Delat – what is socialist art today? – was addressed at this summer school by taking a fresh look at the basic principles of Socialist Realism; one of these, "partiinost" was translated at the school as "party-mindedness."
School of Engaged Art: collective body exercizes
Chto Delat's ostentatious willingness, not only to take RLS's money with a warm handshake, but to assert a meaningful relation between 'communist' experimentation in art and a political party within Germany's system of representative democracy, might look a little strange to Western eyes. It makes more sense, however, if we bear in mind that within Russia, with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation being nothing short of a nationalist party, and an integral element to Russia's 'sovereign democracy', no institution comparable to RLS (and with comparable means) exists. Similarly, the ambition of a circle of artists and academics to establish a "school" might nowadays seem to be a thing of the past in the West, but in the Russian context it's much more appropriate. While the reading of (supposedly leftist) post-Marxist thinkers like Paul Virilio, Jacques Rancière, or Alain Badiou is a common-place in Western art schools, and transgressions of the institution of art are encouraged, Russian art academies are very traditionalist and tend to merely pass on craftsmanship – a shortcoming that will likely intensify as Russian society is further brought into line ideologically. Another indication of this shortcoming is the fact that Chto Delat are not the first to try and build an institution for the education of artists. Initiated by one of the internationally most successful Russian artists, former Moscow Actionist Anatoly Osmolovsky, Moscow-based Baza art institute has since 2011 developed a four-semester curriculum for the training of artists and art critics. Baza focuses on the history of the avant-garde and its meaning for contemporary artistic and curatorial practice. Aimed at the professional skills needed for competition in the the global art market, Osmolovsky's institute furthers an autonomous, yet critical, vision of contemporary art. (If in the present political situation this vision is the most realist, or, on the contrary, all-to optimistic, is another matter for discussion). It might be interesting to note that in 1996, during his Actionist phase, Osmolovsky created a "Situation for PDS" at Berlin's Künstlerhaus Bethanien. Upon entering the left-leaning Künstlerhaus, the visitor was confronted with the choice to either go to a regular party meeting of the Party for Democratic Socialism (the PDS being the heir to the former GDR's Communist Party, which post-reunification became Die Linke), or to go to the gallery where Osmolovsky's poster art was displayed and where the incessant blasting of the Sonic Youth song "Youth against fascism" prevented [anyone] from hearing the political discussion.2
School of Engaged Art at Rosa's House of Culture, Petersburg. Anatoly Osmolovsky (background r.) visiting
Even if the institutional stability of Baza is yet to be achieved by Chto Delat's "School of Engaged Art," recent history shows that, given the repressive cultural climate in Russia, this might prove difficult. Since in 2013, the School of Engaged Art whose curriculum relies on a modular structure with short and intensive periods of learning and working together, has unfolded an impressive level of creative activity. In January of 2014 students performed a surrealist "learning play", entitled Bystree! Ostree! Appetitnee! (Faster! More Incisive! More Appetizing!) at Moscow's Fabrika art space. This 'Olympiad of Foodstuff at the Restaurant "Nevrossija"3 satirically criticized the spreading of a hypocritical and masochist patriotism that is at odds with the personal experience of ever worsening living conditions. The first student exhibition realized at the same time was ambitiously dedicated to the subject of violence. For their graduation show, the students carried out another long, collective performance entitled Atlas is Tired at the entrance to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and later some graduates of the school were involved in the production of Chto Delat's four-channel-video-installation The Excluded: At a Moment of Danger, which in my mind is the best film the collective has produced to date.
From the production Faster! More Incisive! More Appetizing!, Tsentr Fabrika, Moscow, January 2014
From the performance Atlas is Tired, State Hermitage Museum, Petersburg, Summer 2014
In the meantime several other art groups and co-operatives have evolved, among them the Laboratory for the Research of Feminist Pornography which given the current crackdown on non-traditional sexual life forms in Russia is quite courageous.. Another collective, a seamstress' coop, has taken up the thread dropped by the Factory of Found Clothes when it dissolved (Olga "Tsaplya" Yegorova and Natalya "Glyuklya" Pershina-Yakimanskaya are both members of Chto Delat). All of this activity circled around the newly established Dom kul'tury Rozy (DkR, Rosa's House of Culture). DkR rented space at Artmuza, a big complex of creative workrooms, galleries and various other cultural institutions on Saint Petersburg's Vasilyevsky Island. Unfortunately Artmuza showed hardly any resistance when hearing of the Russian secret service's wish that it should no longer accommodate the engaged artists. For now Rosa has not yet been thrown into the canal, but she has been kicked out onto the street. Though she found a new place of lodging quickly, her situation is still precarious given the current political situation. Clearly, such an institution completely hinges on the "risk assessment" by the State organs fighting against "extremism", because Chto Delat neither has the financial means nor the political connections to counterbalance their influence.
Reading the statements by Chto Delat regarding education, I had the impression that they have realistic notions of it and that they grapple with philosophical ideas (those of Jacques Rancière in particular) concerning the radical equality between teacher and pupil.4 Rightly so, because if there was such equality, society would not be in need of teaching at all. Like Chto Delat, I too think that teaching is inevitably linked to the establishing of rules of the game by an authority. Furthermore, my own teaching experience has shown me clearly that students don't necessarily want to be my equals, but that they want guidance so they can enhance their capabilities. Establishing a framework for this that takes the needs and present-time abilities of the students into account can be a terrifying responsibility, and if you don't take up this responsibility, then you are either a "stultifying taskmaster"5 or teaching to your peers (i.e., leaving those behind who are not your peers).
Berlin Summer School, in the courtyard of Franz-Mehring-Platz 1
Regarding the closing performances of the Berlin Summer School on the 7th of August in front of a big audience, I had the impression (based on my limited insight into the school) that more guidance rather than less, as some participants would have had it, was needed. The students had had a full time table with several guest lectures (David Riff, Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann, Boris Buden, Konstanze Schmitt and Marina Naprushkina) as well as presentations of their own work. In my mind, letting the students, who had split into groups according to certain rather abstract themes, develop just about anything, they wanted for this finale was misguided. Even if an individual can choose a group according 'to his or her own interest', this format can be extremely limiting, because individuals are still dissected this way from their own identity (in this case: the way they work as artist, with whom, their driving desire, their personal subjects and themes etc.). The result was that a large number of promising artists with very different experiences, and among whom talent was very unequally distributed, were made to work as equals and produced something that had the feel of a performance at a high school prom. I am quite sure that Chto Delat would agree that the development of a collective sensibility needs a lot more time, so why put people through something like this at all?
As to the more general question regarding the meaning of Socialist realism for contemporary engaged art, I am skeptical. I was not surprised that only one of the groups at the School produced a "affirmative project", a manifesto its members truly identified with; it concerned "Feminist Realism." The presentation of this project was also very interesting (there were theatrical elements highlighting the materiality of 'drawing up' a manifesto). There was another group inviting the audience to imagine a truly free form of education – something the Summer School had not achieved, in the minds of this group's members. Over all anti-totalitarian sentiment and post-historical disillusionment prevailed at the final presentations; the students understandably did not know what to do with Socialist Realism. The above-mentioned film/installation The Excluded is apt in this context because it conveys the utter hopelessness of our historical moment – globally, but even more so in Russia. Strange gestures by the participating artists reveal their experience of violence. Almost like in rehab therapy they have to learn to speak and move again (the influence of the Nina Gasteva is felt positively throughout the film).
Closing Presentation Manifesto of Group Feminist Realism, Berlin Summer School, conference room in Franz-Mehring-Platz 1
Again, why Socialist Realism? Did it not propose a theory of pedagogical transformation –pouring the raw passion of the pupil ("stikhinost'") into the ideological "vessel" of the mentor – to which the pedagogic experiments of Chto Delat are diametrically opposed? Of course you can break down Socialist Realism into certain abstract principles and try to fill them anew, but is that necessary? As the Russian Formalist Jury Tynyanov once said, "one must not judge a bullet by its color, taste, and smell. It should be judged according to its dynamic."6 There is no dialectic implied here – the post-revolutionary situation of Russia is not echoed in the present historical moment. Chto Delat's teaming up with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation is certainly not comparable to the avant-garde's (mostly tragic) commitment to a party it believed embodied the historical agent that would accomplish communism as history's goal. I agree with Andrei Sinyavsky's dusty Cold-War pamphlet What is Socialist Realism? that there is no such thing as Socialist Realism insofar as teleological thinking and true realism are irreconcilable.7 The dynamic of the bullet of Socialist Realism was what finished off the Russian avant-garde, but the avant-garde's quest for a collective sensibility (as proposed by Walter Benjamin) opposed to the ritual value of propaganda-(and commercial) aesthetics remains today the only viable form of 'realism'. And may be this Realism is even somehow "Socialist".
* All pictures kindly provided by Chto Delat Collective
1 MEW = Marx-Engels-Werke: the popular 'blue edition' of the works of Marx and Engels in German.
2 See. "Situaciia za PDS", at: Anatoly Osmolovsky Studio, http://osmopolis.com/situaciya_dlya_pds
3 This, of course, is a play of words with "nevroz" ("neurosis") and Rossiya (Russia).
4 C. "What does the teacher learn? The tutors' experience in the Chto delat School of Engaged Art, 2015", in: A Chto Delat Reader on Performative Education, p. 9, at: http://issuu.com/dmitryvilensky/docs/back_to_school_full.
6 Jurij Tynjanov, "Literaturnyj fakt," in: Juri Striedter, Texte der russischen Formalisten. Vol. 1. Texte zur allgemeinen Literaturtheorie und zur Theorie der Prosa (Munich: Fink, 1969), p. 402.: „.
7 Abram Tertz, On Socialist Realism (New York: Pantheon Books. 1960).