A Country in Transition – To What?
Hectic, chaotic, full of all different kinds of "flows", in the midst of these the capital, which is hardly a small city: Russia today is an outstanding example of a society in a state of transition. But a transition to what? There are various possible answers to this; prognoses for the future also vary accordingly.
Liberals would say, the transition is taking place from a "post-communist" state of deregulation to a standardized capitalism. According to this logic, the faster we become members of WTO, the better. But the Russian market does not want to open its doors too widely to transnational corporations. For example, the ongoing discussion about building Russian IT-clusters like Bangalore is impeded by the fact that national companies do not want to invest in such clusters if foreign capital will dominate there. Therefore some other disputers would say the transition is taking place from a disastrous age of common destruction ("Yeltsinism") to a healthy and safe "national capitalism". However, there are also some less obvious, more hidden streams in life and thought that can open up completely different perspectives, and we must also keep these in mind when thinking about the next decade.
Reality shows that while the intellectuals were just starting to conceptualize a shocking experience of the past decade, to unite disparate conclusions and to understand the situation in its complexity, a new mass culture of consumption had already been created and the new generation was raised on hi-tech commodities and MTV. This makes a transition complex and multi-layered and forces us, theoreticians and artists, good will activists and cognition workers, to think in multi-dimensional terms, focus on sophisticated scenarios, probe the feedback, experiment with some essentially new decisions. History is open, the future is not predetermined. And if art does not lead the way in an avant-garde of experiments, will it still be avant-garde art?
The past year was celebrated with several events proving that Russia wants to be internationally accepted and integrated: 1st Moscow Biennial, 1st Russian Social Forum, and – from the government side – a bid from Moscow for the 2012 Olympic games. Whereas 2000-2003 brought the sweet taste of being included in the World Wide Web through the domestic appropriation of the flashmob, the consumerist use of hi-tech, etc., now Russia is pushing to establish connections and exchange with the rest of the world. The integration will probably take place. The 1st Moscow Biennial did not show an "export-import" model of a peripheral art scene, but rather quite an intriguing and promising cultural exchange model: with the Soviet-style Lenin Museum hosting the central exposition and an international team of artists and curators wandering in a classic February snowstorm. Undoubtedly, Russia will begin speaking an international language within 3-5 years. This will result in a shift in the character of the international representation of Russian art.
For now the character of the representation of Russia abroad is that of "an image of an Other", as a famous culture trader Marat Guelman pointed out. According to the leading authors from this contingent, "the Other" of an international community must bark, piss, show bare ass etc. (see the works of Oleg Kulik and the "Blue noses" group – recently the main Russian representatives abroad). Also, the current art scene is completely uninformed about the informational trends in the international art paradigm – even the "Moscow Art Magazine", the main theoretical art edition, still can’t translate "open source" appropriately. In his 2002 report on Moscow, Raimund Minichbauer also expressed a surprise at the absence of a digital artistic activism in Russia. I hope that in the future, as the young artists learn an international language, they will start discussing international questions and talk about the common problems of globalization in a common language. In this way art will be enriched by connections to IT, self-organization, networking, multidisciplinarity, urbanism and other hot issues.
Values of the Market and a Re-evaluation of Art
Under present conditions, integration often means more commercialization, more capitalism. Especially because the art scene lacks almost any sources of "public funding", which are grants, awards, stipends etc. (the only exception is a "Black square" award amounting to 5,000 EUR, which was established last year and given only once to the young artist David Ter-Oganyan). The last Art Moscow Fair, which took place May 24-29th, showed that the art market is rising. More funds, awards, institutions will probably follow soon. The Russian middle class has grown enough to feed itself with works of domestic art producers, and there is a substantial number of managers and lawyers who offer cash to about a dozen high-rated lucky successors (Vinogradov&Dubossarsky, Kulik, Ragimov, AES ...). Yulia Gnirenko, curator at the Moscow National Center for Contemporary Art, has observed that the average price for a piece has stabilized at a level of 3,000 – 5,000 EUR. This necessarily results in three clear historical consequences:
- the flattening and de-conceptualization of art (for example, the leading "artists for import" are now Oleg Kulik and "Blue noses", in whose works the content is diminished to a level of cartoons);
- Disappearance of the critic, who is not needed to sell the artworks. According to Yekaterina Dyogot, some new figure of a text-writing manager-promoter is welcomed instead; this means that the whole critical discourse disappears (what resulted in a lack of any seminars, roundtables, open discussions at the Moscow Biennial);
- and the emergence of a new avant-garde, which must inevitably arise from the margins of commercialism, of a capitalist society.
To explore this latter notion further, I must stress the paradox that is widespread in international contemporary art, namely that the language of an avant-garde which was created by the historical avant-garde (Malevich, Duchamp, Picasso, Dadaists, Actionists ...) is now used by the people who do not fit the definition of an avant-garde because of their mentality, class identity and lifestyle. Yet a society that finds itself on the very edge of a gap between reality and virtuality, between the old and the new, cannot afford to ignore the values of an avant-garde, of a societal interface between the traditional and an unknown. The avant-garde functions as an immune system of a society or as its nerves. It transmits information on pain or danger like axons transmit stimuli. I presume that the avant-garde as such has always existed in 20th century society, but was not identified as such (although certain artists operated in highly sensitive fields such as new technologies, political art, etc.). In contemporary Russia it must also be identified and fight to regain the dignity and substance of an artistic message ("to recreate the syntax and measure of a poor human prose", in Allen Ginsberg’s words).
OK, but where will it come from?
Center-Periphery: Contradictions and Attractions
Geographically, the new avant-garde is very likely to appear not from the capital, but from the periphery. Recent years have seen the appearance of many excellent young artists and artistic groups from the regions remote from Moscow and Saint Petersburg: Yekaterinburg ("Kuda begut sobaki", "Zer gut"), Nizhni Novgorod ("Provmyza", Nikolai Oleinikov), Izhevsk ("Archeopteryx"), Kaliningrad (Karpenko sisters), Samara (Vladimir Logutov), Nizhni Tagil ("Sistra"), Saratov, Novosibirsk, Perm ... There are several reasons for this development: activities on the part of National Contemporary Art Centers (Yekaterinburg, Nizhni Novgorod, Kaliningrad; the Nizhni Novgorod NCCA director Lyubov Saprykina and "Provmyza" were chosen this year to curate and design a Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennial); and an unwillingness of the leading Moscow curators to include these artists in a map of contemporary art.
But let’s focus first on the policies of a "center", which will be, in our case, specifically the Moscow National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA). It was established in 1992 by the curator Leonid Bazhanov and is funded by the Ministry of Culture. It closely cooperates with the Ministry of Culture, Government of Moscow and a state office ROSIZO, which served as an organizational node institution for the Moscow Biennial. These institutions also make important decisions about personalities; for instance, they appoint curators for the Venice Biennial Russian Pavilion. NCCA conducts studies and exhibition projects, acting under the patronage of the state. But its policy, for now, can hardly be called definite: NCCA focuses on "middle level" artistic activities, supporting a very broad spectrum of artists and groups and prioritizing mainly "museum values". In terms of the center-periphery problem, it prefers to show Moscow artists in the province instead of the reverse, showing provincial artists in Moscow.
This is why the role of the regional NCCAs is growing in significance. They establish horizontal connections, not vertical. They prefer associating with each other directly, with no mediation from Moscow. To me it seemed a very refreshing sign to be invited to a regional Izhevsk Urban Sculpture Festival in Autumn 04 and to get in touch there with young artists from Samara and Yekaterinburg, with whom the Izhevsk organizers closely cooperate. It is not the institutions that play a leading role in this process, but committed individuals, who might also be a part of institutions such as Yevgeny Umansky, a Kaliningrad NCCA art director (whose role in establishing the Yekaterinburg-Kaliningrad "axis" is outstanding), the "Archeopteryx" group from Izhevsk (the Urban Sculpture Festival organizers), and others.
When the Moscow NCCA was just created, its statutes provided for the existence of only four regional branches. This is disappointing, because in the meantime Novosibirsk and several other cities eagerly want NCCAs in their locations as well. At the same time, the fortunate four cities are excellently developing their centers. In 2004 the Nizhni Novgorod branch received a huge historical tower from the municipal government as its property. This is a great success. Artists and curators believe that contemporary art will now firmly withstand the State&Church obscurantist tendencies simply by the way it is positioned. The Nizhni Novgorod triumph was further enhanced, when its NCCA director Lyubov Saprykina was – almost simultaneously – appointed the Russian Pavilion curator in Venice, and immediately selected Nizhni Novgorod artists, the "Provmyza" duet (Sergey Provorov and Galina Myznikova), to arrange the main exposition there. In addition, the young Moscow group "Escape" and the young Moscow architect Konstantin Larin were also invited.
Progressive policies of an another kind are currently emerging from Kaliningrad – the Western edge of Russia now almost separated from national unity. The Kaliningrad NCCA is, for example, the place where "BioMediale" was published – a unique and brilliant international publication dedicated to a critical view of bio- and nano-technologies in art, edited by the Kaliningrad NCCA curator Dmitry Bulatov. Kaliningrad NCCA’s art-director Yevgeny Umansky establishes multiple connections between local artists and art centers all across the country, initiates projects and conferences (partnering mainly with the Yekaterinburg NCCA and Yekaterinburg State University), and now he and the Moscow NCCA curator Yulia Gnirenko have started an all-Russian project called "9000" (9000 km is the distance between Eastern an Western edges of Russia), which will invite local curators to formulate some questions specific to their regions and involve local artists in projects dedicated to them.
To add some important points and link this topic to the aforementioned notion of a new avant-garde, I would like to briefly discuss the characteristics of a newly emerging regional art. In my opinion, it belongs to a new generation of artists who will be active in the coming decade. It might be considered the appearance of a "lost generation" – of those who were born in mid-70s, lived through the age of perestroika and early 90s, and only now start to test their voices. If we look closely at some of the works by these new artists, we find that they are working with some highly unusual material. In many cases, it is not a work conveying one linear message or using one well-known form, as in the works of today’s "star" artists. It is more of an attempt to tap into the mysterious multi-dimensional processes opened up to us by the development of new technologies and an appearance of new life forms. It might be said that they do not work with linear messages, but with models. Some artists, like the Karpenko sisters from Kaliningrad, do not even make their works as art pieces, but as forms of their mutual reactions to an external space, imitating some new collective life form. And the "Kuda begut sobaki" ("Where the dogs run to") group from Yekaterinburg creates multidisciplinary research and models such as a "Digitalization of water": a glass pyramid was built from small concentrically organized cups, and a water stream flowing from below could fill each cup and fall left (0) or right (1). The data documenting the "water's choice" were transmitted to a computer, which then transformed them into graphics and musics.
The Second Capital
Saint Petersburg has always been considered "a second capital" of the national cultural scene, or its inhabitants even used to regard it as the "cultural capital", as opposed to Moscow as the "political capital". In fact, the opposition could be described in this way: Saint Petersburg insists on the "purity" of art, while Moscow mixes aesthetic issues with concepts, politics etc. This has resulted in the establishment of of a certain kind of art: in Saint Petersburg the "neo-academist" wave born in late 1980s achieved considerable recognition. For example, as the artist Nora Konyonkova tells it, "artists go to vernissages from the Hermitage to the Russian Museum".
Nevertheless, the Saint Petersburg scene never gained influence in Moscow and is usually considered provincial. More recently something unexpected has happened: a group was born in the Northern capital which is very explicitly oriented to the Moscow conceptual/political scene, an artistic newspaper "Chto delat’?" ("What’s to be done?"), claiming to continue traditions of Moscow radicalism. It is still lacking a clear platform, but it signals that the way the Saint Petersburg art scene will develop is unpredictable. It will come out of personal involvements and contributions unseen by sociological surveys.
The story of the trial of "Caution, religion!" (January 2003 – February 2005) is helpful for understanding how contemporary art may operate under the conditions of a reactionary ideological domination in an authoritarian state. The exhibition "Caution, religion!" took place at the Moscow Andrey Sakharov Center and Museum – a highly politically engaged space struggling against the Chechen War and pursuing a human rights agenda. It is not a usual place for contemporary art gatherings, although sometimes events and exhibitions take place there. The exhibition "Caution, religion!" involved about a dozen artists, young and unknown artists along with established ones. It was dedicated to the growing presence of the Orthodox church in our everyday lives and to its social interventions such as school manuals advocating creationist theory, public expressions of religious intolerance etc. I must note that the art pieces were not very tolerant either, and some believers also considered them offensive. Two days after the exhibition opening a group from the Orthodox Church came to destroy and vandalize the exhibition. They were arrested on site, but due to a lack of appeals on the part of the artists, they were all released, and the court case was soon opened against the Sakharov Center director Yuri Samodurov, curator Lyudmila Vassilovskaya, and one of the artists, Anna Alchuk, who was also accused of some organizational support. They were charged with the "violation of religious feelings".
The court hearings proceeded for more than six months and were followed by many publications and discussions, and in the course of them it became clear that the art community mostly prefers to stay apart from a direct involvement. Even though the end of the hearings coincided with the 1st Moscow Biennial, there was no sign of solidarity given to the prosecuted (while the opposing side was strongly consolidated). The final decision was much less harsh than the sentence demanded by the state prosecutors: a fine of 100,000 rubles (approx. 3,000 EUR) for each of the Sakharov Center administrators and the dismissal of charges against Anna Alchuk.
The case demonstrated that the art community fears regulatory interventions. For the major community, the trial was a threat from the most reactionary societal forces – state, police and church. It was also considered a threat by leading curators, who noticed that those who appeared before the court were not artists but curators. Similar threats and fears are present everywhere, especially in regional centers like Yekaterinburg, where they have a large and aggressive Orthodox community.
If we consider only these developments, the prognoses for the future should become utterly pessimistic. We can presuppose a further strengthening of cultural policies, commercialization, etc. No one can predict what may happen in the future, especially under conditions that are unbalanced, unstable, non-linear; and as Ilya Prigogine showed, there is a strong prospect of fluctuations.
However, it is also very likely that the social changes will take place. There are even some indications that crucial changes could take place in the immediate future. If this happens, the governmental party replacing the present one will not be ideal either, of course, but undoubtedly this will become a much more free and open society. And there are several tendencies which I expect to flourish under these new conditions.
On a conceptual level, I think there should not only be an appropriation of Western ideas (concepts of "public domain", "networking", "art & activism" etc.), but also a re-thinking of the Soviet heritage. If, as Boris Buden maintains, there is no place for leftist ideas in the contemporary European East – because now it can only function as "an another imported trend" – then the Russian left must find its leftist idea anew.
This understanding is necessarily buried deep under the surface of our present currents, but it will provide an extreme impetus. We still do not understand well what a heritage of rich conceptual variety communism has left us, and a new generation of intellectuals is only starting to explore it. For example, the Soviet sci-fi of the 1960s demonstrated some completely new approaches to future modeling, technological development, utopianism (Yefremov; Strugatsky brothers ...); art formulated new understandings of "public sphere" and "artist-society" interrelations (Eisenstein; Yevtushenko; art magazines of the 60s; or socialist art in other countries, like Siqueiros in Mexico); the anti-capitalist critic of the 1920s (Mayakovsky, the Constructivists) is still valuable as is Alexandra Collontay's feminist perspective, etc. I think that a new non-postmodernist type of intellectual will be born, who will freely operate with both Western and Eastern, contemporary and historical doctrines, recombining and synthesizing them.
This can potentially catalyze further social changes. And I suppose that in the course of these changes the positive trends which I have briefly outlined will receive a far stronger development. Information awareness, horizontal networking, civil society institutions, the public sphere will grow and involve more and more concentric circles in society. For art this will mean deepening and sophistication, and maybe – paradoxically – finally, the creation of an autonomous territory of art.
There has always been a recognizable desynschronization in the tempo of the respective development of Russia and the global economy. Russian thinkers have dedicated a multitude of books to this gap which resulted in a need to "catch up with" global developments, or for modernization (one of the most remarkable of these books is Boris Kagarlitsky's recent "Peripheral Empire"). Industrial modernization was accomplished in the 1930s under Stalin, and the country paid a high price for it. As Manuel Castells points out in "The Information Age", the Soviet Union had started its way to a collapse in the 1970s, when the ruling elite proved incapable of restructuring the economy so that it would be able to compete with the fast-growing Western information economy. The Russian "informational modernization" is underway now, and the most pressing question is who will direct it and how. In the course of this modernization, contemporary art can be a useful tool, or an "agent of change", as Konrad Becker would call it.
Under the present conditions, in the sociological trends in contemporary art should be described as: integration with the West; professionalization; commercialization. However, there are also contrary trends, which I group under the label "new avant-garde". In the case of crucial social changes, the latter will replace the former and give rise to new developments.
In both scenarios, though, contemporary art can play an important role in establishing civil society and functioning as an interface between intellectuals and the public. Regardless of how artists operate, they represent cosmopolitan, reasoned policy as an antidote to mere reaction.
Edited by Aileen Derieg
This text is
published under Creative Commons License:
- Boris Buden: Re-reading Benjamin’s "The Author as producer" in the Post-Communist East // Artists as producers. Transformation of public space. Conference materials. - Riga, 2005
- Yulia Gnirenko, Yevgeny Umansky: Vremya "surka" // "Novorusskoe" exhibition booklet, May 19–June 6. – Yekaterinburg, May 2005
- Raimund Minichbauer: Istanbul/Moskau. Lokale Prozesse der Verknüpfung von Kunst und Globalisierungsprotesten am beispiel zweier Metropolen. - http://www.eipcp.net/studien/s05/01deckblattde.html
- Interviews with Yevgeny Umansky, Yulia Gnirenko, Yekaterina Dyogot, Joseph Backstein, Nora Konyonkova
- NCCA Moscow: http://www.ncca.ru/
- NCCA Kaliningrad: http://www.ncca-kaliningrad.ru/
- "Caution, religion!" case - press and documentation:
- Artinfo.ru – the main news source on contemporary art in Russia (wire, analyses, English version ...): http://artinfo.ru
- 51st Venice Biennial, Russian pavilion: http://labiennale.ru/ru/
- 1st Moscow Biennial: http://www.moscowbiennale.ru/ru/