eipcp transversal an-academy
10 2010

David Riff: Just Maintenance Work

Boris Buden in conversation with Cornelia Sollfrank, Dmitry Vilensky and David Riff

Boris Buden


David Riff


Cornelia Sollfrank


Dmitry Vilensky




Riff: I teach art history at a luxury department store in Moscow, so I have to agree with pretty much everything you said in your introduction about the commoditization of knowledge and the reduction of education and scholarship to wage labor. Though sometimes, I think that it’s just maintenance work, to use the term of conceptual artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, like most operations performed in the art world. Art education might be little more than a service byproduct bundled with the real luxury commodity, the actual art fetish. This is how I feel when I go up to the somewhat shabby back office on the fifth floor of the luxury store, behind Gucci, Armani, Samsonite, and the customer service department. As I enter the cramped space with its faulty projector, I am more like a cleaning lady than a living commodity. This is dirty work, unrecognized reproductive labor. But once I have spoken for three hours, I no longer know who or what the main commodity was here: the gallerina cadres who leave my class reading Foucault or Naomi Klein, raving about Robert Smithson and Yael Bartana? The objectified “knowledge” I gave them, selling out my personal idols and my friends? (They pay $100 per lesson, so it’s ostensibly them who are consuming more than they would at a spa, making me into some kind of avant-garde cook or exotic performer, juggling jpgs, factoids, and questionably subjective interpretations, for about $50 an hour.) Am I a suitcase? Or maybe we together are perfume, a special scent that makes you guess at the endless depth of something that might ultimately be empty, emanating from some indefinable location called art?

Strangely enough, my other job at the Rodchenko School for Photography and Media Art makes me ask similar questions. Even in the more disciplinary setting of the fledgling art school, the economic categories are also blurred, and it is not so easy to see at which point on the economic chain knowledge production is actually commoditized. It is nice to think of students as potential contemporary artists, and really, the desire and demand for precisely for that living commodity seems to motivate art education on the whole. The economic need for new artists is especially dire in Russia, where an art market boom went hand in hand with a total destruction of art education. The Rodchenko School is probably the biggest exception to an otherwise fully privatized educational landscape, largely consisting of things like my gig at the luxury store, which have proliferated since the crisis hit, to provide former collectors with a cheap consumer-friendly alternative to actually buying art. In that setting an art school must try to satisfy the real systemic demand for new artists, new professionals, “vielsagende-[govoryashie]-eminent new names,” commodities that will finally answer Marx’s mysterious question: what would the commodities say if they spoke? What could they say to make people buy or support them despite a universal precarity?

But when I look at my silent students, I think I might be producing “faulty” commodities. Even the most intelligent ones are likely to become educated audiences rather than producers. They will go on to work in other fields, or simply remain as erstwhile consumers of contemporary art’s more sophisticated forms of infotainment, where you actually need a working knowledge of art institutions and a grasp of art history to be a consumer at all. Education expends far more students than it creates professional producers. Actually, you see the most intense moment of expenditure – where you really feel a new version of the old Fordist shock and awe of production, where machines are churning and clanking – once we really begin to discuss, once we begin to produce knowledge together, forming a constituency around whatever apparatus of knowledge we reinvent in that moment, the moment when we go from the reproduction of knowledge to its production, to the real work of an art school.

I would actually list this moment among the real motivations for teaching beyond material compulsions: the moment in which the educators themselves are educated, and dialogue becomes possible in something that no longer resembles a corporate training. But actually, neo-liberalism would not be what it is today if its cutting edge did not know how to reintegrate precisely such pedagogies. The dominant narrative is that such participatory knowledge production adds immeasurable value to the vaunted commodity of some mythical contemporary artist who is sitting there, as of yet unaware of his-her exclusive fate, sucking up all that common knowledge along with everybody else, getting ready to privatize or singularize a communal articulation. But I suspect that the real extraction of surplus value takes place elsewhere: when real knowledge production (and not reproduction) add value to the neoliberal institution and its location (Standort), a value that eventually – in the strategic perspective – can be turned into money directly, to the direct profit of the school itself and its investors qua owners. In those moments, we can think of both teachers and students as workers, serving a common employee. But for now, this is little more than a hunch, and I think we need more analysis of the methods and agents of knowledge commoditization to say so, depending on the particular system at hand. We would probably discover that there are multiple commodity mechanisms at work to allow each concrete undertaking a certain profitability and lifespan.

I think we need such analyses, and I am always afraid that we can’t supply them, so we resort to notions like universal precarity. Though I agree in principle. Of course, everything and everyone today is systemically precarious. So what? The art school where I teach is experimental, rests financially upon upper middle class investment and municipal funding, and could be shut down at any moment. And? What about my upper class gallerinas in the luxury store? For starters, their parents could all go broke. The owners of the luxury store included. Even if everyone stays afloat, involvement in the art industry means cognitive proletarianization the second they start to answer fifty emails a day, no matter what their class origins. But when I tell them this to keep them reading “The Shock Doctrine” beyond chapter one, it is an embedded Marxist’s flattery: I am still poor and they are still rich, no matter how much I try to convince them that they are becoming proletarians. In fact, some of them brought my employer flowers on the last day, to congratulate her on carrying out such a successful course for the luxury store, whose owners also own a famous Western auction house. I was dismissed like a cleaning lady.

Buden: Only one additional question. Reading your account about “teaching art in Moscow today” one cannot avoid feeling that the situation you describe is rather typical for the practice of teaching (art) in a neoliberal environment anywhere in the world and for that reason quite familiar. But at the same time, that particular location – late post-communist Moscow – gives an impression of being at the same time quite strange, foreign or even a bit scary for the Western gaze. To describe such a situation, Freud would have probably used the notion of the uncanny, meaning an atmosphere where a situation appears to us at the same time familiar and foreign. Yes, we know very well that this is how teaching functions in neoliberal capitalism. Yet there is somehow too much of that truth in your story; it is like a sort of paroxysm of everything we already know about it. Yes indeed, we know that the knowledge that surrounds and generates art production today has become merely a commodity, and that those who (re)produce that knowledge are nothing but wageworkers working for the benefit of the capital owners, but “like a cleaning lady in a department store” … !? As you know, “uncanny” in Freud’s original is “das Unheimliche.” So, a really correct translation would be rather “unhomely.” What or who is (not) at home in your story, neoliberal capitalism, art or art education, the West or East, you, your profession or mission?

Riff: Olympia becomes uncanny when her true nature is revealed, when she stops being a bachelor’s secret, when she looks at you directly, causing a scandal in the salon. Today’s bachelors are the new Russia’s Stepford wives, and their mechanical doll is a married man from the West who tells them stories about art and blindness. Too much truth indeed. Yet so familiar, so mundane. The department store was my home away from home, a place of clandestine experiments that I can't do anymore because since we started writing this text, they fired me. I couldn't be there week in, week out due to visa restrictions, and because, presumably, they had grown tired of my (post-)communist posturing. But I really miss teaching there. After me, they hired a young painter who just wrote his PhD on Tintoretto. On his Leipzig School type canvases, parading Stalinist figures do the Hitlergruss (salute Hitler).

Since being fired, I’ve thought about it a lot, who or what is at home in my story? It’s an important question. The domestic worker is an anonymized, mechanical homemaker. Her or his job is to make things cozy, to maintain a secure space for clandestine, repressed, secret agendas that are not her or his own. That task could be left to a robot, if only robots exuded anonymous warmth. It involves the maintenance of knowledge - in the broadest possible sense – as a kind of fixed capital; a certainty of that this is what things are and how they should be. That lies in direct contradiction to the other task of the educator, the constant need to destroy or unsettle that domestic space, to raise questions, to introduce things that seem bizarre at first, and only later become habitable. So I constantly have to ask myself: where is it that my students feel most at home? What is it that I have to challenge? And which space should we later inhabit? And that’s where things get really strange. The space I am supposed to maintain and disrupt as “home” is very specific, and won’t seem unhomely or uncanny to Western readers, precisely because it is really unfamiliar, maybe even bizarre. Why are the Russian nouveaux riches so interested in art? Because some of them still remember their painting classes and their music lessons around the corner, those endless lectures about Cezanne’s micrologies of color, perhaps even applied to socialist realist pictures of Lenin and co.

I am talking about the massive Soviet art education program, its abjectness, its seediness, its homemade homeliness. This isn’t some nice story we can fetishize as revolutionary avant-garde culture (VKhUTEMAS, InKhuK), but seventy years of mistakes and grandiose efforts, of “art belongs to the people” put into practice, not just as formal daring, but also as unabashed kitsch and trash and glory, for better or for worse. Soviet art education perpetuated the long 19th century in a way that would make even Eric Hobsbawm gasp. Odilon Redon. Maurice Denis. You name it. Dada still shocks. Dali still appeals. Art – and especially if it isn’t “contemporary” – gets to be unabashedly sexy in a cheesy softcore way, it gets to be haptic, it gets to be romantic. And that counts for contemporary art, too: things that an ordinary aesthetic education would prevent. But it also introduced elements of genuine communist culture, where everyday life began to resemble art, where many enterprises had their own museum full of folk conceptualism and DIY (samodeyatel’nost’, as it was called). And that, in turn, generated very specific conception of aesthetic self-education. I don’t want to romanticize it too much, but I would say that the very strict academism of the Soviet system – prevalent to this day – generated a counter-tendency that took its place in everyday life and that inherited an avant-garde approach to the production of knowledge: working groups, affective communities, a little like Tolkien fans, studying all this weird stuff. Not that always led to great results. But this samodeyatel’nost’ DIY hobbyhorse art burned up the free time of the late Soviet period. This was self-education for its own sake. You could spend 20 years reading Hegel like my friend Dima Gutov. Some people still do it today. Sometimes I think that this is the attitude my Olympia Stepford wives and my Olympia camera wielding photo students would feel at home in. A timelessness of sorts that we’d like to maintain, and inevitably wind up breaking. Maybe that experience will be useful when it all falls apart.