eipcp transversal an-academy
10 2010

Dmitry Vilensky: We Teach With Our Works And Our Lives

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

Boris Buden


David Riff


Cornelia Sollfrank


Dmitry Vilensky




Vilensky: Thanks for addressing such important questions, but I am not sure if I am the right person to speak about these issues. Actually, 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. As someone who is self-taught, I became a professional artist and a member of an artistic collective in Russia where the average teachers’ wage in the 1990s was about 100 Euros–which only recently increased to 300-400 Euros, a token reward for most of the teachers' loyalty to the authorities, but it is still below the average wage in St. Petersburg.

Doing many different things as an artist, activist and cultural producer, I am currently able to survive outside of the conventions of the gallery and art world. And frankly, I have never encountered a representative of private capital in my career. Instead, I have solely relied on different forms of public funding. It is not easy to survive – and it is also a personal choice – if you don’t want to subjugate your activity to certain conventions or if you have a demand for changing the system.

I can recount similar things regarding my teaching experiences. I have taught at dozens of Western art academies. In my current situation I am not striving to get a stable position at any art academy. I would prefer to raise money and open a collective school, or to do it for free and build stronger relations with the younger generation. In short, I am more or less OK with these temporary contracts, because they usually mean teaching in a good environment. Most of the institutions I am invited to teach at are already infiltrated (to a certain extent) by friends, sympathizers and comrades who try to promote similar values in art and politics. So it is important to support them in their efforts.

Buden: But why do these institutions actually invite you at all?

Vilensky: Ask the institutions. I think it is because, like other artists involved in teaching activities, I have developed a certain body of work that seems to be important for the current historical moment of contemporary art. I did not make it on my own, since I am a member of a collective. In fact, I am an artist who programmatically does not produce art alone but consistently does so within a framework of collective practices. I am always looking to initiate different forms of collaboration. People want me to share this experience. Of course, one can ask how it is possible to represent a collective in an adequate manner. I agree that we are often limited by an economy of invitations. We regularly support each other and have been doing shows with installations where three or more of us are present, but for the guest teaching contracts it is not yet customary to invite more than one person. However, I am always happy when we manage to insist on inviting at least two members of the group – one researcher and one artist. It really works better in dialogue.

So I think that I can share a unique experience from the margins of the art world and try to seize every chance to use such an institutional invitation for promoting our values and to bring them into a discussion with as large of an audience as possible.

Buden: But what about the conflicts in this field - I mean the different often opposing interests and ideas among artists, including of course the so-called teaching artists, that cannot be suppressed even if they share a common, let’s say ”ideological” ground, that is, a common cause in art and politics?

Vilensky: At the moment, I have not experienced a situation of confrontation among people who share a common ground, or at least not in a direct manner. Of course there is some competition even within the same network, but because I see our networks in serious confrontation with the mainstream of the art world and academia, I feel that mutual support and sharing resources are very present – a bit like a mafia family.

So for me, the battleground is located outside – that's exactly how I understand the situation in art practice in general. I still believe that we – those who are not oriented towards the production of art as a commodity and who insist on its emancipatory, critical function; those who do not simply advocate the so-called social function of art, but are also very active outside the art world are all involved in a battle--but the question is: a struggle for what? Is it the same struggle for hegemony in which one can either take a position of power or counter-power? Or is it more complex nowadays? In any case, I am sure that we need to break with homogenous ideas about what art actually is. Art is an ambivalent praxis and consists of strong oppositions. On the one hand, it is part of the hegemonic ideological superstructure, on the other, it could become a sort of radical education – in short, the practice of human emancipation that uses the power of art to imagine, analyze, create, dream, visualize.

Buden: But what does that mean concretely, I mean for you as a teaching artist?

Vilensky: Concretely, it means that I stand for an expanded concept of education. For the most part, we artists don't merely teach through our positions at the academies – very few of us have anything like this – instead, we teach with our works and our lives. So we should consider the inseparable unity of works of art, educational practices and our everyday lives. All of these spheres must be politicized. To me, participating in the art world means to principally insist upon treating art as a very important tool for influencing how people understand themselves and the world they live in. I would suggest approaching this educational situation from the position of a political educator who uses artistic instruments to open up situations. As an artist, I think I should primarily teach how to approach the so-called formal issues in a political fashion – I still believe that these formal questions provide the unique way to move forward.

Buden: But what exactly do you mean by these “formal issues” - the so-called formal questions of art production that seem to have nothing to do with any political content, but still are important politically?

Vilensky: An artist always expresses her position through the creation of a form. Even if someone destroys the form and introduces this deconstruction to the field of art, it becomes an attempt to create a new formal order. It was like that throughout the entire modernist period and it is still like that nowadays. It is a difficult situation when “starry-eyed” artists see no difference between art and life. Right now I am speaking of a different version of community-based art, interventionism, public commissions for art in public spaces etc. – they are somehow convinced that form is not an issue and that it is a conservative, irrelevant approach, but they are wrong. This attitude is confusing and I seriously think this undermines not only the power of their creative enunciation but also the power of their social influence. You do not need to be an artist to work with social reality – you need to be a committed social worker who could certainly use any creative method at hand. This is an extremely important activity that is comparable with the work that doctors do. But society doesn’t only need medical specialists and social workers, it also needs art and science. This is not a need for a leisure activity or for embellishing the shabby everyday of the rich. People need art that can become a social reality. In a sense, art has the power to inspire people. It has the power to envision different forms of life and community, to become discontent with the current state of things on an aesthetic level. That’s what art is about and this is why it is a question of form. 

This is closely related to the issue of education, because art as fiction cannot relate merely to social reality. It must also relate to the history of the development of art. Activists and social workers could not give a shit about art history. Artists cannot.

This is why we all need to learn many things about art. This can be done in the old schools or outside of them. However, the most important thing that needs to be done is to establish our own temporary schools based on certain principles and that are open to everyone interested in participating and furthering this agenda. I would say that the goal is to establish our own forms of organization in the field of art production and education and the most challenging way of doing so is to fuse these two functions into one.

Buden: That all sounds very optimistic. However, it seems that today’s artists, as well as the institutions of art education, are now more exposed than ever to the logic of the capitalist market, that is, to an overall commodification of everything, including art education, which wasn't always the case.

Vilensky: I can hardly share your view of a “golden age” when everything was better, stable, outside of the logic of the market and so on... I also do not believe in the idea that certain practices were once innocent and have now lost this quality.

I just know that about 20 years ago, the world was completely different. There were 100 times (or more) less academies and art students and the majority of the academies were ultra-conservative – and they still are today in Russia. They primarily taught craftsmanship based on a particular discipline, which has been completely adapted to fit the logic of the market.  From my point of view, the situation is totally void of any comparison. I am not talking about what was and is better or worse. I am simply saying that there is nothing to compare.

Buden: But wouldn’t you say that, for instance, the massive precarisation that is currently penetrating the entire field of art production and art education has generally worsened the situation of artists, art students and teachers?

Vilensky: To me, art is a precarious practice by definition. That's why it is so powerful; I am not sure that we need to demand any form of stable working conditions for the artist. Instead, we should demand decent living standards for everyone, together with other wageworkers. But if this is not yet the case, I think that, to a certain extent, the artist needs to live through the tensions of real life. And from my point of view, most Western artists are still backed by an incomparable form of protection of rich states and capital. They have a very privileged position in their own societies and, of course, internationally. This fact creates a general inequality between cultural producers who share the same ideological platform, as you mentioned before.

I would say that there is no reason to look back and I believe that we should see this development more dialectically. We should constantly remember that we live in a time, like others before, that is paradoxical: on the one hand, we are much closer to embodying utopias and, at the same time, they are emerging through a false mode of realization –through so-called “communism of capital.” Nonetheless, I do not have any illusions, because we do live in a reactionary time and we should consider what is possible to do in this situation. As long as we remember the other long reactionary periods in history, we can recognize how it could be conceivable to gain some meaning for the future. So it is not pointless to speculate about the artist's mission. This could be an opportunity to get out of the trap of depressive speculation about self-exploitation and precarity.

Buden: This sounds a bit romantic - to really develop his or her creativity, an artist must first face the bottom of life, must personally experience its worse miseries like poverty, exclusion, total social insecurity, etc.

Vilensky: I would not like to romanticize this. I would rather see it as realistically as possible. These are the living conditions of most of the people in our world. Of course, one can share the pain of the world from the windows of the restaurants at five-star hotels, but I am not sure that this can function as a model for a socially engaged position. Artists and creative workers are always the privileged ones, even if they are as poor as others in a society - and this privilege must be perceived as a mission and a responsibility.

How can we carry on without fear? I am trying to understand why creative workers look so frightened today and where this fear comes from. Artists have often experienced completely miserable situations and still managed to create terrific work, but nowadays everyone is speaking of fear and trying to establish normative stability in the face of this dramatic change. It looks as if we have forgotten an old maxim: where there is a danger there must also be salvation. You know, I come from Russian society where political and social closure is quite obvious but I must admit that at the same time there are still so many opportunities there, or better, it is still possible to invent them. I hope that it is clear that I am not talking about an American dream where everyone can become a millionaire. On the contrary, I am talking about an opportunity for establishing forms of life that are not subjected to the iron logic of the market and the corporations. Such structures are ingrained in education – this is even their primary goal. I also do not believe in all the speculation about de-subjectification. It sounds very nice: “become nobody, demand nothing”-- one could certainly appreciate it as an individual or in a micro-group, but politically it is a dead end.

I am not talking about start-up logic either – but even these forms of economic self-empowerment are lacking among artists (e-flux is a rare example of this model). What we need now are new forms of institutions that are politically organized and that provide openings to the participatory dimension of collective activity.

Buden: I also mentioned that conflicts among colleagues, friends, comrades that seem to be a necessary byproduct of the merciless competition, a characteristic of the market economy in the age of neoliberal transformation that has also saturated the entire field of art education.

Vilensky: I have already commented on this, but I am inclined to agree with what you said, because I am sure that you know better. As I mentioned before, I definitely think that on a practical level we might not need to insist on long-term contracts with big wages for a small aristocracy of immaterial laborers. Instead, I would suggest that we demand good conditions for temporary work. Could this be a solution to avoid the merciless competition for one steady job position? But there is a much deeper reason for this situation. At the moment, I do not know of any school that is based upon certain politics in art – or of one that even promotes a certain type of aesthetics. It is always a combination of whatever is considered good or professionally acclaimed, and this situation definitely puts us far away from any idea of solidarity and mutual support. So I repeat again: we first need our own schools with clear profiles before we can even try to develop noncompetitive models within these structures. What we need are new models based on a real struggle around the existing system of values and not around a piece of bread that is conditioned for us by someone else, by the authorities, the corporations or whomever.