Free School for Art Theory and Practice

Art and Activism. Dimitry Vilensky and David Riff (Two Members of Chto Delat?/What Is to Be Done?) Interviewed by Szacsva y Pál.


Potentialities Beyond Political Sadness: Case Chto Delat?/What Is to Be Done? In a Time of Reaction. Seminar with Chto delat? / What is to be done?


Szacsva y Pál: Just two days ago at Tate Liverpool, it was announced that the 2007 Turner Prize has been awarded to Mark Wallinger for his work State Britain at Tate Britain, which consisted of a direct representation of the banners and paraphernalia of Brian Haw’s protest in Parliament Square, London. The piece is a reconstruction of banners, posters, flags, and other items used by Brian Haw in his protest against the British involvement in the Iraq War—they appeared as they looked before being dismantled and removed by seventy-eight police officers on May 23, 2006.

Is it possible in today’s Russia to honor an artist who identifies with someone protesting so severely against mainstream politics of the State with the highest national art award? Transferring this to the personal level, how do you compare your “status” as political artists within the Russian art scene compared to your status as political artists within the international art world? Is there any difference in the reception of your work in these two different cultural environments?

Dmitry Vilensky: Thanks for your question. It allows us to trigger a very interesting discussion. You may not know it, but in parallel to the Turner Prize, in fact on the same day, there was a ceremony in Moscow at which the Kandinsky Prize was awarded. Since the prize consisted of the same amount of money (40,000 euros), and the dates were synchronized, we can say that the initiators of this prize (the glossy art magazine ArtKhronika and Deutsche Bank) were trying to match their prize with the Turner.

David Riff: But the clone was more of a mutant, really. When I hear Turner Prize, I think of four really slick artists, shown under white cube conditions in a major institution. One of these finalists is then crowned as king-of-the-day by Madonna (“right on, motherfuckers”) or Yoko Ono, only later to be pelted with eggs. The Kandinsky Prize has a different atmosphere. It mirrors the Byzantine baroque of Soviet mausoleum-culture, reloaded to celebrate the glorious triumph of capitalist consumption with giant billboards and light displays. There is no Tate, no Moscow Guggenheim. Only a neo-capitalist victory parade of Young Russian Artists (YRA), and some of your friends have even joined.

DV: The main nomination for Artist of the Year was awarded to Anatoly Osmolovsky for his recent series of Pop minimal objects. This is really an unexpected choice because everyone who went to the short list show or heard about it would have thought that artists like Oleg Kulik, Dubosarsky and Vinogradov, or AES+F (who were also super active last year) would have much better chances. But the jury favored Osmolovsky, well known in Russia and partly in the international context for his radical interventions and actions in public space, and for different types of cultural activity involving the local non-parliamentary political scene. But he is also well known for his controversial turn from so-called “non-spectacular practices” to abstract object art in 2003, resulting in unique, expensive objects distributed through the new commercial and fancy Moscow gallery, Stella. And exactly this practice was fruitful enough and brought him a rather high level of commercial success. Stella’s financial backing also helped him to participate in the last Documenta. Osmolovsky at some ambivalent point insisted that his recent practices are related to the aesthetic turn inside political art—Documenta 12 was a most emblematic example of this trend. But I was very skeptical of his rhetoric all along and saw it as a perfect example of a treacherous position towards any political meaning. So it was a very particular kind of political formalism that won.

DR: But what about Wallinger? That’s not political formalism? It’s very suspect, actually, and quite ambivalent. Wallinger is a YBA artist, and the mainstream media preferred to write about him as the man who spent the night at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin wearing a bear suit—Paul McCarthy without the butt plug—but the jurors were convinced and impressed by State Britain, which you describe above. They liked the piece because it worked with relevant political themes and explored the nexus of restriction between public space and museum. But like The Battle of Orgreave by Jeremy Deller, who won the Turner in 2004, Wallinger’s piece is more about the figure of the artist-archeologist who reconstructs a more or less total narrative, neutralizing himself as a researching ventricle or mimetic function, and not so much as an engaged participant-observer. Formally, the piece is about politics, but it is not made politically. In that sense, Osmolovsky the aesthete is still more “engaged” (and less “formalist”) in his use of symbolic forms than Wallinger or Deller. His tank turrets belie infantile daydreams of strategic conquest and war; his Russian Orthodox bread icons flirt with the reconstituted glory of national Russian culture. It’s somehow very ideological art, virulent, and quite attractive because it contains a sense of impending catastrophe. I would say that we are talking about two different dispositives of political art: one of them analytical, the other still identificatory, even after the de-identification with so-called political art, even after the so-called “aesthetic turn.”

DV: I think that in general the reason for all of this is the general difference between the culture in Russia and in the UK. Of course, it would be too naive to consider cultural policy in Russia as something homogeneous: there is a broad array of practices and people between hard-core national conservatism, and the global entertainment standard of a fully commercial culture industry. It is no coincidence that the person who awarded the prize was Thomas Krentz—the director of the Guggenheim Foundation—the most emblematic figure of this type of development in art. For me, it is very interesting to see how well the most conservative trend can work hand in hand with the domination of global art-entertainment. Of course a few scandals—like the recent official censorship of the Russian Pop art exhibition in Paris—can spice this relation up. But on the whole, their combination is efficient enough to drain any drop of profit from almost everything and give some “pleasures” to all “society.” It is an exact copy of the process that we see in real politics when very repressive control of the public sphere is combined with a new culture of entertainment—new restaurants, private museums, city magazines, boutiques, and star architects like Norman Foster. But one thing that is really missing and the inclusion of which into this spectacle in Russia is absolutely unimaginable is a genuinely democratic politics that appeals to civil society. And here we can find a crucial difference.

The “aesthetic turn” went hand in hand with a turn toward “patriotic values.” We started our project in 2003 when the situation was drastically different from what we have now. I think Chto Delat was the first art project in Russia that was conceived in such international terms. The newspaper was bilingual from its first issue onward. The most important thing is that we were searching for a place where cultural and political translation could happen. We wanted a reconsideration of what is political through the persistent attempt to democratize art as a common sphere of knowledge production based on experimentation with different research methods. We were all really concerned about how to overcome the narrow ghetto of commodification and fetishization, and always insisted that art was an important component of social and political change. As artists, we consciously rejected the space of new commercial galleries or state-commissioned art, staying in the territory of NGO-type organizations, positioning ourselves between the so-called international progressive social-democratic cultural institutions in the West and different self-organized initiatives in activism and culture. Unfortunately, this orientation makes it hard for the group to survive. In Russia, the non-profit art scene is very undeveloped and under growing pressures of criminalization and closure; NGOs, even in art, are viewed with suspicion by the authorities.

As for our local situation, I would say that we have managed to gain a reputation in some way comparable with that of the old Soviet dissidents. Of course, our historical situation cannot be compared with the days of state socialism (we’ll see if that changes, depending on Medvedev and Putin’s course and whether they manage to execute more control over the whole public sphere). Though there are many features that make such comparisons possible, there are also key differences. We have managed to gain a decent reputation among Russian political activists, in the progressive circles of academia—gender studies, philosophy, sociology—we managed to win the positive attention of the most influential liberal scholars, and among a minor but politically engaged general public. Also, we are doing our best in the tradition of Soviet dissidents to use our international credibility to put some pressure on local cultural institutions, although the possibilities are limited. Most importantly, our work has led to collaborations with many self-organizing institutions in the West who somehow share our approach to art and culture. And for us this is a unique experience of exchange that has never worked out on the Russian side. So for us, participation in new international networking in art and activism are very important. Then again, I agree that we have to be careful with this as well, but still I would personally judge it on the criterion of how we manage to redistribute the knowledge that we gain in this collaboration and to use our privileged position to influence and change the rather dismal cultural situation we face in Russia.

SvP: How could you best describe your activity: as being “activist art” (that is, art with political content), or rather as being “artistic activism” (that is, political activism helped by art)? Or is there any third way?

DV: First, let me say this polemically: as artists or writers, we are NOT doing political activism as such. I am quite curious as to why people might think that we are. Let’s try to analyze the roots of this important and common misunderstanding, which sometimes sounds like an accusation. Yes, I call myself as cultural activist—this notion is easy understandable in a tradition of the cultural left. And more importantly, we have formulated the collective task of our collaboration as a group to merge the fields of theory, art, and activism. But we have also always insisted on the centrality of a debate on art and poetics in this process. For me, the main focus of our activity is the cultural field. But we understand cultural production as very politicized form of being and doing, the place where you need to fight to defend the way you work, the things that you produce and attack the dominant, hegemonic mode of production, the arrogance of the bosses, exploitation, humiliating labor conditions, and the alienation of the results of your work. Yes, these matters are political and what we are doing is a political struggle on cultural terrain. But what is at stake at these struggles? I think that at stake is our right not just to “humanize” the system (asking for decent fees, a reasonable timeframe for making work, control over the means of production and interpretation—that is all part of an urgent minimum agenda too). Instead, we need to reach another level of struggle. And this other level in art is to push forward a debate about what art can be and what art is. I think that the search for a “third way” could be very useful if it would help us to shift the borders of art and politics. Recently, many activists have been using art venues without really caring about art and aesthetics (more often than not one can hear pronouncements like “we do not care if it is art or not”). I think this is misleading for the power of both art and politics. The famous claim of the avant-garde on the sublation of art into life has not lost its relevance as the idea of radical democratization of art, but now I see first of all the sublation of life and activism into art. This presupposition is damaging for politics, for social struggle and for art too. Art can be everything and everywhere, but not everything should necessarily be art.

We should add that this is not a pure struggle for social change; for us, it is first of all a debate about the power of art and this issue is inescapably related to aesthetics. Art is still developing historically because of the continued confrontation and struggle between different positions on what art is and what it can be. At the moment, I think that the main front line is situated between the exaltation of commodity fetishism as a part of global entertainment industry and an opposition to these trends articulated through a variety of practices based on the idea of the aesthetic as an important part of production of common knowledge that should be protected from the market. The politics of our group are on the side of this latter tendency, which is why many people associate our work with activism.

make films june 2010

Make Films Politically.

Another important thing is the general confusion about the term “political art.” Recently I edited a special issue of our newspaper called “Make Film Politically.” We took the famous quote by Godard as a point of departure, which says that it is not enough to make political films; we should make films politically. This subtle difference is crucial. I think that Chto Delat and my artistic work are about how to do things politically and it means not just a simple representation of political subject matters but the way in which we deal with the political dimension of our own work on the level of image and language. And I think if one tries seriously to analyze our artworks one will definitely see that they are very different from the way activist groups work.


Drift – poster,

DR: I agree. I think Chto Delat should be situated within a tradition of critical realism. But seriously, whenever we use activist strategies (such as interventions in public space, or research into urban sites), it is always to project something that can be narrated and dramatized, rendered as a dialectic, if you’ll allow me to put it like that. Moreover, this is a self-critical process. Our urbanist project “Drift. Narvskaya Zastava” was more about mapping the utopian zones of everyday life in a neighborhood with a strong revolutionary history. It wasn’t an interventionist or activist project at all, but tried to actualize Situationist techniques in a post-Soviet setting as a basis of community experience.


Angry Sandwich People or in Praise of Dialectics- poster,

This had mixed results. Dmitry, Tsaplya, and Oleinikov then returned to this site and made another historicist piece, this time a homage to Brecht called Angry Sandwich People or in Praise of Dialectics. Though the outer form looks like a protest action in public space, Brecht’s poem on the sandwich boards shows that it is not, that it is an artistic examination of the translatability of political-poetic speech. The visual language—related to socialist realism and the Brechtian theater of estrangement—shows an intact link to communist alter-modernism (or modernatism, as Jacques Rancière calls it), to its problematic, to its latent violence, but also to its utopian potentialities.

protest match

Protest Match – poster.

My last example would be Dmitry’s Protest Match, a documentary on the Russian Social Forum during the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg. Even here, in a documentary medium full of dangers—of becoming the “embedded artist,” the neutral media organ, or the crazy activist filmmaker—Dmitry was able to strike a balance, showing the typical malaise of Russian misery, the depressing “low-point of the anti-globalization movement,” as Alice Creischer put it when we watched the film together, but without sounding like a defeatist or disavowing the struggle. So it’s really indebted to an engaged critical realism of the nineteenth century in some way, as much as it has to do with more avant-gardist strategies of “activist” militant investigation.


The interview was conducted in January 2008 via email.


Szacsva y Pál is an artist living and working in Budapest.