– Interview with ‘Chto delat?’: “The Truth of Actuality”

· Realism! Online Magazine – table of contents

The Truth of Actuality

Interview with Dmitry Vilensky (‘Chto Delat?’/ What is to be done?’)

german version

Founded in early 2003 in Petersburg, the platform Chto delat?/What is to be done? is a space where theory, art, and political activism are merging. The platform’s work is coordinated by a workgroup of the same name: its members include artists, critics, philosophers, and writers from Petersburg and Moscow. (http://www.chtodelat.org/)

The interview evolved in reaction to the text ”Organising Realism”.

Realism Working Group: In your writings the term realism is a continuous frame of reference. How do you relate to historical forms and debates on realism?

Dmitry Vilensky: Throughout history we encounter endless speculations in philosophy and aesthetics on the term realism. We could easily recall something of critical, capitalist, socialist, magic, moral, brutal, new and whatever else “realism”. But why is it so important for some artists again to contextualize their artistic work into this old and rather confusing tradition? Let me speak from my position as an artist who is more than often inspired by theoretical debate, but at the same time who does not possess an elaborate theoretical knowledge. I do not want to go deep into all the historical debates on realism, but I do think that it is important to have a general overview of how this term was understood throughout a history of thinking and art practice. So it makes sense to know and remember something from the very beginning: figures such as Aristotle and Plato and the theory of mimesis and of course the shift from idealism of Hegel to materialist theory. And not to forget Lenin’s “theory of reflection” – «The consciousness of the person not only reflects the actuality, but also creates it» and then in a wake of Lenin’s concept came the so-called Lukacs – Brecht debate….

Preparing for this talk I bumped into one very important quote from Zizek: … More generally, the line of division is that between the “idealist” Socratic-Gnostic tradition claiming that the truth is within us, just to be (re)discovered through an inner journey, and the Judeo-Christian “materialist” notion that truth can only emerge from an EXTERNAL traumatic encounter which shatters the subject’s balance. “Truth” requires an effort in which we have to fight our “spontaneous” tendency.

I thought that this quote could help us to clearly understand the connection between a materialist approach to realism by analyzing the human capacity to reveal the “truth” of actuality. It is a very complex issue but I think that we are more than ever in an urgency to pursue a truth procedure, and for me I would say it is a realistic-materialist approach to reality.

RWG: What would you call a realist practice today?

DV: I would say that right now with the rise of new documentary means of expression in art we have heaps of formally “realistic” practices based on mimesis, and figurative ones that do not give us any understanding of what realism is about.

For me realism in art is not enough – it must be one component – a method of working with actuality, of new compositions of art making. Recently Zanny Begg and I tried to formulate the principles of “The avant-garde composition in contemporary art” (see at http://www.chtodelat.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=369&Itemid=179)

where we claimed the following taxonomy:

a) realism as an aesthetic method;

b) fidelity toward the revolutionary impulse of the avant-garde;

c) autonomy as political self-organization

and then we traced different current approaches to art making and claimed that current realist approaches should be discussed in a praxis of: Militant Research; Mapping; Storytelling; Montage; Subversive Affirmation; Carnevalesque; Re-enactment and Fiction; Documentary and a few others. In our article we go deep into the details of what these concepts are about and I do not want to repeat it here but I should emphasize: one reason why we are concerned with these methods is because they allow us, in a new historical situation, to consider art as “the truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development”. And I still believe that this is the best notion of what art is and must be about – whatever you call it – as an avant-gardist position (I would prefer this) or a realist one that can be organically integrated into the avant-garde composition, as once Malevich did and later a few more artists…

RWG: Isn’t realism a method to rather construct reality than representing it?

DV: It is both – representing and constructing in a non-dialectical unity, because these two different principles too often are taken as oppositions. But I think that they are not. How do you construct anything? You have this ability because you have some certain knowledge about the world. You have an idea about how things are developing but this idea should be proved in a practice – or better to say, based on certain material practices. Then one should proceed and find a way how to “represent the reality in its revolutionary development” – to represent the world in becoming – to represent something different from the way we know it – and there is a construction but based on the truth procedure.

RWG: In the middle of the 19th century realism emerged in programmatic opposition to romanticism. What kind of actuality do you see of this historical impulse of realism today?

DV: I do not see any heroic figures – the artist obsessed with personal subjective truth who is challenging “the heavens” and who is ready to transcend any borders in a very transgressive self-destructive manner. I think that the dominant model of an artist today is a genderless highly efficient manager who is not simply self-exploitive but rather directly exploitive in the tradition of the Warhol factory based on an exploitation of social and productive net-workings. And these sorts of activities and aesthetics are for me more comparable with a decadent and perverse realisation of all constructivist utopias about the sublation of art in life. But nowadays we see a proliferation of the art-craft entertainment industry that fulfils the demand for change imposed on the world by a new “revolutionary bourgeoisie” – or creative class… In what relation to this situation could it make sense to speak about realism? Or, I would suggest to repeat and reformulate the question posed by Brecht who said that “intoxication” is omnipresent, but how can “we” replace this intoxication” with something different?

RWG: What do you mean with “different”?

I think that the claim of a new bourgeoisie to be a revolutionary class is historically invalid but temporarily viable. At the moment we can admit – who is changing the world? Of course Bush & Putin and Co. and star architects and fancy museum directors and general coordinators of biennales and art festivals. They change people’s perception of our material world at a mass scale. Their deeds are grandiose. But should “we” surrender and take a position of “reasonable resignation” in this situation? Is any hope left?

For me being a realist means that we should prove that historical reality is something transformable and that the search for a genuine subject of history is continuing. The oppressed are not a fiction but something real and they produce very important knowledge and aesthetics that can be hijacked and “polished” by rulers. It has a sort of “insoluble rest” that cannot be digested by capital. So, even in a deeply reactionary time the work of emancipation is going on, no matter how marginal it is now. And we – particularly artists and intellectuals – have capacities and power to develop a viable alternative to capitalism not just for the utopian horizon, but also for current struggle. In art and culture the battle is not yet lost – I see strong activities that prove that. It is a struggle about value and it is of historical importance. And it is something that I would call realistic activity that must challenge the “intoxicated speculations” of the ruling class.

RWG: In 2004 Chto Delat initiated the exhibition project “Drift. Narvskaya Zastava”. It was based on an artistic inquiry into the social everyday of a specific neighborhood of Petersburg that played a significant role in the history of the Russian revolution. How important are methods of sociological research for this project and for your understanding of realism in general?

DV: Art as we know it, as any other form of knowledge, is permanently being transformed. And new types of art practices are emerging even after the “end of history”. These new claims of what art must be are still in the process of formation. So we have to understand how the new possibilities of making art are connected to the changes that are happening in the socium and how art depends on these changes. We have to carefully study it, analyze the processes of political and social formation, and how we as individuals (or members of different collectives) are determined and shaped by them. How could we do it? We do this through a process of research. Hence: no art without research. And sociology is an important tool for grasping reality.

For me the point of departure for making art is the question: What is happening in actuality – in something outside of me? But the material you gain through research you should let run through yourself, it should touch you deeply, emotionally and intellectually, then you can start to do something of your own.

But now, more and more often I see art projects that look like sophisticated interdisciplinary sociological reports – it is OK when it happens, but why should we call it art? Artists are losing emotional contact with reality and that makes art inefficient in a political and aesthetic sense. In a more direct way I would say that for me realism has a very emotional meaning.

RWG: In the Activist Club, one of Chto delat?’s most recent projects, you refer to Aleksandr Rodchenko’s conception of the “Workers Club”. How do you think it is possible to translate historical experiments that emerged from a revolutionary situation–that for instance Rodchenko was confronted with in Russia–into the present conditions that are not at all revolutionary?

DV: As I said, I have no illusion about our time – it is a reactionary period and I feel deeply sad about it. Yes, Rodchenko’s “workers club” is impossible to imagine without the whole post-revolutionary Russian situation – it is deeply rooted in the context of its time. That’s why the idea of a workers’ club is absolutely useless today. But what am I trying to translate it to in my piece, the “Activist club”? And what gives life to it? First of all, the idea of a transformation of the leisure time of the privileged art consumer into the learning time of the oppressed. And in this way I am very inspired by the situation that emerged recently in different social centers in Europe where activist are building their own environments for self-learning activities – centered around cinema, reading and discussion spaces. But I am more often disappointed by the trashy imagination of space production that is normally realized in social centers, squats and protest camps. I personally feel good inside them and of course prefer them much more than the hype lounges that are so much adored by the new creative class – that are so disgusting for their cozy hedonism. So I think that spaces should be organized differently. And in this particular installation of the “Activist Club” that was realized in an art institution I am trying to demonstrate how it could be. Actually the Rodchenko piece in some ways followed the same logic. In the USSR there were never any real workers’ clubs produced according to his model that was exhibited just once in Paris. Also I would say that for me it is an important shift “from worker to activist”. Historically the worker has marked a political position, but I doubt it now. Today political subjectivity is shaped inside and outside labor relations and the position of the political subject can be only determined through her active stance…

RWG: How does your concept of ‘temporary artistic soviets’ relate to your idea of realism?

DV: As I said, new practices and methods of realism are very much dependant on research and research is a collective process. So, to organize and carry out the militant, activist, participatory or whatever research you need an organization that can undertake it in a decent and responsible manner. And my concept of the Art Soviet is about finding a political, self-organized organ for the task of research and then for the embodiment of these processes into art practice.

I think that Soviets, as a type of political organization, are still the most challenging model because they combine two opposite types of power – constituted (power over force that administrates live) and constituting power – the potentiality in action – that enables it to permanently invent new forms of political life. So I do not want to speculate too much on the possibilities of crisis governing but I think that this idea of the art soviet is about demonstrating that radically different forms of organization of cultural production and its dissemination from the bureaucratic corporate model are possible. And such forms could organize a clash of powers as it once happened during the Russian revolution when state power could do nothing without negotiation with local Soviets. But we should also admit that vice versa – Soviets also negotiate many of their activities with the real power of the state and its institutions and this is exactly the situation where politics begin.

The Soviet as a political institution is in a state of permanent mobilization. I think it can happen only through temporal reconfiguration of its members and its activities. I mean that we – artists and cultural producers – first must determine what to do and how to work outside the framework of the institutions. But then in a realization of our ideas we have to, in this or that form, deal with an institution of power. At the same time we must try to establish our own rules of communication and control. And I think at such minimum level things are possible.

RWG: How is ‘Chto delat?’ structured as a group? Your work consists of collective and individually authored projects? How do you negotiate the distinction between those two levels in the group?

DV: After 5 years we have developed a sort of formal procedure. There is a “Chto Delat?” workgroup that was and is a sort of a micro community of friends sharing broad socialist positions. Also it is important that we trust our professional abilities to do something in a decent way. I mean that I might disagree on some particular statements of some other members, but I know that it always has a quality of thinking and articulating of its own. The same with the others. So in our group any activities that are realized in the name of Chto Delat? must be done collectively by any three people from the group unless another three veto it. And we always mark the projects by the names of people who did them.

Later we established a closed mailing list for all sympathizers. It is about 150 people who can share the information, discuss action, text and exchange whatever – that provides a good transparency for any activity of a group and double checks if it makes sense or not. The list is closed because we do not believe in limitless openness (like the 16Beaver or other, more anarchist oriented nets) and for productive work there is a sense to talk with people who have a basic agreement about what is important and what is not, and who develops a procedure that is not based on consensus. The reason for establishing a platform was also to not get the group into a claustrophobic transgress clash that happens between friends more than often… so it was an urgency to open the group to a wider but structured community. So now any one person from the core group can undertake whatever with two other people from the platform unless another three members of the group veto it.

It is conceived like this but of course there are some deviations – we are not so obsessed with procedure… In such communities I think that trust is the main thing – you cannot substitute it with procedure – then you get a real institution that we do not want. And of course there is a risk of abuse and instrumentalization of the whole activity by the most active members like me.

The most complicated thing is when something is realized by one person but then incorporated into the collective work – like the case of the activist club, or singular art works inside such as the Drift project but I think that is how the general collective activity provides a proper context for individual enunciations.

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