If modernity is understood as an abstraction or fragmentation of time and space – of work, politics, and subjectivity – then how can the modern experience be represented at all? The Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s scientific efforts to paint abstract forms, John Cage’s minimal but physical performances, and Hito Steyerl’s desire to materialize the digital image are all examples of attempts to represent capitalism’s abstract sociality, what Mallarmé once called the aesthetic aspect of political economy.
The Russian group Chto Delat – consisting of artists, art critics and philosophers – has, since its founding in St. Petersburg in 2003, worked explicitly with art’s relationship with capitalism, often at art institutions outside of Russia. In films, installations, performances, the magazine Chto Delat?, and The School of Engaged Art in St. Petersburg, the group draws from political events, both historical and contemporary, with a formal language derived from Marxist artists like Bertolt Brecht and Vsevolod Meyerhold, as well as from art movements such as Bauhaus and Constructivism. If many artists today grapple with depicting the contemporary era’s digitalized, financialized, and heterogeneous relations, the art practice of Chto Delat deepens and twists the subject one more time by filtering all this through a post-Soviet mentality where Wild West-capitalism stands side-by-side with fascism, nationalism, war and oppression. The group’s first solo exhibition in Sweden, at Gävle Konstcentrum, draws on the individual’s bodily experience of the contemporary Russian situation in a manner that engages both the local and the international.
The main part of the relatively small-scale exhibition is occupied by the film installation The Excluded. In a moment of danger (2014). Three large screens face each other and function as walls, which situate the viewer in a room reminiscent of the studio where the film itself takes place. One more image is projected on a square box placed on the floor between the large screens. The work is described as a «film performance», and we see graduate students at The School of Engaged Art play out what looks like a restaged workshop situation (with a finished script that the viewer can find in the program). The film is divided into twelve episodes that show on the different screens, and in each episode the participants have been given a specific task. In the first, they are asked to log on to different social media networks, as clips from news sites, YouTube and Twitter-feeds appear on the screens. In the second episode, participants specify their positions in time and space. A woman in her twenties speaks straight into the camera: «I was sixteen months from my father’s death, thirteen months from the approval of the anti-gay legislation, and a million steps away from my lover’s embrace.»
A young man makes a statement with the same level of seriousness: «I am far from the stars above my head, and close to the mass graves of 1937.» The camera’s gaze is searching, and moves slowly between the group and individual participants’ faces. As the episodes progress, the performers’ tasks begin to include physical exercises, like touching different intimate parts of their own bodies, or those of the other participants. This bodily element is juxtaposed with each participant describing one of their historical heroes – like Antonio Gramsci, Ulrike Meinhof or Guy Fawkes – before collapsing a top one another and on some wooden boxes in a sort of anti-monument. In the final episode, each participant describes who they believe abused their friend Anya during a demonstration. «It was my grandmother. She sits in front of the TV day and night, and intensely hates foreigners, Yankees, Ukrainians, and fifth columns.» Each participant’s testimony starts and ends with a choreographed movement.
Through these various bodily exercises – which include breathing quickly with abdomen, grimacing, massaging earlobes, or making simple arm movements – the film seems to point towards a politics where the intellect and the body, theory and practice, are closely intertwined. This is reinforced by the fact that I, as viewer, was constantly forced to move my gaze between the screens during the hour-long film. The focus on the practical and kinesthetic makes me think of the young Marx’s conception of «praxis» as sensual, as well as the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s pedagogical experiments on the importance of the concrete and the practical in children’s learning.
A similar somatic effect occurs in the next room, in the installation Garden of Catastrophes (2015). Black and white news images are enlarged to life-size, and exhibited as though in a labyrinth or sculpture park. The feeling is enhanced by the fact that the long side of the gallery is a glass wall that looks straight out into a dark forest, which can be read as a reference to Chto Delat’s film Russian Woods (2012), in which the forest symbolizes the collective unconscious of Russia. My gaze and body wandered between images of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, and ISIS’ beheading of an American journalist. Welcome Piece Sweden (2015) is the only work that was produced for the exhibition and consists of ten different IKEA rugs hanging on a wall beside headlines from daily newspapers about refugees who have fled to Sweden.
Ultimately, I see At the Moment of Danger as an attempt to represent a contemporary modernity where past images and points of reference have collapsed, and where capital impacts everything from politics to our most intimate relations. The exhibition can be said to represent a sociality that is filtered, fragmented and abstracted through digital interfaces and newsfeeds, where the recognizable and familiar are often commodities mass-produced by multinational corporations. Above all, Chto Delat seems to want to show how bodies become extra important in a time where the daily severing from experience obscures the ability to think and act together. Through the focus on the viewer’s body and on the practical part of art and politics, the Russian group continues to propagate the question that makes up the core of its art: «What is to be done?/Chto delat?», as Lenin proclaimed in 1902 in a reference to the utopian Socialist philosopher Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky.
Simultaneously, as the exhibition points towards other ways of being in our bodies and in the world, there is something in the works’ form, or non-form, that puts a stop to this. The almost figurative movements, the over-pedagogical approach of the films, and the direct presentation of news images makes me, as a viewer, feel just as flat as the Ikea rugs hanging on the wall. I see and recognize the movements and news images, I hear the stories. But the works fail to present me with anything all that new.
While Chto Delat chooses theatrical, didactic representation, their Constructivist role-models were able to grasp abstraction in a more experimental and speculative manner. But maybe this is no longer possible in the Russian context today? If someone like Hito Steyerl produces images that pull the viewer away somewhere – even if those moments risk being too fleeting – then maybe the work of Chto Delat is more about reinforcing political apathy? Maybe the purpose is to make me feel flat? Whether this should be read as an attempt to represent the impossible political impasse that Russian activists and artists find themselves in today, I don’t know. But in order to approach the disjointed, fragmented subject that I, myself, am, the work’s form needs to search for more unexpected expressions.