Interview with Dmitry Vilensky (Chto delat?)
Today it is very difficult to escape from capital, which continuously marks everything and each one of us. As philosopher Santiago López Petit says, “I am” today means “I am my own brand”. And this brand is obliged to reaffirm its existence continuously, otherwise it disappears. So we can say that today’s decisive battle is shaping up around the production of subjectivity. Within the protests against these latest conditions of global capitalism, and in relation to important references such as Chernyshevsky and Lenin, you decided to name your group Chto delat?. What can you comment on this relations that underlines the passage from the question Chto delat? to the question as the name of the group “Chto delat?”?
Here (with our name) we hint to two important references – the first one is the idea of self-organization sustainability (Chernyshevsky) and the second is the role of “external agency” – such as an intelligencia, an artist in its relations to the organic and spontaneous subject formation (Lenin who wrote about the possibility of qualitative leap – class in itself into class for itself – which is impossible without the figure of an external agent) – so Chto Delat is clearly marked by these references, and also by Godard’s text and Paolo Freire, which in general marks the position of renewal of the left’s thinking and acting through the whole century.
Your work is inscribed in the postcommunist context which, as Fraser puts it, is characterized as a loss or absence of any credible emancipatory project, but at the same time also as the proliferation of many new fronts of struggle. Where do you position yourself in analyzing this specific spatiotemporal experience and how do you explain the crisis of the Left nowadays, particularly regarding the Soviet/Russian context? Where has communism gone and what do you mean when stating that we are always already postcommunist?
The most complicated question is how to reinvent a cultural (ideological) confrontation within a system which is at a moment of absence of a real political force which an artist could realign with? Of course one needs to practice solidarity with multiplicity of struggles, but it should be a new form of critical solidarity which tactically supports the struggles which might be politically immature or even embedded in other forms of class mentality, far away from the classical proletarian anticipation of communism. The political sensibility (and the same with the artistic one) today is shaped by the possibility of identifying any form of emancipatory becoming, and trying to bring a certain idea of consciousness into it.
The crisis of the left today comes first of all from the general confusion around the change in the mode of production, change in the class composition and the new condition of capital globalization. And it needs a long time to be solved. And today it may be one of the legitimate positions, it could be compared with the position of cloisters in middle ages which impose onto themselves the task to preserve and develop the ancient heritage at the moment, in a barbarian world, when there would be no demand for it for next few centuries. You might guess that this knowledge was widely demanded in the Renaissance time… But keeping in mind this possibility does not mean that you are withdrawing from any real confrontations, but seeing things from another temporary perspective.
On the Avant-garde
With the emergence of a global society of constant mobility and exchange, as Holmes points out, the existence of political and artistic avant-garde is denied and repressed. Your hypothesis is that the avant-garde as a phenomenon and a notion can still be very important for us today in its past-future interrelation. Taking into account the internal contradictions of the avant-garde, on which basis do you define the potential of art in conjunction with political emancipation today and where is this possibility of “becoming” located? How can we think of avant-garde and its dream of transforming life through the power of art, in relation to the logic of capturing life itself today?
Art always transforms life in direct and indirect ways, and it always has its consequences. The possibility of avant-garde today is still present and legitimate, first of all in an attempt to demand another temporality different from the instant space of media and real politics. As long as we keep questioning the end of history we are able to forecast other scenarios of the future and “life and communities to come” but do not turn away if they are not appearing tomorrow – art must learn how to wait – they might appear in few decades or so.
The productionist’s version of proletarian art was not “art for proletarians” and not “art by proletarians” but the art of “artistproletarians”, which means that the artists were rather a political subject than an artist. How do you translate this idea into our current context?
“Artist-proletarians” are everywhere – the question is when they will be transformed into a new class which could shape a new emancipatory vision of the future and stop being a simple service-labor army for the hyper bourgeoisie. The main problem is that the artist was always a romantic entrepreneur of his symbolic capital. And his old-school class identity was always between proletarian and bourgeois. Now it has become more confusing because we live in a time of formation of a new class consciousness – and I see the goal of artists and intellectuals today to affect these processes in a direction of cultivating new forms of minds, free from the limitations of old traits of greedy and private repression of knowledge production.
The Power of Dialectics
Today we need to take into account, as Negri argues, the historical changes of the capitalist system when speaking about dialectics as the “great method”. Within the postmodern persistence of post-dialectics you return to dialectics; so how do you define dialectics today and in what sense do you think it still presents, as a method, a radical potential for emancipation?
I do not get what is postmodern persistence of post-dialectics – I see a total negation of the dialectics under the condition of postmodernity, where there is clear denial of any space of antagonism. But we base our world’s view on another doctrine and its name is dialectic, which we believe – and I guess it is proved to be – scientifically correct. It has described the world well for a long time and I see no reason why not to practice it today under new circumstances.
Bertolt Brecht, one of the major references in your work, was influenced by Korsch’s version of Marxism, shaping his aesthetic theory and practice. Translating Brecht’s methods into a contemporary context should imply a clarification of conditions for an effective dialectic representation and interventionist practice today. Which theoretical references shape your aesthetic theory and practice and what does it mean to actualize Brecht’s methods for the present-future? What is its political potential?
I think for us it is very important to update the potential of the Socratic method, which we found close to our interpretation of the learning plays developed by Brecht. And here we focus on the special role of irony – which is a pure dialectical device which helps to estrange the common sense. And here we can see a serious political potential, because it creates non-hermeneutic ways of communication with society at large and gets out of the ghetto of professional art world.
You mention that Steyerl’s text Articulation of protest was a kind of turning point in your work. We can see that you gradually drifted from a documentary form of representation to fictionalization of contemporary events inscribed in our socio-political reality. How do you explain this passage, and why do you turn to the idea of Songspiel? How do you address the concept of film in relation to the politics of truth in this respect?
I think it happens for many reasons which I am not sure if I can reflect from inside: the growing disappointment with a serious documentary approach which provides zero space for ironic investigations, general ethical disbelief of any art forms which do nothing but preaching to the converted, and fascination with the possibilities of fictional narrations and movie making which help to come closer into analyzing the totality of the social composition.
What role do performative tactics play in Songspiels, and how do you articulate the relation with the spectators? In what way do Songspiels present the potential of activating representations in order to open up real social processes of change?
No idea – we believe that Songspiels de-automation viewers’ consciousness and help to face social and political challenges in real life.
The question of political subject is present in all three Songspiels: within the horizon of historic consciousness you problematize different forms of oppression which are all produced through the logic of the capitalist system, or as decolonial theoretics say, the colonial matrix of power. How do you problematize these differences visually in order to address the question of who are “we”, who is the revolutionary subject today?
We problematize how the power is constructed in this way and not in the other and thus we hope that we give people trust that things could be contructed otherwise with their help.
Temporal Art Soviets
You defined certain principles under which conditions to produce and relate to the art institutions, and pointed out the necessity of hybridization of museums and social centers. How do you resist the cooptation/neutralization of the critique and resistance within the system of art institutions today?
Modestly to say – working under creative commons, working in collective and working transversally.
How do you translate Benjamin’s idea of the author as producer to the present conditions of production in global capitalism?
An author is a producer, and we are a hyper producer which knows how and when to slow down.
As Marazzi argues, autonomy is not only a political project, it is a project for existence. How do you understand the concept of autonomy as a confrontational practice in relation to the dominant forces of cultural production and within the process of capitalist deregulation nowadays?
See in our declaration – put shortly – the concept of engaged autonomy – when your legitimations and constituencies are not subjugated to art world.
Art and Activism
You have been criticized for the lack of direct engagement in political struggles. Why do you distance yourself from social activism and why rather not from the existing art institutional context? What are the problems in articulating this relationship between art and activism in political struggle?
Here I guess a lot of the misunderstandings happen with the notion of what is a real struggle and activism today. Many people deny that ideological and cultural fight has any special relevance today and creative politics is only happening outside the art field or outside the institutional framework. I strongly disagree with it because I believe that in today’s world (even more than in the past) the most decisive battles are unfolding around the production of subjectivity, and this happens inside and outside the cultural institution of power. Those who privilege the outsider position have seriously undermined their possibility to shape the change. And after all our experiences of extra-institutional activity we can confirm that it is not less corrupt and fucked up than any other forms of public activity.
Of course we should act in a transversal way, but art cannot be reduced to direct actions, most of which do not really change anything but often contribute more to the state of general political confusion. Of course institutional context is far from having any pure political relevance. The institutional world is very dangerous, a mine field, but without challenging it in a serious way we can hardly move forward – here comes the central fight over means of production (the apparatus, as Brecht would say).
And last but not least, I feel it is also about generation and age differences in a division of political practices. We believe we can do art, we can do a film, we can do a school, a publication and its presence lasts and builds new communities for the future.