In the evening of 2 November 2018, Dmitry Vilensky, a founding member of the collective Chto Delat (“What is to be done”) and I met in Zurich. We talked about Russia, anxiety, the failure of capitalism, and the territoriality of the New Left.
Anastasia Chaguidouline: What was your practice before founding Chto Delat?
Dmitry Vilensky: I gained quite meaningful experience in curatorial and self-organisational practices. I was running different self-organised spaces in Saint Petersburg and worked as a curator in Germany. The work was mainly focused on art practices rooted in photography.
Another important endeavour before Chto Delat was the collaboration between Olga Tsaplya Egorova and myself, another founding member of Chto Delat. We started producing art projects, publications, newspapers—that became later the Chto Delat newspaper.
AC: How did the collective Chto Delat and the practice of merging art, political theory, and activism emerge? Was this practice new to the Russian art scene?
DV: Chto Delat developed out of a political action. We, the participants, found ourselves in a very difficult political situation in 2003. The public action was called We Are Leaving and took place on the occasion of the 300-year anniversary of the city of St. Petersburg. This action was a culmination of a general discontent with local cultural politics, shared between a vast range of cultural workers. In addition, there was a very important new aspect that is difficult to grasp nowadays. There was a new understanding of Left politics and an appearance of a new political language, not only in Russia, but internationally. One can think, for instance, about the Zapatista movement. In the West, this happened somewhat earlier than in Russia, due the post-Soviet ‘90s. One can see proper documentation of this event in our first issue of the newspaper called “What is to be done” published shortly after.
I don’t think that there were really groups merging political activism and art before 2000 in Russia, at least not in a “Western sense.” One might mention the Moscow actionists, yet their practice belonged more to the field of actionism than activism. They did great work and linked it to political theory—people like Anatoly Osmolovsky, Alexander Brenner, Radek group, and some others. Also some neo-anarchist groups were active even after Perestroika; however, they did not necessarily use the medium of art. What we have done is quite different from the people I mention above. We were not really active in the form of street interventions; however, between 2004 and 2007 we realised a few actions like Stop the Machine (2004), Kronstadt Forever (2005), and In Praise of Dialectics (2006).
AC: How does the current political climate in Russia influence your practice?
DV: The opportunities for exhibiting and funding are scarce. However, they always have been scarce. Therefore, it is important to learn how to use them well. The state funding of critical contemporary art is close to 0%. Especially for us or other leftist artists who are considered dissident. There is no systematic funding for the established arts, unlike in the West. However, for specific projects, one might get support from foundations. There are several biennales happening, for example, in Moscow and in Ural, and new contemporary art centres are opening their doors. It is interesting to note that while Moscow has seen many important art centres open its doors, including Garage and Elektrozavod, paradoxically St. Petersburg lacks resources and does not have any important contemporary art institutions. There are some galleries, but very little in number. Generally speaking, the contemporary art scene in St. Petersburg is a very apolitical one and stays outside of social life.
After 2012, the opportunities decreased even further for contemporary Russian artists. Paradoxically enough, these repressive times brought up new opportunities for Chto Delat. We could open a Rosa’s House of Culture and establish our art school, School of Engaged Art thanks to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
AC: The name of your collective, Chto Delat, is a very prominent one, as it coincides with the title of a pamphlet by Lenin that was published in 1902. What importance does this name have for you?
DV: I think we were very lucky with the choice of our name. For us, it has more references to the 1863 novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky and plays a bigger role in terms of meaning than Lenin’s pamphlet.
However, the concrete inspiration for the name appeared around the year 2001, out of my exposure to or exchange with the Western, namely German, context. I remember seeing a series on the TV channel Arte with the title Was Tun? (What Is to Be Done? in German). Back then, these series really struck me, as they showed such a panorama of new political activity, such as the Zapatista movement or the new Italian Left.
So, when we were thinking about the name for our own collective, the idea was to reclaim that title from the Russian perspective. The name felt right and remained. This gesture of positioning ourselves as politically left in Russia at that time was still very scandalous, as the whole intellectual and cultural world was generally right-wing liberal. I would not say conservative, because there was much less conservatism back then than there is nowadays in Russia. However, liberalism in Russia clearly differs from the West. In Russia, you have clearly more of a right-wing liberalism. That being said, our gesture back then was clearly a gesture of dissidence.
AC: How has the constellation of your workgroup / collective changed or remained?
DV: The constellation changed, but not very much. Some members left and others came. However, Chto Delat is not an open collective. Our core group is permanent. I can’t say that the core group is closed by protocol; nevertheless, we have strong generational and personal relations. The last person that joined the group was the choreographer Nina Gasteva in 2010. Since then, some members have left. I think we will either stay in this constellation in the future or disperse.
On the other hand, we have active and lively inter-generational temporal collaborations. Recently, we have worked with other prominent artists such as Anton Kats and Babi Badalov. Our pedagogical practice is closely tied to our artistic methodology. Indeed, the pedagogical practice became more and more important with, for instance, the founding of the School for Engaged Art. Art education is traditionally inter-generational, if one looks at the relationship between mentor and student. I think that the exchange between two different generational viewpoints can lead to completely new ways of creating and working. This can be very fruitful and beneficial for both sides involved.
We are positioning ourselves as a national and local St. Petersburg collective. For us, it is very important that the working language is Russian. The language and the territoriality are crucial for us as a collective. Chto Delat was formed in St. Petersburg. There was a small branch of the collective in Moscow, and some members live outside of the territory of St. Petersburg today, yet it still remains a St. Petersburg collective, through its histories and its main genealogy.
AC: How would you describe St. Petersburg’s genealogy?
DV: It is difficult to succeed in formulating what the St. Petersburg context really is. Many have tried describing it, everyone feels it, but when one starts generalising it, the result usually turns out to be bad.
On the one hand, the context is a very old one, starting with the era of great Russian literature, with Pushkin, Dostoyevsky. All these great writers could not fully grasp the city or its context, because after all, the city is in a way artificial. It appeared as a kind of mirage, as the city was copied from the West and then even became a double or mirrored mirage, when it lost its status as a capital. Andrey Beliy once wrote in his most famous conceptual novel Petersburg at the beginning of 20th century: “If St. Petersburg will not be the capital, St. Petersburg will not be!” So, before the October Revolution, the important identity feature of the city was its hold on political power and governance. Later, the city was deprived of its power, its glory, and its money.
AC: Do the individual members of Chto Delat all position themselves as politically left?
DV: Yes, however, without being overly dogmatic—left in a broader sense of the term. At the beginning, we had many discussions, “Auseinandersetzungen,” that were reminiscent of the arguments between, for instance, the Bolsheviks and Anarchists.
There are a lot of different positions within the Left, but there is a certain shared vision or understanding. The main point of this shared understanding stands in sharp contrast with the liberals. It is a strong feeling of disappointment in capitalism and human rights rhetoric. It is a serious understanding that capitalism is not the answer to the question, but instead the problem and maybe the central problem of society and democracy. And that most importantly, its hegemony is total, and it doesn’t allow for any doubt.
AC: Speaking about ideology and the future, do you believe that socialism could be an answer for Russia and/or maybe the world?
DV: At the moment, it is very difficult to say anything. The prevailing feeling is disappointment and depression. I have to say that we as a group are still carried by the optimism of the early 2000s. There was a social burst and various social movements emerged at that time. There wasn’t this permanent feeling of anxiety. Anxiety now prevails, it dominates. It has reached a stage of disease. Additionally, this anxiety is fed every day, by the media, by the politics, by your neighbour. On a daily basis, you hear about yet another disaster, and you can’t do anything.
AC: How did the feeling in the ‘90s differ from what is experienced now?
DV: Actually, we lived through the ‘90s quite happily, as I recall. When the restrictive Soviet Union crashed, it was a shock. However, freedom came to Russia and a certain openness towards the world outside, and a lot of possibilities appeared. Of course, there were a lot of people who had problems, whose lives crashed completely, and many families lived at the level of hunger. Actually, many people died or were not born those days. It was a tough moment, but I wouldn’t agree with the people that say that the ‘90s were a social disaster. It is difficult to generalise, but this is my personal experience. And I think ultimately there was this, in a way, hopeful feeling of: “Now, we will go through this suffering and at the end better times await!”
Of course, there were tragic biographies; someone who previously was an engineer would become a cleaner… Yet these unexpected trajectories brought with them a lot of adventure, sometimes tragic, sometimes magical. There was a sense of shock and transformation. In those times, even when I think about the generation of my parents, people were thinking that this hard transformative journey would lead to a better place. Maybe I am idealising, but there was a will to survive.
Another problem of capitalism, in comparison to the times of communist Russia, is the problem of choice. Nowadays, there is an abundance of things to choose from, which naturally leads to over-consumerism. No matter what you choose, you choose wrongly—you can only make the wrong choice and remain frustrated. You regret your choice, because someone has chosen something better than you. In the Soviet Union, there was no vicious circle of psychological frustration, because there was nothing to choose from. There was one party and one type of sausage. When there was only one TV channel, everything was easier.
AC: Did Chto Delat mostly work in St. Petersburg at the beginning of your collective practice? How fast did you enter the international realm?
DV: Exhibition-wise, in the first couple of years we realised a few large-scale projects in St. Petersburg. We also did some important stuff in Moscow in 2005 and 2006. At the same time, we had started grass-roots exchanges internationally along the activist networks, as a kind of micro-politics, but a very important practice. After this came a long period that was dominated by international practice. Then, we founded our school and the Rosa’s House of Culture locally again, so our practice at the moment is very local, but we manage to keep our international presence as well.
We always tried to claim a certain notion of equality. We don’t see ourselves as exporters of a certain knowledge to the West. In parallel, we are bringing a lot of materials and ideas from the West and translating them into local experiences. We started to speak about certain things which at that time in Russia were yet unspoken of. We saw ourselves as translators, not only in one direction, but in both.
Furthermore, the films that we are producing are very distinct. They are available online, and one can really see them as a digital archive. For us, it is important to show this narrative openly and clarify that we differ from common gallery artists in our standpoint on copyrights. We are paying a certain price for this standpoint, but I am sure that this type of distribution is the future—the development of new forms of commons and sharing. This standpoint on copyrights is our modest strive to adhere to the values that we are talking about.
AC: Is there a specific goal in your practice? How long do you think Chto Delat will operate as a collective?
DV: We have the possibility to make certain statements about the world, and we will continue to make them, as long as it remains interesting to us and to someone else. In my opinion, our practice is about insisting on certain values that not a lot of people would speak about.
I think, as a group we can operate as long as we are still interested in what we are doing and have a willingness to do something and argue/share with the younger generation. I feel that there will be an end, a limit of our practice, which will not come with the end of our physical lives, but some time before.
1 Herbert Marcuse, “An Essay on Liberation,” 1969. Available at marxists.org, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/1969/essay-liberation.htm.
2 Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1997, p. 6.
3 I am deliberately not using the English translation of “powerlessness” for the German word Ohnmacht, as in Ohn- (deriving from Ohne = without) and Macht (power), because the construction “in Ohnmacht fallen” is a phrase in German used to describe fainting, a somatic reaction to being overpowered by forces outside of one’s body. To wake up from Ohnmacht would be described in German as “zu sich kommen,” which means to come to oneself. Hence, the process of being Ohnmächtig is connected to a detachment of the self from the body.
4 Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 112, no. 4, Fall 2013, p. 739.
5 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox. Grove Press, New York, 2008, p. 119.
6 Despite my fascination, I think it is always important to stress that Fanon’s writing was deeply heteropatriarchal. See also T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Frantz Fanon: Conflicts and Feminisms. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 1998.
7 When I write “imperial” I am referring also to its aftermath, which Alexander Wehelyie poignantly described as “the uneven global power structures defined by the intersections of neoliberal capitalism, racism, settler colonialism, immigration, and imperialism, which interact in the creation and maintenance of systems of domination, and dispossession, criminalization, expropriation, exploitation and violence that are predicated upon hierarchies of racialized, gendered, sexualized, economized, and nationalized social existence.” Alexander G. Wehelyie, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2014, p. 1.
8 Sara Ahmed. 2015. “Melancholic Universalism.” Accessed 15.12.2015. feministkilljoys.com/2015/12/15/melancholic-universalism/.
9 See Decolonizing Enlightenment: Transnational Justice, Human Rights and Democracy in a Postcolonial World, ed. Nikita Dhawan. Barbara Budrich Publishers, Leverkusen, 2014.
10 Cornel West. 2017. “Pity the sad legacy of Barack Obama.” The Guardian. Accessed 9.1.2017. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/09/barack-obama-legacy-presidency.
11 Daniel Matlin, On the Corner: African American Intellectuals and the Urban Crisis. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013.
12 David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2004, p. 2.