Ilmira Bolotyan

Thoughts about the current socio-political situation in Russia: Public response to D’EST screening chapter #4 The Body as an Indexical Reader

I am an artist working as a research department editor at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, most notably at the Russian contemporary art archive, which includes the Media Center, and this is my response to Eva Birkenstock, Ulrike Gerhardt, and Naomi Hennig’s curatorial research project The Body as an Indexical Reader, launched on October 7, 2018, in the framework of School Without Center*Moscow, a nomadic platform by District Berlin at Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA). The D’EST project is so special because it is not only curatorial but also very concrete. It allows me to talk not only about the videos per se but also about their thematic relation to the context of local conditions in Russia.

I wonder why the curators chose me. Probably because I was born in 1980, the year of the Moscow Olympic Games – my parents had even wanted to name me “Olympiada” as a tribute. My generation is just another part of Russia’s “broken history.” As kids, we kept on believing in communism. When we were teenagers, everything fell apart: some political, social, and cultural factions just split off, others threw themselves into mysticism and religion, and some turned into business people. Hopes and expectations filled the late 1990s; the early 2000s turned out to be the hyperbolic years, inflated and stable. But then, it became clear that nothing can go on forever. On the contrary, everything turns around — sometimes in a very unusual way.

Yet we’re still detached from each other. When I say “our generation,” I realize that we don’t have that much in common with one another. “Generation” sounds too abstract. It becomes more clear when you describe specific situations and experiences: Today, I’m acting as a person who wants to connect the screened videos and films of D’EST: The Body as an Indexical Reader with contemporary socio-political contexts in Russia as well as with my own personal, artistic experience.

To begin, the videos of Elske Rosenfeld, Shelly Silver, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and Lene Markusen got me thinking about language and dictionaries. What is Shelly Silver’s film Former East/Former West (1994) about? It’s an attempt to establish common ground through language. It attempts to articulate the words that are so critical for a coexistence of “East” and “West.” When do dictionaries emerge? When there is a need for a strong narrative. It’s on a par with people learning to speak anew, reattributing significance to words that have lost their meaning. A dictionary is the best framework for describing and defining new phenomena that are unfolding. Meanwhile, it also preserves the experience of unfolding itself. Thus, you can create grand narratives that contain both the general and the particular. For example, the Russian art project A – Art. F – Feminism (2015) supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation was a collaboration between me and artists Marina Winnik and Michaela* . We announced an open call for artists, encouraging them to send Garage Museum not only their proposals, but also a feminist term that they considered to be important. We compiled the dictionary of feminist terms accordingly, and, contrary to our own expectations, the most popular words were “mother” and “motherhood.”

It is important to note that this work on vocabulary is not just about searching for new words; it’s also about redefining the old, traditional, and entrenched idioms and highlighting what the past got right. For instance, in Elske Rosenfeld’s video A Bit of a Complex Situation (2013), participants try to agree on a response to a demonstration over a period that extends for eight minutes. Rosenfeld’s intervention into the footage turns the historical film into a narrative, not only about the event itself (of the demonstration and Central Round Table discussion), but also about our relations to politics.

Mass Ornament (2013/14) by Marta Popivoda and Ana Vujanović functions similarly. It is not only relevant in itself as historical footage, but fits in neatly with a selection of documentaries that feature marches during the Soviet Union and under Nazi rule in Germany. It also acts an artistic gesture we as the viewers replace the audience, implicating us in the macabre spectacle.

The film GRAD (2004) by Lene Markusen is also about resignification; it speaks about the disjunct between generations. At one point, the film features an older woman telling the story of what it was like to grow up in the gulag. We witness the mother sharing her particular experience of the collective trauma of spending childhood in the gulag. The narration of her story is frightening, sentimental, and somehow poetic: “It all smelled like mothers. We ate snowdrops.” But her daughter is outraged: “Eating snowdrops? That can’t be true!” The mother’s narrative no longer holds traction for her daughter, the member of the younger generation. It is as if no language is left to express the subject of repression. The characters speak in clichés: “Homeland is your mother!”

Harun Farocki’s film Die Umschulung [eng. Retraining] (Germany, 1994) is relevant to Russia now more than ever. Lately, marketing has infiltrated everything, including the sphere of art. For instance, I see a lot of marketing for art courses, which advertisers promote through sales funnels and other marketing tools. I don’t attend these courses, but I do collect their advertisements, compiling screenshots of the ads because I’m convinced that these business practices are not applicable to the art field. However, other people’s experiences show that the public is genuinely interested in courses like these on art history. Anastasia Postrigay, the designer of one such art course, claims in the media that she earns millions of rubles. It is clear that most of these courses are designed for an uninformed audience, not for professionals. The question is, what kind of art history these instructors are teaching? Is it the history that they learned through the institutional frameworks of the former USSR — Postrigay studied art history at university — or are they promoting their personal views on the subject? This information is concealed by the very course promotional material.

At the same time, it is generally frowned upon by the Russian art scene to talk about commercialization, marketing, and personal branding. Having considered these commonly-held sentiments, I recently created a course on self-promotion for artists. If everything goes according to plan, the course will be launched at the HSE Art & Design School in Moscow. Now, I’m just collecting responses to this explicit attempt to import marketing tools into artistic practices. Some have already dubbed me the “Tony Robbins of the art world”; others claim that I’m belittling artists by making them cower in front of the gallerists and museum owners. Many artists seem oblivious to the fact that Farocki’s promotional instructionals are already part of our everyday life: virtually everyone with a smartphone and Internet connection is now a blogger. Everybody uses some form of self-promotion tool, but some do it unconsciously. No matter how much we criticize the business interests and their courses, we have to admit that they also have a bright side: they activate artists’ savviness about making money in the art market.

Tabita Rezaire’s video Premium Connect (2017) stands out in the third block of works. I like the way she integrates African divination, the world of fungi, ancestry, and quantum physics into one sinister mix to talk about communication and information channels. Are there any artistic practices like this in Russia? Even if there were any, the mainstream media is not covering topics of ethnic diversity or ethnic conflicts. Similarly, it’s not surprising that this topic has yet to enter the mainstream discourse in such a multiethnic country as Russia. Even if the media does showcase issues around the majoritarian ethnic groups of specific Russian states, it’s usually because the group has been involved in a burning political issue, such as in the case of Chechnya and artist Aslan Gaisumov’s project Untitled/War (2017).**

My mother is from Chuvashia, but I haven’t spent much time there. She’s bilingual, and I don’t speak a word of Chuvash. My mother says that she did everything she could to get me out of there. And so I wonder if the ‘little people’ of Russia could compete — at least artistically — with the Big Brother who has colonized them? Recently I went to Cheboksary, the capital city of Chuvashia, which has a population of just 500,000 people, and talked to local artists. 83-year-old Praski Vitti is the most famous Chuvash artist. He appreciates the place and its people like no one else. He loves the local culture while also being critical of it. During our brief conversation, I also heard bitter words fall: “These people are becoming extinct.” Being colonized and Christianized, they are struggling to maintain their identity in the contemporary world. Local artists could be doing a lot to stimulate and grapple with the sovereignty of their regional, cultural identity. Yet in the local art school, aspiring artists choose to work on motifs of such as Lenin on the Austin Armored Car for their graduate show. Many artists leave the area, the situation is typical for many regions in Russia.

Regional contemporary art is seeking to identify with authentic codes and shatters obsolete modes of (self-)representation, but it becomes helpless when there is no identity in place. Art aims to liberate the individual, and we need it right now, especially when the need for liberation is in ever more demand.

Author: Ilmira Bolotyan, artist and research department editor at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

* This artist works without a surname.

** Comment: The artists Henrike Naumann and Melanie Gilligan are also part of the screening chapter #4 but due to the public response format and time constraints Ilmira Bolotyan has made a personal selection.

Image Credits:

Shelly Silver, Former East/Former West, 1994. Video still, single-channel video (SD), 62’00’, stereo sound, color, 4:3, courtesy: the artist

Harun Farocki, Die Umschulung (Retraining), Germany 1994. Film still, 44’00’’, color, sound, 4:3, courtesy: Harun Farocki GbR

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Seduction of a Cyborg, 1994. Video still, single-channel video, 6’00’’, sound, color, 4:3, courtesy: the artist and Bridget Donahue, NYC

Marta Popivoda & Ana Vujanović, Mass Ornament #1. Watch out for gorillas in your midst!, 2014, video, 30’00’’, stereo sound, color, 4:3, courtesy: the artists

Elske Rosenfeld, A Bit of a Complex Situation, 2014, two-channel video (HD), 17’16’’, stereo sound, color, 16:9, courtesy: the artist

Lene Markusen, GRAD, Germany 2004. Film still (16mm transfered into HD Video), 22’00’’, color, stereo sound, 4:3, courtesy: the artist

Ilmira Bolotyan, artist and research department editor at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art