Arseny Zhilyaev Born in Voronezh in 1984. Artist, curator. “MAM” editorial board member. Currently lives in Moscow.
In the last twenty years, contemporary art has suffered an acute crisis caused by the bureaucratization and commercialization of art production. Testifying to this are the multitude of projects self-reflecting on the conditions of labour relations, and as a whole, isolating labour as an important component of the artist’s activity. The personal life of the creator, once considered outside the scope of art, becomes an inseparable component of the production cycle today. And the problem is not only in the formation of a system of media “stars” in art akin to the stars of Hollywood. As in other spheres of production, in art, the accent shifted from the creation of a product to its consumption. As a consequence, time, which was hitherto considered a necessary break, the time necessary for an artist to replenish their strength, today is almost more important than the work itself. “Relaxing,” we are constantly consuming images, communicating, experiencing affects. And how an artist communicates, consumes images, and shares affects becomes today a component of the production process on par with the artist’s immediate artistic creativity. Simply said, a person’s artistic aptitude is becoming the source of income, which in effect was already affixed by the post-Operaists. In that kind situation, there is, on the one hand, a hidden potential for emancipation, but on the other, prerequisites for the exploitation of seemingly inalienable, principally free abilities of a person.
It is known that on the factories of mental labour there are no picket lines. Behind its virtual walls there awaits a crowd of hungry strikebreakers, ready to replace the empty seats. Pessimism concerning the possible solidarity amongst the proletariat of mental labour that has no guaranteed work is recognized today even amongst the scholars of new labour paradigms (see the discussion between Franco Berardi Bifo and Mark Fisher). Social networks of business communication differ strongly from the unity of Fordist production models. The atomization of the oppressed is connected to the principally unstable and differentiated conditions of labour (from labour migrants to the masses of creative workers), as much as the tendency to unification was written into the conditions of conveyor production.
However, there exists a number of ways of questioning the legitimacy of the new systems of creative production, and sometimes, of inflicting damage to the dynamically developing sector of capitalist production without pretending to achieve something much more. This kind of resistance has resemblance to a kind of “mental hacking.” It usually consists of reassigning or recoding the machines of mental production through an unsanctioned intrusion, or otherwise, through their unconventional use. In a sense, we are dealing with the same practice of a protest movement, but realized in extreme situations, where the right to strike is absent. As an example, it is possible to consider the practices of resistance during the fascist occupation in Poland and Czechoslovakia. “Work slowly” (‘Pracuj powoli’ in Polish)—is a slogan enticing to refuse working efficiently, or to sabotage. This is how a large portion of the population of the occupied territories acted. On the territory of contemporary art, similar tactics are being developed through media activism and interventionism (Gregory Sholette, the projects of Nato Thompson, etc.). Perhaps the most vivid example is the activity of The Yes Men duo, which, using the lacunas in the work of information systems, carried out media attacks on large media outlets. The methodology of such interventions is based on the use of fictive data for the realization of their goals.
A dismissal of direct confrontation, which seems impossible at this moment, requires a proper level of conspiracy, and at the same time, it needs to work outside of the framework of a conscious collective subject. As in the case of the Polish “Work slowly” movement, intervention practices and mental hacking are realized without clearly demonstrated solidarity or the announcement of a strike. Among Russian collectives using this kind of methodology, it is possible to single out the groups “Voina,” and “Partisaning.” All of “Voina’s” activity is carried by the means of multiplying fiction through lies. The participants of the collective do not perform as real people, but as characters—partly imaginary, partly real. Their actions are constructed by mirroring official authorities’ lies with respect to democratic procedures. The main substitution is in the naming of actions of direct political activity as mere art. This way, the overturning of a police car becomes a “chance” consequence of a childish game with a ball (a ball thrown by a child rolls under a car, which is then upturned “to get the toy”). In 2012, Russian social activists acted in the same vein, when in response to a ban to hold political meetings and rallies, they organized “public strolls”. The practices of the group “Partisaning” also consciously inherit the practices of resistance behind enemy lines. Acting without authorization on behalf of city officials, “Partisaning” implements an intervention, but already in urban space, with the goal of changing and appropriating it, having taken it away from authorities. For example, altering metro maps, the activists imitating their official design in order to show their discrepancy with real city space, or they create pedestrian paths in places where they are necessary but absent.
The use of fictive subjectivities, such as avatars in computer games, becomes an important component of practices of resistance for artists in the conditions of cognitive capitalism. The construction of such subjectivity is one of the key stages of the process. Every diligent student of a post-secondary art institution knows that the success of their artistic development depends not only on the creation of innovative art, but also on having a correctly assembled CV with a set of requisite exhibits and necessary words about their education. This strictly formal aspect, estranged from the direct creative practice, acts as a passport or a migrant labour card. With its absence, you will find yourself in a semi-legal position and will earn significantly less real or symbolic capital compared to your “legalized” colleagues. A correct CV is a marker, separating a privileged class of cultural producers from the lumpenproletariat. Everything begins with education, which costs a lot of money, and then continues with the patronage from an influential professor, who teaches for a large salary, etc. Today, the art world is shaken from time to time by scandals tied to exposing the questionable past of individual functionaries that once showed great promise. Thus, the creation of imaginary subjectivities becomes a question not only of reflection, but of survival.
Projects based on the use of audience expectations, or on the faith of artists, could be described by the term “parafiction,” coined by the art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty. In them, using verisimilitude or playing on credibility tied to the expectations of contemporary art, artists build imagined narratives the goal of which is to achieve a desired political effect. The history of an imaginary artist and gallery owner Reena Spaulings is a vivid example of such work. In 2004, a group of cultural workers unites to form the Bernadette Corporation and releases a novel, a peculiar manifest of an avatar or an imaginary character in the world of art. The book is titled after the main heroine—“Reena Spaulings.” The novel tells of a young woman, Reena, who works as a caretaker at the Metropolitain Museum and enters into a strange relationship with an Édouard Manet painting, “Woman with a Parrot,” identifying herself more and more with this image. Subsequently, as fate would have it, Reena becomes a model and in due course becomes a celebrity, which further complicates Reena’s relationship with the image, which she eventually becomes. After the publication of the book in 2004, the artist Reena Spaulings emerges, and a namesake gallery opens in New York. Reena Spauling’s art is aimed at the analysis of the influence of an image on the formation of subjectivity, and simultaneously, on the peculiarities of the formation of subjectivity in the world of art. Another project entitled after an invented woman’s name—Claire Fontaine—exists since the mid-‘00s in Paris. Claire Fontaine carries out her activity through two assistants. The collective analyzes the system of labour relations in art, criticizes the effects of the global division of labour, and on the whole, the division between intellectual and manual labour.
In this context, the practices of the artists of Moscow conceptualism may seem rather unexpected. It is well known that beginning with Ilia Kabakov, Elena Elagina and Igor Makarevich duo, and the actions of “KD” [Collective Actions, or “Kollektivnie Deystviya”], and up until the actions of “Meditsinskaya Germenevtika” [“Medical Hermeneutics”], the problematic of characterization was key for the Russian artistic underground. Ilia Kabakov’s albums, “Sitting-in-the-closet Primakov,” written from the hand of a Soviet artist-illustrator, or the creation of projects of partially invented female Soviet artists by the Makarevich-Elagina duo—are examples of self-reflection over the conditions of Soviet production. If for the Western world contemporary art was understood as a non-burdensome manifestation of the boundaries of personal freedoms for a citizen of a capitalist democracy, then for Soviet people, official artistic activities carried the character of strict regimentation by state orders. And if the Western version had finally recognized its ideological and economic significance only at the end of the 20th century, in the USSR, the creative activity carried a formally estranged character, and had already demanded a critical approach 40 years ago. Strictly speaking, Moksha is a successful example of the exit from the system, with a description of many techniques of safe interaction with it (“double agent,” “Medical hermeneutics,” Prigov’s “nezalipanie” [“non-stickiness”], etc.) and its critical description through parafictive methodology.