Boris Groys

                  Russian Actionism: The New Narodniki[1]

AK: Let’s start with a question about what in Russian art can be defined as Art Riot. The Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) or perhaps Russian critical realism of the nineteenth century?

BG: Perhaps. I don’t know whether we need to go back so far, we’ll get to Peter the Great that way. Or even further, the Christianization of Rus'. That was a kind of Art Riot, too—the appearance of the icon. I think that we should begin, of course, with the avant-garde. And I think that we should start with the discussion of the relationship between art and artistic institutions. In Russia in the early twentieth century even the radical avant-garde movements were relatively quickly integrated into the art system. Before the revolution, the avant-garde artworks were included into all kinds of private collections, and there was an intensive exhibition activity of the avant-garde. And then after the revolution the avant-gardists received substantial institutional power. If you compare, let’s say, Russian Futurism with the Italian one, you can see where the Art Riot  came from and  why it went out into the streets. Marinetti and the Italian Futurists on the whole were not integrated into art institutions for a long time. That’s why they went out onto the street. And I think that the same thing happened in Russia, even in a more acute way, during perestroika and after it.

I think that at the time  ability of Russian art institutions to assimilate contemporary art was rather limited, which led to art trying to break out beyond its borders and appeal directly to the mass media. Artists of the perestroika period were looking for allies in the press, on television. In the post-perestroika period, Russian actionism became a landmark, going beyond the borders of institutions and thereby acquiring a certain social effect and significance.

AK: But there was also the circle of Moscow Conceptualism, which was a bureaucratic institution in itself, if we use Benjamin Buchloh’s[2] idea. To a certain extent the Aesthetic of Administration was developed more deeply in Moscow than, say, in the Art and Language group. The Moscow Conceptualist bureaucracy rejected the ’new’ radicals.

BG: That’s not quite so obvious. I think the problem lies in the fact that when artists are confronted with the inertia of existing institutions, in the West they start criticizing them and fighting against them. In Russia, of course, almost no one did that.

AK: Well, in general, yes. But in a sense there was nothing to criticize. The first galleries that supported contemporary art in the early nineties were extremely powerless. It was a long time until the White Cube  opened. And there was no Museum of Modern Art, in which the walls had to distroyed.

BG: No, actually there were lots of museums. And they had a lot of contemporary, i.e., Soviet art. But in Russia there was no criticism of these institutions, and nobody had to fight to join those institutions. In part this was because in the Soviet period artists weren’t particularly interested in being part of these organisations. Instead, beginning from the seventies - Conceptualism - alternative institutions appeared that would perform all the functions of the official ones: publication, distribution of materials, exhibitions, performances, and so on. If we look now at the Western experience, we will see that there are more instances of the emergence of alternative institutions there. Basically, criticism of institutions in recent years has vanished, no one is interested in it anymore. But I think that Russian actionism tried to avoid institutional inclusion altogether. I think actionists adopted the impulse, which without judgment, I call anti-intellectualism. Yes?

AK: Not quite. The radicals who came onto the art scene in the early nineties—Oleg Kulik, Anatoly Osmolovsky, and Alexander Brener were rapidly educating themselves and seeking new languages of intellectualism.

BG: I did not notice that. I think instead they were trying to run away from what Solzhenitsyn called ‘educatedism’. To run away from certain tastes, from the judgement by the members of the intelligentsia, responsibility to achieve aesthetic quality. I think that the actionist artists  felt that all post-Soviet culture was weak and was made up of losers and nerds.

That it had only two or three years left to live. And that it would all go under, the whole culture with its hierarchies. People went where they thought new places of power had appeared. Newspapers, radio and television. They decided to go to the masses. They identified with that new force.

AK: I can tell you about my own experience. In 1991 I went overnight from a quiet academic art historian, specialist in the Russian avant-garde, to a speedy newspaper critic. The time was going so fast that it was impossible to sit and unhurriedly discuss the next chapter in a monograph at the Institute of Art History with people who ceased to understand the language I was speaking. My field was art criticism of the 1910-1920s and I knew how much pleasure and passion Mikhail Larionov and David Burlyuk took in manipulating the mass media. To fill in the picture, I’ll add that Italian Futurism in fact did not appear in a gallery or art magazine but from its manifesto published in the newspaper Le Figaro. By the way, an interesting detail. Our chief  fighter with rotten and prostituted intelligentsia, Alexander Brener, is the son of a doctor and schoolteacher from Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan. Provincial members of the intelligentsia made up the backbone of Russian culture.

BG: Marinetti himself had that anti-intelligentsia and anti-intellectual syndrome. He was an extremely refined man, hard to be more so. But it was not about his origins, but his beliefs. A kind of new ‘narodnichestvo’ has appeared, if you like. The narodniki wanted to kiss the fruitful Russian soil, in the good sense of the word, they dreamt that it would bear powerful trees, oaks. The actionists did the same . But when they  moved closer to the massses, they rather quickly discovered, as did the narodniki of 1860s and 1870s, that  the masses were not interested in them. Then they started crawling into very dark corners, organizing their institutions with varied success. Anatoly Osmolovsky carried out the institutionalization most consistently. In one form or another it was done by all the artists of that circle.

AK: All except Alexander Brener, but his persistent and ruthless struggle against art institutions in the end turned him into an international city madman. As for Anatoly Osmolovsky, throughout the nineties he tried to carry out an anarchic institutionalization, creating sort of terrorist groups working in the field of art.

BG:  As for Brener, he spat on individual curators and intellectuals, but what that had to do with struggling against institutions remains unclear to me. As for Osmolovsky, his institution consists of nice guys who don’t throw bombs and discuss innocent subject matter.

AK: Anatoly dreamt about Russia having its own 1968. In 2005 I discussed the Moscow radicals with Joseph Kosuth. He stated firmly that if there is no real popular movement, it will all remain a simulacrum.

BG: Well, you know, Andrey, the point is that 1968 itself was a simulacrum, since there was no popular movement then either. But there was a phenomenon, the absence of which in Russia seems to be a mystery still waiting to be scientifically explained, since Russia did not have a student movement. If we look at 1968 and what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989, when students took over universities and demanded that representatives of the underground become professors. So even though in 1968 and 1989 the  masses were not involved, the students wanted to change not only the educational system but the whole society.

AK: Look, there were very well educated young people in the groups Voina and Pussy Riot.   That is the university rebelling. But there were very few heroes. There were no masses.

BG: Because there was no mass student movement, the structures were not restructured. As for the masses beyond ‘educatedism’, they were formed by mass Soviet culture. And it just moved from the Soviet system into the new system. I’ll tell you an episode from my life. I was giving an interview about my curatorship of the Russian Pavilion in Venice. They asked me: ‘Starting from what attendance figures would I consider the exhibition a success?” I said that this criterion did not exist for me. They said, ‘Oh, yes, we forgot, you don’t like people, you despise them’. The problem here is that the greater part of the intelligentsia switched to servicing mass taste faster than Brener and Osmolovsky did. Brener and Osmolovsky thought that they would come to the masses and awaken them, but in reality the Russian mass media combined Soviet tradition with marketing, which are fundamentally the same things. It is a system for mastering the taste of a great number of people. At the technological level, manipulation  stayed the same, the ideology changed, but the manipulation system remained the same. There is nothing done can do about it. You can scream as much as you want on the square, but that is the voice crying out in the wilderness, which is actually quite pleasant. I think the re-creation of the figure Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness is the most powerful side of Russian actionism of that period.

AK: But that is exactly Alexander Brener calling Boris Yeltsin to come for a boxing duel on Lobnoe Mesto in the Red Square.

BG: It’s also Kulik’s man-dog, because one day he realized: ‘The only thing I have is my body. And the only thing I can say is to bark.’ It takes us back and perhaps also forward to the Christian asceticism of early Orthodoxy - to people who stood on a pillar amid filth for 30 years, or barked, or said nothing ever. It’s radical asceticism. The last book by Dadaist Hugo Ball is devoted to the fathers of the early Orthodox Church. He was a man of genius and he knew very well that ascetic degradation of human potential to the absolute minimum can be a reaction to the total control not only of the culture of the intelligentsia but to the total control of mass culture. People used to come from Alexandria to picnic around the pillar ascetics. They looked at them, ate and drank, and went home. As a result the stylites and the cave hermits started moving into monasteries and following codified rules. Even then it became clear that it is impossible to avoid the paths of alternative institutionalizing, because the masses do not react to all those isolated cries.

AK: By the way Ball has a book dedicated to criticism of the German intelligentsia. One of the main characters of his very scholarly research on Byzantine Christianity is Simeon Stylites. And he won!

BG: So did contemporary art. There are museums of contemporary art everywhere, located  right next to churches and cathedrals. And in fact they revere all those stylites—Malevich, Tatlin.

AK: And Duchamp!

BG: He’s that hermit who was silent for 30 years and then said something. Cathedrals were built on the relics of saints. Today Suprematist compositions play the same role as those relics. . And they play the same financial role, by the way, because relics were very expensive.  Now Suprematist compositions cost a lot of money.

AK: Well, there’s not enough Malevich for everyone. Or Kabakov, to mention barely contemporary art. The situation with the rest of Russian art is so complicated that acts of glorification are hard to verify by auction results.

BG: It’s not about the prices, which depend on the times and market conditions. The problem is that there is a certain foundational act, laying the foundations—and it is an ascetic action demonstrating the minimum of human potential. And then it is overgrown with church implements. If a person starts out with rational discourse and publishes articles or something else like that, he will never become a holy martyr and no one will build churches on his bones, or relics.

AK: That’s not quite right, because Brener, Osmolovsky, and Kulik produced masses of texts, mostly completely crazy.

BG: I agree, but they did not write texts that were compatible with the standard requirements of academic publications or the standard requirements of magazine-type publications.

AK: By the way, Brener, before moving to Moscow was a well-known journalist in Israel. That’s probably why he was the only one who managed to masterfully blow up his mass-media image as well. At any rate, he gave an interview for the super progressive newspaper Segodnia, where I worked, and even though I smoothed it out as much as possible, the editors rejected it. The texts and manifestos that Osmolovsky published in the name of various groups were specially made to sound like Marinetti. After all, Simeon Stylites, besides tossing faeces from the pillar at the public, kept reading wise books.

BG: Right, it was mad intelligentsia. But if we take the development of postwar actionism in Europe, only Pavlensky captured its spirit in some sense. Because all that masochistic self-torture and humiliating his own body goes back to early Marina Abramovic and Viennese actionism. By his actions, Pavlensky categorized the vulnerability of his body. In a sense, his performances could easily fit the big tradition of Western masochism towards one’s own body. It is very similar to postwar actionism. But in Russia it had never existed in that form. Pavlensky reactivated that direction in Russia.

AK: It should be said here that radical actionism is a consciously self-immolating strategy, and it can be realized only in a very short timeframe. The Viennese actionists did not function for long and the majority of them ended badly. But they had a very weak institutional component. Now Marina Abramovich has lasted so long as an actively functioning actionist because she became part of stable institutions. On the other hand, such intensive practices are too strongly tied to the social situation. When the wounds of World War II began healing in Austria, Viennese actionism began losing its relevance. In the early 2000s, radical gestures began drowning in the swamp of the so-called Putin stabilization. But that is the very reason why the strategy of an actionist who sacrifices his body in a public space cannot be derivative or borrowed.

BG: Oddly enough, it can be. Hurting yourself is an act of authenticating the moment. There is theory that says the originality and non-reproducible nature of the moment are related to the sense of pain. Pain by itself is not identified from the outside but appears only as a scene, a scene of pain. The inner experience of pain is a marker that is tied directly to the calendar—I was hurt then, at that time, in that place. The impulse that led to this practice is exactly the desire to be contemporary. One of the ways of being con-temporary, that is, to internally synchronize your own life time with the flow of historical time, is to feel pain. By the way, Bataille wrote a lot about this in his days.

AK: But the reality is that the extremists of the 1990s who worked with the problem of pain, like Oleg Mavromati, remained marginalized, that is, they almost did not synchronize with historical time.

BG: You know, it’s a question of historical time. Duchamp was also a marginal character, until the 1960s Dali was better known. With time public memory changes, it’s a complex process. I sometimes have students, Americans, who are interested in actionism and the most important aspect for them is causing themselves pain. Some of them are interested in Mavromati.

But authentic performances that authenticate themselves by the sensation of pain or other unmediated body experiences are now regarded as archaic. Today performance is understood most frequently as pure staging. There is a very powerful theatricalization of everything, including performance, which now attracts attention as a theatrical form. The artist here is more like a stage director. Everything is happening in some ideal sphere, that is, in the space between viewer and actor. And here, of course, Pussy Riot hit the spot, because everything they do seems staged, very theatrical, that is, very up to date.

AK: Let me say that actually those young women wanted to come to the people. They calculated everything and fearlessly threw their bodies into the society. The reaction of the public around them was very important, even though they knew that masses are dangerous.

BG: Of course Pussy Riot and Pavlensky should be perceived as going to the people. Narodnichestvo was the most powerful movement in terms of involvement of the intelligentsia in the late nineteenth century. But as Lenin justly noted, one needs to take another path. The path of going to the people turned out to be unsuccessful.  And now, to my dismay, there is a point at which the current culture coincides with Soviet culture—the appeal to the masses and the goal of attractingthe maximum number of people. Big lines for exhibitions, huge numbers of ‘likes’, and so on. This orientation towards quantitative indicators, which was very characteristic of the Soviet system, has transfererd fully into today’s Russian capitalism. It is very difficult to oppose such a marketing strategy. No going to the masses would help.

AK: It’s not that simple—in real life these very clever and courageous young women always managed to get away. Not only from the police, but from the crowd that wanted to lynch them for preaching feminism. By the way, there were always movements within Moscow Conceptualism that wanted to be of the people. For example, the Mukhomory [Toadstools] group, which recorded Golden Disk, which became an instant hit.

BG: I never considered Mukhomory as conceptualists.

AK: I can tell you that the guys in that group were very well educated and strove to obtain knowledge; they went to the studio of Ilya Kabakov, which as you know was the most important institution of unofficial art in Moscow. There, among other things, as far as I know, they were actively educated. Of course, the Toadstools were not conceptualists, since they rejected all reflection, just as their peers Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring did. The latter, by the way, was educated by Joseph Kosuth around the same time that the Toadstools were listening to Kabakov.  With their tendency for splashy and provocative gestures they had the potential to become mass media heroes. But there were no free newspapers and magazines in 1982, much less television. And they had no interest in working with social issues. Although they did one of the first acts of institutional criticism of Conceptualism, which they considered ossified and bureaucratized—they boorishly appropriated an action of the Collective Action group.

BG: In fact it was Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, and Dmitri Prigov who worked with mass culture. They did not want to succeed in mass culture, but they studied and analyzed it. We’re talking about a kind of new realism, which is characteristic of all contemporary culture. From Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons and from the conceptualism of the 1960-1970s right up to many of today’s analytics of the contemporary trends— mass culture became the sphere of observation for the artist. Here mass culture appears not as the promise of success, but simply as material, the way pines and firs were material for landscape artists.


[1]  The Narodniki was a politically conscious movement of the Russian middle class in the 1860s and 1870s, some of whom became involved in revolutionary agitation against tsarism. Their ideology was known as Narodnichestvo  from the Russian народ, narod, "people, folk", so it is sometimes translated as "peopleism" or more commonly "populism". A common slogan among the Narodniks was "хождение в народ", khozhdenie v narod, "going to the people". Though their movement achieved little in its own time, the Narodniks were in many ways the intellectual and political forebears of the socialist revolutionaries who went on to greatly influence Russian history in the 20th century.

[2] Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’, October 55, 1990. P. 105–143. Is it an article in a journal?