Aleksei Borisionok is a researcher and independent curator based in Vienna. Main focus of his work is political and social transformations in Eastern Europe in 1980-2010 and their influence on art and culture. He is a participant of working group of Work Hard! Play Hard! annual week of events in Minsk that brings together artist and culture professionals to discuss issues of artistic and cultural labor, modes of production and leisure.
Last year I wrote an article for Full Bleed magazine of MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore), where I traced the connection of contemporary art in Belarus and its history. The links with the past are seen almost everywhere. Have you noticed this tendency? What do you as a curator and researcher think could be the reason for that?
Thank you very much for raising this subject. Your text opens up really vast field of discussion connected to different models of history, historical temporalities, cultural memory and different ways they are manifested through contemporary art practice. There are a few moments which I would like to touch upon here, although there are many more. You construct certain opposition relating to different ways of approaching the history, let’s say dichotomy of the particular and the universal, sort of denying or reclaiming history, where contemporary art is seen as a “comrade of time”, and official mainstream art is placed to a certain a-historical limbo. In the first approximation, this position is quite clear. At the same time, I think it is worth making it more complex. One cannot get rid of history, it always chases us. If I would re-formulate your question, I would ask how the very notion of contemporary is enunciated. Through actually defining it, this distinction might be more heuristic. By saying that, I mean that perhaps it is not relevant anymore to rely on oppositions of non-official and official, partisan and mainstream, state and independent, but really investigate what the adjective “contemporary” means in conjunction with art. The notion of contemporary brings us to the temporality and its conceptual configuration, and therefore history and politics of memory. What and how we remember?
Definitely there is a certain emerging interest in the notion of history in the younger generation of artists: traumatic experience of political violence was reflected in Maxim Sarychau’s works; Olia Sosnovskaya has investigated strikes and celebrations during the Soviet history; Anton Sarokin has analyzed the particular hauntology of contemporary Belarus; Uladzimir Hramovich’s works has focused on the history of Soviet modernisation and architecture, city planning and ecology and so on. I would clearly add artistic practices of Marina Naprushkina, Alexander Komarov, Andrei Liankevich and others in this list. However, one can go deep with the excavation of the notion of art and history and ends up in early 90s, where a lot has been done regarding reconfiguration of the perception of time and memory: Igor Savchenko’s photo series, Igor Tishin’s smart and humorous elaborations on Malevich-as-anti-fascist and so on.
Answering your question, I would add several reasons for this tendency. Firstly, the body of art practices is reflecting the lack of historical research, as well as the void and a-historical temporality of Lukashenko’s cultural politics of recent decade. Secondly, there is a clear emergence and interest in the methodologies of art-based research. The works become semantically more complex comparing with art practice of 90s: they operate through discourse, knowledge, historical materials, different forms of visual and performative expression.
When we talk about second half of XX century, we can see that the opposition to the communist party manifested itself in references to Medieval history, to the Great Duchy of Lithuania or rebels and intellectuals of XIX century. I have a feeling that we still are stuck in the same anti-Soviet notion. You research 80-90’s. If you were to talk about perception of history what alternatives to the big historical narratives existed during the time at the end of the XXth century and what impact could they have on art today?
Indeed, I am still interested in this complex period of late socialism and early years of independent Belarus: the timeframe of the research was determined by three crucial events of that period. It spans from protests against the director of the Minsk State Art College in 1988 to the exhibition “Lessons in Bad Art” (1992) and second massive student protest in Art College in 1992. With the radical reconfiguration of political and economic field, different models and concepts of culture (based on variety of ideologies, including those you have mentioned) were competing for hegemony in the cultural field. If the first student protest had a few connections to the national movements of late 1980s and might be seen as a revolt against Soviet bureaucracy, then the second protest has emerged as a revolt against imposition of national and patriotic themes in aesthetic regimes, as well as public demand for the restructuring of the way how the College had been governed.
According to scholar Nelly Bekus, there are at least two conflicting concepts of Belarus including its historical genealogy, to which the Belarusian regime and political opposition appeal. Bekus frames them as official and alternative Belarusianness. Both of them have instrumentalized culture for their own ideological purposes and have claimed its exclusive authenticity. The official Belarusianness is represented by the official discourse and founded on the particular continuity with the after-war Soviet past. The alternative Belarusianness is a project of historical ethnoculturalism, based on pre- and extra- Soviet narrations. Surprisingly, art and art education appear to be the contested space where this simple dichotomy of official and alternative stops to work. The Art Academy shows complex layers of positions, ideologies and approaches which never had so clear continuity and succession.
I don’t think that this particular material brings us to alternatives you are asking for, but at least during this time, a significant shift became evident: there are new ways of addressing artistic practice to the regard of public space, educational and institutional training, and dominant aesthetic regimes. In my opinion, this shift could be partially analyzed through the notion of “deskilling”, sort of refusal of the realist skill and decomposition. As the inherited language of academic neoclassical painting was unable to reflect the industrialization and acceleration of society in the late nineteenth century, so the post-socialist academic tradition of painting could not express the conflicting and dynamic transformations of society after the fall of the Soviet Union. The abundance of the political form of strikes expressed both in workers’ struggles and in the cultural field has formulated crucial gesture of refusal, immobility and performativity. I think this period has influenced the development of contemporary art practices significantly, perhaps not always directly. Researching art practices as well as political movements of selected period might give us more insights.
Your curatorial project ‘The Specific Emotional’ was connected with issues of Soviet and post-Soviet time. You worked with methodology and effects of mass rituals, with their spectacularism. What brought you to this topic? What was the focus of your research and what goals did you have?
The project Specific Emotional is still not finished. The umbrella term name of the project comes from the implicit notion from Anatoly Mazaev’s classical Soviet book “Celebration as a social and artistic phenomenon: Experience of historical and theoretical research” to describe the effective spaces of the festive. The book is a brilliant account on the history of the concept of festival and its role in historical uprisings and revolutions, rendered through Marxist lenses. According to it, festivity and celebration serve a technical role of maintaining stability and balance, thus pairing the idea of recurrence with stillness. It is an automatism of a certain kind in which the celebration becomes an effective means to channel and control ideas and practices dangerous for bourgeois society, ruling class, and power. At the same time, festivity is a singular emancipatory affect, which fuels many revolutionary movements and struggles. This contradiction was the starting point for me. I have started thinking about the following questions in the relation to Soviet over-ritualized social life and its post-socialist ramifications. Therefore, three manifestations were planned in the form of small exhibition displays and screening programs. Each of them reflected two connected terms: ritual and monument, repetition and event, alienation and engagement, referring to the complex and twofold notion of festivity. The first exhibition has happened in the space of gallery KX in Brest, and presented works of Olia Sosnovskaya, Anton Sarokin, Aliaxey Talstou and Concrete Dates Collective from Kyiv. The video program consisted of video-works and films by Marta Papivoda and her reflection on the place of ideology and embodiment through the history of so called slets, a film by Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis on the demolition of Soviet monuments in 1990s, and work by Kristina Norman who analyzed the particular festive space in Tallinn, language issue and politics of memory.
The second exhibition took place in Stockholm, Liljevalchs Hubb. The exhibition in Stockholm has covered theoretical questions concerning the role of repetition and singularity in the context of the theory of event (deriving from the theory of Alain Badiou) and comprised longer list of artists: Anastasiya Ryabova, Olia Sosnovskaya, Mykola Ridny, Jura Shust among others.
The third part was has not yet been completed. Another crucial term which I was working with is a notion of social choreography coined by Andrew Hewitt, which might be understood as a temporal and spatial configuration of bodies and objects with their rhythm and movement (in G. Klein’s terms). I started with the following questions, which were discussed with artists who produced new artworks (including performances in the public spaces): What are festivities and festive spaces signifying? What makes spaces ideologically charged and festive? Which relations are penetrating bodies, objects and materialities in a festive space? How are festive spaces governed?
Unfortunately I was not able to produce the final chapter of the exhibition, but I hope I will, and therefore I don’t consider this project finished. A lot of questions raised during and after the Stockholm exhibition has transferred into reading group and research project which we now have with Frida Sandström and Cara Tolmie at KKH.
The last 4 years were not a peaceful time for Eastern Europe. Mostly it goes along with external politics of Russia and the war in Ukraine. Therefore issues of national identity became again very important and history is instrumentalised by all parties. For instance, nationalism in Ukraine introduced the politics of decommunization which targets objects of Soviet material culture like monuments, murals, mosaics. In Belarus many cultural activists and artists confront Soviet heritage (embodied in Lukashenka’s autocracy) by default. When and how can this struggle with past will end? What kind of result and consequences can we expect?
The struggle with the past will never end. The struggle with past is a struggle for future. This is a large question concerning the socialist heritage in Eastern Europe. What we has witness is an ignorant and uncompromising destruction of communist and Soviet traces: including closure of Lukacs’ archive in Budapest, decommunization of public space in Ukraine and at the same time ideological emasculation of Soviet heritage in Belarus and Russia.
I would like to focus on one example connected to the politics of memory in Belarus. I hope it will show us how different artistic and technological approaches are intertwined in contemporary perception of history in Belarus. The process of emasculation takes new form: something I would speculatively call mimetic war complex. Stalin Line, not finished fortification which became open air museum and a sort of recreational facility in 2005 is a caricatural and obvious form of it. Wargaming, Belarusian video game corporation, launches its acclaimed World of Tanks, most popular military multiplayer online simulator.
This mimetic war complex is a sort of assemblage of historical narrations, new types of pleasure and spectatorship, digital networks and outsourced labor. By this assemblage I understand some sort of militarized-and-designed game-complex, shaped by demand of historical authenticity and meticulous copying of historical patterns. After the visit to headquarters of Wargaming organized by eeefff group in the frame of Work Hard! Play Hard! in Minsk few years ago, I stumbled upon a video clip, where a player tests out recently created map for the game. The map presents a reconstructed space of central Minsk of war period, which serves as a location for tank battles. It gave me quite a weird feeling of recognition and anxiety. The camera flies all over the central Minsk, and the voice is discussing best cover positions and lines of attack.
This mimetic war complex is linked to history (it exploits authenticity of real historical battles, however leaves a chance for random victories and defeats), as well as to the apparatus of contemporary art education in Belarus, which still fetishizes the mimetic skill of copying reality. Seemingly forgotten skill to draw realistically in favor of creative and conceptual artistic thinking (as we all know tightly connected to restructuring of the art field and introduction of the market in 90s) founds completely new territories for its implementation. If the majority of alumni of the academy found their work in advertising and decoration of oligarchs’ houses a decade ago, now many of them work in the videogame industry, which demands work on reproduction of models, nature and cityscapes. The realism is resurrected from its own oblivion. Realist expression and the perspective were closely connected to the development of military visual regimes, strategic and expansive vision over the landscape. In her essay, Hito Steyerl uses an image of the tank from Eastern Ukraine, used by pro-Russian separatists, which goes from its historical podium directly to a war field. She elaborates on it in order to stress the danger of history, its conservative side: “On the contrary, this kind of history is partial, partisan, and privatized, a self-interested enterprise, a means to feel entitled, an objective obstacle to coexistence, and a temporal fog detaining people in the stranglehold of imaginary origins”.
Basically, I want to point out our attention to the fact that these configurations of history (which mimetic war complex is part of) are not only about history itself, but they create certain type of future. And therefore our aim as artists and researchers not only to deconstruct conservative readings of history (both official and alternative in Bekus’ terms), but also articulate future visions, deriving from particular historical contexts. Through the future we can access past.
Work and speculations on one`s own post-Soviet identity are widely practiced today. But only sometimes this common way of self-representation aligns with real political activism. I see a kind of trap of locality here. Don’t you think that some new methods need to be applied? What could that be? What will be interested for you personally?
Recently, together with Problem Collectivewe have been invited to discuss the issue of post-Soviet in the frame of new educational program at School of Engaged Artin St. Petersburg. We had a seminar and proposal for the research exhibition there: we were connecting this notion to the spectral and the figure of ghost wondering if the specter of Soviet is similar to the specter of communism from the first sentence of Communist Party Manifesto and what place “post” took place there. Clearly, this is a question of great importance: how to frame our subjectivities and practices, so that they would be recognizable as a political force.
‘Post-Soviet’ is a complicated term, it signifies both temporality and space. It also has a quite distinct origin in the Slavonic departments in the western universities: and therefore it speaks more about the west’s neuroses and obsessions, fetishization of poverty and ruins, and so on, rather directly on the spaces of countries of former Soviet Union. It also has its own adherents: for example, notions such as New East, connected to colonial gaze and self-exotization. The term ‘Post-Soviet’ also should be reconfigured and thoroughly analyzed, its contours are fairly vague and poorly defined: they are defined by visual art, politics, fashion and so on. That’s why Problem Collective tries to approach it through the notion of the spectral.
There is another way to approach to the notion of Post-Soviet, which is more radical and perhaps helps to illuminate some significant inner contradictions of the term. Yevgeniy Fiks proposed that we have to stop using this term, and referencing to “the time of interrupted socialism” and so on, as a gesture of resisting the cooptation of post-soviet dictionaries by late capitalism. I assume, this question need more rounds of discussions both within and outside of activist and cultural scenes. I agree that there are many crucial discussion points inside of the notion of post-soviet: how we define our history, how we treat our extremely complicated contradictory socialist heritage, how do we relate to the new circumstances imposed to us by the capitalist restoration, etc.? I believe that we have to build up on this term, starting from the contradictions themselves. And perhaps in these tensions, new ways of acting, expressing, demanding and living could be found.
Nelly Bekus, Struggle over identity: the official and the alternative Belarusianness, CEU Press, Budapest, 2010.
Work Hard! Play Hard! Is a collective self-organized platform dealing with the issues of knowledge production, cooperation, work, leisure, technology and acceleration through various performative, participatory and discursive formats. It takes shape as a week-long series of event annually in Minsk, Belarus.
Hito Steyerl. A Tank on Pedestal: Museums in an Age of Planetary Civil War, 2016.
The “Problem Collective” is an artistic and research group, formed in Minsk in 2016 by Aleksei Borisionok, Uladzimir Hramovich, Alesia Zhitkevich and Olia Sosnovskaya.
The School of Engaged Artis a radical art education initiative operating in St. Petersburg. The School is founded by members of Chto Delat art group
Together with Olia Sosnovskaya we wrote an article “Former West and New East” dedicated to the analyses of emerging geopolitical configurations: for example, New East among some others.
Yevgeniy Fiks, The Responsibility of Post-Soviet Artist, 2007.