Published  08/03/2017

Chto Delat: ‘Before you can recognise the light, you have to recognise the darkness’

Chto Delat: ‘Before you can recognise the light, you have to recognise the darkness’

Dmitry Vilensky and Olga Egorova of the Russian collective Chto Delat talk about their latest exhibition, On the Possibility of Light, at KOW in Berlin, and how they hope to foster debate through their engagement with political struggles


Chto Delat is a Russian collective of artists, academics and activists working from Moscow, St Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod. The name translates to “What is to be done?” and derives from a 19th-century novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky as well as from a 1902 publication by Lenin of the same name. The journey of What is to be done? is illustrative of the collective’s practice: a continuous questioning and redevelopment of our sources of history and the knowledge and politics that they produce. Across its respective disciplines, the collective works to challenge a political climate in which, both in Russia and elsewhere, basic freedoms are increasingly under threat.

Since 2003, Chto Delat has published newspapers, made films, and given performances and lectures, as well as organised activist spaces for gathering and education in Moscow. In its artistic practice, it has exhibited in many institutions and events internationally, including, most recently, the 2014 São Paulo Biennale, Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid, Tate Liverpool, and Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The collective’s last solo exhibition at KOW, Berlin, in 2014, was an expression of shock and perplexity following Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine, as well as what it revealed, more generally about the unstable foundation of enlightenment ideals. Now, three years later, Chto Delat has adapted to this new condition, and has returned to the gallery with a new exhibition, On the Possibility of Light. In the text he wrote for this occasion, founding member of Chto Delat Dmitry Vilensky quotes the philosopher Hannah Arendt from her book Men in Dark Times: “Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time-span that was given them on Earth.”

I met Vilensky and Olga Egorova, two of the artists at the core of Chto Delat’s artistic project, at the end of a long day after the opening of the exhibition at KOW. In a Berlin cafe on a dark winter afternoon, we discussed the possibility of light. To open the conversation, I had drawn a tarot card, the Ten of Swords: a body lying face down with 10 swords stuck into its back. It is a dark card, without a doubt, but the positive reading of it is that the body faces towards the horizon on which the sky is clearing.

Kristian Madsen: What do you think of this card? Is there light coming?

Olga Egorova: I’m afraid not. I think it’s a time when the sun is going down.

Dmitry Vilensky: I’m a little bit more optimistic because I think that the values of equality and justice live inside people. What we are facing now is a really strong attack on these values, and on enlightenment, emancipation. But, at the same time, we understand that the world is changing and we see that there is a certain fight. In my optimism, I see that fight not yet lost completely.

OE: He is always like this. I’m more afraid because, you know, we are Russian – it’s a special experience. And our experience is that everything is possible. Here, in Europe, you don’t believe that some bullshit can happen –

DV: And then it happens! In Russia, we always lived with the feeling that something of danger comes really close. But then you come to the west and everyone is relaxed and everything is fine – you have nice lives, good art, minimalistic values, silent objects –

OE: The dogs are kind!

DV: The dogs are beautiful! But the situation is much worse for Europe than it used to be just two years ago. I think it’s a warning signal. And I see that in the US and in Europe, people are mobilising. Before, they were completely sleepy. Today, we spoke to some colleagues about the situation here . Everything was fine: progressive liberalism had a kind of hegemony, artists and institutions could produce whatever shows, whatever culture they wanted. And then – oh, my God – these “alt-right” people came on to the stage. But we were always thinking about these people, we were speculating in the name of these people. I am not so desperate because there is still a space where you can walk. You see it in Russia, you see it in Germany, you see comrades in the US who are doing it, and I hope it will truly be an awakening moment. I’m really glad we finally have that real feeling of danger.

KM: Let’s talk about this “space where you can walk” that you mention – opportunities to make work and be exhibited without censorship or intervention. Last year, you visited a residency programme on a remote Norwegian island for artists who are not safe to work in their home country. This is the setting of your film, It hasn’t happened to us yet. Safe Haven (2016), which is showing at KOW. In it, you question this idea of safety; what it means and what we can do with it.

DV: This is the essence of the film: the risk is here, but we know that, because we are able to speculate on it, we are somehow not really in danger; we are not migrants, we are not black. I think LGBT rights are not included because they are also part of that mainstream agenda. A brilliant guy on the island that we feature in the film described how people come there, and they’re restless. They know they’re going to be safe, but they also know that you need to be part of something, something that’s bigger than you, part of a struggle. And when you’re not, you feel lost. We show the ambivalent situation experienced by these people as they come to the island and everything opens and everyone listens, while at the same time, they’re lost. In our collective, many people used to live in the west, were educated in the west, but consciously decided to come back to Russia, and be there. Because, there, we feel that something is at stake – we need to be there.

OE: This is always a question of having a mission. Because “we” – as artists living in Russia and making political art – must have this feeling of mission; that art can change the world. And, of course, we know for sure that it doesn’t work: that it’s really difficult to change the world, and that art maybe doesn’t have any power at all. But we still have to believe in our mission. Everything is changing, and maybe tomorrow we will be kicked out of Russia. Then what should we do? We have to do what we can, while we can.

KM: Your previous work has often centred around institutional critique and a scepticism towards the responsibility big art institutions have in sustaining some cultural histories over others. As you say, the boundaries between safe and unsafe spaces are changing. How is this affecting the art world?

DV: There is a fight over the institutional landscape of the art world and over what the public mediation of art should be. We also see the threat of neoconservatism hitting institutions who are our friends and whose struggle we share. For example, Claire Bishop, in her book Radical Museology, highlights three museums that have made a difference: The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, The Reina Sofía museum in Madrid and the Metelkova Museum of Contemporary Art in Ljubljana. And, oh, my God, they are like our home! We work with these galleries, we know them personally, we share a lot of affinities and good times. And then, of course, there are other institutions, which are a no-go: we are not welcome.

KM: Your exhibition On the Possibility of Light seems to me rather to be a reflection on what we can do with darkness. One of the works, Performative Practices of Our Time (2017), is a series of digital prints from the depths of the internet: absurd memes, nail art, a monkey dressed in a military uniform, but also aggressive gestures of nationalism and news footage of the war in Syria. It’s a truly dark display. There is a sense that you advocate seeing some potentials in this darkness, maybe because we have to?

DV: “From the dark comes the light” – this is an old mystical quote, which means that before you can recognise the light, you have to recognise the darkness. That’s why we show this photo series about the rituals of everyday life, the craziness of the Russian everyday, because, actually, look at the dark, look into the darkness, then you might begin to recognise how things are complex. The pictures are funny – there is a certain playfulness – but, at the same time, there is a darkness. Sometimes, we tend to skip over the dark, because darkness can be so thick. At the opening of the exhibition, for instance, many people told us how they were really embarrassed, made physically uncomfortable, even, by looking at these pictures. We try not to think that. You must look at that rocket launching in to kill people. 

KM: For the installation Lighthouse (It is Getting Darker), 2017, you built a mock-lighthouse in the gallery, from the top of which brown flags emerge instead of rays of light. This is the central symbol of the exhibition. What does it mean to you?

DV: In this work, we reflect on the lighthouse as a symbol of both rescue and danger. It sends a signal of danger during the storm to let people know not to come close to the shore. At the same time, it’s a symbol of rescue: there is land and you should go there. The lighthouse also functions as navigation for how to get to the land. At first, you think that the lighthouse is a cheerful symbol of light, of welcoming people, but it’s not true. There is another side, a flip-point of that light, which is really a signal of danger.

OE: The lighthouse, to me, is a very, very simple symbol. A regular lighthouse has a normal small lamp, but set in a system of mirrors that makes it really strong. In our installation, there is a big lighthouse that doesn’t work any more. Rather, cables go from the lighthouse and connect to little lamps inside the bodies of the sculpture-memorials. It spreads light to them, the people who sacrificed their lives in political protest. I think that’s how the lighthouse might look as a symbol of hope now.

KM: These sculptures, The Memorials for Weak Light (2017), are each based on the real and specific deaths of people protesting at various forms of government interventions: the self-immolation of a Tibetan monk; Galeano, a Zapatista teacher killed by rightwing paramilitaries in Mexico, a protester hit by a water cannon.

DV: That’s also why we actually don’t think of them as sculptures, but rather as memorials; they are figures that commemorate certain situations, certain events. I think the concept of commemoration is politically very important right now, because there are a lot of new movements that ignore political memory. Commemoration holds a sense of power because, in remembering someone, you understand that they didn’t die in vain. That’s why I would say that any kind of gesture of commemoration is not cynical. When we take the memorials to the gallery space, it’s not as a formal experiment, but simply to say that we should remember that things like this continue to happen.

KM: As you also imply in not wanting to use the word sculptures about the figures, there is a certain danger involved in bringing politics into art, namely aestheticising struggle. In an essay for e-flux, art historian Boris Groys writes: “The aestheticised material corpse functions as a testimony to the impossibility of resurrection. (Actually, this is why Stalin insisted so much on permanently exhibiting the dead Lenin’s body to the public. Lenin’s Mausoleum is a visible guarantee that Lenin and Leninism are truly dead. That is also why the current leaders of Russia do not hurry to bury Lenin – contrary to the appeals made by many Russians to do so. They do not want the return of Leninism, which would become possible if Lenin were buried.)”

DV: Here, Groys writes about a real dead body, while we work more with symbols; combining cheap pieces of paper, metal strips and wood to create certain shapes that become symbolic of some event. It’s not about aestheticisation, but about art and rituals of commemoration. I think that the possibilities of radical formal innovation are saturated – it doesn’t work any more. Rather, it’s the issue of what art can be today”. And this comes out of pure modernist art function, I believe. Which is very important for us; to commemorate a weak event in a weak form. We don’t take real political forms of protest and transform them into high art, making them conceptually nice and minimal. We use materials that actually represent political struggle, everyday reality, and transform them into something that we hope can participate in a very important debate: What is the border of art? What is the border of what art can do?

We might compare our work to Maurizio Cattelan’s sculptures All (2007), for which he showed marble bodies of refugees with sheets. He takes something super cheap, completely valueless – what could have less value than a dead migrant? – and presents it in an incredibly noble and expensive material in the gallery. To me, this very much resembles aestheticisation in the tradition of socialist realism – to give power to the weak through the strong presence of materials like bronze or gold. It worked! It is strong! But our work is based on a very different strategy from his.

OE: I think that one of the most important things in our exhibition is weakness. Like the sculptures, they are not perfect at all: they look a little bit like trash; they are weak. In combination with the lighthouse, they create tension. By conceptualising our artworks in this way as less autonomous, more open to interaction, I believe that we opened up a different way of communicating, opened up art. Because it’s getting darker, we have to show that we are weak, that we are fragile; art is weak and art is fragile. But, at the same time, it has its own power. And we have our hope.

• Chto Delat: On the Possibility of Light is showing at KOW, Berlin, until 9 April 2017.

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