The Opening Response: Arseny Zhilyaev
The Opening Response titles a special series of interviews with artists, curators, writers, composers, mediators, and space-makers around the world. Dialoguing within and around the thematics which have rapidly emerged as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, we offer within this frame a differentiated, honest, and beautiful bid at understanding. Weekly, distinct doors are opened into the lives of the contributors; into their experiences dawning on pleasure, productivity, metaphysics, and paradigmatic shifts. Hopefully, these conversations can act as way-posts and lead to furthered empathy, unison, and co-creation. The Opening Response meets the need for weaving the autonomy of a web of conscious communications in times of extreme perplexity.
Arseny Zhilyaev (b.1984) is an artist based in Moscow and Venice. His projects examine the legacy of Soviet museology and museum in the philosophy of Russian Cosmism using the exhibition as a medium. Artist’s works have been shown at the biennales in Gwangju, Liverpool, Lyon and the Ljubljana Triennale as well as at exhibitions at Centre Pompidou, Palais de Tokyo, Paris; de Appel, Amsterdam; HKW, Berlin; Kadist Art Foundation, Paris and San Francisco; V-a-c Foundation, Moscow and Venice and others. The artist publishes articles in e-flux journal, Idea, Moscow Art Magazine, and others. He is an editor of an anthology Avant-Garde Museology (e-flux, University of Minnesota Press, V-a-c Press, 2015) and co-founder of Moscow Center for Experimental Museology (redmuseum.church).
Josseline Black – In this phase of forced isolation, how are you articulating your response in a public discourse? What is your role in this larger conversation?
Arseny Zhilyaev – I haven’t been an activist for quite some time. I almost do not use social networks. And I enter into public discussions mainly at conferences once a year on average. Therefore, my place in the discussion of the situation with the coronavirus is empty. In addition to everything, I have serious family circumstances that do not allow me to devote much time to things that go beyond the immediate circle of relatives.
But I felt that from the beginning of quarantine, there was a growth of requests for discussions, comments, etc. People are trying to compensate for the lack of communication. This is clear. I have enough communication. There is not enough perhaps impressions and the ability to bodily move in space. My life is full of moving. Now, for obvious reasons, this is impossible. I’m not sure that words can solve this situation. Therefore, I prefer to remain silent and do what I can.
JB – Has your artistic practice changed through isolation?
AZ – By the way, interestingly, you ask about isolation. In Russia, for some time now, the authorities have avoided calling a spade a spade. For example, an explosion is a slam. Quarantine in Russia is replaced by the word self-isolation. The state is afraid to introduce an emergency regime, because in this case it will be obliged to support the population with food and money, but only three months after the outbreak began, Russia began to give the minimum privileges to businesses that are destitute.
As for self-isolation, I must admit that I have been in it for many years. Perhaps since childhood. Therefore, I can’t say that it somehow changed my approach to my business. And I hear similar words from many people of art and intellectuals, not only in Russia, but also in Italy or the USA. Yes, many of us are people of left-wing political specter, but in our work, we are often deeply immersed in ourselves. And I think this is not necessarily bad. The solidarity of the self-isolated is a good model for people. Perhaps the only one. But of course, this must allow bodily contact!
Not so long ago I read about one interpretation of American poets of the language school, who paradoxically tried to combine in their practice interest in Marxists aesthetics of Lukacs, for example, and an attentive reading of post-structuralists. So, this approach to poetry suggested a kind of zero, default solidarity, which occurs literally at the moment of the appearance of the first letter, words, free word. This could be could basic linguistic unity. And of course, it’s far from the fact that it can grow into real solidarity in society. But without this first step, the first instance, real solidarity will be a fake.
JB – How has your practical capacity to produce work been affected by the pandemic?
AZ – Quarantine for me began in Venice after the announcement of the outbreak in Lombardy. My wife and I live between Italy and Moscow. Just a day before this announcement, I, fortunately, cancelled my trip to the closing of my exhibition in Milan at Canapaneri gallery. The exhibition, as a result, did not have time to close. It still worked for some time by inertia. Italy did not immediately declare quarantine. There were even visitors. Then there were months of quarantine, what will happen next is not yet clear. I was supposed to participate in two European Biennales in the spring of 2020. Both projects have undergone significant changes. Fortunately, a complete cancellation was avoided, although the situation is very unstable. Because of the pandemic, my entire production is blocked. I can do something in my studio. But I’m rather an artist of post-media production. The studio is important for me as a place of reflection mainly and only periodically working on further projects manually. Now I’m just making sketches. Sometimes people ask works for auctions in support of doctors or artists. There have been a lot of auctions lately. But in Russia they work more as an entertainment for collectors. Prices are very low. So, I am deeply in my writings and virtual plans.
JB – What is your approach to collaboration at the moment?
AZ – Basically, my collaboration today is with light, wind, and the night sky.
JB – How would you define the present moment, metaphysically/literally/symbolically?
AZ – Not so long ago I talked about the situation with Boris Groys, who is in quarantine in New York. He said that the world today going through an interesting time meeting with its ideal. After all, the virus has long been an object of desire for at least the younger generation. Everyone wanted to make a viral video, a viral text, a viral art piece and now we ourselves have become viral. And now it is the fact of infection that can make a person famous, visible, significant … But like any meeting with an ideal, it cannot pass calmly and painlessly. In general, we are somewhere between utopia and dystopia. I think it pretty accurately describes what is happening.
JB – Do you see the potential for renewed support for cultural production in spite of macro and micro-economies which are currently rapidly restructuring?
AZ – Not so long ago, Italian colleagues issued a manifesto on behalf of the Italian Art Workers with requirements for the authorities to take adequate measures to support the culture during and after the pandemic. In particular, they require transparency and respect for the work of the artist, just like work. As far as I understand, this is the third attempt to make something like a union of art workers there. And it is close to becoming successful. About ten years ago, my colleagues and I were involved in the creation of the same type of union in Moscow. However, this led only to a lengthy discussion. I hope that in Italy it will be possible to do more. If this is so, then IAW will be a good precedent, a good model for the European Union and the world as a whole. Emergencies can give us an opportunity for the better future as well.
JB – E.M Cioran writes: “in major perplexities, try to live as history were done with and to react like a monster riddled by serenity”, how do you respond to this proposal?
AZ – As a quiet monster, I completely agree!
JB – How is this time influencing your perception of alterity in general?
AZ – I am probably a lucky person, most of the colleagues in Italy, and in Russia, and in the USA to whom I wrote during quarantine answered with cheerful letters. And indeed, if you start philosophizing and remove the risks to the health of loved ones and all inconvenience, the quarantine did in relation to the world what the Russian formalists called estrangement or defamiliarization. People got the opportunity to look at the world with different eyes, leaving the familiar automatism. It sounds brutal, but, I think, a pandemic at different levels can be considered in the context of avant-garde art techniques… And as any technics it is not necessarily should work for good.
JB – How is your utilization of technology and virtuality evolving the paradigm within which you produce work?
AZ – It turned out that in my practice I work a lot with automation. The exhibition in Milan, which I mentioned, was created by the conceptual figure of the algorithmic artist Robert Pasternak, who in the middle of the 21st century was actively involved in the political struggle for the complete automation of writing. At the exhibition, his early pictorial experiments were presented, which included the poetry created by GPT-2. Automation is an important part of the path that leads to the liberation of art or even more radical liberation from art in the form in which it exists today. And for me, as a cosmist, this is a step towards the development of technologies for overcoming death and resurrection.
JB – What is your position on the relationship between catastrophe and solidarity?
AZ – I think catastrophe is a good starting point for solidarity. People in the face of disaster are equal. It may be the equivalent of first instance, zero solidarity. But the question is, that the day after, when we have something to share, solidarity runs the risk of cracking. Therefore, a catastrophe in its purest form cannot be the basis for solidarity. And if we talk about the situation with coronavirus, it is obvious – now there is a gap between the rich, who can afford good treatment and the poor, who often die before they even see a doctor. The rich, who can afford to stay in isolation for longer, and the poor, who must seek work so as not to starve to death. Wealthy countries that can afford the support of the population and poor or authoritarian, greedy, like Russia, who cannot afford the support.
JB – What is your utopia now?
AZ – Take a walk with my wife in the Venetian Castello, have a coffee at the bar, and a Frittelle Zabaione for take away and walk to the embankment or sit somewhere in Campo Giovanni e Paolo.