The Opening Response: Chto Delat

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.

The collective Chto Delat [What is to be done?] was founded in early 2003 in St. Petersburg by a workgroup of artists, critics, philosophers, and writers with the goal of merging political theory, art, and activism.

The artistic activity is realized across a range of media—from video and theater plays, to radio programs and murals—it includes art projects, seminars and public campaigns. The works of the collective are characterized by the use of alienation effect, surreal scenery, typicality and always case-based analyses of concrete social and political struggles.

In 2013, Chto Delat initiated an educational platform—School of Engaged Art- in Petersburg and also runs a space called Rosa’s House of Culture. From its inception, the collective has been publishing an English-Russian newspaper focused on the politicisation of the Russian cultural situation, in dialogue with the international context. Selected Exhibitions include: When the roots start to move and get lost, State of Concept, Athens (2020); Times, Lines, 1989s, Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi (2020); The Missing Planet. Visions and re-visions of Soviet Times, Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato, Italy, 2019; Proregress, The 12th Shanghai Biennale 2018, China; The Modern Art: 1960–2000. Restart, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow (2018); MUAC (The Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo), Mexico (solo show 2017); KOW BERLIN (solo show in 2017 and 2015), San Paulo Biennale (2014); Art, Really Useful Knowledge, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2014); Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013, Tate Liverpool, Liverpool (2013); FORMER WEST: Documents, Constellations, Prospects, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2013); 10th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju (2012); Chto Delat in Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kuntsthalle, Baden-Baden, 2011; Chto Delat Perestroika: Twenty Years After: 2011–1991, Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, 2011; Ostalgia, New Museum, New York, 2011; Study, Study and Act Again, Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana, 2011; and The Urgent Need to Struggle, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 2010.

Here, Josseline Black talks to Dmitry Vilensky, who is part of Chto Delat.


Josseline Black – Reflecting on this recent period of forced isolation, how are you articulating your response in a public discourse? What is your role in this larger conversation?

Dmitry Vilensky – The COVID 19 crisis is Russia has affected all cultural workers in a very brutal way because the government did not undertake any measures for rescuing and compensating the loss of activities and financial collapse. We, as an artistic collective which operates internationally, became very vulnerable because of the stoppage of international projects and most of our projects have been cancelled or postponed without any compensation. Luckily the funding for 2020 we receive before has helped us to restructure and continue our work with many new challenges and restrictions.

The lockdown measures in Russia from April to August 2020 forced us (like everyone) to seriously change our programs and shift them mostly online. But we have continued our rent contract for Rosa House of Culture and transform it into open “safe and social space” – allowing a limited number of people to be at its premises 24/7 which provides them the possibilities to hide from hard living conditions where they were caught by quarantine. The space was used as a reading room, studio for rehearsals, online concerts and, meditations.

Our main educational course “The Post-Soviet relearning program” won a major Russian prize “Innovation” for the best education project in the art field in Russia in 2020. (See full documentation and online show here) and slowly “mutates” into the new one, “The school of mutation” which we continue now.

Through the quarantine, we had to reshape our activities and intensify our online presence which became quite visible if we count on numbers of visitors for our lectures and seminars on the streams and zoom. We realized an online show, Ghost-Mutants, which together with a publication became a culmination of our course of post-soviet studies. See here (the general text about the project and publication in English and Russian) and the exhibition you can find at this link (in Russian).

We also feel like that during the lockdown. Despite limited direct contacts, our immediate community has managed to survive and established new forms of mutual support and care. The most serious damage was caused to all performative practices, contemporary dance and different workshops which demands contact and direct personal interactions, so these processes need a serious period of recovery which is not yet possible.

It is important to mention that during this period we focused on the establishing a kind union of all freelancers artists and try to make a serious local coalition to establish a solidarity demand from the municipality. Yet, we have failed to realize this task, but are still in a process of negotiations: building some real structure.

JB – Has your artistic practice changed through isolation?

DV – I think it became a period of intensive learning of the topics which were not yet in the focus of our attention and it was exciting, despite the fact that the “curriculum” was pretty gloomy. We have realized a few new pieces (installation/ film/ curatorial work) which are dealing with all these issues. I think we found a new way to approach them. Our pedagogy has changed more in the direction of care and healing – not sure if it is the most interesting way to teach art but you cannot make it otherwise now. Our School of Mutation is in this direction, with a clear understanding that we are changing together with the world- we need to protect certain values and continue our mission.

JB – How has your practical capacity to produce work been affected by the pandemic?

DV – You know that we work on the issue of catastrophes for a long time. Russians are famous for a catastrophic and apocalyptic way of thinking. So, I will be the last to complain. And this is exactly the pandemic we all well deserved. This is our “con-temporary”. We do “con-temporary” art. Or at least try to make it. When you do art which reacts to painful issues in society – you have anger against capitalism , or against putinism, or the patriarchate but what can you do with a virus? Of course you find something to blame – collapse of medical care, panic spread by mass media, growing inequality and exploitation but what you could do? Very few things. Keep your faith and do art.

Like many artists we are also deeply involved with pedagogy; it’s a very important part of our activity. What can you teach? Another thing, how can you teach on zoom? Teaching requires physical presence, especially in art, because it was based on this convention of immediacy and interaction. For us it was a lot about performance, the feeling of the body, touching, cooking together, sharing food. What can you do?

JB – What is your approach to collaboration at the moment?

DV – I see that our relations inside the collective kind of intensified under the pandemic. Zoom is dangerous a thing– you get addicted and before every small question demands personal meetings – now you can make a group call any moment and chat for hours. But you are limited to real things and many subtle things are lost. Zoom kills ambiguity and subtlety of relations. I can admit that being part of a real collective of friends and comrades really saves your life in this situation. At least you are not alone.

JB – How would you define the present moment, metaphysically/literally/symbolically?

DV – You know we speculate around the School of Mutation. There is a big feeling of anxiety because we lost our previous body and didn’t find a new one. At the same time, I wouldn’t over dramatise, because there can be a much harder time. That’s why this anxiety. People my age remember hard times, at the edge of war, but there was an expectation of something positive to come. You had to mobilize yourself, stay strong and survive for bright future which you make together with your comrades.

JB – Do you see the potential for renewed support for cultural production in spite of macro and micro economies which are currently rapidly restructuring?

DV In Spring, I participated in many discussions about large-scale public funding, thinking of the necessity of big public programs (Hans Ulrich Obrichst proposal and others). But I have not heard yet about anything like this. Looks like we are facing a new wave of nationalization of culture – Germans help Germans, Dutch to Dutch artists and so on. There are a few EU grants but the competition is getting high for less and less money. Museums are in ruins, the whole international structures are also in ruins (like biennales). One can hardly speculate on a quick recovery. Restructuring will come but I can hardly see it for the benefit of a large community of cultural workers. There were also serious speculations and demands for UBI which is really a necessity but I would more appreciate a serious public works funding for artists, for the benefit of society.

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?

DV – I’d love to be this monster! I guess to reach this stage of wisdom one needs to face the end of the world everyday. And be ready for it.

JB – What is your position on the relationship between catastrophe and solidarity?

DV – The last hope is collectivity. You have to rely on your immediate circle, your family, your comrades, your community. This pandemic, we invest more energy and empathy in local things. I wrote a humble article “from nomadism to roots” and it was written before the pandemic. We grow up as nomads, it was super positive, it was revolutionary and then something started to happen. Of course, you have to keep planetary vision and for me as an internationalist it is important but at the same time you have to be here not everywhere. This shift to local could be important for economic sustainability. Capitalism doesn’t stop because the communication of economies continues but I see people become more aware about locality.

JB – What is your utopia now?

DV – Utopia is not the end. Utopia is how you deal with a challenging situation. Utopia belongs to the dream of progress. It’s something that may be fantasy but has a real base. Thomas Moore. Communism. We always lived in those spaces of Utopia, but now we think more and more about how to stop progress without rejecting utopia.

Let’s abolish capitalism. Let’s establish basic income; that everyone has the possibility to survive with or without work. This is possible to imagine, but this is a kind of continuation of one reality into an improved one. Our Utopia was a certain imagination of post-capitalist society. A society not based on monetary exchange, profit, alienation, so on that was the kind of utopia we believe in. Is it still with us? To a certain extent yes. But now we face often more gloomy scenarios of total termination of most of life, or instant transfer to many unpredictable forms of non-human life. “We are compost, not posthuman.” (Donna Haraway). This sounded intellectually provocative and poetically exciting but now the literal sense of this speculation sounds more relevant as others and I would not call it utopia in any sense.

Josseline Black-Barnett is a contemporary curator, writer, and researcher. She holds an M.A. in time-based media from the Kunst Universität Linz and a B.A. in Anthropology (specialization Cotsen Institute of Archaeology) from the University of California Los Angeles. She operated for five years as in-house curator of the international artistic residency program at the Atelierhaus Salzamt (Austria) wherein she had the privilege of working closely with a number of brilliant artists. Included in her duties within the institution she allocated and directed the Salzamt hosting of the E.U. CreArt mobility for artists program. As a writer, she has reviewed exhibitions and co-edited texts for Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, Portugal, Madre Museum Naples, the Museums Quartier Vienna, MUMOK, Guimarães Gallery, Gallery Michaela Stock. She is regular theoretical contributor to the Contemporary Art Magazine Droste Effect. In addition, she has published with Interartive Malta, OnMaps Tirana, Albania, and L.A.C.E (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). In tandem to her curatorial practice and writing, she has for the past decade used choreography as a research tool inquiring into the ontology of the performing body with a focus on embodied cartographies of public memory and space. She has held research residencies at the East Ugandan Arts Trust, the Centrum Kultury w Lublinie, the University of Arts Tirana Albania, and the Upper Austrian Architectural Forum. It is her privilege to continue developing her approach to curatorship which derives from an anthropological reading of art production and an ethnological dialectic in working with cultural content generated by art makers. Currently, she is developing the methodology which supports the foundation of a performance-based trans-disciplinary platform for a spectral critique on art production.

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