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Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art


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The rise of participatory art since the 1990s invites us to constitute a history of this practice, ideally one that reflects the global spread of this work today. In charting this history, important variants appear that challenge the dominant way of thinking about participatory art in Western Europe and North America, where this work tends to be positioned as a political, constructive, and oppositional response to the spectacle’s atomization of social relations. By contrast, the participatory art of Eastern Europe and Russia from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s is frequently marked by the desire for an increasingly subjective and privatized aesthetic experience. At first glance, this seems to be an inversion of the Western model (despite Guy Debord’s observation that bureaucratic communism is no less spectacular than its capitalist variant; it is simply “concentrated” as opposed to “diffused”). However, and crucially, the individual experiences that were the target of participatory art under really existing socialism continue to be framed as shared privatized experiences: the construction of a collective artistic space amongst mutually trusting colleagues. Rather than frame this work as “implicitly political,” as is the habit with current Western approaches to Eastern bloc art history, this essay will argue that work produced under state socialism during these decades should rather be viewed in more complex terms. Given the saturation of everyday life with ideology, Soviet artists did not regard their work as political but rather as existential and apolitical, committed to ideas of freedom and the individual imagination. At the same time, they sought an expanded—one might say democratized—horizon of artistic production, in contrast to the highly regulated and hierarchized system of the Union of Soviet Artists.

In the present essay, I want to focus on the Collective Actions Group, active in Moscow from the mid-1970s onwards, from the perspective of Western participatory art. Unlike many recent socially-engaged artists, for whom social participation in art denotes the inclusion of the working class, marginalized communities, or at least everyday non-professionals (rather than the artists’s friends and colleagues), the political context of the Collective Actions Group rendered such distinctions redundant. The impulse to collaborate with disenfranchised communities that we see so frequently today was a somewhat alien concept in the 1970s: under Cold War socialism, every citizen was (nominally at least) equal, a co-producer of the communist state. Class difference did not exist.], 173–4). The artist Vladimír Boudník (1924–68) worked in a
print factory and declared, a good decade before Joseph Beuys did, that
everyone was an artist. He viewed his art as having an educative mission: he
produced work in the streets (late 1940s–50s), finding images in peeling
paint and stains on walls, occasionally adding to them, and framing them (for
example with paper), before encouraging passers-by to converse with him about
their meaning. See Vladimír Boudník (Prague:
Gallery, 2004). Mílan Knížák was aware of Boudník’s work, and some of his
early actions make reference to everyday workers. For example, Anonymous (1965) involved scattering the
following script in the street: “1. A HAPPENING for street-sweepers and
janitors. 2. ENVIRONMENT for pedestrians. 3. DELIGHT for the creator, resulting
from the action.” See Milan Knížák, Actions
For Which at Least Some Documentation Remains, 1962–1995
(Prague:
Gallery, 2000), 73.] Finding participants for one’s art was therefore a question of selecting reliable colleagues who would not inform on one’s activities. In an atmosphere of near constant surveillance and insecurity, participation was an artistic and social strategy to be deployed only amongst the most trusted groups of friends. The restrictions of life under Cold War communism do more than simply affect the question of who participates in art. They also govern the appearance of these works: materially frugal and temporally brief, many of these actions and events were located in the countryside, far away from networks of surveillance. The fact that many of these actions do not look like art is less an indication of the artists’s commitment to blurring “art and life” than a deliberate strategy of self-protection, as well as a reaction to the state’s own military displays and socialist festivals as a visual reference point; these events dissuaded artists from contrived displays of collective participation even if they had the resources to emulate them.

It is useful to remind ourselves that unofficial art began in Moscow in 1964, after Khrushchev visited the thirtieth anniversary show of the Moscow Union of Artists at the Manezh Gallery, which included a display of non-figurative, abstract paintings; Khrushchev declared these to be (among other things) “private psycho-pathological distortions of the public conscience.” The extent of his reaction led to the ever-increasing domestic isolation of independent artists and their being denied the right to show their works to the public in any place or form. And yet, despite being severely criticized and censured, unofficial art continued into the mid-1970s, when the first legal exhibitions took place and a shadow union for unofficial artists was set up (the Graphics Moscow City Committee). After the controversial Bulldozer exhibition of September 1974 (in which an exhibition of unofficial art was destroyed by bulldozer), cultural authorities decided to regulate and legalize their relationships with “underground” art via the State Committee for Security (KGB). Most unofficial art was exhibited inside private apartments, forcing a convergence of art and life that surpassed what the majority of twentieth-century avant-gardists had ever intended by this term. The phenomenon of “Apt-Art” (apartment art), an initiative by Nikita Alekseev, referred to exhibitions and performances taking place in private homes for small networks of trusted friends; Apt-Art flourished in the early 1980s.

It was in this context that the most celebrated of Moscow Conceptualists, Ilya Kabakov (b.1933), developed his personal work alongside his official job as a children’s book illustrator. Kabakov’s Albums (1972–75) are illustrated narratives, each revolving around one fictional character, most of whom are isolated, lonely, idiosyncratic figures on the margins of society, cocooned in a private dream world. The first, Sitting in the Closet Primakov, is typical in that it describes the life of a boy who sits in a dark closet and refuses to come out; when he does, he sees the world in terms of modernist abstract paintings. Each Album was accompanied by drawings and general comments on the character spoken by other fictional commentators. Crucially, these Albums were not read as books but were performed by the artist for small groups of friends. Boris Groys recalls that one would make an appointment with Kabakov (rather like organizing a studio visit) and go to his home, where the artist would place the book on a music stand and read the entire text in a neutral and unexpressive tone of voice. The experience was extremely monotonous but had a ritualistic quality in which the turning of the pages became central. Most readings took an hour, although Groys recalls once undergoing an eight-hour performance. One of the key points to emerge here is the use of a neutral, descriptive, analytical language focusing on the inconspicuous, the banal, and the marginal; another is that the stories are geared more towards invented forms of survival and endurance than of criticism; and another is the repeated motif of isolated individuals negotiating the endless and uncomfortable scrutiny of the communal apartment. All of these points provide an important contextual precursor for the work discussed in the remainder of this essay.

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