Yesterday, I witnessed three actions by the new group, Kapiton. The three members of the group plus Igor Makarevich, Elena Elagina, Dasha Novgorodova, Andrey Silvestrov, and I met up at Monastyrsky’s apartment at noon and piled into three cars to drive to Losinyi Ostrov National Park, not far from Monastyrsky’s house.
Andrei went first. He gave the other two members of the group, Vadim Zakharov and Yuri Leiderman, tote bags containing some unknown materials and asked them to cross the river by a metal footbridge. Then, as we walked down our side of the river, Zakharov and Leiderman followed down theirs. But whereas ours had a path, along which sometimes joggers or people on bicycles would pass, their side was more of a slope and overgrown with forest.
We arrived at the appointed place and positioned ourselves by the edge of the river; Zakharov and Leiderman were asked to do the same. The site was a place I had been once before, when Monastyrsky had taken me to this park to show me some different places where other KD actions had taken place.
As Leiderman and Zakharov watched through a pair of binoculars from the opposite side of the river, Monastyrsky began to attach some portraits in tiny frames to tree trunks right at the edge of the river. These were Napoleon and three of his generals. Next, Zakharov was told to take a green box with an image from the KD action Russian World on its face from his bag and nail it to a thick tree trunk on his side of the river. Then, each of the three members removed a small plastic megaphone from the bags, and read a text, also prepared ahead of time by Monastyrsky. First, Monastyrsky read a long text, which I cannot now remember. Then, Zakharov and Leiderman read brief texts that sounded like folk stories or something of that sort.
Then, Andrei asked whether the others wanted to leave the objects in the trees as they were (and therefore create an empty action, in the vein of KD), take all the objects down, or change the “Russian” object by moving the plastic case with the DVD of Russian World from the outside to the inside of the green box and removing only some of the “French” objects. Leiderman wanted to take all the objects; Zakharov wanted to leave them as they were. (I think.) In the end, it was decided that only one of the portraits would remain hanging and that Zakharov would change the box and then climb the tree to nail the box higher up, out of the audience’s reach. This is what was done.
After everything was gathered up, and the things that were to be left were left, we continued to walk along the river, we on our side, Zakharov and Leiderman on theirs. Again, we walked down the gravel path, while they had to make their way through bushes, climbing up the slope at times to avoid obstacles. There were abandoned tents set up by homeless people with (as we later learned) pots and pans and mattresses inside and a small pack of stray dogs that was running wild on the other side of the river. Monastyrsky busied himself looking out for the wanderers’ safety, reassuring them that their tote-bags contained not only the hammer from the previous action, but a special dog-repelling silent whistle. The wanderers seemed to go out of sight at times, and on the whole did not seem to be paying much attention to the directions. Leiderman walked ahead, while Zakharov hung back, fascinated with the “homeless village.”
We walked until we came to the railroad bridge, where another KD action, Transcendence had been performed some time ago, and Leiderman and Zakharov were told to climb up onto the tracks and cross the river that way. The bridge seemed to harbor a lot of activity: a dog stood barking across the river at the pack of strays, as its owner, a woman in black stood over it saying that everything would be fine (both dog and woman seemed homeless themselves). A pair of adolescent boys sat up on the side of the tracks throwing rocks at the wheels of passing trains.
When Leiderman and Zakharov came down from the tracks, our party began to make its way back down the path. The two stopped briefly to be photographed wearing the portraits from Monastyrsky’s trees and holding up their megaphones (which had been presented to them as gifts). As we walked back down the gravel path, Leiderman pronounced into his megaphone that the walk to the train bridge had been unnecessary, and he and Monastyrsky had a discussion about it.
The second action was Leiderman’s. Nearly back where we began, on a clearing where two paths met, surrounded by some woods and little hills, Andrey Silvestrov began to unpack his camera equipment. He had a very serious tripod and a camera, which he set up facing down one of the paths. Monastyrsky and Zakharov were given little handmade books by Leiderman with some verses written on bright blue paper. (Matisse-like.) Something about Heracles and Fire! Fire! Fire! (Ogon’! Ogon’! Ogon’!) Something about piusiki and some bird’s kopchik v pyli. It was difficult for me to make any sense of it, but it reminded me of little boys playing in the yard and repeating some naughty nonsense poems.
It was announced that the action would consist of filming the pair reading the verses in unison for the camera. They did this, Monastyrsky nodding his head and intoning like some classical Russian poet and Zakharov reading along. Each time, Silvestrov would praise the performance, that was really good..., and then point out something that was a little off. Let’s try another take. Each time, the verses would end on the elongated syllable i-i-i-i-i! And each time, there was something wrong with this syllable. Either there was not enough feeling, or the two were not in synch, or they were not saying it enough to each other, or they were not saying it enough to the camera. After a while, it became clear that the whole thing was a put-on. Leiderman would pace the area around the shoot, gesticulating like a symphony conductor and sometimes turning away to contain or conceal his laughter.
Once the complaining began, Sylvestrov job was to convince the two actors that the shoot was nearly over. He did a heroic job of it, after many, many read-throughs straight into the camera, getting them to do a shot/reverse shot and then even a handheld 360 degree shot of them reading while facing each other while he circled them. Both readers seemed tired and irritated afterward, and Zakharov coughed quite a bit. One funny moment during the whole absurd spectacle was when Zakharov was told to stop reading so fast, and Monastyrsky began to complain that, indeed, Zakharov was reading too fast, and perhaps without feeling.
After the mutiny, we all piled back into the cars and drove to a shopping center to stock up on food and drinks.
Back at the apartment, food was quickly laid out on a low table, beers and shots of vodka were poured, and we took to eating. Zakharov had stayed in the driveway to “call the gallery” while this was happening, and upon his return, announced that we should continue to eat and drink, but that his portion of the evening’s activities would begin promptly at 5 o’clock. He set up a video camera to face the table and specifically at his place at it.
As we continued to eat, Zakharov sat patiently and, as promised, began to prepare his action at 5. He removed his sweater and t-shirt, took out a white towel and some brown bottle (vaseline oil), and began to rub it vigorously on his belly and chest. Then, taking out a rod, wrapping it with cotton-wool, pouring a clear liquid into a glass, began the process of pulling medicine cups from his black case, lighting the cotton rod on fire, and heating the insides of the cups to press them onto his body. Seemingly at the same time—or maybe even before the cupping began—the telephone rang. The home phone, and then the cell phone, which Monastyrsky answered.
Even knowing that it is customary to answer the phone in nearly any situation here, I was still surprised that Monastyrsky would distract himself from the event to speak to people “outside” the action. It should be noted that during Leiderman’s event, Zakharov’s phone did ring too, and he did answer it. One time, the call was for Leiderman, who took it. Another time, it was a television station, and Monastyrsky even yelled something like S”emka khuevaya!, meaning, we’re having a fucking shoot here (emphasis on the torturous quality of the shoot).
Still, the calls kept coming, and Zakharov kept doing the cups. Tension was heightened even more because the cupping wasn’t working out as well as he’d planned, and Makarevich had to step in to help until it was figured out that the whole thing could be done much more easily if the cups were heated by the lighter directly, rather than trying to keep the cotton-wool rod aflame. As he went, Zakharov would write different things on the cups with a golden marker, but it was unclear what he was writing. At one point, the landline rang while Monastyrsky was on the cell phone, and he had to tell the person on the line that he could not talk. When things settled down, I think it was Monastyrsky who asked if we could comment, and when Zakharov said, Go right ahead, he reached for a book he’d been reading about a saintly person who had been imprisoned in the gulags, and began to read a passage from it. At this point, Nikita Alekseev called, and Monastyrsky immediately asked him if he could read a passage over the phone, since he was in the middle of it, and he went on to read a fairly lengthy passage from the book, the contents of which I cannot recall right now. Something about a goat breaking into the barracks, and the prisoners chasing the goat around to see if they could milk it.
As Monastyrsky had guessed, the calls had all been staged, the callers prepared for the timing by Zakharov when he had hung back to “call the gallery.” The cups were meant to be put on as the calls came in, and the length of the call and name of the caller written on each cup as it was put on and pulled off the body. While it did not happen this way, Zakharov did indeed end up with the right number of cups (seven or eight) with names inscribed on them in golden marker in front of him on the white towel.
The discussion centered around the question of overcoming one’s boundaries. Whether Monastyrsky’s action had belonged to Kapiton, or whether it could more properly be classified as KD, or rather, whether it was still KD or changed significantly enough to be part of Kapiton. (I don’t think a clear definition or distinction was stated outright.) Leiderman insisted that perhaps the point was not to do something different from what one was used to doing, but to find new boundaries and new planes on which to continue one’s creative work.
Zakharov talked about his recent work about homelessness, which he felt resonated for him with the part of the action where he walked past the improvised homeless shelters.
I don’t remember what was said about Leiderman’s piece, except that Zakharov insisted that if the footage were made into a movie in reality, then that would weaken the whole thing. I also don’t remember what was said about Zakharov’s.
When I was asked to say something, after all the three members had discussed each other’s work, and others had said some things, I thought and spoke about how Monastyrsky’s work indeed seemed more Russian, having more layers of literary meaning, whereas the other two seemed more like Western performance art, being more body-centric and performance-oriented (theatrical?) and having to do with a kind of hidden “trick” that revealed itself in the course of the action. (These distinctions, of course, are superficial, but are relevant, I think, for thinking about KD and Kapiton.)
On the ride in the metro, I asked Zakharov about Kapiton and the premise, whether this was a kind of myth or a secret. He said, Not at all. That the hope was that they would meet regularly and try to find new ways of working, to make professional pieces together. He also noted that his work was always about doing things that were not svoistvenny, not second-nature to him. That he always tried to push himself toward the more difficult things. He had said during the discussion that he had not wanted to do his cupping action, that he’d felt burdened by it, and had wished he could do another one. But in the end, he had been happy with the way it had worked out, especially in the way Monastyrsky had taken over the conversation with Alekseev, had imposed the action on Alekseev, rather than Alekseev (through Zakharov) on Monastyrsky.
And now I want to say a little bit more about my own take on these actions. The reason I sensed a difference between the first action and the two subsequent ones has to do, in part, with the actions’ structures.
The first action offered a long series of symbolic figures, including the portraits, the mapping of the French penetration of Russia onto the two opposite river-banks, and by extension, the megaphones, the texts, the strolls along the river, the homeless “villages,” etc. However, even with Monastyrsky revealing the identities of the figures in the portraits and the contents of the green box, no overall, synthetic, “true” meaning was revealed. Meaning either eluded us as readers or was located in some other aspect of the action (according to Monastyrsky himself, the stroll along the unknown shore and Zakharov and Leiderman’s individual perception during that stroll.)
The other two actions, though they differed in many things besides, had one thing in common, which was the hidden outside element that was revealed in the course of the action and thus became a performative element of the actions themselves. In Leiderman’s piece, the outside element was the secret charge to Silvestrov that he was to keep Monastyrsky and Zakharov reading for as many takes as possible (presumably); in Zakharov’s, it was the charge to the callers to call Monastyrsky and engage him in a conversation during Zakharov’s performance with the medicinal cups. Interestingly, in both actions, Monastyrsky’s personality took on this outside element and assimilated it in an amusing way: in the first, he himself took on the tyrannical role of the cameraman/torturer by telling Zakharov how to read the piece, and in the second, he turned Alekseev’s phone call around on him, keeping Alekseev on the phone for perhaps longer than the latter may have expected or wished. In this way, something supposedly foreign to the performance (to the idea of being engaged in the action, the collective spirit of the performance, of present-ness among like-minded intimates) infects and becomes part of the performance itself, at first irritating some or all of those present, but eventually making clear that this thing is actually harmless and part of it. In the first, as Leiderman noted, this foreign thing is the glamurnyi, commercial attitude of do this, pose like that, sell yourself, let’s make a movie, which Silvestrov represented; in the second, it was clearly the disturbing telephone calls that interrupted the process of the performance and may have even seemed to throw off Zakharov’s cupping procedure. If we take this line of reasoning, then a kind of “moral” may emerge about the ability of the performance to assimilate this infection and actually engulf it like a phagocyte, neutralizing its “outsider” nature and returning the group dynamic to a happy equilibrium.
So and not so with Monastyrsky’s action. On the one hand, the performance seems to engulf everything around it; everything becomes absorbed into the multi-layered symbolic system, as well as into the possibility that it is meaningful simply by being perceptible, a phenomenon for the senses to perceive; on the other, there is no narrative structure as such, nothing is concealed or revealed, there is no hidden “straw man” that becomes apparent beyond the identity of the chosen images, texts, contents of the bags, chosen paths, etc. The world continues to hold on to its mystery, and the performance itself does not serve to categorize that world into things “here” and “out there.” While we feel “together” as the performance takes place, the possibility and burden of meaning-making (if there even is one) remains within each one of us separately.
This, parenthetically, makes me think about commitment. Why certain members of KD chose to remain in the group while others faded away or took up other pursuits. I do not know any of these stories in detail. But one thing that becomes clear from my reading of this action (that the burden of meaning, and by extension, the burden of proof of relevance, remains with the individual) is a strong argument that this action is also about, in some part, commitment to its own cause. It is a challenge and a trial to the viewer and even more so to the participants, who have to prove to themselves (since it will not be proved or revealed to them in the end) that what they are doing is relevant, perhaps interesting, and most of all, worth their time. It is not a performance for, it is a performance of.
As for Kapiton, there are clearly different gravitational poles; it remains to be seen where the equilibrium settles.