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Sabine Hänsgen

Collective Actions: Event and Documentation in the Aesthetics of Moscow Conceptualism

In the 1970s, performances played a decisive part in the development of an alternative sphere of communication in Russian-Soviet culture. Performances became important meeting places for an unofficial cultural scene that realized its activities outside the practice of state culture—access to which was regulated by strict censorship—primarily in the countryside around Moscow, in studios and private apartments. Here, forms of artistic self-organization developed parallel to the initiatives of so-called “samizdat,” the movement of “self-publishing” in the fields of literature, philosophy, or science. A countercultural public was created, displaying the attributes of a hermetic group culture in the tradition of the culture of circles found in the classical avant-garde as well as in Russian religiously motivated sectarianism.

Within this group culture, performances stimulated exchange between those who were active in various media—between fine artists, musicians, writers, theorists, and critics. However, it was not simply a matter of intensifying social contact; rather, the communicative processes within the scene were stylized into an aesthetic event. Before the backdrop of the city of Moscow, in the theatrical atmosphere of an existence shaped by ideology and ritual—if you think of the numerous parades, celebrations, and mass spectacles—one’s own artistic existence itself became the object of staging. Performances, it might be said, represented an occasion for the art scene to stage itself.

This development coming about in Soviet culture corresponded to an international trend in postwar art, which was characterized by a questioning of the traditional work concept and a shift in interest from the art object to the aesthetic event.1 From the 1960s onwards, performances—in connection with concept art, land art, or Fluxus—shaped the spectrum of art in North America and Europe. In the West, performances were one of the most prominent forms of the artistic protest movements, which proclaimed an abandonment of the established art sphere. At the same time, this move to leave the traditional spheres of art, like museums and galleries, was connected to criticism of the traditional genre of the panel picture, which was consequently regarded as a consumer fetish of the art market. The primary motivation of Western concept art was to liberate the artwork from the material object. The idea itself was to become the material of art. On the one hand, the work developed the status of a project, which was realized in outlines, plans, and instructions. On the other hand, it retrospectively adopted—in the form of a document, a commentary, or an archive—the status of a relic. This pretension to surmount the limitations of the traditional artwork was manifest in a number of artistic positions. In John Cage’s work, an extension of the concept of music came about with respect to performance practice and the indefinite nature of aleatoric compositions; the representatives of land art left the traditional spheres of art and made use of nature to realize their artistic ideas; in the Fluxus movement, the notion of art as a process was developed, representing a counterbalance to the finished, self-contained work of art.

The Moscow performance artists who emerged from the unofficial Soviet culture2 set their work in relation to such practices of contemporary Western art. After the tight closure of the borders and the demonizing of foreign “cosmopolitan” influences during the Stalin era, noticeable efforts were made to redefine one’s own culture in dialogue with other cultures. From today’s art-historical perspective, it is especially interesting to examine the use of Western concepts in Russian culture more closely. Labels from Western culture were often applied to developments that were actually caused by the Russians’ own cultural dynamics. Ilya Kabakov illustrates this using the specific example of the term “conceptualism”:

Here, as always in our country, people wrapped a phenomenon that had already existed, concealed for a long time, in a word that came from “over there.” Suddenly, it turned out that a number of phenomena that were subsumed “over there” using the term “Conceptualism” had possessed an analogy here for a long time, being almost a prime component of our artistic Weltanschauung.3

In the Western art of the postwar era, performances could be regarded as a reaction to late-capitalist consumer culture, but the performances of Moscow conceptualism represented a debate with the Soviet ideological culture—as a culture of texts, manifestos, and slogans. The genre of performance, the intention of which was to create aesthetic events in an everyday life context, thereby touched on a neuralgic field in the history of Soviet culture: the relation of art and life, especially in the epoch of the avant-garde and the “total culture” of the Stalinist period.

The postrevolutionary, Soviet avant-garde had demanded the abolition of the border between art and life as part of its program. Its artistic activity moved into practical fields such as architecture, design, propaganda, and the organization of mass festivals. Following the motto “building life” (“zhiznestroyeniye”),4 efforts were made to overcome the autonomous practice of art; artists were to play a part in the redesign of society. The aim was to make art radically pragmatic; it was to take over immediate organizational functions in production and everyday life. Ultimately, this led to a merging of aesthetic and political agendas, which was expressed in the totalitarian culture by diverse ways of aestheticizing political life. Mass festivals to mark political jubilees—such as May Day, celebrations of the revolution, and victory festivals in remembrance of the great patriotic war—increasingly resembled archaic rites, whereby the return of an original mythical event was conjured up in a magical way. Decorated with ideological symbols, the insignia of political power and influence, the metropolis of Moscow was the center of pompous mass spectacles.

Critical investigation of these ritualized forms of communication in Soviet ideological culture is already indicated as a program in the name of the performance group Collective Actions (Kollektivnye Deystviya). The group Collective Actions came into being in 1976, founded by Nikita Alekseyev, Georgi Kizevalter, Andrei Monastyrsky, and Nikolai Panitkov, although other members joined later, including Yelena Yelagina, Igor Makarevich, and Sergei Romashko.5 There was also a permanent circle of participants. Many well-known Moscow artists and writers took part in their actions: Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinshtein, Vladimir Sorokin, members of other groups (Inspection Medhermeneutics, for example), Vadim Zakharov or Yuri Albert, but also representatives of so-called New Russian Art. All of the artists involved in the organization of an action appeared as the authors of the project; as a rule, the initiator of the idea’s realization signed first, and the others were then named according to their degree of participation. The borders between authors, participants, and spectators were fluid. The aim was not to create any kind of art objects; instead, it was a matter of staging an action that developed on the border between art and life. Andrei Monastyrsky, the main theorist of the group, characterized the principle of the Collective Actions in the following way:

The only positive definition would be a dynamic definition: the event’s action emerges through the joint effort of authors and spectators, aiming for a shift in the subject of perception from the demonstration zone (“art”) through the border area (“strip”) of the indistinguishable—into the zone of scattered everyday perception (“life”).6

“Trips out of Town” was the connecting theme of these actions—trips made by a group of participants, who were generally invited to the event by the organizers in advance, which led to a certain expectation on the side of the invited. As a rule, the group headed into the countryside around Moscow—usually to a wide, empty field, that is, away from the sphere of the metropolis, saturated with symbols and texts, into an unmarked, “empty,” natural space. Often a field of untouched snow was the stage for Minimal actions, which pointed to a range of different meanings as a consequence of their mysterious quality, provoking diverse interpretations. Part of the Suprematist tradition of Kazimir Malevich, the white pictures of Ilya Kabakov, or Martin Heidegger’s “clearing,” the white field became a sphere of demonstration for the protagonists and a space of perception and reflection for the participants.

A decisive structural element of the “Trips out of Town” was the crossing of boundaries that was necessary in order to participate in the shared artistic experience. Collective Actions translated the model of an archaic ritual of initiation or transition—repeatedly renewed in the ritualized Soviet culture as a confirmation of collective identity7 — into the dimension of an aesthetic experience. Following on from Arnold van Gennep’s Les rites de passage (1909), Victor Turner described the ritual as a threshold or liminal experience, bringing about a transformation of the person who lives through it. He sees two mechanisms that shape the threshold phase: the production of an increased sense of community, in turn bound up with the uncovering of new, equivocal spheres of interpretation.8

The first performances, fundamental to the group’s aesthetics, were reduced to extremely Minimal events. For the action Appearance, which took place on March 13, 1976, the spectators were invited to a field. After five minutes, two of the action’s organizers appeared from the wood on the opposite side of the field. Crossing the field, they approached the spectators and handed out documents evidencing their participation in the action. At the second action Lieblich on April 2, 1976, a ringing alarm clock was buried in a field of snow before the spectators’ arrival; it continued to ring after the spectators had left the field.

The Minimalism of the Collective Actions group—which aestheticized simple physical processes (walking, standing, watching, listening) as well as elementary perceptual patterns and abstract categories (approaching/distancing, sound/silence, presence/absence)—developed an ironic effect in contrast to the splendor and power rhetoric of the official political rituals realized in the symbolically charged architectural sphere of the city. The physical effort of travel to and from the actions by suburban railway, bus, and often a long hike on foot—which could take several hours or even a whole day—was disproportionate to the extreme Minimalism of the events presented.

However, the performances by the group Collective Actions are not a naïve, neo-Rousseauian flight from culture; they are not limited, as an “empty action,” to the direct perception of a situation. The visible phenomena are always related to an invisible dimension of meaning as well, whereby the situational gesture of “experience” in the artistic action is equivalent to a new impulse in an infinite interpretive spiral, in which text and situation produce each other in a recurring, reciprocal manner. Their aestheticizing extends into documenting, commenting, and theoretical discourse. In a later stage of development, the group began to compile documentary volumes about its actions, in which a range of materials (descriptive texts, narratives by the participants, theoretical comments, discussions, photographs, drawings, diagrams) form a descriptive-narrative-interpretative artwork of documentation.9

In the period from Stalin’s death to the end of the Soviet Union, the situation in Russia was perhaps unique in history, as far as the media conditions for literature and art were concerned. Writers and artists prohibited by censorship were cast back to a “pre-Gutenberg” situation.10 The documentary volumes of the Collective Actions group, which appeared in only a few typewritten, illustrated copies in “samizdat”—outside the official Soviet publication channels and monopolized print media—also inspired the creation of the Moscow Archive of New Art (Russian: Moskovski Archiv Novogo Iskusstva [MANI]), an artists’ archive for conceptual art in Russia. In this archive, artists themselves collected the art that was excluded by the state policy of remembrance, thus making it available to future generations.

By incorporating documentation into the aestheticizing process, the group Collective Actions also took up a basic issue of conceptualism: the relation between the work of art and its commentary. The abstract, linguistic-philosophical direction of American concept art—for example in Joseph Kosuth’s “Art after Philosophy”—experienced a literary concretization in the context of the Soviet alternative culture of the 1970s, which led to the narrative development of different stories and a multiplication of the commenting voices. However, the many accompanying texts to Collective Actions are not—as in the case of Ilya Kabakov—stylized as the statements and opinions of imagined spectators, usually ordinary people; these commentaries come from real people who have participated in the actions and, on the level of documentation, have become figures of the discourse—the characters of a new kind of literature.

Precisely because of their distinctively literary character, the Collective Actions differ from the international style of performance art. The interpretative discourse initiated by the Collective Actions—which seeks to overcome the text and yet is thrown back, again and again, upon the text—belongs to a diversely motivated tradition of “negative” semiotics.

Boris Groys underlines the relevance of the artistic and literary-philosophical tradition of Romanticism in his article “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism.” In the discourse of Moscow Romantic Conceptualism, the insight into the “impossibility and necessity of complete communication”11 about transcendental truths—which is the basis of Romantic irony—certainly results in the permanent reformulation of the aim to describe and to understand the world, but—by contrast to the complete world models of any ideology—also in an admission of one’s own limits and personal constraints.

On the other hand, the cultural theorist and critic Mikhail Epshtein sees in Moscow Conceptualism a continuation of the tradition of negative or Apophatic theology, which had been particularly significant for Russian culture since the Middle Ages.12 The Apophatics doubt the capacity of language to define the translinguistic, divine being. For this reason, they are only able to write in linguistic constructions that employ symbolism while simultaneously rejecting it; Dionysius Areopagita, for example, describes the divine as “dazzling darkness.”

With its aesthetics of emptiness, the group Collective Actions references Zen Buddhism, which John Cage had already introduced into the context of contemporary art. The ultimate aim for Zen Buddhists is to achieve a state of consciousness beyond language. Paradoxical enigma, so-called koans, serve to liberate oneself from the concepts of language using the medium of language. This self-positioning clarifies the specific interim position of the aesthetics of the Collective Actions between East and West; it is therefore not only a matter of establishing a reference to Europe or America, but also—and especially—to the tradition of Far Eastern cultures. Based on dichotomist thought, the Eurocentric perspective is questioned when extended by a third reference.

In order to illustrate this, I would like to conclude by presenting the group’s programmatic series of “slogan actions.” On January 26, 1977, the group hung up its first slogan banner. The banner was printed with the following: “I am not complaining about anything and I like everything, even though I have never been here and know nothing about this place” (fig. 2). One year later, on April 9, 1978, this was followed by another slogan action, referring to the first. This time the banner bore the following words: “Strange, why did I lie to myself that I have never been here and know nothing about this place—in fact, this place is no different from anywhere else, only you feel it even more intensely and don’t understand it even more deeply” (fig. 3). The banners were robbed of their social and ideological function, on the one hand by means of spatial and temporal displacement, on the other hand by means of inscription with one’s own lyrical texts in the tradition of the koans, which are intended as a transgression of symbolic-linguistic order. In addition, a further structural feature of the Collective Actions becomes clear in the contradictory relation between the first and the second slogan: the reference to self-delusion may be described as a process of disillusionment, of unsettling the sense and breaking through illusion.

The series of slogan actions was continued in 1980 with For G. Kizevalter (Slogan 1980) (fig. 4). Group member Georgi Kizevalter was staying in Siberia for a longish period of time. He was sent a package enclosing a slogan banner. In an accompanying letter, he received instructions to find a big field with a wood as a backdrop, in a setting as isolated as possible. Further instructions told him to hang up the slogan between two trees, although he was not to release the length of cloth covering the writing on the banner, using a rope device, until he had moved so far away from it that the text was no longer decipherable. While the writing on the banner—serving to articulate a lyrical text—was in tension with the empty landscape in the first two slogan actions, in this case its disappearance was organized.

After various stages of emptying content, the last action of this series to date, Slogan 2005, is only distantly reminiscent of the external form of the slogan (fig. 5). Particular emphasis is placed on the points at which the slogan is fixed: on one side there is a Russian toy—a “nevalyashka,” a tumbling figure that points in turn to the Buddhist tradition of the Daruma figure—on the other side there is a cassette recorder playing the Diamond Sutra. After the completion of the reading, an academic commentary on the Sutra is hung between the trees, in the form of an ornamental composition. This installation, which thematizes the group’s inspiration by Far Eastern philosophy, was left behind as a relic in the natural environment.

What significance can be attributed to the aesthetics of the Collective Actions after the Soviet ideological culture has come to an end? In face of the increasingly extensive commercialization of art on a global scale, it is possible to observe a search for alternative forms of communication and cooperation, which link art back—outside its market and mass-media circulation—to an investigation of one’s own conditions of perception and understanding.13 In this context, the “hermetic” forms of artistic self-organization developed in Russian culture could certainly serve as a corrective in other cultures as well.


The author wishes to thank Lucinda Rennison and Monika Dittrich for the translation of the German text into English.


1 See Paul Schimmel and Peter Noever, eds., Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949–1979, exh. cat. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1998) or Paul Schimmel and Peter Noever, eds., Out of Actions: Aktionismus, Body Art und Performance 1949–1979, exh. cat. Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 1998).

2 See “PERFORMANCE: Iskusstvo deystviya,” Dekorativnoe Iskusstvo 5 (1991).

3 Ilya Kabakov, “Konzeptualismus in Russland,” in Das Leben der Fliegen, exh. cat. Kölnischer Kunstverein (Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, 1992), p. 123.

4 Nikolai Chuzhak, “Pod znakom zhiznestroyeniya” [Under the Sign of Building Life], LEF [Art Journal of the Left Front] 1 (1923), pp. 12–39.

5 The group name “Kollektivnye Deystviya” derives from the title of the section “azioni collettive,” in which performances were categorized in the catalogue of the Venice Biennale in 1977. This name was taken up by Boris Groys in his article “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism,”A-Ya [Unofficial Russian Art Review] 1 (1979), pp. 3–11, and ultimately also used by the group itself.

6 Andrei Monastyrsky, “Kollektivnye Deystviya,” Flash Art – Russian Edition 1 (1989), p. 140.

7 Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

8 Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishers, 1969). See also Erika Fischer-Lichte, “Ästhetische Erfahrung als Schwellenerfahrung,” in Dimensionen ästhetischer Erfahrung, ed. Joachim Küpper and Christoph Menke (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003), pp. 138–61.

9 The first five documentary volumes of the Collective Actions, which first appeared in samizdat, were republished in a volume (Kollektivnye Deystviya, Poezdki za gorod [Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1998]) referring to the actions realized from 1976 to 1989. The group is now working on the production of the tenth documentary volume. Documentations of the Collective Actions are available in translation in the following publications: Felix Philipp Ingold, “Performance in der Sowjetunion,” Kunstnachrichten 4 (1980), pp. 62–69; Günter Hirt and Sascha Wonders, eds., Kulturpalast: Neue Moskauer Poesie und Aktionskunst (Wuppertal: S-Press, 1984); Günter Hirt and Sascha Wonders, eds., Moskau, Moskau: Videostücke (Wuppertal: S-Press, 1987); Margarita Tupitsyn, Margins of Soviet Art (Milan: Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1989); “Bildbeschreibungen: Moskauer Konzeptualismus – Dritte Folge,” Schreibheft 42 (1993), pp. 35–137; Sylvia Sasse, Texte in Aktion: Sprech- und Sprachakte im Moskauer Konzeptualismus (Munich: W. Fink, 2003).

10 See Günter Hirt and Sascha Wonders, eds., Präprintium: Moskauer Bücher aus dem Samizdat, exh. cat. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin and Neues Museum Weserburg Bremen (Bremen: Edition Temmen, 1998).

11 Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, vol. 2, ed. Hans Eichner (Munich et al.: Schoningh, 1967), p. 160.

12 Mikhail Epshtein, “Iskusstvo avangarda i religioznoe soznanie” [Avant-Garde Art and Religious Consciousness], Novy Mir 12 (1989), pp. 222–35.

13 See Kollektive Kreativität, exh. cat. Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 2005).




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