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S. Hänsgen, A. Monastyrski

A Dialogue on the Slogans of Collective Actions

SH: The name of Collective Actions’ (CA’s) most recent piece Slogan 2005 contains a dual reference: on the one hand, it invokes a certain form of political design in Soviet culture, and on the other hand, it is associated with an entire tradition of CA performances involving slogans. To me, it would be interesting to use this action as a point of departure to explore the meaning of the specific relationship between exterior and interior contexts to the work of the group.
An important narrative element of CA’s performances in the genre Trips to the Countryside can be found in the crossing of a boundary, an aesthetic experience of liminality. At the same time, the transition from urban space into the rural landscape is connected to a process of semiotic reduction.
The rural landscape – an empty field in the metaphysical sense – becomes the backdrop for minimal actions that thematize elementary spatio-temporal structures of perception: appearance – disappearance, approach – retreat, walking, standing, lying down, sound – silence, pause, and the rhythm of temporal extension. But as early as during the first foundational period of the group’s activity, documented in the first volume of CA (1976-80), sign-material brought along from Moscow’s metropolitan space was also used. In this sense, the actions with slogans seem especially salient and form an entire series in the earliest stage of the Collective Actions group.
How would see the relationship between interior and exterior contexts in this earliest stage, using the actions with slogans as an example?

AM: The retreat from exterior Soviet contexts took place almost immediately after the first action, Slogan-77, which still made use of the Soviet slogan’s form. The second action, Slogan-78, was already a reflection on the inner content of the first slogan, while the third slogan reflected the removal of the text from visual apprehension altogether, and its removal from discursivity to description, that is the complete formalization and “nullification” of any ideological discourse whatsoever. The next action, Slogan-86, began in complete emptiness with the quality of a landscape (without any visible “slogan-quality”), returning a completely different discourse to this series, connected with only a priori contemplation, with space and time (its text is the foreword to the 4th volume of Trips to the Countryside). On the level of plasticity, the formalism of Soviet ideology melts away into “childish ideology”, in the form of a “children’s secret”, buried owls and dogs, made from a blackened map of the USSR.
The next piece, Slogan-89 is a ready-made of (or pop-art on) the new ideology of monetarism that arose in Russia and bloomed in colorful opulence during the 1990s. Here, again, we can see a intense contact between interior and exterior contexts (the “indiscernibility” of CA’s aesthetics as a category and nascent monetarism, expressed by the financial billboard of the Slogan).
Slogan-90 is a slogan that is difficult to grasp through discourse; it is somehow connected to an exterior chtonic world (the Moscow metro) and my own personal psychedelic adventures in the early 1980s. It could be that the next piece, Slogan-96, has been “raised up” out of this chtonic world, wrapped up with the figure of the professional Soviet philosopher Mikhail Ryklin, at the mercy of the new Russian discourse.
Slogan-2003 (with Martin Heidegger) may be a separate action, but it is deeply embedded into the common structure of two actions, namely Action with Hours and the slogan itself. It is constructed on such notions-categories as “hiddenness” and “place” (but not “space”).
The last piece, Slogan-2005, was carried out here as well. It is a serial action that continues several line of CA’s at once, and not only the line of the slogans (for instance, it continues the line of actions of The Means of the Row and On the Clearing).

S.H.: On the one hand, CA’s slogans are assimilated to the expressive forms of the surrounding sign field, but the device of serial repetition presents the spectator with another horizon of perception. The act of distancing is also connected to critical intentions. The slogan’s banner contains a personal text. “We” is replaced by “I” (for an example, in Slogan-77: “I’m not complaining about anything…”). But in the continuation of the series through the second Slogan, the illusion of the lyrical subject is dispelled (“Why did I Lie to Myself…”). The variations within the series redirect the audience’s attention to the factors that supply the slogan with its form, while its content is emptied out. This already takes place in the poetic texts of CA’s first two slogans: through paradoxical linguistic constructions in the tradition of Zen-Buddhist koans, signification actually consists in the cancellation of meaning. Yet in the third slogan “To Georgy Kizevalter”, which is hung up in such a way that even the letters of the text are impossible to decipher, all that remains as a relic is the outer material form, a design with no content. In the example of the actions with slogans, it becomes obvious what an important role the serial principle plays in the aesthetics of CA. Seriality questions the conventional notion of the artwork, which is usually defined by the clear-cut boundaries of a separate thing. Repetitive structures refer to the age-old traditions of ritual culture, in which reiteration effects the self-affirmation of commonality as well as a sense of satisfaction at recognizing that which is expected. But on the other hand, in the traditions of poetry or music, variations of repetitive structures do not only affirm the expected, but also create an aesthetic sensibility for the most minimal of changes in the series’ development. This gives rise to the possibility for perceiving almost indiscernible nuances in the formative process. HOW everything repeats becomes more important than WHAT is being repeated. Through its endless textuality, the serial system of CA continues to generate new actions and new “eventness.” What is the relationship between the text machine of CA and the immediate perception of “eventness” in its actions?

A.M.: This question is very important. Text generates eventness. In the beginning of the series, “eventness” is generated through some “hidden”, “alien” text (explicit or implicit imitations based on the assumption that any aesthetic “eventness” whatsoever arises from text). But as the series develops and in the course of CA’s ongoing praxis over the duration of many years, we have quite a profound development: what arises is a “narrow” path of sorts, a footpath (in contrast to the initial field roads, barely visible or rutted). The aesthetic placements of new articulations are joined onto those that preceded them. From the field to the field path, as it were. The first slogans took place on open fields, while the last two were executed in a rather narrow clearing in the forest with a footpath leading up to it. In the first case, we are dealing with space and with horizons, while in the second case, we are dealing with place and verticality (the forest). The “field” slogans with indefinite aesthetic “edges” interact well with their exterior contexts and even dissolve into them (“poles of indistinction”). The “foot path” slogans, however, have their own rigid aesthetic carcass, and are separated from exterior contexts, through historicity, among other things, through Heidegger’s portrait or the Diamond Sutra (instead of the “currency” of the financial billboard or the existential state “here and now”). From an expositional point of view, the early slogans are derivative and secondary (post-modernism), while the later slogans are original and primary (modernism). The earlier slogans were made in a “background” aesthetic. On the one hand, they are instrumental. In a sense, they simply serve as a pretext for the perception and contemplation of the surrounding outer world (context). On the other hand, they are loaded with a strong explosive charge critical of this context’s ideological layers. The later slogans are self-sufficient; they offer themselves up to perception and contemplation, and in this sense, they are more “striking” in artistic terms. In other words, the text machine, in my view, leads away from immediacy and, in the end, creates worlds of its own, if you will.

S.H.: In the next-to-last action of the series Slogan-2003, a portrait of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger was hung up between two trees instead of a slogan. How can one understand the gesture of using this portrait? Is it a direct programmatic statement, that is, a reference to a certain philosophical tradition, into which the aesthetic praxis of CA falls? Or does the application of the strange device of reducing the portrait in size draw attention to the ambivalent relationship to this tradition? From my point of the view, this performance demonstrates the CA’s self-image as an aesthetic praxis that does not only create a situation for aesthetic perception, but connects this situation with the process of reflection, relating the direct experience of “now and here” with general systemic philosophical notions. As I see it, playing on spatio-temporal categories, perception, and cognition have a central meaning to the activities of CA. In this connection, one could ask: why didn’t you hang up a portrait of Immanuel Kant? Maybe because the case of Heidegger gives rise to a more provocatively ambivalent relationship to the philosophical tradition?
If the rational system of Kant is still centered on the subjective capacities for perception and cognition, then in Heidegger, we encounter more complex interconnections between the subject and the object, which form the structure of aesthetic experience. Moreover, subject and object can potentially trade places. But here the most provocative moment probably consists in the fact that the portrait of Heidegger (and especially his canonic portrait with oak-leaves on his jacket lapels) refers to the realization of philosophical praxis in the political context of fascist ideology. To talk about the connection between aesthetic and philosophico-political contexts in more detail, it makes sense to examine the use of notions such as spatiality, space, and place in Heidegger. For action art, it is important that Heidegger develops a phenomenological understanding of space – in counterbalance to abstract, mathematical space – through the experience of the Lebenswelt (“life-world”). This gives rise to a different view of the surrounding world. The installation of things creates an aesthetic experience of place that I view as something ambivalent. On the one hand, Heidegger developed the notion of “ground/homeland” as the fundamental place of a people’s existence, which fascist ideology later appropriated. On the other hand, if one follows Heidegger’s line of thinking, the installation of things means that they are no longer perceived as such (as in Kant); instead, they displace the gaze onto the surrounding world. The boundaries of the artwork become blurred, giving rise to a new experience of openness.

A.M.: We did actually use Kant – in the form of an unusually big (fat) book – in the action 625-520, the first action of the forest cycle, whose last action is actually Slogan-2003, which use the unusually small portrait of Heidegger. What is interesting in both cases is the distortion and hypertrophy of size, not only as a stylistic trait of romanticism, but as a certain pathology of discourse, which this plastical abnormality actually refers to. What we have here is a diagnose of CA: textual distension along with visual insuffiency and squalid design. But you could also apply this diagnose to the Russian logocentric mentality as a whole. The maniacal commitment to logocentrism in Russia (which I emphasize by carrying on the discourse of CA and opposing it to Western anthropocentrism) is, in fact, the “philosophical” basis for the total disregard for the human personality in Russia at all stages of its history, including modernity. In Russia (and in the aesthetics of CA, to my sincere regret and shame), the human being is an abstract structural element, dangling somewhere along the “edges”, a certain instrument of a supposedly “scientific” exploration of something “common”, of “everything”, etc. This is why human life has no value here, in essence.
Getting back to the Heidegger portrait in the action Slogan-2003, one should consider the commonalities between the Action with Hours and this slogan. In fact, a string was drawn through the forest from the tape recorder from the Action with Hours to the portrait of Heidegger. The tape recorder reproduced texts of Soviet polar explorers of the 1930s, which segued into Heidegger’s text on extension. So what we have here are the different sides of temporal and totalitarian commonality through the juxtaposition of Soviet polar explorers and Heidegger. Here, it is as if Heidegger emerges out these polar explorers just like Russian literature emerges from Gogol’s overcoat. Although, of course, the structure of this interrelation is more complex. But this aspect is also present. Excessive acuity toward existentialism leads to totalitarianism. Polar explorers and hermits are very closely related. Soviet polar explorers are state hermits and present an interesting statist form of existentialism. Polar explorers are very religious and ascetic somehow. And, of course, so is Heidegger. Befitting of his religious essence, he deserves a “portrait” (“icon”) and “speech” (“preaching”) (Action with Hours). But the figure of Kant is the complete opposite in this sense; he is critical, which is why he was given a “book” (625-520), though it was inflated to an abnormal size, apparently because, in fact, it contained his early, pre-critical texts. As far as CA is concerned, it seems to me that we have reached a post-critical period, especially in our last Slogan-2005. And here it is important not to lose a sense of irony; otherwise, it could easily lead to some new mania.

S.H.: In conclusion, let’s turn to the last action, Slogan-2005. Unlike all the other pieces in CA’s slogan series, this action removes the “slogan-quality” of the slogan into the auditory sphere, if I am not mistaken. The initial phase of the action consisted in listening to a reading of the Diamond Sutra, playing on a tape recorder that suspended from a tree. The device of listening to an invisible voice is reminiscent of the form practiced by ancient religious cults, where the sphere of the invisible is associated with transcendental mystery. This tradition seems to shine through this slogan as a background. Then again, the action also gave rise to the state of listening as such, which supports the process of liberation from any concrete content that we were talking about before. This concentrates all attention on the perception of the material-formal details of the slogan as an installation in nature. One of the slogan’s points of affixment[1] is marked by the fact that the tape recorder is fastened to the tree with yellow scotch tape. Another point of affixment is marked by an orange tumbler-doll. Between them, there are sheets of paper with scholarly commentary attached to the tree trunks. This obviously accentuates the design or the format of the slogan. And again, the text machine has been set into motion, producing text that branches out into various commentaries.
I don’t only think that that this can stimulate a one-way-movement that leads to more and more remote contexts that culminate in self-sufficiency. Instead, I imagine it as movement along a spiral that could unexpectedly lead to aesthetic contact with the surrounding context of the new Russian world.

A.M.: I have no idea about contemporary contexts of Slogan-2005 and what’s more, I find them completely uninteresting. Even if they are there, of course. For me, this slogan is, most importantly, an abstract composition, a chromatic structure. It is like a piece of music. It is somehow related to Daoist and Buddhist mentalities (and these might be quite contemporary and current, at least to CA). What seems very strange is the inclusion of living elements, such as a bound bundle of branches that took the place of the tape player, and the participation of a Pharaoh hound in the action’s space. After the preceding four actions on the theme of Russian cosmism, this last action does not awaken any discursive desire to understand it at all. And that’s a good thing.

Translation: David Riff



[1] Trans. note: “Point of affixment” is a specific term from the discourse of CA that may require some clarification. To Andrei Monastyrsky, the point of affixment, usually considered as a purely technical moment (i.e. a nail), has a central aesthetic value in defining the artwork’s objectivity: it reveals the link of the artwork’s material placement (on the “expositional sign-field” of exterior reality and ideological motivations) to the immanent, conceptual logic of art. In other words, the “point of affixment” supplies the artwork with its conceptual objectivity.

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