Sabine Hänsgen, Andrei Monastyrski

Preface to the sixth volume of "Trips out of Town"

Questions about the History of Collective Actions

Sabine Hänsgen (S. H.): After the fifth volume of Trips Out of Town, you announced the end of Collective Actions' (KD`s) work together. [1] I would like to ask a couple of questions of a retrospective nature having to do with the history of KD's development in the cultural context of the 1970s and 1980s. First question: the action as genre. What motivated the circle of so-called "unofficial Soviet artists" of the mid-1970s to move from material-based artistic production to the genre of actions, that is to organizing aesthetic events in everyday life (not traditionally considered aesthetic)?

Andrei Monastyrski (A. M.): The genre of "questions" is, in my opinion, fairly flexible. It has its own temporal modality and historicity. In a sense, the most important thing about this genre is the intonation of interrogative deliberation—like any intonation, closed in upon itself. In Elementary Poetry #3 (1975), [2] for example, I consciously used interrogative deliberation as a text-generating element, completely on par with the work's other elements. I first wrote down 198 questions and then provided 198 answers to them. It is interesting that in answering the initial questions and knowing in advance the full discursive arc anticipated by the questions posed, I often just wrote in the answers that the initial questions are immaterial, keeping in mind the movement of the "question" genre in the process of its careful "self-examination," even within the span of a single questionnaire. It was important for me to find the correct signifier for the interrogative deliberation as such, with the contents emerging later, after this discovery.

            At present, the actions have very little significance for me, and they carried different meanings at different points in time. Nevertheless, the moment when the intonation of "questioning" as indeterminately filled with content, "dirty," i.e., not autonomous, is relieved in the viewer's consciousness was probably the significant and pivotal moment for practically all of the actions. (It was that very interrogative deliberation, text-generation as signifier, of the 1975 work that had set the tone from the very beginning.) In essence, what we are talking about here is a completely different ematics that began to penetrate the local aesthetic consciousness in the 1970s, including through the activities of KD. [3] If this "relief" did not take place in the course of the event, then it was realized in the interpretations, especially through the psychopathology of the decoding of meanings. [4] We could even say that the point of this whole business consisted in a desacralization, an inhabiting, and a banalization of the craving for exposition, both in "popular" (official) and in elite ("unofficial") consciousness.

S. H.: The second question deals with a theme that could be called "neither East, nor West." Judging by the reactions, work in the action genre used to be perceived as a kind of cosmopolitan position, or more precisely as a borrowing of certain artistic devices from the West. And in fact, actions were a very contemporary genre in international artistic practice in the 1960s–70s. This was tied to a critique of the market system. But on the other hand, it was an orientation toward the East and the Zen-Buddhist tradition that, as I understand it, linked the interests of a number of different people and was the stimulus for the genesis of the Collective Actions group. What can we say about the appearance of the group's activities in the space between "East and West"?

A. M.: In the context of your question, I understand "contemporaneity" as the shifting fashions that reflect ethno-semiotic processes. This is precisely that horizon of problematic "dirt" about which I spoke above. For me, "East" and "West" are abstract concepts. I envision the theory of "East-West" in aesthetic discourse as something like a "bad tradition." In a sense, it was the critique of these kinds of "bad traditions" based on chance affectations and fixations that had engaged KD. Personally, I have always had a rather depressing opinion of fashion, most likely on account of my conservative character, seeing fashion as a kind of sinister "barbarism" and archaic aggression. A good tradition, in my view, is always stable, strictly material, and limits itself to the quality manufacture of the product on offer. For instance, some old company that manufactures coffee, gin, etc. is a good tradition of one and the same. It has found and maintains optimal taste. And the same with the creative spheres, which appeal to the different sensory organs. The contents of the catalogue have long been known and do not change. One's mentality is just as material as the products of a vegetable stand. The challenge is in maintaining freshness, which is always primary and always the same.

S. H.: Western performance art most frequently has at its center the figure of the artist as the cultural hero, the star. For KD, the opposite is true: it is collectivity that is at the center. How would you describe the principle of collaborative work within the group, the combination of individual and collective interests, and has there been any problem of power within the group's work? In this respect, it would not be without interest to discuss the origin of the group name.

A. M.: We have no collectivity at the "center," what we have at the center is "emptiness," pre-receptivity, an escaping corporeality. The thrust of your question is aimed at the dimension of the social, where one expects to see a person at the center, and so forth. It is entirely possible that that is how things should be in society. But this has nothing to do with autonomous aesthetic activity in its "unfashionable" manifestations. The ultimate aim of KD's actions is to create a quality product with good taste. It stands to reason that at various stages in this process, we had to go through stages of "washing," "purification," "disposing of the dirty water," etc. There was no problem of power, but it was important to follow the recipes of the chosen "kitchen." In this, of course, there were disagreements. However, the whole team of "chefs" did what was needed for the most part. One sliced the onions, another fried the meat, a third arranged it on the plate, a fourth served, and so forth. Each step had to be optimally handled. For example, in the action M, everything kept falling out of my hands, while Panitkov found in himself the strength to correct the course. [5] And vice versa.

            The name of the group came from Groys, who took it from the section of the 1977 Venice Biennale catalogue where documentation from our actions signed with our names had been exhibited. [6] Before this, for three years, there had just been a list of authors, the one with the most responsibility at the head (i.e., the first names on the list were those who originated the idea or the plot, followed by those who helped). Working together as a "list of authors" depends to a large degree on mood, not opportunism, and always holds out the possibility of resumption. But KD, interpreted finally as a social unit, began to elicit irritation from the members of the group themselves. Social personification leads to despondence, and one is forced to change pseudonyms. The schizoid communality (in ourselves) most likely recognized in KD the working style of the Brezhnev-era Politburo. [7] And for this reason, it came time to return to the "list of names."

S. H.: In the beginning, the group staged purely minimalist events (Appearance, Lieblich, etc.) with the goal of acting on the consciousness of the viewer-participants. On the one hand, this clearly continued the analytic tradition of the avant-garde: an aesthetic investigation into the fundamental structural elements of language by emptying meaning of its symbolic content. On the other hand, there is the avant-garde's social-service impulse, transformed into an act of individual contemplation. With the historical distance that has opened up, it would be interesting to look at how the problem of aesthetic autonomy was resolved at that time.

A. M.: Back then, there was no problem of aesthetic autonomy in the categorical sense. This discursive figure is of a later vintage. At the end of the day, the horizon of interpretation with all its discursive figures is itself autonomous. Is it not illegitimate to consider all image-based aesthetics ideological and not autonomous in light of historical convention, when there are other traditions? Minimalism suggests this. The most recent autonomous effort, like a discursive figure in a new configuration, appears in the very space of this gesture of pointing to the ideology, the non-autonomy of image-based aesthetics. "Autonomy" as an aesthetic category does not demonstrate anything, it is simply an instrument in its own "instrumentality" and can exist only in convention, on the autonomous horizon of interpretation.

            By "autonomous aesthetics," of course, we mean freedom. Freedom is part of the Kantian triad of "eternal philosophical questions": "God, immortality, freedom." [8] All three of these concepts can very easily be viewed as psychic states. Any psychic state can either stem from effort or be arbitrary, a stream. In the latter case, it is difficult to speak of freedom, since freedom is too strictly defined as the contemplative sphere of the two other psychic states, and becomes a synonym for space. A confusion occurs between the gnoseological and the ontological, the instrument and the application of the instrument. In my view, it is the effort of de-psychologization that leads to real figures. In general, "reality," including concrete works of art, is the result of efforts to de-psychologize all three of these categories. We are speaking of course of "figures," and not of possibilities in either the Heideggerian or even the Kantian sense.

S. H.: A new stage in KD's work clearly came with the addition of an interpretive meta-level (theoretical texts, recollections, soundtracks, video recordings). What can you say about the relationship of event and interpretive discourse in the aesthetics of KD in the historical period of the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s?

A. M.: It was through the audience recollections, etc., that an image-based aesthetics—i.e., the thing that needed to be de-psychologized—was drawn into KD's minimalist space. Each subsequent action took into account this new "psychic mass," which needed to be reduced. Depending on the character of this drawn-in mass, the instrument changed accordingly. If at first, it was enough to have a shovel, then later, we needed an excavator in order to dig through all of this, and even a steamroller to tamp it down, as was the case in The Barrel. It would, however, be futile to look for some kind of "purifying" intention in my observations. I am speaking here solely of figures of discourse, nothing more. All of this was done out of professional considerations of generic text-formation. Speaking of which, it is rather strange for me to hear the opinions of Groys about the "psychologism" of KD's actions, since we were always interested in de-psychologization. This is a reflection of either a lack of familiarity with the material (the texts of the volumes of Trips Out of Town), or we are encountering the "Hegel effect," as Hegel himself wanted nothing to do with any "discourse" having an "oriental" tone. [9]

S. H.: Still, I think that we should discuss Moscow Conceptualism not only in the avant-garde tradition, but also in relation to socialist realism: conceptualism as the art of the idea and the ideological content of socialist realism. Here I find most interesting the collective ritual of KD's actions—trips out of town, trips out of the ideological space of the metropolis into the empty space outside the city. The actions of this genre of "journeys," to my mind, functioned on the dichotomy "official/unofficial" culture. On the one hand, it is obvious that KD's actions (regular attendance at them) had a centering, ritual character for unofficial culture. But on the other hand, we could point out the sots-art inflections of the action rituals: the ironic reduplication of official social rituals of the city. Moreover, some actions used certain semiotic elements of the official culture of the time: slogans, the sounds of the metro, etc.

A. M.: The idea as such seems to me to be something akin to a transitional step between a psychic state and the "figure of reality" in the process of de-psychologization, setting the tone of "reality" in the process of its transformation. I very much doubt that the word "ritual" is fitting to describe KD or to describe aesthetic activity in general. Admittedly though, as a gesture of critical mannerism or a style-determining gesture, I understand it as on a par with using the term "shamanism" with respect to myself, Sorokin, or Kabakov, and also in the ranks of such concepts as "official/unofficial," etc. [10]

            Ritual can be described as a rhythmical inhabiting of the space-time continuum, as the de-psychologizing effort of figures in the process of becoming. In this sense, all structures are ritualistic. The one who appears most "shamanistic" here is probably Lev Rubinshtein with his incantatory rhythmical card sorting. [11] It is as if a Chekhov play were accompanied from start to finish by a constant, invariable beating sound of giant African drums.

            On a different level of examination, and in connection to the topic under discussion, personally for me, this word is too totalizing to be form-generating or explanatory. Ritual gives rise to a space of "familiarity." It generates that "familiarity," but the ritual mechanism itself remains outside of this space. Ritual rhythms and the "familiarity" brought forth by them are in such relation only to each other, that is, they are one side of this process; the ritual mechanism remains submerged in totality. In this case, one such "totality" is the entire discourse of KD throughout all these years. Introducing other ritual rhythms (into "official" space, to use your terminology), KD created another space of "familiarity." Though I doubt that these rhythms can in themselves serve as reference points in this space, since what we're dealing with now are not rhythms, but recollections of them (through documentation).

            "Familiarity" sooner or later turns into "signification"; the space of experience is transposed onto the flat plane of the written word. [12] This process of constant de-psychologization is what enabled the "empty action": the events of the action remained on the border of "familiarity," not turning into signs. I understand very well the "anti-Vedic" protest of Inspection Medical Hermeneutics, a protest they express through the category of "the unknown." [13] Of course, the platform on which "familiarity" might be discovered is located in the space of "non-familiarity," or using their terminology, "the unknown." In their case (I am referring to the aesthetic practice of MG), there arises an etymological linearity. They suspect that their "freedom" is limited: the boards out of which their "surveying platform" is constructed are the boards of the Vedic canon. In putting into force the opposition "known/unknown," they base themselves from the outset on a de-psychologizing figure, the flat plane of the written word. From there spring graphism, painterliness, and critical mannerism (as a style). The "familiarity" about which we are speaking here is less defined, more capacious. To a large degree, it is characterized by the space of sounding, the event, and not through the represented image. The flat plane of the written word emerges as though on the return from "empty action." Meanwhile, that meta-sign that inspired the event is completely backgrounded by its archaism. That's why the de-actualized condition of the gesture is a significant stylistic trait of the event-based and interpretational discourse of KD. From this point of view, interchangeable oppositions like "familiar/unfamiliar," "known/unknown," "official/unofficial" are hardly essential, though they may be contemporary or become contemporary in this or that critical tradition.

S. H.: We can observe a notable turning point in the direction of postmodernism in the aesthetics of KD from the mid-1980s, starting with the documentation of the third volume of Trips Out of Town. [14] We find that within the discourse of interpretation, any direct authentic intonation is replaced by a variety of techniques of psychopathologic utterance, for example, tautological gestures, associative automatism, the mutual recoding of different interpretative systems, such as official Soviet ideology, Christianity, the I Ching, etc. What significance does the schizoanalytic method, which you based on your own personal psychedelic experience as described in your novella Kashirskoe shosse, hold for you? [15]

A. M.: If the first two volumes of Trips Out of the City were composed of documentation, i.e., they were secondary (relatively, of course) to the events of the actions, then in the third volume, a reversal took place: the third volume was first planned out, and then actions were carried out for it. This is evident from the fact that the main body of the third volume is taken up by the series of speech actions. [16] Although, such a turn of events was predicated by the preface to the second volume of Trips, where factography was asserted as a demonstrational zone. [17] This zone's realization naturally took the form of the book, and it became primary in relation to the event. "Familiarity" turned into "signification" with all the necessary fillers: citationality, characters, mannerism. Schizoanalysis played the role of the rougher, factured material used to fill the declared "frame" of the book. Schizoanalysis in this case was simply an "object-frame," expressing the spirit of the time and its style. In essence, schizoanalysis differs from structuralist analysis simply by its broader and therefore unexpected frame of interpretation. Schizoanalysis uses elements taken from different strata of systematic knowledge. That is why schizoanalytic texts return to the horizon of literary origins. I do not see Kashirskoe shosse as a schizoanalytic text; it is an account of some fairly emotional personal experiences and events related to an uncoordinated perception of reality.

S. H.: In the most recent actions in which I participated, what was extraordinary for me was that behind the psychopathological textuality and the reproductive techniques that I myself fairly actively injected based on my own cultural context into the group's practice, there now opens up a new horizon of direct, unmediated perception of events. One example is what happened during the action Russian World and the "Tse-Tse" text, which devotes a great deal of attention to this action. [18] Is not this kind of ambivalence an original trait of KD's aesthetic, as distinct from the fashionable aesthetic practice that is completely depleted by replication, paying little attention to bodily experiences?

A. M.: The feeling of the unmediated taking place, in my opinion, arises solely because the mass of spatiotemporal Luft, expressed in the time taken up by the journey, the distance, the fields, sky, forest, and so forth, significantly and always exceeds the semiotic horizon of the event of the action. [19] It is no accident, for example, that the works of Kabakov and Bulatov possess a great material mass as compared to the local standards (I am speaking in the context of the history of "unofficial" culture). This is especially remarkable for Kabakov: there is almost no image, while the board that he paints on is huge and very heavy. In this way, art loses a significant part of its "artificiality," and a sense of the authenticity of the demonstration begins to be felt: prior to anything else, the viewer encounters the thing. This can be Kabakov's board or a KD action (the field, the forest, etc.). And in both cases, the non-semiotic mass of the material background predominates.

S. H.: I put these questions together as a result of your pronouncement about the end of the group KD. Where do you see the aesthetic possibilities of the KD group's activities depleted? And what other possibilities do you see?

A. M.: I do not see the methods as depleted, at least not from the perspective of "empty action," that is to say, when considering the emergence of the flat plane of the written word from the effect of the "return" and the understanding of the inspirative meta-sign as archaic and de-actualized from the very beginning in the PARADOXICALITY of contemporary scientific texts (especially on themes related to the natural sciences). [20] As for the group itself, there are purely historical circumstances: a change in the artistic situation, a reorientation of the actions' viewers and the members of the group. As a result of social forces, additional spaces of creative activity materialized: galleries, museums, etc. I wish to underscore again the essence of the method: the impossibility of depleting the large mass of material background that always predominates above signification. To deplete this "method" is the same as to deplete the sky, the earth, the trees, time, etc. That is why any continuation of KD's work according to this "method" can be purely spontaneous: if we wish, we can always reduce the artificiality to the level of leaves on a tree. In a professional sense, this "reduction" is art. Therefore, in the end, we can say that this activity is grounded in the drive for personal enjoyment.

S. H.: Thank you for these answers and I hope that the historical vivisection can now pass over into culinary operations, as we saw in the pictures in your book Elementary Poetry #3, which you mentioned when you began your responses.

General Questions Regarding the Aesthetic History of the Moscow Archive of New Art Circle (MANI)

Sabine Hänsgen (S. H.): In considering the historiographical dimension of the MANI phenomenon, [21] we must again return to the genre of questions. [22] There are two reasons why the question genre is significant. The first reason is fairly simple: you ask the witness and you receive information. The important thing here is that the person participates in this process. The second reason is more complex. As negative propositions, questions problematize the metaposition of the historiographer, who thus may decline having the final say. In the past you have noted the "character-like" aspect of the critical position. Could you speak more about this process, about the critic's "descent" from Olympus to the "gaming table"?

Andrei Monastyrski (A. M.): We can look at the process fairly straightforwardly. Of what, for example, did pre-Kantian philosophy and the textual tradition consist? A conglomeration of deductive constructions, an innumerable quantity of various and sundry "monograms," systemic ornaments, and so forth. And even in the historical sense, Kantian criticism was quite concrete, like waves washing out sandcastles, a phenomenon, by the way, that does not prevent children from endlessly returning to these fantasies. The character-like aspect of the critic intensifies when he is forced to fantasize, having to deal with the total attenuation of the artist's role, as occurred in Conceptual Art.

In conceptualism, artists more often than not only designate a space for fantasy, drawing the contours, which need to be filled in by critics. In this situation, the critic naturally stops being a critic and becomes а commentator, an interpreter. In classical conceptualism, there is not much there to critique, because the action unfolds not in terms of manner or style, or an overall instrumentalism, where you could say that this or that gesture is poorly executed as compared to some existing artistic standard. Conceptualism works directly at the level of traditions and conventions, being itself critically oriented to concrete traditions and conventions.

All conventions are arbitrary in the sense that they are based on chance and not on semblance. Let's say the word "table" in no way resembles the object or thing designated by this word. In essence, the principle of resemblance arises from this division into two languages: the verbal and the object-based. It is precisely at this juncture that these two paradigms begin, each internally structured according to the principle of resemblance. To simplify, one could say that the one always remains both inspiratory and unarticulated to the other. [23]

We could say that for the artist who makes objects, the verbal or the logos/word becomes something unarticulated, inspiratory, and consequently, sacred, inasmuch as he stands as it were "turned away" from the verbal when he constructs compositions on the basis of objects. And conversely, for the conceptualist who works with words and text, the traces of the "sacred," the unarticulated, are found in objectness. He cannot grasp the full mechanism of the object paradigm, because he, too, is "turned away" from this mechanism at the moment of articulation, at the same time as its "buzzing" always obscures any articulation or concreteness that exists in the verbal paradigm. In the end, it is this incoherent "buzzing" of the other paradigm that the viewer must confront when looking at any work of art, conceptual or not.

The "buzzing" of this hidden paradigm is in fact the sacred ground, the attraction that separates the work of art from unmediated experience. When this ground begins to overwhelm, to take up let's say 99% of the whole, as in some works by Kabakov, where we find written, for example, just the word "CARROT" and nothing else, then of course, the sacred, or ideological, intonation shapes reception—not only for the ordinary viewer, but also for the critic. The critic is compelled not to critique but to comment and interpret. The artist-conceptualist as it were, draws him into a completely different tradition, into another zone, like in some kind of children's game. Meanwhile, the critic doesn't immediately understand that this is taking place, as is often the case in children's games. And so, in this moment of not understanding—what is actually going on?—the critic also becomes a character, in as much as he is simply being led by the nose.

Here we may recall the adolescent game "Beetle," in which the person who leads stands with his back turned to the group of players. He shows them his palm, and someone from the group slaps it and quickly pulls away, putting on an innocent face. And the other person (the leader) must decide who from among the players slapped his hand behind his back. If he makes a mistake, then he has to go again. Here "the group of players" are the artists and the person who leads, the viewer and critic. In my view, Kabakov is the best player of "Beetle"—he plays so masterfully that no one ever guesses it is him. Everyone always makes mistakes with him, and this is why the game goes on and on.

In the case of Komar and Melamid, viewers quickly caught on, and for this reason their success was not nearly as long or as intense as Kabakov's. With Kabakov, one has to play over and over again, as in a game of chance, in the hope that finally one will get it right, get lucky, figure it out, and as they say "flush him out." After all, the critic always in some sense wants to "vanquish" the artist, to clearly define him and add him to his collection, as a known and fully classified species. Of course this is only a crude metaphor and one that perhaps only reflects one aspect of the relationship between artists and critics, especially in conceptual art. But if extended to the level of schizoanalysis, [24] the metaphor gains some interest if we recall Kabakov's painting Beetle, [25] which contains beneath a huge image of a beetle the poetic inscription "In the grass I found a beetle, it is black and shiny. An excellent specimen, this one, to put in my collection." In the context of this metaphor, the beetle acts as Kabakov's "amulet" against critics.

Returning to the theme with which we started, we could say that for conceptualism, it is important that the level of "sacrality" should rise above that of the habitual and the traditional, and do it so imperceptibly that the critic himself begins to fantasize and turn into an interpreter. This is a well-known and fully developed position in cultural history. A prominent example can be found in the Buddhist logician Dharmakirti and his interpreter Dharmatara, whose writings are almost always published together.


S. H.: How do you evaluate the change of paradigm in unofficial culture in the beginning of the 1970s from а position of self-expression and the metaphysical interpretation of inner worlds to conceptualism's position of self-commentary, when conceptualism focused its attention on the semiotic character not only of the surrounding world, but of the artistic work itself? I'm thinking of what Kabakov described in this way: "by that time we no longer looked in the direction indicated by the poster's pointing finger, but began to inspect the finger itself."


A. M.: Yes, in the beginning the so-called "netlenka" [26] was understood by critics as a thematization of the metaphysical: Shvartsman, Yankilevsky, Shteinberg, and so forth. [27] But this, in a way, is the first step in this trap set for critics, like Shiffers, [28] for example. He stands, as it were, in front of a painting by Shvartsman and says, here we have a metaphysical space. Yet by this point, Kabakov with his empty white surfaces has already taken up his perch behind the critic's back, and is even proffering something "metaphysical," too. And the critic doesn't even notice as he ends up on this empty Kabakovian surface, discussing metaphysics. After all, if a person coherently speaks on a subject and calls it metaphysics, that does not necessarily mean he himself is not metaphysical. Metaphysics can also be negative. Kabakov in his albums Ten Characters expressed this very well in the commentaries of Shefner and Kogan, [29] who speak about "the metaphysical," while at the same time becoming characters within the wider metaphysics of Kabakov (that is, those very "excellent specimens" of beetles in his collection).

It is perfectly clear that Kabakov's criticism is easily distinguished from that of Yankilevsky—it is a criticism of criticism. Kabakov did not stand in opposition to official artists, as did Yankilevsky—he stood in opposition to official criticism. He didn't need his own plastic material, his own plastic means of self-expression. In his criticism of criticism, his use of habitual Soviet plastic material is far more convincing. It is for this reason that his thematics are so distinctive. It didn't matter to him what he drew, since the content of his work, metaphorically speaking, was not the figure of the patient, but that of the doctor. That is, he consistently engaged in a criticism of the methodology of perception. As for why such a change took place—I think that it was just the next move in the game.


S. H.: A question about the organizational structure of the subcultural circle. It is clear that after the scandal of the "Bulldozer" show, unofficial art split into two circles. The older generation and the larger cohort were satisfied with the salon-like gallery space on Malaia Gruzinskaia street. [30] The other cohort, the conceptualists, began to search for new structures in the aesthetic organization of the environment; I'm thinking of actions, self-documentation, and the archiving activities of MANI. Could you speak about your view of the most important forms of this aesthetic organization and how they differed from previous forms?


A. M.: Yes, we could say that after those scandals, a significantly greater number of artists became satisfied to some degree with the forms of artistic organization that the official structures offered: the Moscow City Committee, exhibitions, and so forth. For the conceptualists, the existing construction of counterweights to the Soviet ideological wall did not seem sufficiently appealing. So they continued to inspect that "pointing finger" that Kabakov describes, to study its movement and the entire mechanism as a whole. By the way, one of the most conservative forms of organizational and ideological structures is the archive, and in a sense, those structures' "nerve." Indeed, most archives, and especially Soviet ones, have "restricted" sections. And any form of "restriction" is a sacred form. For this reason, in order to achieve a total separation from concrete ideology, naturally, the genre of the archive was simply essential. The action genre could be considered in the same light, that is, as the articulation of space, disengaged from this or that ideological social structure. What I mean is that the aesthetic gesture did not take place in the usual spaces of the exhibition hall and so forth, but out of town. But I've already written enough about that.


S. H.: If the term "avant-garde" is frequently used in the circle of the "new Moscow art," in my view, this usage can be taken as ironic, since I don't see here any soldiers dashing forth or people wanting to cultivate some virgin lands. As you yourself have already observed, the new type of avant-gardist doesn't resemble the "virgin landers" as much as they do the "weekend cottagers" [dachniki]. [31] What can you say about the aesthetic significance of this liminal "dacha" zone? It is a zone on the edge of the metropolis that conveys neither a purely urban nor a purely rural impression, but flickers between nature and civilized structures. On the one hand, it is sufficiently removed from the city that one is sensitized to physical phenomena, while on the other, the distance is not so great that one can completely forget about one's ongoing, daily—but at the same time semiotic embeddedness in—urban life.


A. M.: The atmosphere of "dacha life" in general is important to the aesthetics of MANI. Dacha life is characterized first of all by a sense of release, of recreation, associated with childhood experiences during summer vacations. Dacha life is a world of old people and children, in some sense of discarded individuals, alienated from the tensions of collective life, from struggles, pathos, and the like. Dacha life creates distance, it extends one's point of view. So, for example, KD had Panitkov's dacha in Lobnya. [32] The events that took place on the field, the actions, in essence were not any more significant than what took place at the dacha before or afterward when we returned from the field. Even though it must be said that nothing remarkable happened there. But that very sense of "nothing happening" was remarkable and imparted a certain tone to the actions themselves. The natural tendency to do nothing at the dacha, to rest, set the tone for the actions, the internal "emptiness" of KD's action practice. In other words, it is the sense of "dacha life" that established the tone of the actions: a person walked along a field, turned somewhere, then reappeared; some kind of sound was heard. And so what? There was nothing remarkable or essential in any of this, just some dacha movements, walking from here to there. The value of distance in itself. The purely topographical value of the time spent in this place of finality, of completeness.


S. H.: And now let's turn to the favorite concept of many of the Moscow Conceptualists: "emptiness." You assert that this concept is taken from the ancient Zen Buddhist traditions and that via the West, through John Cage, for example, this concept entered into the Moscow Conceptualist tradition, particularly your activities and discourse. But one could also say that the experience of "emptiness" is based on the experience of the Soviet person. The signs of ideological speech tend toward emptying out. Signifiers that tend not to have a signified, that is to say "empty signs," are characteristic of ideological speech. How do you connect the "aesthetics of emptiness" in Moscow Conceptualism—I have in mind the old discursive traditions—to the real experience of Soviet citizens?


A. M.: I don't connect the two at all, inasmuch as our discussion is about a completely different kind of "emptiness," sunyata. [33] It is translated only as "emptiness," but it has a completely different meaning: above all it conveys a sense of the distancing of one's own fantasies and the inspired phantasms of the collective body. Sunyata is a method of perception, not a method of emptying out, but rather, of estrangement, of distancing oneself from all that occurs. Since all that occurs takes place simultaneously in consciousness, the "taking place" is not authentic to what is really there. After all, everything that takes place in the consciousness arises more or less simultaneously with interpretation, and the interpretation is based on this or that paradigm, that is, on psychological automatism. Sunyata is a certain conviction that nothing is happening, including that nothing is happening in reality.

Through sunyata the phenomenon of "non-occurrence" is manifested, and that "non-occurrence" cannot be defined or interpreted. There are branches, snow, wind, but all this exists in the sphere of "non-occurrence," in the non-generative sphere. That is, it occurs in its "thusness," in the possibility of being designated something completely different, though that "other designation" is also non-occurring. For this reason only the possibility itself of another designation has duration, but it cannot be realized. There seems to be a constant return to the same thing, because this "same thing" never finds definition, it only functions in its "sameness" and never as something more. This is how one may roughly define "emptiness" in the methodological sense. But it can be done completely differently, depending on one's mood. After all, in the end, emptiness is just philosophical poesis–the indeterminacy of the personal.


S. H.: In the historical perspective of the Moscow Conceptualist school's development it is interesting to consider the relationship between generations. If we consider the older generation of masters—Kabakov, Bulatov, Vassiliev, Chuikov—these are painters who have studied and worked long to master their craft. [34] And for them it was a serious step to take, for example, to transpose the poster from the sphere of mass art to the elevated sphere of individual professional creative work, into the picture. How do you define the place of your generation, which discovered the aesthetics of the situation in such genres as actions. I have in mind "the place" between the masters of the older generation and the "children" of conceptualism, who now view the remains of the great traditions, mythologies, and ideological systems as their own toys?


A. M.: It's hard for me to answer this question, since I don't easily imagine myself within this "generational" hierarchy. I can't force myself to look at this business as a developmental process—with its stages and so forth. Completeness, sufficiency, including that of criticism, is guaranteed by the genres of activities. After all, actions are their own kind of wholly self-sufficient means of philosophizing, with the feet, the body, sounds, etc. It is a practice of heightened perception of "non-occurrence," which can be realized with any instrument, that is, just as easily with the aid of a paintbrush or one's feet. For, in fact, the addressee of this practice is the practitioner himself. Viewers are those who participate, and if they also evaluate, then only with a view to diagnose, because that is where "healing" takes place, in the discussions, interpretations, and fantasizing. Of course we are speaking here about self-diagnosis and self-healing.


S. H.: Now I would like to discuss several problems in more concrete detail—those that shape the construction of a work of art. I have in mind the relationship between "surface" and "depth." In considering a picture by Bulatov, we see a clear "surface—depth" dichotomy that corresponds to the opposition between social and existential space: the surface of the lettering "Glory to the CPSU" covering the depths of the sky. [35] In the work of the younger painters, this deep pictorial space has completely disappeared; it is now a pure, "thickly brushed" faktura, as in Volkov's work for example. [36] Or even in some cases, when we find a multilayered surface, it is more like a multilayered application onto the surface, as in Zvezdochetova's pictures. [37] What can you say about these completely different tendencies in one and the same conceptual school?


A. M.: I don't entirely agree with the way this question is posed. For me, Volkov is a completely classical conceptualist in the context of the Moscow conceptual school. Behind his "thick" facture we can clearly see the second-tier decorator culture of Soviet ideology, not the "display" tier. I'm thinking of the street shop windows, the paint and décor on the walls of schools, kindergartens, hospitals and so forth. This for me is that very "depth" to which Volkov's surfaces point. With Zvezdochetova, too, I see behind her appliquéd surfaces the "depths" of various foyers of public buildings, such as the Houses of Culture, stadiums, metro station vestibules, and so forth. Depth here should be understood as "darkness," the problematic depths of unworked spaces in which a variety of whirlpools can occur, precisely because of the unworked nature of the depths, and not on the level of the facing or the surface. In my view, this method of the "critical enlightenment" of ideological "depths" comes to an end precisely via the picture—as a classical stage—in the works of Samoilova and Koganova, who as it were, "snuck" into the Soviet stores, or rather, shop windows, where various fancy items were on display—jewelry, children's and New Year's toys, etc. [38] But of course, this holds true only for the concrete signifiers that make up the work of art. And the question, after all, was about pictures. As for other genres, they have their own histories with their own "classical" or other kinds of stages.



[1] Collective Actions (Kollektivnye deistviia) is a performance art group founded by Nikita Alekseev, Georgii Kiesewalter, Andrei Monastyrski, and Nikolai Panitkov in 1976, which staged actions on the outskirts of Moscow and later in locations around the city until 1989. It is frequently referred to in Russian as KD, and will be henceforth. Trips Out of Town (Poezdki za gorod) are limited edition, hand-bound volumes of documentary materials, including descriptive texts, photographs, and audience recollections, prefaced by interpretive essays by Monastyrski and members of KD. The volume that Hänsgen mentions, in which Monastyrski announced the end of KD's collaborative work, was produced in the fall of 1989.

[2] Andrei Monastyrski, Elementarnaia poeziia No. 3: paraformal'nyi kompleks (Moscow, 1975). Typed manuscript, in Monastyrski's collection.

[3] "Ematics" is an idiosyncratic term in the discourse of the Moscow Conceptualist circle. See Monastyrski's Slovar' terminov moskovskoi kontseptual'noi shkoly (Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1999), 161–62. "Ematics: the 'translation' mechanism of ethnosemiotic linguistic structures into written and spoken practices, into the ethics of language."

[4] "Psychopathology" is another idiosyncratic usage of Moscow Conceptualist discourse. Here Monastyrski refers to the psychedelic or altered psychological effects of the process of interpretation. See the preface to the third volume of Trips Out of Town, in Monastyrski ed., Poezdki za gorod (Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1998), 221.

[5] Collective Actions, M, September 18, 1983. See Poezdki za gorod, 231–32

[6] Boris Groys, critic. The 1977 Venice Biennale published photographs of early actions by Alekseev, Kiesewalter, and Monastyrski in a section entitled Mediazione concettuale, comportamento e azioni collettive. See Enrico Crispolti and Gabriela Moncada, La nuova arte Sovietica: una prospettiva non ufficiale/La Biennale di Venezia(Venice: Marsilio, 1977), 183–201.

[7] The idea of a Soviet communal unconscious, or in this case, the "schizoid communality" of the Moscow Conceptualist circle, is a common trope in Moscow Conceptualism. See, in particular, Victor Tupitsyn, The Museological Unconscious: Communal (Post)Modernism in Russia (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).

[8] In his Critique of Practical Reason (1788),Immanuel Kant lays out his three "postulates" of immortality, freedom, and God.

[9] Monastyrski seems to be referring to G. W. F. Hegel's Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1805–6), in which Hegel excludes eastern philosophy from the history of philosophy.

[10] Vladimir Sorokin, author; Ilya Kabakov, artist.

[11] Lev Rubinshtein, poet who produced conceptual poetry on index cards that had to be flipped through during recitation.

[12] The Russian terms here are znakomost' (familiarity) and znakovost' (signification); both have znak("sign") at their root.

[13] Inspection Medical Hermeneutics (Inspektsiia Meditsinskaia Germenevtika, or MG) is an artist collective founded in Moscow in 1987 by Sergei Anufriev, Yuri Leiderman, and Pavel Peppershtein.

[14] The third volume of Poezdki za gorod is dated July 1985.

[15] Andrei Monastyrski, Kashirskoe shosse (1983–86), in Poezdki za gorod, 562–665.

[16] Monastyrski is referring to the series Perspectives of Speech Space, which includes Description of Action (February 19, 1984), Voices (January 4, 1985), Translation (February 6, 1985), Jupiter (April 13, 1985), Barrel (May 31, 1985),and Discussion (September 28, 1985).

[17] The second volume of Poezdki za gorod dates from May 1983. The "demonstrational zone" in KD's discourse refers to the ever-expanding field of aesthetic activity that is subject to interpretation.

[18] Russian World (March 17, 1985) is described in Monastyrski's text "Tse-Tse: Notes on the Actions of the Third Volume" (1985), in Poezdki za gorod, 418–38; reprinted in Kollektivnye Deistviia Poezdki za gorod 2–3 (Moscow: Biblioteka Moskovskogo Kontseptualizma Germana Titova, 2011), 447–69.

[19] Luft, the German word for "air," is a term borrowed by the Moscow Conceptualists to refer to a sense of freedom and possibility that is produced by certain art works.

[20] Paradoxality is yet another idiosyncratic term in Moscow Conceptualist discourse, defined in the Dictionary of Terms as "one of the properties of psychoanalytic texts (most commonly, the 'unexpectedly' discovered connections of 'high' and 'low,' 'sacral' and 'natural-scientific,' etc., but with a comic tinge of 'legibility')." Monastyrski, Slovar' terminov, 151.


[21] MANI, or Moscow Archive of New Art, is one of several designations that the Moscow Conceptualist circle has used to describe itself since the 1970s. It is also designates the archive that the circle created for itself in 1980.

[22] See the discussion of the "interrogative deliberation" and the question genre used in Andrei Monastyrski's Elementary Poetry #3, discussed in the first part of the dialogue.

[23] By "inspiratory," Monastyrski is referring to a kind of nonrational relationship developed in Moscow Conceptualist discourse. See the term "inspiratory" (inspirators), defined as "objects (processes) within the expositional semiotic field that give rise to motivating contexts of aesthetic work. Most frequently, this term refers to elements (processes) of building construction, topographic, economic, and other collective discourses," in Monastyrski's Slovar' terminov moskovskoi kontseptual'noi shkoly (Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1999), 45.

[24] Borrowing the term from Gille Deleuze and Félix Guatteri's Anti-Oedipus, the Moscow Conceptualists invoked the term "schizoanalysis" as a discursive form of interpretation that connects seemingly unrelated or accidentally related concepts.

[25] Ilya Kabakov, Beetle, 1982 (oil and enamel paint on Masonite), Private Collection, Switzerland.

[26] In the parlance of 1970s unofficial art, netlenka, a play on the idea of "incorporeality" and also netlenie (rotting), was a critical, nearly ironic term, along with dukhovka, referring to a style of abstract painting that aspired to transcendence and eternity.

[27] Mikhail Shvartsman, Vladimir Yankilevsky, and Eduard Shteinberg were all unofficial painters who embraced modernist forms in the 1970s.

[28] Evgeny Shiffers, a theater and film director and religious philosopher who was a frequent participant in unofficial artistic debates of the 1960s–70s.

[29] Both are characters offering commentary in Kabakov's album The-Looking-Out-The-Window Arkhipov (1973), reproduced in Ilya Kabakov, Five Albums, Second Book, Emilia Kabakov and Maaretta Jaukkuri, eds. (Helsinki: National Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998), 268, 269.

[30] Hänsgen refers to the official exhibition hall at Ulitsa Malaia Gruzinskaia, 28, which had been associated since 1975 with the Painting Section of the Moscow City Committee of Graphic Artists, a kind of union for unofficial artists established after the Bulldozer show.

[31] Hänsgen is referring to city dwellers who escape the city to their cottages (dachas) on the weekends or in the summertime to tend gardens, relax, and spend time with family.

[32] KD member Nikolai Panitkov's dacha in the nearby village of Lobnya served as a "home base" for many of the group's actions throughout the years and later housed the MANI museum. See Igor Makarevich, MANI-Museum: 40 Moskauer Künstler im Frankfurter Karmeliterkloster: Eine Ausstellung Moskauer Avantgarde-Kunst der achtziger Jahre (Frankfurt am Main: Stadt Frankfurt am Main, Amt für Wissenschaft und Kunst, 1991).

[33] The reference here is to the Buddhist concept of "sunyata," defined as the essential emptiness of all things. A term used often in discourse by KD, its relevance to their project is summarized in Monastyrski's Slovar' terminov, 160–61.

[34] Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vassiliev, and Ivan Chuikov, all members of the Moscow Conceptualist circle.

[35] Eric Bulatov, Slava KPSS (Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), 1975, oil on canvas (229.5 x 229 cm), Private Collection.

[36] Sergei Volkov.

[37] Larisa Zvezdochetova-Rezun.

[38] Viktoria Samoilova; Tatiana Kaganova.

Translated by Yelena Kalinsky and Jane Sharp

From: Thinking Pictures. The Visual Field of Moscow Conceptualism. Edited by Jane A. Sharp, New Brunswick: Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University 2016, p. 64-75.

Editors' and translators' note:

The presented texts are conversations, or dialogues, between participants in the conceptualist group Collective Actions published in English translation for the first time. As Sabine Hänsgen herself has observed, the exchange took place in 1990–91, during a period of radical transition in Soviet era politics and society—at the end of the Gorbachev era. At this time, even the continuation of the group's activities was in doubt. These considerations largely explain the retrospective and self-reflexive character of the questions Hänsgen and Monastyrski explore. The style of the conversation, similar to the "Zen dialogue," was typical for members of the group and its wider circle and aimed not to arrive at a summary conclusion, but to extend the moment of interpersonal dialogue and reach deeper levels of joint philosophical and historical inquiry.

The conversations are thus part of the Collective Actions and the Moscow Conceptualist circle's historical corpus, and should not be read as "interviews with artists" in the traditional art-historiographical sense, but alongside the discursive production contained in the previous volumes of Collective Actions' Trips Out of the City (Poezdki za gorod), produced between 1980 and 1989 and republished as Kollektivnye deistviia, Poezdki za gorod (Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1998); the MANI anthologies (or sborniki), produced between 1986 and 1991 and republished in Andrei Monastyrski and Yuri Leiderman, eds., Sborniki MANI: Moskovskii archiv novogo iskusstva (Moscow: German Titov, 2010);and the journal Pastor, edited and published by Vadim Zakharov between 1992 and 2001. The two dialogues presented here mark a moment when those involved were coming to terms with their own sense of historical transitions occurring within the framework of the group's activities. These concerns included the shift from collective to individual recognition of authorship, the eclipse of the group's early minimalist spatiotemporal actions with ones imbued with documentary and discursive layers, the emergence of postmodern strategies among the wider conceptualist and post-conceptualist circles, and the relationship between the circle's discursive strategies and the rapidly changing art-institutional situation of the late Soviet period. With the post-Soviet just on the horizon, distinctions like "official/unofficial" no longer obtained, and the two interlocutors find themselves seeking new possibilities and future directions.

The two original Russian texts were first published as the preface to the sixth volume of Poezdki za gorod, edited by Andrei Monastyrski and Sabine Hänsgen, (Bochum, 1994). This first computer-generated edition exists in a single original copy and was republished in Andrei Monastyrski, ed., Kollektivnye deistviia (A. Monastyrskii, N. Panitkov, I. Makarevich, E. Elagina, S. Romashko, S. Hänsgen): Poezdki za gorod 6–11 (Vologda: Biblioteka Moskovskogo kontseptualizma, 2009), 14–26. Some of the original Russian vocabulary has been retained to preserve the distinctive coloring of the concepts; in these instances footnotes are given to clarify their meaning to English readers. Russian definitions of some terms may be found in Andrei Monastryrski, ed. Slovar' terminov moskovskoi kontseptual'noi shkoly (Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1999) and in English translation, in Octavian Esanu, Transition in Post-Soviet Art: The Collective Actions Group Before and After 1989 (Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2013). "Questions About the History of Collective Actions" was translated by Yelena Kalinsky. "General Questions Regarding the Aesthetic History of the Moscow Archive of New Art Circle (MANI)," was translated by Jane Sharp and Yelena Kalinsky; both participated in editing the final versions. They are based on a typescript supplied by Sabine Hänsgen, and are published with her and Andrei Monastyrski's permission.





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