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Engineer Wasser and Engineer Licht

(psychopathology of "empty action")

In the preface to the first volume of Trips out of the City, I wrote that the conceptual and existential event-ness [aktsionnost'] of our actions takes place predominantly inside consciousness, on the edges of perception and of what is capable of being described using the languages of description accessible to us. Our work relates to the field of culture, and specifically to performance, precisely through these constantly changing languages of description. Particularly interesting are the "participant recollections." These stories convey above all the states of alert, expectant emptying-out, in their various degrees of duration and depth, which are accompanied by that sharpening of perception of the environment and of the ordinary, "un-artistic" behavior of the participants – appearance, withdrawal, disappearance, absence, etc. – that takes place against the background of these states.

This text, too, constitutes its own kind of "participant recollection," or rather that of a viewer, in whose position I found myself completely unexpectedly and in an unexpected place. I decided to write it because what I describe here turned out for me to be the "artistic" center of the action Translation [1]. And moreover, the experience of this center was not the habitual experience of a pleasant emptying-out, with its accompanying sharpened perception of my surroundings, but instead, the feeling of this emptying-out was extremely repulsive and oppressive, and it unexpectedly transformed into the sharpened perception of a more complex image in comparison to those images (appearance, withdrawal, empty field, time, etc.) with which our actions are usually imbued. Furthermore, this image arose seemingly on its own and in the course of the action's preparation, as the formal or plastic fulfillment of an already elaborated conceptual scheme (if such fulfillments had taken place previously, it was only during or after actions, never before).

Beyond that, despite all of the ambiguity of what happened to me, it seems appropriate to include this text along with the rest of the documentation of Translation for didactic reasons, reminding readers (and Collective Actions' members themselves) that the meaning of our work in no small measure consists of using aesthetic means to create singular and unique experiences of everyday phenomena and states of consciousness that are unexpected and unusual.

It is entirely possible (aside from the purely psychopathological explanation of this story), that it was the "repetitive" speech space of Translation, with the emptied-out meaning and accented intonation of this "repetitive" language of description, and its emotional, nostalgic orientation back, inside, and into depth (and not into the distance or "straight ahead" as in our out-of-town actions), that made possible the genesis of this "artistic" effect at the intersection of the aesthetic, the immediate, and the psychopathological.

It is clear from the description of Translation that the part of the action presented to the audience was conceived as a Sri Yantra, unfolding in time and action (and not as an image on a two-dimensional plane, as in the traditional understanding and expression of a yantra) [2]. During the act of "Translation," this yantra was simply demonstrated like icons at an exhibition or in a book. The audience could examine its structure, plastic qualities, and stylistic particularities (for instance, in the tradition of the ten-dimensional hierarchy of conscious states in Buddhism, we can read the structure of Translation as representing the sixth "World of listening to the voice," etc.). But they were in no way able to "enter" it, although we know that a yantra, aside from its cultural function of illustrating certain ideal mental spaces, is also a system of coordinates for contemplation and meditation, a technical instrument, a kind of key that opens zones of consciousness experienced by the operator-observer as transcending everyday consciousness, which works in the regime of perceiving coordinated reality. Here I would like to repeat once again that all of our previous actions were also built with these two planes in mind, and moreover, it is precisely the spiritual pragmatism of the action as a technical instrument that makes possible changes in conscious states which frequently inspired its realization. But in previous actions, these spaces-states were not described ahead of time and were not filled with positive mental schemas. Their technical structures were meant to remove cultural associations, for a kind of consciousness "cleansing" in the Zen-Buddhist tradition of "the blow to the head with a stick" and the Daoist tradition of "the rectification of names." In previous actions, the experience of anticipation as a complete and positive state seemed sufficient, both spiritually and aesthetically.

The main concern of Translation was the tantric Sri Yantra and the concrete mental-spiritual plastics of the transcendental. In Zen-Buddhism and in Daoism, the transcendental always remains "empty": an empty circle in the Zen sequence "with the bull," "the heavenly Dao is empty" in the Tao te Ching, etc. Emptiness and silence usually manifest themselves as heightened states of consciousness. In this sense, our turn to the Sri Yantra can be understood as a "step back" or a step down, but a natural step, flowing from the nature of the speech space we have built, which is also oriented "backward." However, the trick in Translation was that the filling of this "empty" circle ("the empty action"), its objectivization [opredmechivanie] and "pollution" (truth, beauty), took place on the periphery of the demonstrational field a day prior to the action. The action itself, in my view, took place at the previous "height" of sparseness, it was just as empty in its content as were all the previous ones. This "content" seemed to emerge from the margins, and only for me. The story of how this happened is what I would like to recount.

* * *

And so, I needed to purchase three Chinese flashlights for the visual component of Translation, so that I could place them inside a square black box. In search of the flashlights, I visited several lighting stores. A couple were closed for repairs; the others did not carry the needed flashlights. As I exited Children's World (they did not have the flashlights either), my irritation and inner invective, consisting of terrible curses, with which I silently covered everything around me, reached such a level that I fell into some kind of psychotic catatonic state. I suddenly ceased to care about the flashlights or my fatigue and irritation. Everything around me and inside of me lost all meaning: any emotional attachment to the task or my desires, to what was happening on the streets or in the shops around me, disappeared. All that was left was the mechanical movement through Moscow, from store to store, with the last point, the goal of all of this movement being GUM. [3]

As I made my way along the street toward GUM on 25 October, I felt that my consciousness was gradually thickening, getting stuck in the "here and now," in a heavy impassivity and alienation from reality. Those meanings, desires, interests, and forms that unify the surrounding world into one whole became completely empty for me. All these rational and emotional threads tying the life around us into one knot, into one reality, tensed and vibrated, forced the people, the cars, the falling snow, and the piles of snow to move, desire, aspire to something, but they didn't touch me at all, not one of these threads was tied to either my mind or my heart. Finding myself beyond the reach of this world, I felt myself as a moving container of emptiness, as a dead physical body, merely subordinating itself in its movement to the laws of mechanics and behaviors, with no emotional or any other kind of experience.

And so it is in this state of being a "container" that I enter the GUM and move along the third line [4] to the section where they sell the flashlights. There is a bit of a crowd, but not so much that the great space of the department store is filled completely, there is no jam. I approach the counter and can see that there do not have any Chinese flashlights on sale. However, there is a large black and white "Photon" flashlight for 2 rubles and 20 kopeks. I ask the saleswoman to show me this flashlight, though I do not have enough money to buy three of them. I turn the flashlight in my hand not knowing what to do, to buy it or not. The inner cursing in my head gets stronger and more horrible, the degree of "stuckness" and alienation grows stronger, giving me the somatic effect of my head literally "swelling." An inner non-belonging to the ordinary world, an emptiness, and a vacuum all seem to press from the inside and onto the walls of my head-container, on my skull, and on my eyes. It is possible that deep-water fish experience a similar state of "swelling" when they swim out of their depths into the watery spaces with lower pressure that are dangerous to their lives. And finally, the level of all this psychic filth condenses to such a degree that there is a kind of jump, and a different register of perceiving reality is switched on. It takes on the character of a dream or a film, completely identical to what is taking place in reality, but a dream or a film nonetheless, with me in the leading role. I sense the transformation of my surrounding space into a "cinematographic" one, because having come to a complete emptying out of my "I" as a free individual, I become a completely empty, automatic unit, like an ant in an anthill—in this case in the anthill of the giant GUM. And so, just as ants probably subordinate themselves to some kind of instinctive reflexes, and perhaps energetically, through the bioimpulses of the entire colony, are each tied one to the other, so is my completely emptied head tied to the collective consciousness of the people around me. I sense a monstrous inner mental unfreedom, like the kind we experience in dreams or the unfree space of the cinematographer where the actors, the heroes of the films, move according to a script or a plan. In such psychedelic states (which are well known to me), this plane of perception immediately fills with cultural archetypes and mind-forms: all things and the connections between them acquire a symbolic, mental sense, and this sense covers over, by its existence as meaning and completely beyond one's control, the everyday relationship to things. To put it simply, there begins a delusional perception of one's surroundings. But since my madness is controllable, I know that it is a delirium, and I find myself as though not actually inside of it, but watch through my "observer-operator" from the outside. I watch as my brain involuntarily "reads" all of these mental iconographic schemas of the boiling, swirling, and shining "mental powers" and symbols around me. Their "semantic" energetics seem to shine out through the world of ordinary forms.

And so, it is in this space, as though through a "third eye," the most interesting episode of Translation unfolds, and not as a hallucination, but on the completely ordinary canvas of reality. And because my delirious (or contemplative, as some may wish to see it) space aligns with the ordinary space around me during some rather unusual coincidences and for a very brief span of time (as will be evident shortly), I am forced to presume a sphere of collective consciousness as an actually existing psychic zone interacting with the spaces of culture and freedom and with the space of coordinated reality in which we all live. In other words, in the aesthetics of action, I see the sphere of collective consciousness as yet another fairly significant zone of the demonstrational field.

And so, I stand at the counter and hold in my hands the "Photon" flashlight. The delirious part of my consciousness insists that this in not a mere flashlight, but the origin of light, or rather "the Light of the World," [5] and so forth, and so on. And though I've long grown tired of all these "Lights" (gnoseological obscenity!), angels, archangels, and "powers," [6] and I curse them in my head even more monstrously than I curse the Ministry of Trade, I remember that we are building an iconographic space for Translation and the three flashlights that will be protruding from a black box behind us are meant to symbolize something like the Trimurti, [7] and so I stop resisting the unfolding of the "film" and say to myself: "Fuck it, I'll just buy the flashlight!" Immediately, the word "Correct!" resounds behind me—some bloke pushes his way to the counter pronouncing this word. Were I to ask him why he had uttered this, his "correct," addressing no one in particular, he would have thought I was mad. But in the spiritual topography of my "film" (or delirious, no matter), his utterance is none other than the "boorish" appearance of the "wise power" (of the so-called "dominions") [8]. And what is more, this is not an auditory hallucination. I have researched this effect of intense inner speech "linking up" with externally articulated phenomena fairly well—it typically manifests in two ways: when a particularly apt utterance stands out from extraneous speech; and when a nearby person "mutters" out loud, as if by chance, a part of your own mental stream and "matches" your "speaking." This is most likely the signified and vocalized manifestation of the collective consciousness through the unifying mind-form of the "Logos."

And so, having mentally told this bloke to go to hell, I purchase the flashlight and step away from the counter.

And then suddenly, truly like in a dream or a film, as I move down the third line of the GUM, I see walking towards me a young woman in a black fur coat, judging from her appearance a foreigner. I see that in her left hand she is holding the same "Photon" flashlight that I have wrapped in paper in my bag. But hers is not wrapped, she holds it in her lowered hand, open and pointing in my direction. I see the flash of light reflected in the flashlight's lens. In those few seconds, as the woman passes me, the flashlight seems to stay in focus, as though in the center of the shot, and I can't get a good look at her smiling face and fairly tall figure in its wide-open black fur coat.

She walked, standing out, or rather, my consciousness made her stand out against the background of the other people, or even more accurately, against the auditory background of foreign speech—she was probably a foreign tourist and behind her was a whole group of foreigners. My consciousness—in fact, its fully sober part, with both emotional and mental aspects in agreement (without the sending people to hell or other cursing) and with aesthetic delight—experienced this episode, this meeting, as the most artistic and beautiful episode in the film "GUM," the culmination of which, it turned out, had been the "entrance" of the Sri Yantra. For this being who had passed me in all her transcendent beauty, glittering, manifested in an elegant form, was the power Yin with an accented attribute—the black fur coat and most importantly the flashlight in her hand, which links her and me into one narrative cluster, into the two superimposed triangles of this Yantra. It is interesting that the cameraman and the director, in my film here, of my story Translation, seemed to have "captured" this central episode, directed my vision and hearing so well that I was unable to make out the visual and auditory details, for example, which foreign language it was—it just sounded like the noise of foreign speech, like a background. At the center of the "engineer Wasser and engineer "Licht" episode, they had placed only the approaching motion of the woman, her black fur coat, and the "Photon" flashlight in her hand. It was this accentuation, the increased emphasis only on her and on these two attributes that gave rise to my experience of her as an image, a power, a moving and transcendent air of unusual clarity and crystallinity. The fact that this transcendence was unusually comfortable and seemed almost ordinary, without any excessive mysticism or strangeness—the image of the woman was not visually distorted or hallucinatory, and the significance of the encounter revealed itself nearly just on the semantic level of objects (the fur coat and the flashlight), whereas the powerful, energetic cast of the "event" had the character of a clear, and most importantly, cultural power. All of these details (in contrast to the frightening and turbulent worlds of Christian mind-forms, well known to me from previous psychedelic experiences and meetings) allowed me to experience this episode as first and foremost artistic and aesthetically "constructed" with magnificent mastery. And moreover, this meeting and this impression turned out to have a powerful psychotherapeutic impact on me—they instantly gave me back my connection to the world, an emotionally positive perception of it.

And as though a gift in parting, as a memento of this meeting, "engineer Wasser" gave me one more look, one more perspective—the view of the blue fountain, which had opened up in the aperture, in the passage to the second line of GUM [9]. Making my way to the exit, full of aesthetic delight, as though I had just seen a masterpiece by Bergman or Herzog, completely calm and enlivened by the warmth and clarity of this unusual encounter with a transcendent, beautiful, and lively spirituality, which had flickered at me with the lens from the "Photon" flashlight, I rather unexpectedly, even to myself, as though someone had softly and wordlessly suggested it to me, turned my head to the left and saw in the passage the blue fountain with its glistening streams of water. Both the architecture of the fountain—though in reality, if someone were to look at it closely, it is likely to be awful and dingy—and the glistening streams of water presented themselves before me in the same clear, powerful, and transcendent tension, as the beautiful, magnificent sight: both the sparkle of the water and the woman with the flashlight were full of the power of Yin, that refreshing, easing, quenching power that finally dissolves everything in itself. This miraculous apprehension of the fountain as a transcendent reality was the second and final episode in the film "GUM." It is precisely in this film (and alas, only for me) that an entirely real, in both feeling and vision, completion of the Sri Yantra took place. It was the "entrance" into it, the yantra, about which we speak in Translation. My purchase of the flashlight and the return signal of the same flashlight through the woman in the black fur coat seemed to connect the YIN and the YANG, LIGHT and WATER [10], and they connected within me in the feeling of emotional and semantic calm and closure that took hold inside of me. After all, the most important thing for me, aside for the formal coincidences, in the experience of these two episodes—the "woman" and the "fountain"—was the feeling of comfortable eternity, the feeling that these episodes unfolded in a transcendent space, within the eternal light, at the height of what is attainable to the imagination and to perception, where they always remain, and only situationally and formally shifting their appearances and constellations in the stream of reality and fantasy, Dao and life, in the stream taking place around and inside of us.

It is interesting that "engineer Wasser" and "engineer Licht," having given me these magnificent experiences at GUM, and having "removed" the Chinese flashlights from the market (had I been able to purchase them, I would have definitely placed three identical flashlights, symbolizing the Trimurti rather than the Yin and Yang, in the black box), also "constructed" and connected three different flashlights in this box—I had no other choice but to use the flashlights I had at hand, yet their combination was completely unarbitrary and apparently symbolized precisely the combination of Yin and Yang: only the two flashlights protruded from the box, one large and white (the "Photon"), the other completely black. The third flashlight, which I turned out to have at home, was rectangular with a very large reflector and did not fit into the opening in the box—I had to simply lean it against the opening from inside the box. Its light created an inner (inside the box) light environment, illumination, as though inside a house, while just the two other flashlights, the white and the black, protruded out. For the last time that day, late at night, "engineer Wasser" appeared once more, this time in a rather comic light. That day, our house had had its water shut off, there had been an accident and some underground pipe had been punctured. Around 11 pm, I heard some shouts, noise, and cursing outside the window—the emergency crew had arrived. They clamored in a throng on the other side of Kondratyuk Street, which is visible from my balcony. They had several flashlights, which they used to illuminate the ditch that had been dug in the street while looking for the damage in the pipe. I became curious to hear their conversation. The first thing I heard when I opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony was the loud phrase, nearly a scream: a bloke in a yellow uniform yelled to a man in an overcoat: "What do you mean where to dig? You're the fucking engineer here, you find it!!!"

I closed the balcony, took the "Photon" flashlight in my hands, twisted it and took out the three batteries. The batteries were called "Jupiter M." [11] They had the words "Guaranteed shelf life: 9 months" written on them—a completely "embrionic" period of time, and what's more, the number "9" coincides to the number of paired triangles in the traditional Sri Yantra, a simplified illustration of which was also present on the batteries' casing: in a little black circle, two humanoid figures with linked arms, through their combined efforts, holding up and lifting upward a flash of light.


Returning now to the topic with which I began my story, the broader issue and character of our group's "artistic" work, I would like to emphasize once more that this work enters culture exclusively from its aesthetic side. A satisfactory description, much less an empathetic experience of the abovementioned is clearly impossible, and not even necessary. "Engineer Wasser and engineer Licht" are simply representations of one of the possible languages of description that merely point to yet another zone on the demonstrational field [12] where the "artistic" effects of this or that action might unexpectedly arise.

But at the center, so to speak, of a real investigation of our activities there remains, of course, only the "excess trash," but trash in a positive sense, in the aesthetic sense, which is primarily, to my mind, dependent on myth. Myth is a delicate thing, its ability to sustain life provides not just for the refinement of intellectual deviationism, for aesthetic maneuvering atop the crest of the present, for the historical relevance of developments and an artistic-opportunistic instinct in choosing and structuring linguistic structures. The vitality of myth is primarily reliant on a kind of spiritual pragmatism, on a perhaps incoherent but still sensible set of existing information about the state of the collective consciousness as a complex, constantly changing system of psycho-formal constellations in which manifests the life of spirit and information, received primarily in the process of self-understanding, a frequently rather risky process for psychological comfort.


Andrei Monastyrski

9 February 1985


trans. Yelena Kalinsky

[1] Translation [Perevod] took place on 6 February 1985. The action consisted of three participants reading and simultaneously translating prepared texts, and playing tape recorded texts and street sounds. The action also contained a visual aspect, specifically, a long black box containing a working tape-recorder and four flashlights, and a square black box with three flashlights. It is this second black box that is discussed in "Engineer Wasser and Engineer Licht." For more on Translation, see https://conceptualism.letov.ru/KD-ACTIONS-36.htm.

[2] The Sri Yantra is an important cult object for the Sri Vidya tradition of Tantrism. It is understood as being the subtle form of the goddess Sri Lalita. The yantra's geometric design combines five downward pointing triangles representing the Goddess, or Shakti, with four upward-pointing triangles representing Shiva. In the "nine circuits," all the parts of the design are worshipped in turn. Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Infobase Publishing, 2007), 510.

[[3] Moscow's main department store, Gosudarstvennyi universal'nyi magazine (or The State Department Store), located in the center of Moscow facing Red Square. Built in the 1890s, it features elements of Russian medieval architecture and a steel framework and glass roof similar to the great 19th century railways stations of London or the iron and glass arcades of Paris. GUM was used as a department store until Stalin converted it into office space in 1928 for the committee in charge of the first Five-Year Plan. After the suicide of Stalin's wife in 1932, GUM was briefly used to display her body. After reopening as a department store in 1953, GUM became one of the few stores in the Soviet Union that did not have shortages of consumer goods, and the queues of shoppers were long, often extending across Red Square.

[4] The two stories of GUM are each divided into three passages or "lines" with stores along both sides of each.

[5] Here, Monastyrski is quoting scripture: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)

[6] He is referring to the psychic visions that had regularly visited him since 1981, and which he describes in the novella Kashirskoe shosse [Kashirsky Highway], (1983-85).

[7] The Trimurti is a concept in Hinduism in which the cosmic function of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

[8] This is likely a reference to the mystical writings of Christian theosophy.

[9] The central arcade, or second line, of GUM contained a large fountain at its center.

[10] Hence the title of this essay, "Engineer Wasser and Engineer Licht."

[11] This echoes and foreshadows two other of the group's actions, Jupiter (13 April 1985) and M (18 September 1983).

[12] The term "demonstrational field" was first theorized in the preface to Collective Actions' first volume of documentation in 1980. It refers to the sum total of all the visual, auditory, mental, cultural, or any other kind of elements that make up an audience member's experience during the action. In the earliest field actions, this consisted of empty fields, group participants, and the sense of anticipation that accompanied actions; over time, additional elements, such as photographic documentation, props, and psychedelic elements, like the ones described in this essay, began to populate the demonstrational field and play a constructive role in the group's actions. For the first preface, see my translation in Collective Actions: Audience Recollections from the First Five Years, 1976-1981 (Soberscove, 2012).






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