Alternative Institutions and Intimate Counter-Publics: Chto Delat’s School for Engaged Art and Rosa’s House of Culture

Jonathan Brooks Platt
May 19, 2016

The following essay is the first in a monthly series on pedagogy, edited by Alessandra Pomarico, co-curator of the Free Home University in Lecce, Italy. Alessandra introduces the series here.

In the context of contemporary Russian artistic and intellectual life, the significance of the Chto Delat School for Engaged Art and Rosa’s House of Culture is difficult to overstate. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union (and, indeed, during the years of perestroika that preceded it) Russian radical art practices have for the most part been profoundly public and performative in orientation. Whether taking the form of street actions, gallery-based performances, or longer-term social interventions based on research, most recent additions to the canon of Russian art have involved public display or the display of the public, while more contemplative projects have been far rarer.

The Russian Ministry of Culture has declared war on contemporary art, enforcing its line on what constitutes an “appropriate” aesthetic statement.

Such practices were bound to take center stage in a society experiencing a deeply contested, epochal transformation, and they showed remarkable longevity. Over the past fifteen years, even as social relations in Russia have become increasingly reified and corporatized, engaged artists have continued to confront the public, demanding to be seen and heard, and insisting on the fundamental malleability of what can be seen and heard. This public orientation has recently become increasingly untenable, and the reasons are not hard to discern. Since the Russian protests of 2011-12 and Putin’s controversial election to a third term as president, the state has followed its own path of (pseudo-)radicalization. The Ministry of Culture has declared war on contemporary art (along with other media, particularly theater), enforcing its line on what constitutes an “appropriate” aesthetic statement (i.e., patriotic, heteronormative, accessible, etc.). Mass media outlets have been transformed into a tightly disciplined propaganda machine, combining the ritualized unanimity of late Soviet official culture with a frenzied, fear-mongering spectacularism appropriated from the west. Russian actionism is dead (Pavlensky here is the exception that proves the rule); exhibition spaces invariably practice self-censorship (or find themselves overrun by neo-fascist Cossack bands); and artists are more likely to shun the newly mobilized “people” than engage them in social projects.

Chto Delat's School for Engaged Art; image courtesy Chto Delat

Chto Delat’s School of Engaged Art

As one might expect, this situation has forced the leftist art community to turn inward, developing practices of intimacy, and working beneath the radar of state interests. To be sure, artists always used intense forms of intimacy to support earlier traditions of public display, but those forms largely remained secondary to the work itself. And here the contribution of Chto Delat is particularly important. They have been in the forefront among St. Petersburg artists and intellectuals in resisting any expression of the intimate turn as a simple rejection of the compromised public sphere. On the contrary, they have worked tirelessly to build a viable, alternative institution that can potentially serve as a public platform. And while this goal is decidedly utopian since the inchoate counter-public they would address remains completely marginalized with respect to mainstream officialdom, their project has nonetheless been an undeniable success. The school and the house of culture continue to grow and develop despite serious resistance from both private and state actors. (They have, by my count, been forced to move their operations five different times over the course of only two years.) Hundreds of Petersburg artists, activists, and intellectuals have participated in their activities, not to mention visitors from other Russian and foreign cities. Most importantly, the institution has contributed to the formation of a close-knit network of young artists and intellectuals, who show remarkable group solidarity while pursuing a broad range of activities and focusing on diverse aspects of the leftist agenda.

Chto Delat’s institutional project represents a more mature and  productive form of emancipatory practice than mere public display.

In current conditions Chto Delat’s institutional project represents a more mature and, one hopes, productive form of emancipatory practice than mere public display. The alternative institution does not require direct confrontation to sustain a publicly-oriented position. Instead of hurling itself against the wall that divides it from the hegemonic culture, the institution asserts a public presence, while accepting its — for now — marginal status. Participants are not obsessed with “peak experiences” that guarantee a place in art historical memory. Instead, their work and the cultivation of intimacy it promotes are more subtle and concrete. When involved in such practices — the occupation and inhabitation of collective spaces — the pursuit of long-term, small-scale projects, and the supplementing of direct activism (which has become increasingly difficult) with the production of group solidarity, the temporality of political engagement is doubled, which anticipates a future of active resistance instead of staging provocations in the streets to construct a genuinely emancipatory present that is founded on patient, self-organized, collective labor (a contrast to more radical communities, which typically collapse under the pressure of their own aspirations). The builders of such institutions are thus simultaneously involved in a form of utopian projection — imagining and longing for a viable counter-public — while concretely working to sustain one another here and now, maintaining enthusiasm, fidelity, and solidarity through mutual support and collaboration.

Here it also worth noting that the Chto Delat school and house of culture are only two projects among many institutional efforts in which members of Chto Delat have being leading participants. Other activities in this vein one include the remarkable work of Artemy Magun and, more recently, Oxana Timofeeva’s work in developing the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the European University in St. Petersburg. The contributions of Alexander Skidan to numerous projects that promote the current renaissance of Russian avant-garde and political poetry, and Nikolay Oleynikov’s design work with Kirill Medvedev’s Free Marxist Press (not to mention their collaboration in the Arkady Kots group, which has itself become a kind of institution now deeply involved with the burgeoning movement of Russian independent trade unions are additional examples. While generationally closer to Chto Delat’s students, Pavel Arsenev’s Translit journal and related publications also emerged from a milieu with close ties to the group.

The options in arts pedagogy in St. Petersburg have always been seriously limited, and the Chto Delat school has quickly positioned itself as a genuine competitor to other institutions in the city. The old Soviet academies remain bastions of conservative aesthetic values with no interest in contemporary trends. Between 2007-2009, the American artist Emily Newman worked to establish an accredited MFA program at Smolny (the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, St. Petersburg State University’s collaboration with Bard College), but the project was derailed after intense resistance from remnants of the scene that emerged around Ivan Chechоt’s Navicula Artis Gallery in the early 1990s. Testifying to the parochialism and inertia of St. Petersburg’s institutional landscape, these entrenched artists and critics protested against the idea of foreign “Varangians” coming to bring new ideas and usurp their power. Since then Smolny has only offered a post-graduate program in art criticism. Among programs closer in size to the Chto Delat school, Pro Arte’s school has played an important role in the development of a number of local artists, but it lacks consistency, since it has no permanent faculty (and no clear ideological position). In 2014 a new independent pedagogical project, Paideia, began at Pushkinskaya 10, the old perestroika center for non-official culture. However, this program is focused more on theory than practice; it charges tuition; and it only runs for two months. By contrast, the Chto Delat school typically offers a small stipend to its students, and it runs for a full year. The next course is planned to run for a year and a half.

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While the first years of the Chto Delat school have clearly been very successful in terms of building an alternative institution on a bedrock of intimacy, the actual methods of the school, particularly its relation to Chto Delat’s own art practice are somewhat controversial. In terms of its philosophy, the school adheres to the traditional leftist paradigm outlined in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which, unlike the relatively more recent — and more popular — model of radical equality proposed in Jacques Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster, still preserves a place for pedagogical authority. Chto Delat clearly sides with Freire in the basic assumption that “without leadership, discipline, determination, and objectives […] an organization cannot survive, and revolutionary action is thereby diluted.” The key is to forge a balance—or, more precisely, to sustain a dialectic — between authority and freedom, such that “no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught.”

The methods Chto Delat uses in pursuit of these ends have been developed over nearly a decade of conducting short-term pedagogical projects. The most prototypical of these are their intensive seminars that culminate in the staging of a “learning play,” which the participants write and perform under the direction of Olga Egorova (Tsaplya), who possesses an uncanny ability to unite an unruly collective around a common cause. These plays also make extensive use of the modern dance techniques of Nina Gasteva, who describes her area of responsibility as cultivating the group’s “collective body.” While these projects are of course far from Freire’s work with the illiterate poor, they can be seen as fostering community and empowerment among the creative workers who participate in them. It hardly needs to be stated that young people interested in forms of labor that do not produce marketable commodities (whether material or immaterial) often live precarious lives and run the risk of slipping into conditions of deep alienation. The blitzkrieg of intimacy Chto Delat brings to these projects, with its heavy orientation on public performance and politicized speech, provides a tangible form of resistance to such problems.

At the same time, however, Chto Delat’s pedagogical method raises a range of questions familiar to readers of Claire Bishop’s influential survey of participatory art in Artificial Hells. What are the spectatorial implications of such projects? To what extent does a pedagogical art project need to communicate itself to a public beyond the participants themselves? What aesthetic criteria apply to its final outcomes? If the public identifies these outcomes with the artist-organizers, does this objectify the participants as delegated performers? Is the project “mere” art, or is it a real social process?

With their St. Petersburg school, Chto Delat are working to extend their pedagogical practice beyond the feverish tempos of the learning plays and, perhaps most importantly, to bring it back to their home city after years of plying their trade in foreign art contexts. The result has been even greater risk. Since the school emphasizes collective work over individual initiatives, and the organizers choose the central theme for each semester based on their own interests (violence and monumentality were the themes of the school’s inaugural year), the students find themselves deeply embedded in Chto Delat’s own practice while not directly involved at its uppermost levels. The group makes a constant effort to distinguish between their own work and that of the school, but to an outside observer this can seem somewhat arbitrary. Meanwhile, the student-artists are constantly faced with the task of negotiating their position as individuals with specific ideas, affinities, and goals, as members of a collective working on collaborative projects, and as participants in the Chto Delat platform itself, where they can never be quite sure if they are the beneficiaries of the group’s significant symbolic capital, or if they are contributing their energies to help that capital grow.

These conditions have produced some interesting tensions in the work of the school. For example, the learning play the school staged after the first semester, Faster, Spicier, Tastier!, was conceived as a protest against the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the conditions of violence they masked in Russian society. The students each took on the role of a vegetable, participating in various “contests,” pre-taped and displayed on a projection, which typically involved the intense humiliation of a marginalized subject. The stage was then populated with restaurant guests, who proceeded to devour the vegetables one by one until none remained. While participating in this production, I was struck by the hidden allegorical potentials it suggested in relation to the school itself. If the “vegetables” were seen not only as representative subject positions but also as the young student-artists who embodied them, then the play was also about their own processes of maturation towards a level of “preparedness” (for public consumption), which was being linked to violent death.

A similar tension arose with the film Chto Delat produced after the second semester of the school — now defined specifically as the organizers’ work and not that of the students, although most of the actors were recent graduates. The film, “The Excluded,” was focused precisely on the marginalization of independent-thinking young people in Russia and the obstacles they face if they aspire to any kind of “heroic” intervention into the social field, which is rapidly descending beyond mere authoritarianism into something frighteningly fascistic. Again the student-artists were put in the position of embodying a typical class of Russian youth, and it is not surprising that a few of them rebelled, criticizing the film in an open letter for using their “beautiful, young bodies” (прекрасные молодые тела) to create the image of a “single organism” (один организм), cleansed of all internal contradictions. In other words, the authenticity that the student-artists gave to Chto Delat (as young Russians) pushed them into a position of inauthenticity when it came to their performances as individual subjects.

Chto Delat's School for Engaged Art

Chto Delat’s School for Engaged Art

While some might take these tensions as grounds for criticizing the project, I prefer to see them as an articulation of its fundamental question, indeed an articulation that productively straddles the aesthetic and the social. Within the school’s bounds the student-artists join the organizers and lecturers in a deeply intimate space of collective labor. Productive antagonisms abound in their discussions and creative work — always the hallmark of Chto Delat’s particular model of collectivity. But since the school is also an institution, it must invariably turn outward and face the public as well. At this incredibly fraught moment, all the questions of performativity, delegation, and spectatorship emerge. The result, however, can hardly be described as exploitation (as the rebellious students provocatively claimed). Rather, it is a reflection of the group’s intense desire to preserve the precarious, intimate collective they have cultivated in the midst of a society that sees no value in their work. To the outside this collective appears as a single organism, always under the threat of external violence or internal despair. Nonetheless, the collective emerges from each of these ritualized moments of death and alienation to repopulate the intimate space of the school, the house of culture, or one of their offshoots—most notably the Intimate Space gallery, which Marina Maraeva, a graduate of the school, opened in her own apartment in 2014. None of these deaths are real, after all—they are staged exposures to the death of a collective body, which ultimately serves to return that body to the spacing of singular beings and their community of shared finitude (to borrow the terms of Jean-Luc Nancy). Each approach to the brink of death is followed by a renewed assertion of intimacy — one hand on your own body and one hand on the other’s, as one of Gasteva’s fundamental techniques involves.

The Chto Delat school is prey to all the problems that haunt participatory, pedagogical art projects. But their practice ultimately involves the exploration of these problems as a fundamental tension between intimacy and public-ness. In this way, the school simultaneously offers a method for reflecting on the profound challenges that face any attempt to forge an oppositional community in this time of great peril, while also stubbornly insisting on the utopian potential of such efforts.

With each new independent collective founded by students and graduates of the school (and there have been a tremendous number of these already, including, by the way, the “Red Thug” cooperative that emerged from the “Excluded” controversy), the utopian space of intimacy expands, diversifies, and becomes increasingly sustainable. This is an atmosphere unlike anything you will find in western MFA programs, which are typically defined by intense competition and anxiety. A tiny percentage of the artists that emerge from western programs may produce public statements of a higher profile than those of Chto Delat’s students. But these programs pale in comparison to the St. Petersburg school when it comes to the production and sustenance of a patient practice of intimacy, which never slips into pathological forms of introspection or escapism.

Of course, such practices cannot be seen as a substitute for real activism and the continuing struggle to create a genuine counter-public capable of competing with the one that official ideology addresses. But such a substitution is not the real danger that faces Chto Delat’s students. The real danger comes from society itself, and their common task in warding off this danger is to maintain solidarity, to preserve the right to utopian vision and speech, and to reflect meaningfully on the tension between the collective body we all long for and the internal and external contradictions and antagonisms that define its precarious life as an unrealized potential. The time for heroic interventions is coming (this time is, of course, always now, in Walter Benjamin’s sense, but it is also a question of time’s fullness, its coming to term). When it comes, the new heroism will have to avoid the pitfalls of performative jouissance and hysterical narcissism that plagued Russian actionism, despite its unquestionable power. The new heroism will be a mass movement, led by activist-organizers and, one hopes, some new form of political party (perhaps, indeed, one that does not merely tolerate antagonisms, but which cultivates them). Alternative, utopian, intimate institutions are not only a way to sustain these future heroes until the time is ripe. They also provide a site and a method for putting the question of that future time to oneself and one another each day anew.


This essay was first published in Russian translation as “Al’ternativnye institutsii i intimnaia kontrpublika,” in Zachem stanovit’sia khudozhnikom: Opyt Shkoly Vovlechennogo Iskusstva Chto Delat’, ed. Dmitrii Vilenskii, trans. Aleksander Skidan (St. Petersburg, 2016).

Jonathan Brooks Platt

Jonathan Brooks Platt

Jonathan Brooks Platt writes on topics including Stalin-era culture, representations of reading in Russian Romanticism, and the actionist tradition in Russian contemporary art. His monograph, Greetings, Pushkin!: Stalinist Cultural Politics and the Russian National Bard appeared in 2017 through the University of Pittsburgh Press and, in Russian translation, the European University in St. Petersburg Press. He is a widely-published translator of new Russian Left poetry, particularly by the Omsk-born poet Galina Rymbu, and he has collaborated on artistic projects with Chto Delat, the Factory of Found Clothes, and the Texno-Poetry music cooperative. In 2014, as part of the Manifesta 10 Contemporary Art Biennial in St. Petersburg, he curated the four-day conference, “No radical art actions are going to help here…”: Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism, including scholarly talks, literary readings, and performances. His current project, The Last Soviet Militant, engages the controversial legacy of Zoya Kosmodemianskaya, a female partisan who was tortured and executed by German forces in 1941, and who remains an icon of militant devotion in Russia to this day.

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