What is to be Done? Of Signal Events, Monumentality, and Revolution
Of Homelands & Revolution (3/4)

What is to be Done? Of Signal Events, Monumentality, and Revolution

What is the interplay between revolution in its historical and global import, and revolution as an act of local struggle? An essay about Chto Delat’s A Monument to the Century of Revolutions.

A striking moment occurred during one of the final presentations of the first day of the Creative Time Summit, convened in Toronto September 29-30, 2017, with three members of the nine-member Russian political art collective Chto Delat (What is to be done?) sitting in conversation with Creative Time Artistic Director Nato Thompson. They were discussing their Nuit Blanche installation, A Monument to the Century of Revolutions, which would open that weekend. The installation was jointly conceived by Chto Delat and Thompson, designed by Moscow architect Yury Avvakymov, and might be considered the centerpiece and unofficial political headquarters of the 2017 Creative Time Summit. During this discussion, an image of Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky’s 1919 Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge flashed on the screen.

By El LissitzkyA-Pesni.org, Public Domain, Link

In an audience of hundreds, smartphones appeared overhead as several Summit attendees attempted to capture the invisible, yet palpable, historical significance of this confluence: present-day art and politics converging with the red, white, and black geometric shapes of Suprematism—a momentous looking one hundred years backward while theorizing and strategizing how to move forward.

Chto Delat, Monument to the Century of Revolutions, 2017, installation at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. Photo credit: Dmitry Vilensky.

A Monument to the Century of Revolutions, in its clunky industrial composition, was comprised of shipping crates that contained twenty-one life-sized, dioramic installations, half of which were designed by Chto Delat to represent various revolutions that occurred throughout the twentieth century, including the Russian Revolution, the revolutionary events of 1968, the Perestroika, the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista Uprising, the Chinese Communist Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution. The installation fulfilled both pedagogical and ideological function, in particular for the local artists who were invited to envision the contents of half of the crates on display. “What does revolution mean to you?” was the question posed to invited participants, a question variously taken up to completely different effect by artists including Syrus Marcus Ware, Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge, d’bi.young anitafrika, and Tings Chak, to name a few. The physical space of the crate permitted for the physical execution of revolutionary ideology.

Chto Delat, Monument to the Century of Revolutions, 2017, installation at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. Photo credit: Dmitry Vilensky.

What does revolution mean to you? What is to be done? Invited presenters and audience participants circled around these questions throughout the two-day Summit. Chto Delat, a novel written in 1863 by Russian critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky, incited a call to industrial production spawning from socialist cooperatives rather than from capitalism. Vladimir Lenin’s 1902 Chto Delat is believed, by many, to have inspired the political energy leading to the Russian Revolution more so than Marx’s 1848 Communist Manifesto. In art history, the signal event of artistic Modernism is largely believed to be World War I (1914-1918); as Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh observed in Art Since 1900, “modernist art’s drive toward abstraction might not signal its withdrawal from reality so much as reality’s withdrawal from it.”[1] The Russian Revolution, a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917 that dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, also led to its own art movement. Productivism’s proponents devoted themselves to designing improved environments for the citizens of Soviet Russia, and artists became determined to play a role in helping to create this new society. The belief, for the Productivists, following Suprematist founder Kazimir Malevich, was that non-objective art was the aesthetic solution. The earlier Proletkult (Organization for Proletarian Culture), founded in 1906, adhered to the belief that “art is a social product, conditioned by the social environment,” which could only be enacted following the Russian Revolution.[2]

Despite the disparate political events of Eastern and Western Europe, similar artistic experiments with form and abstraction were underway prior to these events; Foster et al argue that they almost seem to anticipate the aesthetic strategies that would become predominant in the ensuing years, pointing to Soviet artist Vladimir Tatlin’s observation that, “What happened from the social aspect in 1917 was realized in our work as pictorial artists in 1914, when ‘materials, volume, and construction’ were accepted as our foundations.”[3] Following experiments, in the earlier part of the decade, with relief sculptures comprised of industrial materials including wire, stucco, and glass, Tatlin revealed his model for Monument to the Third International(1919-1920), the effects of the 1917 Revolution well underway.

Maquette of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, 1919.

Tatlin’s Tower was unveiled in Petrograd on November 8, 1920 and was subsequently showcased in the building hosting the Eighth Congress of the Soviets in Moscow. The accompanying pamphlet written by art historian Nikolai Punin detailed how the finished tower was to have been a glass and metal construction approximately 1300 feet high. Tatlin’s model is, of course, most well-known for its tilt, executed by the inclusion of two conical spirals, themselves supported by vertical wooden slats. Within this structure, four glass encasings were stacked on top of each other, with each level intended to house a different branch of the Comintern, the Soviet organization whose task was to “spread […] the revolution” to other countries.[4] In its realized form each register would rotate at a distinct pace. This “monument,” it was believed by Tatlin and his supporters, would diverge in form from earlier monuments to the Revolution in its adherence to Soviet Russia’s new “culture of materials.” In other words, the monument would not only be symbolic, but also functional, and would represent the momentum of the Revolution.[5]

What are the aesthetics of present day incarnations of revolution?

The advent of Postmodernism in itself signaled a wariness of signal events. To this effect it is fitting, yet contradictorily monumentalizing, that a monument to the signal event of revolution was never realized. The monument is the signal event made manifest, yet we might also question, and imagine how, in the twenty-first century, to signal the event (or revolution) that has yet to occur. One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, we seem enduringly caught up in the desire for an aesthetic strategy signaling the political moment of the twenty-frst century, even in an artistic climate in which aesthetic form once again follows (political) function, and not the other way around. This was reflected at the Creative Time Summit in the stage installation by Toronto-based artists Public Studio (Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatzsky), in collaboration with Haida lawyer and artist Terri-Lynn Williams Davidson who, together, wrote The Rights of Nature, a manifesto of sorts advocating for the recognition of the significance of nature, culminating in the Creative Time Closing Ceremony, beginning with a song and Haida prayer by Davidson and a participatory choir performance of The Rights of Nature led by Public Studio, Hiba Abdallah, Ange Loft, and Davidson. On the Creative Time stage, the red, black, and white hard-edge figurative constructions of nature, animals, and human-made tools recalled the symbolic political abstractions of El Lissitzky but also suggested an awareness of the specific urgencies of the current moment, in the context of present-day Toronto/Tkaronto, the Mohawk word “Tkaronto” meaning “where there are trees in the water,” its English translation to “Toronto” an enduring reminder of the historical and ongoing colonization of Native land. Part theatre set, part stage director, the uppercase letters spiraling through the installation mimicked popular agit prop fonts from the early twentieth century, the ideological dimension of revolution served here as a backdrop but also brought into relief multiple forms of engagement with the living embodied proponents who animated the stage throughout the day—representation made real.

Chto Delat, Monument to the Century of Revolutions, 2017, installation at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. Photo credit: Dmitry Vilensky.

What are the aesthetics of present day incarnations of revolution? What happens before activism, before action? What is to be done? In his 1992 essay “Notes on Gesture,” political theorist Giorgio Agamben argued that “politics is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings.”[6] I want to consider the various ways in which “revolution” underlines the interplay between embodied performance and activism and the daily aesthetic interventions that play out on the public stage. Where do we locate the political body in relation to the sentient body, and how do we conceptualize and feel through theories and histories of sense and perception toward a view to politics, political action, and political formation as stemming from lived experience? How do we conceptualize “revolution” in relation to the material, social, and political body? How do we resist the aestheticization, as well as anesthetization, of political urgency? How does the body move in time with political revolution?

Revolution—from historically-specific events, to ideological pursuit, each vested party aligned across time and symbolically mobilized in any present toward emancipation, was evidenced in manifold ways at the Creative Time Summit. Issues and urgencies of locality, Indigeneity, and geographical specificity helped to outline specific overlapping and cross-temporal geographic conditions of aesthetics and revolution under the invisible organizing framework of revolutionary sentiment. Considerations of “homelands,” in conjunction with multidimensional considerations of “revolution,” lent themselves to the specific social and political conditions experienced by each presenter. To consider “homelands” alongside “revolution” reflected an increasingly complex and complicated view to the world in the context of globalization, its media and forms of culture alongside its conflicts, compromises, and conciliations, revealing nuanced, embodied strategies for political response. The El Salvador-based artist Crack Rodriguez may have illustrated this point most pointedly by performing an exaggerated form of political refusal, demonstrating how to throw oneself to the ground while sitting in a classroom desk. The body is a laboring body, as evidenced by Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge, whose oeuvre has been devoted to “represent[ing] activism in our community, with specific focus on the labour movement, social justice groups, and those working in culture, and the turn, in their own practice, from Minimalist sculpture, to political art. Fictional accounts, the artists explained, are employed to protect vulnerable workers, but also because it allows them to say more. The body of the artist becomes a historical vessel, a witness to the specific local social, political, and artistic strategies of a given location, but is also a tool itself, occasionally, also, the target, bearing the traces, imprints, and traumas of political resistance.

The body is also a body inextricably tied to land. Wanda Nanibush, an Anishnaabe-kwe curator who, since her installment as Curator of Indigenous Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, has been one of the most radical curatorial voices in Toronto, and whose 2016 inaugural exhibition Tributes and Tributaries remapped the city of Toronto via a consideration of its buried waterways, was an appropriate first presenter, opening the morning’s panel on “Land.” Reflecting on the term “homeland” in relation to Anishnaabe language, she said, “We’d have to make a word up for ‘homeland’,” and considered “the way of being with the land and with each other.” About the land, Nanibush stated, “it’s hard to see it as something separate from myself, or something separate from the way I think about community, the way I think about love, the way I think about caring…” emphasizing a “deep and profound bodily relationship to it.” Unpacking the implications of what it means for Indigenous people in Canada to own approximately 2% of the land in Canada (according to Arthur Manuel), Nanibush reminded the audience that that land, as her certificate of possession represents, is ultimately held in trust by the Canadian government. She recounted the emotional experience of stepping back onto her land when she was twelve years old, and the incredible occurrence, presently, of Indigenous people going back out onto their rightful land beyond the government-set confines of the reservation: “We are not in a space of dispossession, fundamentally, because the land is still here.” For artist and writer Coco Fusco who, with Creative Time curator Elvira Dyangani Ose, spoke together, “homeland” in Spanish translates as patria which, as Fusco points out, is a “masculine, patriarchal term” and how homeland, in her experience as an exile with no right to return to Cuba, homeland refers to the property of the state, rather than of the people.

Hong Kong-born and Toronto-based artist Tings Chak, whose formal training is in architecture, presented on her graphic novel, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, which turned attention toward questions of space itself and the coercive means by which bodies are policed in geographic space via the biopolitical force of containment within migrant detention centres. Chak asked, “How does the criminalization of migrants take form in our built environment?” This was an important reminder, as were many that were made that day, about the bodies absented from participation in the Summit, absented from the conversation, and absented from spaces of legibility through diverse and impressively effective strategies of physical containment, expulsion, and force.

Syrus Marcus Ware’s artistic practice fuses a wealth of affective and political experiences, from his activist love letters to activist portraits, as well as ongoing community engagement as an organizer of Black Lives Matter TO. Ware spoke on love—an important reminder of what, for many, is the root of political action and the pursuit of a more just world—the recognition of love’s power—a means and an end. Ware’s presentation was a punctuating moment for a consideration of the impetus for political activism, and the affective connections that incite us to action. A city’s aesthetics are influenced and informed by our specific political and social conditions, and Ware is a significant contributor to a conception of Toronto’s aesthetics in the present day. His activist portraits, presented with participant sitters the following day, presented the possibility of a portrait as one built jointly by artist and sitter, a relationality, intimacy, and vulnerability made visible by bonds of respect and trust, Ware creating space, both in the presentation and in the portraits themselves, for the recognition of the political and artistic contributions of often-overlooked artists and activists of colour working in Toronto.

By the time Chto Delat took the stage in conversation with Nato Thompson, a view to a working definition or consideration of revolution in the present day seemed almost belated, the presentations throughout the day complicating a view to a singular originary view to the join of aesthetics and revolution. As Olga Egorova stated, “the world is changing,” and that we need to “refresh our knowledge of revolutions.” Thompson reflected on “what it means to look back at one hundred years of revolution” and offered a view to the difference between an abstract and a specific form of resistance, nodding in particular to “local activists who start naming names.” He argued, “you can’t speak about the history of revolution without speaking about local struggles.” About aesthetics, Chto Delat argued, “it’s not about beauty, it’s not about nice, it’s about sublime. And sublime is a dangerous thing.”

Creative Time Artistic Director Nato Thompson in one of the containers during Nuit Blanche 2017. Photo: Dmitry Vilensky.

In her midday keynote address, postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak underlined Lenin’s assertion that “the ruled classes have to want in a communist way … revolutionary upheaval moves in a counterrevolutionary direction.” The historiographical positioning and centralizing of revolution has opened up to reveal that revolution occurs in many forms, and concurrently in various locales. It is not one signal event and the effects of that moment, which, when even felt, are often belated, and just as painful in the aftermath as are its gains worthwhile. Different revolutions take different amounts of time. We often think of successful instances of revolution as those that mark history, yet we neglect to consider revolution’s everyday occurrence at the grand scale and in the everyday, within the individual and the collective body, and within accidental and overt aesthetic gestures and provocations. Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International was a model for a monument whose registers moved at different speeds, nevertheless constituting the same drive. Tatlin’s tower is thus an appropriate metaphor for present day conceptions of revolution: visionary and oftentimes unrealized, yet always turning in pace with the urgencies of the political moment.

Chto Delat, Monument to the Century of Revolutions, 2017, installation at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. Photo credit: Dmitry Vilensky.

[1] Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “1916a,” Art Since 1900 (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 141.

[2] Proletkult, The Organization for Proletarian Culture manifesto, 1906.

[3] Tatlin, quoted in Foster et al, 125.

[4] Foster et al, 175.

[5] The building itself was never realized; at the time it existed only in wood and metal models and now, only in drawings, photographs, and reconstructions.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture,” in Means without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 59.

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Erin Silver is a historian of queer feminist visual culture, performance, activism, and art history. She obtained a PhD in Art History and Gender and Women's Studies from McGill University in 2013. She is the co-editor (with Amelia Jones) of Otherwise: Imagining Queer Feminist Art Histories (Manchester University Press, 2016), and co-edited (with taisha paggett) the winter 2017 issue of C Magazine, “Force,” on intersectional feminisms and movement cultures.
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