Arseny Zhilyaev: Your description of this places sounds quite intriguing. I mean that remarkably, it is possible to discern in it certain elements that will later reemerge in your future projects, albeit in a transformed form. For instance, the hypnsosis and psychotherapy classes geared towards personal transformation that you have mentioned are also present in the series of films about Russian cosmism. At the same time, the very idea of a space, a certain place that houses a range of different, oftentimes self-contradictory activities seems to evoke the description of your other project, unitednationplaza. Some of these activities are somewhat naïve, others are not at all, but one way or the other they do contain hope and seek to be agents of transformation. Then there was this project of a Manifesta 6 School that you put together after the Manifesta 6 biennale in Nikosia had been cancelled and that later was replicated in New York in a slightly modified way. And, of course, the massive bulletin board with flyers certainly triggers associations with the e-flux. My understanding is that, according to Maria Lind, this name first appeared in 1998 when you used it to send out invitations to an exhibition that you had secretly held with your friends in a hotel room in New York. How did you envisage e-flux when it was born? Could you tell us more about it? What were the meanings and hopes that you invested it with? Have they come true? How has it evolved as one of the most extraordinary (from the standpoint of its formal organization) artistic projects?
Anton Vidokle: E-flux was started following show, called The Best Surprise Is No Surprise, which took place in a room of a Holiday Inn hotel in New York's Chinatown. At the time I was a part of a small independent curatorial group, with Regine Basha and Christoph Gerozissis. Together we organized a number of exhibition type events in forests, public parks, hotel rooms, parking lots, my apartment and other improvised situations. We were very inspired by the situationists, as well as certain Fluxus actions, which involved spontaneous performances on city streets and so forth. The idea was to try to think of the whole city as a space for art interventions not limited to museums and galleries, and without the bureaucratic connotations of "public art." We did not have any support or funding and just used whatever small amounts we could spend on this to organize a range of activities. One of them was this show in a hotel room, for which I proposed to use e-mail to distribute invitations, because it was free and we did not have money for anything else. This worked and in the following weeks I started thinking that this could be something developed into a platform others could also use. I should add that around that time I also had a temporary job at a kind of an Internet startup firm, run by a bunch of very young people. They were funny and very ambitious. In a sense it was not so different from the kind of self-organization you see in artists-run initiatives: they were just inventing things as they went along. This made me think that it was not such a strange idea to form a company. So this is more or less the origin of e-flux.
Once I started working on this, it turned out to be much more interesting than it seemed initially. This was partly because in the 90s, when email was just becoming a common way of communication, people saw emails as something rather personal: they thought that e-flux was addressing them individually, so they actually responded to every exhibition announcement with a comment or a thank you or something... This was incredible: suddenly it was as though I had hundreds, thousands of friends all over the world. It also opened up for me an art community beyond New York, which was super interesting, because discourses and problematics there were different than what I was familiar with. In fact this was so interesting that it made me reconsider more traditional art practice I still had at the time -- making objects, images and so forth. It seemed to me that this type of an ephemeral communications platform could in itself constitute a kind of an art object: something not tied to any specific location, completely relational, discursive and so forth. As a result I gradually stopped making discreet art objects and eventually gave up studio practice entirely. Instead, with Julieta Aranda, we rented a very small storefront on the Lower East Side and started developing a series of projects like e-flux video rental, Pawnshop, Martha Rosler Library and so forth.
E-flux video rental was probably a key project for us: an art work in the form of a video rental shop. At its peak it had an inventory of approximately 1,000 single channel videos and art films by more than 600 artists, which you could watch at home once you became a member. Membership was free and so was the rental. Sometimes we would organize special screenings in the storefront, many of which were curated by other artists and curators. So the entire project existed both as curated screening programs, individual artists works, and our work: a system of circulation that flowed in and out of numerous apartments, classrooms and other places these videos were watched. We used library-type index cards to record circulation of all this material, and published a very peculiar catalog, which was all short text descriptions of the videos, written as though it was a catalogue of a hardware store: the descriptions did not try to interpret the videos, but describe them objectively and briefly. It turned out that this project became very popular with museums, art centers, biennials and so forth, so it was traveling for about five or six years all over the world, to about 18 different cities. It is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana.
Arseny Zhilyaev: Many of your projects variously work with the issue of an archive, which is key for any museum. I am talking about the e-flux video rental and the Martha Rosler Library, that you have mentioned, but one can also add "An Image Bank for Everyday Revolutionary Life" and "Time Bank" to the list. At the same time, in Martha Rosler's interview about your collaboration she said that you both favored a thoughtful approach to the display of your project and sought to ward off its possible museification. She did not mean some abstract museuification, but the kind of museification that could threaten to turn the Library into an object, into something that cannot be used according to its intended purpose. And here you mention Donald Judd's Library in Marfa, Texas, as the negative example that you juxtaposed your concept with, since one can only access it as a sculptural, museified entity that can be neither touched nor penetrated, etc. On the other hand, you do not completely ignore the museum context either, which is evinced by inclusion of the e-flux projects in the permanent exhibitions of different museums, although these are quite specific institutions that we are talking about here. Claire Bishop talks about the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana as being at the cutting edge of today's radical museology. Personally, I should add that the Martha Rosler Library project largely echoes Nikolay Fedorov's intuition who, as we all know well, spent 25 years working as a librarian at the Rumyantsev museum (now part of the Russian State Library) This thinker has a text titled "Obligation of an author and the right of museum-library", which deals with a library that has to become an exhibition. In this text Fedorov stresses his understanding of reading, research and museum display as a specific kind of resurrection practice that anticipates the defeat of death. In this respect I would like to enquire about your view of archives, and more generally, to ask you about the specific artistic practices that guided this aspect of your work.
Anton Vidokle: You know, it is maybe a bit naive of me, but when we did all these projects that seem to be rather archival in structure, in 2004, 2005, 2006, it did not occur to me that archives would become such a popular form in practices of so many contemporary artists. In fact I only became aware of this when a Swedish journalist brought this up in an interview: he pointed out to me that most of our projects were a kind of an archive and spoke about the history of this, starting with Walter Benjamin and so forth, which I frankly never considered. Since then, interest in archives as art projects, and as something collectible, has really peaked. Numerous institutions, from Getty in LA to Macba in Barcelona to Salt in Istanbul, have been acquiring and displaying artists archives, works of art and exhibitions in the form of an archive, and so forth. Archives are now everywhere: even Moscow's Garage Museum embraced the archive as a kind of modus operandi.
To be honest, I am a little bit skeptical about this proliferation of archives in art. Some artists seem to archive everything from their grocery lists to nail clippings, and frankly I feel this is a very narcissistic activity and there is not much meaning in many of these accumulations of stuff, in other words a lot of the time it is just a formal thing. You can preface anything with the word "archive" and it becomes poetic and mysterious: An Archive of Wasted Time, An Archive of Random Walks, An Archive of Sweat, etc., — all these sound like possibly artistic projects. Sometimes I think that the archival form is a kind of a subterfuge: when you do not want to take a position, a clear statement, present an argument, you just gather an archive and that is a very safe position.
Somehow we do need to find tools to separate these sort of gratuitous presentations that just fill the space, from projects that have substance. For example, the photo archive of David Alfaro Siqueiros is one of these really amazing archives, which is a kind of a universe of images that consistently depicts the world and society in the state of revolutionary transformation. It is a private collection of approximately 11 thousand photos by many contemporary photographers of his day, that were given to him to use as reference for public murals. Being a very zealous communist, Siqueiros wanted this material to be shared and used by other artists who also tried to further revolution through their works, so in a strange way it is a kind of a proto image bank, before commercial image banks were invented. So there was a reason for us to try to work with this archive and make it accessible to others online. It was basically about fulfilling Siqueiros' wish. The other reason for this was that the photos were very poorly conserved and were fading and deteriorating, so it was also an act of preservation to digitize them. Unfortunately, we had to take this project down from the internet because some of the estates of the photographers in this collection could have sued for royalties, they would have sued Siqueiros Foundation who gave us all this material and they got scared and asked us to take down the project. It is really one of my biggest regrets that we could not make this work permanently…