«museums should be moved to cemeteries»

Arseny Zhilyaev spoke with an artist and founder of e-flux Anton Vidokle for The Center for Experimental Museology.

Arseny Zhilyaev: I would like to start off by asking you about your creative evolution, specifically, I would like to begin with the story, which as far as I can tell, preceded the emergence of e-flux, preceded whatever we know today about the work of Anton Vidokle. Once, when we were discussing your coming-into-being as an artist, you mentioned one peculiar aspect of your personal story. If I remember it well, it was something to do with the fact that, not unlike many other artists, you started your career working with traditional media, attended an art school as a child, went on to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York, did conceptual painting and so on and so forth. However, you somehow felt that none of it was satisfying enough. So then at some point you decided to enroll into a course of computer programming and quality analysis – is that right? And all of a sudden it was exactly this knowledge that had dramatically transformed your attitude towards artistic production! I was really intrigued by this story. This is my interpretation of things, but I believe that it was this experience that has brought forth your more active, constructive stance in regard to art. By “constructive” I mean that it enabled you to treat artistic production as something that can be programmed and consciously transformed or altered. Personally, I can very much relate to this desacralizing, engineering-like attitude to art. This very attitude is at the root of the specific perception of the role of museums and of art in general as agents of social and physical transformations in/of humans as articulated by Russian cosmists and as encapsulated in some radical Marxist museological experiments. Could you please elaborate on this experience of yours?

Anton Vidokle: Yes sure, I’ve been studying art since the age of 12 or so, first in Moscow in a private class of a painter, then in New York at an art school, then graduate school, etc. Then, after finishing my studies and about a decade of trying to develop a sustainable artistic practice, everything started collapsing: I was about to lose my studio, the apartment I was renting and so forth… Interestingly, this happened around the time I’d read Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind. This book had a very strong impact on me: something between a minor enlightenment and a medium size nervous breakdown. As all this was happening, my parents got very worried. Things were clearly not going in a direction of any sort of stability, so they were suggesting I do what numerous Russian immigrants in America did at that time: learn computer programming and get a good job. They had a friend who attended a kind of a private course that resulted in a very well paying job, something called QA: quality analysis. QA is a technique to test if computer software that is being developed actually does what it is being developed to do. Apparently a huge percentage of new computer programs have to be abandoned before they are ever finished, because they do not do what they are intended to do and their complexity makes it impossible to correct these problems past a certain phase of development. So QA was invented to control this. To make the long story short, I never completed this course, but in the process I decided to use the methodology of QA to reflect on my personal and artistic difficulties, as though I was a complicated software program. Naturally I did this as a kind of a joke, but very mysteriously this initiated all sorts of changes to the organization of my life and artistic practice.

The other peculiar thing about this course was that it was located in the most inappropriate place: a floor of an office building in mid-town Manhattan, full of small rooms to be rented on hourly bases, like a brothel. All of them were offering various classes and sessions, and these offering were a really bewildering array of things from yoga to psychotherapy, alcoholism secession, cabala classes, dance, ceramics, massage therapy, hypnosis, writing workshops of all sorts, and so forth: in other words everything to improve oneself. At the entrance to this floor, there was a massive bulletin board that had flyers for all these self-improvement classes and workshops: hundreds of brightly colored Xerox pages describing all the different things you can do to transform and better yourself. It was both something completely pathetic and desperate, and yet hopeful and cheerful with all the bright primary colors and all… I fell in love with this object and recreated it in my studio, and I suspect this was a kind of a breakthrough for me in terms of my relationship to art.

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…

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.

Martha Rosler Library is not so much an archive but an amazing book collection. I wanted to make it public because it represents a really interesting intellectual scope of an artist who I admire. Of course we did not just want to show it, but make it useful – like a reading room. Exhibiting books as objects always seemed rather tacky to me, so this library was fully functional, we even had a Xerox copier if you needed to take something to work with. We did another show with Martha which was a bit more of an archive proper: a show of references and documents pertaining to an exhibition she curated at the DIA foundation in the late 80s called If you lived here… A lot of artists told me how important that exhibition was for them at the time when it was originally presented, being one of the very first shows on issues of housing, urban planning, gentrification, etc; and involving architects, theorists, community groups, associations of homeless people, and artists, of course. It was a groundbreaking exhibition and Martha, being a great researcher, had many boxes of references, images, correspondence, critical texts, newspaper clippings, and so forth, all pertaining to this show. So I thought it would be interesting to make all this material public in a form of an exhibition.

And now I am going to contradict pretty much everything I said above, because if you look at archives through the frame of Fedorov: any archive is a good thing, because it preserves, cares for the past. And in a society such as ours, in a society obsessed with progress and erasure of the past, any activity that cares for the past, for the memory of the previous generations, is a really important endeavor. Museums should be moved to cemeteries. Libraries should become laboratories for the resuscitation of writers. Artists’ archives should be used to interpellate their authors’ subjectivity and facilitate their resurrection.

Arseny Zhilyaev: We are now turning to your recent projects. Let us talk about the idea of museum in Russian cosmism. The Museum of Immortality became the first large-scale project dedicated to this subject. Then there was the exhibition that you put together with the participants of your school project in Beirut. I cannot help but point out that schools and, more broadly, the very possibility of free access to knowledge, is one of the basic principles underlying Fedorov’s museum concept. From Manifesta 6 onwards, you have made schools, schools as artworks, one of the major formats of your artistic expression. Could you tell us more about how you have arrived at this idea? How were Berlin’s unitednationplaza and New York’s Night School different from your Beirut’s Museum of Immortality?

Anton Vidokle: The idea of an experimental school as a biennial was not solely my idea. It was developed jointly with Florian Waldvogel and Mai Abu El Dahab as a curatorial proposal for Manifesta 6, in 2014. So, in a sense my entree into this whole field of schools as artworks was actually from the curatorial side. Actually Florian and I realized fairly soon that what we were doing was not very curatorial, but in many ways it was an artistic proposal. However, we chose not to focus on this because there were already very many difficulties of financial, political and organizational nature, and changing our position from curator/organizers to author/artists would have just made all this entirely too complex. What happened then is a well known story: we run into political opposition to our project from the government of Cyprus, the biennial was cancelled and we were fired. This was basically the end of my brief carrier as a curator. As dramatic as this seemed at the time, it was merely a preamble to a series of projects that spanned about five or six years of work, including unitednationsplaza in Berlin, Mexico, the nightschool in New York, and most recently a year in Beirut at Ashkal Alwan.

There is a lot of difference between all these school projects: unitednationsplaza was completely self-organized, and in this sense it was probably the most free and radical among them. Because we were not affiliated with or responsible to any institution, it was possible to develop a structure that was completely permeable: anyone could participate to any extent they wished. This was not the case at the New Museum, where the institution maintained clear boundaries for where our project ended and the museum began and what could be allowed. Even in the case of Ashkal Alwan, which is an incredibly open and truly experimental institution, I felt that people were modifying their behavior and expectations to some degree, based on their pre-existing idea of what could be acceptable at this particular place. The other big difference is that at the beginning of this, at unitednationsplaza, my idea was to avoid displays of art objects entirely and replace all this with discourse about art and topics significant for artists, so that a certain kind of an ephemeral “art object” could be temporarily produced by the intensity of these discussions. This did not happen every time, but there were a few times where this was visceral. This was in 2006 and by the time I was invited to organize a program in Beirut in 2012, together with the Lebanese writer Jalal Toufic, quite a lot had changed in this field. I started to feel that the proliferation of talk and discourse in the art scene started to eclipse the actual art itself. There seemed to be an endless amount of talking, and much of it gratuitous, empty, boring, self-serving. Art works were starting to appear as mere illustrations for these talks. So what we did in Beirut is to try to reintroduce actual art works into the discourse, through bringing a series of exhibitions, installations, film programs, performances, and developing a discursive structure around them.

The last exhibition in Beirut was something put together jointly with participants of the program as well as artists, writers and others who were involved with it. Usually schools have a final show, or an open studio day at the end of the program. At first we did not want to do this at all, because a lot of times the show becomes the focal point that distorts all other experiences and processes of educations: young artists and curators tend to start thinking about their final show the moment they get accepted into a program, and everything that happens between these two points becomes somewhat irrelevant. We did not want this, so the plan was to have nothing at the end, maybe just a nice party. Then, at some point when I was developing the contents for the last seminar on Fedorov, I remembered about an unrealized exhibition concept of Boris Groys. Boris was planning to do a show in Ljubljana based on Fedorov’s idea of a universal museum of immortality, where every person would get a room to preserve objects, images, texts, clothing, tissue, basically anything they think could be used to resurrect them or someone else in the future. Since no museum would have sufficient space to accommodate all people, Boris thought that the space allocation should be determined democratically, through a kind of a civic lottery. Every resident of Ljubljana would get a lottery ticket for a room in the museum, and winners would be selected randomly and the contents of these rooms would be entirely up to them. I really liked this idea.

In Beirut we did not have a whole museum, just a large open floor of a former garage. It was not possible to create rooms, so I suggested we offer coffin sized vitrines to all who wanted to take part: students in the program and others. In the end we were able to present approximately 65 vitrines with displays, stacked in a rather architectural way reminiscent of a columbarium – a roman cemetery that was essentially a shelf like storage system. It was designed by an architect Nikolaus Hirsch. These vitrines had internal lighting and the overall room was darkened. The show was rather theatrical: dark, cavernous and shaped like a labyrinth. The contents varied from things that were more poetic than factual, to very literal interpretations of this idea. Basically it was a bit like a scale model, an experiment of what a Fedorovian museum could be like. I am now finishing a short film based on this show that we are making jointly with Oleksiy Radinsky, a young filmmaker from Kiev who was one of the students.

Arseny Zhilyaev: If one explores this idea further through the lens of Russian cosmism, it is possible to identify a yet another feature of your work, which is very important to you. I am talking about its ability to mobilize and organize people in a very particular way. I remember how we were tying to find exact English equivalents to some of Fedorov’s definitions that are impossible to translate. For instance, the thinker maintained that a museum should be understood not as a collection or an assemblage of things, but as an “assembly”, a “sobor”, a union of people, which, he believed, should be akin to the concept of “sobornost'” (an early Slavophile term signifying a “spiritual community of many jointly living people” – translator’s note). Fedorov talks about a society, whose very activity constitutes the specificity of museum’s creativity, its art of life. I guess, every single project of yours can be described as a “union”, an “assembly” of people engaged in creative production. However, if I get it right, in the third part of your three-part film project that deals with Russian cosmism you directly address the resurrecting museum as a special kind of community. Could you tell us more about the role of co-creation or collaboration in your artistic practice in general and in this film in particular?

Anton Vidokle: It’s true, over the past decade or so, I keep creating spaces or platforms for people: for artists, for writers, for students and so forth. Sometimes these spaces are physical and a lot of the time they are online, like the e-flux journal, or both: like the time bank. All these projects have been collaborative as well: with Julieta Aranda, with Brian Kuan Wood, with Boris Groys, and Martha Rosler, and Liam Gillick, and Jalal Toufic, and so many other collaborators. I am not really sure why I keep working like this: I am not a very social person and am not an activist. I am rather lazy and actually I think I need more private space than most people do, and I really enjoy being and thinking alone. I also do not think that collaboration, or collective practices or bringing people together are inherently superior or more advanced than a more individual type of artistic activity. So I do not have a simple explanation for this.

It seems to me that right now artists collectives and collaborations are popular in the art world. They are still a minority, but they ceased to be a rarity. I think it is a good thing: until not so long ago, the art establishment did not take this type of production seriously. It was often dismissed as inferior to production of an individual author. Galleries rarely represented groups and collectors would not risk investing in collaborative works. If you think of Western art of the 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s, only few such collaborations come to mind: Gilbert & George, General Idea, Group Material… Museums also had an issue with this: it seems to me that the entire art system was, and is still largely oriented towards recognizing works of singular authors.

There are certain interesting exceptions, for example in Moscow Conceptual school it was the other way around: there were probably more collaborations and collectives than artists making individual work. But of course there was no art market and no institutions for this type of work either. Similarly there was a very large number of collective practices in the period of Soviet avant-garde. You would know better than me what the current situation in Russia is, but historically it seems to go against the current.

I think one of the things I really like about making films, which is a fairly recent activity for me, is that they are inherently collaborative. You need an actor, a cameraman, an editor, someone to direct, someone to write the script, etc etc. Its not always clear who has the most decisive influence, who produces that which registers as art in a film. The meaning is produced in editing, the image is largely determined by the camera operator. There are so many films I know where the most interesting thing is a performance by one of the actors, without which there is nothing to hold attention. And then there is sound that can really make or break a film. So I think that the cult of the director as author is rather misleading: it is a profoundly collective type of work. The danger with this is that in commercial cinema it often becomes an industrialized and alienated labor, but these are not the kind of films that I make.

i started to feel that the proliferation of talk and discourse in the art scene started to eclipse the actual art itself. There seemed to be an endless amount of talking, and much of it gratuitous, empty, boring, self-serving. artworks were starting to appear as mere illustrations for these talks.

The new film that we will be shooting in Moscow in March is based on Fedorov’s writings about museums. Yes, he sees the museum not as a mere collection of objects or images, but as a kind of a “sobor” of people, both living and especially the dead, who are to be resurrected in the space of the museum, using its restoration techniques. He sees the main function of a museum as a possibility to restore, return life. He also writes about the similarity between a museum and an observatory, and the relationship between astronomical observation of the stars and observation of objects and artifacts, both being rooted in memory. His thinking about museums is very unusual and beautiful, and it made me completely reconsider how I understand this institution.

Arseny Zhilyaev: When cultural figures speak of your art, particularly of e-flux, they tend to highlight first and foremost your independence, the consciously alternative stance you have taken vis-à-vis contemporary artworld with its entrenched hierarchy. For instance, when talking about your artistic practice, Boris Groys emphasizes above all the ways in which it reflects contemporary perceptions of an autonomous artist. How important is this independence to your practice and what is your own understanding of autonomy and independence? To what extent is creative autonomy an operational or even an essential agenda for contemporary art, what do you think?

Anton Vidokle: The question about artistic autonomy is an old one. I first started thinking about it when I came across a manifesto penned by Andre Breton, Diego Rivera and, rumors have it, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico in the 1920s. The manifesto is a response to a kind of a Stalinist position, which was popular at that time, which suggested that art should be at the service of the revolution. In the manifesto, they argued that truly radical art is by nature revolutionary, because it always aspires to a transformation of society, and that it needs not be at anyone’s service and can be autonomous. Boris Groys points out that in order to have autonomy, one has to have something to lean on: for example for most of progressive, communist artists of the prewar period, there was the USSR as a symbol, a possibility of a different world. What would be such a platform for an artist of our times?

My friend, the artist Hito Steyerl, has been writing a lot about autonomy lately. She is inspired by the Kurdish autonomous cantons in Syria: Rojava. They have been able to blend marxism with feminism and environmentalism (and probably nationalism), and develop an ideology that makes possible such strong social organization and mobilization that they are the only entity in the region able to withstand Isis. I keep telling Hito that artistic autonomy is not the same as political autonomy, but perhaps I am wrong. I guess I share a certain historical desire of many artists, that art finds a way to become seamless with everyday life, that it dissolves in life when life itself becomes so beautiful that it becomes art. In such a scenario, there is no need for any autonomy. There is even a similar sentiment in Fedorov’s thinking: he suggests that life and immortal existence, and the entire universe will eventually become a kind of a universal art work. We are clearly not there just yet, so the question of autonomy remains…