collective self-education in the arts and culture…

Notes from the workshop: THE CASE OF WORKGROUP CHTO DELAT?

I would like to give you some insight into the activity and context

of the our workgroup and collective practices that I am part of….

I am speaking here as an artist

who is mostly involved into different type of collective projects.

So at my talk I will try to explain how our group

was formed in a particular historical moment

and under which condition we operate, dentist

why we choose that particular type of activities and not other ones;

and give your some examples and insights into our

political, visit this site theoretical and aethetic background

and local context that stands behind our activity.

Chto delat/What is to be done? is a group of artists, philosophers,

and writers from Petersburg and Moscow.

Chto delat was initiated in spring 2003 in Petersburg.

The core member of the future group were participants

in organizing an action called “The Re-foundation of Petersburg.”

It was one of collective protest action to the process

that had happened in real political life -

namely the celebration of the 300 Anniversary of the Petersburg.

In the days of those official and pompous celebration,

that actuallly I can say NOW opened the age of new

repressive admistration of everyday in a new Putin’s Russia

the small group of about 30 people

decided to leave the center of the city by train from a main station,

and then symbolically found a new center of the city on its outskirt.

So it was a public gesture of exodus and attempt

to imagine the basis for cultural life anew.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> video

So our activity has started as rather positioning of

one conflictual community – collective

that was build around a protest model of mobilisation.

And that is very important because since then

we consider ourselves as political group

even if we do not engaged into direct activist practicies.

It was constituted around the moment of creative negation

and from the beginning discussed the possibilities for instituting new forms of life and production of new knowledge…

It is almost impossible to develop critical knowledge alone.

It’s a collective matter, all the more because critical knowledge

needs to have one fundamental quality: it needs to appeal to the truth.

And this is already a political question, and, of course, connected to

collective forms of finding and taking a position in public space.

Without entering into a more detailed discussion of what this truth is,

and where we see the possibilities for its articulation,

we should just note that only a collective, even if it is small,

has the recognized right (and this is what makes it dangerous)

to get up and say: “What’s going here is bullshit! It’s a bunch of lies!”

Even if it is clearly in a minority, a collective still has this right to demand a change,

both on the level of the situation’s interpretation and on the level of action.

In other words, a collective is capable of producing knowledge of another order of things.

This knowledge may not always express the absolute truth,

but it can be “the pincers of Truth”, as Alain Badiou puts it.

After carring out these action which ended by long sit-in at police station

and police officers were very confuceed what to do with these weird intellectuals

for part of the group

was quite consistent to do a next step

and we have started the collective with more or less permanent activity.

In the early summer of 2003, the group began to put out a newspaper “Chto delat?”

dedicated  - generally to say -

to the relations between artS and politics in the post-Soviet context.

For us it was and still is very important to pursue the classical Marxist task

and to show how culture is related to the conditions of its production and

how the condition of material production of culture are interdependent

on political relations, and power relations and everyday.

The best examples of such an analyses caried out in art field for us

Are represented by such a figures as Bertold Brecht and Jacq-Luke Godard -

who are still the most important and inspiring figures for us.

Since beginning the group has been undertaking a number of art projects,

organizes discussions and seminars, screenings, public workmeetings,

evening school of critical knowledge and has intensively participated in different range of events  from Social Forums to exhibitions in Russia and abroad.

The project was not JUST conventionally interdisciplinary from the very beginning

BUT it was trying to create a new relations between disciplines

and share the process of self-education of one small group

with broader community – make this experience public.

So – Chto Delat? is neither really an art-project,

nor a purely critical-discursive form,

but tries to use the connections between these two practices.

The space of contemporary art understood as a possibility for creating

a genuine public sphere

and is conceived as as a platform for dissemination a different knowledge

gained through the research, interventions and exchange with different groups of society.

That is why for us is important not just passively stay

at the comfortable terrain of art world

and maintain our privilidge position

of cultural producers

BUT try to work with political activists,

or independent research centers

to find our own ways of fusing contemporary culture

with extra-parlamentary politics.

Our project can be interpretated as an experiment in collective work.

At certain point I would agree with Lazaratto when he wrote that:

we do not know what it is “to be together” and “to be against”

in conditions where different worlds proliferate within a single world;

we do not know what the institutions of becoming are,

but we raise these questions by means of devices, techniques, arrangements, statements,

and in this way we analyse them and we experiment.

I would suggest that in our situation of global semi-peripherie

the conflicts between capital and living labour are more direct and brutal -

and one can consider it,

looking from the center,

as something outdated –

but tracing how things are developing globally

I would say that in a very pessimistic scenario

the model of governing that is developing in Russia

could look, under certain circumstances,

as rather attractive to the european elites -

take into account the situations around G8 – ……..

I think that

But I wanted just to mention that in our situation we share a basic knowledge

What is “to be together” and “to be against” –

the knowledge that has its own historical tradition and still valid

And nowdays for us was very important to find out

what do we have in common and how

can we reach a point in discussion after which we can say WE

without reduction of singularity of each participants.

As any other self-organised initiative we are more too often

are suffering from productions conditions imposed by capitalism-

increasing precarisation of labour conditions, growing passivity of its participants

confronted by high efficient market forces, outsoursing, risk of institualisation,

permanent crisis of networking and decision making and so on…

How can we resist and change this rather sad situation?

I would formulate it in a very economic terms -

how could we maintain the anti-capitalist practice in culture

and keeping produsing our sur-plus value that cannot be used

for the profit of the institution and how it could be dispersed back into everyday

to become an egalitarian common knowledge?

That is the central questions that we have to solve in our everyday practice.

And at these point would be important to introduce you

to the concept of potentialities and its actualisation

as one of the key artistic methods to work with  reality….

Sorry for the big level of simplification that I am using in these introduction…

Each historical event is unfolding an enournous amounts of unrealised chances

to change the reality and we, as subjects, managed to embody them or lose them.

So I should say that our collective aproach to the history

is based on historical materialism

that view history as a dialectical process of changing class formation.

And our artistic method is based on the practice of actualisation

that has definite references to Walter Benjamin.

So we are challenged always by these sort of a historical composition

The EVENT- potentialities that it produces -

the Struggle over who can gain hold over these potentialities and -

later the Actualisations of missed chances

that is permanetly done by so called historical subject  -

all those who still remember the pride of belonging to the human struggle for freedom.

It is already the name of our group is the actualisation of

the history of workers movement and revolutionary theory in Russia.

So it is a gesture of actualisation of past in itself.

Recently I was very glad when last Documenta decided to choose

the same title for their leitmotif on education

and now rather broad public would know that this question

comes from a novel written by the Russian 19th writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky,

and directly refer to the first socialist worker’s self-organizations cells in Russia,

which Lenin actualized in his famous brochure “What is to be done?” (1902).

“Chto delat” also sees itself as a self-organizing collective structure

that works through reflections and redefinitions

of a political engagement of art in society.

TO Be engaged means for us that we practise art

as a production of knowledge, as a polical and economic issue -

and not a solitary contemplation of sublime or entatainment of the ruling class.

It means to be involved with all the complexities

of contemporary social and political live and make a claim that

we – with all our efforts

are able to influence and change this condition for the better.

Whatever you load the word better

BUT it is about that we have these historical responsibility

to make the world more free, human and to fight alienation…

Let me show you one video piece that actually serves as sort good example

of our practical approach and it is kind of self-representation of the group

that we did about 3 years ago….

It will give some insight into our ideas and personalities…

Just few words before showing it -

this project is inspired by the painting “The Builders of Bratsk”

made by Viktor Popkov in 1961.

By today, this piece has become an iconographic symbol of self-possessed, concentrated people, not only standing on the brink of changes

(61 was very important year fro the sooviet society

when after the stalinism the idea of democratisation of socialism looked viable)

but capable of making sense of this transformation and realizing it.

It is important to note that the workers on the painting

are not shown in the process of working,

but that they are taking a well-deserved cigarette break.

They have interrupted their work and

now have the chance to consider both the relations that govern it,

but also the significance it will have to the transformation of society.

This is exactly how the painting was read in its time,

And is an interpretation we would like to return to today.

Our project’s goal is to apply this, so to say, image

loaded with all that symbolic readings of its time  to contemporary situation.

We invite the spectator to return to the composition of this painting

and to suggest a new version of the process of its creation.

We wanted to show what might have preceded this moment,

in which they took on a pose that turned them into a symbol

of potentiality and hope.

What was it? Hard work? A conflict in production that did not found its own solution?

Or maybe even a hidden love story?

Maybe it was all of these things at once, and maybe none of it happened.

Our goal lies in constructing a situation in which people today

(ourselves and our colleagues from Chto delat) try to become “ideal,”

stretching to reach this image.

So let’s have a look at it and then we proceed further on…

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> BUILDERS!

Now let’s talk a bit about the context of Russian situation -

I am quite sure that al of you who from time to time are folowing the news in TV or magazines are quiet familiar with current development of Russian political situation. Shit happens almost everyday and despite all my skepticism about liberal press – I would say that what I got from its coverage is a very good example of journalism

Few years before I was always explaing the paradoxes of Russian situation

through the quite common ideas of Normalisation -

It was a socialism, then it collapsed – chaos, wild privatisation

when the the new owner of the country did not care neither to exploit people nor to govern them – it was much more efficient to grab and resell – whatever…

Then Putin came to power and the process of normalisation has started – such a nice and simple schema BUT recently – I would say since 2006 something went wrong and nice liberalisation of economy, transition towards liberal westarn democracy has stopped and now we see clear tendency not just to authoritarian mode of governing but the return of incredible repressive politics that we have not seen since the collapse of soviet Union and first years of Perestroyka….

How does it happen???

Why all that ghost from the past appeared again?

There are many speculation on it – but I would say that they never really gone….

They were hiden BUT real force in russian politics

because the promise of democratisation of society

that arose at the days of perestroyka was never fullfilled….

The people who came to power belongs to the same old elites of buerocrats

that ruled the country  before perestroyka and took all advantages in the period of transformation building a wild aliance between FSB, apparatchics, mafia, transnationals

and all “creative”  in a certain stance people

who were ready to rob, to kill, to manipulate or whatever….

But our group was paradoxically founded at a moment

When in 2003 – the process of Normalisation looked as something real

Important to note that in general, most post-Soviet intellectuals

were either liberals and apolitical;

there was no real democratic new left in a  western sense.

Most of memebers of our group had a sort of bohemian – libertarian background

but it was rather exception and skip any direct political categorisation.

However, in the “wild” nineties, some key contemporary artists and intellectuals

declared their protest against the capitalism

and the logic of power that was emerging,

identifying themselves with leftist politics

that looked forward beyond the failure of the Soviet state.

But such examples of politicization soon

Found its closure in provocative gestures

that were cynically exploited by the industry of political technology.

Another factor was the changes in the international situation -

By the turn of the millennium,

so that previous forms of cultural activism have undergone a serious crisis

and need to be reformulated.

This is not only the case in Russia, but elsewhere too.

I think that our project was also a kind of response

to this historical change after the Seattle

and it would be impossible without connection with

new emerging protesting subjectivity

of new anti-totalitarian and un-dogmatic lefts.

It is true that a new political subjectivity has yet to emerge

under the conditions of post-Fordist, globalized capitalism.

Neither the return to classical Marxist politics

- organized labor, a movement of a predominantly male industrial proletariat

with avant-garde party

nor the flight into a philosophical “immanence” of technologies, Political Form of Coordination, and “flows” seem plausible solutions.

There was (and still is) a pressing need for finding new, sustainable, responsible forms of criticism and engagement that would do justice to the growing complexity of global capitalism. Faced with such pressing questions, groups like ours need to rediscover the political.

At present, Russian politics are dominated by an aggressive official rhetoric of

“economic stability”, “security”, “enemy search” “anti-western and anti americanism” and for the first time in history the slogan Russia for russian is supported almost by 65% of people

If we can consider diferent speculation about the death of the political

- Russia, one can say, is the place where these death is really happening,

in a catastrophic situation in which social antagonisms are only growing.

>>>> fragment of Protest Match

I think that despite the general feeling of political sadness -

In many sence we share the experience with our argentinian comrades

Living in societies that undergo a drastic social change that was bertayed by power

that’s why the work of collectivo situationes is the very important for us…

and impossibility of action

there is some ways of organizing a political subjectivity

outside submission to the rules of the state and capital.

At this point we can stay realists and try to upgrade

the old local modes of dissidence and non-conformism

and mixed them with new international network structures of exodus and negation.

Also we have to remember our long historical tradition,

specially at the moment when we are thrown  back to the situation

of first political cells at the beginning of the capitalist period in Russia.

Practices of self-education have been extraordinarily important in Russian history.

The Chernyshevsky’s novel “Chto delat?” (1863) is just a manual on sustainable self-organisation practicies. Often half-criminal and in opposition to official institutions of power, such confidential circles were able to formulate some of the most striking phenomena in Russian thought and culture. Notwithstanding their marginal position, they made an invaluable contribution to the unfortunately temporary historical victory over monstrous, repressive structures. Their experience still inspires us today, as we once again look for ways to educate ourselves.

So, we should think about  new modes for self-education

that would cultivate political instincts, and provoke a democratic,

emancipatory activity in the spheres of labor and politics.

Here and now, this becomes possible through the active

self-organization of communities or microgroups.

On the strength of their limited number of participants, they provide a possibility for direct communication based on solidarity and  implementation of “direct democracy”.

The models according to which relationships in groups are constructed

can differ from one-another quite substantially.

However, there is one principal moment that they share:

this type of group is capable of maintaining an open dialogue,

moving beyond simple binary oppositions of recognition-refusal,

dominance-subordination, and have a chance of permanent reinvention of themselves.

Chto delat works through

implementation into art of collective initiatives

organized by what we call “art soviets” -

here you might see another historical reference

to the political system of council-soviets that

we know from the days of two russian revolutions

I think these type of political organisation is still the most challenging model

because it non-dialectically embrasses two opposite types of power -

constitutend (power over, force that administrates live)

and constituting power – the potentiality in action

that is able to permanently invent new forms of life.

So for us it is important to try to make a procedure of translation

of the soviet politics into cultural context.

The “art soviet” takes on the function of a counter-power

that plans, localizes and executes cultural projects collectively

from their earliest phases onward

and are able to negotiate its realisation with institutions and grass roots initiatives.

That is why it is so important to use any possibility

to build a kind of Soviet structures – or in different words -

creating Soviets before the appearance of any mass movement.

So as one might notice we are particularly interested in actualizing

the potential of the Soviet past repressed in the course of Soviet history.

This process is now happens in activists and cultural circles.

Alexander Shubin – one of the coordinator of Russian Social Forum wrote

for the discussion on the Russian Social Forum’s mailing list:

Judging by the results of the first Russian Social Forum (2005),

we consider ourselves a SOVIET MOVEMENT in two senses:

first of all, we are for SOVIETS (councils) as a form of self-organization for the protesting masses and the population at large,

since the soviets, a form of self-organization that arose 100 years ago,

entails both self-government and popular rule;

we are Soviet people in terms of our values

(social justice, equal rights, solidarity, and

the desire to restore the connections between people in “post-Soviet space”.)


for which there is a real demand, and whose basis can be found in the self-organization of people into soviets and the rebirth of those portions of Soviet culture

that have not yet been “finished off” completely.

These two multitudes almost correspond to one another. Almost.

For one group, the self-organization of protest is more important,

while the other find it more important to revive the Soviet idea

as an idea of a society that could provide an alternative to capitalism.

The soviets lie at the core of this idea, but not only as units of protest,

but as massive self-organization.

To us, it is important not to lose either of these multitudes,

and to bring them together on the unified field of the SOVIET MOVEMENT.

So we see these concept of Soviets – or better to say its prototypes,

that might stimulate the political self-organization of the people.

After all, the multitude have yet to rise and to understand their own interests in changing the system of society on the whole, rather than protesting particular social cases of injustice.

So we also in some way see our workgroup and our platform as a part of this wide,

but yet marginal movement.

I think that our publication and our activity is a product of this changes

and it is trying actively to interfer into the situation at the sphere of cultural production.

The actualisation of the concept of soviets bring us to the task of

Reclaiming the word “politic” or “Political” its true meaning

Most of people and even educated ones – understand politic as when Putin tells something and most of them are thinking that politics is something totally dirty, dangerous and better to stay as far as possible to it….

Of course we are always referring to politics in its philosophical connotation,

in the way it is used by Alain Badiou and many others,

and not as the widespread misconception that politics is only a question

of ideology’s relationship to the administration of power.

The essence of politics is the issue of collective emancipation.

We are quite close to the understanding of political by Jaek Rancier -

I’d like to quote one of his short but very important statements:

…Political action consists in showing as political

what was viewed as ’social’, ‘economic’, or ‘domestic’.

It consists in blurring the boundaries.

It is what happens whenever ‘domestic’ agents – workers or women,

for instance- reconfigure their quarrel

as a quarrel concerning the common, that is, concerning what place belongs or does not belong to it  and who is able or unable to make enunciations and demonstrations about the common.

It should be clear therefore that there is politics

when there is a disagreement about what is politics,

when the boundary separating the political from the social or the public

from the domestic is put into question.

This is why Politics generally occurs ‘out of place’,

in a place which was not supposed to be political. ++++(end of the quote)

Continuing this logic for us is very important to find a new spaces

for political activity in our local situation and try to bridge it

with similar attempts that happens all over the globe.

And nowdays it looks like that art field can be such a place

where diferent enunciation and quareel what is political could happpened.

But it happens through the quareel on what is art and what it must be?


Here I would like to show you one of our video piece

“Angry Sandwich People or In Praise of Dialectics”

that emerged from an inner group discussion on

how it might be possible to make an artistic statement in memory of

the one century anniversary of the first Russian revolution of 1905.

In this piece, we decided to try to imagine protest in form

of theatrical happening in urban space.

This action was carried out in close collaboration with two local activist groups, namely “Worker’s Democracy” and “The Pyotr Alexeev Resistance Movement.” And one kids theater group. In fact, these activists have a great deal of experience in street politics; they participate in demonstrations of protests and picket-lines, and hand out flyers.

As such, they have retained that basic form of grass-roots political culture that has an entire aesthetic of its own.

Together, we defined the goal of the piece. Here, we wanted to visualize “In Praise of Dialectics”, one of Bertold Brecht’s most striking poems

The site of this visualization would be Stachek Square, from where the striking workers of 1905 marched on the Winter Palace (stachka means “strike” in Russian).

We decided to bring Brecht’s poem out into this urban space line for line,

carried by so called “engaged” sandwich people.

Bertold Brecht’s body of work was a such an important point of reference

because it contains such a broad variety of aesthetic methods to answer the call of the concrete historical situation. In Brecht’s work, there is a clear understanding of how dialectical mechanisms are always at work in creativity, describing reality as a process of constant change that arises as a result of the conflicts and contradictions that makes the transformation of society possible.

In our piece, we tried to visualise how this dialectic might work in a simple choreographic structure. Silently reconfiguring their body-signs to the soundtrack of passing cars, these sandwich people demonstrate the potential of new representational constellations between protesting singularities from a broad variety of backgrounds and age groups – pensioners, activists, children – thrown into a dialectic of constant change.


and after these Perestroyka ——

Now I would like to say more about our newspaper project that for me is most interesting example of researching the possibilities of creating a non-alienated means of production.

I think the newspaper is very important not just for theoreticians

but for the visual artists as well

Because it allows them directly participate in some broader production of

what we might call “knowledge”

Another rather important task of our group is

trying to test in how far printed media

that address questions of politics, philosophy and aesthetics

can be independent and survive.

What does it mean to be independent in a global market situation?

My answer would be rather polemical -

First of all, independence means to recognize in how far you are dependent,

to accept and radicalize the precarious conditions of labor;

and here I would even talk about the idea of radical poverty.

To be consciously “poor” means

to keep from engaging in bigger and bigger medial strategies.

This has to be a conscious decision -

not to accept the basic rules of the market  and sponsorships,

But try to break these rules and establish another mode of production.

In this sense, we could talk about medial subversion,

As a form of tactical anarchism

That pursue a Marxian goal.

When we project these on our publication

then I would mention the following rules:

- construct publication on the basic principles of DIY culture

- Don’t publish ANY sponsors advertisement in your publication

Don’t build any permanent partner relations

with established institutions and state authorities

- Do as many things as possible illegally

- Keep your inner temporality

These preconditions of production are not abstract recommendations -

I am sure that they shape the content of publication activity.

We have already published about 21 issues  -

The newspaper reflects the heterogeneity of our group:

For the members of our collective

The cross-disciplinary encounters are neither articulation

Of personal positions, nor academic exercises,

BUT a non-alienated means of getting together

That demands some important changes in the relations of production

And claims political impact of micro-political interventions.

Each issue of the newspaper is an experiment

That draws the editorial group

Into a heated editorial process,

where nothing is fixed from title till content -

everything is determined by the process of collective learning

Which results in theoretical essays, art projects, open-sourse translations, questionnaires, dialogues, comic-strips etc.

And everyone can becomes an editor, transcriber, artist, translator, writer…

In this sense, we could speak of lifting the division of labor

in order to fight the alienation

that usually accompanies the making of any publications.

By engaging in a collective, highly politicized editorial process,

we often find ourselves articulating (and revising) our own political positions,

reading broadly and inspiring one another,

so that we could talk about the issue of mutual self-education as well.

On the whole, its format could be described as something between

A newspaper and a fanzine.

It is a zine in a traditional sense of the word -

Because our goal is to reclaim the voice of our community

and to speak our affinity groups – make it bigger and better -

the enlightening role of the publication is very important for us.

But it is at the same time a critical journal

because we escape self-indulgent position

and trying to confront the dialogue inside our group

with a broad spectrum of contributors

With those who are interested and challenged by our activity

Those who wish to demonstrate solidarity with us.

Also for local Russian situation such type of publication

is also a provocation gesture

- that claim its own truth and undermine the mainstream of cultural production.

It is also important that we are balancing between local and international context.

I would say that we are trying to approach

a kind of universal and actual topics

but through local optic, history and situation.

It is not easy – and the task of our publication is also about translation -

How to translate local context into international one and back…

The newspaper is published on an irregular basis

and usually in connection with specific events.

It is distributed at high-level international congresses or exhibitions,

but at the same time you can find it

at anarchist’s squats, social forums and universities

where it reaches a broader spectrum of engaged public.

As an artwork or as an intervention

The newspaper is a tactical medium, a trigger

that pushes the reader to perceive and partake of a space

that is on periphery of the dominant order of exchange.

And again – this tactical trigger is aimed at strategic goal

Namely to extend this space

As an experience-base for solidarity

addressing different communities and persons.


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Deschooling Classroom

Deschooling Classroom is a project that addresses the contemporary independent cultural scenes in the region, researching and offering an alternative to the hierarchical models of education in the art and culture. Methodologically, the project moves away from the concepts of individual authorship and expertise, and advocates open collective educational structures where self-organised communities facilitate horizontal production, exchange and distribution of knowledge.