Being Together Precedes Being: A Textbook for The Kids Who Want Communism

Joshua Simon, ed. Being Together Precedes Being: A Textbook for The Kids Who Want Communism (Archive Books, 2019), 392 pp.

Being Together Precedes Being: A Textbook for The Kids Want Communism is the culmination of a series of exhibitions, symposia, seminars, screenings, interviews, and publications co-organized by iLiana Kokianaki, Vladimir Vidmar, Oleksiy Radynski, Vit Havranek, Patrice Sharkey, Kuba Szreder, and Joshua Simon throughout 2016 and 2017 in response to the 99th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The year-long series of events – hosted by the Museums of Bat Yam (MoBY), Bat Yam, Israel; the Visual Culture Research Center, Kyiv; Free/Slow University, Warsaw; Šku Gallery, Ljubljana; Tanzit, Prague; State Concept, Athens; West Space, Melbourne; and Kunstraum Kreuzberg\Bethanien, Berlin – is thematically documented in this volume and reflected upon by the participating artists, filmmakers, curators, theorists, and sociologists who are the book’s contributors. Edited by Simon, former director and chief curator at MoBY who led and provided a central hub for the projects, the so-called textbook serves as a reader for the radical idea of togetherness explored in the project series The Kids Want Communism, from which the book partially takes its name. Inspired by the eponymous slogan from the Socialist German Workers Youth, the present volume probes beyond the crimes and failures of communism to account, instead, for its realized achievements and unrealized potentialities.

This volume joins a smattering of centennial exhibitions, symposia, and publications commemorating the revolutionary events of 1917, yet distinguishes itself by paying tribute to the possibilities of communism. Here, communism is addressed in a two-fold manner throughout the volume, as Simon explains in the foreword: “the meaning of ‘communism’ combined two traditions of thought—a readdress of real-existing socialism, with its achievements and crimes, and a proposition of communism as a horizon that provides a perspective outside the current setting of power and meaning in the world.” (p. 13) Rather than commemorating the past, the book meditates upon what Simon describes as “what almost happened, what did not happen, what could have happened, and what still might happen.” (p. 12) In doing so, Being Together Precedes Being steers away from common areas of focus such as Soviet modernism, Stalinist propaganda, and the everyday realities of communist society. Instead, it gathers a diverse set of texts and projects that together reflect on the socialist past while also imagining a future wholly or in part communist through the work of artists who experienced life during socialist and post-socialist times.

The textbook, which belies its compact size, is organized into six thematic chapters, each consisting of introductory essays, descriptions of artworks, reprints, and original texts as well as illustrations documenting exhibitions and installations. Chapter One, Communist Horizon, a concept drawn from philosopher Jodi Dean, opens optimistically with the notion of the horizon as a source of orientation, direction, and transcendence. Or, in Simon’s words, “…the communist horizon allows for both the projection of a future leap and a re-evaluation of present and past.” (p. 37) While at first blush, readers might be weary of embracing the glistening potentialities of communism when confronted with its catastrophic pitfalls, Simon points to Frederic Jameson’s observation that the Soviet Union produced not only human disaster but also human advancement. In his comparison of communism with classical antiquity, Jameson writes, “And if it is objected that it would be an abomination to glamorize an era that included Stalinist execution and the starvation of millions of peasants, a reminder of the bloodiness of Greek history might also be in order—the eternal shame of Megara, let alone the no less abominable miseries of slave society as such.”(pp. 37–38)(The original quote appears in Frederic Jameson, “Marx and Montage,” New Left Review 58 (July-August 2009), p. 117.) Building upon Jameson’s argument, Simon urges readers to view the communist past as one would view the classical past with both civilizations carrying as much innovation as destruction, as much success as failure, as much utopia as dystopia.

Under this horizon, the chapter explores several wide-ranging artistic projects that were on view during one of the exhibitions delving into communism’s broad reach that stretches from Soviet Russia to interwar Greece. German artist Nicole Wermers’ 2016 hermetically sealed, modular vitrine encasing over a dozen volumes of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia stands as both a relic of seemingly irrelevant facts and a trove of information about socialist life. Paintings by Soviet artists from the collective The New Barbizon Group cast a sentimental gaze upon the past through images that depict the labyrinthine metro system, waiting lines, and failed coups shown alongside the artists’ childhood drawings. The role of communism in Greece might come as a surprise to some readers, but Greek artist iLiana Fokianaki observes that communism played a pivotal role in the formation of the modern Greek state after the Nazi occupation. The French surrealist writer Paul Éluard’s 1944 “An Homage to the Heroic Resistance of this Great People,” reprinted in the volume, romanticizes not the golden era of ancient Greek civilization but the “royal people” of the Greek resistance. (p. 68) Artists Antonis Pittas and Yota Ioannidou revisit the Nazi occupation and the Civil War in Greece and other countries in the throes of war in their installations, both from 2016 and documented here. Konstantinos Kotsis hypothesizes the art and politics of the imagined Greek Soviet Socialist Republic and Vangelis Vlahos speculates upon the future of Greece’s economy in images derived from photographs of a Greek finance minister holding a handwritten note at a Eurogroup meeting. Another project is the Israeli artist Tamar Nissim’s film I am Simha Sabari (2016), which tells the life story of a Jewish Yemenite communist active in the party’s leadership before 1948.

If the first chapter casts a nostalgic gaze over the simmering horizon of life under communism, then Chapter Two, Real Existing Capitalism, confronts the cyclical nature of history. Drawing upon a range of movements and recent political events (including Occupy Wall Street, the 2016 US Presidential Election, and Brexit), this chapter looks at history not as linear progress but as cyclical repetition in both socialist and capitalist societies. Simon describes the cycle, or a kind of repetition compulsion, as “history repeat[ing] itself as its own negation, not as a solution but as a problem.” (p. 130) Oleksiy Radynski’s reprinted essay “The Great Accelerator” (2017) demonstrates the repetitive looping of the life’s work of cyberneticist Viktor Glushkov who sought to create a “soviet internet.” The unrealized project was originally engineered to program and manage the socialist economy; instead, its technology was repurposed to create a pipeline project known as Druzhba (or Friendship), responsible for bringing Siberian oil to allied countries in Eastern and Central Europe. While the “soviet internet” was intended to form an information pipeline to the masses, the gas pipeline not only brought oil but also impending ecological disaster, economic inequity, and the reawakening of nationalist politics. The cybernetic network of information circulation, Radynski observes, was alternatively realized as fossil fuel circulation.

In the vein of this repetitive looping, Israeli artist Jonathan Gold monumentalizes the ubiquitous waiting line of the Soviet era in the mural format usually devoted to heroic subject matter in his untitled painting from 2016­–17. Israeli artist Ra’anan Harlap’s 2016 installation presents an inverted public housing apartment, turning the divisions of interior and exterior, public and private inside out. And in Rue Je an D’Ardenne 50 (2010), German conceptual artist Olaf Nicolai revisits the Brussels apartment where Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party only to find a yoga studio, inspiring his installation of a double-sided booklet that includes the manifesto side-by-side with sun salutation poses.

Building upon the widening gap between the ways in which technology aids and ails people, Chapter Three, Shock Work, examines labor and societal relations in the larger economy from the information age to the social media age. The relationship between user and technology, according to Simon, has transformed into an indentured dynamic. Simon observes, “[the] assembly line runs through us now, and labor has expanded from production to consumption.” (p. 170) The Fordist assembly line that overtakes Charlie Chaplin’s character in Modern Times, for instance, might provide a fitting illustration to the ways in which the production line has uncannily morphed into the consumer. The push and pull of staying connected has created a new lexicon for describing the effects of technology (e.g. ghosting) that shrinks private and social, work and leisure, online and offline. It also creates a never-ending feed or, as Simon puts it, the “circulation of subjectivities” rather than the “production of goods.” (p. 171)

A rectifying cure to the shock work of capitalism’s exhausted subjects can be found in several unrealized Soviet projects documented here. Aleksandr Rodchenko’s 1925 Constructivist design for a Worker’s Club, a highly functioning leisure center for the laborer, sought to position objects in service of the worker to form a relationship based on comradery.(Christina Kiaer has called such a reimagined relationship as “object-as-comrade.” See Christina Kiaer, Imagine in Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2005).) Tony Wood’s reprinted essay “Bodies at Rest” (2006–07) further examines an unrealized building project designed for the Soviet worker known as the Sonata of Sleep (1929-30) by the architect Konstantin Melnikov. As the Soviet Union’s solution to the overworked, exhausted factory worker, Melnikov’s design consisted of dormitories built for optimal sleeping conditions that included regulating temperature and air pressure and simulating sounds and smells to lull workers into a recuperative sleep. In the spirit of Rodchenko and Melnikov, several contemporary artists imagine a society that supports its art workers, such as in the German artist Diego Castro’s Monument for the Art Workers (2017), which includes Constructivist style posters glorifying the artist. Israeli artist­ Ohad Meromi’s installation Structure for Rest (2016–17), a configuration of modular beds, offers temporary respite for the overstimulated visitor who is encouraged to daydream, and Israeli artist Nir Harel’s Charging Station (also 2016–17), playfully invites visitors to unwind in hammocks and bean bags surrounded by advertisements aimed at the overstimulated consumer that are plastered on the walls. The projects documented in this chapter are closer to the zeitgeist of early Soviet Russia, and thus provide one of the stronger connections to the anniversary events of the Bolshevik Revolution explored throughout the volume.

The psychosocial effects of communism on subjects who experienced life under Soviet and post-Soviet rule is explored in Chapter Four, Post-Soviet Depression. An excerpt from Ian Svenonius’ book The Psychic Soviet (2006), which terms “Post-Soviet Depression,” or PSD, as a condition afflicting society after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, frames the projects in this chapter. Several key works examine the effects of PSD as the result of war, environmental disaster, and displacement through strategies of recovery, remembrance, and repetition. Israeli artist Mati Lahat’s installation Titans (2016–17), for example, brings together Socialist Realist murals salvaged by the artist from the walls of a communal dining hall in a kibbutz from the 1950s with drawn images from the Ukrainian public sculpture titled Monument to Those Who Saved the World dedicated to the volunteers who fought to control the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986. Paintings by Angolan artist Toy Boy (Adalberto Ferreira) from 2014 address the traumatic and displacing effects of the Civil War in Angola, a proxy war involving the Soviet Union, the United States, South Africa, and Cuba, on family life. Lithuanian-born artist Anna Lukashevsky’s painting series Soviet Haifa (2015–16) depicts the daily lives of the Soviet diasporic community in the Middle East, while Russian-born artist Max Epstein contemplates the temporality of leisure in paintings, sculptures, photographs, and drawings centered on bucolic dachas or cottages located in the outskirts of Russia.

Whereas the projects in Chapter Four expand upon traumatic histories from Chernobyl and Angola to migrations in the Middle East and the peripheries of the Soviet Union, Chapter Five expands the possibilities of communism beyond Earth’s borders to outer space. Framed primarily through the lens of Mars, this chapter, entitled Red Star, argues that the red planet has long been positioned as a potential frontier for colonization, conquer, and communization. From Soviet to Hollywood science fiction, the possibility of life on Mars has become a locus of imagination and today we are taught to believe that life on the planet may become a reality. Taking its title from Aleksandr Bogdanov’s 1908 novel, Red Star envisions an alternate social order in space. Simon writes, “Exploring perspectives, constellations, and connections that seem unacceptable under our existing political reality, leads us back to Mars as a site for a totally different social order.” (p. 301) The utopian imaginaries of life on Mars, however, must heed the trap of the continuous loop as explored in Chapter Two. Simon cautions, “Within this mapping, outer space is not external, but part of a system of exploitation whose forces have exhausted planet Earth.” (p. 294) In other words, any spatial entity is subject to the never-ending loop of the unresolved matrix.

This chapter includes a number of projects, texts, and films that consider the future of automation, the fourth dimension, and outer space itself. The essay “Commune Canteen” (2018) by Pelin Tan imagines a revolt led by artificial intelligence farmers. In concert with bees, the robotic farmers learn the ills of beekeeping and exploitative honey extraction, drawing caution to technology that leads to automation rather than human advancement. In his essay “Notes on Past, Present, & Future” (1961), Slovak artist Stano Filko lays out a system for establishing contact with extraterrestrial civilizations in the solar system with goals of creating unity and utopia. Several other artists position Mars as an imaginative locus and destination. For instance, Israeli artist Tal Gafny’s Atidim (2016–17), a fictional video of a teen cosmonaut’s pledge to join the first NASA outer space mission to Mars, dramatizes the dreams of those willing to become space bound. Israeli artist Noa Yafe’s diorama installation The Red Star (also 2016–17) employs illusionistic techniques to present what appear to be photographs and holograms of spacecrafts deployed to Mars but are in actuality created out of glass and water displayed behind double walls with LED lighting. In this trompe-l’œil gesture, Yafe unveils a fiction of both outer space and the installation space itself, probing viewers’ consumption of mediated imagery and escapist fantasies.

The last and most illuminating chapter, Internationale, brings readers down to earth by meditating upon the cross-cultural interactions of the Soviet Bloc, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. This notion of internationalism is explored through the lens of three key film projects. The first, Praxis: This Is Not My World curated by Vladimir Vidar, recounts the importance of the Praxis School in the Yugoslav left’s intellectual history in this presentation of film footage and archival materials taken primarily from the Praxis Journal and the Korcula Summer School. Filmmakers of the World Unite! delves into the legacy of underrecognized directors from Iran, Syria, Sri Lanka, and India who studied at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague in the 1950s and 60s. Like many students from the Middle East and Southeast Asia, these aspiring filmmakers completed their studies in communist countries across the Eastern Bloc. Constituting an alternate history of the Czechoslovak New Wave, the work of Nosratollah Karimi, Nabil Maleh, Piyasiri Gunaratna and Krishma Viswanath offer discussions on cross-cultural interaction and the internationalism of the medium of film. Tereza Stejskalová’s interview with Piyasiri Gunaratna, in particular, brings into relief the filmmaker’s coming-of-age journey from his native Sri Lanka to Czechoslovakia, where he studied film. The third project, Year One: Jewish-Arab Brotherhood, explores the mission of the Arab and Jewish communists to help the Yugoslav socialist state with the construction of a railroad in Sarajevo in 1947. These rarely seen archival photographs and interviews with members of the Jewish and Arab communist party and their expedition to Yugoslavia were presented for the first time in the exhibitions and the accompanying volume. Like many of the projects documented throughout the textbook, the film projects in Internationale are concerned with the global impact and legacy of communism, forming travelogues that narrate the experience of socialism without borders.

This volume packs a wide array of material from the year-long project into a compact and sleekly designed textbook. Overall, the introductory essays for each chapter would benefit from a stronger continuous thread that more directly connects the varied contents such as the reprinted historical texts (for example, Lenin’s 1917 text On Slogans following Svenonius’ excerpt in Chapter Two), contemporary criticism, and the exhibition projects themselves. Furthermore, a better understanding of the curatorial objectives, roles of the collaborators, and the organization of the multi-sited events merits a place in the volume given the ambitious and long-term scale of this project.

The major contribution of Being Together Precedes Being is an understanding of the global reaches and legacies of communism, whether for better or for worse. The book’s interdisciplinary nature will appeal to a variety of readers wanting to learn about the potentialities of communism and the ways in which artists envision aesthetic and social projects in its name. Yet, this begs the question of how such celebratory and revisionist views of communism fare in relation to post-socialist societies such as Ukraine that have passed aggressive decommunization laws? When the word “communism” and its namesakes and statues are shunned and defaced—which Simon briefly alludes to in his essay “The Postman Always Rings Twice: Why Does Post-History Repeat Itself?” in Chapter Two—how then do we reconcile and differentiate the realities from the possibilities of communism? The volume therefore would gain from a more nuanced discussion of the contested legacies of communism as it exists today alongside its nostalgic qualities, forgotten and alternate histories, and unrealized potentialities. Instead, Being Together Precedes Being is more focused on the notion of being together—a conglomeration of beings, like those working under the banner of The Kids Want Communism—on values of community, collectivity, and comradery—an idea certainly worth pursuing.

Mechella Yezernitskaya
Mechella Yezernitskaya is an art historian and curator. She is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art at Bryn Mawr College where she focuses on the wartime visual culture of the Russian and Soviet avant-gardes. She has assisted with exhibitions and publications of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Currently, she is a Brunilde Sismondo Ridgeway Curatorial Fellow in the European Art department at the Brooklyn Museum, where she is researching Central and Eastern European art. Her writing has appeared in Baltic Worlds, Oxford Art Online, the Museum of Modern Art’s research platform on global art known as post, several exhibition catalogs, and is forthcoming in the edited volume Artistic Expressions and the Great War: A Hundred Years On from Peter Lang Publishing.