Carbon Club: On Russian Video Art

February 20, 2004 Reithalle Munich

During the “Days of Russian Culture,” the Reithalle offered not only a broad variety of insights into the world of contemporary Russian theatre but also a little glimpse into recent Russian film productions.

Although I am presenting the movie shorts by Alexandr Shaburov and Viatsheslav Mizin that were shown in the Reithalle as a movie event, it is hard to decide whether they should be actually considered as such, or whether the categories video art or even video fun art or even anarchistic…video…punk…fun…art would suit the work of the artists also known as the “Bluenoses” better.

In the web you will find every given label for the artist duo, but let’s not start with a definition problem.

The very existence of something like video art in Russia is a relatively young and decidedly post-soviet phenomenon

It first saw the light of the day — or to be more exact, it was first seen by a larger than kitchen-sized audience — at the same time as Kabakov, Bulatov, and Komar & Melamid were also gaining public attention and political acceptance, that is in Gorbachev’s perestroika era.

Together with the now well established “official underground” represented by artists such as Sergey Shutov, Vladimir Mogilevsky, Kirill Preobrazhensky, and Aleksey Isaev a new generation of video artists has emerged from their hiding places.

First experiments with video 8 cameras date back to the late 80s, when western video art started to cross the borders of the Soviet Union, which at that period became less resistant not only to the formerly viciously denounced “degenerate, imperialistic” forms of art, but also to the technical devices necessary to produce first Russian works of video art.

It still took a while until public and institutional acceptance could be achieved. It was not before the mid-nineties that first exhibitions took place and video experiments were officially recognized as a form of art.(Cf. Balagan. Zeitschrift für slavisches Theater, Drama und Kino. Vol. I, 1 and 2, 1995. (Several articles about Russian Parallel Cinema and video art).)

That makes Russian video art a good 25 years younger than its Western counterpart which saw its high time already in the sixties.

Viacheslav Mizin, Alexander Shaburov, and Konstantin Skotnikov, 'New Fools' (1999). Courtesy Guelman Gallery, Mizin, Aleaxader Shaburov, and Oleg Kulik, 'Death in Venice' (2003).

By looking at the recent Russian scene it is clear that while Western-European and American video art is well on its “march through the institutions” and thereby slowly but surely collecting dust in the world’s most renowned MOMAs, Russian artists are still celebrating their first birthdays, breathing the mere joy of their existence with all the anarchistic and adolescent vigor.

The video art import we get from the East lately is certainly not devoid of exhibitionism and other embarrassing passions the Western scene has outgrown, but it seems more energetic and apt to change and transformation than its Western elder.

Alexander Shaburov (Ekatarinenburg) and Viatsheslav Mizin (Novosobirsk) have earned themselves the title of honor “Jesters Number One” in Russian video art.

The Reithalle featured the first screening of The Adventures of Carbonman, the latest production of the artist duo.

Along with this first run Mizin and Shaburov, who personally attended the event, presented a number of earlier works, some of which had been made in cooperation with Dmitrij Bulnygin, and Konstantin Skotnikov from Novosibirsk, such as From Siberia With Love, an anthology of video works from 1999-2003.

The group, founded in 1999, is also known as The Blue Noses. You might actually remember Mizin and Shaburov by this name from the Absolut Vodka advertisement, starring the two of them with blue plastic screw caps as clown’s noses, enacting slapstick episodes of “Absolut ….Swimmer, Driver, Transformers” and the like.

In fact, the 8 minutes of the Absolut Blue Noses trailer seems like a collage of episodes that did not make it into the advertisement, but the artists had so much fun producing them they simply wanted to share them with a larger audience.

The joy of embodying the cliché of the Russian drunk adorned with oversized fur caps for a Finish Vodka brand is obvious, the intended crudeness of the performance matches their credo “Even a bear should be able to understand our art.”

What is also felt is the intensity and grotesque physicality of setting in scene slap stick clown comedy from the beginning of the 21st century.

Without an effort, the artists seem to bridge the aesthetics of the latest development in advertisement clips and movie trailers to the early days of cinema.

The minimalist low budget approach, the hybridity and openness to experiment the movie short as a genre, and the stylistic freedom in the gray area between commercial clips and artistic video performances, offer the possibility for such carnivalesque escapades between high brow conceptual art and the popular circus of the commercial prankster.

The very distance of commerce and independence from institutionalization that used to characterize low budget videos as a form of art has been discovered by the advertisement industry, which paradoxically now poses as the main sponsor of “independent, noncommercial, unorthodox” artists.

The Adventures of Carbonman, Mizin’s and Shaburov’s latest production has an advertising background, too: it is sponsored by the German firms Future-Carbon and Articolo, a petrochemical cooperation and an interior design company.

The movie short is 15 minutes long, and constitutes basically a one man show starring Shaburov himself as carbonman.

First he undergoes a metamorphosis from his former self to his new carbonic state, that is, he changes color from flesh to silver, and then goes on to produce a carbon dog, a carbon wife, and so on under the vivid applause of his fans who scream almost frantically “We love carbonman!”

In most shots, all you see is the artist, or rather his upper half, sitting on a table in front of greasy, typically Russian wallpaper and magically transforming everything into carbon. The subtitles “before” and “after” indicate the metamorphosis or announce the coming of “carbondog”, “carbonbeetle” and the entire “carbonfamily”.

Even though sound occurs and occasionally also spoken language, mostly Russian, the film relies heavily on the written word, either in the form of subtitles and captions —another retrospection to early cinema like the slap stick elements—or as cut out “speech bubbles” simply stuck into the picture producing a real-life comic strip effect.

Sometimes the letters are presented one after the other in a quick montage of images, for examples pictures of women cut out from fashion magazines with bubbles spelling “W, E L, O, V, E C, A, R, B, O, N, M, A, N!”

The hectic cuts, rapidly changing pictures, and bits of cartoons are reminiscent of music videos, even though the soundtrack is rather simplistic, reduced to a few beep sounding like in an old computer game.

On the one hand, this technique has a comic effect as it leads to the estrangement of the image since the pictures are interrupted by written words in subtitles, or even invaded by cartoon “speech”.

On the other hand it places the film as a medium in relation to other forms of art like the comic strip, the music video, or the commercial ad. With its reference to silent film it also makes aware of the history of cinema from its beginnings until now.

The cuts from images in advertisement aesthetics to short sequences of television news showing the Central Committee of the Communist Party indicate the artists’ wish to make the audience aware of the similarity in the imagery used in Communist propaganda and the mental channeling and equalizing of commercial ads.

Carbon as a “revolutionary” product with utopian prospects is presented in Carbonman as the “stuff” that is going to change the world. The parallels to the celebration of industrialization and the almost religious belief in natural science of the Stalin era are obvious.

Mizin and Shaburov do not simply conflate capitalism and communism, but try to show that the mechanics of manipulation in global advertising do not seem very different from Communist propaganda to ex-Soviet eyes.

In 2003 they had already addressed the theme of globalization in 25 Short Performances About Globalization, in which they ridicule the common, political opportune equation of international terrorism with Bin Laden’s face as a kind of logo, and the Russian trouble with Chechenian rebels.

Exams to Join the Russian Mafia 1-3 pokes fun at the latest cinematic obsession with still another kind of troublemaker: Russian mafiosi have become the favorite bad guysin recent Hollywood and European film productions.

Given the cynical mass media criticism that holds the loose episodes together, it does not surprise that the brainwashing mechanism is operated by means of two TV sets between which Shaburov’s head is wedged: a firing tape runs through the screens, seemingly crosses the brain of the examined, and blows off in a small explosion at the end of the line.

Working with subtitles and other forms of written language is only one way the artists deals with the question of materiality in the media; they introduce into their work the TV as an object, which is carried and turned around, pushed over, made to explode, and, to say the least, used as a container for bodily excrements.

The action that is taken on the television as an object reflects visually on the TV screen as mediator of images. This game of film as a medium and the TV or film projector as both a means of transmission and as an object is a common technique in video installations but rarely finds its way into film itself.

In another episode under the title Sex Art 1 and 2, an almost naked woman poses as Goya’s Maya and Botticelli’s Aphrodite in a Russian communal kitchen stuffed with dirty dishes, which she carelessly whips off the table every time she starts a new performance.

These are just a few examples for the eclecticism and playfulness with which Shaburov and Mizin address the question of the media in their materiality on one hand and as forms of art on the other.

Interestingly, these meta-fictional techniques are always closely tied to a representation of the grotesque body or even carnevalesque bodily action in the Bakhtinian sense of digestion and secretion, provocative foolishness and openly sexual allusions.

The pleasure lies in showing formerly forbidden assaults on refined taste and sabotaging the moralistic cliché in the necessity of the fine arts to be useful and of didactical value.

It is surely correct to point out that Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers are not the only source on which this kind of grotesque physical humor relies; the designation “jester” already points in that direction.

Russia, though “jesters” lacked the refined ritualized dynasty of the French Court in the middle ages, even the kind of people’s cult(ure) Bakhtin describes in his dissertation on Rabelais(Bakhtin, Mikhail. Tvorcestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaja kul’tura srednevekov’ja i Renessansa.) is borrowed from France if it ever existed there and only worked retrospectively, not always correctly into Russian cultural history.

Of course “jester” has its very own tradition of clownery and its very own fools: the high art of foolishness can be traced back to the Skomorokhs, jesters at the tsar’s court.

The underlying principle of grotesque humor and carnivalesque works of art is always similar: to repeat the trick of magically transforming the base obscene into art, just like the human flesh of Shaburov is transformed into shiny carbon in The Adventures of Carbonman.

The frequent explosions tie in nicely with this joyful anarchistic approach to film.

It is the pleasure of letting all these magical things happen that Mizin and Shaburov celebrate that brings back the childlike fascination of the early days of cinema when it was still a wonder that those pictures actually moved and every little trick, and a minor explosion was followed by the gasps of awe from a stunned audience.

The art of Mizin and Shaburov has its distinct “Russianness,” its communal kitchen smell. But it also draws heavily on internationalism, globalization, and Western pop culture icons; it wants to be understood and consumed in the west. In some moments it isdifficult to understand and need to relax. Here you can download popular game a Shadow Fight 2 and hack it.

Like all Russian export goods their work wants to gain ground on the international market.

Mizin and Shaburov have been to the 50th Venice Biennale, have visited Zurich and the Fotobiennale in London as representatives of Russian art, and have gone on various European tours where they participated in all kinds of festivals, from Montenegro via Cannes, to Helsinki.

They regularly tour Germany, mainly Berlin, but by now also Hamburg and Munich. After all, it is still in the West that art, be it as noncommercial as it may, sells better.

In another clip, “If I were Harry Potter,” Shaburov is portrayed as the popular child magician grown up.

With his magic stick and his favorite beep sound he goes about eradicating all the social problems Russia such as, “alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution, and social inequality … in just a second”. Only “How to Make All People Happy in Just a Second” fails: the subtitle states, “Sorry, it didn’t come off!,” and after the second try, “It failed again!”.

Maybe to make all people happy is just a little too ambitious, but the Shaburov and Mizin made the audience in the Reithalle enjoy themselves for a good two hours, and I would argue that is a lot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.