Cultural Contradictions: On “Tusovka”

Tusovka represents a form of self-organization of the artistic environment that is chronically lacking in state support. It does not occur within the contours of what is commonly called official culture. It came about as the direct result of the breakdown of official culture and its institutions. During its ten-year existence, tusovka has not found its place in the system of institutions that are sanctioned by the state. As a result, it does not want to recognize this system as a possible means of representation.

At the same time, tusovka cannot be considered as belonging to the underground, the typological alternative to official culture. Being alternative became the constitutional principle of the underground, which has, through positioning itself in relation to a larger culture, appropriated its disciplinary principles of consolidation. Also, tusovka is free from all external repression, at a time when the consolidation based on ideological concordance, as well as on the ethics of opposition and “common work” have been exhausted.

Tusovka does not recognize itself in bohemianism either, a phenomenon which first appeared in the 19th century, and which has had its heyday in the sixties art of the West, and in the work of the so-called Left MOSKH in Russia. Bohemianism was the answer of the artistic environment to market pressure and a rigid social order, at a time when the artistic elite organized its internal, symbolic market in opposition to the commercial one. Tusovka, on the contrary, is hypothetically open to the market and the social order, and it exists in the constant expectation of buyers and patrons.

A distinctive characteristic trait of tusovka is its bringing together of a number of people that are otherwise not organised in concrete structures – whether institutional or ideological – but only through the prospect of their gain. Tusovka considers itself as pure potentiality; it is an artistic social project.

Tusovka as a Serial Association

Tusovka originated as the spontaneous and free decision of some individuals to get together. Nobody forced them, or persuaded them for that matter, and no institution or power instigated it. tusovka developed as a meeting. What is more, since it has not been generated by institutional or governmental inducement, tusovka has remained on a rudimentary level of human society. Meeting is substantial to tusovka, i.e. it exists only as a result of meetings, thus becoming a type of serial community. (F. Alberoni)

Built on the ruins of institutional culture, tusovka has appeared as a free and open space where people can meet, free from any obligations to the past, but with open perspectives. tusovka is sympathetic towards the potentiality of those who meet and indifferent to their past. Thus it unites as equals those who have a Ph.D. in art history and computer specialists, heroes of the underground and ex-officials. tusovka is post-historic, because it denies tradition.

Owing to the fact that the meetings in tusovka lack all kind of institutional or ideological mediation, they are rooted only in the sphere of the interpersonal, that is, face-to-face relations (E. Goffman). Since its meetings originated as nothing more than social relations, a principle of involvement is crucial to tusovka: The association is unprecedented in its openness and democracy. It is not necessary to possess specific virtues or characteristics, social or professional status, in order to enter tusovka. This is not a gathering of the nobles, an academy of the immortals, or a Mafia. In order to be a part of tusovka, one only has to be there. It is all about being in the right place at the right time, in the place where tusovka happens. The most succssful tusovka participant is the one who manages to visit as many meetings in as short a time as possible. Thus, tusovka is syndromatic of the disintegration of disciplinary culture and social hierarchy.

Originally conceived as a substitute for disintegrating corporations, tusovka is also an utterly personalized type of association. Independent of institutions, it replaces them with personalized surrogates. tusovka does not know real periodicals, but it has a journalist, it does not publish art criticism, but there is a critic, there are no exhibition structures, but a curator, no reflectivity, but a philosopher, no state support, but it has its own chancellor. Such symbolic surrogates have an exclusively performative status, as they lack all evidence of production. The journalist does not need to confirm his status through regular periodical publishing, it is sufficient for him to simply collect material in his editorial portfolio; likewise, the curator is not obliged to organize exhibitions in order to confirm his status, and the only thing required of the chancellor is to show up at every exhibition opening with a glass in his hand. tusovka does not demand activity, it only demands meetings. Hence, tusovka is a post-productive and purely simulative community.

It also represents a post-rational type of social links, as it is rooted in visual intentionality. tusovka is aware only of what it sees, and it forgets as soon as the object is out of sight. The association lacks moral imperatives and obligatory rituals, it does not know opposition or treason, it can’t be deconstructed or shocked. It can only be ignored by avoiding meetings. However, if returning after a long break, one almost inevitably feels at home in the association again, for in all likelihood nobody has noticed one’s absence.

Finally, tusovka is a rudimentary form of market relations, substituting a non-existent art market and an institutionalized symbolic order for real economic relations. The leader of a tusovka-meeting improvises a market exchange by offering himself as a symbolic value (himself as a pure potentiality), by finding out the needs of the market, and by controlling the prices, demands and offers. In case of a successful bargain, he makes a profit which consists of nothing but an invitation to take part in future tusovka activities. tusovka capital guarantees only one thing: the intensification of meetings, which is at the same time an intensification of tusovka itself.


The Structure of Tusovka


The structure of tusovka is very different from the severe disciplinary culture, insofar as its internal laws can be sought only in the laws of reproduction of meetings. As this association involves neither an ideological solidarity, nor a production cycle, its structural stability is primarily based on a purely psychological level: people meet each other because they want to be together. Through mutual efforts they create a special kind of atmosphere, which is dear and necessary to them. tusovka is founded on something that in sociology is usually called reliance – mutual trust, agreement. (M. Maffesoli).

However, what differentiates tusovka from the majority of this kind of “emotional associations” (G. Lipovetsky) is that it does not exhaust itself by trying to construct the present, but represents pure potentiality. tusovka is an artistic social project, an association, a belief that in time it will be recognized by the powerful, and will get to take part in monetary affairs. After all, the general atmosphere of reliance that surrounds tusovka, is (if not for all, so for many) an atmosphere of expectation, as they count on the fact that being in a certain place at a certain time will eventually be rewarded.

Yet tusovka, being a primarily personalized association, does not have, and cannot have, a common project, for else it would turn inot an association that is structured not by reliance, but by disciplinary norms, plus the ideology that so often accompanies a “common cause.” The project quality of tusovka manifests itself through concrete individuals who possess the necessary social temper and utopian imagination.

The qualities required of leaders of such associations are different from the qualities necessary for a cultural bureaucrat, an underground intellectual or a bohemian leader. The bureaucrat offers access to resources, the bohemian leader is inspired by ideals of artistic freedom, and the underground intellectual adheres to the values of “true knowledge,” but the leader of tusovka reproduces its expectations. He not only constructs the present, but he also motivates the community with the prospect of positive developments, an attitude which is consolidated by his always being ready for permanent breaches. Thus the participation in an international exhibition does not merely represent an interesting project, but it also symbolizes the conquest of the West, just as the work on political elections is not only easy money, but also the conquest of the political establishment, and so forth.

Due to its lack of a rigid symbolic order, the projects of tusovka do not have any external justification, they impose no canonical norms and no system of values onto the organization’s members, and there is no intellectual industry to join. The origin of these projects is the troubled imagination of their authors. This is why all the projects that develop in tusovka inspire euphoria –they thrive on personal obsession.

At the same time, this unstructured structure may also create a paradox for possible participants of these projects. On the one hand, an artist invited to participate in such a project generally avoids a complete connection with it, for that would signify invading somebody else’s personality, being enslaved by somebody else’s obsession. On the other hand, the lack of symbolic order does not leave him/her enough space to stay aloof: keeping a personal distance from one obsessive project is possible only in the form of some other obsessive project. A unique solution to such a dilemma is to participate in as many projects as possible.

The second constituent of tusovka, apart from the leader, is made up by its project participants. If leadership over this association is achieved by an increasing banishment of euphoria and obsession, then the effectiveness of its participants is achieved by individual flexibility and an openness towards the different. For the members of tusovka, success is determined by the intensity and originality of their manipulations of others’ identities. A successful tusovka member is one who shows an ever greater ability to internalize somebody else’s obssession, who manages to unify the different and the contradictory. As such, the functioning of tusovka is based on nothing but personalized production and the redistribution of obsession.

Contrary to hierarchical and disciplinary types of associations, tusovka is a net community based on the centers of energy and the chaotic currents in between. The artistic epoch which was initiated at the same time as tusovka knows neither artistic directions nor schools, neither charismatic authorities nor geniuses, it lacks a general system of values and conventional ethics. There is nothing more archaic or worn out for tusovka than public opinion, which is one of the reasons why this association is the most visible symptom of post-ideological culture.


The Dynamics of Tusovka


Tusovka‘s increased dynamics command attention. If the official culture, bohemianism, and the underground are but results of a stable society, then tusovka is a symptom characteristic of a society caught in the dynamics of transformation. Therefore not only the structure, but also the social dynamics of tusovka are a direct reaction to the crisis of a symbolic order. It can be said that tusovka, which was born out of this crisis, was doomed to transfer any project into a project of the new symbolic order. Being in a state of constant expansion is most natural for tusovka.

Thus, tusovka ignores the difference between the partial and the whole that is crucial to any formed culture: a project connected to something concrete,that is, a concrete part, is at the same time always a project of the whole. For this reason any commercial gallery is also in part a museum, a publishing company, a magazine etc. When a non-commercial center is established, it strives to simultaneously give birth to a magazine, a museum, an art restaurant, and a workshop for the production of hand-painted teacups.

Tusovka ‘experts’ feel discomfort within rigidly set corporate boundaries, and they have an urge to disrupt the stability of identities. The gallery owner attempts to become a curator, a theorist, an ideologue, a politician, an image-maker. The newspaper critic wants to be a theorist, and a philosopher and a curator. The philosopher wants to be an artist, and a writer, an academic authority and a pop star. Commercial elements in tusovka aim at the non-commercial, and ascetics are celebrating bestseller sales. tusovka breaks down the boundaries of professional associations and conquers zones which used to be outside the borders of art competence: participants of artistic associations are starting to function in the sphere of architecture, design, show business, politics, new technologies etc.

The institutional and symbolic vacuum in which tusovka finds itself has stripped it of all feeling for proportion: it aims towards a surplus. If there is a periodical art project, it must be at least a “Moscow Biennale;” the only art institution considered good enough would be a future Centre Pompidou, and its magazine aspires to become the Russian version of “Flash Art.” Likewise, all initiative is necessarily aimed at a permanent-quantitative inflation, instead of an internal articulation of values. Any exposition project that is planned needs, in the mind of its organizers, to achieve a record number of 50, 100, 150, or even 1000 exhibitions. In much the same way, a gallery owner will define his own competence in terms of a geometrically increasing quantity of artists, just as a radical leader wants to be able to name a constantly increasing number of followers.

In addition to reducing the quality of final results, phantasmagoria and vain initiatives further exalt the dynamics of instability in tusovka. The non-realization or failure of a project can, in the minds of tusovka members, only be accounted and compensated for by means of another project, which will be even more megalomaniac and fantastic.

The instability of tusovka is granted by its inevitable internal confrontations. Since any effort put into a project necessarily appropriates the form of the association’s new symbolic order, the discurse between such projects cannot avoid a form of mutual conflict. When an art center is established, it is supposed to replace another –already existing– one. Therefore, if two philosophers are present in a tusovka meeting, one of them is bound to be the genuine one, while the other is thought spurious; of two curates, one always embodies a personality, the other a rascal; there can only be a few galleries, while all others have no right to exist.

This expansion that is characteristic to tusovka, together with its internal confrontation determines its functional difference from other art associations. For official culture, bohemianism, and the underground, an external, not internal, confrontation formed the system: the opposite of amateurism was represented by official culture, the opposite of official culture was the underground. Opposition to the external marked the boundaries of these associations, making not only expansion, but also internal articulation more significant. Official culture, bohemianism and the avant-garde equally kept their corporate wholeness. tusovka, by contrast, is a post-corporate type of an artistic association.


The Discourse of Tusovka


The discourse of tusovka is a direct result of the crisis of disciplinary culture. The main characteristic of that discourse is its incapability for self-analysis. tusovka cannot see itself objectively, that is, from the outside, because it is not self-reflective.

None of the members of this association are capable of distancing themselves from it. To tusovka, its symbolic order is the origin of all meaning, a pre-requisite for all possible expressions. In this symbolic order, self-realization is fraught with termination and disintegration. Therefore, speaking out for the symbolic order strips the leader of tusovka of the necessity to reveal the motivations behind his statements, to argue for his position, to produce proofs. The truth-value of his words is taken for granted from the very moment they are uttered. For the tusovka-leader, it is sufficient to e.g. announce that, after New York and Berlin, Moscow is the third capital of contemporary culture in order to make it precisely that, not only in the opinion of the speaker, but also in the mind of the artistic community.

The discourse of the participants of tusovka can never wholly encompass the association – a real member of tusovka is a compound of other identities. He is unable to objectively see his surroundings, because his attention is directed at concrete personalities of tusovka. Any member’s discourse, therefore, is doomed to revolve around those personalities, comparing them, reproducing their opinions, evaluating their strong and weak points and so forth. He is also not capable of exposing the structural laws which these personalities share, to assign any kind of value to them that is not connected to tusovka. tusovka cannot be talked about without specifically mentioning its members, including all their weaknesses and vices, because tusovka “speaks the language of emotions” (A. Brener).

Similarly, writing about tusovka cannot deny the concrete fact or event, it cannot do without some general prerequisites of discourse, it can always only be an answer and a reaction. In other words, writing becomes a part of a personalised interactive symbolic exchange, incapable of deserting its territory. This is why during the ten years of its existence, tusovka has never published a book, but only a few articles in newspapers and journals, so few that they could easily be collected in a single volume.

At the same time, the discourse of tusovka is a product of its serial character, a result of its being rooted in personal relations and meetings only. Writing is, therefore, secondary to the spoken word. The legends and myths of tusovka dominate the concrete phenomena, and its reputation has privilege over individual interests and concrete work results. For example, a writing by tusovka, e.g. describing the work of an artist or the position of a curator, will in all likelihood ignore the latters’ manifestos, theoretical texts, concepts and published interviews. The artists of that association also do not keep order by systematic filing, or publishing catalogues, because tusovka looks down on the institutionalization of biography.

The communication within tusovka differs greatly from the communication in other types of artistic associations. Here, a text or a speech on an artistic event does not only attempt to put that event into an existing perspective of meaning, to give it direction and justification, but also to grasp, and convert, its euphoric energy. Action, in other words, does not result in reflection, but in a new action – this time a textual action, which tends to be even more euphoric and conflicting. Another, no less symptomatic type of writing may serve as a counterpoint to that, namely a strictly self-sufficient type of text which is directed towards internal articulation. In that case, an art object triggers not only reflection, but also another textual object. Even though the text strives to reach a level of communication transparency and availability, it in the end nevertheless collides with the lack of generally developed terminology and methodological instructions, wherefore it can only be anchored within the personal I of the author. As a result, the partially personalized character of tusovka‘s expressions forces it continually to invoke the authorial ego through rhetorical figures such as “I believe,” “in my estimation,” etc. There is nothing more alien to tusovka than the concept of the Other.

The Poetics of Tusovka

The founder of sociology, Emile Durkheim, concluded that social facts can be viewed as objects, while tusovka concludes that all objects (including works of art) are nothing but a social phenomenon. The poetics of tusovka itself are but a direct result of the dynamics of meetings, tusovka being social in character.

Meeting constitutes an important element in any association; for official culture, a meeting is an ideological ritual; for bohemianism, it is a familiarization with the beautiful; for the underground, it means getting closer to the truth. However, in all of these associations, meeting is sanctioned by something external to it; its background is transcendental. This is why the poetics of bohemianism and official art are based on the idea of the Masterpiece (an idea that is interpreted in different ways by different associations), while the poetics of the underground are based on the idea of the Anti-masterpiece. Their common ground is that they all suggest a material exponent of the artistic experiment, this exponent being a work of art. This is why meetings are necessary – they represent a meeting with art. A transcendental background in this sense is sanctioned by museums, institutes of contemporary art and the art market.

As to tusovka, being deprived of an institutional market context means to be also deprived of the works of art that belong to it; here, meetings are attended only for the sake of meeting. There is nothing transcendental in tusovka, in fact, its most authentic art forms are those which master the chaos of interpersonal interactions typical for tusovka. tusovka‘s time is not the temporality of a masterpiece, i.e., the time of museums, history, metaphysical time, but the here and now. Consequently, tusovka‘s production is exhausted as soon as the respective meeting is dissolved.

Moreover, in an art world which lacks a transcendental background as well as market prices or real values, its circulation closed off by the boundaries of the association itself, there can be only one meaning: to aspire to a form of self-organization and self-fashioning. In other words, art in a closed off environment has no other goals than to consolidate the interactions within the association, and it does not recognize any art forms apart from those that have an aesthetic value for these interactions.

The self-organization and self-fashioning of tusovka manifests itself in three basic forms, which at the same time represent the three types of poetics that tusovka recognizes. The first are the poetics of attractive interaction, intended to familiarize members with the recurrent structure of meetings, which take place at always the same time in the same location. This form of poetics strives to enhance tusovka‘s attractiveness and tempt artists to participate. It is this form of interaction which determines the regularity of tusovka‘s production and makes for its everyday life (an example of the poetics of attractive interaction are the activities of the art gallery located on Trehprudniy Street).

The second poetics of tusovka are the poetics of catastrophic interaction. In this context, a meeting is arranged in order to familiarize participants with an event that was neither predicted, nor is customary, taking place in an unexpected location, outside the realm within which tusovka usually operates. Catastrophic events like this aim at the disruption of temporal rhythms, for they interrupt the routine of tusovka. Being of a deviant and provocative character, they transgress, and yet thrive on, tusovka‘s boundaries and norms. The main function of these poetics is a constructive disruption of boundaries, endeavoring to establish the latter on a “rule of contradiction,” so to speak. The norm gains its normative status only after encountering deviance, just as consolidation is only possible after encountering a catastrophe. (An example of these poetics would be “Moscow actionism”).

The third form of poetics may be called the poetics of confidential interaction. These concern those meetings attempting to interact with the extraordinary, the closed-off, and the intensive. The temporal rhythm of meetings is decelerated, stripped of its internal activity; here the desired result of interaction is to disrupt the flow of events. The sense of such meetings is to discuss specific points of contemporary art, or to search for the meaning of the interactions within tusovka. In other words, confidential interaction is an effort to overcome tusovka in the act of self-recognition (an example of this is the “Hamburg project” and the “Workshop for Visual Anthropology”).

Despite their differences the poetics of tusovka all recognize themselves in the task of transforming, creating and self-reflecting on everyday life (Guy Debord).


The Limits and Contradictions of Tusovka


The limits and contradictions of tusovka are defined by the very laws that govern it. As a post-corporate association, tusovka is perfectly open, and anybody may take part in its self-reproduction. Because of its interpersonal character, however, it is restricted in its informative possibilities, intellectual potential and social mobility. tusovka is generally limited to the spoken word, its horizon goes only as far as the individual sight; it is capable of discoursing only with the local, but never with the global.

Characterized by a state of continuous expansion, tusovka exhibits much social aggressiveness; its leaders claim their final goal to be power. Yet at the same time, being a post-disciplinary association, tusovka rejects all power structures. It is an association full of internal conflicts that cannot be consolidated, and as such it is not fit for a system of political alliances and tactical unions. Moreover, even if tusovka tried to seize power, it would be incapable of keeping it, if only for the reason that it detests routine and constancy. Power is the offspring of hierarchy, but tusovka is a net community.

As a post-corporate association, tusovka considers the lack of institutionalization its main flaw. On this it blames both the weakness of its social authority and the non-existence of its international relations. Yet, being a post-rational type, it disregards those institutions that it inherited from previous artistic associations. tusovka does not seem to understand that instead of trying to establish ten new museums, it would make more sense to reform the old, already existing ones. Such a way of thinking is alien to tusovka, because only an association already in the possession of institutionalized culture can recognize the value of an institution as such. Hence tusovka‘s motto is to destroy all old institutions, thinking them utterly useless.

Being a personalized type of association, tusovka stresses the demiurgic and creative potential of individualism. It cultivatesthe idea that one heroic individual may force his/her will on society, thus producing a different reality. tusovka keeps a list of those who are creators; it is not the reader who forms a literary circle, but the publisher; the visitors of an exhibition are not entitled to their own point of view, but have to look at what the gallery owner considers important. However, tusovka does not accept such forms for dialogue and partnership, because in a context of this type, one person is dominant, while the others are subordinate. It is the curator who makes the artist, and it is not partnership which allows them both to fulfill their artistic and authorial potential. tusovka does not accept the imposition of impersonal laws on individuals, which is why it clashes with social failures; when reality gets out of control, tusovka‘s explanation personalizes the events. Typically, in its conclusion, there is only one party to blame, which then gets branded as “untalented,” “drunk,” or “submissive.” The humiliating name given to such a person is tusovshik (i.e., tusovka-participant).


The Self-Preservation of Tusovka


Tusovka wants to ignore the presence of its contradictions by superseding them. The system in which tusovka projects itself inevitably uncovers the professional and social insolvency of those members who are not disciplined. The internationalization that is constantly striven for by the claustrophobic tusovka will break down its system of simulated reputations. Moreover, to form a system of contemporary art would require a change of orientation regarding all its poetics of interaction. A contemporary art system always produces a new social subject, namely the audience, and this is something which tusovka‘s poetics are not prepared for.

Like any other association, tusovka guards its own interests, employing a mechanism of self-protection. This mechanism is essentially simple, as it is rooted in the very substance of the association. Any symptoms of real institutionalization are instantaneously leveled out and downgraded to individual projects (e.g. ‘X’s collection,’ ‘Y’s journal’ etc). Tusovka resists all attempts at critical reflection, public expression and social positioning.

An example of an emotional association, tusovka dwells in a sphere of potentiality that is constantly sublimated through euphoric promises. However, it has one great one flaw – it is quickly exhausted. Still, this does not mean that the structure of tusovka has hereby been destabilized; only now expectations have been replaced by a new reliance, there is a new atmosphere governing tusovka – an atmosphere of depression and frustration, owing to unfulfilled expectations.

This essay was previously published in Frakcia, 14 (1999); Umelec, 7 (1999); and Moscow Art Magazine, 25 (1999). 


Victor Misiano lives and works in Moscow. Between 1980 and 1990 he was the director of the Center of Contemporary Art, Moscow. He is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Khduzhestvenny zhurnal (Moscow Art Magazine). The following essay investigates an enigmatic phenomenon of Russian intellectual life, “tusovka”, a place for informal gatherings.