“Radical” Art in Russia, the 1990s and Beyond

'Macbeth - a Bloody Pit of Horror' (Meyerhold-Center, 2002).

This essay examines someaspects of the visual and the spectacle within what is known as Russian radical art of the 90’s. Its aim is to look at what happened in various visual art forms (video, TV, film and actionism) in times of fundamental change within mass-culture and their technologies-that is, during the process of being ‘swapped-over’ by ‘western’ products, lifestyles, all of which unavoidably, and maybe most remarkably, accompanied post-Soviet societal transformation at least in Russia’s main cities.

It thus attempts to locate coincidences between a history of the 90’s and the ongoing discussions about their intensity and the specific impact of a “pictorial turn” for Russia. Only very preliminary attempts to write this history have taken place.

Using the term ‘radical art’ instead of ‘Moscow ‘actionism’-although also relatively vague-I especially mean to include those artists of the 90’s that choose not to work in conceptualist and/or actionist areas.

These artists instead stayed interested in ‘purely artistic’ fields-some of whom became Russia’s first video-artists.(Interestingly one of the latest issues of Chudozhestvennyj Zhurnal (No.40, October 2001) discusses the return of a ‘new visuality,’ claiming, that now one could return to ‘original arts issues’. Also, there is a recognizable turn ‘back’ to ‘traditional’ painting – noticeable at least since this years ArtMoscow.) Others belonged to a ‘second’ or ‘third’ generation of actionism, or to one of the great and chaotic varieties of ‘tussovkas’ at that time.

Still, this essay will not provide much ‘useful’ information on the high quantity of the 90’s or contemporary art-activities. Neither will it provide a detailed history of Russian video art.(To name some actual information: The first international Video festival has just taken place in the town of Kansk. See www.cannes.ru) Instead it will follow the lines of my communication with the people I know.

I will look for changing uses of visual art forms, as well as certain hybrid forms that seem to either enforce, ascetically ‘deny’, subvert, or play back what is given by involuntary visual consumption in ‘big colors’.

Radical Speech and Public Space

Moscow actionism, as a phenomenon of the early 90’s, stood in a close relation to the social and economic processes of the El’zin and post-El’zin period. It was a contextual reaction to the climate of the new Russian capitalism and commercialization: A ‘high time’ for ‘radicalisms’ of any kind.

A new occurrence within actionism was its particular ‘success’ in invading the post-Soviet, post-perestroikan ‘public’ space: These actions attempted to visually generate more adequate metaphors for contemporary, post-Soviet Russia. The mass-media strategy that accompanied radical actionism made it a cultural counterpart to the democratic mimicry of political parties in many of spectator perceptions.

The first ‘event’ that marked the starting point of these strategies is seen in ETI’s ‘Chuy’ at Krasnaja Ploscad: An ‘older’ strategy put into a new ‘politicized’ context at the right time and place.

In contrast to conceptualism, actionism was oriented on practice instead of theory. Actionism aimed at specific results and ‘acted’ on the surface without any subtext; Letters stepped into the snow far outside Moscow years before, had a very different meaning – and no remarkable public result.(There are in fact many similarities between actionism and the entrepreneurial type that developed since perestroika. For example, many were ready to try anything to be successful, never specializing too early, as Sal’nikov argues. Also the fact, that ‘radical’ capitalism didn’t leave any place for art in a society that was turned to one of survival, was echoed by the actionist denial of art as well. See for example the early manifests of media-artist Alexej Shulgin, with its explicit statements that actionists should not be artists.)

Actions of that kind – usually a one-time event, intense and provocative in their individual language, unforeseeable, and risky for the spectator, – were announced via rumours and meant to last no longer than their public memory; at least until the end of actionism’s first phase in 1995.

The ‘spectacle’ of the first years is today replaced by the opposite strategy of non-spectacular art. Its later phase relates again to the complex of visual representation. Practiced by Osmolovskij and others since 2001, the later work deals with changing tactics from subverting the mistrusted ‘visual’ through individual signs, to the ‘invisibility’ and impersonality of resulting actions Thereby using the rhetoric of the ‘old actionist manner’.

Foregrounding the strong visual element of ‘speaking out’ – for example in Kuliks animal-projects – a comparison with the aesthetics of films by Kira Muratova of these years would be interesting: Where pictorial intensity and the deconstruction of history go together and the visual functions as a ‘deconstructor’.

The visual in actionism must, on the other hand, be related to the intensity and event-character of various club-cultures at that time, especially to the musical culture of ‘rave’.

‘Amadillo for your show’, a performance by Oleg Kulik shows the artist’s body dressed in silver spindling around the inside of a club while Frank Sinatra’s ‘And now the end is near…’ is being played in the background If one is to make the distinction, this performance is certainly more related to video-clip culture than actionism.

Cyberpunk and Video

Parallel to the work of ‘advanced’ actionism, there existed other, different ‘tussovkas’ in the chaotic atmosphere of the 90’s. These different ‘tussovkas’ were often comprised by the same people. The above mentioned musical culture of rave created ‘syncretic’ events, out of which developed an important part of video-aesthetics within its first years: As part of its musical-visual, narcotic-oriented club life.

Video and computer being the two main cult products of that time, a history of Russian video art must acknowledge that it also started with the ‘scholastic’, technical advances in the uses of computer as well as video. These advances did not logically have a connection to contemporary arts’ discourses.

While the ‘artists’ gathered in Moscow’s TV Gallery and at the lectures on contemporary art at the Soros Foundation, many of the first explorations in video art chronicled the visual ‘folklore’ of rave: Its main topic of hallucination and ‘kislotnost’ being the spirit of Russia’s beginning MTV-era.

Of course, ‘artists’ participated in this technology as well. Vladimir Kobrin was one of the teachers of computer-art and Kirill Preobrazhensky worked with video-projections at various events.(Also, a ‘third’ generation is visible now: Young artist, who feel at home in contemporary art as well as in entertainment industries. While working hard for their place in the world art market, it is not yet clear, what there will be to say.)

Even more, the ‘hallucinogene’ philosophy of a world dominated only by virtual networks (namely Cyberpunk) was parted by many of the ‘second-generation’ activists. For example members of the group ‘Necesiudik’-who later vanished from the scene abruptly either into more lucrative spheres like design or into prison(Very much related to these is the phenomenon of post-Soviet so-called drug-literature. Many of the ideological altruisms that are typical for the ‘high-time’ of post-communist narcotic ‘radicalism’, are mirrored there, which makes it highly interpretive. Although demonized by famous Russian philosophers, this literature is usually underestimated in both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ directions, even if it is difficult to understand by people raised in ‘western’ liberal societies. One example would be the ‘equal-mindedness’, whether to ‘ride on’ either right-wing or left-wing policies, which is made responsible for the often unreflectively quoted comparison of contemporary Russia with ‘Weimar’.)-can actually be found in the new ideology of non-spectacularity. Non-spectacularity was concerned with the ways things work, including works in many other contemporary spheres.(A key-person in (Russian) Cyberpunk-philosophy is always Laurie Anderson. The tendency to write big novels’ about the (globalised) world like Empire seems also inspired from this standpoint.)

The fact that the first art-music clips were to be understood as both the perfect embodiment for everything of visuality and contemporary art and everything in mass-culture and entertainment’ in Russia, is still appealing–and perhaps not so far from western 80’s realities as one would think.

Cinematography and Trash

Much more puzzling is the strategy related to cinema and cinematographic narration. While it seems to be common sense among Russian radical activists of the 90’s that cinema is a conservative art (for reasons of the greater passivity of the spectator and the existence of a fabula) and often directly related to advertisement, cinema also seems to occupy an important place as high art.

While it is a truism among the ‘radical activists’ of the nineties that cinema is a conservative art (for reasons of the greater passivity of the spectator and the existence of a story) often directly related with advertising, cinema at the same time occupies an important position as a ‘high art’ form with which everything else can be related.

For example, the anarcho-orientalist-critical internet-magazine ‘mailgetto’ and the anarchist website anhar.ru discuss many Hollywood blockbusters with regard to their possible relevance for the current state of affairs in Russian capitalist society. This curious contradiction reflects, among other things, the former high status of cinema in Russian society.

In discussing last year’s ‘Sverchljubitel’skoe Kino’, an underground film festival,(A festival founded by Sergej Sal’nikov some years ago, that (together with ‚Styk’-Kino, an ‘anarchistic’ cinema-movement of Oleg Mavromatti, Sveta Baskova and others) presents ‘non-commercial’ films by directors, that didn’t visit cinema-schools.) Kireev notes that with one film, Svetlana Baskova’s The Green Elephant, the festival ceased being just a party for insiders (’tussovka dlja svoich’) and started becoming a cultural enterprise.

There are other reasons to look at this film in more detail: Its first striking quality is to be one of the rare attempts to transpose the situationist spirit of actionism on the screen and into a movie.(Another situationist try is Mavromattis ‘Vybljadki’.)

Baskova defines her main success in the genre of Moscow actionism as ‘soz-art’. However, the film also relies on older dichotomies, such as the one between ‘peasant’ and ‘intellectual’. That the film, in line with the situationist spirit of the time, became known mostly through rumors underlines the fact that it was born out of the need for quick expression rather than being part of a longer artistic project.

The story is composed of various actionist elements. It is constructed around two soldiers, locked up in one room together, guarding and controlling two lieutenants at different points in the military hierarchy. The film depicts a blood bath that would have made Otto Mühl and Günter Brus envious, expressing the highest possible means of aggression.

The aggression takes place between the four characters that burst out continuously from the very beginning of the film during its tone of inductive dialogues. Unfortunately, the end lets the most unpleasant figure survive.

In between all successful attempts to surprise the spectator with shocking and violent scenes of masochism, homosexual violence, murder and slaughter, suicide and hanging in an inescapable, claustrophobic and tense situation – which was filmed with a great amount of improvisation by the actors (the hand-camera only slightly visible) – the whole film still maintains a vivid sense of dialogue and even humour.

Yet the storyline seems stuck together through many video plots. The development of escalation is connected through elements of the clip-aesthetic style. At several points we see different black and white material; sometimes the music is ‘switched on’.

It is understandable that this film called for hopes of a new ‘situationist’ cinema movement visualizing an art form that was meant only to work momentarily. The film therefore makes a remarkable point on actionism, as it develops it within a normal cinematographic narration.

The surface-orientation of radical art makes this film nearly devoid of any sense. There is no object other than shocking the viewer. Still, the film’s energy and tension take it beyond its similarities to elements of former cinema movements, such as the necrophilia of alternative cinema (paralel’noe kino) or the dark sides of reality reflected in perestroika’s ‘chernukhas’.

The Green Elephant’s situationism is thus positioned between the discourse about the conservation of cinematography, and the invisibility of what is left of the 90’s in experience and radicalism: The style which has sometimes been referred to as an unclaimed era.(See actual discussions of ‘the 90’s’. The problem of the unseen’ cinema of the 90’s would be another issue – together with all the increased problems of production.) What certainly is in the film of Sveta Baskova, is the language of trash – which leads me to some concluding examples for contemporary Russia’s handling of hybrid art forms.

“Is Moscow radical art an art of trash? Partly yes. To the same extent as it avoids being intellectual and critical reflection…”(Anatolij Osmolovskij, Trash – nash trend, Predislovie Radek No2, Moscow 2000 ; “From the moment of the final victory of capitalism (or rather the total destruction of culture to the point of rude capitalism), Russia risks to drown in trash. A counter-resistance is only possible in Lenins formula: ‘The worst – the better’”) (Anatolij Osmolovskij, Trash – nash trend, Predislovie Radek No2).

Trash – as a typical reaction to overall commercialisation – is in its proper sense to be found in Vladimir Epifancev’s and Oleg Shishkin’s(Vladimir Epifancev (theatre, film, TV, night-shows) and Oleg Shishkin (art-critic, actor, writer) are protagonists of a multifaceted work that goes beyond their famous TV show of the late 90’s. Epifancevs ‘Macbeth’, staged at the Centr Mejerchol’da this year, operates in sight and sound with the aesthetics of David Lynch’s movies (and many other) on the theatre. The visuality of the play has led to many debates. Shishkin has resigned from criticizing ‘non-existant Russian contemporary art’ and for the most part writes conspiracy novels or short texts for their live-performances in the nightclub ‘Svalka’ (to name just a few of their activities).) answer to television, their late night-show ‘Drjema.’ The show is said to describe the language of the middle/late 90’s perfectly.

Enriched with sex, music, camouflaged advertising (“The usual washing-powder helps you better”), and old TV-series (the famous ‘Zhenshchina kotoraja poet’/’The woman who sings’ with Alla Pugacheva in her best years), the authors develop continuous sketches that are, to a high degree, filled with an omnipotent Epifancev surrounded by women simulating engagement in sexual practices.

International guests of the underground rock scene are also invited, but only to show in the end that Russians are more insane. For example, Blixa Bargeld walks with Epifancev through Moscow, “You want to see some real dirty Russian underground places?” Being shown ugly places under bridges begins to worry Bargeld who is seemingly more concerned about his expensive clothes than anything else.

The discussions about their method and the lack of intellectuality – as well as the question, if such underground language is allowed under a new Russian cultural mainstream(Discussions like these took place at the Ljubimovka-dramaturg’s meetings in 2000, where the authors and directors presented their new plays. One point of critique is often their ‘inhumanity’.)-highlight important aspects of the state of communication and problems of the identity. These questions are crucial to the symbolic order in post-Soviet society.

Many artists, guided by their perestroikan and post-perestroikan biographies, seem to find their individual language between important medial metamorphoses, which could be a sign for the higher degree of hybrid art forms in the future.

The mass-cultural changes brought about different strategies between art and entertainment and perhaps counterparts to the development of a westernized visual culture. These questions also raised aspects of an intermediary state of affairs and its specific experience.

Today, there is a remarkable return to the aesthetics of photography and painting. There are many desires for concentrated work that could – being more devoid of the explicitness of Russian radical art of the 90’s – also leave its unavoidable snobism behind. Hopefully this will not result in the loss of its conscious intensity.


Baskova, Sveta, Selenyj slonik, 120/140min, Moscow 1999 Epifancev, Vladimir/Shishkin, Oleg, Drjema, TV 1998/1999 Iljuchin, Max, Performances 1998-2001 Kulik, Oleg, Performances 1995-1999 Mavromatti, Oleg, Vybljadki Rigvava, Guia, Frau Zinöcker, Double Portrait, My neighbour is a Russian artist, Germany 2001

Nele Sasz is an independent critic who lives and works in Berlin. She has worked at the Moscow Film Museum and written widely on Russian video art and cinema.