Technology and Representation at the End of the 90s: Fragments of the Russian Experience

Olga Tobreluts, 'Apollon'.It is possible to consider technology as a complex combination of technical means and logical representations. When it forms part of technology (in the broad sense of that word, encompassing mnemotechnics as well as space ships), logic (or rather ideo-logy) remains unconscious, even though generally speaking it is, of course, part of consciousness. In the general evolution of imagery, it is not only the technologies of representation that change, but the representation of technology is likewise in a process of constant change. We have to distinguish between these two components of technology in order to escape the often cited cliché that someone is an innovative artist because s/he uses “new technology”, and that another artist is old-fashioned because s/he still prefers to paint in oil on canvas. A new technology always implies a new technique. Even where the object of a representation is itself not innovative, if the means employed are (technologically or otherwise) new, the result will not be the same.

The former Soviet Union is a case in point. Ever since the country’s unified and unifying State ideology imploded, its logosphere has been strictly divided. The state-owned mass media, which up to a certain point still maintained a coherent meta-narrative, quickly disappeared. Many of the new images and new technologies that reached the country from the outside became part of everyday life almost within one day. These new semi-public technologies, including the (formerly unknown) VCR, computers, copy machines, and advertisements, intervened in an already multiply fractured ideological sphere. Until just over ten years ago it was still prohibited, in the Soviet Union, to privately own any kind of technical reproduction technology which might be used for mass printing or other forms of mass communication. Even though the Leningrad artist Yuris Lesnik created video-art already at the end of the 1980s, technologies such asvideo and digitized representation were kept under strict state control until the early 1990s, which meant that they remained largely untouched by any critical analysis.

Every ideology has its technology and every technology determines its own ideology. A utopian state is a state that aims at the future. In the case of the Soviet Union, however, the problem was how to convince its citizens of the universal validity of an idea that was crucially linked to an event (the revolution of 1917) that happened in the rather distant past. At the end of the historical period marked by the USSR–which was by all accounts a utopian as well as a “stagnant” state at the same time–“stable” technologies (painting, sculpture) and “stable” canons of representation were deemed by the authorities to be of the utmost importance. A Soviet citizen who went to an exhibition, for example, was always very well prepared for the task; one had to know how to absorb the information and how to then transfer it into the symbolic context of one’s own life. As far as the mass media are concerned, the fact that public television and newspapers or journals in the Soviet Union were completely free from all publicity mandated a very special symbolic role for art that had equally important ideological ramifications.

The disintegration of the ideological system in the Soviet Union was followed by a similar displacement of its symbolic outlets. At the same time, a rapid and massive influx of new visual imagery occurred. During the first transitional period of the post-Soviet era, any sense of coherence or hierarchy in the aesthetic sphere was lost. The visual arts gradually lost, and are still losing, their position of centrality among the various competing systems of representation. At the same time, a process of total aestheticization has occurred through the massive development of commercial advertising.

Ten years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, advertising has become a fact of life for every inhabitant of Russia. Advertising has introduced new ideological and technological narratives into Russian everyday existence, especially that of the promise of a new life. The intervention of visual imagery together with the introduction of new technologies entailed a change in the meta-technology of representation. This is evident, for instance, in the flexibility with which advertising adjusts its use of imagery through grafting and mixing, making sure at all times that it is in sync with the universal ideas that seem most characteristic at any given historical moment.

A good example of such flexibility is the early advertizing campaign for Tampax. Tampax was one of the first Western products to enter the Russian consumer market at the end of the 1980s. At the beginning of its activities in Russia, Tampax was advertised with a rather straightforward imagery: a Statue of Liberty whose torch had been replaced by a tampax–an allegory of the way in which Western (US) democracy and the free market can bring freedom even to the oppressed Soviet woman. At the end of the 1990s, however, Tampax changed its strategy and began to use the more impersonal, universal image of a young girl who had been liberated from prohibitions that were ritually imposed on her by a backward society during her periods of menstruation.

In the erstwhile Soviet utopia it was possible to speak of a consumption of visual images, i.e., of the illusion that the signifier was in direct contact with its signified. In the post-utopian situation in which we find ourselves today, this illusion has shifted to a meta-level, the level where a dominating technology of representation is formed. Now it is the transparence of the mechanisms of representation that leads to their articulation. For example, in late 1998, the representatives of the Russian democratic parties claimed that they had succeeded in uncovering the technology which their opponents, the Communists, had used against them in the preceding elections. In this situation, Russian artists have turned directly to the image of technology.

Techno-logos: Sergei Bugaev (Afrika)

The Petersburg artist Sergei Bugaev (Afrika) focuses on the image of technology as presented by the totalitarian state. Bugaev either directly reproduces in his own works industrial photographs of the 1930s, or he turns to factory technology of the period of industrialization. Through various technical means, Bugaev allows for the spectator’s interaction with the ideological logosphere. Bugaev has tried, for example, to reconstruct the ideology that supported the revolutionary pathos of the 1920s by re-editing or enlarging photographs by the constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko. Bugaev’s work could be called techno/logical precisely in the sense that he perceives technology as an ideological message, a message issued by the logos which can, in its turn, be expressed only by means of technology.

Bugaev’s interaction with that logos is even more evident in those of his works that focus on the discursive sphere. For example, his “Rebuses” series consists of bronze etchings containing collages that mix images and writing, both appropriated from various ideological contexts. Or, in his series of Soviet flags from the 1930s to the 1950s (dedicated to the famous linguist Roman Jakobson), Bugaev uses state symbols (such as the USSR coat of arms) and grafts on them, in exactly the same technique as the official symbols themselves, images from an utterly different context (such as illustrations from 1950s children’s books).

Bugaev has variously attempted to document processes of aphasia (famously described by Jakobson)–a split in the logosphere–by (re-) constructing a coherent technology that would be capable of uniting a whole range of essentially heterogeneous ideological signs. Bugaev’s work demonstrates that any archeological view of the erstwhile socialist utopia has to contend not only with its material and figurative remains but also with the technologies that created them in the first place. A good example for this necessity are the household spades that began to appear in the USSR at the end of the 1980s as a result of the dismantling of the Soviet military-industrial complex‹the spades were made from titanium, a high-tech metal that had played a prominent role in the development of Soviet air defense technology.

Bugaev’s engagement with technology does not end here. His interest in the so-called new technologies is also apparent in his activities as a musician. Here, it is the mixing of different sound series which can be understood as a further step in the progressive process of splitting that has affected the logosphere in Russia. Bugaev’s radio project “Arise, people of Russia” combines the universalism of Prokofiev’s “Aleksandr Nevskii” with the equally universal cult of the DJ. Bugaev’s appearance, together with the poet Nikolai Kononov, at one of the readings of the journal Kabinet at the “Mama” club in St. Petersburg served a similar purpose. On that occasion, Kononov read his poems before a sound background that was provided by Bugaev’s mixing of American minimalism, noise music, techno-rhythms, and the optical rhythms of blinking dark lamps that were directed toward the audience.

The Neo-Academism of Timur Novikov

The kind of “technologism” we see in Bugaev’s work is also in evidence in the works of Saint Petersburg artist Timur Novikov, the most important representative of the neo-academic movement in Russia.

If we witness a splitting of the logosphere in Bugaev’s work, Novikov attempts, on the contrary, to reconstruct the unity of that logosphere by reconstructing its master narrative. Novikov’s use of different media technologies (cinema, photography, collage, painting, computer technology, the technology of social communication) is linked to his conscious effort to recreate utopia and, in this way, to defeat time (Novikov calls this “traditionalism”).

Other neo-academist artists such as Oleg Maslov and Viktor Kuznetsov prefer to work with the term “exposition” rather than “installation”, in spite of the fact that their creations all have the character of installations (one of them imitates, for example, the environment of a 19th-century salon). Wherever Maslov and Kuznetsov operate with elements of performance (where, for example, ancient mythology is exploited) they prefer to refer to such activities as “theatrical performance” or “opera”.

It is not by chance that this kind of activity was dubbed “neo-academism”. Practically all totalitarian states, in their attitude towards art, gravitate toward academism, a discipline that literally personifies, at the level of the state, the programmatic statement that “beauty is an invincible force”‹invincible at the cost of an utterly monolithic understanding of the image and of its total subordination to the techno/logy of the “Great Logos”.

Despite its obvious pathos, the backward-looking neo-academism practiced by Novikov, Mazlov, and Kuznetsov is a very timely occurrence in the context of post-Soviet Russia. It responds to the collective demands of the overwhelming majority of the Russian population who want to see the present trauma reversed and who hope for the recreation of the utopia they have lost, and be it only by aesthetic means.

Novikov realizes this demand, his own and that of millions of other post-Soviet citizens who find themselves, like he, in a state of continuous regress. Novikov and his colleagues provide as it were an aesthetic vehicle for this regression, a definite tradition–be it that of Greco-Roman art or that of Saint Petersburg neo-classicism. Novikov makes ample use of the technique of collage. He may, for example, place a well-known image (showing a Renaissance work, a Greek statue, the depiction of an Orthodox saint) on a piece of fabric (perhaps from Tibet), where it will be surrounded by a kitschy beaded frame. This (re-) contextualization of a kitschy image seems to suggest the partial restoration of the auratic quality of the work of art which was, in Walter Benjamin’s opinion, lost during the epoch of mechanical reproduction.

Processing the Media

The well-known Russian artist Olga Tobreluts also frequently uses the technique of collage. Unlike Novikov’s, her work is usually digitalized, a fact that gives her imagery a certain homogeneity. Like Novikov, Tobreluts works with a type of reality that has been subjected to radical aestheticization relying in good measure on the new (mass) media. Tobreluts frequently mixes images of classic art and representations drawn from mass advertizing. In the series “Fashionable Olympia”, for example, she literally dresses classical Greco-Roman sculptures in designer clothes: Venus wears Versace outfits, Apollo is presented in Gucci, and Antony in a t-shirt labelled “Lacoste”. In other digital collages, Tobreluts places pop-idols and film stars, such as Naomi Campbell or Leonardo di Caprio, inside well-known Renaissance paintings. She thus combines the icons of contemporary popular culture with those emblematic images which we remember, ever since childhood, as the “great works of art.” In her last series of computer works–created for the Russian version of the magazine “Vogue”–Tobreluts presents pop stars dressed up as fairy-tale princesses. In this series, Tobreluts tries to enact the desire of the consumer of a women’s magazine: complete phantasmatic identification.

The Moscow group of artists and poets that calls itself Rechniki [River Boys] deals with the representational technologies of the mass media in a different way. They organize theatrical performances, stage pyrotechnical shows, and organize carefully choreographed “chill-outs” at large dance events. In their work, the Rechniki highlight the interface of ideology and technology within a given space or narrative. This happens, for example in their postmodern rereading of Theseus’ mythical fight with the Minotaur–in cyber-costumes and with laser swords.

Another Moscow-based group, Medical Hermeneutics, works with a different but still very traditional technology, writing. As they demonstrate in works such as “Portrait of Gogol” or the meta-narrative “Mythogenic Love Cast”, for these artists, any turn towards the technique of writing is, at the same time, a turn towards the technical aspects of memory. The post-ideological situation is characterized by the fact that traditional Russian (literary) writing erases the technique of memory. The conceptual split into text and metatext that is typical of Medical Hermeneutics is hidden in the shadow of the enjoyment of literature.

A sequel to Turkina’s and Mazin’s assessment of the situation of visual culture in Russia will shortly appear in ARTMargins.