By Jonathan Platt
From September 18-21, 2014, the international conference, “No Radical Art Actions Are Going to Help Here…: Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism” was held in St. Petersburg, Russia as part of the Manifesta 10 Contemporary Art Biennial’s Public Program, curated by Joanna Warsza. I organized the conference in collaboration with Marijeta Bozovic (Yale University) and Artemy Magun (St. Petersburg State University, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences). Along with support from Manifesta and Magun’s Critique of the Social Sciences Seminar, the conference was also generously supported by a REES small grant.
Manifesta’s choice of holding the biennial in St. Petersburg sparked great controversy, first because of the city’s anti-gay law and then because of the annexation of Crimea. A number of local and foreign artists decided to boycott the events, including the influential Chto Delat collective. However, local artists felt that it was appropriate to participate in the public program, the goal of which was to engage the city directly with site-specific installations and performances, a series of apartment exhibitions, curated by Olesya Turkina and Roman Osminkin, and public events like my conference.
The atmosphere is understandably pessimistic for politically engaged artists and theorists in Russia today. However, the conference proved a great success, as we managed to bring together many of the most important figures in the scene for four days of fruitful discussions about art’s connection to political violence and the capacities for a militant aesthetics today. There was an incredible warmth to the proceedings, as participants and audience members alike sensed the importance of this loose collective of leftist intellectuals at a time when few seem inclined to listen to sophisticated statements about emancipation, struggle, and the enduring power of engaged art. The presence of a few high-profile foreign guests and several active audience members, in town from abroad for the biennial, also contributed an essential openness to outside viewpoints.
The first evening of the conference was devoted to a roundtable discussion of the central issues of our gathering and a screening and discussion of Chto Delat’s new film, “The Excluded: In a Moment of Danger,” premiering in Russia. The second day was devoted to scholarly interventions. A panel on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Critique of Violence,” investigated the philosophical meaning of war and law, and aesthetic means of overcoming violence. The second panel turned more to more properly aesthetic concerns, discussing the place of trauma in Russian Formalist criticism, the place of negativity in aesthetic philosophy since Kant, and Mikhail Lifshits’s theory of humane resignation as an alternative to avant-garde aesthetics. Finally, the third panel turned specifically to the question of artistic forms of political activism.
The third day was devoted to presentations of poetry and original artworks produced for the conference. We began with readings by Kirill Medvedev, Galina Rymbu, Elena Kostyleva, Keti Chukhrov, and Aleksandr Skidan, followed by a lively discussion of the place of violence in recent Russian poetry. Roman Osminkin and the Gandhi street art collective presented a video performance, and Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskay (Gluklya) screened her work in progress, examining the militant sacrifice of Soviet partisan, Zoya Kosmodemianskaya. Finally, philosopher Oxana Timofeeva and artist Nikolai Oleynikov delivered a poetic-theoretical dialogue on the theme of making love during wartime. That evening the group convened for raucous dancing at the Griboedov Club, treated to a concert by Arkady Kots, supported by It’s Too Early to Shave Your Armpits and two anarchist singer-songwriters.
On the final day of the conference, the group traveled by bus to the Razliv Museum, where Lenin hid out before returning to St. Petersburg in October 1917, to view a new exhibit and attend a lecture on the place of the revolutionary museum today.
The full schedule of the conference can be found on the Manifesta website.
Video documentation is also available at the Manifesta 10 YouTube channel.