A new book on Russian conceptualists, Collective Actions Group, finally translates audience responses into English, pushing them to the fore. In her review, Marina Gerber contemplates the ambiguously passive and active role of the participants and how it bears a striking resemblance to work in Soviet Russia
Imagine a book on an artist in which the texts are not written by art historians, curators and critics, but by the viewers. Such a book has been produced by Yelena Kalinsky, who translated the reports of viewers who attended the Actions by the Soviet/Russian art group Collective Actions between 1976 and 1981. Structurally, many of these Actions can be compared to John Cage's 4.33. Collective Actions produced the anticipation of an event, but instead of satisfying expectations, withdrew from any visible performance. This reduction or negation of artistic performance was intended to sensitise the individuals attending the event, transforming their consciousness. The authors in this book are not writing about the Actions because they are specialists in this form of art, or in art in general, but because they experienced it. It is this experience alone that qualifies them as authors and authorities.
The audience recollections offer a profound insight into Collective Actions' concept of participation. The danger is, however, that these contributions might be read as purely documentary accounts of the Actions, whereas in actuality they form a constitutive part of the Actions. It is the reports that realise the Actions and give meaning to the participation of the viewers, and therefore require critical attention.
These reports were not written for this publication specifically, but for the first two of currently 11 volumes of documentary material assembled by Collective Actions called Trips Out of Town (Poezdki za Gorod). The original material was written from 1980-1981 in Russian and self-published between 1980 and '83, alongside introductions, descriptions of Actions, and photographs. This was republished in Moscow in 1998 and 2011.i Whereas the descriptions, photographs and essays were already freely accessible in German and English online at conceptualism.letov.ru, and as part of Vadim Zakharov's Internet Archive, the present publication makes the reports by the viewers available to an Anglophone audience for the first time.
But this is more than just a translation, rather this is also a re-arrangement and re-contextualisation of the original material. In Trips Out of Town the viewers' reports appear after the section 'appendix' (prilozhenie) in Volume 2, and after 'documentation' in Volume 1, whereas the present publication inverts this order giving the reports 'priority over the standarized, "objective" narratives of the other documentary materials.'ii Here, the descriptions of the Actions by Collective Actions and their introduction to Volume 1 appear as an appendix, on differently coloured paper, in the back of the book. This decision aims to make the work of Collective Actions more accessible to non-specialists, since the language and terms used in the introductions and other programmatic texts by Collective Actions are derived from a context that even a Russian reader is not necessarily familiar with, not to mention the Actions’ own obscure conceptualisation process. The viewers' reports, by contrast, give an insight into personal and individual experiences of the Actions. The language is unpretentious, non-programmatic and, supposedly, does not imply any specialised knowledge.
The decision to translate and publish only the first 14 out of approximately 150 reports rests probably on purely economic considerations, but it also fits well into the dominant contemporary narrative about Collective Actions’ work, focusing only on the 'early period'.iii It is questionable whether this early period is representative of Collective Actions' work as a whole, since most of the rules established in the first 14 reports are broken subsequently, thus the question about the significance of the reports from this early phase for the rest of Collective Actions’ work remains to be answered.
The character and function of the reports in the present publication recall the Soviet tradition of journalism, as well as the historical aim of empowering the Soviet citizen to become an author. Collective Actions did indeed use the term 'factography', not primarily to characterise the reports as a revolutionary genre but rather to name the different materials that emerged out of the Actions, such as certificates, invitations and photographs. Yelena Kalinsky's introduction 'Dive-Suits of Factography: Audience Recollections as Documentary and Action Genre' promises to work out the specificity of the reports in relation to factography. But examining the claims by two group members, Andrei Monastyrski's and Nikita Alexeev's, Kalinsky's exposition of factography does not go beyond Collective Actions' own understanding of it. It would have been insightful to see how the reports relate to the Soviet notion of factography as theorised by Sergei Tretyakov and taken up by Walter Benjamin in his essay 'The Author as Producer'. Comparing the reports to other factography produced by Collective Actions it becomes clear that they require a separate analysis of the relations of production, participation and authorship. Unlike in the original Trips Out of Town, Kalinsky's table of contents does not explicitly attribute the reports to their authors: their names appear in the title of the contribution suggesting a conflation of the authors with their texts, and also producing an ambivalence about who the author is: is it the one who wrote the reports or is it Collective Actions, who made them write the reports?
Although most of the Actions are made in order to engage the viewers in something, in Trips Out of Town there exists an ambivalence about the extent of involvement of the viewers, making it difficult to decide on their role as participants. In the preface to Volume 1 the author, Andrei Monastyrski, uses five different terms for the same thing: 'a group of people', 'participants', 'viewers', 'viewer-participants' and 'participants-viewers'.iv Some Actions, such as Lieblich, do not require the invitees to ‘do’ anything other than stand around and listen to the ringing bell that was buried under the snow. Other Actions, by contrast, required active participation, such as in Place of Action, or Time of Action and Pictures. In Ten Appearances, according to Kabakov, 'the presence of anyone not participating in the event was not desirable.'v In the preface to Volume 2 of Trips Out of Town, it is said that such Actions turn the viewers into performers, organisers of the event.vi However, what seems to be true of viewer-participants is that their involvement – however direct – always remained limited, and this becomes obvious when comparing the reports to other documentary material of the Actions. This review will use the term 'viewer-participants' in order to draw attention to its ambivalent meaning: both active participant and passive, contemplating viewer.
Image: Collective Actions Group, preparation for Time of Action, 1978
Collective Actions' description of Time of Action (1978) explains that a drum with seven kilometres of string was hidden from the view of viewer-participants by some trees. 'From 1:30 until 3:00 (1.5 hours) in the afternoon, the action participants and some audience members took turns continuously pulling the rope that was unwinding from the drum.'vii Reporting about the Action, the viewer-participant Irina Pivovarova describes it with the following words: 'It was taking a very long time. […] It seemed like an hour had gone by, two, but the rope kept coming, and coming, and coming. […] It will probably last until evening.'viii Her estimation of the length of the rope reads: 'There was a decent amount of it over on our side already, but the rope still did not end. [T]he rope did not even think about ending.'ix It is obvious that the viewer-participants did not know anything about the technicalities of production of this Action. It might be key for a 'successful' Action that the rope be seven kilometres long, namely for the production of the rope’s endless character. But for the viewer-participant’s experience of the Action, however, it is not important to know the exact length of the rope but perhaps helps to be ignorant of it. The viewer-participants of Time of Action did not know that Andrei Monastyrski, Nikita Alexeev and Nikolai Panitkov went and got a huge drum and a rope that they installed in the forest beforehand. Figure 21 (p. 10) in Kalinsky’s publication documents this process, from which the viewer-participants were separated. Its appearance as an illustration to the reports is therefore slightly misleading, since the viewer-participants would not have seen it.
Confronted with technical information, as was the case in another Action, Place of Action, the viewer-participants do not seem to be very interested, such as Ilya Kabakov, who was exposed to a
placard (130x90cm) […] installed on a tree, containing a schematic plan illustrating the audience shoot, a plan of the additional participant shoot, and also the subsequent parts of the slide-film and collection of images for a black-and-white exposition that it was suggested might be compiled based on the materials of the completed shoots.x
All that Kabakov remembers from this placard is: 'Point A photographs Point B photographs was the only thing I understood'xi. In Place of Action the technicalities literally find their way into the Action itself and are, according to Kabakov, absolutely alienating, instituting a profanation, a discontinuity of the Action, suggesting that a living, sensuous experience of the Action is far from similar to the technicalities of it. This confrontation of the viewer-participants with the plan during its realisation exposed their indifference to the plan. Kabakov actively participates in the Action, and yet he is merely contemplating; he says: 'Evidently, some sort of program was being prepared. Well, let them arrange all this, we will just calmly stand here.'xii The reports expose the viewer-participants as non-participants – at least this is the first and immediate impression.
Even a member of Collective Actions can become a viewer-participant.xiii George Kiesewalter’s text on the Action for G. Kiesewalter appears in the section 'Reports of the Participants' – because this was one of the Actions that was conceived by the others without him.
Looking closer at other material produced by Collective Actions after 1983 it becomes clear that the viewer-participant is not Collective Actions' invention, but rather this is the image of the Soviet citizen who 'participates' in the 'State of Producers' and yet does not participate. In his essay 'Earthworks' Monastyrski reveals that even though Collective Actions consciously disengaged with Soviet production, however, there is a sense in which their Empty Actions formally mimick the Soviet agricultural industry, as well as production of the Stagnation period in general.xiv In this essay he describes the construction process of what looked like a new access to the metro station on the streets of Moscow nearby his apartment, delivering a report of a viewer-participant, wondering about what this construction is and what it means and how it is going to affect his life. In the end it turns out to be merely a sewage well, which will not visibly or practically affect anything whatsoever – an Empty Action.
But Monastyrski's 'report' does not merely identify the Actions' formal mimesis of Soviet production. It also produces a particular image of Soviet production. More specifically, it is
yet another story of the prolonged and tortuous excavation of some kind of well of an unusual depth on a hill near the ‘Kosmos’ movie theater, which I passed every day from 1976 to 1980 on my way to the trolley-bus stop in order to ride to work at the Literary Museum. There were earthworks in progress throughout all four of those years. And no-one really knew what exactly was going on.xv
This report gives a sense of how work during the Stagnation period was experienced (by Monastyrski): lengthy, tedious, mysterious and seemingly pointless.
In this context it is also interesting to consider Nikita Alexeev's memoires in which he very vividly describes his experience of work. In order to earn a living, but also because in the Soviet Union it was illegal not to work for more than 6 months a year (the Soviet-Russian decree 'On the enforcement of struggle against persons evading socially useful labour and leading an anti-social way of life' from 1961 says that unemployment will be punished by sending the non-worker to labour camps or to a 'local construction site')xvi, Monastyrski worked in the Literary Museum, Sergei Romashko at a University and Nikita Alexeev in a psychiatric hospital, as well as for a film studio. Alexeev describes how he and his colleagues spent a lot of time just waiting, chatting and standing around, due to the shortage of commissions.xvii Because unemployment was illegal, work placements were overstaffed. People had to go to work even when there was nothing to do. Alexeev's image of Soviet work is also one of Empty Action, involving lots of people pointlessly hanging around, senselessly shifting around materials.
Image: Collective Actions Group, Place of Action
Thus, there is no doubt that, at least formally, the Actions have some relation to Soviet work and production. There are several issues around activity and inactivity, pointlessness of work and meaningfulness of non-work. To address these issues would require an immanent study of a number of Actions and the dynamics of participation and activity at stake there.
But there is however another aspect of the Actions, and more specifically of the reports, which seems to go beyond this formal aspect. The viewer-participant, for example, is not merely a mimesis of the Soviet artist who disengages with Soviet production but participates in it at the same time (via her dayjob). She is also writing about Soviet life, work and free time.
Collective Actions' most defining claim in this context is that they 'do not have the goal of "showing" something’ to the viewer-participants.xviii The main device that Collective Actions are using in these early Actions is the reduction of the experience of the Action. The Action is made such that it appears invisible, or 'empty', as they call it. But even though the viewer-participants don't see much of the Action, their reports are considerably long. Instead of focusing exclusively on pulling the rope from one end of the field to another for one and a half hours, Pivovarova and seemingly the other viewer-particiants get distracted by the fact that there were potatoes left behind on the field, and were seriously considering gathering them up, since there was a shortage of potatoes at the time.xix Similarly, Pivovarova's report on Lieblich (1976) dedicates only four sentences to the description of the actual Action. The rest of her report talks about the weather, the social atmosphere, and about 'some hearty young men in swim trunks.'xx Pivovarova's more obvious reflection on work and free time reads as follows:
This is, of course, terribly wonderful, very interesting [the Action], but nonetheless, a bit unusual for Moscow's bustling, hurried life. We are people used to guarding every minute, every second. We are perpetually running, perpetually in a hustle and bustle, always hurrying, never having enough time, and here all of a sudden this inexcusable waste of time.xxi
These incidental details are not merely distracted comments – they are fundamental to the autonomy of the reports, bringing out elements which were not part of the Actions, but were somehow significant for the viewer-participants. The expanded context of the Action that the reports generate goes far beyond the boundaries of where the Action takes place. Vsevolod Nekrasov writes: 'The Action ended a long time ago, and yet the suspicion that it will never cease only grows.'xxii
The issue of participation emerges here not with the actual involvement in the Action, but with the description of what is outside the Action. The details from reports have little to do with the Actions, such as waiting for the bus, or the life in Moscow. The Empty Action inspires the viewer-participants to become producers themselves, to engage with the limits of the artistic Action, as well as with the expansion of it, with its significance for their everyday lives.
This key element of the reports is radicalised in Monastyrski's 1984 text Music Inside and Outside, which is an Action at the same time. It deminishes 'the Action' to such an extent that it becomes 'life'. The text figures in the section 'description of Actions', but instead of the text being a formal description of the Action, as Monastyrski's other programmatic texts, it is a report. Music Inside and Outside is a report of nothing in terms of Action – it describes Monastyrski's thinking about a fictional Action, private hours with his girlfiend, his encounter with a woman who wanted to leave behind some cacao on the street (she could not have sold it, because it was illegal to make money on the side in the Soviet Union at that time) and with a drunk man who used to work for Lavrentij Beria, Stalin's secret police chief.xxiii This text, as well as other 'reports on the Actions', make pure descriptions of Soviet everyday life into artistic Actions. The reports are written not only after participation in the Actions, but also after participation in Soviet life.
In order to address the problem and the ambivalence about Collective Actions' embeddedness in Soviet life one has to consider the status of the viewer-participant in the Action. However, Collective Actions' immanent critique of Soviet production should itself become the object of critique. This is at least what Collective Actions' use of the reports proposes. It might be a matter of a formal study to work out what Collective Actions' immanent production is, but as the reports demonstrate, to work out what the form of Soviet production was is yet a further problem. The account of the Empty Action is written spontaneously, and should not therefore be mistaken for a document.
Marina Gerber <m.gerber AT udk-berlin.de> is currently a doctoral fellow at the Universität der Künste in Berlin. She studied art history and theory at Universität Lüneburg and at Middlesex University, London. Her research interests include Collective Actions and the tension between labour and free time in art.
Yelena Kalinsky (ed. and trans.), Collective Actions: Audience Recollections from the First Five Years, 1976-1981, Chicago: Soberscove Press, 2012
iFor a detailed consideration of the publications and republications see Julia Scharf, Das Archiv ist die Kunst. Verfahren der Textuellen Selbstreproduktion im Moskauer Konzeptualismus, Forschungsstelle Osteuropa Bremen, No. 78, 2006.
iiYelena Kalinsky (ed.), Collective Actions: Audience Recollections from the First Five Years, 1976-1981, Soberscove Press: Chicago, 2012, p.xviii.
iiiCf. Boris Groys, History Becomes Form: Moscow Conceptualism, Cambridge/MA: MIT, 2010; Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London/New York: Verso, 2012, pp.152-162.
ivAndrei Monastyrski, 'Preface to Trips Out of Town, Vol. 1 (1980)' in Yelena Kalinsky (ed.), Collective Actions: Audience Recollections from the First Five Years, 1976-1981, Soberscove Press: Chicago, 2012, pp.102-108.
vIlya Kabakov, 'Kabakov's Story: Ten Appearances', in Kalinsky (2012), p.63.
viAndrei Monastyrski, 'Preface to Trips Out of Town, Vol. 2 (1983)', available in Russian on http://www.conceptualism-moscow.org/page?id=219&lang=en, p.6, or in English, Yelena Kalinsky (trans.), http://conceptualism.letov.ru.
vii'Action Descriptions (1976-1981)', in Kalinsky, 2012, op. cit., p.93.
viiiIrina Pivovarova, 'Pivovarova's Story: Lieblich, The Lantern, Time of Action', in ibid., p.7-8.
ixIbid., p. 7.
x'Action Descriptions (1976-1981)', in ibid., p. 96.
xiIlya Kabakov, 'Kabakov's Story: Place of Action', in ibid., p.46.
xiiIbid., p. 36.
xiiiIn this context it is interesting to consider the reports of Andrei Monastyrski, Nikita Alexeev and Sergei Romashko of the Action For N. Alexeev (September 1981), which have been excluded from the present publication. Monastyrski knew the concept of the Action, and yet his description of the experience of the Action appears in the section 'Participants Reports', breaking with the implicit law that only those who did not know the concept were to produce such reports. This fact echoes Alexeev's suggestive claim that towards the end of the period 1976-1981, the members of Collective Actions became themselves observers, or viewers, because they did not understand themselves what was happening, even if they were directly involved into the conception and production of the Actions (cf. Nikita Alexeev, [Comments] in Poezdki za Gorod [engl. Trips Out of Town], Volume 2, p.73, available in Russian on http://www.conceptualism-moscow.org/page?id=219&lang=en.
xivCf. Andrei Monastyrski, 'Earthworks' in Poezdki za Gorod, ibid., available in Russian, http://www.conceptualism-moscow.org/page?id=219&lang=en, or in English, Yelena Kalinsky (trans.), http://conceptualism.letov.ru/MONASTYRSKI-EARTHWORKS.htm.
xviThis document is available online, but only outside of regular working times, i.e. on weekends, and in the evening (from 8 – 12 p.m.), Moscow time, http://base.consultant.ru/cons/cgi/online.cgi?req=doc;base=ESU;n=18642.
xviiCf. Nikita Alexeev, Ryady Pamyati: Otcherk Vizualinosti [Rows of Memory: A Sketch of Visuality], Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie: Moscow, 2008, p. 94.
xviiiAndrei Monastyrski, 'Preface to Trips Out of Town, Vol. 1 (1980)' in Kalinsky 2012, p. 106.
xixIrina Pivovarova, 'Pivovarova's Story: Lieblich, The Lantern, Time of Action', in ibid., p.8.
xxIbid. p. 3.
xxiIrina Pivovarova, 'Pivovarova's Story: Lieblich, The Lantern, Time of Action', in ibid., p. 9.
xxiiVsevolod Nekrasov, 'Nekrasov's Story: Ten Appearances', in Kalinsky 2012, p.85.
xxiiiCf. the description of the Action Music Inside and Outside, in Poezdki za Gorod, Volume 3, pp. 31-33.