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Issue 138

Chto Delat?: Performative Practices of our Time
by Georgia Phillips-Amos

The Ear of Society, a foam rubber ear fashioned by art collective Chto Delat?, is big enough for a grown woman to curl up inside for a moment’s rest, or perhaps to die. It beats like a heart, held up by human hands. Voices catch and stammer as they speak, shout and even scream into it. But while it might provide a comfortable mattress, The Ear of Society offers no real respite, no answer in return to all those who plead with it, no helpline. The people’s protest needs a new form of address, and Chto Delat? – whose video The Excluded in a Moment of Danger (2014) dramatizes all of this – turn instead to “paradoxical breathing,” designed by opera singer Alexandra Strelnikova in 1945 to assist both singers with laryngitis and cosmonauts in airless conditions. In the film, participants in the Chto Delat? School for Engaged Art stand in for the people of Russia, whose throats are sore, even torn, from protest and who can’t get enough air. Using Strelnikova’s grunts and gasps – which now fill the back gallery of vox: Centre de l’image contemporaine, in Montreal – Chto Delat? find a way to express the absurdity and violence of their political, and personal, situations.

Chto Delat? are an activist collective of nine Russian artists, writers, philosophers and dancers formed in St. Petersburg in 2003. “Chto Delat?” (“What is to be done?” in Russian) is a question that insists something else is possible outside of the wall of cant and corruption in Vladimir Putin’s increasingly militarized, racist, violent and ruthlessly capitalist post-Soviet Russia. For 15 years, Chto Delat? have been answering their own call as a collective, publishing a free bilingual newspaper featuring writing from radical thinkers and poets, creating performances and films in which participants write their own lines, building monuments to the Bolshevik revolution and running their own art school in St. Petersburg.

Inspired by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and the pedagogies of Paulo Freire, the members of Chto Delat? are self-declared internationalists. They exhibit and collaborate in cities from New York to Ljubljana, and they have in recent years both boycotted and participated in international biennales. Their work offers no utopian resolution, but rather operates as an undercommons1 brimming with contradiction and mess. “We are usually fighting,” Olga Egorova said recently, lovingly, when asked by Nato Thompson about the collective’s ability to collaborate for so many years without breaking up. Performative Practices of Our Time is the collective’s first solo show in Canada, and it is polyphonic throughout.

Prints of 56 found images of varying sizes and resolution are stuck to the walls of the exhibit’s opening room. Some are serious: Russian cruise missiles fly over the Mediterranean Sea, imported tomatoes banned by Putin are bulldozed en masse, a woman’s head is decorated to look like a military assault tank. Some are amusing: a man, wearing only underwear and a choker, rests against a bale of hay holding a chicken to his breast. Others are inscrutable: a young girl straddles a brown bear on a picnic blanket, a group of children lie in a heart formation on an oversized Ukrainian flag with an image of Jesus Christ at its centre. To source these images, Chto Delat? went fishing on the internet: the result is a grotesque and terrifying wallpaper of pop culture nationalism.

In 2011, Chto Delat? collaborated with the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, to create Museum Songspiel: The Netherlands 20XX (2011). Also on display at vox, the film opens with an attendant wandering through the museum. He passes an image of Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) and El Lissitzky’s Proun Room (1923), before finding a group of six refugees huddled behind glass. They are escaped deportees who have come to seek asylum, having mistaken the radical works on display for the institution’s own mission. The film critiques the duplicity at work within most art spaces: while capitalizing on socio-political struggles through their exhibitions, these institutions ignore opportunities to offer sanctuary, unwilling to offend corporate donors and powerful board members. Museum Songspiel collapses the imagined divide between the art world and the world outside, revealing the hypocrisy of institutions that refuse to ask what structures of support they might provide in the face of rampant xenophobia and increasingly insidious deportation practices worldwide. Again, Chto Delat? ask what alternative visions of the social constructs and institutions we know might be possible.

At vox, The Excluded in a Moment of Danger plays on, looping every hour. The breathers eventually recover their voices, but one person, Anya, decides the whole project is bunk. Haunted by the injustice beyond the world of the collective, she leaves the group to protest alone. Since the mass arrests in Russia on May 6, 2012, rights to assemble have been severely restrict- ed, and when Anya rejoins the group, she has been beaten. Images of police brutality fill the screens. The streets bleed into and saturate the installation. Anya’s body collapses on the Ear of Society. In 2016, Hito Steyerl asked, “If art is a currency, can it be an undercurrent?” Chto Delat? answer that it must be. In a statement about The Excluded, they write: “We used to think that collectivity is necessary in order to be strong, but now we realize it is necessary simply to maintain one’s sanity.” Operating outside of and within the international art world, Chto Delat?’s insistence on creating collectively – no matter what– models an alternative to the myth of the singular artist-genius. While simply trying to maintain their sanity, they undercut the dominant system of cutthroat individualism that circumscribes our institutions and our lives. In doing so, they remind us to ask what else we might do together.

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