The museum as methodology of contemporary art. Interview with Arseny Zhilyaev

Arseny Zhilyaev is an artist based in Moscow and Venice. His projects examine the legacy of Soviet museology and the museum as a point in the philosophy of Russian Cosmism using an exhibition as a medium. Artists’ works have been shown at the Manifesta 13 in Marseille, the biennales in Gwangju, Liverpool, Lyon, Riga, Thessaloniki and Ljubljana Triennale as well as at exhibitions at Centre Pompidou, Palais de Tokyo, Paris; de Appel, Amsterdam; HKW, Berlin; Kadist Art Foundation, Paris and San Francisco; V–A–C Foundation, Moscow and Venice, and others. Zhilyaev graduated from Voronezh State University (2006); Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art (2008), and Valand School of Fine Arts MA International Programs, Goteborg, Sweden (2010). The artist publishes articles in e-flux journal, Idea, Colta.ru, and others. He is an editor of an anthology Avant-Garde Museology (e-flux, University of Minnesota Press, V–A–C Press, 2015), co-founder of Moscow Center for Experimental Museology and founder of Telegram channel Chernozem i Zvezdy (Black soil and Stars).

How do artists work at a time when museums face such close attention from the public? What are the strategies for appropriating research practices today? How has the revision of museum practices, that were firstly invented and intended to be applied by avant-garde artists, influenced contemporary art practices? Natalia Smolianskaïa asked Arseny Zhilyaev these and other questions on behalf of the Place of Art group.


Illustrations: "Moscow Diaries” exhibition by The Center for Experimental Museology (CEM) and the Museum of American Art in Berlin (MoAA) held at MMoMA and V-a-c Foundation in 2017 [1].


Natalia Smolianskaïa (N. S.): By museum globalization we understand a reproduction of standard museum methods and the absorption of the public field by large institutions. How do you feel with this process while working with Russian and foreign museums?


Arseny Zhilyaev (A. Z.): To be honest, I almost don’t. Russia has been isolated for a long time: global contemporary art processes are not represented here at all. For the local artists, this is only a wish. In international context, I collaborate with institutions like e-flux or Moderna galerija and Metelkova [2] in Ljubljana, which can hardly be defined as globalized museums, but rather the opposite. Due to the efforts of Zdenka Badovinac, the Moderna galerija has deliberately opposed itself to globalized museums: the gallery works with the concept of a sustainable critical museum in Ljubljana and has become one of the initiators of L'Internationale [3], which resists the trend to museum globalization. 


In turn, our new large museums adopt museological models that are "classic" for modernism (like MoMA in New York) or spectacular global models like the Guggenheim franchises. Meanwhile, native experience and specificity are ignored. In this case, we can say that we are at the periphery of the global standard.


N. S.: As an artist, you not only work with museum projects, but also create your own versions of museum exhibits. How did you get to “avant-garde museology” and these projects?

A. Z.: Moscow is provincial in terms of artistic production. I came from the province and this can be both an important driving factor, and vice versa, lead to a certain pretentiousness and closeness. Variations between these poles continue until recognition comes from the outside. Nevertheless, in the mid-00s I discovered the former museums of the revolution, which, on the contrary, matched the criteria of the so-called progressive art. At that time, they still presented expositions of the 1970s and 1980s: a kind of spatial multimedia collages with a large amount of estranged, critically contextualizing information. Perhaps you know that after the end of the active avant-garde period, some of Malevich's students and students of their students turned to exhibition design. Traces of avant-garde methods can be seen in almost every exposition in non-artistic museums. I didn't know it then. I assumed that this "progressiveness" was related to the history and emergence of museums of the revolution. Perhaps this was an echo of the historical avant-garde, which for some reason was not included in the art history. Because museums of the revolution with all their artistic specificity do not belong to the art sphere: for me, they looked like a productivism artist's dream.


N. S.: What do you mean by "provincialism"?


A. Z.: Provincialism consists of the fact that we lag behind the problems that can be defined as boundaries of art, a conditional forefront. It is clear that each place has its own local agenda that resists the imposed trends of the "metropolises". But I, as a universalist, believe that art as a system has its own specifics and problems. In this sense, it is close to science. Somewhere scientists are still surprised by the theory of relativity, they argue that Newton's physics is more important and historically closer to some local tradition, or that Darwin was wrong. And somewhere they discuss the possible evolution of the multiverse and take photographs of black holes.


At some point, Moscow was the place where people solved problems that defined the future, for example, in the 1920s and early 1930s. Meanwhile, many centers that claimed the leading status were secondary not in the sense of cultural valuation, but in terms of intra-system processes. Now the situation is different. This does not mean that in Moscow we can’t work with the problems at the forefront. But in order to do so better you need to understand and feel them, there must be resources, infrastructure, intellectual communication, and so on.

N. S.: In your opinion, is there a connection between a museum expansion and the new wave of “escapism” practices (exhibitions and events created outside any institutions for a limited number of viewers)?


A. Z.: I don’t know. In Russia, we are now experiencing a museum boom, which is rather good, but there is almost no middle link like Kunsthalle or artist-run space. In contemporary art, it is rather difficult for newcomers to fit even into an expanded museum field: we have nothing between young and museum artists. On the other hand, the political situation in Russia is complicated: it is quite difficult to make large projects and maintain freedom of expression at the same time. Compromises need to be sought, but this is becoming more and more difficult. In this sense, working for yourself, looking for professional autonomy in the community of colleagues is a way to keep intellectual and ethical adequacy.


N. S.: When working with the “museum”, contemporary artists and researchers can address its different components: there are projects of museum decolonization, projects that analyze the museum as an archive, space of history or collective creativity. In the Place of Art project, we are talking about large museums as monopolists of the public sphere. What does “museum” mean in your projects?


A. Z.: The Museum is an institution that will potentially become a source for radical transformations of our society: our physicality, affects, past and future.


In general, I believe that a shift from individual artistic position to institutional is a Copernican revolution in art. It seemed to have happened a long time ago but is still criticized, so art in this sense is extremely conservative. If art practices claim to be at the forefront, why are we all such artisans? The museum acts as a producer on a different level: producer of life, something artificial. It reflects trends that exist in production in general. Capitalist forms of organization are much more organized than pre-capitalist forms. In this sense, the museum coincides with production: museums act as a global network of attractions that serve political and economic interests. But I would like to think of alternative ways to fully realize the possibilities of this institution without destroying it, through its appropriation and reformation.


I mentioned earlier the example of the museum association L'Internationale, which, in my opinion, represents the most progressive institution today that resists museum globalization. But even their response to the negative effects of globalization is not universal. It bears traces of local policy, which puts the potential development of the museum in a subordinate position to local tasks of existing institutions and communities. It seems to me that this answer becomes a critical norm. As for me, it lacks a planning horizon, universalism, perhaps even faith in the museum as an instrument of change, although I understand that I speak as the artist and not as a functionary of an institution. It is much more difficult to make major changes at the institutional level, especially given the political context. In Ljubljana, Moderna galerija is under constant attack from right-wing populists, who want to take over the museum and turn it into an institution serving their conservative ideology [4]. But in any case, all we can do against the destructive effects of globalization now is to focus on the local. But what is to be done in Russia with its size and cultural differences? It seems to me that in the complexity of the current situation, the museum should seek universal answers, and these answers do not always arise in dialogue with the local community. This search is uneven, it is a difficult process, and besides local projects Moderna galerija is creating international solidarity. L'Internationale is an excellent example of searching for self-organization at the institutional level, i.e. for pro-institutional self-organization. I am sure that this is the future of art and museums.

N. S.: Do you think this has become a common approach?

A. Z.: It may not have become common, but very often we try to solve the problem with steps that do not work. Of course, it's nice to return to intra-shop solidarity, to pre-modern working support, when colleagues and friends can pat us on the shoulder, but on the global level, this does not solve the problem. We should not regress to these pre-modern forms but reinforce existing ones, even if they now seem counterproductive. It's great when an initiative arises, self-organization is created, but I always keep in mind that this is the support of artisans against large institutions. It is better to look for self-organization of self-organizations. Institutions should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and we, artists, should help them. Such self-organization would be much better than fighting an institution. The position “we will engage in self-organization and go underground” is the position of the neo-Luddites: all machines are bad, so we should crush them. Such a call works on some level, but then everything repeats itself. This is a vicious circle that needs to be broken by strengthening institutionalization and artificiality.

All this can be found in the projects of the 1920s and 1930s: they rejected the artist as well as individual achievements and moved towards a more complex mode of production. There were people who brought art to the masses, engaged in brigade creativity, their methods tried to meet social demand. Fedorov-Davydov [5] showed another example: a museum laboratory that rejects art but retains it as a specific practice in the history of capitalism. His Marxist exhibitions were very fluid, he presented them as a transitional, not yet established model. But this model brought the future closer, it was an attempt to solve problems that we began to approach only in the 60s and 70s, together with conceptualism, institutional criticism, art of appropriation, etc. We still live with these unresolved problems.


The experiments of Fedorov-Davydov were essential to me, but now they cannot be fully used due to the lack of necessary historical conditions. However, we can still refer to his experiments in the same laboratory mode. They allow us to create scenarios for the potential history of future art, and perhaps their evolution will be actualized.


N. S.: How was the museum transformed in the avant-garde projects of the MPC and the Complex Marxist Exhibition of Fedorov-Davydov?


A. Z.: I describe it as a kind of the second stage of the process started in the historical avant-garde. As you know, the artists associated with the avant-garde were generally quite negative about museums. They stated that it was necessary to take control over a museum, but not to fundamentally reinvent it. Of course, the desire to take over the museum is historically justified, but there was not enough time for significant changes.


For me, MPC was a progressive institution, although it could not go beyond the basic settings of a contemporary art museum. It proposed to take control of purchasing commissions, allowing new art to freely express itself: the art of pure forms, abstract art, i.e. art that postulates democratic means against old academic hierarchical art. As an artist, I understand this approach. You always want to control museum commissions so that your artwork and that of your friends are bought, so that education departments talk about the importance of your art. But the value of MPC lies precisely with the intention to clarify the development of art, in considering art as a science, etc. 


Therefore, the MPC’s laboratory cabinet was more complex for me than the entire institution. Nikritin's [6] ideas, which were based on Bogdanov's [7] "tektology", go beyond just good exhibiting of avant-garde artists. The logic of the Bogdanov project and his work in Proletkult led to a radical transformation of the museum organization, perhaps against his own taste and limitations in art. The Proletkult Museum was supposed to go beyond institutional boundaries towards life. Such examples were, in particular, “avalanche exhibitions”, the text of which I published in the Avant-garde Museology [8]. From this point of view, a museum as an archive or even an educational laboratory (as Brik writes) is good, but it differs from the ambitious goal of productivist’s artists, which remained in the projects that I define as experimental museology of the 1920s and 30s.

The Fedorov-Davydov project historically derived from the MPC, for example, was recently shown in the exhibition held at the Tretyakov Gallery. It ended with a hall of photographs of a Marxist Exhibition and a newspaper clipping saying that the costs of the avant-garde are now over. I.e. the curatorial message for the viewer was: "everything was fine until the sociologists came". At the same time, according to the documents, Fedorov-Davydov tried to preserve the legacy of the MPC and the Laboratory Cabinet. He talked about the need to include the laboratory so that everyone could get additional information about art. In this sense, the catalog for the exhibition was better, in my opinion, than the exposition. It was a well-founded, academic publication that made materials about art history and institutional development of art more accessible.

Fedorov-Davydov took a step towards the institutional art production organized on another level. A similar shift had happened when conceptual art emerged almost half a century later. Obviously, conceptual art was completely different from what was previously called “art”. What Fedorov-Davydov did differed from the MPC in the same way, although he developed, radicalized and transformed in every way some of the Museum’s intuitions. On the one hand, this complexity seemed to open up hermeticism and hegemony of the artist’s potential emancipation. On the other hand, the form of the Marxist Exhibitions was very unusual and drew criticism from the new proletarian audience. They were offered a difficult path that required more than just mastering the history of the pictorial form.

N. S.: What role is given to the viewer in the exhibition projects of avant-garde museologists like Fedorov-Davydov? Can we trace a transformation of this role in contemporary museology?


A. Z.: Museums turned to the audience a long time ago. But what kind of turn is it? Is there a profit behind it or an idea of ​​building something in common? As I said, the Fedorov-Davydov’s concept was criticized, among other things, for its closedness. I read a review of art-concerned proletarians, worrying that the exhibition didn’t consider their interests and worked in the “art for art” mode. This accusation is partly justified, but there are many nuances. Fedorov-Davydov saw his Marxist Exhibitions as transitional to new proletarian art, which would be created by a class without mediation or by a classless society in general. He had special educational rooms and many tools for self-education. But were they adequate to that situation and audience?


Right now, my colleague Maria Silina, together with the Centre for Experimental Museology, prepares a book on the intellectual context of experimental museological projects of the 1920—30s, which is to be published in joint project with the V–A–C publishing house and the New York Bard Graduate Center. It shows Fedorov-Davydov's approach to avant-garde artists. In particular, he believed that Malevich was important as an artist-critic, and played a significant role as a political fighter for the future [9], and as a person who opened up opportunities for what we now call design. That is, Malevich's non-objective art was an important intermediate stage for criticism, which had to be overcome after the revolution. Since this did not actually happen, he had to be criticized.


Fetishizing a critical reception was unacceptable for Fedorov-Davydov, and he did what I call "criticism of criticism". For example, Experimental Complex Marxist Exhibition had a stand with a black square and a signature stating that bourgeois art (in this case, the art of the avant-garde) is at the dead-end of formalism and self-denial. Art seemed to be preserved, but an obvious gesture was made, similar to what art made with a religious icon: it cleared the visuality, plasticity, three-dimensionality of religious meanings by placing them in the history of art. Here the same gesture is applied to art history itself. As Walter Benjamin from MoAA (Berlin) [10] says, we need a de-artization of art. The first Marxist exhibitions carried out this de-artization. Everything we know about contemporary art today came out of the MPC, but indirectly through the New York MoMA. MPC is a typical example of the later Alfred Barr’s approach, which became the basis for the canonical representation of contemporary art in contemporary art museums.


What role does the viewer play here? The same as in a contemporary art museum. It is primarily the role of a passive culture consumer in front of a certain professional who explains everything. But as the viewer enters the context of art and cultural context returns to the masses, then the professional audience gradually reappears. They are enlightened by the context and canons of contemporary art: the canons of individual freedom and liberal values. This is the limit of contemporary democracy. Art there is still a ghetto where unsolvable social contradictions are being solved.


N. S.: You often create exhibitions as museum exhibits based on fictional stories: how much does this relate to “grandstanding”? In other words, you use themes that are popular with a certain audience, which willingly or unwittingly involves other groups of viewers. How important is the “character” approach for such projects?


A. Z.: No, I would not say that I use a "grandstanding" method. My art can hardly be called popular, although I try, as Godard bequeathed, to work on two fronts. On the one hand, an artwork is valued based on the strict professional criteria of the art system, on the problems that I face as a professional. On the other hand, artwork should be open, democratic, etc. For me, the balance between these poles determines the quality. It is somewhat similar to the impossibility of simultaneously detecting the position of the point and the impulse.


There are two kinds of viewers: professional and non-professional. The professional viewer looks at how this or that statement solves certain current problems. The amateur one understands this not with the approach of an engineer, but one in which intellectual, political and aesthetic effects that an artwork provokes are considered. Metaphorically speaking, the professional viewer knows how the car works and is happy with the new engine valves, since now it accelerates to one hundred kilometers in 3.2 seconds faster than before. And a layman’s approach is when you are driving a car, and you feel comfortable, you are pleased with its color, smell, soft seats, etc. Ideally, when these two poles are balanced, we have a good car and good artwork.


For the first type of viewer, I create static models — this is a laboratory work, i.e. I am trying to make these machines useful for professionals. Non-static models are role-playing games, where the audience is more actively involved in an action that often goes beyond the territory of contemporary art. Static and non-static models are based on assumptions close to the Fedorov-Davydov’s ideas and avant-garde museology: they do not produce art but manipulate it. In role-playing games, since they are theatrical and playful, this line shifts even further, i.e. the viewer is much more involved, as, for example, in the trainings of the Institute for Mastering of Time [11]


The character approach is to me just a convenient method. My projects usually deal with situations that come after art and are located in a future. I try to turn cosmist’s intuitions into reality, at least as models are concerned. But I can hardly hope that I will keep my physical and mental form for the distant sectors of the future, when these models will be fully implemented.

1. More about the exhibition: https://v-a-c.org/en/projects/carte-blanche/moscow-diaries


2. Museum and Gallery website: http://www.mg-lj.si/en/


3. Besides Moderna galerija, L'Internationale includes SALT (Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey), MACBA (Barcelona, Spain), Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, the Netherlands), M HKA, (Antwerp, Belgium), MSN (Warsaw, Poland) / NCAD (Dublin), HDK-Valand (Gothenburg) and Museo Reina Sofía (Madrid, Spain). L'Internationale website: https://www.internationaleonline.org 


4. In December 2020, Zdenka Badovinac was removed from the position of Director of the Moderna galerija. Until the end of the public tender for the director’s position, the Gallery was led by poet, writer and art historian Robert Simonišek. Source: https://www.rtvslo.si/kultura/robert-simonisek-bo-v-d-direktorja-moderne-galerije/544791

In April 2021, comparative literature expert Aleš Vaupotič has been appointed the new director of Moderna galerija. Source: https://www.total-slovenia-news.com/lifestyle/8095-ales-vaupotic-named-new-director-of-moderna-galerija 


5. Aleksey Fedorov-Davydov (1900—1969) was an art historian, from 1929 to 1934 head of the Department of new Russian art at the Tretyakov Gallery. During his work at the museum, he created the Experimental Complex Marxist Exhibition, where museum objects were organized according to Marxist sociology, and the art history was shown as the history of class struggle. Besides artworks, the exhibition included folk and craft art, economic and statistical information, political context. 


6. Solomon Nikritin (1889—1965) was an artist, art theorist, one of the founders and directors of the Projection Theater Workshop, head of the Analytical Cabinet at the MPC. From the end of 1923 the Workshop operated in the Central Institute of Labor (CIL), using the principles of CIL: plays were based on an accurate account of the strength, tempo and amplitude of movements and words. The main task of the Workshop was to present organized labor, "projections", i.e. to transfer labor movements into formalized plasticity. Nikritin's "projectionism" and analytical art history is based on the idea of scientifically grounded art. According to the theory, artwork operates as a system, in which combinations of internal elements and processes are analyzed. The results of Nikritin's analytical approach were shown in the Analytical Cabinet at the MPC. 


7. Tektology or Universal Organization Science is a scientific theory of the Russian scientist, social philosopher, revolutionary and Marxist, Lenin’s opponent, writer and ideologist of the Proletkult, first director of the Institute of Blood Transfusions Alexander Bogdanov (1873—1928). Tektology is considered to be the first system theory, long before the concept of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. Tektology can be understood as a structure, a construction that unites psychic and natural worlds. According to this concept, nature and culture are not opposed to each other, but are "organized" from complexes (here Bogdanov builds on the ideas of E. Mach). The decade from 1916—1919 to the end of the 1920s is filled with the ideas of Tektology: ideas of construction, connection between artistic form-making and life-building in the texts and works of Russian avant-garde artists, ideas of psychology of creativity and creativity as an integral part of life evolution, mythology of technique as a unity of man and machine, etc. Bogdanov's ideas were important for Solomon Nikritin.


8. Avant-Garde Museology. Arseny Zhilyaev (ed). E-flux classics and V–A–C, 2015. 630 p., ill. For more information, see: https://www.e-flux.com/books/66663/avant-garde-museology/


9. This refers to the 1929 Malevich exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery, curated by A.A. Fedorov-Davydov. According to I. Vakar, during the preparation for the exhibition there was a radical re-dating of artworks: Malevich dated the new works with the years of the "pre-suprematist" period. After the exhibition, most of the artworks were transferred to the collection of the Russian Museum. See: Vakar I. K. Malevich's exhibition in 1929 at the Tretyakov Gallery // Russian Avant-garde. Problems of representation and interpretation. Collected conference materials. St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, 2001. P. 121—138 (In Russian).


10. The Museum of American Art in Berlin is an educational institution dedicated to the critical rethinking of the American canon of contemporary art. The MoAA is reconstructing significant American exhibitions by making copies of the works displayed there. The purpose of the institution is to demonstrate how art history, told from the perspective of the American art community, has become a natural methodology around the world. Museum website: http://museum-of-american-art.org/


11. Institute  for Mastering of Time is an organization with the mission to “enhance the historical continuum”, a part of role-play game by Arseny Zhilyaev and Asya Volodina. For more information, see: https://garagemca.org/en/event/1597-seconds-a-game-by-arseny-zhilyaev-and-asya-volodina