Leaving the control zone

Viewer in the context of museum globalization seminar 03.09.19

Discussion participants:


Vystavka v kustah (Art Exhibit in the bushes): Maxim Whippet, Veronika Aktanova


Starting point — forest (Pobegi [Sprouts]): Daniil Dvinskih, Liubov Donkova, Ekaterina Snegireva, Vladislav Ovcharenko, Daria Abdullina, Polina Parfenova


Dungeons&Stuff: Sergey Babkin, Irina Gorbacheva, Nikita Nechaev, Alexander Priymachenko


Place of Art project: Amalia Avezdzhanova, Polina Lukina, Tatiana Mironova, Natalia Smolianskaïa


Anna Assonova — curator, independent researcher


Anastasia Ambrosova, Ekaterina Bychkova, Ilya Izotov — seminar participants

In this seminar, participants discussed exhibits that are held in places not meant for showing art: forests, fields, wastelands, abandoned spaces. Can we call them “escapes from institutions” or is this something different?


Such initiatives are usually collective, i.e. decisions are made together about location, participants, and archiving. However, these exhibits are often inaccessible to the “outside” viewer who does not belong to the organizers' close circle. Why do these practices emerge again? Is such exclusiveness becoming one of the specifics of these projects? And how do the organizers see the place of the viewer?


Vystavka v kustah (Art Exhibit in the bushes) [1]

Maxim Whippet (M. W.): Our project is called Vystavka v kustah (Art Exhibit in the bushes). We wanted to move away from the white walls because many art projects die within it without a living context. We don’t like the word "curator" and curatorial texts, since we feel that it is important to create a horizontal structure. Often in the art exhibit there are several paintings, 28 texts, with everyone claiming that this is a good exhibit: it is not. I imagine, for example, America in the 70s, where people have been thinking about the relationship between text and wall, painting, and space for many years. And what we have here is an imported white cube: no one understands why it is necessary, but everyone is confident deep inside that it “should” be done. Therefore, we decided to do everything as we "should not".


Veronika Aktanova (V. A.): When we say that artists and curators leave the white cube and go to “other” places, we need to consider each case separately. Someone leaves to check, try, understand something, and someone does that because no one invites him/her to other exhibits. And if some gallery invites him/her, then she can change her mind and take part in the exhibit.

M. W.: We searched for a word which could describe our practices and came up with "plein air". In this format you do not think about a result, a career or a curator who can select you for some art exhibit. You are free to do anything, and not be afraid to screw up because the people who will see it are your friends. 


Natalia Smolianskaïa (N. S.): How did you start to make those art exhibits?


M. W.: I graduated from the Rodchenko Art School and when my group mates did something successful they immediately turned to museums and began to replicate their works. And it seems to me that you cannot leave this School and become an artist immediately, you can only acquire some tools. An artist is not someone who makes art products for a gallery. Such artists get into institutions by chance, through connections. This is not about art, but about its capitalist side. For example, if we are invited to an exhibit, we need to censor and narrow ourselves, think about the opinion of the gallery owner.


Tatiana Mironova (T. M.): Is this request to narrow yourself internal or external?


M. W.: It is both. When you collaborate with an outsider for barter (money or premises), it is not very nice to take a stand “I’m an artist, I want to put curse words everywhere, and you do whatever you want with it”. I think an art exhibit should be the result of joint efforts and satisfy all participants. So, in order to cover everything with curse words, we rented a workshop on Fonvizinskaya next to the old railway with a row of trees 300 meters long and 30 meters wide separating the railway and garages. The trees seemed to be a public space: homeless people and drug addicts lived there in their shacks, decent women walked their dogs, and schoolchildren were discovering the joy of cheap alcoholic drinks. This was not a bar or a leisure center, but a hole in the fence, through which you could come in and see something. We realized that this was a public space and a no man's land at the same time, and were glad that we could occupy it.


T. M.: By "we" you mean students of the Rodchenko Art School?


M. W.: I invited my friends, even those who have nothing to do with contemporary art. Those who make something artistic, who are interested not in building an artistic career in a museum, but in hanging on a pine-tree the work they made that week. We decided that we would not dismantle the works: it would be our open-air museum. There is a kind of play with how your object is destroyed: some will end up the next day in the barbecue fire, and some will last for a long time.


T. M.: These are therefore not found objects?


M. W.: No, they are completely artificial. During the preparation, we held several meetings. We came up with the idea that the bushes themselves could be a theme, since they have some kind of chthonic Mamleev’s [2] atmosphere that we called a “standard Russian mirage”.


T. M.: Did you meet random viewers?

M. W.: The most interesting story happened when we received a call from decent young girls-artists saying that the head of one of the art galleries near the Kremlin wanted to know who we are because she walks her dog in this exact place. I called her later, afraid that I would be lectured, and that we would have to get out, but on the contrary, she was completely delighted and only wanted to compliment us.


T. M.: And were those drug addicts and homeless people somehow involved in the process?


M. W.: Once I made a photographic sculpture, a full-length cardboard figure of policemen, which I placed into a snowbank. Some drug addicts first tried to get money from me for the photographs of my own work, but then I asked them:

— Did you take photographs yourselves?

— Yes.

— Then you have to pay me because this is my work.

They were super happy. They said: “We were walking, then saw — cops! But made of cardboard!".

T. M.: When did you tell them that this was an art exhibit?


M. W.: We just said that we were artists having a festival. We always chose the date of a federal holiday for the exhibit so as not to disturb anyone. We tried to make 4 exhibits per season. In addition to the exhibit itself, we had parties and concert programs.


T. M.: Did you make an open event?


M. W.: Yes, we made a Facebook event. It created a problem for some time because greasy old men came and harassed the girls. We also had an open selection for participants. At first, we invited everyone, but then we set a condition to come to at least one meeting.

Our project is a festival after all because singing, alcoholic beverages and barbecue are also essential elements for the viewer. Because to look at these works, to be honest ... It is all made as a kitchen-table effort. In these works someone tests new techniques, someone makes it in a hurry just to participate.


V. A.: I disagree, many of the works are high quality and well-thought.


M. W.: Yes, some of them went later on to a museum.

Dungeons&Stuff [3]

Sergey Babkin (S. B.): When trying to define our project, every word seems out of place: project, team, initiative. Dungeons&Stuff is a series of meetings in different places: yards, stone-pits, quarries. Since 2017, we have been meeting in such places 2-3 times a year. It all started with a standard site-specific exhibit at our friend's dacha (country house). More people than we expected came up, so we decided to continue but not in the format of standard exhibits, which include preparation and curatorial concept, but rather in the format of a friendly meeting’s urgency. Someone finds a place and texts the group chat, which is a generating communicative form for us. In the course of several days something is organized without any discussions, agreements or theme. After showing this exhibit to friends, we leave without any traces.

The title of our project was picked up after the first exhibit dedicated to a fictional abandoned object in the dacha’s basement, where internal dramas took place between what was left there.


Irina Gorbacheva (I. G.): When we start a new exhibit, it is always in a very fast mode, so a particular organization of the production appears. 


S. B.: Opportunity for the meeting and the process of communication with each other are a large part of the art process.


M. W.: How do people get into or get expelled from your project?


S. B.: They are expelled only by free will, and if someone wants to join us, they can write to the chat.


M. W.: So, there are no limitations either. 


T. M.: Before someone writes to the chat, do you collectively discuss their application?


S. B.: No, just one of the participants adds a person and that's it.


N. S.: Does it happen that random people see your exhibit and join in?


S. B.: Usually our friends are the audience.


Daria Abdullina (D. A.): So your artists are your audience, and there is no one outside this ecosystem?


S. B.: We invite our friends, but the event is usually private. “Strangers”, random passers-by, whom we communicate (sometimes unpleasantly) with usually remain rather indifferent and take this event for granted.


Daniil Dvinskih (D. D.): Is it an intentional decision to keep the event private, not try to invite anyone?


S. B.: I think it is connected to making production easier.


M. W.: Do you make any product at the end of the exhibit, for example, Zine or catalogue?


S. B.: No, but someone can post on Instagram.


N. S.: So you are fully living in the era of sustainability, you have adopted a new philosophy that production must stop, so you do not leave any traces behind. Or do traces still remain?


S. B.: I don't remember that.

M. W.: Deinstallation is also a part of the process?


S. B.: We often do the installation and deinstallation of the exhibit together with the visitors.


N. S.: I'm still interested in a random viewer. The place under the bridge on Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills), which you showed, is famous. So, probably, there are people who notice your exhibits?


S. B.: They usually pass by.


N. S.: Are they shy or simply do not consider the exhibit as something related to art or constructive?


S. B.: Probably. It depends on the characteristics of the place. The viewer is an involved figure.


M. W.: If there are 12 of you, why don't you do it in an apartment? After all, you are not interested in interacting with random viewers, why go out to a public space if you are not interested in public communication? Also, you have no theme. Or does the place itself act as a theme?


S. B.: We are interested in the space itself and temporal and physical conditions in general.


T. M.: Your first exhibit was in a dacha, i.e. you have switched from private to public places?


S. B.: The public in these places is rather absent. This is a kind of unassuming, forgotten space.

D. A.: Was this a single project, or do you have a general approach when you make art not intended for the viewer?


S. B.: Everything in our group happens in this format. Institutionalized artists can participate in our project and have museum exhibits at the same time. Everyone occupies a certain position in the art field.


D. A.: I got the feeling that the artworks cannot be removed from these places because everything as a whole is an artwork.


S. B.: It’s true for some artworks, but that doesn’t mean that some of these have no value.


D. A.: Can we call it a total installation?


S. B.: We can, but total installation implies conceptualization of its being in this exact form. In our case, we are talking about the value of a situation where very different things meet. 

Starting point — forest (Pobegi [Sprouts]) [4]

Liubov Donkova (L. D.): The audience is very important to us, and we do our best to include them in the context of the event. Compared to others, we are very institutionalized: we have texts for artworks. We do not think that this is bad: viewers’ perception and their contact with the artists are important.


Polina Parfenova (P. P.): We had been preparing for our second exhibit for a long time, we have clearly defined the roles within the team, selected the artists.


D. D.: This was based on the first exhibit experience: we invited all our friends, and had a friend gathering as a result, not a meaningful exhibit. Visually, it was a mess.


P. P.: That’s why this year (2019) we made an open call, had a theme, a booklet with artists' texts about their works and also volunteers who accompanied guests. There were two stages with performances, musical events and lectures.


L. D.: We had completely different artists: ones from institutions as well as young and unknown.


D. A.: Almost all artists made installations, which was partly curated, since we wrote everywhere that we needed site-specific projects.


L. D.: Based on past experience, we noticed that people just brought pictures without thinking about where they brought them to.


Ekaterina Snegireva (E. S.): They were just trying to imitate a gallery in the forest.


L. D.: Last year we had an exhibit We will never get lost in this forest, and the name about the starting point came from the forest being the beginning and the end of everything. Therefore, the exhibit was divided into space, time, sound and light zones, but in the end it turned into a combination of all of these.


E. S.: We have divided a large forest area into several spaces and built bridges. Even though some events took place at the same time, one could walk and watch everything. This allowed us to make a very rich program.

N. S.: Did you announce these events?


P. P.: We actively announced it on social media, and also placed posters in different Moscow districts.


D. A.: Many people came, even artists who we did not expect, for example, Andrey Kuzkin.


M. W.: Did the Mounted Police visit you?


P. P.: Thanks God, no. We didn’t get any approval and broke many rules.


D. D.: At some point, we had a naked man standing upside down to his waist in the ground and another performer yelling like crazy at the top of his lungs. We were scared because we saw that some random people were standing on the hill and watching. We ran to them saying "don't worry, everything is fine, this is an exhibit!".

M. W.: Where did you get your budget?


E. S.: Crowdfunding.


P. P.: Of course, we chipped in. Despite looking for sponsors, trying to use advertising, we were completely ignored.


S. B.: I am surprised that in this format institutionality (crowdfunding, equipment rent) is understood as a form of activity. Because now I understand that in our project we got tired of institutions (Me and Nikita are institutional workers).


P. P.: I also worked in an institution and left it pretty quickly. It seems to me that the goals we pursued could be realized only by working in some structure, otherwise nothing would have happened.


M. W.: Do you have any hierarchy?


D. A.: We defined areas of responsibility, and in each one the decisions were made by one person only. I was responsible for the design, Liuba was responsible for the artists, we got together and discussed our local decisions.


D. D.: Now we want to expand this project and hold it more often. We feel that we have found a new way of art perception. For example, when I come to the Winzavod, I often get bored: it’s too self-absorbed. Our goal is to make something romantic, childish, but free from anything snobbish and elitist. We want to develop an approach to art with a feeling of freedom and lack of fear that you might say something wrong.


E. S.: We feel that people like it and need it. 


Amalia Avezdzhanova (A. A.): Did you start doing this because you were cramped in the art field?


E. S.: Most of us are artists, so initially we decided to exhibit our works and invite friends and acquaintances.


D. D.: We cannot say that institutions invite us, and we are like: "No, fuck you!". There is some kind of protest: I found it boring to exhibit artworks at institutions. But I am not saying that I will no longer exhibit in a museum because even inside it, you can protest and make it less boring. But within our format, I feel comfortable both as an organizer and as a participant.


E. S.: Speaking as an artist, I just want these projects to exist. This is one of the most enjoyable ways of being.

T. M.: We are used to thinking about these art exhibits in different places as an alternative to the main process. But those who participate in them combine two points of view: you can be an institutional artist or a curator and do such exhibits at the same time. Is it then no longer a protest as a rejection of the institutional binding, but simply a parallel reality?


S. B.: I never wanted to protest.


N. S.: But protest is protest anyway. If we remember the Dada exhibits and their "anti-art" concept — it was a protest against clichéd art. This was the first example of a vivid political statement, and we can also consider such exhibits as political.


M. W.: In this concept, everything is very bipolar. I think it happens a little differently. In Russia, perhaps the closest example of such practices is the Collective Actions group.


N. S.: Why do we always refer to the Collective Actions group and America’s 1970s? There was no audience in the actions of the Collective Actions group: everyone was both participants in the action, which often had no real action and meaning, and participants in a collective commentary letter, which created a field of additional meanings. This is the 70s. In the 1990s, the zAiBi [5] movement arose, in which people gathered, went to the forest, made performances, for example, the Day of the Unknown Artist and the festival One Hundred Flowers. They also did not have an audience: everyone was an artist, it was an act of collective creativity. These groups created their own mythology. Their practices differ from what was created in Europe and America, since the actions took place in gallery spaces where a visitor could view them. 


M. W.: I think this is a phenomenological issue because art can be considered as autonomous and exist without a spectator. Others say that if it is not installed in a museum, it is not art, i.e. art is determined by contact with a viewer and the type of contact. It seems to me that there is more art in a meeting with a viewer than in each individual object of art. People are not afraid that we are all doing something, and not really understanding what and why. But this establishes professional and non-professional connections and builds horizontal connections with a viewer.

I am not planning to do this all my life, but I realized a lot in the process, even though only 60 people come to our art exhibits rather than 600. To manage inviting 600 people, you need to understand a little bit about how to do something at all. And now you have a space where you can manage everything without looking back at the previous generation, at people who know how it should be done.


N. S.: Are these projects a collective work to you?


S. B.: For me, this is about communication, torn collective creativity, how collectivity can automate production in its artistic expression. Which means that a certain product is created from a collective setting through the connections between us.


N. S.: This means that your real product is connected with the relationships that arise.


I. G.: Yes, collectivity is important to me, perhaps since I participated in gallery exhibits, where there is a curator, a gallery space. In such projects, the distance to an artwork was the same, but I feel that the relationships between participants create an artwork in some measure.


V. A.: This collectivity rather extends to those who organize the exhibit.


M. W.: We are trying to artificially create some things because we are irritated with the way museums work today. But it is not a speech against museums. There is a certain inconsistency, and as a museum consumer and a young artist I do not understand why it is still necessary to hang everything on one level, with a text, since this does not follow either the logic of the work or the artist. Therefore, we tried to remove all these unnecessary steps to see what remains. Something remains.

I find it crucial to let people free themselves, and the Vystavka v kustah (Art Exhibit in the bushes) is a good exercise for this. It's like a sandbox, where you can suddenly revise some rules, and no one will run after you.

T. M.: When we say that a viewer is not important and inconvenient, it seems that there is a tension between having a random visitor coming and the freedom of a sandbox, where you can try anything. Why being afraid of a random viewer? Without viewers in your comfortable environment, you can do something new and interesting, but when someone random comes in, you cannot.


S. B.: We now use the word "viewer" meaning someone who comes to an art exhibit in a museum, institution, i.e. someone who is ready to meet with art, who came for acquiring knowledge. In our case, random viewers do not come for knowledge or special experience. I think such people cannot be considered as viewers, but rather curious individuals. Therefore, this question is not so relevant. Even a Facebook event is not about a random viewer, but about someone making a conscious decision by pressing the "going" button.


N. S.: The question of attitude towards a regular viewer already arises in your projects. You, in the Starting point, have attracted an audience. In the case of Dungeons&Stuff the case of the audience does not arise, since the action takes place within the network. This brings us back to the original question of museum globalization, when museums take over space so that everything is locked into a rigid framework. Something like new academism arises opposed to something free and spontaneous and in this process a spontaneous viewer is born. 

V. A.: I think the museum merging and occupying new territories is a direct reflection of the economic situation and the process of monopolization. We are heading towards a crisis of capitalism, and such initiatives are an unconditional protest against this big machine. 

Another point is that initiatives like ours either collapse at some point when childish romanticism and energy decrease, or they grow, go commercial and become elite and closed systems as, for example, Winzavod. At this point new collectives which chip in and resistance will start developing. This is a logical vicious circle that is built into the principles of social development. I am sorry, but I think that eventually we may not succeed.


P. P.: At that moment, it is important to me and the people I work with. There is a result that pleases me and which I believe in. As long as it exists, I will continue regardless of any research.


L. D.: This seminar is very important and useful to me because I experience what Veronika said that everything is cyclical, and that we will not succeed. However, it is still important to understand that we have a great opportunity to do something. It turns out that we are not alone, that we just need to constantly find new points of view. These points have just been addressed in this seminar. 


D. D.: Perhaps we will all collapse and go commercial, but maybe monopolized institutional systems may learn something because we have more freedom of maneuver.


A. A.: I think this seminar was not about the viewer, but about fatigue from the existing system and about three options on how to leave this system. Veronika's position is close to mine, that the viewer is not what we thought about in the first place.


Anna Assonova (A. Аs.): I think a viewer is not important for each of these projects because it’s a conversation about art from within, an attempt to find out your own attitude to art and to the situation around us. This is not a conversation with a viewer.


N. S.: It’s an illusion that there is no viewer. A certain viewer is always implied, since it’s a concept created in the public sphere. Museums now want to actively appropriate the public sphere, which activates a museum through interactive installations, art exhibits, performances, library’s openings etc. I suspect that the process of escaping the institutions is about avoiding control over the public sphere, where the viewer is created and controlled. Therefore, this forest, this place where we have personal communication, is a place beyond control, a workshop. On the one hand, it is a space that is separated from the everyday world and creates a different context, and on the other, it recreates a model and creates connections.


A. Аs.: Does a workshop include a viewer?


N. S.: Always. When an artist says that she does all this for herself, then she is a viewer, or there exists an ideal one. Have you noticed how small children draw? They do not watch what they are doing, the process is what is important to them. When the one who draws begins to step back and look, then the viewer’s attitude begins to develop.


P.S. By the time this issue was published, the projects Vystavka v kustah (Art Exhibit in the bushes) and Dungeons&Stuff announced their closing.

1. More about the project: https://www.facebook.com/vystavka.v.kustah


2. Yuri Mamleev (1931—2015) was a Russian writer, poet and philosopher, founder of the literary movement "metaphysical realism". 


3. More about the project: https://www.facebook.com/dungeonsnstuff


4. More about the project: https://www.facebook.com/pobegi.les


5. zAiBi (for anonymous and free art) was an art movement that emerged in Moscow in the 1990s. Members of the movement created audio and video art, actions and performances in the urban space.