Educate, Entertain, Inspire – An interview with Dmitry Vilensky of ‘Chto Delat?’

Tower Songspiel, a videopiece by Chto Delat

Dmitry Vilensky is an artist, writer, and founding member of Chto Delat?/What is to be done?, a collective platform of artists, critics, philosophers and writers. Initiated in 2003, the collective acts at the intersection of political theory, art and activism. Vilesnky lives and works in St. Petersburg.

Merijn Oudenampsen (MO):  In your talk at the SKOR symposium on art and health care, you mentioned that health and care are not neutral concepts. We know that since early modernity, the regulation of health, sexuality and hygiene has been one of the principal concerns of state power; the doctor’s white garb one of the vestiges of its authority. Labor productivity concerns played a central role in the founding of modern healthcare. Presently, the regulation of healthcare seems to be best understood as a form of semi-privatized risk-management, presided over by the entanglement of insurance agencies, pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment. Now, the artistic research of Chto Delat is reworking some of the ideas within the Soviet avant-garde current of Productivism. Up to what degree did Soviet modernity uphold any different understanding of healthcare and productivity than the West? How did the avant-garde relate to the logic of productivity plans and what is it that we can learn from that experience?

Dmitry Vilensky (DV): In general, the Soviet Union followed the same Fordist approach relating to the effective reproduction of the labor force. But there are some important nuances that we should be attentive to.

In the West it seems that the concept of care is very much related to the reproduction of the status quo. In the Soviet Union, in its first twenty years when the avant-garde played an important role in the formation of a new cultural agenda for the new soviet state, it was about building completely new forms of life and developing a radical approach in overcoming obsolete forms of organization of everyday life which were inherited from the old tsarist past. And the avant-garde was amazingly inventive – I would say that even in our post-Fordist time we can still be inspired by many of their unrealized discoveries.

What is important to mention here in the context of our talk is the fact that soviet ideology did not simply subjugate the formation of subjectivity to the plain productive task of industrial labor. The main objective that was imposed on society was that of constructing new human beings capable of fulfilling all the emancipatory aspirations of the previous epoch. So a person living in the Soviet Union was only considered healthy when he/she was able to combine physical training and the ABC of hygiene and food balance with a profound involvement in cultural and political activities. To give an example – the working day at the factory would start with a very sophisticated set of physical exercises in the morning (this we can interpret as a kind of sport preparation for a heavy working day) but then all workers would switch to so called political formation when for about an hour they would discuss let’s say the situation of revolutionary struggle in Spain or the left deviations expressed by some party members. So these forms of activity cannot be simply reduced to worker productivity – it was clear to everyone that the goal of increasing productivity was a means and not an end – the real goal was the construction of communism for the next generations, the realisation of the true potential of humanity and so on.

It could be very fruitful here to make a comparative analysis of the famous film scene from Bertolt Brecht’s Kuhle Wampe, which depicts a sport celebration and competition organized by the German workers movement, with a more or less similar scene of sport representation in Nazi culture (Leni Riefenstahl) or in late Stalinism. And you can see the difference – because what you see in Kuhle Wampe is a manifestation of a comradely spirit of celebration, of generic collective power and not a show of disciplined bodies for the gaze of the leader, or Fuhrer.

There was a connection made between health issues and creative practices through the politics of workers culture houses that embraced the whole array of different activities from sports to DIY music and dance lessons, painting, film and photos, popular journalism and educational theatre. And then there were the results of the introduction of a modern, free for all health care system – in a very short period of time – which until the sixties could compete with all the industrial countries. It managed to increase life expectations, to defeat old epidemic diseases, to lower the infant mortality rate to one of the lowest in the world and so on. But again I want to emphasize that health in itself was not a goal – it was a means for reaching a much more ambitious project of a new humanity.

From my point of view the contemporary concept of care is something opposite to the idea of emancipation and empowerment. So there is an urgent need to reconsider the concept of care in a more radical emancipatory way. If it is not possible to do it at this historical moment then may be it would make sense to leave this concept to all the noble social workers who are trying to save our brutal world from more extreme forms of barbarity

MO: One of the ideas that attests to the controversial political status of health, is the classical maxim of “mens sana in corpore sano“, (“sound mind in a sound body”) appropriated by the gymnastic body cult of Fascism and actually existing socialism, and currently in use in military academies all over the world. The maxim, however, stems from the satirical work of the Roman poet Juvenal and should be read in an ironic sense, as to say “wouldn’t it be nice to have a sound mind in a sound body?”, subtly implying this is generally not the case. Is this something we can recuperate today, in a time that still suffers from a body fetish observable through obsession with the physical presentation of self, with fitness and plastic surgery? How does Chto Delat’s concern with subjectivation and transfiguration relate to the above?

DV: The current obsession with health culminating in the anti-tobacco campaigns and the cult of ecological food is very repressive from my point of view. Of course I do not want to advocate a cult of self-destruction or living dangerously – not at all, but there is something suspicious in the way it is realized today. If you go deeper there is a certain degree of freedom in wasting yourself and throughout the past generations there was another cult of “live fast, die young” because there were always some values in life that people recognize as much more important than the limited physical life of your body – healthy or not. Right now it is quite obvious that we are forced to live in a world where the highest value is attributed mostly to the pleasures of our bodies – the hedonist approach remains uncontested, as the highest point of civilization and only archaic fundamentalist movements keep trying to resist it by brutal means of terror and irrational self-sacrifice. But despite all speculation of a so-called risk society, our time is trying to escape any risk at any price.

But one has to risk something – your wealth, your health, your position by committing yourself to some unattainable goals and missions in the here and now, to sacrifice yourself for the other, for your kids for many things that are bigger than you. We lack such an approach in a first world of healthy pensioners. I do not know how to break this vicious circle but I think that we should find an inner balance between waste and accumulation, asceticism and hedonism, to learn how to operate with our desires and channel them into some value shared with the other.

MO: Let’s turn toward your art practice. Your forage into Russian Productivism is driven by a desire to rework Schiller’s classical project of Bildung, or aesthetic education. As a remedy for the individualist and bourgeois nature of Schiller’s project, you put forward Boris Arvatov’s notion of art as an instrument of life construction. How would you translate these ideals to the present?

DV: Well, many people already worked on this translation from the individualist and bourgeois perspective into the materialist and collective one. The Russian avant-garde and communist ideologues took this task really seriously. Today the biggest problem is that many of these concepts have become abused by entertainment, life style and pop culture, which put forward the “false” subjectivity of the hedonist prosumer. If you revisit our everyday lives filled with an amazing number of cheap and functional products – take IKEA, HEMA, any chain of clothing shops or fast food restaurants – you can definitely see how the dreams of constructivism came true but with the exemption of its emancipatory meaning. The new spirit of capitalism learned a lot from communism: the abolition of the separation between labor and leisure, between play and pedogagy, between high and low culture etc. Combining many old oppositions into a new totality, capitalism managed to embrace all the best achievements of the previous epoch but implemented them into a highly segregated world order where affluence of the “chosen few” is based on the slavery of all the others, whereas the socialist planners envisioned a world based on egalitarianism and a fair distribution of the quality of life between all people in the world. But I try to maintain a “Negrian” optimism – at the moment we have many new material precondition for the proliferation of the commons. Its fate will be the main struggle of future generations.

MO: Baudelaire once called the art market a friendly abyss, able to absorb and contain the radical impact of art through its destructive tolerance. Particularly these last years we’ve seen that radical art practice and theorizing have become somewhat of a trend. Chto Delat has also been riding these waves. How do you preserve the critical impact of your work, once embraced by established institutions?

DV: First I think that we should demand another temporality and not operate in the shallowness of trends and the limited time span of what is considered contemporary. Trends and fashion come and go. Frankly there is just one stable trend that lasts over time: to be successful. I strongly oppose the idea that true political art has a direct or immediate relation to society – or should be charged on the principle of social efficacy. Let’s say I consider that we’ve achieved the first result of our collective activity in Russia only now, after seven years of work. This is not because we are exhibiting in Russia a lot (we are not exhibiting there at all) and not because there is a political trend in local culture (also nothing significant to talk about) but because I started to see a new generation that was developed through our community work and our shared practices.

I keep hoping that real art and knowledge have a more prolonged effect on people’s minds and society at large. But to reach it, to make that knowledge become a social fact you need to position your work transversally – inside and outside of the established institutions – and create your own institution which is based on another set of principles of valorization.

MO: You have said that you prefer the position of being at once inside and outside of the institution. In a similar vein, others have mentioned strategies such as that of the Pipe Bomb and the Trojan Horse: denunciation and infiltration. What is your strategy? How do you manage to establish a situation of comfort in such a mangled position, or how do you make the tensions it generates productive?

DV: First of all we do not seek a comfortable position and I am very skeptical about whether such a position could exist at all. Maybe for those who prefer to do nothing. We are not so afraid of getting our hands dirty. We don´t feel too implicated to wage antagonist quarrels and to use different means of production for our enunciations on a temporary basis. We have a quite clear and basic set of rules when it comes to collaboration with other institutions and sponsors (they are formulated in our declarations): allow free, non-commercial distribution of our work, maintain the arm’s length principle, no advertising on our work, try to keep the logo´s out (we have to compromise from time to time but always put pressure on not publishing them) and then we have many internal rules for working collectively.

MO: In the Netherlands particularly, there has been a loss of public legitimacy of the arts, resulting in the current political attacks on the art sector, and the budget cuts that threaten to destroy much of the infrastructure of contemporary, experimental or critical art. The art scene, meanwhile, has proven rather inept at defending its own public legitimacy. It seems that a renewal of the old idea of Bildung could play an important role here. How does one deal with the demand for accessibility and spectacularization that pops up when it comes to relating to larger audiences?

DV: I should note that in contrast with other politicized and activist practices we were never afraid of accessibility and spectacularization – we even think that it is the most important thing for real political activity. As Brecht said, “educate, entertain, inspire”. Any truly educational practice needs to start from the basis of entertainment, of course not in the sense of a phony TV show. I hope that there is a possibility of touching people’s hearts and minds without reducing the aesthetics to “culinary” pleasures. But pleasurable it should be and it should be a pleasure that is accessible to the many and not just to the educated few. And we should stop expressing just “opinions” when right wing people come and tell “the truth” – we must confront them with another truth – then we might manage to win the attention of the many.

Published in: Andrea Phillips and Markus Miessen (eds) Caring Culture: Art, Architecture and the Politics of Public Health. Sternberg Press 2011,