Hope that all is well on your side — we were really worried about your health after information had spread early spring.
I was asked to write you a first letter in this chain of our reflections on the situation with art, education, participation and all other familiar topics.
I guess that we both received this invitation to participate in this forum last November. I remember vividly that I first double checked my itineraries and calendar before confirming. It was full of arrangements — exhibitions, conferences, teaching at many locations… Luckily, I was supposed to be in town and with big pleasure I confirmed the invitation. Also, I saw your name and a few other names of old friends whom I could hardly imagine seeing in my home town. I imagined I would show all of you around, to bring you into some special canteens and have some fun at our Rosa House of Culture and our school. I also hoped our ways would cross in NY in September where we were invited to come for the installation of our work at the Signals show at MOMA… But then what happened happened, we are still in the midst of a pandemic while everything keeps falling apart. Our economies are ruined, our politics are poisoned, we can hardly know what will be possible to do next week and when it ends.
Now I feel deeply sad, a kind of light fatigue and depression. This time the virus is returning together with the Russian seasonal melancholia — when you enjoy the leaves changing colors anticipate the cold and snow. However, this year it is mixed up not with inner silence but with deep anxiety and fear.
Well, I keep looking at this nice and important set of questions which could excite me a year ago and do not know what to say. What can we say? Who will listen to it and read it carefully? You know that in this conversation I am somewhat responsible for giving some reflections from a local perspective — from the desperate Russian situation, which emanates from its center (Moscow) to the borders as you see now in Belarus, Kirgizstan, Khabarovsk, Karabakh…
You and me are the same generation. Speaking from Russian side I can hardly remember such a level of social disintegration, lack of air, cynicism and disorientation. Our collective Chto Delat has been countering these tendencies for 17 years. Every time you feel like starting from scratch. For the last 7 years we have been running our educational platform here — the School of Engaged Art. I hope that we managed to "indoctrinate" more than 150 people who now share this feeling of lonely struggle. Now we are a community which has seriously shaped the whole alternative local scene. We care about it and somehow it works. At least we gathered a substantial number of people with whom you could share good and intimate relations, personal and professional.
Have you ever heard anything about local artistic life? Do you follow some people? I doubt it — it is not really visible from the outside and now at the time of collapse of international connectivity and fragmentation it is hard to gain attention and visibility. But this moment of stoppage of travel provides a unique chance to focus more on life here and now. As Donna Haraway reminds us: you have to be here, not everywhere.
Sorry for this long chat. Let me try to speculate around proposed questions on participation from my local and subjective point of view. Now that we are mostly limited to "screen participation", when most workshops are criminalized because you cannot provide a proper social distancing (by the way — what a term! Totally misleading — instead of speaking about hygienic distance or safe distance — we got used to this new lexicon which endangers our social bonds), when we cannot see faces and engage in emotional contacts through smiles, touch, smell, it is very hard "to return" into the discussion of participating in the way it used to be. But I still remember how exciting it was!
Still, it makes sense to explain what I mean when I talk about this expanded idea of participatory projects. In comparison to other artists in the world who are big experts and masters of participatory art and community work I have a rather limited experience. We, as the collective Chto Delat, sometimes create art projects which involve people and communities under certain protocols of participation. I prefer to speak here on the position of participatory educational platforms. The participants of such projects have different possibilities to shape the process of common learning. Here I would emphasize the process of commoning the learning production.
The form of governance of such platforms I would call "diagonal": neither vertical, nor horizontal. It is not patronizing but based on engaged equality. It means that we are dealing with the same urgent issues and share our not-knowing.
Our responsibility is to cultivate the ground which could welcome and help different seeds to grow. Also, we as initiators are taking responsibility in redistribution of resources. For example all programs must be free for participants, participants should get material support for the realization of their educational tasks, and ideally get a scholarship which covers their living costs at the time of process. And if any "products" appear as the result of this collaboration then it should be released under creative common license and publicly distributed for the benefit of the community.
Participation protocols always reveal a structural difference between participants which is kind of a generic feature of such type of work. You always have someone who is initiating (de facto an author) and you always face a conflict of temporalities — between temporal limits of concrete work (the course in the school or learning play, for example) and unlimited time of life of the art work and its "author". Of course, everytime the participants determine the situation based on certain pre-written agreement and you as initiator have to be very sensitive to the demands of your constituency — otherwise you can create an open call to which nobody will respond, or come to a community where you are not welcomed.
This situation can hardly be generalized. It can only be practiced specifically in our situation in Russia when certain issues and politics are marginalized, silenced and criminalized (like LGBT… issues for example, or any form of dissident activism). Sometimes you feel that what you're doing is not about participation or collaboration but a secret mission between accomplices. The mission which can be ruined at any moment. Like we feel now.
I apologize for these sad remarks but at the moment it looks like we have to switch from the politics of utopia (which was always our vision) to the sheer politics of survival. But we try to keep the horizon of emancipation in sight.
Warmest regards from beautiful and contagious Saint Petersburg
Symposium* discussions have been transformed into an exchange of emails between russian and foreign researchers, curators, educators and artists. In their personal correspondence, the participants reflect on questions proposed by curators of the symposium* and talk about issues that they find important at this critical time.
The participants of the correspondence were invited to reflect on the problems of participatory projects. These projects are conceived by artists, curators and educators with good intentions to include participants from a non-artistic environment in the cultural process.
Carolina Rito, Laurence Rassel, Felicity Allen and Françoise Vergès have been invited to start a written correspondence on the crucial topic of power relations in cultural institutions and their consequences on processes of institutional archiving.