Centres and Peripheries, Continued
The studies of East European art in the last decades have experienced diverse and emancipatory developments, with many significant inputs, explorations, (re-)writings and creations of new knowledge about their complex, parallel and simultaneously heterogenous histories from the socialist period. This course attempts to challenge the peripheral position of Eastern Europe within global art history; however, this process is not unbiased, highlighting some areas but overlooking others in the revisited art geographies. If the centre-periphery model is criticised as a typical relation between Western and East European art scenes, similar power-driven generalisations characterise the tradition of under-representation of different regional histories also within Eastern Europe itself, and especially in the post-Soviet space. As Latvian art scholar Māra Traumane writes, “it seems that the centre-periphery division that shaped the cultural processes in the Soviet Union, as well as the legacy of the past cultural and national policies, still influence the way how [these] regional histories are approached by local scholars, and as a consequence, by international researchers.”
As an attempt to question and to confront this politics of selectivity, in the present text I will sketch several parallel phenomena from former Soviet regional histories, namely, kindred artistic thinking in the work of few artists groups in Moscow and in Riga during the 1960s–1980s, who are part of the neo-avant-garde art in this region, but whose legacy is unevenly represented, bringing some of them into the spotlight of the recent history, while dismissing others.
These artists can be loosely related to two generations. The members of Dvizenije [Movement] Group in Moscow, the so called Rīgas grupa [Riga Group] and the Pollucionisti [Emissionists] Group in Latvia were mostly engaged in kinetic art, experiments with art and technologies and alternative visions to socialist reality in the 1960s and 1970s. The formative period of the KD—Kollektivnye Deystviya [Collective Actions] Group and the NSRD—Nebijušu sajūtu restaurēšanas darbnīca [Workshop of Restoration of Unfelt Feelings], engaged in the context of conceptual and performance art, is placed in the late 1970s and 1980s. None of these groups were closely related to each other, although some of Dvizenije and Rīgas grupa artists developed a professional friendship, and there were also clear links between the practices of Collective Actions and NSRD. I would argue that, notwithstanding considerable differences, these artists shared similar interests, exploring possibilities of creative freedom in a country where art was strictly controlled by political reality. They all engaged in hybrid, synthesis based, collective, collaborative and often participatory strategies, and related to the historical avant-garde art.
There are many elaborated researches published about the Dvizenije and KD groups, contextualising their artistic and discursive principles, social and ideological conditions, their relations to conceptual or participatory art. Much less is written about the above-mentioned Latvian artists, and the reason is of course their significantly lesser visibility at international level in regards to both the period of their activity and their later revisited legacy. The Dvizenije artists participated in seminal exhibitions such as New Tendency 3 in Zagreb in 1965, in Documenta 4 in Kassel in 1968 et al., and had publications in international journals. As part of the unofficial art scene, the Collective Actions Group gained its international recognition especially after 1989, with its members becoming protagonists of the history of global conceptualism. The artists in Latvia were much more isolated, even though they followed as much as they were able the new trends in the fields they were interested, and had contacts with likeminded artists in the region (their closest ties were with artists in Tallinn, in Moscow and in Kazan). The historicisation of their work in local and regional context as well is still an ongoing “project,” and the importance of their legacy is only slowly starting to be recognised in international research publications and exhibitions.
From the Dreamworlds to the Failures of Utopia
In the 1960s and 1970s a powerful platform for interdisciplinarity was kinetic art, which encouraged the development of the interest in space, environment and motion even more freely—as a physical activity and the involvement of the audience into the “happening” of art, dealing with a new type of space also in the context of a new social consciousness. Kinetic art ideally corresponded with the Soviet discourse on the interaction between art, science and technologies, which should lead to the creation of synthetic forms and would serve the needs of society and culture. Thus, it turned out as a Trojan horse, bringing into public the imagination that confronted the Soviet system. Both in Moscow and in Riga kinetic artists shared a similarly unclear institutional position, and used tactics of game between art and political reality. When necessary, they exploited the official rhetoric and its corresponding terminology, yet their work radically differed from required Soviet aesthetics and brought an alternative vision to its entropic reality.
Dvizhenije is often mentioned as the first art group in the Soviet Union working with art, technologies, and with cybernetics, and their projects showed “dreamworlds of cybernetic socialism or cyber-utopia.” Next to state-commissioned pavilions, exhibitions and large-scale project design for ideologic celebrations, they created kinetic light, colour and sound installations such as Flower (1965), Cyberevents and Cybertheater (1967)—aesthetic fantasies of programmed, interactive environments, presenting a simulation of life on a strange planet, populated by cyber-creatures who responded to the visitors’ presence. Most of their works were variations of the same ideas—the creation of an artificial, fantasy-based environment, where the interplay between human and nature, and the expansion of consciousness took place. They were captivated by technologies and the space age euphoria, and fused with optimism on the potential of technologies in social engineering, which would completely change the relations between human, machine and nature.
The Dvizenije artists emphasised synthesis as the main principle of their work, and performances and happenings were an essential part of their kinetic environments, improvised as mysterious encounters between humans and cyber-beings in space, full of synthetic wonders, such as flashing lights, transparent plastics, screens, mirrors, smoke, smells, sounds, etc. Also their experiments of “synthetic theatre” varied from public, carefully scripted kinetic performances, to private, spontaneously improvised “kinetic games,” extravagantly picturesque, surreal happenings, that took place on secluded places like forest glades, rocks by the sea, ruins of an ancient castle or uninhabited island.
The artists from Rīgas grupa, similar to Dvizenije, were captivated by the idea of creating new forms and of constructing alternative spaces. In their proposals for artificial, synthetic environments, visionary thinking mixed with technological experiments, and imagination merged with engineering and ideas of cybernetics. If in Moscow the kinetic artists played with the fantasies of the space age era and the world of the Soviet futurism, in the more peripheral Riga the scope was replaced by the aesthetic functionality that was oriented more towards visual and emotional comfort in the environment and metaphorically poetic thinking. Even if interested in technologies, they were more fascinated with the abstract forms and dimensions of the universe, and a pantheistic interpretation of the world, while their synesthetic, often meditative works aspired to explore the “mysterious, spiritual nature of art.” The poetic expression reflected the principles which dominated the art of this region, as well as the fact that the apolitical character was directly generated by the political context. For them as well, the essential principle was synthesis, which allowed to seek for both a new type of poeticism and functionality; by using movement, colour, light, optic and psycho-relaxing effects they alluded to the futurism of the avant-garde, to the references to ethnographic legacy, and the stylistics of Western op art and geometric abstraction.
However, by the end of 1970s, the ideas of synthesis also brought to the forefront more critical perspectives. Pollucionisti turned the early avant-garde idea of synthesis between art and life into interventions—even if just conceptual—in the Soviet environment. Their collaborative projects varied from visionary proposals for the urban space, interpreting the ideas of Soviet modernisation, to ironic and critical observations of daily reality that involved witty and paradoxical visual plays with the social and urban reality. Projects like the audiovisual arts centre Lighthouse (1978) merged inspiration from the heritage of the avant-garde with the futuristic solutions to the problematics of the city environment. Their project from the same year, titled Bizarred Riga, manifested an almost opposite tone, through a series of photomontages that caricatured typical problems of the Soviet environment, a disorganised and degraded cityscape, the contrast of the contemporary living space with the environment of the past, “imprisonment” in narrow living—and thought space—commenting “on the failures of the late Soviet system to meet not just its promises of utopia, but also its loud claims on beauty and utility.”
By expanding the potentialities of movement, the Riga artists employed also performative and even participatory elements, which involved the visitors in their experimental works. These varied from reflection on problematic relationships between humans, technologies and environment—as in the project On the Course of Conceptual Development in Design (1974) by Valdis Celms and Jānis Ancītis, where they manually projected slides onto various screens—, to inviting audience to merge with the The World in Rīgas Grupa’s exhibition Form. Colour. Dynamics (1978), by walking through a structure of projected, changing images as through the “multifaceted world, where past, present and the future merge together,” and to take part in the “happening” in the exhibitions Models (1978) and Toys for Grownups (1979) by Māris Ārgalis, where they could play with the exhibits, thus becoming co-creators of the art process.
Empty Actions and Approximate Art
The Artists from the Collective Actions group and the NSRD—Workshop for the Restauration of Unfelt Feelings chose a completely opposite strategy: escapism from any relation to the Soviet ideology and from its controlled space, finding an alternative to it somewhere on the unclear border between life and art, music, literature, philosophy (as the members and participants of both groups were not just artists, but also poets, musicians, architects, philologists). The early actions of both groups were private and ephemeral, focusing on the exploration and transformation of perception and consciousness of the participants to these events. Differently from the Dvizenije and Riga Group artists’ utopian visions of urban or artificial environments, they were creating a rather heterotopic space that avoided any social or political undertones.
That, however, also underlined their relation to the state, their opposition to the “commitment” to the Soviet regime was more aesthetic than political. As a clear mark of this opposition, Collective Actions were part of Moscow’s unofficial, or underground art, that formed in its own way an established circle, the Moscow Conceptualists. NSRD’s status was more fluid, compared to Russia, the distinction between official and unofficial art in Latvia was not so strict, in some cases their projects were held with the consent of official art institutions, but several other events involved only a narrow circle of like-minded people.
The name of Moscow Conceptualists is often accompanied by the attribute “romantic,” thus distinguishing them from their Western counterparts and commenting on their interest in a private, lyrical, or even mystical approach to art. One could question whether the term “romantic” does not also characterise the work of Dvizneije and Riga groups, though in more elaborated interpretations this term relates to one of the main concepts of Collective Actions work— “empty action,” that among other interpretations refer to Eastern spiritual practices (e.g. Buddhist concept of emptiness); another regional parallel to this is how NSRD artists described their artistic trajectory: an interest in “approximation,” as it is “the most human aspect, a necessary component of reality, and approximate art is all that exists between the heart and the coat, between Zen Buddhism and Californian high-tech philosophy.”
Already the very first action, Appearance (1976), by Collective Actions introduced the principles of their performances: the artists invited a group of spectators to the outskirts of the city, where they waited, not knowing what would happen, then several members of the group appeared out of the woods, making their way towards the participants and, when reaching them, they handed them a certificate for their attendance to the action. A number of other Collective Actions performances also took place on the outskirts of Moscow, in winter, in a white, snowy field, allowing to read the space as “a blank page,” a “clean, free space, the ideal site for aesthetic experimentations,” or even to relate it to historical avant-garde, e.g., Kazimir Malevich’s white monochromes. The participants to these actions were especially coming based on an invitation, they were friends of the artists (mostly other unofficial artists and writers), who had to follow weird instructions, “before witnessing a minimal, perhaps mysterious, and often visually unremarkable event. On return to the city, they would write an account of the experience and offer interpretations of its meaning; these subsequently became the focus of discussion and debate amongst the artists and their circle.” Thus, the most essential aspect of their actions was that what could not be represented, or, in other words, the internal process that took place in the viewer’s consciousness, experiencing a “state of expectation and confusion (“empty action”), and, at the same time, intrigue, since the boundaries of performance remained unclear both spatially and temporally right up to the end.” Collective Actions’ events were considered complete only through their interpretation, and the very permanent part of their work became the documentation, that included documents, photographs, diagrams, maps, reports, and commentaries of these ephemeral events. Full documentation of their actions was initially published as samizdat, later they printed books in a series of volumes, titled Journeys Outside the City. In these interpretations the peculiar aesthetics of Collective Actions’ works was described as “uncomfortable,” “vague,” “indeterminate,” “mysterious,” “elusive” or “untranslatable.”
The primary interest in subjective perception and feelings was also at the core of NSRD’ actions, that through a fusion of art and life was striving to turn the environment into a new experience of art—uncertain, ambiguous, unconventional, ironic and paradoxical, and with blurry boundaries of time and space. The atmosphere of the place was the main “material” of NSRD’ actions. The earliest of them, Walks to Bolderāja (1980–1987), were annual journeys along the railway to the outskirts of Riga on the border between daylight and darkness; each Walk was documented either through photographs, drawings, small notes, poems, video or recorded sounds. In Walks to Bolderāja one can see distant parallels with the everyday observations of the Pollucionisti Group in their walks through Riga, but instead of the bizarre views of the urban environment, that highlighted the problems of social and urban space, Walks to Bolderāja blended the feelings of the walkers with a contemplation of the processes of nature and time, and a more general reflection on the ambiance of the place and environment. However, these actions reveal also parallels to Collective Actions’ principles, the concept of their “journeys outside the city,” also in relation to their “empty actions,” or “zones of indistinguishability,” the term to which Andrei Monastyrsky referred as the moment when one could tell that something was happening but without clarity what exactly.
By mid 1980s, aiming to incorporate their ideas more fundamentally into an artistic context by fusing experimental art and music, NSRD members Hardijs Lediņš and Juris Boiko developed the concept and series of actions of Dr. Eneser’s Binocular Dance Lessons. The previously private, secluded actions-as-rituals turned into playful and public art events, mixing impulses from New Wave, postmodernism, communication theories and meditation practices. Soon after that they formulated concept of “approximate art,” commenting that it provides an impulse for the development of unexpected, autopoietic processes; the narrative of most of the works by NSRD was fragmented and blurry; a poetic atmosphere alternating with an absurd one, related to the concept of “approximate misunderstanding,” which was elaborated in a number of NSRD performances: “The man of today requires a form of understanding that corresponds to the situation of today. Characteristically its boundaries are blurred in space and time. It’s not understanding in a conventional sense, it can be called approximate misunderstanding.”
Zooming in the practices of these artists, one can clearly see that their interest in new and experimental practices was driven by a search for alternatives and hybrid ways to artistic disobedience to the totalitarian Soviet reality, either under the shelter of socialist rhetoric or disowning it. Their work highlights transformations in this search, from the making and presenting of spectacular art works to dealing primarily with ideas, not with objects; from enthusiastic, futuristic and techno-utopian to more critical, situation- and subjective experience-based, and ephemeral works; from imagining new centres to interaction with the peripheral processes between art and other realms.
Ieva Astahovska is an art historian based in Riga, researcher and curator at the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art.