Chto Delat?


Chto Delat: What Is to Be Done Between Tragedy and Farce? (installation view, 2011): Courtesy the artists and SMART Project Space, Amsterdam.Chto Delat: What Is to Be Done Between Tragedy and Farce? (installation view, 2011): Courtesy the artists and SMART Project Space, Amsterdam.

By Aileen Burns

Chto Delat?: What Is To Be Done Between Tragedy and Farce?
SMART Project Space
January 22 - March 13, 2011

Chto Delat? or What is to be done? is a Russian collective made up of artists, philosophers, social researchers and activists united in their ambition to produce critically engaged independent research, art, educational activities and overtly political activist initiatives. Their sincerity and belief in a collectively constructed model for the future is a refreshing, and even inspiring, break with the pessimism that permeates much left-inspired art and discourse in this era of unbridled capitalism. Chto Delat?’s endeavours take many forms, from wall murals that combine comic and mythic imagery with disarming socio-political statistics on contemporary Russia, to rough-cut video documentation of improvisation sessions, to bilingual newspapers, to large-scale installations involving psychedelic props, and viewing booths for the collectives’ musicals. Though wide-ranging, their 20th Century avant-garde strategies are evident in every component of their solo exhibition Chto Delat?: What Is To Be Done Between Tragedy and Farce? at SMART Project Space in Amsterdam.

Chto Delat: What Is to Be Done Between Tragedy and Farce? (installation view, 2011).Chto Delat: What Is to Be Done Between Tragedy and Farce? (installation view, 2011).The less formal, documentary style videos in this show are displayed on CRT televisions set on long tables with headphones and chairs for viewing. The Builders (2005), for example, features Tsaplya (Olga Egorova), Nikolay Oleynikov and Dmitry Vilensky, and other members of the group in a series of photographs. In these casual snapshots, the collective is seen conversing and playing around outdoors. The slideshow-like visuals are accompanied by a voiceover in which members debate the potency and purpose of collectivism. The Soviet Socialist Realist painting by Viktor Popkov, from which the work takes its title, is the starting point for this conversation, which questions merits and inspirational qualities of the workers depicted in The Builders of Bratsk (1961). The potency of this image is compared to the revolutionary potential of artistic communities propelled by conversation and conflict. A voice explains that, while he can appreciate the painting aesthetically, it fails to move him socially. Another argues that, “The most excellent revolutionary movements in art took place through communities: the Surrealists, Dadaists, and our Futurists were groups of people with different and conflictual […], our relationships are constructed on the basis of conflict, on encounters with the Other”. The Builders is the first work that visitors encounter in the exhibition and it sets the tone. It is evident that Chto Delat? is convinced that there is a revolutionary potential in art, and they draw on strategies of earlier collectives, driven by conflict, and armed with ambitions to create change.

In addition to the legacy collective art movements, Chto Delat? builds on a repertoire of strategies developed by figures like Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard whose work is simultaneously entertaining and intended to evoke political consciousness and revolutionary spirit. To date, the collective has produced three Songspiels, all of which are shown in colourful, mini screening rooms at SMART. These narrative videos take the form of ancient tragedies in which a choir interrupts narrative flow to comment on the unfolding actions. Perestroika Songspiel opens with a small choir singing:

We’ve come to tell you the story
Of hopes that didn’t come true
Of promises that weren’t made good

Five archetypal characters: the democrat, the business man, the revolutionary, the nationalist and the feminist woman reflect on perestroika in the Soviet Union in 1991 when it seemed that, together, they could build a free and open society. Between each chapter, a choir chimes in to offer critical reflection on the scene, sounding the voice of public opinion from the present day. This Brechtian confrontation prevents viewers from being absorbed by the action; the choir’s relentless interruption of narrative progress makes the disjunction between the idealist aims of the main characters and scenes of contemporary Russia (as described by Chto Delat?’s statistical murals) distinctly visible.

Consistent with their anti-capitalist politics, Chto Delat? makes their work available to the public for free on their website. At a moment when arts funding is being cut throughout Europe, and in the Netherlands in particular, it is unclear how non-commercial practices such as this can survive. If, like Chto Delat?, we believe that art has a role in society, outside of the demands of the market, we will have to take an active interest in maintaining structures that make critical art possible.

Aileen BurnsAileen Burns is an emerging writer and curator based between Toronto and New York. She recently completed her MA in critical and curatorial studies at Columbia University and has held positions at the Whitney (New York, US), Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (Toronto) and Mercer Union (Toronto). In addition to contributing to Magenta Magazine Online, her writing appears in Art in America, Canadian Art and C Magazine.