Thursday, 26 December 2013

The present day flaneur


[extended review of P. Keiller's The View from the Train, written originally for Blueprint magazine]

Despite being the cradle of modernity, Britain never had much of an artistic avant-garde, but its influence has had a slow-burning effect. After reading the finally published collection of Patrick Keiller’s writing, ViewFrom the Train, we can see why it wasn't the world of traditionally understood art or even the avant-garde, that today stands for the most peculiar legacy of British modernism, but, perhaps, its peripheries. Situated somewhere within popular cultures, pulp modernism and non-beaux arts - in theory, philosophy, or scientific research. Somehow, we find this strange intersection of art, architecture and research in the exploratory “spatial” research done by one man in the ways of filming, writing and reading, and focusing on the most mundane, neglected elements of our landscape, perhaps precisely because of that fact: docks, ports, wastelands, defunct industry, devastated nature. Finally, the city. This is the core of Keiller's work. Although the city was at the centre of fashionable archi-theories for several decades, somehow nobody noticed how capital is changing the space of our cities, with the chief example of London, the author’s lifelong obsession.








Always pursuing his own individual path, Keiller, who used to be a professional architect, has developed his own theory of space, which owes more to his own interpretation of surrealism, the Situationists and poets of early modernity, such as Poe, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, than studying the classics of architectural theory. This beautifully titled book puts together texts, which reveal the artistic provenances behind the strikingly separate and unique Robinson Trilogy. Keiller learned the ways of topographic exploration from the ‘heroes of modern life’ – Poe’s ‘man of the crowd', the Baudelarian flaneur, the surrealist tourist, and the Situationist drifter. Take a look at Breton's Nadja - it's a ready blueprint for the future Keiller's work, both in terms of the aesthetic sense of the 'uncanny', the mysterious, the unknown (see early Keiller's short films especially, where character's are often filled with unexplained anxiety) and a specific taste for the abandoned, desolate (like from a Giorgio de Chirico's painting), neglected cityscapes, or to the contrary - places so obvious, so everyday that nobody really looks at them anymore. Or the situationist city, 'psychogeography', which now seems to be so popular, of course - where the sense of random drift is there to reclaim the city, to take it over in a poetic just as much as in a political sense.Yet writing about it, Keiller retains his own voice, where Laurence Sterne meets Guy Debord, dreamy yet succinct, critical yet benign, poetic but politically astute.




First Keiller began his trips looking for buildings he couldn't build himself, but gradually turned to the space itself that he was sinking in, not far from the Romantic notions of the “sublime” and the “atmospheric”. As he writes here in ‘The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape’ (1982): “The present day flaneur carries a camera and travels not so much on foot as in a car or on a train.” A photograph becomes a degraded form of documenting the changing world on one’s own, which cannot be, because of the urban and social decline, experienced as it used to be, as a community. Developing his interest in space, “I began to look at places as potential photographs, or better still, film images, and even the still photographs took on the character of a film still.” From there begins a journey to the unobvious found in the most everyday elements of the British or life in general - and this is what the 30 years of texts collected here are about.







They were mostly written as a part of the research before, during or after making a specific film. ‘London in the early 90s’ is of course a meditation on London, which came from the working on the breakthrough feature London (1994). London then, after over a decade of the Tory rule, cuts to public spending and the stimulation of the financial industries only, was in great social and spatial decline, with dissolving old infrastructure - a depressing and unpleasant place to live. We see it from the perspective of Robinson, this hapless radical, who, in the face of the demise of socialist politics can only act out his anger in a series of eccentricities, not in a coherent political action, as a sign of this political despair. This, resulting in the so-called “problem of London”, obsesses Keiller’s rootless, melancholic character, being, as we discover, the problem of a specifically British kind of capitalism, which wasn’t a question of some economic inevitability, but the result of conscious political decisions and ideology, which could have been avoided. ‘Port Statistics’ was a part of the research accompanying Robinson In Space (1997), documenting the observation of several working British ports as places of the inward/outward movement of commodities and the declining industry, contesting the view that industrial production had disappeared from Britain. It was rather pushed outside of the cities to the periphery (or offshored to China) and automated. Similarly, ‘The Dilapidated Dwelling’ consists of notes to the film of same title (2000) documenting the reasons for the general decline of housing in the UK and the notion of time acting as corrosion during the unfolding life of buildings.




Knowledge comes to Keiller mostly via a “sense of space”, grasped via the instruments of photography and film. The space he writes about can be grasped anywhere, at any moment – it’s the title’s “view from the train”, a little, momentary glimpse of reality, of perception, possibly a revelation, an epiphany. It’s also a borrowing from Freud, who said the logic of the psychoanalytical confession is like “describing to someone the changing views seen from the outside”, a phantom train ride. And in the essay ‘Phantom Rides’, Keiller helps us reimagine how people perceived early silent film as an instrument of the spatial transformation of reality. Those films are today a true “window” onto a lost space, which, according to Henri Lebfebvre, was “shattered around 1910”. He could be quoting Virginia Woolf, who claimed in 1924 that ‘on or about 1910 human character changed’. She meant the age of speed: of radio, mass media, cubism, modern music, Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, but also the social change, great social unrest, socialist parties rising across Europe. The old order was gone, and the films silently reflected this.



In this sense, the invention of film participated in and instigated this change. That’s why this form remains still a perfect instrument of documenting the “spatial research” Keiller talks about. The spaces that attract his eye, often deliberately shown abandoned, open infinite possibilities. They are “palimpsests” or carriers of new urban myths, “which can be constructed as a narrative”, which is a ready template for a film. It’s not, according to Keiller, what the film says, that should be new, but the way it says what we already know and refuse to think about. These essays show that the author of London and Robinson In Space has cast his own key to understand it.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Book! The Book!




It's nearly here - my book Poor But Sexy. Culture Clashes in Europe East and West is coming out o March 28th 2014 on Zero Books. I will be posting here all events related to this - as well as reviews, articles and other pieces of writing. Book will be probably available before that date on Amazon anyway.


"24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe is as divided as ever. The passengers of the low-budget airlines go east for stag parties, and they go west for work; but the east stays east, and west stays west. Caricatures abound - the Polish plumber in the tabloids, the New Cold War in the broadsheets and the endless search for 'the new Berlin' for hipsters.
Sweeping across the breadth of the former Iron Curtain, Agata Pyzik charts the mutual misunderstandings between Western and eastern Europe, going beyond the familiar myths of plucky dissidents, the horrors of Stalinism and the 'success stories' of a neoliberal New Europe. Rather than a low-wage hinterland for the affluent west or a picturesque holiday destination, Pyzik finds a rich and unwritten counter-history.
Poor but Sexy ranges from Warsaw to Luton, from Prague to East Berlin, from Ukraine to Romania, in search of the counter-currents and other traditions. Instead, Poor But Sexy peers into the secret histories of Eastern Europe (and its tortured relations with the 'west'). Eastern European migration, the post-punk Bowiephile obsession with the 'Eastern Bloc', Orientalism and 'self-colonisation', the emancipatory potentials of Socialist Realism, and the possibility of a non-western idea of modernity and futurism. Its subjects veer from Femen to Depeche Mode, from David Bowie to Nikita Khrushchev, from Socialist Realists to New Romantics.
Refusing both a dewy-eyed Ostalgia for the 'good old days' and the equally desperate desire to become a 'normal part of Europe', Poor But Sexy reclaims the idea of an Other Europe."

What’s a poor girl to do when worlds collide except listen to gloomy rock ’n’ roll bands and dance precariously along the fault-line of history where the Berlin Wall used to be? Born in Poland in the 1980s, Agata Pyzik is barely old enough to remember life under communism. Watching the waves of Ostalgie spreading across the former GDR and other ex-Warsaw Pakt states, she felt compelled to investigate the underlying causes of disenchantment among increasing numbers of Central Europeans hankering for the certainties guaranteed them under Soviet rule. If she began her mission with a sense of bemused contempt for dewy-eyed sentimentalism distorting people’s memory of what life was really like under communism, her investigations reveal a far more complex picture. Poor But Sexy is a fabulous freefall through 25 years of East-West exchanges predicated on the West’s arrogant assumption that at base everybody wants to buy in to their belief systems. Riding these East-West crosscurrents of desire, envy and wounded pride, she has found much to be proud of amid the ruins of communism, and in the process of looking back she has recovered some extraordinary punk, art, fashion and philosophical alternatives to the Western way ahead.

Chris Bohn aka Biba Kopf, editor of The Wire

Monday, 18 November 2013

Polish Avant-garde Seen From Many New Angles: Themersons



[guest post in Polish, about two Polish avant-garde artists Franciszka i Stefan Themerson, who spent half of their lives in London, where they founded Gabberbocchus Press, among other things; my essay from Midrasz 2/2013 magazine]

Themersonowie i awangarda
Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi
Agata Pyzik


Franciszka (1909-1988) i Stefan (1910-88) Themerson należą do najchętniej dziś odkrywanych i cytowanych polskich artystów awangardy. W czasach, kiedy sztuka stała się jednym z najlepszych sposobów 'promocji', a rozmaite wystawy i towarzyszące im wydarzenia stanowią o 'kreatywności', nie ma nic lepszego, niż nagle odkrycie, ze mamy 'naszych' artystów, którzy mogą stanąć w jednym szeregu z awangardą europejską. I my mamy swoich pionierów sztuki, a Themersonowie, z ich osobnością, doświadczeniem emigracji i kontaktami ze światową awangardą, nie dają się nijak sklasyfikować. Znani głównie dzięki swoim filmom, które mają woje miejsce wśród najciekawszych dokonań tego rodzaju obok Fernanda Legera, Rene Claira, Luisa Bunuela czy Hansa Richtera. Ekspozycja w Muzeum Sztuki w Lodzi, pierwszej i do dziś jedynej instytucji sztuki nowoczesnej w Polsce, stara się prześledzić awangardowe konteksty Themersonów i zestawić część ich wspólnego dzieła z dokonaniami artystów światowych – biorących się z przyjaźni i wspólnych doświadczeń. Ruchami awangardowymi najczęściej docenianymi w Polsce byli formiści, kubiści, Blok i Praesens, grupa a.r. czy polscy konstruktywiści. Jednak po latach możemy dostrzec, jak często były one mocno zainspirowane pionierskimi odkryciami Konstruktywistów w Rosji, Bauhausu w Niemczech, surrealistów w Paryżu czy de Stijl w Holandii. Natomiast Themersonowie wiele rzeczy zrobili jako pierwsi, i to nie tylko w Polsce. Jako pierwsi zainteresowali się np. możliwościami filmu artystycznego. Wydawali jedyne pismo w Polsce jemu poświęcone, f. a. pod redakcja Franciszki, którego wyszły zaledwie trzy numery. Podobnie, jak produktywistów i Eisensteinowską szkołę montażu w radzieckiej Rosji i Bertolta Brechta, interesowały ich możliwości komunikacyjne i kreacyjne radia jako medium.


Wystawa koncentruje się na ich dokonaniach filmowych, książkach wydanych po emigracji do Londynu podczas wojny przez ich własną oficynę Gabberbocchus Press i eksperymentach wizualno-leksykalnych dokonanych wspólnie. Themerson studiował fizykę i architekturę w Warszawie, być może stąd zainteresowanie możliwościami filmu i montażu. Jego dzieła, jak Wykład Profesora Mmaa, Kardynał PÖlÄtÜo czy Euklides był osłem stanowią komentarz do współczesnych dyskusji filozoficznych, np. logiki i języka ówczesnej szkoły Lwowsko-Warszawskiej. Franciszka była córką malarza Jakuba Weinlesa, a jej matka Łucja z Kaufmanów była pianistką. Poznali się w warszawskiej Akademii Sztuk Pięknych, gdzie studiowała malarstwo. Porównywalni do Sophie i Hansa Arpów albo Stepanowej i Rodczenki, Themersonowie najczęściej tworzyli podpisywali swoje dzieła wspólnie. Jednak dziś widać doskonale, że ich zainteresowania i funkcje w rodzinnym tandemie były zupełnie różne.

Domeną Stefana był język: poezja semantyczna, eksperymenty leksykalne, teoretyzowanie i filozofia. Stefana pasjonowała logika, język i rozważania nad prawdziwością. To prawdopodobnie również on wprowadził eksperymenty z fotografią do ich twórczości. Fotogram miał być czymś więcej niż tylko odzwierciedleniem rzeczywistości – miał kreować tę rzeczywistość od nowa. Jak wielu innych awangardzistów, Stefan wierzył w zaktywizowanie zmysłów jako klucz do nowej rzeczywistości; pobudzeni w niezwykły sposób, zaczniemy widzieć ją dynamicznie, ujawnią się nam nowe znaczenia, poziomy, kanały tej realności. Połączenie zmysłów, znane od romantyzmu i Baudelaire'a, Themerson nazywał 'intelektualną orkiestracją elementów leksykalnych i znaczenia semantycznego'. Najbliżej było mu do dadaistów, z ich pozornym brakiem zaangażowania politycznego, regresem w bardziej 'prymitywne' formy, kontestacją talentu i statusu artysty. Z surrealistami łączyła go wizyjność i oniryczność, stąd traktat O potrzebie tworzenia widzeń.

Franciszka, dobrowolnie często wycofująca się za męża, jest dziś niedostatecznie doceniana. A to być może jej twórczość jest z dwojga ciekawsza. Wystawa doskonale to wydobywa. Ekspozycje dzieł obojga sąsiadują ze sobą i dopowiadają nawzajem. Teorie Stefana odpowiadają poruszającym, dramatycznym płótnom Franciszki namalowanymi w jej własnej poetyce bieli. Pozostająca pod wpływem abstrakcji figuratywnej, obrazy Franciszki dzielą fascynację ekspresją dziecięca znana z płócien Jeana Dubuffeta, Wolsa czy Paual Klee, jednak jej kolorystyka – ledwo zarysowane jakby dziecięca ręką lub patykiem na piasku postaci i zwierzęta, ledwo wyłaniają się z białego tła, żeby po chwili, widziane pod innym katem, ponownie zniknąć.


Wizyty w Paryżu w 1936 i ’37 roku, gdzie spotkami Moholy-Nagy’a i innych twórców filmow awangardowych, które zachęciły ich do własnych eskperymentów. Podczas około 10-letniego pobytu w stolicy (1928-37) pierwsi dokonywali eksperymentów dźwiękowych w filmach artystycznych, ich techniki filmu animowanego były unikatowe. Filmy realizowali w domu, posługując się światłami i cieniami na obiektach oraz urządzeniem pozwalającym fotografować klatka po klatce obiekty umieszczone na przezroczystej kalce. Przy użyciu nowatorskich choć nieskomplikowanych technik zrealizowali m.in. Aptekę (dzis dostępną dzięki rekonstrukcji artysty amerykańskiego Bruce Chechewsky’ego), Europę (zainspirowaną poematem Anatola Sterna, przedstawiającym katastroficzną wizję Europy zmierzającej ku zagładzie), Zwarcie, Przygodę człowieka poczciwego i Drobiazg melodyjny, okrzyknięty pierwszym polskim wideoklipem, który służył jako reklama firmy galanteryjnej na Nowym Świecie i był pokazywany w kinach przed filmami. Muzykę do ich filmów pisali m.in. Lutosławski i Stefan Kisielewski.

Jednak to wojna i jej trauma wyrasta w twórczości Franciszki jako sprawa bardzo istotna. Małżonkowie opuścili Polskę w 1938 roku do Paryża, licząc, ze pozostaną tam na zawsze, oddając się eksperymentom. Wojna pokrzyżowała te plany, w 1940 Stefan ochotniczo wstepuje do Polskiego Pułku Piechoty, Franciszka pracuje dla Rządu Polskiego na Wygnaniu jako kartografistka we Francji. Podczas gdy on tuła się po obozach dla uchodźców we Francji, jej udaje się uciec do Londynu. Themerson dołącza do niej dopiero po dwóch latach. Tam od razu włączają się w akcje wspomagające Polakow w kraju. Powstaje „eksperymentalny film patriotyczny” Calling Mr Smith, zachęcający Brytyjczyków do zainteresowania się dramatyczną sytuacją Polaków podczas okupacji nazistowskiej. Wykorzystujący tradycyjne elementy awangardowe: kolaż, repetycje, zbliżenia, jest zarazem filmem stricte propagandowym, z wykorzystaniem sentymentalnej polskiej muzyki Chopina. Jednak zanim tak się stanie i Franciszka jest sama w Londynie, tworzy cykle o bombardowaniach ludności Londynu i Wielkiej Brytanii. Szkice przedstawiające ledwo rozpoznawalne postaci w maskach gazowych, zniszczenia, wybuchy poruszają jej dziecinną, rozchybotaną kreską. Także „białe malowidła” czy scenografia do szwedzkiej inscenizacji Krola Ubu i Opery za Trzy Grosze poruszają zdeformowaniem, ciemnymi barwami. Dzieciństwo ukazuje tutaj swoją ciemną stronę. Dramat dziejący się „W Polsce, czyli nigdzie” w ujęciu Franciszki jest historią ludzkiego upodlenia, skarykaturyzowania ludzkiej egzystencji, wyrastającym z doświadczenia traumy.


W Londynie po wojnie postanawiają zostać na stałe i zakładają Gabberbocchusa, nazwa wzięta oczywiście z wiersza Lewisa Carrolla, Jabberwocky. Stefan był teoretykiem ich działalności i ze swoimi manifestami dyskutował z innymi awangardzistami, zwłaszcza bliskimi im dadaistami, Raoulem Haussmannem i Kurtem Schwittersem, z którym spotkali się w Londynie, kiedy zuryski dadaista został wypuszczony po 2 latach przebywania w obozie przejściowym dla Niemców. Wycieńczony obozem, Schwitters żył tylko do 1948 roku, jednak zdążył w tym czasie rozwinąć nowe techniki kolażu, które miały wpływ na Stefana. Stefan był znacznie bardziej pod wpływem surrealizmu. Jego 'obiekty znalezione, rozsiane po całej wystawie, jak Rękawiczka dziecięca połączona z imadłem, i rozmaite Przedmioty erotyczne są unikalne w polskiej sztuce.

Temu chyba należy tez zawdzięczać erotyczno-surrealistyczne elementy w ich filmach. Na łódzkiej wystawie znalazły się niemal wszystkie ich arcydzieła filmowe: Oko i Ucho, Calling Mr Smith i rekonstrukcje warszawskie. Zniszczeniu podczas wojny uległy dwa wielkie arcydzieła polskiej sztuki: film Europa (1931-2) na podstawie poematu Anatola Sterna, który podziej wielokrotnie stawał się kanwa działań artystycznych, by wspomnieć tylko film Akademii Ruchu z początku lat 80. Po filmie Themersonów pozostały dziś tylko fotogramy, ale nawet w tej formie zadziwiają podobieństwem do równoczesnych eksperymentów niemieckich ekspresjonistów czy tzw. rosyjskich Ekscentryków w rodzaju duetu Trauberg/Kozincew. Artyści ci widzieli współczesność jako dramatyczną i godną zdramatyzowania zarazem. W zachowanej tylko w strzępach i fragmentach fotograficznych Europie mamy do czynienia z połączeniem obrazów chropawej powierzchni chleba, kobiecych nagich bioder,  gestów rak, żucia. Film składa się z fotogramów, abstrakcyjnych elementów drukarskich i geometrycznych. Były to celowo przedmioty odarte ze znaczenia, zderzone jakby przypadkowo, gdzie to ideologia, nie znaczenie, stanowiło ich wspólną płaszczyznę. To była Europa galopującego nazizmu, która je, rozmnaża się, a wkrótce zamienić się miała w żywą amunicję. Za to Żywot Człowieka poczciwego (1937) to artystyczne potraktowanie komedii slapstickowej – podobnie, jak wielu innych awangardzistów, Themersonowie widzieli w komediach Chaplina i Harolda Lloyda odpowiedź na wyzwania współczesnego świata i technologii. Jak we Współczesnych czasach Chaplina, Człowiek poczciwy stara się tylko wypełniać swoje codzienne zadania. Jeśli jednego dnia postanawia chodzić tyłem, odwróceniu ulega cały świat, jego bliźni nie pozostawią go w spokoju za to zaburzenie konformistycznego porządku.

Ich filmowo-dzwiękowe kolaże, łączyły towarzyszące nowoczesności doświadczenie nieciągłości, mediacji przez język i wynikającej zeń fragmentaryzacji świata także z eksperymentami z poezją wizualną czy raczej, jak nazywał to Themerson, semantyczną (gdzie słowa były zastępowane np. ich definicjami). Themerson mówił, że dziś slogan może być poezją, a tzw. poezja niczym więcej, jak propagandowym sloganem. Świadomość materialności języka i podporządkowania go arbitralnym regułom zbliża ich do artystycznej międzynarodówki, Patafizyków (do których St. T. należał) pod wodzą Raymonda Queneau, dadaistów (przyjaźń ze Schwittersem) i surrealistów. Ich filmy były same z siebie 'kolażami': zrobione ze ścinków, fotogramów, negatywów, abstrakcyjnie potraktowanych elementów drukowanych, stosujące techniki zwielokrotnienia i efektu wyobcowania (od radzieckiej szkoły formalistów, przez Szkłowskiego nazwanych 'ostranienie', uniezwykleniem czy też Verfremdungeffekt u Brechta). Owszem, fotogramy robił Man Ray, czescy surrealisci czy Moholy-Nagy, jednak te Themersonów były niezwykle oryginalne.

W Londynie rozpoczęli działalność wydawniczą, która z czasem stała się najważniejsza. Wydawali nie tylko poematy, opery i traktaty samego Stefana, które potem Franciszka ilustrowała. Podczas gdy Themerson rozwijał swoje teorie poezji semantycznej, zaczęli po raz pierwszy po angielsku publikować najważniejsze pozycje awangardy, jak pierwsze angielskie tlumaczenie krola Ubu Jarry’ego (sic!). Miały to być tzw. bestlookery, ksiązki o wyjątkowym wyglądzie. Opublikowali m.in. pierwszy raz po angielsku Raymonda Queneau, Stevie Smith, Kurta Schwittersa, Henri Chopina, Apollinaire'a, C.H. Sissona, James Laughlina, Kennetha Tynana, Raoula Hausmanna. Prowadzili salon zwany Common Room, stanowiacy miejsce regularnych spotkań pisarzy-eksperymentatorów. Themerson nadal tworzył poematy i opery, np. libretto i muzykę do opery semantycznej Święty Franciszek wilk z Gubbio albo kotlety świętego Franciszka.

Ważna była przyjaźń się z malarzem żydowskim zamieszkałym w Londynie, Jankielem Adlerem, którego tylko jeden obraz jest na wystawie. Adler był postacią fascynującą. Urodzony w Tuszynie na przedmieściu Łodzi, był współzałożycielem łódzkiej żydowskiej awangardy, grupy Jung Idysz. Już jako nastolatek mieszkał w Belgradzie i Wuppertalu. od 1917 roku tworzył obrazy zainspirowane żydowskim folklorem i epizodami z życia wschodnioeuropejskich Żydów, choć w awangardowej, ekspresjonistycznej formie. Na początku lat 20-tych mieszkał w Berlinie, gdzie był częścią grupy ekspresjonistów Die Aktion. W Dusseldorfie, gdzie uczył w akademii sztuk pięknych, poznał Paula Klee, który wywarł na niego wpływ. Sprzeciwiał się rządom faszystów, razem z innymi artystami lewicowymi w 1932 napisał manifest na rzecz komunizmu. Zaliczony przez nazistów do sztuki zdegenerowanej, wyjechał do Paryża, gdzie zetknął się z surrealistami. W latach 30. wystawiał w Polsce w Instytucie Propagandy Sztuki w Warszawie i został scenografem filmu jidysz Ał Chet. Podczas drugiej wojny walczył w uformowanej we Francji Armii Polskiej. Zmarł w Wielkiej Brytanii, gdzie zawarł przyjaźń z Themersonami. Stefan napisał o nim książkę Jankel Adler: An artist seen from many possible angles, w której wyjaśniał narodziny malarza surrealistycznego, ale osobnego, wynikłe z pojedynczego epizodu w jego życiu w wieku 6-ciu lat, kiedy doznał uczucia „pomieszania języków”. Stąd w jego malarstwie magiczna transformacja przedmiotów w osoby, przygodność języka i malarstwo na pograniczu świadomości. Ale to Franciszkę łączyła z Adlerem surrealistyczna dziecięca wyobraźnia, instynkt gry i zabawy, podatność na surrealny humor. Podobnie było z Raymondem Queneau, którego Ćwiczenia stylistyczne wydali pierwsi po angielsku. Nastrój „poważnej zabawy”, pozornych zabaw, od których zależeć może ludzkie życie, jest może wiodącym uczuciem na łódzkiej wystawie. Pogłębia ono wciąż niedostateczną wiedzę o tej dwójce artystów, wyjaśniając, skąd brały się obsesje jednych z najbardziej unikalnych artystów, jakich kiedykolwiek mieliśmy.


Sunday, 17 November 2013

"It was not real love, it was only something physical ..."

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is probably my favorite director, definitely my deep fascination for years, since I first saw his films and become an aware cinephile asa teenage girl. I never wrote about him in here, beside a small fragment on In the Year of 13 Moons in the post on Christiane F./David Bowie and he will feature a bit in my book. Recently I discovered the several films I still haven't seen from his corpus (44 films and several serials, mind) are actually available online. Here's 1972's Jailbait with a young, nymphettish Eva Mattes as an overdevelopped 14 year old who defies her petty bourgeois parents lifestyle and starts seeing a 19 year old unskilled worker. Then it involves illicit sex with minors, class war, death threats and a gun.



There's a scene in this film in which such piece of dialogue really occurs - when her parents find out that their daughter's hymen has been busted by a certain proletarian, they have this conversation: 

Mother: The Nazis had their faults.

Father: I would rather 100,000 Jews murdered than this happen to us!


He really knew what he was doing to his nation, the fucker.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Music of Full Communism? Early Musical Experiment in Soviet Union



[full text of an essay which appeared on Calvert Journal]

Around the same time that the Museum of Art in Lódz, Poland in 2012 and the Calvert Gallery in London now host Sounding the Body Electric, an exhibition of Eastern European sound experiments between the 50s and 80s, Andrey Smirnov, one of the most prominent researchers of the early Soviet era music, has finally published his magnum opus, the long-awaited Sound in Z, which will now be the definitive book on the subject. One of the most surprising aspects of 50s and 60s sound art in the Soviet Bloc for the Western audience might be its incredible scientific-cultural interdependency - its new inventions strictly tied up in parallel with the newest scientific inventions of the era such as cybernetics, a perfect combination of mathematics and electricity.

Yet this art didn’t come to us from nowhere. The relative relaxation in the mid-50s, after Stalin’s death and as a compensation after uprisings both in Hungary and Poland, meant in many cases a comeback to the buried and forgotten splendid inventiveness of the original Soviet artists – who, together with the Bolshevik Revolution which they mostly wholeheartedly supported, believed that now was the time humanity would undergo a great transformation. Smirnov calls them ‘the Z Generation’. Why? Partly because of the proliferation of the radio waves and electrical currents, which, together with other technological phenomena, was feeding the imagination of this era. Z signified the spark, the zigzag of the radio wave, lightning, electrical spasms of energy. In a way, this embodied the bodiless, the ethereal, esoteric energy, of something necessarily dematerialising in the act of dialectical transformation; and last but not least, all those energies mounted to some notion of cosmic energy. The intense development of scientific ideas among the generation Z could be compared to the Renaissance, and not only because artists were equally polymathic – also the more esoteric ideas resemble that period, replacing often a divine immateriality with more technological precision.



Divided by one crucial event – the Second World War - the inventors, scientists and artists creating under Bolshevik rule had already been working on most of the inventions which the later generation inherited, which in the later history of electronic music and cybernetic, kinetic 50s/60s art are not enough stressed or are even forgotten. And the comparison of the development of sound art and sound science and electronic music in those two eras is interesting, because it reveals a similar nature and similar history common to both eruptions of originality: first the beautiful rise and explosion, and then, politically motivated destruction. In the case of the post-war era, that came with the Brezhnev era of stagnation, beginning in 1968 with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and in March the same year, the anti-Semitic political crisis in Poland.



There was a similar “crushing” of the artists, but they weren’t similar in their convictions. Andrey Smirnov shows a technically detailed panorama of the flourishing of an art which could only have arisen in Soviet conditions, although the author remains skeptical of whether the Soviet rule was necessary. Yet Lenin’s passion for “electrification of the whole nation” as a necessary element of communisation, inspired a new art which, according to Commissar of Enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky, was to be from now on experimental, to match the politics. This led to the spread of a conscious ‘Art of the Future’.

While many of the post Thaw experimental artists who enjoyed support by the state probably did so pragmatically, so that they could continue or pursue their experiments, the artists of revolutionary Russia wanted their art to embody communism, an idea and ideal most of them strongly believed in. They were strictly pioneers, creating meticulous instruments out of now laughably primitive conditions, which also conveyed the rapid industrialisation of the civil-war destroyed country. Associations like Proletkult promoted projects such as “music of metal and machine tools”, which were to sledgehammer the former world quite literally.


For instance, Smirnov describes how the Symphony of Sirens by Arseny Avraamov, performed across the factories of Baku in 1922, was made with the sound of the following: hydroplanes, machine guns, factory sirens, the foghorns of the entire Caspian flotilla, the horns of steam locomotives and artillery fire, all denoted with coloured flags and field phones by the conducting composer. The same Avraamov was extremely enthusiastic at the presentation of the Theremin in 1927: “The prospects opened to music by Theremin’s invention are really boundless. His ‘Theremin’ is not a simple ‘new musical instrument’ as our musicritics [sic] are thinking, no, it’s a solution to a huge social-scientific-art problem; it’s the first big step into the future, into our future, it is a social revolution in the art of making music, its revival.” The “primitiveness” of Symphony of Sirens wasn’t a goal in itself, but a necessary means towards something more sophisticated. The future belonged to the ‘Radio-Musical-Instruments’, which could combine the overcoming of the traditional music with the ethereal sound and technology and in this way, dreamt Avraamov, inventor of the new tonal scales, it would reunite with the great alternative tonescale of music traditions of the East. Another inventor, the scholar and acoustician EvgenySholpo, wrote The Enemy of Music, a story of a fictional polymath-musician who is expelled from the circles of traditional musicians, so that he has to pursue his path of experiment alone. The absolute star of Sound in Z is Lev Termen aka Leon Theremin, author of the first electronic instrument in the world, the famous Theremin (and uncountable others), based on the electronic manipulation of air, who for his whole life had to balance his astonishing musical science with political pressures that stretched as far as being forced to help in espionage.


While the narrative of electronic music history often restricts itself to pointing to Schaeffer and Stockhausen as the great protoplasts, they were different in their approach to sound. Stockhausen treated sound matter in the end in an abstract way, as a thing detached from reality; for the Soviet pioneers sound never really lost its representational element, its connection to the social and material world. The later artists also had the luck to have instruments such as tape machines ready at their disposal, unlike our Russian heroes, who had to build their devices on their own, using what was available. Dziga Vertov, for instance, had a lifelong obsession with the special, rhythmic organization of sound. From his early experimental thoughts as a student of music, he got interested in sound editing, and only via this he came to film. His most startling work, Enthusiasm - Symphony of the Donbass, is a quite terrifying apotheosis of labour, that emphasized its toll and hardship, at the same time as it aggrandizes the workers. Vertov spliced sounds of radio broadcasts, and industrial clanging on his pioneering soundtrack, which is still striking in its monumentality. Apparently, after seeing it, Charles Chaplin was to call it “the greatest symphony I’ve ever heard”. Or maybe seen? The use of industrial noise in his Modern Times was probably inspired by Vertov.


All this was in turn connected with a wholly new science of the body and its movement. Inspired by the efficient employment of a worker’s body in a factory, the idea of “biomechanics” was established by the Central Institute of Labour (CIT) founded by the experimental radical thinker Alexei Gastev, and haunted the minds of Soviet intellectuals: with Gastev it resulted in a kind of labour psychology; it was adapted for the stage by theatre reformer Vsevolod Meyerhold. From there, it was close to the concept of the man-machine, androids, humanoids, robotics and even today’s anti-humanism – yet it was understood not as a hatred of the human, but rather of making the life supported by the machines and in symbiosis with them more pleasant, more creative and easier than before; creating a New Man, who could use technology to his advantage. Yet the ideas of mechanization, electrification and efficiency for everybody came about at the same time as the first conductorless symphony orchestra, PERSIMFANS (from Pervyi Simfionicheskiy Ansamb bez Dirizhyora), which represented similar musical radicalism - not because of the quality of sounds (they toured playing quite traditional music), but because the lack of a conductor actually embodied the idea of communism.

The richness of the book’s research is impossible to convey in a review. A basic synthesiser, graphic sound such as the so-called ‘variophone’, various kinds of proto recorders/players, variations on the pianola, ways of splicing, cutting and sampling sounds, all were invented or paved the way for then, in the 1920s or 1930s. Post war music was also much more international in its opening up of communication and collaboration between countries, even above the cold war divisions – suffice to mention Warsaw Autumn or the Donaueschingen festival, or the proliferation of radio studios, with Polish Radio Experimental Studio as especially key. Soviet artists created in isolation and weren’t emulating anyone – with the possible exception of a possible initial inspiration from the Italian futurists and Luigi Russolo’s Art of Noises. The really radical things at the time in the west were serialism, or the minimalism of Erik Satie or Paul Hindemith, and were very different from what the Soviets were doing.

Sound technology after the war was more advanced in its use of machines. Given the primitive conditions, the level of invention in Russia came from the incredible enthusiasm people felt about the new reality, trying to stretch technology to quite extreme levels, and it’s this that made eg. Vertov’s creations so noisy, as he was basically trying to do something then impossible. Stalinism gradually destroyed a lot of that, as the new leader wasn’t as tolerant to the futurists as was Lenin, who was so interested in the electric proprieties of the Theremin that he asked its creator to give him lessons. Some creators were still trying to do radical things under Stalin, like Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin, which put together folksongs with more distorted radio signals and marches, still trying to retain the initial clash. Yet it’s definitely a lot calmer, much less manic and brutal.


As Smirnov had full access to the documents, we learn a lot about the sad endings of so many of the careers here: if they weren’t recruited as spies, like Theremin, who became a lifelong prisoner of the KGB, where he had to invent more and more sophisticated systems of wiretapping for their use, then they died in the Gulag or after being destroyed as artists, like Evgeny Sholpo, the inventor of variophone, or were executed, like Gastev or Meyerhold. Yet Smirnov goes as far as implying that the avant-garde Russian artists couldn’t really have believed in the system, as they mostly came from anarchic environments. Some of the avant-garde had been associated with anarchism immediately after the revolution, but they wouldn’t have seen that as anti-communist. There’s a certain anachronism in thinking that people from the time should have been equipped with the later knowledge, that they “should have known what would happen.”


What linked artists in both eras was wanting to make points with electronic sound using similar techniques: but in very different circumstances, and with very different equipment. Sound in Z makes knowledge about this hidden world of unimaginable inventiveness finally available, and also makes the reader melancholic over how many of those geniuses had the misfortune of trying their revolution in times that proved to be more than hostile. The world wasn’t ready.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Expressway to reality principle: Inside the Barbie Dreamhouse




[director's cut of the review for ICON magazine]

For the first time I heard about Berlin Barbie DreamHouse, when the German branch of Femen activists and other feminist organizations were protesting against its opening and accusing it of sexist propaganda, and the Mattel company had it protected by the police. Frankly, one wonders what’s the point? Is the world really in such a bad state that the best way of entertaining girls is to put them through the possibly most reactionary experience of womanhood? And why in Berlin, a city afterall famous for its leftist political activism. Yet, the queues I encountered proved otherwise and a rise of tourism is also exactly what the city authorities are counting for.




The first “man-sized” Barbie fun-house opened in Europe confirms the design’s obsession with the ‘life-sized’ and the said ‘experience’. The idea, which partly originated from the Cedric Price’s “fun palace” and Situationists, idea of ‘interactivity’ and conceptual exhibitions in museums like Parisian Pompidou, posits experience always in the center of everything. And if we judged the House only by that, it definitely makes you experience. To an architecture connoisseur there’s a double pleasure/horror about it, depending on the way you look at it. The inflatable pink tent stood just next to Alexanderplatz, the flag GDR square, at the back of the new mall Alexa, so far as many thought the ugliest building in the area. Now there’s something to top this neoclassical kitsch.







With DDR blocks looming behind, it, the tent looks unbelievably tacky. Nobody will believe this is a castle, least of all the children. As the toys become ‘real’, the first association is that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with a gigantic shoe at the front turned into a fountain, around which little girls run and cry.




But they won’t ‘learn’ as Alice did. The color pink, an object of much mockery and attacks to stop making it the girl's colour, in BarbieHouse reaches levels of saturation surpassing the effect LSD or any other psychedelics could guarantee. A true pink-orgy. Which soon makes us nearly hallucinate, which I guess is the desired effect. The idea seems to be to “help” the girls to act out their fantasies, to which Barbie acts as an early catalyst. But is it really acting out or rather harsh conditioning to their future lives? The house is constructed as a magical sesame, a sequence of rooms unveiling little girl’s apparent desires. But is it realising them?




We start – of course – from the kitchen, but strangely the only thing you can make in this vast room is a cake. A cake small, medium or of a size of a little car. Not much nourishment, this is the “retro-feminism” kingdom, where cupcake is a king. The House is in constant whimsical indecision, whether Barbie is a princess or maybe an ordinary woman, with all hes weaknesses. A housewife, or a spaceship pilot? And tell me this isn’t ‘empowering’, huh? But who can blame her? From the salon with, in order: a piano, a horse, a 10 sq.m. bed, and a sofa, we gather she likes a bit of domesticity, and like all of us all she ever thinks of is shoes and handbags. Like all of us she looses her head during shopping (alleys of fake clothes, shoes and bags, imprinted on plastic, occupy several corridors) and dressing in sexy lace underwear in boudoirs and beauty parlours. Cosmetic fetishism is not even really the right word here. Finally, everything (as in life) must end in (cardboard) Paris, with girls hanging on a poor man’s paper Eiffel Tower. The construction is so tacky that lifting our heads we can see the plastic walls aren’t even touching the Styrofoam ceiling.




Hang on, this is for girls? The crudeness with which those adult desires are projected on girls is truly grim. As if seeing this might be too adult entertainment, the creators added some obviously childish elements, like slides, ponies or ballerinas. But it’s too late to be deceived. Soon girls also learn the reality principle: jewellery is secured to the tables, clothes are just the wall picture, dolls are behind the glass, the Barbie toilet doesn’t work and the blond women sitting next to them waiting for manicure smiling are dead. For an extra money, girls can do a catwalk or sing from playback on a rockscene. Yet, in the middle of that there’s a gigantic diamond ring – because all in all, Barbie is a traditionalist, she only wants to marry, and all those shoes were only for flirt. What is also striking is how we’re always made ready to buy: furniture is all made of arranged shelves, on which new and new versions of stylish dolls are packed, which lead straight to the shop. In the end, this is what Barbie House is, a man-size shop.




There’s nothing unnatural in transferring children’s anxieties and desires onto a doll, a human-resembling object, only why it has to be the one, which famously, if it was to become a real-size woman, it would die instantly from suffocation, and her neck and waist would break? By all means, if anyone could really live in the Barbie house, he’d instantly get a depression and lose the will to live. The fascination with Barbie on the side of the design world is then all the more objectionable. Why on the cover of the Architect's Journal issue on powerful women architects, they had to be symbolized by a Zaha-like dressed Barbie? Just mocking the stereotype or a casual, if quite astounding sexism? From what I know about life, if Zaha took after Barbie, British architecture world would’ve lost even this sole argument counter its feminist critics.



Voice of the People - lyrics of Depeche, Human League, New Order, eurohouse & the Smiths and 80s/90s Eastern Europe


[extended version on my entry in the 'Words' #352 issue of The Wire, 'Babble On!' on the 'shitty lyrics']



“People are people so why should it be/you and I should get along so awfully. To this day Depeche Mode fans are not exactly sure what Martin Gore meant by this lyric. But as with many other Depeche songs, this terminally clumsy attempt at significance wasn’t an obstacle to the contagious popularity of “People Are People”. It's a lot like life - that's their statement on Sado-masochist practices. In Jeremy Deller’s documentary The Posters Came From the Walls, on the phenomenon of the band's international fandom, fans speak nostalgically of forming squads more solid than in the army. We hear one Russian fan stating that “We’re Depechists the same way other people were Communists, or Fascists!” That’s motivation.




The power of Depeche Mode’s lyrics lay in a perfect combination of vagueness and a resemblance to agitprop, ending up somewhere between the political sloganeering of the falling Communist bloc and the promises of the Big Capital offered by the West. It was a formula that hordes of young people from both sides of the Wall, raised among Cold War paranoia, understood almost subliminally. Over this, they formed a perfect union, which remained stronger than the politically induced unifications after the Wall has fallen. Depeche could appeal to both Soviet Bloc and America, because aesthetically and lyrically they consciously flirted with both sides of the Curtain: heavy industry, Red Army, red stars, looming nuclear catastrophy and Potemkineqsue battleships for one side and lust, orgies, stock market, Eastern Tigers, money, high contracts and cocaine binges for the other.




Usually heavy-handed, staggeringly literal, simplistic—even didactic, given how often the crime must immediately meet its punishment, the lyrics of Martin Gore always hit upon something, touch us somewhere, always move. However you look at the following lyric, it can’t possibly pass as good: “There's no turning back/The turning point of a career/In Korea/Being insincere” (from  “Everything Counts”). Around Music for the Masses they achieved their trademark anthemic, grandiose style, perfected on songs like “Stripped” or “Never Let Me Down Again”, and then the tortured, synthetic, smoky blues of “Personal Jesus” and “I Feel You”. Enjoy The Silence is their manifesto, the famous lyrics are DM in a nutshell: “words are very unnecessary”, “feelings are intense, words are trivial.” They based the rest of their career solely on the intensification of this, while endlessly vaguely dwelling on the dialectics of sex, sin, atonement and the final release. That’s also the reason they’re a tough writerly topic—how long we can focus on the endless permutations of violence, sex and punishment? Writing on Depeche, one is challenged to participate in this collective emotion.




Yet, in the strange and fantastic world of pop music, words such as these can convey more than avant-garde poets could dream of. We often say lyrics are crap not seeing the special place they have in the history of the valuation of the spoken word. That is, the pop lyric is a perfect example of 20th century folk art. If after pop art, everything could be important for 15 minutes, the pop lyric makes sense only during the provisional three minutes of a single. The words hold meaning within the context of this magical moment, and nowhere else. It’s a metaphorical space of transformation, where temporary unions and associations can form. A pop utopia.


Sometimes a lyric is saved by the personality and charisma of the singer. Phil Oakey from The Human League achieved a new benchmark of crap lyrics with his group’s first single, “Being Boiled”, the only protest song in the world concerned with silkworms. Oakey not only conflated Buddhism with Hinduism (in India, renowned for silk production), but came up with the line “Just because the kid's an orphan /Is no excuse for thoughtless slaying”. Yet there is something moving about his delivery, the way he tries to keep his shaky voice cold. Oakey notoriously overdid cold war topics, making them camp – “Dehumanization/is such a big word/it’s been around since Richard the Third” (“Blind Youth”) or war, which becomes ludicrous in “The Lebanon”: “And where there used to be some shops/is where the snipers sometimes hide”. Or the cheesy aside in “Love Action”:  “This is Phil talking, I wanna tell you”. The Post-punk era's combination of the amateurish and overambitious was much reflected in League's lyrics - after all, written by an ex-hospital janitor and sung with two high school girls. Nothing was too good for ordinary people, to use the modernist maxim.


“When I was a very small boy/Very small boys talked to me”, sings Bernard Sumner of New Order, on 'True Faith', at his most honest. Yet it has strong competition in “One of these days when you sit by yourself/you find that you can’t shag without someone else” (“Subculture”) or maybe “I have always thought about/staying in and going out/tonight I should’ve stayed at home/playing with my pleasure zone” (“The Perfect Kiss”). Yet those mocking Bernard Sumner's efforts are usually those claiming how great Ian Curtis' verses were in turn. Really? A closer look at them will reveal, that Curtis’ premature, tragic death makes for at least half of their appeal. Without that, aren’t they simply nihilistic musings of a naïve boy who got very concerned after reading some history books? Sumner’s lyrics were a perfect match with New Order’s music: unreal, otherworldly, bathing in an endless Summer of Love. This land of innocence and constant highs where even sorrow is sweet was a utopian alternative to the reality of the 1980s. They're never really about anything, yet, despite sounding as if they were made up on the spot, the lyrics often unexpectedly hit at something. New Order had perfect simplicity, giving a mot juste of modernity to pop, like Kraftwerk – yet, where lies the difference with simple crap? New Order took their fans from trauma to euphoria, often drug induced, like in Touched by the Hand of God, where the lyrical I, after the crush of love is metaphysically resuscitated when touched by the title's god's hand. Like with Depeche, the ordinariness and generalizations of Sumner’s words were completed by their fans.




This euphoric trend continued after the break of 1989 and in the early 1990s in dance music, through House, especially in Eurodance. Even degraded words, devoid of meaning, within music can suddenly start a new life. Let's take international anthems, such as Coldcut's “People Hold On”, Rozalla's “Everybody's Free (To Feel Good)”, even “Happy Nation” by Ace of Base – all called to unity, to get together and to brotherhood above all divisions. Sterling Void's “It's Alright” - later reworked as a smash hit by one of the most successful pop duo in history, Pet Shop Boys  - might've been a blueprint, in which the lyric tried to combine the concern with the world and calling for a revolution, yet, for now, suspended for the sake of the happiness found within the dancing crowd, of the illusionary community of co-clubbers: People under pressure on the brink of starvationI hope it's gonna be alright/(Alright, alright, alright)/Cause the music plays forever and so on.






A temporary collectivity can be founded over lyrics even if those listening have little or no idea what is being sung. From my own experience, with English as my second language, I regularly mistook words in The Smiths’ songs, despite recognising Morrissey’s lyrical talents. Despite getting Smiths lyrics wrong, they were meaningful to me. For some reason, when I misunderstood them, and it was happening more often than I'd wish, they  usually ended up being more pessimistic than they really were: in "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before", I thought that “lied” in “who said I'd lied because I never, I never!” was “liked you”, as if it was obvious that all relationships must finish in rejection. Did it matter? Not much – what unified the fans of The Smiths all over the world was a feeling – something which seemed subjective, yet magically transsubstantiated into an intersubjective sharing between fans. Morrissey's lyrics are often a combination of the very intricate and obscure culture references and places in Manchester with the general themes of love, loneliness and rejection and to this second part they probably owe their mass appeal. The opposite was the case with Depeche Mode – their appeal was based on the big themes put in simple words. As we understood every second or fifth word, our version of the lyric was  already pretty crappy, frankly, but I guess we still got the most important part.



Sometimes pop music surprises us with lyrics which despite their superficial crappiness are sublime, or are sublime crap, like Manic Street Preachers. Written on any page, including the copybook of a bored 6th form student, they are not passing the test of 'poetry' or tastefulness (if we were to be botehred by this anyway). MSP lyricist and ideologue, Richey Edwards, as if predicting his premature end, was only interested in Big Ideas: the Holocaust, communism, mental diseases, masochism, anorexia, life & death. Yet, who, in the ironic 90s was still interested? Pulp may have sung that “irony is over”, yet it was far from it. There was a guy who wanted to prove some stuff must be for real, even if that meant leveling crap written by a 14 year old and Guy Debord to one and the same level. As Adam Ant said, 'ridicule is nothing to be scared of'.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Counter Homophobia in Russia - a Look into Soviet Past

Evgeny Fiks, a photograph from the Moscow album

[I published this article as "Cruising Past" Photographer Evgenyi Fiks ressurects the Forgotten Gay History in Calvert Journal. Posting it here in slightly longer version for more political and other (like Fiks's other work) details, as the boycott of the Sochi Olympics spreads wide as a result of the horrific kidnapping and persecuting LGBT people in Russia today. What are the reasons of the recent progression of ever draconian laws from Putin? Why is he scapegoating gays? Is Russian society "inherently" necessarily homophobic? Or Maybe it wasn't always so? Also, this piece was published by New Statesman today]

Homophobia was never in a “better” state in Russia than it is today. The horrific murder of 23-year old Vladislav Tornovoy on 10th of May in Volgograd shook the public, but not enough, it seems. He was raped with a bottle, castrated and stoned. One of the murderers admitted the reason for the killing was the “provocative” dress of the victim and his sexual orientation, which “hurts patriotic feelings”. The official authorities had to admit it was a hate crime. This way, after many years of abuse, Russian authorities had to admit there’s a homophobia problem in Russia.

At the same time, a solidarity demonstration planned for May 25th was banned by the St Petersburg authorities. The protesters were still trying to carry out a “one person protest”, which became famous during the winter 2011-2012 protests, after the authorities banned several demonstrations –one person protesting doesn’t require a permission. Still, the people who tried this were arrested one after another. This didn’t happen to the counter demo, whose religious slogans apparently didn’t offend anyone.

This is only one of many sad events in the story of homophobia in post-Soviet Russia. To this you may add the widespread laws “against propaganda of homosexuality”, which started their life in Novosibirsk, but were most notorious in Petersburg, where, among other things, there were attempts to ban Madonna from performing on that basis. The law has just been passed and accepted in the Duma for the whole Russia. As one Russian MP said: “Russia is not Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Yet Russia wasn’t always a homophobic hell. The Bolsheviks legalized homosexuality soon after seizing power in 1917, together with establishing equal rights for women. The work of the New York-based Russian artist and photographer Evgeny Fiks documents spaces of social dissent and revolution. His inquiry into the soviet story of homosexuality in his latest series of photographs Moscow is a part of the characteristic research of this self-proclaimed “post-Soviet artist”, highly identifying with the post-soviet condition, by which he understands a specific duty to react against the collective amnesia surrounding this period, focusing especially on the demise of the Left after the fall of communism, both in Russia and America

In here, he inspects spaces where homosexuals could express their sexuality,claiming the public space back for those past histories in order to reclaim homosexuality both from the horrific contemporary homophobia and stigmatization of other kinds of sexuality, just as he distances himself from Soviet, specifically Stalinist times. At first sight, titled just plainly Moscow, it could be just an ordinary photo album of the public places in the capital of Russia. We can see parks, squares, boulevards, riverside embankments and public toilets. We admire the splendid classicist architecture of the capital, its greenery, constructivist-classicist constructions and the care of the Soviet authorities to make even the toilets, like those on Nikitsky Gates, beautiful. What emanates from them is peacefulness and silence. But of course, learning that each and one of the locations of the photos were actually the areas of Soviet cruising instantly changes the way we see them. What we may suddenly perceive in them is in the eye of the viewer. Yes, there’s especially a lot of public toilets, and that may make us also see the public facilities in a different way, as sites that enable spontaneous relations between adults, which normally had to go on in hiding, away from the public eye – but paradoxically, are only possible in public. In addition to this, the author ordered the photos according to the time when they were popular, from 1920s to 1980s, which means here we’re looking at the complete history of Soviet cruising, at least in one capital city. But what about the post-transitional years? This is exactly the question Fiks makes us ask.

Moscow is a specific “work of mourning”, where pleshkas – Russian name for spaces of cruising become strange “lieux de memoire”, to use Pierre Nora’s idea, by which he meant repositories of collective memory, which also were inspirational in Holocaust studies to describe places of extermination. What’s  also striking is that the places are completely empty, abandoned, what increases the feeling of disappearance and silencing of the victims. And those spaces were dear to many: they acquired an inner slang, in which statues of Lenin and Marx, present in each Russian city, were called affectionately “Auntie Lena” and “Director of Pleshka” both for its familiarity and in an act of queering them. To use Situationist language, gay men were detourning these areas and symbols of revolution, showing there’s no real discrepancy between ideology and what they’re doing.

The current spread of far right feelings in Russia cannot be overlooked as just another effect of the years of communism, but rather the failed transition to capitalism. If homosexuality was banned in Soviet Russia, its anti-communist liberals would have a perfect argument – but it wasn’t. The Bolsheviks legalized homosexuality, because according to the original idea of communism, sexuality wasn’t there to be policed by the state. It was there to revolutionise the citizen, with love understood as a public good. Homosexuality was banned again in the mid-1930s under Stalin – a letter to whom is included in Fiks’ book, protesting the law, written by out homosexual and British communist Harry Whyte. Yet unlike the restrictions Stalin placed on women’s rights, the ban was not repealed under Khrushchev. Homosexuality wasn’t legalized again until 1993. Though unlike Stalin’s laws, homosexuality is not being banned again, in practice this puts it back in the ghetto, encouraging homophobia and hate crime.

There have been several artistic ways protests so far against these limitations on personal freedoms. Pyotr Pavlensky, a 29-year old performer and activist from Petersburg, did a public intervention under the Legislative Assembly, where he lay naked literally folded in barbed wire, so that the policemen who tried to remove him, couldn’t touch him, despite the wire hurting the artist with each move. Recently the popular Russian magazine “Afisha” published an issue with the rainbow LGBT flag on the cover and even for holding it during a demo somebody was arrested.

Homosexuality as a banned, shameful practice that goes on necessarily in hiding has a long history. And in fact some commentators argue that the current wars aren’t strictly between homosexuals and heterosexuals, but a conflict between two different versions of homosexuality – “Soviet” and “Western.” And in Russia it’s very deeply attached to the Soviet practice on a huge scale in Gulags. There, as the prisoners were on purpose deprived of possibility of expressing their sexuality (men and women were imprisoned separately), the homosexual act was associated with the criminal hierarchy and deeper humiliation of prisoners, where for instance those who were “passive” in the act were considered the lowest. This taboo attached to the homosexual identity prevents it from being seen as something “natural” in Russia. Yet suggesting natural means Western would be in here inaccuracy, given Russia de facto is a part of the West for several hundreds of years.

Yet, the persecution of gays must be a serious PR blow to Russian liberals who’d like to see Russia as a potential market, free of the typical “eastern barbarism” our part of the world is often still associated with. Yet the supposedly moralistic homophobia somehow hypocritically leaves intact the enormous sex industry post Soviet Europe has, only proving that this has nothing to do with morality, but only hate and prejudice. Soon this will bring even more horrible consequences and spread even more violence – what really has to happen so that the law makers loosened their bigotry? “Political figures have provoked anti-gay sentiment by portraying the gay community as a bunch of freaks,” one of the May 25 protesters have said. “They are accomplices in the killing.”


Putin’s anti-homosexual laws are aimed at bringing him back the crashing popularity, damaged after the protests of the Winter 2011-12, when even his followers are more prone to expect a clear, coherent politics from their president.  Channeling homophobia is here only one, albeit especially nasty way of getting back a now especially illusionary “unity” in Russia and divert teh attention from the real political turmoils in Russia today.

Fiks's work is also a subtle but potent protest. As someone who migrated quite soon after the dissolution of USSR (he left for America in 1994), Fiks clearly saw how the reality which succeeded it was actually worse. His artistic strategy is to make “interventions in history”, treating it indeed in a dialectical way: not as frozen and dead, but as a space of the present, lived experience. Especially the latest activity: the idea for a competition for the Monument to Cold War Victory in the US (sic!) challenges various thinking clichés of history. It’s exercise in “political imagination” within the present, a protest against “the end of history”. At once a reminder of the cold war obsession with monuments and an attempt to stop the current obliteration of the recent history, as the communist monuments are removed everywhere. As ironically as the idea may sound, it’s true the Cold War’s legacy persists, whenever we like it or not, but we are yet to find an appropriate aesthetical form for it. As in Moscow, this project starts from an ironic confirmation of a certain stereotype, in this case certain political melancholia and nostalgia, to in the process change it into a living scene of living history.