Clare Pritchard is an independent researcher based in London.
Folds in the Blanket of Emptiness: Reflecting Upon Aspects of the Work of Collective Actions (Kollektivnye Deistviia) (2006)
“All our activity may be characterised in short as “voyages into Nothingness” with aesthetic-psychological equipment…..we are in total darkness” (1)
The group Collective Actions (K/D) formed in Moscow in 1976 and rapidly became an important force within thelocal alternative art scene. The initial group consisted of four artists: Nikita Alekseev, Georgii Kiezvalter, Andrei Monastyrsky and Nikita Panitkov but very soon their call was extended and they were joined by Igor Makarevich, Elena Elagina and Sergei Romashko and so they were seven. (2) The group continues to work together today.
Then as now, each of these artists works independently, but they come together periodically in order to materialise the de-urbanised actions or interventions of K/D. The longevity and serial aspect of K/D’s practice means that over the last three decades they have undertaken an extensive and intensive journey of exploration.
Scanning sequences of K/D’s work over the years, it becomes apparent that particular tactics recur in the process of their practice. The journey to the work, the action of waiting, the ‘sounding’ of silence, the emergence of doubles, the sudden appearance of ‘displaced’ objects and the irruption of unexpected sensate effects create an insistent refrain throughout their actions. The journey continues and their affective practices are enacted in a liminal zone.
From their inauguration as a group in the 1970’s Collective Actions (K/D) formed a part ofMoscow’s disparate unofficial or nonconformist art movement. Scammell (1995: 49) notes that this ‘informal’ (or spectral) movement existed, ‘from about 1956 (the year of Krushchev’s Secret Speech) to about 1986 (when Gorbachev introduced his policies of glasnost and perestroika)’. (3)
Bakshtein (1995: 335) develops and extends this appellation‘nonconformist’, identifying particular ‘waves’ of nonconformism: the third wave beginning in the 1970’s and linked to the emergence of Sots Art (4) and Moscow Conceptualism. Of course any classification imposes limitations but K/D were/still are frequently aligned with (Russian) conceptual practices.However as Bakshtein (ibid) notes there was an incredible breadth to this term ‘Russian conceptualism’ which sheltered a multiplicity of diverse practices.(5)
Inart historical terms then K/D are frequently defined as both unofficial/nonconformist and as part of the Moscow Conceptualist movement.This categorisation ‘conceptualism’ can be extended further to account for sub-groups and practices whichspecifically engage the performing body. (6)
In existent texts conceptualism often provides a starting point or contingent space to locate K/D’s practices. (7) And whilst K/D began working together in the 1970’s their actions span several decades of change and transition - from communism to glasnost and perestroika through to the ‘fall’ of communism and the ‘so-called’ post-communist moment.
Given the longevity of their practice and the way in which K/D’s actions criss-cross disciplinary fields, it seems too simplistic to constrain their work within a single overarching (classificatory) term or discourse. It seems more productive to traverse the multiple trajectories which emerge and which are enabled in and through K/D’s practice.
Theoretically speaking, K/D’s practices cannot be categorized easily, their actions displace any attempt to definitively situate or fix their work. Crossing disciplinary and conceptual boundaries, these practices move between land art, performance, photography, poetry and expanded sculpture.
Many existent texts which discuss K/D’s work attempt to classify their practices within particular disciplinary and/or thematic explorations and as a consequence other aspects or concepts within the work are either disavowed or ignored within these specific boundeddiscourses.
Conceptual investigations often displace the affective and sensate explorations inherent in their work. (8) Photographic or media analyses dissipate theperformative aspect of the work. Body art investigations pare down the complex interconnections between the ‘live’ event and the performance image. (9)Whilst purely geopolitical analyses situate and fix the work of K/D moving dangerously close to ‘othering’ the work in the process of analysis. (10)
Situating these practices within a single discourse or discipline disavows the complex layering of concepts and affects contained and produced within K/D’s practices. It is therefore more productive to travel with the work engaging in a more trans-disciplinary approach. And traveling from the site of existent mappings or locations of K/D’s actions enables a different kind of turn(ing). A move which offers the potentiality for constructing a more mobile and contingent mapping of the thematic folds of K/D’s practice.
Call and Response: Group Practice and Individual Action
The very practice of engaging in art work collectively presents certain conceptual and intellectual challenges in terms of the process of production. Group work compared to solo work is a process of collaboration, discussion, negotiation and tactical compromise. Whilst K/D’s actions constitute group practice, each individual within the group is never wholly subsumed (drowned out) by the collective manifestation. Each artist speaks both as one and as many and their individual input is integral to the ongoing generation of practices.
K/D constitute a community of practitioners constructed through friendship and artistic and intellectual empathy. Group practice is much less typical in Western European and North American contemporary performance practice although some notable exceptions do exist. (11) However, the situation in Central and Eastern Europe is different, as Groys (2003b: 330) notes,
“Anyone who is familiar with the various art scenes throughout Eastern Europe will know that artists’ groups there do not represent an exception, but the generalrule.”
This may be overstating the case but historical and contemporaneous examples can be found with ease. (12) A group of practitioners functions as a fluid network, made up of fragmented subjectivities driven by a desire to interrogate both shared and disparate concepts. Working together as a group does not disperse our sense of self but instead highlights our continual reliance on the other and the way in which we are defined in relation to this otherness.
Given the time and space within which K/D began working together, it seems important to re-iterate that within the context of their actions the notion of working together signifies an entirely voluntary, non-coercive and provisional understanding of group practice.
It is useful here to consider what Victor Tupitsyn (1995: 95) refers to as the emergence of ‘contractual communality’ or ‘optional communalisation’. This reframing is used to signal its distinction from forms of enforced ideological collectivisation. Tupitsyn (ibid: 87) notes ‘optional communalisation’ became, ‘the ecological niche for Muscovite alternative art over the course of three decades – right up to perestroika’.
The experience of sharing ideas may be fraught but may also lead to the emergence of dynamic and unforeseen trajectories. An oscillation occurs between the desire for practices which constitute a shared but private ritual (shared amongst a small group of artists) and the more public drive for the dissemination of the work.
This oscillation is apparent in the space of representation when images and other ephemera of these actions (generated within ‘intimate’ gatherings) are transformed in and through the process of interpretation after the ‘live’ event. The seriality of K/D’s actions and the archive of performance ‘correspondence’ collected and collated enable an experience of continued event-ness which extends long after the ‘live’ event.
For K/D it is crucial that viewers/participants ‘complete’ the work through a process of interpretative exchange. The generation of a flow of dialogue is vital for these practices. K/D’s collaborative practice enables other forms of creative sociability and modes of discussing and generating work.
Echoes of these exchanges edge outwards towards potential and contingent groups of viewers who come to constitute a fluid and changeable community of participants. The address of the event sets up the possibility of an ongoing (or endless) interpretative dialogue.
Discussing art practices which engage networking and exchange, Arns (2003: 13-14) notes that it is important that, ‘communication no longer merely takes place in the group’ (i.e. amongst the group of artists themselves) but that the ‘group’s sense of self has transformed towards becoming a manufacturer of communications’.
In this way the open interaction of the group, the negotiations and exchanges offer the possibility of enabling ‘a fundamental transformation in the concept of communication’ (Arns: ibid) which is relayed and transformed in the flow of viewer participation/interpretation.
Groys (2003a: 83-84) makes a similar assertion in his discussion of aspects of K/D’s practice when he notes that the main interest was, "not so much the event itself as the process of interpretation that followed it".
The event produces a space elsewhere, sustaining the potential for enabling continuing discussions (both within the group of artists and amongst the contingent community of viewers) which enable the transformation of meanings and concepts. Therefore the process of enabling a contingent community is facilitated in, through and beyond the performed event itself.
Travelling Outside and TravellingBeyond
Almost all of K/D’s actions take place outside of the gallery space amongst fields and forests at the fringes of the city. (13) The journey to these (suburban) sites is an important aspect of the work for both artists and viewers/participants. The hard physical labour of ‘getting there’, often interrupted by the elements, (the eruption of fierce gales, persistent rain and/or deep snow), becomes part of the ‘work’ of the action.
Usinglimited means, and through the action of brief interventions, participants and viewers are physically and psychically displaced through the action of both literal and conceptual ‘journeying’. These voyages move both artists andparticipants/viewers to a terrain between the city and countryside and often there is no clear moment of absolute demarcation between these two sites (14).
K/D’s transient and small-scale interventions attempt to awaken dulled perception by creating a time and space for thought and action. K/D utilise aspects of sensate interruption and uncertainty in order to engage differing modes of paying attention. For example in the action Lieblich (1976) K/D buried a ringing electric bell under the ground at Ismailovo Park, Moscow.
Invited to this place and directed to an area near the concealed bell (but not told about the burial) the spectators watched and waited (in anticipation of seeing something happen). The process of waiting gives time to contemplate the surroundings and our sensate experience of those surroundings. The viewers look at one another, become more conscious of the elements: the coldness of the snow contrasting with the light breeze and weak sunshine that marks the shift towards spring.
A delay in expectation occurs and since nothing appears to happen (i.e. there is nothing to be seen other than the all the usual things that we see on a walk in the park) the viewer is forced to think otherwise. In the process of looking (at nothing in particular – an undirected ‘empty’ looking) a sound can be heard. Gradually the soft tinkling of the bell shifts into audibility. Vision is thwarted and a sensory confusion occurs as hearing is substituted for looking. Operating at the boundaries of disorientating perceptual affects, K/D’s actions actuate a zone of indiscernibility which interconnects with their contingent occupation of borderline or marginal spatial positions.
In terms of participation, analysis and interpretation these actions mark a journey into less identified or identifiable zones. The move to more peripheral spaces constitutes an important aspect of K/D’s action and these transitional sites, somewhere just outside the city, touch and are touched by both the urban and the rural.
In a text which explores the ‘out of town’ space of K/D’s actions, Monastyrsky (1999) considers these ‘flickering’ sites between, noting that ‘the contours of these spaces are vibrating’. Something of the city is brought to the hinterlands and something of the hinterlands returns via memories and performance ephemera.
For K/D the journey to the spaces they contingently occupy is as important as anything which may happen once they ‘arrive’. K/D and the small group of invited participants who accompany them travel to these spaces in the hinterlands (between the urban and the rural) a process which both physically and psychically dislocates and relocates perception and disrupts preconceptions.
Moving ‘outside’ to these ‘edge cities’ K/D ask us to explore these complex spaces which are remarkably active: activated by and through our interactions and reactions. Bodies and spaces are transformed through the processes of encountering.
Space is seen as relational: constructed and defined by the relationships between objects (between people and places). The edge spaces K/D move towards are uninhabited (or have no permanent occupants) and as such could be described as relatively ‘unmarked’ in terms of social and political framings: they are neither ‘wild’ nor completely ‘ordered’.
K/D do not desire to ‘possess’ these spaces but rather to explore and contingently occupy them as sites of potentiality – appropriating and re-appropriating times and spaces. Actions and meanings remain in transit, there do not seem to be any clearly defined beginnings and endings and the serial aspect of K/D’s work accentuates this notion of ongoing movement. Each action seems to interrupt the next and so on.
In the liminal space between the urban and the rural and operating between disciplines and concepts, K/D’s actions intersect with everyday life. And by retaining a conceptual openness they allow the everyday to intervene within their actions.
Their actions do not rely upon ‘spectacular acts’ but instead function as a reconfiguration of the everyday. K/D’s practices reiterate aspects of everyday encounters; walking, waiting, meeting, whilst remaining open to serendipity and the possibility of chance interactions with the environment, objects and people.
For example in K/D’s 1976 action entitled Appearance walking and stillness (waiting) constituted the action itself. Participant/viewers met in Izmailovo Park at midday and were instructed to wait. In this action there is a sharp contradiction between the formal (control) and the random (chance): between directed action (‘walk to this space and wait’) and a sense of directionless-ness within which the spectator decides what to do (how to act).
The day of the action, 18th February 1976, was cold and snowy (the bleak white sky contrasted strongly with the distant dark wooded areas) and at first there seemed to be nothing to look ‘at’. But then at a certain moment two members of K/D appeared from the forest, from the opposite side of the field, they approached the spectators and distributed ‘certificates’ testifying to their participation in Appearance.
As K/D (1977: 16) noted, what was important in this action was an acknowledgement of your own response, recognition of your own perception since,
In everyday life, the apparition of people and objects near us does not excite the slightest spiritual emotion. This action has been planned with the aim of bringing back this emotion.
Initially the spectators see only two moving objects in their peripheral vision. As the two members of K/D approach the spectators (as they mark their arrival) the two figures ‘come into sight’. A mirroring occurs during the process of the action: the spectators walk then wait whilst K/D wait and then walk. The pauses between encourage continued looking and this attentive perception is ‘rewarded’ as the spectators witness the interruptive ‘apparition’ of the two moving figures.
This action ‘stretches’ time and space within the extended duration (or waiting space) of the action. K/D encourage a mobile sense of seeing and this ‘seeing as traveling’ carries over into the process of interpretation (as concepts ‘take a walk’ and move from space to space). Traversing the ‘flickering’ gap between art and the everyday K/D’s actions sustain a necessary tension which enables change and transformation and awakening interpretation(s).
Words and Things
In the process of their actions K/D are interested in a practice of ‘visualising the verbal’ whilst attending to what Monastyrsky terms ‘elementary poetry’. For Monastyrsky this term refers to K/D’s attempt to engage poetic forms inherent in everyday life. K/D’s actions move between the regulated and structured systems of language acquisition and usage and the eruptive affective rhythms and pulses of the non-verbal.
In the ‘waiting field’ or ‘empty’ spaces of an action, signifiers multiply as viewers/participants are encouraged to extend their perceptiveness and to sense things anew. Language emerges via written or spoken instructions, via the eruption of ‘random text’ (overheard sounds and unexpected utterances) and finally in the discussions and written reflections/commentaries that occur after the ‘live’ event.
K/D appropriate particular forms of ideological communication (e.g. banners) in order to displace their function. Re-placed in liminal sites, the slogan, which ordinarily conveys an obvious message moves towards ambiguity and uncertainty. Moving beyond the ideological ‘totality of explication’ K/D disassociate themselves from ironic citation and parodying re-iteration and move to create a space for increasingly complex and ambiguous aspects of communication.
In the 1977 action Slogan-77, K/D used a banner as a kind of visual interruption or perceptual interference which also functions as a form of elementary poetry. This action involved a journey to a forest on the outskirts of Moscow and the placing of a banner between two trees.
The banner (12 x 1m) was made of red cloth and painted with white letters reminiscent of political banners. But instead of the ‘active’ sloganeering usually found on such items, K/D’s banner contained a strangely ‘introverted’ text which jarred with the ideological implications of the political sign. It read,
I am not complaining about anything, and I like everything here, although I have never been here and know nothing about this place (Slogan 77).
This banner was left in the woods creating an insistent ‘dam’ of redness which interrupted the whiteness of the horizon. The banner acts as an incongruous manifestation intended to ‘jar’ the dulled perception of any chance passer by. The brightness of the first slogan on red cloth assaults our vision and reverberates against the trees (and against the whiteness of the snow in winter and if it still remains there in the spring thaw it transforms as the greenness of the foliage begins to encroach and obliterate the text).
Often participants are asked to perform extremely ‘ordinary’ acts which take on a rather extraordinary significance or potentiality. In the 1983 action Exit the only action participants performed was getting on and ‘exiting’ a trolleybus at a designated moment. Participants were given a card with the inscription,
We are getting off at the next stop – Collective Actions.
This text precipitates an interruption in the course of action – it interrupts or interferes with continuity of the journey. Once participants had alighted from the trolleybus they were issued with an envelope which had this inscription:
Exit was carried out on the 20th March 1983 at… (participants inserted the relevant time they exited the trolleybus).
The envelope both ‘marks’ the event and produces an incomplete ending to the action (to the exiting of Exit). The brevity of this action (and the small scale of its intervention) seems to ask us to contemplate the hundreds of ‘automatic’ actions we perform in everyday life. Exit defamiliarises an ordinary action and asks us to attend to not only actions themselves but also to the gaps or spaces within and between events.
What happens in the time/space before participants are told what is going to happen? The space of the action shifts during the course of the event and it includes taking in the journey to the trolley bus stop where the action begins, the first trolleybus stop, the journey on the bus and finally the bus stop where participants exit. What happens when they have exited the trolleybus? The arbitrariness of this action asks us to question the arbitrariness of signs and the instability of meaning.
Later actions such as The Wall Newspaper (2004) have utilised older forms of address. The wall newspaper (quite literally a newspaper pasted on an information board or factory wall), a ubiquitous item in 1920’s Russia, was a way of conveying information to a large amount of people using minimal resources. K/D’s ‘wall-newspapers’ consist of a combination of their own texts and images and extracts taken from ‘factual’ texts such as Encyclopaedias. (15) The unlikely combinations of text and images disrupt the logical (or more accurately expected) sequence of communication (e.g. image and caption). The seemingly straightforward ‘factual’ information of the Encyclopaedia is re-contextualised by both the text and images that surround it and through its unexpected location.
The ‘multiple’ or collective aspect of K/D’s actions is reiterated through their practice of seriality. Rather than creating one-off events K/D work in series: actions and meanings developing over time. Working in this way, each action is consistently renewed and reconsidered by the next.
Within K/D’s actions there do not seem to be any clearly defined beginnings and endings and the serial aspect of K/D’s work accentuates this notion of ongoing movement: each action interrupting the next and so on. K/D invite only a limited number of viewer/participants to the ‘live’ event and so most people experience their work via images taken at the event.
As a consequence of the longevity of their association, the archive of material K/D have accumulated and collated over the three decades they have been working together, has come to constitute a vast archive ‘in process’ which continues to change and transform.
And in order to remain sensitive to the linguistic, affective and conceptual aspects of K/D’s actions it seems more accurate to speak of this archival material as constituting a form of correspondence rather than simply a collection of ‘documents’. Whilst documents are aligned with ‘truth’, K/D work with memory and imagining and therefore facilitate a shift from facts to acts.
K/D are interested in the productive disparities and inconsistencies contained within and produced by their ‘archive’. Instead of each action constituting a discrete (and complete) event, the process (and multiplicity) of images (re)produced replay and re-envision each sequence of actions.
Each action is implicated (one) within another and so on creating an endlessly circulating and transforming sense of event-ness. Strange disruptions and impossible reconfigurations of time and space occur within ‘live’ and imagined experiences and interpretations. Actions and concepts frequently move ‘out of place’.
And the process of interpretation highlights the impossibility of insisting upon a clear distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. As viewers/participants of K/D actions we move between the spaces/times of memory (the displacements and mis-rememberings of memory work) and imagining (the contingent meanings produced via the performance image).
Every interaction with visual art and culture begins with an encounter: whether it is a cursory glance or a much slower fascination with an image which inexplicably lingers, troubling and frustrating expectations. Choosing to engage with this encounter means entering into a process of critical enquiry.
As viewers/participants we enter into a zone of undecidability. In this zone of undecidability we begin to grapple with notions of form, content and meaning(s). The viewer/participant who enters this zone with a critical awareness begins a questioning dialogue in an attempt to create new modes of interpretation.
Taking a walk with K/D’s concepts and actions, perhaps we should allow words and thoughts to begin to move out of place as the turbulence and uncertainty of encountering is re-performed in the space of interpretation.
Instead of fixing and defining K/D’s actions I propose a more speculative journey through the many thematic folds which come to constitute a productive and transformative space of exchange and communication.
1 K/D cited in Tupitsyn (1989: 148-149) | back| 2 AsMonastyrsky (Obrist 2005: 114) notes since Nikita Alekseev’s departure from the group KD now consists of six members. | back| 3 An important event which galvanised the disparate elements within the generic group ‘nonconformist artists’ was the infamous Bulldozer exhibition (even though not everyone took part in this event). In 1974 several artists organised an unofficial open-air exhibition in fields on the outskirts of Moscow. Arriving at the site the artists encountered angry militia who attacked both the artists and the works of art. This immense overreaction of the state (witnessed by several international journalists) led to the organisation of a second officially sanctioned open-air exhibition in Izmailovsky Park. See Scammell (1995: 54-55) and Bakshtein (1995: 335). | back| 4 In the same year that K/D came together as a group (1976) an exhibition of Sots art took place in New York. Sots art (a term coined in 1972 by the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid) effected a very particular interpellative address and one very different to that of K/D. As Margarita Tupitsyn (1989: 61) notes Sots art, ‘appropriated and deconstructed the shrines of Soviet ideology’. This generic term was derived from a comment made by Vladimir Paperny when he visited Komar and Melamid’s studio and noted that their work (based on Soviet mass-cultural imagery) seemed to be a Soviet variation of Pop art (Tupitsyn: ibid). Engaging myths, stereotypes and working to undermine notions of authorship and uniqueness, Sots art functioned as a form of oppositional resistance that appropriated kitsch and cliché with humour and deconstructive irony. See Tupitsyn (1989: 60-97) | back| 5 See Tamruchi (1995) and Ross, (ed.) (1990. As Lailach (2004:11) notes the writer and theorist Boris Groys made a connection between the Russian (historical) avant-garde and Moscow Conceptualism. But as Lailach (ibid) notes, ‘with its strategic appropriations and counter-discourses Moscow Conceptualism radicalises the utopian experiments of the Russian avant-garde and injects them with irony’. | back| 6 Russian art practices which engage the body can be traced back to the avant-garde street experiments of Vladimir Mayakovsky and the Burlyuk brothers in the first and second decade of the twentieth century (see Gray 1986: 114). In her discussion of the historical emergence of performance art, Goldberg (1988) follows a similar avant-garde timeline devoting an entire chapter to Russian Futurism and Constructivism (ibid: 31-49). However contemporary writers often situate the beginnings of post-war ‘action’ or ‘body art’ in Russia in the 1960’s with the ‘kinetic games’ of the Movement Group, led by Lev Nusberg and Francisco Infante. Interestingly, like K/D’s actions, many of the Movement Group’s actions also took place in fields and forests but these actions were more theatrical and stylised than K/D’s practices. In relation to performance practices, group work is/was more usual in Eastern Europe. By the 1970’s several other groups emerged including Nest (1975) (which consisted of Mikhail Roshal, Gennadii Donskoi and Victor Skersis) and the collective energies of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (early 1970’s) and Rimma and Valery Gerlovin (1977). Tupitsyn (1995) and Bakshtein (1999) give details of the work of each of these practitioners and other relevant examples. The work of these artists is classified as both conceptual and performative. | back| 7 See Tupitsyn, (1989), Tamruchi (1995) and Backstein and de Baere (eds.) (2005) | back| 8 See Ross(ed.) 1990, Tupitsyn (1999: 98-107) and Godfrey (1998: 268-269). | back| 9. See Klocker (1998:159-195) | back| 10 See Tupitsyn (1989) | back| 11 There are of course always exceptions such as: the Viennese Actionists (Austria), Station House Opera (UK), COUM (UK) and Gilbert and George (UK). There are many more groups who move between live art and theatre (e.g. The Theatre of 11.Mistakes and Forced Entertainment (UK) | back| 12There are many examples in Hochdörfer et al (ed.) 1999 and Djurićand Šuvaković (2003). | back| 13There are a few exceptions to this rule e.g. actions performed at Schaubuhne, Berlin 9th June 2001and the Pompidou Centre, Paris 27th September 2002. | back| 14From 1980 the material gathered and generated as a consequence of K/D’s actions (commentaries, photographs, artists writings etc ) has been compiled into several volumes entitled, Trips Out of the City. | back| 15The 2004 action The Wall Newspaper by K/D utilised extracts taken from The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (Vavilov and Shaumian 1950-1958). Three versions of the encyclopaedia (the largest and most comprehensive in the Russian language) exist. | back|