Chto delat? (What is to be Done?) is a collective of artists, theorists and political activists from Moscow, Petersburg and Novgorod, formed in 2003. In general I’m more au fait with their political work, via their Russian blog, where I’ve been reading intermittently about the activities and persecution (both official and unofficial) of anti-fascist, ecological and other left-wing activists in Russia. I’ve only just discovered there’s also an English language blog. But their artistic work has by and large passed me by until now, despite the fact that the poet Aleksander Skidan is one of their number – I know about him mainly because he translated Malcolm Jones’s Dostoevsky After Bakhtin into Russian. So I was very interested to discover they had an exhibition at the ICA, titled The Urgent Need to Struggle, and I went to see it the other day, not really knowing what to expect.
I have to admit there were certain things that didn’t convince me, in particular the large dose of communist nostalgia and the evocation of Lenin as a source of inspiration (though I was happier to see Chernyshevsky there as well). But having said that, the video installations were hugely impressive, and it’s definitely worth visiting the exhibition just to see those, although in fact several visits would probably be best because watching one video after another is very wearing, and after a while they all tend to merge into one, which doesn’t do them justice.
The centrepiece, and highlight, is the ‘Songspiel’ The Tower. You can watch this on their main website, and the latest issue of their newspaper, Whose City is This?, also features the screenplay as well as other texts on the same theme. But it’s worth going to see it on a big screen. The Tower is basically an opera with dialogue about the conflict surrounding the proposed Gazprom tower (Okhta Centre) in Petersburg. If you don’t know about the Gazprom tower controversy, which has been rumbling on for several years already, this article from the Indy gives a succinct account. The project was the subject of a World Monuments Fund site watch, though why ‘past’ I’m not sure. Do they somehow imagine it’s now safe, or have they just given up trying? I don’t think that construction proper has actually begun, but debate is certainly still raging, and according to e-architect, Medvedev has reminded city officials of UNESCOs concerns. I’m sure that’ll do the trick.
I think for many of the people who object to the tower, it isn’t simply that it’s grotesque and out of place, although it is. It’s the blatant disregard for the law and the precedent that the building will set. If it goes ahead, Petersburg as we know it will not survive for long. As someone who’s very interested in Petersburg as a cultural and literary city, I think that would be a disaster, not because I believe the city should be preserved as some sort of museum, but because the character and history of the city continue to inspire art, and that would eventually be lost. The ‘Petersburg text’ is, I would contend, alive and well, and Chto delat? are making the most intriguing new additions to the genre. One of their videos shown at the exhibition that I really want to go back to watch properly is a situationist examination of the Narvskaya zastava ‘workers” district of Petersburg. It reminded me very much of walks I’ve taken with friends through the ‘ordinary’ parts of the city and made me realize that day-to-day engagement even (perhaps especially) with Petersburg’s ‘under-described spaces’ (to borrow Julie Buckler’s problematic term from Mapping Petersburg) contributes to a re-writing of the Petersburg text that brings it into the present day.
That context is also relevant to The Tower songspiel, which is so memorable and effective because it isn’t simply a protest against the Gazprom building, but also a critique of all the discourses that surround Petersburg. The Petersburg text has always contained a strong element of self-reflection, and the polyphony of The Tower to a great extent relates to Petersburg’s production of meta-commentary. It’s very witty and well written, and the incorporation of text from real speeches and documents blurs the line between everyday fact and the absurd in a way that’s both amusing and thought-provoking. The staging of the film is also highly effective, and indeed I felt that it would cross genres and work equally well as a piece of theatre - something one can very rarely say of a video installation. I would very strongly recommend watching it. The exhibition continues at the ICA until 24th October 2010.