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Anna Bitkina describes a spectrum of today's Russian artists' strategies in an inclusive spirit that might be useful to activists in the US at the moment, whether we are artists/curators or in other fields. TOK Curators' practice has a strong social component around current issues such as migration, development of education, deprivation of social resources, and others. To work in the narrowing public space in Russia today, TOK's practice involves collaboration and negotiation with politicians and administrators in St. Petersburg. TOK constantly crosses seeming barriers, into other academic disciplines and more recently into the territory of "social workers, policy makers, and therapists."
At the other end of the strategic spectrum (as we might view it), when asked what areas of 21st century Russian art deserve more attention and research, Anya described the importance of today's underground Russian art, which has reconstituted today (following its Soviet-era end) as public spaces become more strictly controlled by the State. "Serious, very interesting artistic practices are happening in those underground places.... It's important to research these because they reflect on conditions of Russian society and Russian politics these days." Thus, Anya values a wide range of artist strategies, running the gamut from negotiating with local governments to working underground.
Another very interesting strategic concept that Anya proposes is using positive elements of the former Soviet national networks of Houses of Culture (Doma Kultury), which for decades provided people of different ages, social status, and education an opportunity to get involved in creative artistic and educational projects. A similar system of Soviet youth clubs additionally offered a wide spectrum of cultural activities to young generations. "I think those structures are important to revisit now," says Anya. This is a part of Russians citizens' cultural and institutional heritage, and "We should use it more often in every day life, and connect it to contemporary creative practices." Chto Delat's School of Engaged Art, and TOK draw on that heritage, using some of the same methods.
I would like to hear more from Anya about whether TOK and Chto Delat are primarily using House of Culture educational and artistic methods within individual cities such as St. Petersburg. She observes that the national club network is still operating and active now "in a different mode." Is it possible now to somehow work within actual inter-city structures in Russia?
In whatever country activists are working to create new systems to meet the needs of everyday people rather than the needs (and whims) of the super-wealthy, it's important to assess the positive and negative elements of existing institutions, so as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Cultural and institutional heritages have been developed and tested over long periods of time, and we should cherish the work done by many who came before us. We will need the fruits of their many years of labor.
Of course, many institutions have been developed to favor the interests of elites, and we need to understand the structural elements that favor elites over ordinary citizens. Houses of Culture were established in part to create a cultural buttress for the Soviet autocracy. Yet they also had the very positive qualities Anya describes.
In the US today, Bernie Sanders has attempted to adapt the long-established institution of the Democratic Party to advance socialism (meant not in the old "Communist" sense of state control of the national economy, but as a state which provides a social safety net, redistributes wealth, and puts human needs - including environmental protections - above corporate ones). Sanders correctly assessed that the Democratic Party could never be adapted in this way if it continued to fund its candidates by large donations from hugely wealthy donors, whose world view consciously or unconsciously becomes the candidates.' So Sanders raised the vast majority of his campaign funding via millions of tiny donations from ordinary American citizens.
History has shown that in moments of chaotic collapse of old systems, traditional institutions are reborn to one degree or another, often because new institutions are desperately needed but there is little time to generate entirely new forms. Maybe the time to assess the good and bad aspects of current institutions is before a crisis, so that should that moment come, we are well-prepared.
Anna Bitkina describes a spectrum of today's Russian artists' strategies in an inclusive spirit that might be useful to activists in the US at the moment, whether we are artists/curators or in other fields. TOK Curators' practice has a strong...
Anne, thanks for your thoughts! You raise some great points about TOK and institutions today.