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An Empty Action is Not for a Movie Camera: "The Balloon" by Collective Actions Group

In this essay, art historian and curator Margarita Tupitsyn analyzes Balloon, a 1977 action by the Moscow-based Collective Actions Group (CAG), which entered the MoMA Collection in 2008 as a video work. Extensively citing archival sources, Tupitsyn provides interpretations of the action within the context of CAG's practice and focuses on the role of film and idea of objectlessness in Balloon.

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Margarita Tupitsyn

Art historian and curator Margarita Tupitsyn is an independent curator, scholar, and art critic. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center of City University of New York. In 1981... Read more »
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An Empty Action is Not for a Movie Camera: "The Balloon" by Collective Actions Group

In this essay, art historian and curator Margarita Tupitsyn analyzes Balloon, a 1977 action by the Moscow-based Collective Actions Group (CAG), which entered the MoMA Collection in 2008 as a video work. Extensively citing archival sources, Tupitsyn provides interpretations of the action within the context of CAG's practice and focuses on the role of film and idea of objectlessness in Balloon.

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In this essay, art historian and curator Margarita Tupitsyn analyzes Balloon, a 1977 action by the Moscow-based Collective Actions Group (CAG), which entered the MoMA Collection in 2008 as a video work. Extensively citing archival sources, Tupitsyn provides interpretations of the action within the context of CAG's practice and focuses on the role of film and idea of objectlessness in Balloon.

In Balloon, “objectness,” “provocation” and “abandonment” were manifested almost perfectly. —Nikita Alekseev, 1980.

In 2008, The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Media and Performance Art acquired an approximately 5-minute film of a Collective Actions Group (CAG) action titled Balloon (June 15, 1977, Moscow region).1 Learning about this acquisition made me wonder why Balloon (shot by Ludmila Veshnevskaia) or the only other footage of a CAG performance, Lieblich (April 2, 1976, Izmailovsky Park, Moscow; also shot by Veshnevskaia) were not archived by a group so diligent about the preservation of documentation. On CAG’s website, there are only blurry stills from Lieblich, a poor-quality substitute for the originals, the negatives, which were smuggled and lost.2 Is CAG’s lack of interest in the filmic documentation of their actions (whose importance, given that cinematic recordings of underground art are virtually nonexistent, transcends their significance for CAG’s archive) circumstantial, or does it have a conceptual underpinning?

Considered by practitioners of production art to be the most modern and egalitarian technology for grasping socialist reality, movie and still cameras were, by the late 1930s, viewed as spy equipment. This paranoid perception debilitated Soviet operative photographers and filmmakers, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko and Dziga Vertov, depriving them of identities rooted in the representation of street life. In view of the mediums’ reputation as prime suspects in the success of a deceptive regime, neither kind of camera had immediate appeal to the first generation of dissident modernists (regardless of the easing of restrictive measures on their use), who emerged during the Khrushchev thaw. It was at this time, however, that the use of movie and still cameras diverged. The latter was affordable; black-and-white film was accessible; and if necessary, an unofficial photographer could take snapshots stealthily, a constraint that Boris Mikhailov brilliantly turned into artistic method. In contrast, obtaining a movie camera, along with the equipment for it, was a privilege granted to few, and operating it in a public space could be viewed as sabotage.

CAG made its start with the action The Appearance (March 13, 1976, Izmailovsky Park), shortly after two pivotal open-air exhibitions had taken place: the Bulldozer Show, organized on September 15, 1974, in a field in the sleepy Moscow district of Beliaevo, which was violently terminated by authorities, and a sanctioned display that lasted for four hours in Izmailovsky Park on September 29, 1974. By staging The Appearance on the site of the second show, CAG’s founding members—artist Nikita Alekseev, photographer Georgy Kizevalter, and poets Andrei Monastyrski and Lev Rubinshtein—considered these heroic art exhibitions as an impetus for initiating their paradigm for the de-urbanization of the Moscow countercultural milieu. Monastyrski and Rubinshtein directed CAG’s early discourse toward the exploration of transgressive forms of poetry. This is supported by a note that Monastyrski wrote on the back of a photograph of The Appearance, which he sent to Victor Tupitsyn in New York shortly after the action took place: “These are the viewers-listeners-readers,” he explained—extending the viewers’ experience beyond the solely visual.

1
Recto: Andrei Monastyrski’s letter to Victor Tupitsyn written on the photographs of Balloon, 1977. Georgy Kizevalter, Margarita and Victor Tupitsyn Archive
2 verso 1
Verso: Andrei Monastyrski’s letter to Victor Tupitsyn written on the photographs of Balloon, 1977. Georgy Kizevalter, Margarita and Victor Tupitsyn Archive

Balloon was CAG’s fifth performance. In order to secure a photographic record (in light of the fact the negatives from Lieblich had been lost), Kizevalter was backed up by the photographer and artist Andrei Abramov. Veshnevskaia, “woman with a movie camera,” to allude to Rodchenko’s Girl with a Leica, was also at the Balloon site. In another letter to Victor Tupitsyn, Monastyrski stressed that Balloon was his concept, and clarified CAG’s authorial canon:

“In all the details and as a whole, the concept [of each action] belongs to its author; we pay a great attention to the image of staging, which is born introvertedly and within the order of an internal life (aesthetic? religious?) of [the author’s] individuality. Co-authorship is based on a complete acceptance of this image or a symbol as [his] own and in [his] own order and practice. So these things are simultaneously individual and collective.”

Monastyrski provided further interpretation of Balloon in yet another letter, this one written directly on the backs of three photographs of the action:

“On this photo is our [my emphasis] last work ‘Dream About a Balloon’ (planned to be called just ‘Balloon,’ but because of the weather, nothing came out of it, it was raining during all six hours, while we were blowing balloons, and as you see from the photographs, we ended up with some kind of a haystack instead of a balloon... but it blended in even better.”

This appears to be the moment when Monastyrski developed a paradigm for an objectless (bespredmetnyi) vanguard practice in Russia based on the dematerialization of an art object, for in the Soviet Union, he notes: “Only those artists can survive who do not make ‘things,’ but rather look at art as a form of existence... that is, do not make art consciously. Here everything is rotting because no one consumes these art goods in time. We function independently from the society because we make nothing that could rot.”3 Monastyrski’s title “A Dream about the Balloon,” initially a dream about an ideal object, turns into the pursuit of an aesthetic de-reification (Adorno’s dream). The physical disappearance of the balloon, whose impermanence was predetermined by its imminent deflation, was an act of de-familiarization with the concept of equating aesthetics with the preservation of objects.

In CAG’s first self-published volume of Trips to the Countryside, compiled in 1980, Alekseev, in tune with Monastyrski, states that the perfect round shape “sought for... was not achieved,” but salutes Balloon for the “nonpragmatic and absurd... sobornyi labor performed by a small group of people living without a canon.”4 And like Monastyrski, Alekseev sees the compensation for hard, physical labor and difficult weather conditions to be the creation of a perfect object (four meters in diameter), which turned out to be a failed quest. What replaced it was “a true catharsis” experienced by the participants watching the balloon as it drifted down the dodging river and listening to the soft sound produced by the bell installed inside of it. There is no question that this part of the action (as well as the entire Lieblich, which centered on a ringing bell hidden in the snow) would have greatly benefited from a movie camera with sound. CAG’s interest in sound comes from a fascination with concrete music in general and with John Cage’s 4′33″ in particular. On April 10, 1977, CAG received Cage’s response to their earlier letter to him, in which he specifically says: “Your work with bells outdoors and the idea of bells under the seats in a concert hall are excellent.” He expresses an interest in collaboration and inspires Alekseev to think about the difference between underground practices in New York and Moscow. Alekseev believed that Cage’s idea—that independence from mainstream culture would necessarily create “an embryo of a happy future”—was utopian and that, in general, the idea of “a happy future in this world is absurd.”5 This statement is noteworthy because it amply demonstrates the divide between the West and the East in terms of utopian thinking formed due to Stalin’s destruction of "the embryo” of the Revolution, and later by Khrushchev’s false promise of a communist future.6 And yet, I still believe there was a utopian aspect (distinctive from romanticism, a concept ruined by Andrei Zhdanov) to CAG’s performances.7

7
John Cage’s letter to the Collective Actions Group, April 10, 1977. © 2017 John Cage Trust, used with permission

Alekseev’s interpretation of Balloon demonstrates that filmic documentation infringes upon CAG’s central format of the participant’s recollections based on his/her in situ perceptions. A movie camera’s association with accuracy competes with the psychologically nuanced written interpretations provided by the participants. In them, there is no place for the claim that “no, that’s not how and what had happened,” which means that the textual is trusted more than visual. Is this why that although one could buy an 8mm movie camera in Russia at that time, Monastyrski admits that he was not interested in filming CAG’s actions?8

8
Collective Actions Group, Comedy, October 2, 1977, Moscow region.

According to Givi Kordiashvili, a contributor to CAG’s second self-published volume of Trips to the Countryside, “Monastyrski had a pathological fixation on the ‘quality photographs,’” and this is why the Moscow photographer and artist Igor Makarevich “decisively ‘killed’ Monastyrsiy by providing two Leica cameras."9 This inspired the Place of Action (October 31, 1979), in which photography performs a structural rather than documentary function, affirming its fundamental role for Conceptual art. In his text “Seven Photographs,” Monastyrski clarifies “the interrelation between the event of an action and a secondary material that documents it”10 in order to determine which forms of documentation (including participants’ recollections) represent “a sign” that “points to the essence of an event.” His conclusion is that such a “sign” appears only in those photographs that capture a fragment of what CAG calls “an empty action.” These shots re-endow photography with an “auratic” component, and thus cannot be considered documentary.11 Rather, he argues, they are “sign[s] of a higher meaning,” for they reflect a moment that is “in principal unrepresentable.” Along this line, Monastyrski later stresses the difference between “an accent on details, on thingness” and the “ephemeral faktura of the emptiness of our ideal fields.”12 There are no shots of empty actions in the Balloon footage, which provides instead captivating and mundane close-ups of participants and objects, shifting the whole participatory experience from the metaphysical to the productive. On the other hand, both cameras could not technically capture an empty action, for in Balloon, Alekseev notes, the key for CAG’s structural element, was “expanded” into the period after the balloon has disappeared from the participants’ field of vision.13 And once it had, it was out of reach of a viewfinder and thus indubitably “unrepresentable.”

1.

The Museum of Modern Art titles the work The Balloon, although the Collective Actions Group (CAG) titles the work Balloon. See its entry in the CAG online archive. Andrei Monastyrski's name can be alternatively transliterated as Monastyrskii and Monastyrski.

2.

All CAG’s performance scripts and images can be accessed in the CAG online archive.

3.

Andrei Monastyrski, Moscow, to Victor Tupitsyn, New York, 8 March 1979, reprinted in Viktor Agamov-Tupitsyn and Andrei Monastyrski, Tet-a-Tet: perepiska, dialogi, interpretatsiia, faktografiia, ed. Margarita Masterkova-Tupitsyna (Vologda: BMK, 2013), 52.

4.

Sobornyi is an adjective formed from sobornost (ecumenism), a term introduced in Russia by the nineteenth-century philosopher Vladimir Soloviev. By using this nonmaterial concept, Alekseev places their actions in a position that is antagonistic to a socialist labor propagated by the Soviets. Nikita Alekseev, “O kollektivnykh i individual’nykh aktsiiakh: 1976–1980” in Andrei Monastyrski, ed. Kollektivnye deistviia: poezdki za gorod (Moscow: AD Marginem, 1998), 95.

5.

Ibid.

6.

Along with what he calls “affinity for your land and people,” Cage mentions his marriage to a woman of Russian descent, reading Dostoevsky, and “the fact of a successful revolution” that “is inspiring to say the least.”

7.

For further discussion of this issue in CAG’s oeuvre, see chapter 4 in my forthcoming book Moscow Vanguard Art, 1922–1992 (Yale University Press, 2017), 98-129.

8.

From my email correspondence with him, September 17, 2013.

9.

Kollektivnye deistviia: poezdki za gorod, 206. Makarevich and his wife, the artist Elena Elagina, from that point on were CAG members. This description reverberates with Rodchenko’s excitement about getting a Leica camera at the end of 1928, which boosted his street photography. Abramov and Makarevich’s photographs were exhibited in the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1979.

10.

Andrei Monastyrski, “Sem’ fotografii” in ibid., 189. All further quotations are from this text.

11.

In the context of the various theories of factography (including those of Nikolai Chuzhak, Sergei Tretiakov, and Walter Benjamin), which negate the presence of the auratic in mechanically reproduced mediums, this is a paradoxical term.

12.

Monastyrski, Moscow, to Victor Tupitsyn, New York, 29 June 1983, reprinted in Agamov-Tupitsyn and Monastyrskii, Tet-a-Tet, 165.

13.

Alekseev, “O kollektivnykh i individual’nykh aktsiiakh,” 96.

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