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Contemporary Art in a Selfie World

“The artistic process is increasingly becoming a psychodrama – a process of self-contemplation,” Boris Groys.

Photo by Masha Demianova

Boris Groys is an art theorist and professor at New York University. Born in East Berlin, he lived in the Soviet Union until 1981 before emigrating to West Germany. He currently lives in New York. In conversation with the art historian Boris Klyushnikov, Groys analyzes today's era of the internet and social fragmentation, in which art inevitably becomes an introspective psychodrama.

BK: The Soviet days had their own specific system of images and slogans. But after the collapse of the USSR, there was no longer a language with which contemporary artists could work. Russia became elusive – impossible to portray – and even the political rhetoric of the 1990s came to consist entirely of empty interjections, of Yeltsin's famous “you-know-what-I-means” and “no-doubt-about-its.” Today it looks like an ideological language is forming again. How will this influence Russian contemporary art?

BG: It's hard for me to say. From where I stand on the outside, I would say that Russia is indeed elusive and impossible to portray. But then how are France, the United States, or China any different? Today nowhere has a single national style. The notion that the Soviet style portrayed Russia is an illusion, too, because it existed during the Cold War, during a confrontation between communism and capitalism on an international scale. Russian art at that time – and the Soviet situation as a whole – was interesting because it was connected to a global ideological struggle.

That no longer exists. Russia can dream up whatever it likes, but there is no longer a confrontation between the system in Russia and the systems in other countries. There isn't a fundamental rift; there isn't a global ideological struggle. Ultimately, every artist, whether English, Peruvian, or Russian, exhibits only theirself. We live in an era of neoliberalism and individualism, when all sources of political and cultural communality are disintegrating. It's an era in which everyone is competing with everyone else and in which artists are seen in terms of how they present themselves in the public space. They don't attempt to portray anything other than themselves.

“Lubyanka's burning door” by Petr Pavlensky (2015). Photo by Nigina Beroeva/AFP.

BK: It's funny to think that the impossibility of portraying Russia is in fact a deliberate part of Russian identity as it was constructed back in the 19th century. We have a sort of imaginary characterization of a West that can't fully understand us. That is also connected to the stereotype of Russia as a country of suffering, which I'd like to discuss. Today, for instance, the artist Petr Pavlensky's actions seem to be full of this sort of deliberate self-humiliation. How do you feel about this?

BG: For me, the most interesting thing about Pavlensky is that he is returning Russian actionism to a period that Russian culture missed out on. Returning to performance art's masochistic beginnings in the West during the 1960s and 1970s (think of artists like Chris Burden and early Marina Abramovic and Ulay) is a fascinating move. But of course Pavlensky is operating in a different media environment, which is why his works are so spectacular.

In fact, this vector in art is very much still alive: I had a student who enacted a decapitation where the head was then eaten by worms. But in that context I wouldn't talk so much about self-humiliation as about self-destruction. Remember Nietzsche: When a person is deprived of the opportunity to vent his aggression in society, he turns it against himself and his own body. Through suffering, he becomes a subject – something we know from certain famous figures that hung on the cross, for example.

“AAA AAA” by Marina Abramovic and Ulay (1978).

BK: Not so long ago, the youth biennale was held in Moscow with the theme “deep inside.” I was struck by the number of narcissistic works and practices on show. Meanwhile, a year ago we had the Moscow Biennale, where everything was built on cooperation and the possibility of viewer participation. And it seems to me that these two modes are somehow at loggerheads: On the one hand, artists are trying to get back to collective practices; on the other, they're increasingly withdrawing into nihilism.

BG: I agree with that. But the attempt to create communality through art is a nostalgic practice characteristic of an older generation that can hark back to a lost communism. The younger generation doesn't feel a sense of loss because it grew up in a culture in which no one wants to listen to anyone else, no one wants to look at anyone else, and everyone has something to say. Although I'm not sure that that's nihilism.

Now everyone wants to show something off. It's a selfie culture, in a sense. And the only audiences we have are Google, tracking systems, and intelligence agencies. That is, people who are either duty-bound or especially paid to watch. No one else is interested in anything. Contemporary artists have got used to being their own audience, and the artistic process is increasingly becoming a psychodrama – a process of self-contemplation and investigation.

BK: Does a generation gap pose a problem for art theory? When I talk to my older colleagues, I often notice a difference between those that effectively grew up after 1989 and those old enough to remember the USSR and to process their Soviet experience. You make, in my opinion, a very good point when you say that participatory artistic practices are nostalgic because they are in a sense compensating for the absence of participation in contemporary life. But it’s a cloudier issue with people who never had that experience, because then you're saying they're nostalgic for something they never knew.

BG: Every generation has its own visual and technological experience and its own ways of producing and perceiving works of art. In that form, I think a generation gap probably does pose a problem in Russia. In the West, the generational fault-lines fall differently: the younger generation has found itself increasingly under the influence of the internet. By the way, the dates coincide: the internet in its modern form appeared just after the end of the Cold War.

I think that the fundamental principle of the internet is the fragmentation of public space. Today we are seeing the consequences of the collapse of the public space that formed during the 19th and 20th centuries. The internet now is about socializing with your friends on Facebook in much the same way people socialized in the 18th century. But we can also end up on completely different kinds of social networks and then we glimpse the full breadth of the media space: sites for illegal arms trade and terrorist propaganda, porn sites, resources for radical political groups. And there we find people discussing their own problems, which have nothing to do with ours. I don't think there is any internet communality. The internet is the end of communality.

Internet creates an illusion of constant communication, which in turn dilutes people's hatred toward the world.

BK: To what extent has the internet changed art? What should artists and curators do in this situation? The impact of the internet reminds me of the shift that took place in painting with the invention of photography. 

BG: It's a dangerous thing for artists to involve themselves in the technological competition. Many of my students want to step away from the art ecosystem and make viral videos and the like. But the problem is that they then have to compete with powerful distribution mechanisms that can’t be beaten. If you make a list of the most popular viral videos in recent years, you’ll find that videos of cats and dogs come out top. Next will be robberies and car crashes. And that's it. You need to either have a terrible car crash or metamorphose into a cat or a dog. Otherwise, it's not obvious how you'll win popularity online.

I think it's a good thing that, as public space becomes ever more fragmented, the art system is remaining insular and shut-off. That enables freer and more interesting artistic statements that would not be possible on the big stage. You mentioned interjections. Today, every politician speaks in empty interjections and catch phrases, because it's impossible to say anything that doesn't offend somebody. The name of the game is to talk in such a way that even a small subgroup of the population won’t take objection. People set themselves defensive goals and want to speak in order to say nothing and upset no one; utterances should be as devoid of meaning as possible. And what we get, in a sense, is cats and dogs. If you want to make a meaningful statement, you need to reduce its circulation.

BK: That's a valuable observation. Take social networks. Every day there are 15 “events” in your city that you feel you can’t miss. But when you actually attend one, you wish you had stayed at home. It's as if social networks encourage you to produce experiences that you never really have. How can you work in the margins of this system? Or is it better to avoid it all together?

BG: The internet doesn't have a center, so it's impossible to operate in its margins; it's like God according to the classical medieval definition: He has no center and his limits are everywhere. We live in a system that is informational rather than cultural. Culture is a system of education and formation, while the exchange of information is more akin to the circulation of goods.

The neoliberal view that cultural practices consist of information exchange is a mistaken one. In reality, our cultural behaviors are inalienable and cannot be detached and launched into circulation. You’re sitting at home and you receive information that certain friends have gone somewhere or other. Now you're informed, but you shouldn't attempt to do anything else. It's enough: there is no cultural component. There's a common expression in Russian: “There appeared before him a sight impossible to describe.” So don't try to describe it! The expression already says it all. “There appeared before you the internet, impossible to grasp.” Indeed it is. But you can close your browser.

“Shepherds” by Franz Marc (1912).

BK: But perhaps culture can provide us with some guidance and reference points in the contemporary internet space? In the past, the history of art was presented like a novel, with a single plot line running from the Palaeolithic idols through to the blooming of art. But today you type “Renaissance art” into a search engine and up comes a seemingly random array of works. How can we avoid getting lost in this pile of images?

BG: I don't believe there are any reference points, because we live in a revolutionary era. Our reality is intrinsically fragmented and is built on a break, not a continuation. You mentioned the quasi-biological model of the history of art, with its concept of the “blooming” of style. Around the time that model was dominant, Max Nordau wrote about art as a symptom of degeneration. All of these lines of argument are based on the expressive model of artistic activity, whereby artists depict what they sense and see. And if, for instance, Franz Marc paints blue horses, then that is because he is a degenerate and genuinely sees horses as blue.

But in fact he saw horses just as everyone else. His decision to paint them blue was based solely on a certain project: “I want to depict things differently to how I see them.” Do you see? If I depict horses as blue, then I'm saying that I'm against you all and I don't want to have anything in common with you. And even if I do have something in common with you, I renounce it. It's a tactic of protest, a strategy of revolution.

Today's era is herbivorous and inoffensive in comparison. It's cruel on a social level, but herbivorous on a cultural one. And these two attitudes are incongruous. On a fundamental level, there is a discrepancy between how people position themselves culturally and the reality they inhabit. You get the impression that everyone wants to be continually positive, optimistic, friendly, and communicative, even though they hate each other. I think some more realism wouldn't hurt contemporary culture.

BK: I agree. For example, the Moscow actionists of the 1990s present themselves as aggressive, prefer direct gesture, and identify themselves against the Moscow conceptualists and their love of ambiguity. Perhaps that was a generational break. Meanwhile, my group of friends and I are, for our part, bookworms and hermits. We have our books and we don't feel anything toward the world. And we are always trying to say something, even though we know it’s useless. To what extent do you see this as a problem in art?

BG: For me, the quintessential hermit was Nietzsche. A sickly man, he was practically always locked away at home, but was nevertheless fiercely outspoken. Being tough and fierce doesn't always have to be on the bodily level, as with actionism, it can be on the discursive level. Remember Huysmans? Michel Houellebecq has just released a novel entitled “Submission,” in which the main character is a literary scholar and Huysmans researcher. All these decadents and early members of the avant-garde were not people of action, but that didn't stop them from making radical statements. I think people today are too sociable, partly because of the internet: it creates an illusion of constant communication, which in turn dilutes people's hatred toward the world.

Why am I talking so much about Nietzsche? Because loneliness – truly radical loneliness – engenders the possibility and desire to address the whole. The avant-garde movement of the late 19th and early 20th century grew out of precisely this – the sense that there is me and there is the whole world, and I either acknowledge it or hate it. But now this will toward the whole has been broken. People think they are only a part of the world; they talk about themselves instead of talking about the whole. My students come and say: “I'd rather talk about myself.” And they all say exactly the same thing. So what does it mean? It means they are actually living within a kind of hidden identity, but refuse to acknowledge it and are ashamed of it.

You can describe and analyze and do so from a position of hopelessness. That is the only right approach and the only one that endures.

BK: You've touched on an important point. Today people are very concerned with their mental health: Everyone is looking for easy remedies for their spiritual unrest. Why is that happening?

BG: Well, it's obvious. It’s the pure effect of neoliberalism and of people withdrawing to focus on themselves. We had this situation before, at the end of the 19th century. At that time, during the first burst of liberalism, we also had free markets and the free movement of goods and people; incidentally, there were also celebrities and terrorists. The structures were the same as the ones we have today. And most people were also engaged in psychoanalysis. When the individual starts to find herself oppressed, she can do one of only two things: either resist, or neutralize the pressure, for the most part medicamentally. I've noticed that all my students – they’re my example of the younger generation – have stopped visiting psychologists and psychoanalysts. Psychoanalysis has died out and we’re left with bare pharmacology.

That's one route. The other is to follow Nietzsche and start enjoying your condition and studying it. Instead of muting it, you can turn it into material. And you might unexpectedly discover that although this material may strike you as personal and yours, it can still resonate. The analysis of inner defeats and continual dissatisfaction is a pictogram or textogram of our times. The Scandinavian writers are a good example. Nobody knew about them for a long time, but now everyone is reading them. In one of my recent articles, I developed the idea that contemporary realism is similar to the realism of the 19th century. It has the same goal of objectively documenting the pressure of reality on the human psyche.

BK: In that connection, I recently rediscovered the literature of the Great Depression, particularly Scott Fitzgerald's “The Crack-Up.”

BG: Yes, economic depression … that's also very relevant today. In my early youth, I read a novel that I wouldn't re-read but which shook me at the time. It was Flaubert's “Sentimental Education,” in which everything revolves around the fact that the main character’s feelings are drying up. The novel struck me with its realism, which I now see as a description of the individual's reaction to reality. Marx loved this literature – he adored Balzac and Flaubert. He wrote a great account of how the human psyche in a capitalist society is infused with a sense of fatalism. That was in the 19th century. There were also occasional texts in the 1960s and 1970s that captured the sense of fatalism in humans' relationship with the world, for example, Robbe-Grillet's “Project for a Revolution in New York.”

Now this sensation is returning with even greater force. Fatalism is interesting in that it isn’t moral: punishment occurs in the absence of crime. Today we are again confronted with extra-cultural and extra-moral processes; in fact, we are under a continuous siege. As far as artistic endeavor is concerned, I think the only possible reaction to this is self-reflection. The political reaction has been clear for all to see, but I think it's too early to talk about the return of socialism. People are still too hooked on individualism for that. Everyone thinks that he is a start-up, capable of astounding and ingenious feats, and that he is possessed by some sort of creative energy. But soon all of that will come to an end.

BK: I went through something similar. It seems to me that the previous tradition of art criticism was still grounded in some sort of position, in a certain political foundation. But all that’s left to me is lamentation.

BG: In a sense, I agree with you. But take Marx, for instance. In some of his letters he talks about how literature with a socialist agenda got on his nerves. He much preferred to read Balzac, who hated everyone equally and never expressed a preference for anyone, because Balzac had no illusions. You can do more than lament. You can also describe and analyze and, of course, do so from a position of hopelessness. That is the only right approach and the only one that endures.