The Institutionalization of FriendshipViktor Misiano
“There would be no communities if there were no events, jointly lived
through from the beginning to the end, which lose the possibility of
existing in each of us.”
(Maurice Blanchot, La communaute inavouable)
I hope that those who after some years compile the art history of the nineties will not let the special relationship between the artists of Moscow and Ljubljana go unnoticed. This relationship has become so close that a kind of community has formed. The nature of the community is hard to define, because the relationships cannot be explained by any of the following:
- pragmatic expediency (the post-communist countries were seeking consolidation with the West rather than with the East in that period);
- regional proximity (geographically, culturally and historically, Ljubljana and Moscow are the most distant points of Eastern Europe);
- creative similarity (these artists, who belong to some general post-conceptual mainstream of the nineties, demonstrate its hetero- rather than homogeneity);
- and finally, by some ideological solidarity (the Transnacionala discussions showed that the project participants are rather antipodes than like-minded people).
Sociology shows us that the only type of a social link not determined by some regional or family relationship, professional cooperation, ideological solidarity, or erotic attraction is friendship. The aim of this text is to develop a theory that the history of the relationship between the artists from Moscow and Ljubljana is a history of friendship, while Transnacionala (and some other projects) is nothing but a conscious attempt to launch a friendship formation project. As one of the Transnacionala discussions participants said: “recent art history is the history of friendships” (Goran Djordević).
A story of meetings
People in love feel the necessity of being together; colleagues are linked to each other by the production conveyer, and comrades-in-arms are connected by ideological discipline (like the members of the Irwin group). The specific character of friendship as a form of social relationship is that it does not presume a permanent interaction. Friendships are a type of serial solidarity. The story of friendship is a story of meetings. The story of the Moscow-Ljubljana community starts in 1992 when, in the framework of the Apt-Art International program, the Irwin group established the NSK Embassy in Moscow. It was the legendary epoch of historical collapse, and as always, when an old system of relations comes apart, new contacts - and therefore new friends - emerged. Irwin was going through a new stage of development, and many new artists had appeared in the Moscow scene - Vadim Fishkin, Yuri Leiderman, Anatoly Osmolovsky, Dimitri Gutov and Oleg Kulik. It was during the discussions at the NSK Embassy, that these artists started to perceive themselves as a new generation, as an integrated body. Friendship is always a discovery: discovery of the Other and at the same time of the Self.
In 1995, Haralampi Oroschakoff, the organizer of the large Kräftemessen festival in Munich, connected an exhibition of Moscow artists with an Irwin show. Thus, the informal Moscow-Ljubljana community was almost officially acknowledged.
The key event in the history of the Moscow circle of artists, consolidated by NSK Embassy, was the conflict at the Interpol exhibition in Stockholm, an event equally shared and lived through by the Irwin group. The group of artists from Ljubljana responded to Alexander Brener’s personal conflict, and his detainment in Holland, with a letter explaining his action. When one speaks about the history of friendship, one speaks about the history of one’s own life.
Transnacionala is the next stage in the life of the Moscow-Ljubljana community, after the euphoria of discovering each other (and discovering post-communist freedom), and after the shock of the conflict with the outside world (the East-West conflict). At such a stage internal contradictions are inevitably exposed. Self-reflection and doubts starts to appear. One has doubts about one’s self, and about the Other (this is the state of affairs here in the East). Crisis is always a moment when you need somebody else, when the solidity of a friendship is tested. Thus, in 1996, the artists of the Irwin group invited us to the USA.
The confidential project
The friendship between the artists of Moscow and Ljubljana is not only a story of relationships between people. Very soon, if not at once, the artists started to perceive friendship as a strategic value, having the value of a project with an artistic character. Apt-Art International, NSK Embassy, Interpol, and Transnacionala - all these projects (as well as a number of projects maintained by the artists from Moscow and Ljubljana independently) had one common feature: they employed the resources of friendly relationships as part of the program. These projects may be called confidential projects. The strategy maintained in the framework of those projects can be called the institutionalization of friendship.
The structure of the confidential project
The main feature is that the human aspect dominates the professional. Because friendship is not creative cooperation, but the “ethical form of Eros”.
The confidential project excludes the possibility of a representative selection of participants. The choice is immanent in relation to the friendships. Friendship is a product of choice, although this is the only case of unmotivated social choice. Friendship is a choice within yourself. That’s why the usual curator’s routine - such as gender, national, generational, and regional balance - is impossible in such a project. The confidential project is equally indifferent to external representation: to the artifact and to spectacular effects. The substance of Transnacionala is the concealed emotional, psychic, and intellectual experience, which cannot be exhibited or shown. The main issue lies in the internal, not external, communication. Friendship does not require a promotion. It cannot be for others, only for yourself. The secret essence of confidential projects is that such projects can generally ignore the public. Friendly communication cannot be maintained on-stage.
The confidential project is also characterized by a freedom from hierarchy and functional specialization. Friendship is not a hierarchical form of social relationship: it presumes a complete equality among all parties. Friendship does not know the Father. That’s why the confidential project tries to ignore the role of the curator as a power-source, which is inevitable in traditional exhibitions. Even if the function of the curator as an ideologue or manager is preserved, it should be carried out in such way that, being cast in doubt in the first place, it should create a regime of collective responsibility for every moment in the project, and for the ultimate result. There can be no successful or unsuccessful project in friendship. There can only be disappointment.
The most evident feature of the confidential project is the absence of any thematic program. Such projects do not serve the reigning discourses and intellectual fashions. The very names of the projects: The NSK Embassy, Interpol, Transnacionala, and The Hamburg Project, demonstrate the absence of any discursive, thematic, or investigative pre-condition. They simply refer to the event of communication and its context. Is it possible for friendly communication to have a theme? The value of friendly communication is in the very event of communication. The theme emerges spontaneously out of the communication itself. The discourse is crystallized in the process of its formation. That’s why the most adequate manner of documenting such a project is a detailed description of the process. Concrete work and concrete photos cannot describe the entire experience. Such a project is valuable as lived experience.
Finally, the confidential project is not a Platonic dialogue, not an intellectual laboratory, and not a scientific workshop or panel discussion. Participants in confidential communication are not searching for truth. They do not carry out “a discussion, which produces the truth.” Nobody is trying to argue against something or convert somebody to his own beliefs. Confidence is the condition of friendly communication. The truth precedes it - it does not emerge in discussion. Friendship guarantees maximum diversity. A friend does not give you good advice, but helps you find your own truth. That’s the way friendship differs from professional cooperation. In the latter, an individual builds a complicated balance of relationships between the Self and the Other. It also differs from love, which presumes self-denial. In impersonal contact, we want to find, in the perception of the Other, our own best image. Lovers see themselves through the eyes of the Other. In friendship, we perceive our ideal self in the way we are perceived by the Other. That’s why the Transnacionala participants can be found declaring their own ideas without making any effort to start moving towards each other.
The confidential project as a project of the transitional epoch
It’s clear that the structure of the confidential project is nothing but an attempt to create a structure for a collective artistic practice in the situation of the absence of an art system. Thus, the confidential project and the Moscow-Ljubljana community itself (let’s call it the confidential community) is exactly the type of transitional society characteristic of Eastern Europe. In an institutional, ideological, and moral vacuum, friendship becomes the last shelter for culture.
The direct result of the institutional and symbolic collapse in Eastern Europe is the crisis of any objective justification for artistic practice. Communism not only provided an objective foundation for official art, it also gave birth to the alternative. Avoiding official institutions and taking root in the sphere of the everyday, this alternative culture was also controlled by strict ideological principles. Acting as an opposition to the official institutional culture, alternative culture required the ideals and principles of “comrades-in-arms” and “the common affair.” Moreover, one of the most developed alternative strategies became the interiorization of the symbolic and institutional order of the official culture.
There is no more evident example of this strategy than the phenomenon of the NSK state. Irwin’s progress from the NSK state via the NSK Embassy (which represented alternative experience in a new context and a new form) to Transnacionala is essentially the evolution of the creative consolidation from the ideological to the post-ideological epoch. Friendship is the most non-institutional and personalized type of social communication. Even love obtains a social codification in the institution of matrimony.
The confidential community - a direct reaction to the mad dynamics of social transformation. The cultural crisis in Eastern Europe is not just the absence of institutions, but also that the downward motion of social change has exceeded the possibility of cultural reflection. The dynamics of thought are not as fast as social dynamics. That’s why the media became the main actor in the transitional period, and reportage became the most fitting genre for writing and analysis. Consciousness cannot generalize: it can only register at a better time. The efficacy of the confidential community is that, in such a situation, it is the only social institution in which time is not determined by external circumstances: it is determined by the participants themselves. Friendly communication is not established through formalized procedures, but through the rhythm discovered by the participants when they listen to each other. The members of the confidential community have a common goal: to create a special temporal regime to oppose the social regime, the regime of thought.
In the situation where not only the normative ethics of the authority collapse, but the “comrade-in-arms” and “common affair” ethics of opposition collapse as well, it is friendship, “the ethical form of Eros” which remains the most invulnerable. It is also invulnerable to the cult of immorality, now associated with the liberating ethos of the transitional period. Finally, the ethic of friendship does not accept any relativization of moral feelings, which (especially in the communist period) was the most efficient opposition to official morality. Links between friends can’t avoid morality, that’s what takes them beyond simple acquaintance and relations between colleagues. While accepting any forms of human expression (including transgression and excess), friendship denies only one - irony. The confidential project is a characteristic symptom of the new situation, in which ironic strategies are left in the past. It is based in a deep earnestness, almost an obsession (transgression and excess). In this sense the confidential community is the only possible form in which to preserve ethics in the period of the transition from the ideological ethics of the communist age to the conventional ethics of post-industrial society.
The confidential community’s denial of irony is an acknowledgment that deconstruction has exhausted itself as a strategy, and that what’s needed is a strategy of reconstruction. The constructive character of the confidential community is the Utopian element that exists in any real friendship. The confidential project is the project of an ideal community or an ideal art system. In other words, the confidential community is a sphere of absolute democracy. In this sense, the idea of the institutionalization of friendship is mobilizing the major advantage of any transition epoch, when the old order has collapsed and the new one has not yet been built. The confidential community ascribes value to a pure potentiality.
The potentiality of the confidential community is guaranteed by the freedom from any preliminary judgments, and by an openness to the Other, which is characteristic of any friendly feeling. There is nothing preliminary in friendship except the friendship itself. That’s why the confidential community can avoid ideological dogmatism, and can remain open to the chaos of the transitional epoch instead of turning into a closed sect. That’s why it’s the form most suitable for the thinking class in transitional countries, which is faced with re-evaluating the communist past, appropriating the Western experience, and registering the symptoms of the present. The confidential community is useful for the thinking class in that it presumes no ultimate and indisputable judgment. It is impossible not to see that problems facing East European intellectuals still exceed their capabilities. To pass any judgment is to become orthodox in approach, but there is no way to avoid trying to resolve these problems.
Finally, the suitability of the confidential project to the transitional epoch is evident in its purely aesthetic parameters. The work in the confidential project is in pure questioning, blatantly ignoring the institutional forms of artistic production characteristic of the transitional societies. To move from the production of artifacts to the discussion of artistic production’s preconditions, is essentially to invest value in the potentiality contained in the social and artistic situation of the transitional countries. In other words, the strategy of institutionalizing friendship is the manner in which the art of the transitional period injects self-knowledge into aesthetics.
The Transnacionala Discussions. Three poles
Even a cursory familiarization with the Transnacionala material shows that the discussions were determined by three clashing positions - a position held by the members of Irwin (and Vadim Fishkin who agreed with them on most issues, a second held by Yuri Leiderman, and a third by Alexander Brener.
All the Transnacionala participants unanimously acknowledged that this project (as well as the practice of the confidential project) is a product of the collapse of the traditional ontological order, and that all of them are essentially “frustrated” subjects. However, their differentiation starts immediately beyond this statement. It is evident that for the
Irwin group, the prospect of a new ontology is lost somewhere beyond the horizon, but that does not keep the subject from moving towards it. For Yuri Leiderman, ontology is impossible, but the structure of that impossibility has its own ontological sense. For Alexander Brener, finally, the symptoms of the crisis do not mean the end of an ontology. According to him, the same ontology is now stronger than ever, while his main task is to defeat it. In other words, while the Irwin members are trying to appropriate their frustration, to make it a source of some new positive matter, Leiderman and Brener are trying to withdraw from frustration by offering two negative strategies. So while Brener and Leiderman are happily taking part in the confidential project, it is only the Irwin group which could initiate it.
Transnacionala Discussions. East-West
The nature of East-West relations was the main nerve and the hidden leitmotif of all the Transnacionala discussions. Each of the supporters of the opposite points of view could not refrain from acknowledging that the East-West division is essentially the most painful trauma for the East European consciousness.
Leiderman and Brener agree in perceiving the West as a solid and even monolithic reality, deprived of any internal diversity or any links to the East. However this solid non-divided vision of the West is visible only to the East, which observes the West from a distant position, from another type of being. The West, only concerned with itself, has a fragmented self-image. Thus, the East is essentially the epicenter of the Western symbolic order. The West cannot perceive this, because if it did, it would stop being itself (it would become the East). In other words, there is no East as a self-sufficient reality. The East is the absolute West. Therefore, the East is entitled to make absolute judgments without bothering over details (there is no need to study the phenomena’s internal logic, for instance, or even to learn a foreign language). There is one important difference between the two artists in question. Leiderman sees the solid and non-fragmented image of the West as the sphere of an absolute Good, while for Brener it is an absolute Evil. Leiderman sees himself as an alien admirer of the West. Through this, he can overcome some purely Western prejudices (taking into account certain details), such as racial tolerance or political correctness, in order to save the West from the threat coming from the East. His project at the Manifesta 1 Biennial, which started in Rotterdam several weeks before the beginning of Transnacionala, was devoted to this subject. At the same time, Brener sees himself as having been selected to
declare the imperfection of the Western world, to disclose its false consciousness. During the opening of Manifesta 1, he called for all European artists to boycott the exhibition and to take away their work.
Meanwhile, the members of Irwin are trying simply to understand the nature of the difference between East and West, not to define it. They do not perceive the existing margin between East and West as somethingstable, but as a convention, as a construct. For them, the most interesting task is to understand the internal dynamic which produced this margin, and compare it with other margins dividing the East and the West internally. The ethos of their efforts is, instead of making statements, to understand Western reality - to study its structure and its dimensions, and to reveal its links with Eastern reality. In other words, the members of Irwin are trying to look at the West not as a solid body, but as something fragmented. Therefore, for the Russian artists they are not Eastern, but Western.
The idea of the margin is basic to Irwin’s identity. The declaration of the NSK state has everything to do with raising fences and drawing borders - physical and virtual, in time and in space. The Transnacionala project - the proposal and plans for the project were presented at Manifesta 1 - is nothing but the experience of a real border crossing, a study of borders, and a personal reflection on their conventional character. The members of Irwin raise the issue of East and West - of social, ethnic and political borders - in conversations with those of both Eastern and Western consciousness.
All three positions revealed in the discussions are essentially symptoms of the transitional period, marking various margins within the Eastern world. It is evident that the positions of Leiderman and Brener grew out of the Soviet tradition, which at the same time deemed itself an absolute Other to the West and a synthesis of Western culture’s greatest achievements. Besides that, the positions of the Moscow artists demonstrate the generation gap which exists in Moscow’s artistic society. Leiderman is essentially freezing the mythic image of the West formed in the underground and immediate post-underground epoch, when a triumphal march through Western institutions seemed a deserved award for the Soviet underground’s blind devotion to the West.
Brener reflects another stage, when the new post-Soviet generation was gaining a foothold by turning all the values of its predecessors upside-down. On the whole, the preservation of the mythic image of the West in the post-Soviet period is a sign that overcoming Russia’s cultural isolation is a far more protracted process than the mere declaration of this isolation. The West remains a reality that exceeds the resources of understanding. It is a reality which is too far away from individual and collective experience, which becomes a painful object of desire either to be convulsively appropriated or neurotically destroyed. Finally, the internal image of the East remains as solid as that of the West. Therefore, the ideological development of Russia is implemented through reverse procedures: the underground consciousness constituted itself by turning official ideology upside down; the post-underground is doing the same by reversing the values of underground.
The Irwin group’s sharp reflection of the issue of Eastern identity is paradoxically created by the fact that Slovenia has never been as isolated from the West as the rest of Eastern Europe, much less isolated than Russia. Yugoslavia never considered itself as the absolute Other. It was different from both the West and the East. Slovenia, again, was different within Yugoslavia. The need to reveal its Eastern identity is a natural way for Slovenia to enter the European and global markets of identity. Slovenia perfectly understands that its chance to become the West lies not in demonstrating itself as an absolute West, but in revealing the conventional character of the borders created by the West, therefore relativizing the Western idea by proving its multidimensional character. That is why Russia is so important for Slovenia. It is the light reflected by Russia’s mirror of Otherness that provides an identity to countries which don’t seem very Western to the West otherwise. Relativizing Western ideas implies destabilizing the Eastern idea. That is why Irwin is not trying to preserve the myths of the communist epoch. Their intellectual platform does not function through reversal, but through the deconstruction of their own misleading concepts.
Transnacionala discussions. East-West. The system of art
For the Transnacionala participants, as for art society in general, the West is the only art system, while the East is a European artistic reality which is not included into that system (if so, only partially and not on a fair basis).
As before, it was the Irwin participants who initiated this discussion. They asked whether Eastern intellectuals should blindly accept the laws of the Western art system, or mobilize the resources of critical thought with respect to the West. For Leiderman, this is not an issue. Because the phenomenon of contemporary art is a product of institutions, and almost all those institutions are based in the West, it follows that there is no other art than the Western model, while there is no art in the West which is not institutional art. The art system is a substantial precondition of art as such. Therefore no critical distance is possible in relation to it, just as there can be no critical distance in relation to sunrise and sunset. In other words, the more you are engaged by the system, the more you are an artist. The more you are an artist, the more you are a Western person.
In his turn, Brener, who turns Leiderman’s position upside down once again, assumes that the system of art is so powerful that true political freedom only exists beyond it, and true identity only exists beyond the West. Having started a terrorist struggle with the Western art system, he declares himself “a third world artist.”
For Irwin, the total acceptance or non-acceptance of the system is, if not a mistake, then at least a tactically short-sighted approach. It’s important to investigate and understand the inner mechanics of the system if only because the system can “deceive” you. Thus, it is important to keep in mind that the dynamics of the system have been maintained due to its ability to reflect upon itself critically. Therefore, the more critically you alienate yourself from the system, the more you’re an artist. The more you reveal that contemporary institutions are not relevant to your experience (even if your experience is the experience of the East), the more you become a bearer of Western values. A fatalistic acceptanceof the system, then, is only slightly different from provincial conformity. On the other hand, it’s important to understand that a total opposition to the system can be deemed a kind of complicity, in that opposition implies a respect for what’s being opposed. Moreover, the more you build your identity upon the logic of negating the system, the less space - the less autonomy from the system - you leave for your identity. Finally, nothing helps a system to demonstrate its force as much as attempts to struggle against it. At the same time, nothing helps an artist to appropriate the might of a system better than an attempt to destroy it. A guerrilla war against the system may come from nothing more than a naive desire for success.
Irwin’s curiosity about the positions of Russian artists is understandable. Each demonstrates the extreme forms of contemporary cultural life, and therefore helps to explain its inner logic. For Russian artists, seized by their own life in the system, its logic remains unperceived. Thus, Russia continues to reproduce its primary mission, which is to give the entire world extraordinary material for thought - to be an object rather than a subject.
Transnacionala discussions. Communication
Communication was not only discussed during the trip, but also practiced. Communication is the theme and the hidden essence of the entire Transnacionala project, produced by the perceived crisis in the previous symbolic order.
Over the course of the discussions, Brener called for an extremely transparent and universally understandable statement capable of overcoming the diversity of its referents. Such an attempt, in the situation of the crisis of the symbolic order, is nothing but an identification with that symbolic order. However, the symbolic order is a specific participant in the communication. It is sending a message and ignoring the answer. In other words, a universal statement is nothing but a slogan which assumes no objections. At the same time, such a universal statement is being addressed to an absolutely specific audience - either the entirety of humanity, or the one who would break the symbolic order, the competitor who is also trying to speak on his own behalf. Another, directly opposite situation, is also possible. Humanity may not manage to hear the call, and so the message will be sent to someone capable of compassion, (a friend or lover) who remains receptive to the partner’s communication. Finally, to speak the language of universal communication means “to speak the language of emotions,” the language of love and hate. By identifying himself with the symbolic order, of course, Brener has placed himself “beyond good and evil.” Here serves the right to personally insult or physically eliminate his enemies, and to spontaneously demonstrate his passion and lust. That’s the inner logic which led to the scandalous destruction of Wenda Gu’s work at Interpol.
Leiderman is inclined to doubt not only universal communication, but any communication as such. The only possible communication he considers possible is private, a communication with himself. The point of communicating is to locate yourself within the labyrinth of your own personality. Leiderman’s project at Interpol carries off an absence of theOther. That’s what he touches on when he claims that the most important thing to him in Transnacionala was the virginal nature surrounding the participants during the trip. Thus, Leiderman, no less than Brener, is pretending to identify with the symbolic order. He’s also seeking a way to communicate which would stay under his full control. Power speaks not only the language of slogans, but also the language of silence.
While Brener identifies himself with the restoration of the symbolic order, Leiderman tries to personify that order. Meanwhile Irwin’s precondition assumes that it’s impossible to restore the symbolic order. If it’s impossible to restore it, then it’s impossible to identify with it. Hence communication (unlike Leiderman’s concept) is not possible without the Other, and (unlike Brener’s concept) can be nothing but a dialogue. For Irwin, the Self is initially determined by the Other (it cannot be otherwise for artists working in a group, which in turn is a part of a broader movement). Therefore, when the creative act loses context due to a collapse in the symbolic order, the creation of a communicative context becomes the main task of artistic work. This motivation was behind the Interpol projects by Irwin and Vadim Fishkin (whose vision is similar to Irwin’s). However, such a communicative context cannot become a new symbolic order which is discrete in time and space.
Certainly, the most positive communicative Utopia of Irwin was embodied in their creation of the confidential community, the institutionalization of friendship.
The confidential project. One last note instead of a conclusion
Upon looking through the Transnacionala materials, one could rightly ask: what made this friendship possible? What made all these people get together? Their intellectual positions are so different! They can agree on almost nothing!
It appears that the confidential community has another function characteristic of the transitional period: prophylaxis. Compared to a traditional exhibition (works delivered by trucks, assistants, the opening, and dinner with sponsors) the confidential project is extremely uncomfortable. Its experience can be justified by only one thing: its therapeutic impact. These projects are nothing but the acts of voluntary group therapy! These endless discussions are nothing but wholesome public acts of speaking out in order to eliminate depression and neuroses! Is it not social therapy that the institution of friendship serves?
The therapeutic impact of the confidential project is effective because it plunges the participants into extreme situations; it provides them with some kind of a threshold experience. The lack of comfort and the hardships of the confidential project are compensated for by the intensity of experience. Unlike an ordinary exhibition, taking part in such a project means taking a step into the unknown. That’s where the difference between friendship and other social forms lies. Friendship cannot be routine, it’s always an adventure. I am ready bear witness that the participants in the confidential project think of it as one of the most important moments in their artistic lives, similar to how worn-out veterans recall the years spent on the battlefield as the happiest period of their lives.
Finally, as I said before, friendship is a serial solidarity. Therefore, the confidential project never degrades into a monotonous conveyer, because when they meet, friends always know that later they’ll have to part.