Alexandra Novozhenova (1982–2019) was a historian, art theorist, art critic, and co-author (with Gleb Napreenko) of the book Episodes of Modernism: From Origins to Crisis. In 2021, V–A–C Press published A Box of Pencils: Texts, Drawings, Designs, a collection of Novozhenova’s works.
This issue of the online magazine Sreda features a text and drawings by Novozhenova, as well as a podcast by the editors of Pencil Box — curator Valentin Dyakonov, artist Arseniy Zhilyaev, and psychoanalyst and art historian Gleb Napreenko — on Novozhenova’s distinct view of the sociology of art and the institution of criticism.
Lists, lists, and more lists — lists of new finds, lists of artists, lists of exhibition venues, and even lists of curators. To understand what is going on, the critic does the work of a computer that has not been built yet: she reads textual data that tell her more about art than exhibitions per se.
The artist as sovereign author may have died, but her name remains: amidst a wild upsurge in the number of artists, analysis of the art scene has been increasingly reduced to endlessly reading lists of artists’ names. As you pore over the columns of print in search of familiar and vaguely familiar surnames, however, you are brought up short by unusual proper names that obviously do not belong to real people. In a list of fifty artists, you will probably stumble upon two or three that gum up your smooth perusing: some of them are disguised under first and last names, while others try to pass themselves off as organizations of some sort. These are the names of the new art groups. They are becoming ever more numerous, not only in terms of sheer quantity, but also proportionally. As opposed to individual creators, whose role boils down to producing “signature” installations, objects, and/or performances, there are, percentage wise, more and more collectives who do not produce “signature” anything. These collectives make reading exhibition lineups and gallery lists a tricky business. While you can quickly match in your mind the name of an individual artist with their standard output and move on, this does not work with the groups.
Determined to avoid straight-up capitalization (that is, to avoid turning their goods into cash), leftwing by birth (but always a pretty pink rather than a ruddy red), the new groups have conditioned themselves to avoid obvious branding by choosing the names they have. The artist’s name — that is, the brand name that marks their output — is played on in such a way as to avoid increasing the work’s value as branded. This evasion has nothing to do with institutional critique, however: the new art groups are not engaged in subversive activities and do not organize radical happenings. (We are not talking about underground activists here; they are a separate story.) On the contrary, they are well integrated into the exhibition system. It is almost entirely a play on words — or, more precisely, on names.
“Mock incorporation is quick and easy, no registration or fees, simply choose a name (i.e., Booty Corporation, Bourgeois Corporation, Buns Corporation) and spend a lot of time together. Ideas will come later, ” writes Antek Walczak, a member of Bernadette Corporation, a New York-based group showing at the Moscow Biennale (along with several other such groups).
Bernadette did not call themselves “Booty” or “Buns” Corporation, after all. And their gorgeous monogram logo puts one in mind of fashion houses and gourmet shops. It suits them: Bernadette Corporation is engaged in composing collective poetry, exhibiting sterile fashion shoots in galleries, and engraving mysterious inscriptions in beautiful italics on nickel-plated designer faucets. Their works are so generalized and cold that it is impossible to imagine that they were made by an individual with a personality.
First, there are the elegant names, like Bernadette Corporation and Claire Fontaine (who are among the participants of the Moscow Biennale and the Istanbul Biennial, which kicked off in September). The latter group’s sweet-sounding feminine name is actually the name of a French stationery company.
Second, there are the silly names, hinting at collective play, group fun, and cheerful community-mindedness. These include, for example, the Propeller Group, and Bouillon Group from Tbilisi, named after a happening that involved eating broth. United by the notion of the banquet, these young people mix the iconography of the Last Supper with good old relational aesthetics.
The third category of names is the most important. These names are poetically homogenized and subtly technical, vaguely referring to sociology or economics, but not to the “romantic” business of marking art: Group Material, General Idea, Temporary Services, Foreign Investment, Chamber of Public Secrets, Space Detournement Working Group, and the homegrown Learning Film Group. All these names point to a specific social background and the absence of petty-bourgeois individualism. They also suggest, incidentally, the impossibility of criticizing a group in the way that one would criticize an individual artist. This is also convenient in the sense that you cannot interview such a mysterious collective subject and show what an idiot he/she/they is/are, in fact.
The names of these creative cells do not speak on behalf of separate selves. They seemingly express a generalized opinion and generalized experience, even if the group consists of only two members or even one. The proliferation of such names makes it especially clear what broad success the campaign to demolish individual authorship has achieved. In its place, a new creative subject has emerged: the group subject. Such group subjects are better at avoiding the essentially outdated urge to “make art” than sluggish individuals with their creative ambitions and other psychological hang-ups. (It is amazing how many of them remain nonetheless.)
To be fair, I should point out that the new groups are only partly new. The most significant of those that I have already mentioned, Group Material and General Idea, had thrown in the towel by the mid-1990s, after existing for several decades. But right now, they are experiencing a moment of renewed relevance. They have been lionized as part of a new group art wave that is much more massive than the ones in the 1970s and 1980s. 2011 has seen the publication of book-length studies of both groups. General Idea’s work is now showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario, while Group Material’s AIDS Timeline (1989) is on display at the recently opened Istanbul Biennial. The inclusion of an old work in one of the most “progressive” biennales can only mean that Group Material is current now.
The best thing about the new groups — in contrast with the crude straightforwardness of individual artists — is the total mystery that surrounds them. Collective inscrutability (which comes about when a group is hermetically sealed, and its material output does not suffice to express what goes on inside it) is a huge resource. Mystery also surrounded the Situationist International, the greatest art organization of the postwar period and the benchmark for similar collectives to this day. It is quite difficult to get a handle on their chronology, exact lineup, and ideology: their legacy is incredibly confusing for those who first stumble upon their archives. In some ways, though, the Situationists were only an imperfect prototype for the new groups: they never managed to merge into a single group entity. We know perfectly well the names of Situationism’s superstars, and Guy Debord’s style in The Society of the Spectacle cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. His book was seemingly the last bible of leftwing artists. The Coming Insurrection, a tract written by the mysterious Invisible Committee, caused a big stir when it was published in 2007. The identities of the Committee’s members are unknown. They proposed establishing a network of underground communes. It was another triumph to put in the new group identity’s burgeoning piggy bank.
Just as the Situationists are not amenable to historicization, so the newest groups resist critical reflection. Basically, we do not understand what they are up to. Go to their websites. (The new groups always have websites where all their activities are covered in detail.) You will find lists of projects, videotaped discussions, and documentation. They not only exhibit as artists, but also curate exhibitions as curators. Take, for example, Raqs Media Collective. They are involved in publishing and educational outreach. They organize video conferences. They write poems. They make films. They produce installations. They utter aphorisms. They glide across all branches of knowledge, gathering and synergizing scraps of sociological, economic, and other concepts. In short, they are an ideal creative unit for the post-media era.
The works of the new groups are almost always silent about the relationships in the groups themselves. What do we learn about Claire Fontaine if we look at their (or “her” — the collective speaks of itself in the feminine gender) neon sign Capitalism Kills Love? Or about Raqs Media Collective when we expand their famous clocks (Escapement, 2009), whose hands mark emotions from “panic” to “ecstasy” rather than the time? Only that the members of the group have arrived at a very weighty consensus, apparently. But the collective’s inner workings are indescribable, and we can only hazard a guess about them: this is another aspect of group inscrutability. We are thus even more impressed by the frightening inside information that all three members of General Idea lived together for many years and two of them died of AIDS in the same year.
The group subject has been going through hard times in Russia, the homeland of collectivist concepts. Apart from the impeccably European Marxists of the Learning Film Group, Collective Actions would be the ideal group. Their name fits perfectly among the groups with homogenous names, and right now they are going through a rapid institutionalization. But as part of that process the role of one particular person in Collective Actions has become inflated: the community is eager to put the genius on his pedestal.
Another paradoxical take on group relations is the revival of the early Soviet orchestra Persimfans. Conceived in the 1920s as an educational outreach collective introducing the proletariat to classical music masterpieces, it performed without a conductor, who was seen as a relic of the bourgeois era of geniuses. Nowadays, the outstanding pianist Peter Aidu successfully performs under the brand name Persimfans: he is the group’s de facto assistant conductor, since it can have no principal conductor. The academic spirit, which has infected not only pianists, but also visual artists, has little patience for the principle of collectivism.
Get Rid of Yourself (2003) is the title of Bernadette Corporation’s film. One Is No One (2007), paints Claire Fontaine over a reproduction of an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe. Getting together is what really matters. The ideas will come later.
Originally published September 1, 2011, on the ArtKhronika website.
Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas H. Campbell