An exhibition has just begun in the Institute of Contemporatry Arts in central London which should be of great interest to socialists and radical activists.
Chto Delat? is an autonomous Russian collective made up of artists, philosophers, activists. It takes its name from one of Lenin’s most famous quotes: What is to be done?
The aim of the group is to reconcile artistic practices, political theory, and radical activism. Using tools partly derived from Bertold Brecht and from critical theory they produce films and newspapers, host workshops and debates and engage in artistic practice wherever they are invited by institutions.
Their engagement with cultural institutions in not an uncritical one. They highlight the ways in which bodies such as the ICA exist within a system of power and patronage. Chto Delat? are careful to avoid their work being commodified and becoming part of the international art market.
The current exhibition is titled ‘The Urgent Need to Struggle’ and is the central project in a season called ‘Dissent’. Chto Delat? present a didactic installation consisting of films and texts representing a range of the art projects and political campaigns they have engaged in. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a Brecht-style ‘Songspiel’ piece of filmed musical theatre which enacts the debate around the controversial construction of the 403m-high Gazprom tower in St Petersburg. Another film shows the struggle in Serbia against the eviction and demolition of a Roma encampment.
Engagements such as this demonstrate that, for all the highlighting in the gallery of quotes and images from certain icons of radical thought – the Black Panthers, Debord, Godard – this is not remotely a case of radical chic. Theirs is a genuine exploration of and attempt to recuperate not merely the spirit of but also the principles and tactics of previous generations of radical thinkers and activists and to put them to good use. The context in which they do so, that of the ‘New Russia’, makes their work highly risky. The regime of ‘managed democracy’ has labelled all forms of oppositional activism ‘extremist’, and their actions are very regularly physically targetted and attacked by the authorities.
The group describes itself as ‘leftist’ rather than Socialist or Communist, but it takes inspiration from Alan Badiou’s already seminal essay ‘The Communist Hypothesis’, which is a call for the reassertion of the most basic principles of the communist project: that the fundamental subordination of labour can be overcome, and that a egalitarian form of collective social organisation is practicable.
A visit to the exhibition is very highly recommended. It runs until October 24th and will be accompanied by a number of debates and films, including an open-microphone ‘Night of Angry Statements’, and a weekly screening event addressing political filmmaking. More details at www.ica.org.uk/chtodelat.