The Main Project of the Biennial
The Ural Worker Printing House
The printing house, built in 19
SHOCKWORKERS OF THE MOBILE IMAGE
Cosmin Costinas, Ekaterina Degot, David Riff
Shockwork is what made this text, and indeed this biennial. It was an intense collaboration of translations transmitted back and forth, the text accumulating and mutating every time it was remade. One author came forth with a proposal, another translated it immediately, arguing over some points and clarifying others. The third co-author chimed in with more strategic suggestions, and rewrote the whole thing again. And so on. One hundred emails a day is not an exaggeration.
Of course, we wouldn't be here if we didn't like it, if we weren't as eager as Stakhanovites. Shockworkers of the Mobile Image. It sounds a little romantic, like Raiders of the Lost Arc, or maybe just a combination of strange and (now) harmless Soviet phraseology and curatorial jargon that says Work hard: It's the only socially acceptable way of life. But who are they really, these shockworkers? What does their work mean? Where does it lead? Are we serving god or mammon by working so hard to make the first biennial of contemporary art in Ekaterinburg, an "industrial biennial, no less?
The answer isn't obvious. Though it seems the smell of money sooner or later attracts contemporary art. The city formerly known as Sverdlovsk, once the cradle of Soviet industrialization, has now become a hub of Russia's new resource economy, a site of accumulation following an era of shock privatization. It ambitiously wants to forget its past and invent a new future. Here, people dream with BRICs, and wake up to the harsh economic realities of "disaster capitalism," and then dream again. There is a huge Dubai-esque skyscraper across the street, as yet empty; there are eye-catching new churches and invisible migrant workers; there are traffic jams and there are megamalls; constructivist buildings are plastered over with real estate advertising or encased in plastic siding, as the industrial workforce is reoriented toward the service sector en masse. From industry to services to creative industries. Even the urge to give life back to the abandoned factories of the region with contemporary art bespeaks of the desire to jump headlong into the dream of the creative economy. Famous from TV and glossy magazines, contemporary art is supposed to serve the goal of giving this society its new form. It is the new order's slick coat of arms. It is a commodity in the transfers of symbolic capital that assures mutual recognition between the members of the new elite. It creates a glittering facade and a distraction. It re-educates, indoctrinates and subtly but deeply affects the very core of how a society is meant to function. It forms the subjectivity and agency of its strategic cadres, recruited from the upwardly mobile lower middle class. Can a biennial ever be more than a prestigious spectacle for the rich, cheap enough for the poor?
Of course, art is (still) a propaganda machine, and its biennials are temporary agitprop factories. But strangely enough, these factories are empty, save the audience. Like in the real economy, most of the actual work in contemporary art is outsourced; it takes place in advance, (less often) in studios, living rooms, cafes, airports and airplanes far from the actual location. Somewhere out there, not only artists and curators, but an army of technical directors, assistants, translators, editors and interns work day and night to produce all these pictures and things, emailing, texting and twittering all the way to total Facebook oblivion. It is not just networking, it is real work resembling political activity, undertaken on the force of conviction, a total way of life. There is no sleep. The family is fully involved. The workday is endless. Perhaps that is why it is so tempting to think of today's cultural producers through images of superproductive shockworkers, Stakhanovites eagerly working night and day to build and operate the factories of socialism.
A place like Ekaterinburg immediately evokes such images. Its streets are like assembly lines, and a mixture of enthusiasm and coercion is written into the curves of the constructivist exhibition venue, the Uralsky Rabochy (Ural Worker) Press. Down the street, there is a seemingly utopian constructivist housing settlement called The Village of Chekists, built for the employees of the NKVD and their families from 1929 to 1936. Local legend has it that this complex was connected by tunnels to any place in the city, and that it could be sealed off and turned into an impenetrable fortress at will. A metaphor, perhaps, for socialism in one country, and its dangers. Today's slogans of a new Russia, heightened national pride thanks to economic self-sufficiency, are strikingly reminiscent of promises made in the USSR under Stalin. In Russia in general and in the Urals in particular, contemporary art is often where the search for "identity" and "roots" takes place, a search to which there is neither point nor end. No one wants to have anything to do with the legacy of internationalism, even though it is almost always very close at hand. The images of the heroic shockworker did not just accompany the industrialization of the Urals; they had a global reach and became the language of internationalist solidarity. Just as the Soviet model of Fordism was an altered copy of the most advanced industrial capitalism, so was the Soviet model brought elsewhere, stripped, broken down, and reassembled in other ideological projects. Some of the historical material in the exhibition shows this global reach.
Today's shockworkers are working to build a very different order. The superproductive artists and hyperactive promoters of today are Stakhanovites of reproduction, not production. It is that reproducibility of art that we find particularly intriguing. Cut up into short and easily digestible segments, culture today is copy-pasted and reassembled at a virtuosic pace, consumed just as quickly as it is made, more as a stimulus to go and produce another blog entry, another YouTube post. Production is understood as endless contribution to a cycle of reproduction and circulation of images and texts. Art is no longer a system in which a few talented people make unique objects for the rich few; art can now envision following the logic of blockbusters and bestsellers, albeit very exclusive ones.
This exhibition, however, refuses to hide the fact that most of what it shows are copies and reproductions. There are very few "originals." The exhibition largely consists of prints, video projections, and works made according to long distance instructions. Usually, the art system does its best to ensure such reproductions enjoy the same symbolic status as originals used to hold in the era of unique art objects and masterpieces, still insisting on expensive materials, hand-made skills (usually expropriated from semi-anonymous collaborators), site specificity and high definition, all meant to cover up the work's circulatory nature.
We want to work against that tendency and to show that extreme mobility and reproducibility are unalienable preconditions of art today, and more, that they are a place where intellectual production and politics can be activated and upheld. One of our strategies was to include extensive production notes for all the works in the show. These notes give at least some insight into how images are transmitted, how they circulate, and, in some cases, how curators and consumers can circumvent the usual restrictions. They show the regulation of a process that cannot be controlled long-term, the very logic of reproduction means that images are continually recoded, retranslated, and reappropriated by their consumers. Today, images are stolen, ripped, and reused, and no amount of copyright or security can ever prevent it. And these rags of originals take on a quality of their own.
The exhibition's three voices bring together contributions that are very different yet still respond to one another piece by piece in a kind of collage. Collages are also at the center of this book, and its only color illustrations. Aside from a statue of Lenin, partly covered by rubber plants in a corner of the staircase, they were literally the first thing we found when we entered the exhibition venue of the defunct Ural Worker Press, where in the 1990s the workers had decorated the walls with the materials they themselves printed. At some point, it seemed to us that these anonymous collages were better than anything we could ever show, and not just because they are vivid expressions of the idea of total reproducibility. To put it as simply as possible, they show what is perhaps most valuable about the experience of 20th century socialism.
One often forgets that in theory the shockwork of socialist industrialization, superproductive labor, supposedly voluntary, performed in a mixture of enthusiasm and coercion, was supposed to establish the conditions for the fundamental redefinition of value as such; mechanization would create a social wealth of disposable time to be used in self-education and self-enjoyment, for creativity, for politics. The division between manual and intellectual labor would be eradicated. Art would finally be a universal privilege and not one merely of some super-educated specialist stratum. Workers in all industries would ultimately have time to see and make their work as art. In the workers' collages, you see that this goal is not just utopian. In fact, it was a reality, one that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, as state socialism headed toward stagnation and decline. In the city formerly known as Sverdlovsk, as in other major cities of the USSR, Soviet Fordism created a working class, and it also created the preconditions for proletarian education and proletarian social mobility. This surplus of thinking, critically minded people in Sverdlovsk generated a lively cultural underground in the city that had its heyday from the 1970s to the early 1990s.
Can this legacy become a weapon in the everyday struggle with creative capitalism? Can a critical use of one's free time counteract the culture of young managers and designers who appropriate all the slogans of amateur creativity and try to neutralize any critical gesture? We think it can. But that might just be the wishful thinking and the fetishism of shockworkers, the whole point of whose untiring efforts is to dispel all doubt.