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The rise of participatory art since the 1990s

invites us to constitute a history of this practice,

ideally one that reflects the global spread of this
work today.1 In charting this history, important
variants appear that challenge the dominant way
of thinking about participatory art in Western

Europe and North America, where this work
tends to be positioned as a political,
constructive, and oppositional response to the
spectacleÕs atomization of social relations. By
contrast, the participatory art of Eastern Europe
and Russia from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s
is frequently marked by the desire for an
increasingly subjective and privatized aesthetic
experience. At first glance, this seems to be an
Claire Bishop inversion of the Western model (despite Guy
DebordÕs observation that bureaucratic
Zones of communism is no less spectacular than its
capitalist variant; it is simply ÒconcentratedÓ as
opposed to ÒdiffusedÓ).2 However, and crucially,
Indistinguishability: the individual experiences that were the target of
participatory art under really existing socialism
Collective continue to be framed as shared privatized
experiences: the construction of a collective
artistic space amongst mutually trusting
Actions Group colleagues. Rather than frame this work as
Òimplicitly political,Ó as is the habit with current
and Western approaches to Eastern bloc art history,
Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art

this essay will argue that work produced under

Participatory state socialism during these decades should
rather be viewed in more complex terms. Given
the saturation of everyday life with ideology,
Art Soviet artists did not regard their work as
political but rather as existential and apolitical,
committed to ideas of freedom and the individual
imagination. At the same time, they sought an
e-flux journal #29 Ñ november 2011 Ê Claire Bishop

expanded Ð one might say democratized Ð

horizon of artistic production, in contrast to the
highly regulated and hierarchized system of the
Union of Soviet Artists.
ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊIn the present essay, I want to focus on the
Collective Actions Group, active in Moscow from
the mid-1970s onwards, from the perspective of
Western participatory art. Unlike many recent
socially-engaged artists, for whom social
participation in art denotes the inclusion of the
working class, marginalized communities, or at
least everyday non-professionals (rather than
the artistsÕs friends and colleagues), the political
context of the Collective Actions Group rendered
such distinctions redundant. The impulse to
collaborate with disenfranchised communities
that we see so frequently today was a somewhat
alien concept in the 1970s: under Cold War
socialism, every citizen was (nominally at least)
equal, a co-producer of the communist state.
Class difference did not exist.3 Finding
participants for oneÕs art was therefore a
question of selecting reliable colleagues who
would not inform on oneÕs activities. In an

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Collective Actions, Appearances, Moscow, 13 March, 1976.

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atmosphere of near constant surveillance and lonely, idiosyncratic figures on the margins of
insecurity, participation was an artistic and society, cocooned in a private dream world. The
social strategy to be deployed only amongst the first, Sitting in the Closet Primakov, is typical in
most trusted groups of friends. The restrictions that it describes the life of a boy who sits in a
of life under Cold War communism do more than dark closet and refuses to come out; when he
simply affect the question of who participates in does, he sees the world in terms of modernist

art. They also govern the appearance of these abstract paintings. Each Album was
works: materially frugal and temporally brief, accompanied by drawings and general
many of these actions and events were located in comments on the character spoken by other
the countryside, far away from networks of fictional commentators. Crucially, these Albums
surveillance. The fact that many of these actions were not read as books but were performed by
do not look like art is less an indication of the the artist for small groups of friends. Boris Groys
artistsÕs commitment to blurring Òart and lifeÓ recalls that one would make an appointment
than a deliberate strategy of self-protection, as with Kabakov (rather like organizing a studio
well as a reaction to the stateÕs own military visit) and go to his home, where the artist would
displays and socialist festivals as a visual place the book on a music stand and read the
reference point; these events dissuaded artists entire text in a neutral and unexpressive tone of
from contrived displays of collective voice. The experience was extremely
participation even if they had the resources to monotonous but had a ritualistic quality in which
emulate them.4 the turning of the pages became central. Most
ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊIt is useful to remind ourselves that readings took an hour, although Groys recalls
unofficial art began in Moscow in 1964, after once undergoing an eight-hour performance.6
Khrushchev visited the thirtieth anniversary One of the key points to emerge here is the use of
show of the Moscow Union of Artists at the a neutral, descriptive, analytical language
Manezh Gallery, which included a display of non- focusing on the inconspicuous, the banal, and
figurative, abstract paintings; Khrushchev the marginal; another is that the stories are
declared these to be (among other things) geared more towards invented forms of survival
Òprivate psycho-pathological distortions of the and endurance than of criticism; and another is
Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art

public conscience.Ó5 The extent of his reaction the repeated motif of isolated individuals
led to the ever-increasing domestic isolation of negotiating the endless and uncomfortable
independent artists and their being denied the scrutiny of the communal apartment.7 All of
right to show their works to the public in any these points provide an important contextual
place or form. And yet, despite being severely precursor for the work discussed in the
criticized and censured, unofficial art continued remainder of this essay.
into the mid-1970s, when the first legal ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊIt is in this literary context, with a strong
exhibitions took place and a shadow union for reverence for textual expression, that the
e-flux journal #29 Ñ november 2011 Ê Claire Bishop

unofficial artists was set up (the Graphics Collective Actions Group (CAG) (Kollektivnye
Moscow City Committee). After the controversial Deistvia, or K/D) was formed in 1976; at its
Bulldozer exhibition of September 1974 (in which inception there were four members; by 1979
an exhibition of unofficial art was destroyed by there were seven; and in 2005 there were six.8
bulldozer), cultural authorities decided to The group took its lead from the first generation
regulate and legalize their relationships with of Moscow Conceptualists, especially Kabakov,
ÒundergroundÓ art via the State Committee for whose installations implied characters and
Security (KGB). Most unofficial art was exhibited viewing subjects caught between Òa communal
inside private apartments, forcing a convergence bodyÓ and Òan existential individualist.Ó9 The
of art and life that surpassed what the majority central theorist of CAG, Andrei Monastyrsky
of twentieth-century avant-gardists had ever (b.1949), has recalled that their earliest pieces
intended by this term. The phenomenon of ÒApt- were perceived as a form of poetry reading. The
ArtÓ (apartment art), an initiative by Nikita group continues to produce around eight
Alekseev, referred to exhibitions and performances a year, although the character of
performances taking place in private homes for this work has changed considerably since 1989:
small networks of trusted friends; Apt-Art the actions are more complex, with more
flourished in the early 1980s. references to Eastern mysticism, and frequently
ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊIt was in this context that the most make use of documentation (especially tape
celebrated of Moscow Conceptualists, Ilya recordings) from earlier actions. Since the focus
Kabakov (b.1933), developed his personal work here is on participatory art under socialism, the
alongside his official job as a childrenÕs book following discussion will concern a selection of
illustrator. KabakovÕs Albums (1972Ð75) are actions produced in the first decade of the
illustrated narratives, each revolving around one groupÕs existence. Most of these actions typically
fictional character, most of whom are isolated, followed a standard format: a group of fifteen to

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twenty participants were invited by telephone (at place where they expected it.11 CAG stretched
a time when, of course, phone lines could be the temporality of event-based art away from
tapped) to take a train to a designated station pure presence and into a relationship of distance
outside Moscow; they would walk from the between ÒthenÓ (I thought I experienced...) and
station to a remote field; the group would wait ÒnowÓ (I understand it to be otherwise...). It is
around (not knowing what would happen), before also of central importance that this production of

witnessing a minimal, perhaps mysterious, and distance was not only temporal but social,
often visually unremarkable event. On returning prising open a space for modes of
to Moscow, participants would write an account communicational practice otherwise absent in
of the experience and offer interpretations of its the rigid and monolithic ideology of Soviet
meaning; these subsequently became the focus collectivism. The event itself is effectively an
of discussion and debate amongst the artists Òempty action,Ó designed to preclude
and their circle.10 interpretation from taking place during the
ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊIt should immediately be apparent that the performance, and thereby serving to prompt a
intellectualism of this structure is a considerable wide range of descriptions and analyses, which
step away from the 1960s model in both Europe were undertaken individually but shared within
and North America, in which it was regarded as the group.
sufficient simply for things to Òhappen,Ó and ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊThe first key action that crystallized this
through which the participating subject would form of working was Appearance (March 13,
attain a more vivid, authentic level of reality (as 1976). Devised by Monastyrsky, Lev Rubinstein,
seen, for example, in the work of Kn’ž‡k and Nikia Alekseev, and Georgii Kizevalter, it involved
Kaprow). Monastyrsky complicated this around thirty audience members as participants.
paradigm by aiming to produce situations in Upon arriving in Êa remote field at Izmaylovskoe,
which participants had no idea what was going to the group was asked to wait and watch for
happen, to the point where they sometimes something to appear in the distance. Eventually,
found it difficult to know if they had in fact a couple of the organizers became visible on the
experienced an action; when participantsÕs horizon, in what Monastyrsky refers to as the
engagement finally occurred, it was never in the Òzone of indistinguishabilityÓ: the moment when

Collective Actions, Appearances, Moscow, 13 March, 1976.

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Kabakov in his studio presenting his Albums, 1972Ð75.

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one can tell that something is happening but the undermined as a central focus by the sly
figures are too far away for one to clarify who subtraction of the organizersÕs presence,
they are and what exactly is taking place. The indicating that Ð contra the US model of the
figures approached the group and gave them Happening Ð in CAGÕs works there is no authentic
certification of having attended the event (CAG shared experience underlying the event.
refers to this as ÒfactographyÓ). Monastyrsky ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊIn his article ÒSeven PhotographsÓ (1980),

later explained that what had happened in the Monastyrsky presents seven near identical
field was not that they (the organizers) had photographs of a snowy field, each of which
appeared for the participants, but rather, that relate to a different action by CAG, including
the participants had appeared for them. This Appearance and Pictures. The bleak similarity of
inversion of what one might expect to experience the images is amusing, but drives home his point
with an artistic action Ð an unfurling of events that secondary material such as photographs,
for the organizers rather than for an audience Ð instructions, descriptions, and participant
was matched by the groupÕs preference for the recollections have a completely separate
banality of waiting rather than the production of aesthetic reality to the action itself. (At best, he
a vivid and visually memorable event: writes, Òa familiarity with the photographs and
Monastyrsky described the participantsÕs texts can bring about a sensation of positive
eventual appearance in the work as a Òpause,Ó indeterminacy.Ó14) Influenced by semiotics and
thereby reconceptualizing the waiting not as a making frequent reference to Heidegger,
prelude to some more specific action, but as the Monastyrsky argues that the groupÕs actions
main event.12 Typically, CAGÕs primary focus is result for the participants in a real experience,
never on the ostensible action taking place in the but not in an image of that experience. The
snowy landscape, but rather the deferral and eventÕs existential presence takes place in the
displacement of this action both physically viewerÕs consciousness (as a state of Òcompleted
(events happen where one was not prepared to anticipationÓ) and thus cannot be represented:
see them) and semantically. The ÒThe only thing that can be represented is the
phenomenological level of immediate events was thing that accompanies this internal process, the
subordinated to the conceptual and linguistic thing that takes place on the field of action at the
Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art

activity that subsequently took place in the time.Ó15 The exquisite precision of this idea, in
participantsÕs consciousness: in MonastyrskyÕs which documentation is conceived as a
words, the mythological or symbolic content of representation of what accompanied an artistic
the action is Òused only as an instrument to experience, explains the repetitive quality of
create that ÔinnerÕ level of perceptionÓ in the CAGÕs photographs of (apparently) nothing taking
viewer.13 place, since they record only what seems to be a
ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊThis technique can be seen in other early withdrawal of action. Each photograph is to be
works such as Pictures (February 11, 1979), considered, Monastyrsky writes, as Òa sign of a
e-flux journal #29 Ñ november 2011 Ê Claire Bishop

which divided the participants into two groups, higher order, a sign of an Ôunarbitrary emptinessÕ
one of which undertook an action in the snow, with the following meaning: Ônothing is
watched by the other group. Twelve sets of represented on it not because nothing happened
twelve colored envelopes (in gradually larger at that given moment, but because the thing that
sizes) were distributed to twelve of the thirty happened is essentially unrepresentable.ÕÓ16 The
participants. Inside each envelope was a highly theorized, quasi-mystical flavor of this
description of the key components of the event: position gives CAG a unique status within a
from schedule, setting, and weather to audience history of performance documentation, while
reaction, meaning, and interpretation. After they also being highly suggestive of an approach to
had read the instructions, the participants were documentary that is ripe for re-exploration today.
told to fold and paste each set of envelopes on ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊMonastyrskyÕs article was written before
top of each other, with the largest on the bottom, Ten Appearances (1981) and seems to pave the
to form a concentric pattern of color; these were way for the centrality of photography in this
later signed as certification of the participantsÕs work. The participants in Ten Appearances were
attendance. While all this was going on, three of notified that everyone attending would have to
the participants (the organizers) crossed the participate in the work; those who were unwilling
field and wandered into the woods on the other should not come.17 The action took place in a
side. Once again, the Òzone of snowy field and was organized around a flat
indistinguishabilityÓ was put into play: the board bearing dozens of nails with bobbins, each
participantsÕs preoccupation with making the wound with 200Ð300 meters of white thread. The
pictures was a distraction from the action on the assignment was for each of the ten participants
margin, namely the organizersÕs disappearance to take a thread and walk away from the board in
into the woods. The participatory activity (finding a different direction towards the forest that
and assembling the colored envelopes) was surrounded the field. Kabakov describes the

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Collective Actions, Pictures, Moscow Region, February 11, 1979.

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minutiae of his volatile emotions as he events over the course of fifteen years: the
underwent this process: from anxiety (about how pretextual nature of the experiences that the
long he would be standing in the cold) to fear group constructed ensured that participants
(suspecting the organizers of sadism) to sheer were continually intrigued, as well as continually
joy and Òmystic melancholyÓ on finally reaching motivated to write descriptions and analyses.
the end of the thread, to which was affixed a Since it was near impossible to scrutinize the

piece of paper bearing the Òfactographic textÓ events as they were happening, these
(the name of the organizers, time, date, and hermeneutical narratives had a compensatory
place of the action).18 At this point it was up to aspect, endlessly chasing a meaning that
the participants to decide what happened next. remained elusive, precisely because the
Eight of them walked back out of the forest to generation of different interpretative positions
rejoin the group; two did not return and got a was the meaning.21 The surfeit of texts that
train back to Moscow. Those who returned were resulted from these actions were collected into
given a photograph of themselves emerging from books every three to five years, and are
the forest in the Òzone of indistinguishability,Ó published in Russian and German under the title
with each image captioned ÒThe appearance of Trips to the Countryside; the group is currently at
[name] on February 1, 1981.Ó This simulated work on an eleventh volume.22 Volume two, from
photographic documentation had been taken a 1983, for example, is typical in its structure: a
few weeks earlier but was indistinguishable from theoretical preface by Monastyrsky; descriptions
the actual appearance of the participants as they of the events with photographs; an appendix of
emerged from the forest. Monastyrsky refers to documentation, which includes the schema of
these photographs as an Òempty actÓ: a mere Ten Appearances and a list of slides; texts by
sign of the elapsed time between the end of the participants (including Kabakov on Ten
first phase of the action for the participants Appearances); photographs and descriptions of
(receiving the factographic text) and their actions by individual artists that are close to
reappearance in the field (Òthe signified and CAGÕs actions, such as MonastyrskyÕs Flat Cap
culminating event in the structure of the (1983); commentaries and photographs. Later
actionÓ).19 Both the act and the image are empty volumes also include interviews and a list of
signifiers; the meaning is formulated videos, produced after the German artist Sabine
subsequently by reflection on the totality of the HŠnsgen joined the group.
events experienced. ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊBoris Groys has observed how CAGÕs
performances were Òmeticulously, almost
bureaucratically, documented, commented on,
and archived.Ó23 This textual production is one of
the dominant characteristics of their practice,
and positions it as the inverse of the impulse to
make participatory art in Western cultures Ð
which can broadly be summarized as positioned
against the atomization of social relations under
consumer spectacle. Groys has argued that
Soviet society, by contrast,

was a society of production without

consumption. There was no spectator and
there was no consumer. Everyone was
involved in a productive process. So the role
of Collective Actions and some other artists
Collective Actions, Appearances, Moscow, 13 March, 1976. of the time was to create the possibility of
consumption, the possibility of an external
position from which one could enjoy
ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊOf course, the poignant fact that two communism.24
participants, Nekrasov and Zhigalov, didnÕt
return to the group did not mean that the work What CAGÕs works gave rise to, then, was not
was a failure. Rather, Monastyrsky asserted, it unified collective presence and immediacy but
showed that the participants had emerged from its opposite: difference, dissensus, and debate; a
a Ònon-artistic, non-artificially-constructed space of privatized experience, liberal
spaceÓ Ð in other words, an everyday reality in democratic indecision, and a plurality of
which they were capable of acting of their own hermeneutical speculation at a time when the
free will.20 This, Monastyrsky reasoned, was why dominant discourse and spectatorial regime was
the same people kept coming back to their marshaled towards a collective and rigidly

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schematized apparatus of meaning. This is borne the socius, the socius that is so painful in
out by MonastyrskyÕs observation that our time. Here the social is not antagonistic
to you, but instead good-willed, reliable,
in the Stalin or Brezhnev era, and extremely welcoming. This feeling is so
contemplation of an artwork involved a unusual, so not experienced before, that it
certain compulsion, a kind of tunnel vision. not only recovers you, but also becomes an

There was nothing peripheral. But when amazing gift compared to everyday
one comes to a field Ð when one comes reality.30
there, moreover, with no sense of obligation
but for private reasons of oneÕs own Ð a vast Between MonastyrskyÕs highly theoretical
flexible space is created, in which one can musings on semiotics and orientalism, and the
look at whatever one likes. OneÕs under no more accessible narratives of those who
obligation to look at whatÕs being presented participated in the works, it was this emphasis
Ð that freedom, in fact, is the whole idea.25 on freedom Ð the self-selecting construction of a
self-determining social group Ð that formed the
The use of a field as the backdrop to so many of social core of CAGÕs practice. Participation here
CAGÕs works is therefore doubly salient.26 It did denoted the possibility of producing individual
not designate a specific rejection of the city or a affect and singular experience, relayed through a
conscious embrace of nature; as Sergei Sitar meditative relationship to language that in turn
notes, the field is not chosen for its independent presupposed collective reception and debate.
aesthetic merits, Òbut simply as Ôthe lesser evilÕ ÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊÊParticipatory art under state socialism in
Ð as a space that is the least occupied, the least the 1960s and 1970s provides an important
appropriated by the dominant cultural counter-model to contemporaneous examples
discourse.Ó27 For Monastyrsky, it is a space Òfree from Europe and North America. Rather than
from any affiliationÓ: Òthe countryside, for us, aspiring to create a participatory public sphere
isnÕt the countryside tilled by peasants but that as the counterpoint to a privatized world of
of the thinking classesÕs vacation retreats.Ó28 The individual affect and consumption, artists
fields are less about framing (in the way that working collaboratively under socialism sought
Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art

PragueÕs Wenceslas Square frames Jiř’ to provide a space for nurturing individualism (of
KovandaÕs contemporaneous actions) than behavior, actions, interpretations) against an
unframing; the countrysideÕs multiple oppressively monolithic cultural sphere in which
perspectives corresponded to the groupÕs open- artistic judgments were reduced to a question of
ended, neutral actions that were contrived to their position within Marxist-Leninist dogma.
leave room for the greatest number of This led to a situation in which most artists
hermeneutic possibilities. The result was a wanted nothing to do with politics Ð and indeed
privatized liberal space that existed in covert even rejected the dissident position Ð by
e-flux journal #29 Ñ november 2011 Ê Claire Bishop

parallel to official social structures. As Kabakov choosing to operate, instead, on an existential

recalls: plane: making assertions of individual freedom,
even in the slightest or most silent of forms.31 We
From the moment I got on the train ... my can also contrast this approach with that taken
goals, the questions and affairs that by artists in South America, where participation
constantly preoccupied me, my fears of was used as a means to provoke art audiences
myself and others, were all, as it were, into heightened self-awareness of their social
taken away from me. The most remarkable conditions and thereby (it was hoped) to impel
thing, however, was that those who led us them to take action in the social sphere. For
had no goals either! And, of course, there is artists living under communism, participation
something else: for the first time in my life, had no such agitationary goals. It was, rather, a
I was among Òmy ownÓ; we had our own means of experiencing a more authentic
world, parallel to the real one, and this (because individual and self-organized) mode of
world had been created and compressed by collective experience than the one prescribed by
the CA group until it had achieved complete the state in official parades and mass
materiality, or, one might say, tangibility Ð if spectacles; as such it is frequently figured as
this notion is at all applicable to something escapist or celebratory, regardless of whether it
absolutely ethereal and elusive.29 took place on a physical or solely cerebral level.
Today, the escapist and celebratory tend to be
And again, in concluding his account of Ten weak terms in contemporary art criticism,
Appearances: signifying a willful refusal of artists to engage in
their political reality and to express a critical
This [action] actualized one of the most stance towards it. However, the example of the
pleasant and practically unknown sides of 1960s and 1970s avant-garde under socialism

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reminds us that there is an unimaginably large Claire Bishop (b.1971) is Associate Professor in the
gap between managing such contextual PhD Program in Art History at CUNY Graduate Center,
New York. Her publications include Installation Art: A
awareness and heroic acts of dissidence (the Critical History (2005), and the edited anthologies
latter being, for the most part, a Western Participation (2006), and 1968-1989: Political Upheaval
fantasy). The reality of daily life under these and Artistic Change (2010). She co-curated the
regimes necessitates a more sober exhibition ÒDouble AgentÓ at the ICA London in 2008,

understanding of the artistic gestures achieved and the performance festival ÒPrelude.11Ó at the
Graduate Center in 2011. She is a regular contributor
there, and appreciation of the consummate
to Artforum and her second monograph, ÒArtificial
subtlety with which so many of them were Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of
undertaken. SpectatorshipÓ, will be published by Verso in 2012.

Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art

e-flux journal #29 Ñ november 2011 Ê Claire Bishop

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ÊÊÊÊÊÊ1 Performance Art,Ó 1968Ð1989: was rarer for actions to take contrary, underscores the
This essay forms part of a Political Upheaval and Artistic place in private apartments realization of zones of psychic
chapter in my forthcoming book Change, eds. Claire Bishop and (Playback, 1981) or in the city experience of the action as
Artificial Hells: Participatory Art Marta Dzeiwańska (Warsaw: streets (Exit, 1983; The Group, aesthetically sufficient on the
and the Politics of Spectatorship Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 1983). plane of the demonstrational
(London: Verso, 2011). 31Ð50. field of the action as a wholeÓ
ÊÊÊÊÊÊ11 (ibid). This is corroborated by
ÊÊÊÊÊÊ2 ÊÊÊÊÊÊ5 Monastyrsky refers to this as a KabakovÕs more amenable
ÒThe spectacle exists in a Andrei Erofeev, ÒNonofficial Art: psychological state of Òpre- narrative: ÒI had some space of

concentrated or a diffuse form Soviet Artists of the 1960sÓ expectation,Ó created through freedom and I had to make up
depending on the necessities of (1995), Primary Documents: A the form of the invitation and my mind what to do then. But
the particular stage of misery Sourcebook for Eastern and through the spatio-temporal actually, I had no doubt or
which it denies and supports. In Central European Art Since the peculiarities of the journey to speculation about what to do Ð
both cases, the spectacle is 1950s, eds. Laura J. Hoptman the site of the event. See to leave, etc. Ð not at all. What I
nothing more than an image of and Tom‡š Pospiszyl (New York: Monastyrsky, ÒPreface to the wanted to do immediately was to
happy unification surrounded by Museum of Modern Art, 2002), First Volume of Trips to the share this joy I experienced with
desolation and fear at the 42. See also William J. Tompson, Countryside,Ó Total the others, and also thank those
tranquil center of misery ... If Khrushchev: A Political Life Enlightenment: Conceptual Art in people who made it happen for
every Chinese must learn Mao, (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1995), Moscow 1960Ð1990, ed. Boris meÓ (Kabakov, ÒTen
and thus be Mao, it is because Chapter 10. Groys (Frankfurt: Schirn Appearances,Ó 153).
he can be nothing else. Wherever Kunsthalle/Hatje Cantz, 2008),
the concentrated spectacle ÊÊÊÊÊÊ6 335. ÊÊÊÊÊÊ21
rules, so does the police.Ó Guy Groys, conversation with the Viktor Tupitsyn: ÒThe same
Debord, The Society of the author, New York, January 28, ÊÊÊÊÊÊ12 happens in combat: while youÕre
Spectacle (New York: Zone 2010. ÒAnd yet, if the experience so far in the thick of it, everyone is so
Books, 1994), sections 63 and was that of pure expectation, busy with the Ôphysical stuffÕ
64. ÊÊÊÊÊÊ7 this experience now transforms that all kinds of hermeneutic
ÒThe communal apartment is a upon the appearance of the activities are foreclosed. Later,
ÊÊÊÊÊÊ3 place where the social object of perception on the real though, this void is going to be
Of course, memories of class dimension occurs in its most field. It is interrupted, and there filled with interpretations,
difference were not entirely horrifying, most obtrusive, and begins a process of strenuous whose excessiveness will
erased. In ÒThe Power of the most radical form, where the looking, accompanied by the compensate for the lack of
Powerless,Ó V‡clav Havel speaks individual is laid bare to the gaze desire to understand what this interpretation at the site of
of his social awkwardness at of others. Furthermore, this gaze object means. In our view, this Action.Ó Monastyrsky: ÒExactly!
having to work in a brewery in belongs to largely hostile new stage of perception ... Quite a number of texts about
the mid-1970s (Havel, Open strangers who consistently constitutes a pause. While it is a our Actions were composed by
Letters [London: Faber and exploit their advantages of necessary stage in the process both spectators and organizers,
Faber, 1991], 173Ð4). The artist observation in order to gain of perception, it is by no means who were equally fond of writing
Vladim’r Boudn’k (1924Ð68) advantage in the power struggle the event for the sake of which down what had really happened
worked in a print factory and within the communal all of this was arrangedÓ (ibid., Ð first Kabakov, followed by
declared, a good decade before apartment.Ó Boris Groys, ÒThe 336). Leiderman, and then by
Joseph Beuys did, that everyone Theatre of Authorship,Ó Ilya Bakshtein and others. They were
was an artist. He viewed his art Kabakov: Installations ÊÊÊÊÊÊ13 impelled to do so in order to
Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art

as having an educative mission: 1983Ð2000, Catalogue RaisonnŽ Ibid., 333. compensate for the impossibility
he produced work in the streets Vol. 1, ed. Toni Stoos of commenting on and
(late 1940sÐ50s), finding images (Kunstmuseum Bern: Richter ÊÊÊÊÊÊ14 interpreting the Actions as they
in peeling paint and stains on Verlag, 2003), 40. Andrei Monastyrsky, ÒSeven occurred.Ó Tupitsyn and
walls, occasionally adding to Photographs,Ó trans. Yelena Monastyrsky, unpublished
them, and framing them (for ÊÊÊÊÊÊ8 Kalinsky, available at interview, 1997, archive of Exit
example with paper), before According to an interview with http://conceptualism.letov.r u Art, New York.
encouraging passers-by to Monastyrsky in Flash Art (last accessed July 23, 2009).
converse with him about their (October 2005): 114. The initial ÊÊÊÊÊÊ22
meaning. See Vladim’r Boudn’k group consisted of Nikia ÊÊÊÊÊÊ15 English translations of the works
(Prague: Gallery, 2004). M’lan Alekseev, Georgii Kizevalter, Ibid. and photo-documentation can
Kn’ž‡k was aware of Boudn’kÕs Andrei Monastyrsky, and Nikolai be found at
e-flux journal #29 Ñ november 2011 Ê Claire Bishop

work, and some of his early Panitkov, later joined by Igor ÊÊÊÊÊÊ16 http://conceptualism.letov.r u
actions make reference to Makarevich, Elena Elagina, and Ibid. (last accessed July 23, 2009).
everyday workers. For example, Sergei Romashko. On the literary
Anonymous (1965) involved aspects of Moscow ÊÊÊÊÊÊ17 ÊÊÊÊÊÊ23
scattering the following script in Conceptualism, Kabakov has This, reports Kabakov, was Groys, ÒCommunist Conceptual
the street: Ò1. A HAPPENING for noted the central role of the unusual in setting up a Art,Ó in Groys, Total
street-sweepers and janitors. 2. Russian literary tradition of the particular experience of Enlightenment: Conceptual Art in
ENVIRONMENT for pedestrians. nineteenth century: ÒLiterature expectation: Òone was going Moscow 1960-1990 (Frankfurt:
3. DELIGHT for the creator, took upon itself all moral, there with the idea of Schirn Kunsthalle/Hatje Cantz,
resulting from the action.Ó See philosophical, pedagogical, and participation, and one was 2008), 33.
Milan Kn’ž‡k, Actions For Which enlightening functions, wondering what would happenÓ
at Least Some Documentation concentrating them all in itself (Ilya Kabakov, ÒTen ÊÊÊÊÊÊ24
Remains, 1962Ð1995 (Prague: and not simultaneously in the Appearances,Ó in Kollektivnye Groys, in Claire Bishop and Boris
Gallery, 2000), 73. plastic arts, which did happen in deistviya, Poezdki za gorod Groys, ÒBring the Noise,Ó Tate
the West.Ó Kabakov, ÒOn the [Moskva: Ad marginem, 1998], Etc. (Summer 2009): 38.
ÊÊÊÊÊÊ4 Subject of the Local Language,Ó 151. Trans. Anya Pantuyeva.)
The socialist calendar in in Kabakov, Das Leben Der ÊÊÊÊÊÊ25
Slovakia, for example, included Fliegen (Berlin: Edition Cantz, ÊÊÊÊÊÊ18 Tupitsyn and Monastyrsky,
organized mass parades for 1992), 237. Ibid., 151Ð2. unpublished interview, 1997,
Victorious February (February archive of Exit Art, New York.
25), International WomenÕs Day ÊÊÊÊÊÊ9 ÊÊÊÊÊÊ19 However, itÕs worth noting that
(March 8), International Viktor Misiano, ÒSolidarity: Andrey Monastyrsky, ÒTen Monastyrsky goes on to assert
WorkersÕs Day (May 1), Liberation Collective and Collectiveness in AppearancesÓ (1981), reprinted (contra Groys) that CAG sought
Day (May 9), International Contemporary Russian Art,Ó in in Participation, ed. Claire to erase the distinction between
ChildrenÕs Day (June 1), WHW, Collective Creativity Bishop (London: Whitechapel work of art and spectator and
Nationalization (October 28), and (Kassel: Fridericianum, 2005), and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, with it the critical distance that
the Great October Socialist 185. 2006), 129. might constitute the political:
Revolution (November 7). See
Mira Keratova, ÒVivez sans ÊÊÊÊÊÊ10 ÊÊÊÊÊÊ20 ÊÊÊÊÊÊÒTake our Ôempty action,Õ in
temps mort,Ó Transforming 68/89 It should be noted that CAG also This is what I understand him to which we purposely directed
(Berlin: Zentrum fŸr designed actions for individuals mean by the following dense spectatorsÕs attention to what is
Zeithistorische Forschung, or pairs; for example, For N sentence: ÒThe fact that of the nonsensical and just plain
2008), 528Ð37. For the Yugoslav Panitkov (Three Darknesses), ten possible appearances only unnecessary to look at: the wall
context, see Branislav 1980; For G Kizevalter (Slogan- eight, and not all ten, came to of trees, the state of the
Jakovljevic, ÒBalkan Baroque: 1980), 1980; The Encounter, pass, represents in our view not weather, the clouds drifting by,
Yugoslav Gestural Culture and 1981; For N Alekseev, 1981. It a failing of the action but, on the or the empty time of the

11.14.11 / 19:04:03 EST

spectators, which theyÕre ÊÊÊÊÊÊ31
spending idly, privately, before See for example the interview
who knows what. The opposition with Joseph Beuys undertaken
between ÔspectatorÕ and Òwork by two Russians, V. Bakchahyan
of artÓ was placed under and A. Ur, in the samizdat
erasure, that rigid opposition magazine A-YA at the time of
which left none of the distance BeuysÕs Guggenheim
that would have allowed artists retrospective. Their questions
to engage seriously in the make explicit their wariness of

political sphere.Ó art having anything to do with
social change, since the work of
ÊÊÊÊÊÊWe can read this two ways. the avant-garde post-1917 was
Firstly, the idea of ÒpoliticalÓ art so flagrantly co-opted by
for this generation, as with political officials to be a
Czech and Slovak artists of the harbinger of communism: ÒOur
1970s, is generally not viewed as Russian experience shows that
desirable as a result of their to flirt with politics is dangerous
daily experience of a Soviet for an artist ... ArenÕt you afraid
ideology overdetermining all that the artist whoÕs inside you is
artistic meaning. (Groys again: being conquered by the
ÒWhen looking at a painting, politician?Ó (V. Backchahyan and
normal Soviet viewers quite A. Ur, ÒJoseph Beuys: Art and
automatically, without ever Politics,Ó A-YA 2 [1980]: 54Ð5).
having heard of Art and
Language, saw this painting
inherently replaced by its
possible ideological-political-
philos ophical commentary, and
they took only this commentary
into account when assessing the
painting in question Ð as Soviet,
half-Soviet, non-Soviet, anti-
Soviet, and so on.Ó See Groys,
ÒCommunist Conceptual Art,Ó
31.) Secondly, although the
participatory event could be
argued to foreclose the distance
between viewer and work of art,
in reality this was complicated
by a number of spectatorial
models (ten participants
watched by twenty others, etc.)
and reinstated by the textual
Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art

analyses that ensued from these

experiences in the subsequent

The snowy fields have variously
been compared to MalevichÕs
White Paintings and the white
pages of KabakovÕs albums. It is
worth noting that CAG was not
the first to use white fields as
the site for art: Francisco Infante
e-flux journal #29 Ñ november 2011 Ê Claire Bishop

had also deployed the field as a

backdrop for photo-
conceptualist works in the late
1960s, such as Dedication
(1969), a Malevich-style
constructivist composition made
of coloured papers on white

Sergei Sitar, ÒFour Slogans of
ÔCollective Actions,ÕÓ Third Text
17:4 (2003): 364.

Tupitsyn and Monastyrsky,
unpublished interview, 1997,
archive of Exit Art, New York.

Cited in ÒSerebrianyi Dvorets,Ó a
conversation between Ilya
Kabakov and Victor Tupitsyn,
Khudozhestvennyi Zhurnal No.
42 (2002): 10Ð14. Cited in Viktor
Tupitsyn, The Museological
Unconscious: Communal (Post-
)Modernism in Russia
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
2009), 70.

Kabakov, ÒTen Appearances,Ó
154. Translated by Anya

11.14.11 / 19:04:03 EST