The Russian collective Chto Delat? (What is to be Done?) have been working prolifically since 2003, publishing a regular newspaper, embarking on protests and producing videos, installations, as well as public protests, debates, talks and screenings. Their undeviating mission is to merge politics, art, philosophy, social research and activism, advancing an unflinching leftist agenda on cultural, social and economic issues. They call themselves a‘platform’ rather than a collective, and the term is perhaps more accurate, given their interdisciplinary approach. This show was put together by the joined forces of members from various areas of art, activism and research, namely, Tsaplya (Olga Egorova), Nikolay Oleynikov, Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), Nina Gasteva, Vladan Jeremic/Rena Rädle and Dmitry Vilensky.
The Urgent Need to Struggle couldn’t be a more appropriate show for the ICA. It is exactly the kind of gambit for which they have become known. Certainly not shy of political hyperbole, slogans and appropriated phrases from Godard and Brecht adorning the walls, the exhibition is pitched as a call to arms and is powered along by a dialect of radical political utopia.
The exhibition centers around a series of videos, including the short film, ‘The Tower: A Songspiel’ which examines one of the group’s current concerns – the pushing through of Gazprom’s skyscraper in St Petersberg, strongly opposed by locals. Their rousing and anti-establishmentarian language and subversion of conventional artistic forms, such as musical theatre and documentary film, is perfectly pitched at the ICA’s preternaturally discerning young crowd. It’s certainly a timely show, too, given the contentious art government stand-off that is currently unfolding in the UK. But it’s not an instructive one. To unpack the full meaning of this exhibition, you really need to be up to date on your Russian politics, and to have a good deal of patience – there’s nearing 2 hours of video material. It’s a densely political show and fairly indigestible in one visit. The message Chto Delat? impart is revolutionary, and their demands on the visitor are somewhat overwhelming. As the Chto Delat newspaper unveils, this is precisely their pivot:
‘’Contemporary art as produced as a commodity form or form of entertainment and not art. It is the conveyor-belt manufacture of counterfeits and narcotics for the enjoyment of a ‘creative class’ sated with novelty. One of our most vital tasks today is unmasking the current system of idelological [sic] control and manipulation of people. The pseudo-creativity of this system is no more than the commodification not only of the fruits of their labour, but of all forms of life.’’
Dissent, activism and resistance are all powerfully conveyed, but I still felt outside the action on leaving the exhibition. It did make me think, though, that is is high time art got political again.
-- Charlotte Jansen, a writer living in London
All images courtesy the Institute of Contemporary Arts
Images: Chto delat?, Perestroika Songspiel, 2009, Film still from film.; Chto delat? The Urgent Need to Struggle, 2010, Installation shot, ICA, Photographer: Steve White