Gazprom’s PR office has pulled off another coup: information has circulated that the Okhta Center [Gazprom City] will house a museum of contemporary art. The message is clear: our corporation is progressive and its programs are progressive and modern, while the people who protest against the construction project of the century are retrogrades who cherish only what is covered in dust and mold. But do contemporary artists need such a museum? Can cutting-edge art be herded into a museum? ZAKS.Ru correspondent Anna Danilevskaya put these questions to well-known Petersburg artist Dmitry Vilensky, a member of the Chto Delat art group.
ZAKS.Ru: Dmitry, how do you relate in general to the idea of Okhta Center?
DV: A lot of awful things have now been built in the city. For the first time since the art nouveau period, in the early part of the twentieth century, the conscious production of a new, extremist capitalist environment is taking place, an environment of consumption, displacement, control, and entertainment. This is a unique historical moment. The question is when this will make people disgusted. For the time being, it would seem, a general atmosphere of rapture holds sway, and the population has delegated to the new bourgeoisie the right to treat the city in accord with its own notions of space. At first this was done more or less bashfully: all those crappy imitations of classical Petersburg and the shopping malls in the outskirts. But the Gazprom tower is a full-on manifestation of the power of capital in the city’s public space. Because it is not Matvienko who is in charge nowadays (you can easily imagine anyone whomsoever in her place). It is capitalism that rules, and imagining life without it is the really serious challenge. In my view, all the conservationist slogans (“We won’t let them ruin our city’s classical look!”) are uninteresting. It will be good if they lead to a total understanding that all this capitalist development is a waste, and our society proves capable of formulating an alternative program of development. But this isn’t happening yet, and I think that Gazprom’s insolence is an excellent provocation that finally shows the most convinced liberals what the power of capital really means.
DV: To a degree. I’d like to hope that this will set off not merely the radicalization of the moderate intelligentsia, but also cause them to give serious thought about how space is produced in general. This theme isn’t present in how class and society are analyzed in Russia. Besides knowledge, here you also need a will to resistance. Think about Gazprom’s stubbornness. It’s hard to write it off as mere economics: it would be cheaper and easier for them to build in the suburbs. I see this rather as the corporation’s fight for its symbolic representation. Society has been thrown the gauntlet. Unfortunately, however, it is not yet capable of accepting the challenge. Although the protest movement that has emerged in Petersburg is trying to articulate itself. This is an important stage.
ZAKS.Ru: The provocation has worked, then?
DV: In part. While the opposition thinks in terms of conservation, not development, then it’s a dead end. It will certainly lose. I see the city as a living being that must grow and evolve. It has to be built up and torn down: this is a completely natural process. But there should be a vision of “common” space, a space where every citizen can feel he is meant to be there, a space where he’s equal. Society needs the democratic space of the square, of the agora, rather than the phallus, a symbol of the corporate power vertical.
ZAKS.Ru: So do the current protests have any point or not?
DV: The protests are important since they help civil society articulate its own values. A variety of tactics really are necessary, but in conditions where the public sphere has been totally destroyed it is rather difficult to elaborate such tactics. Look at what’s been happening in Moscow: even in the nineties, when the public sphere still existed in reality, Tsereteli was able to erect his most offensive monuments. And to this day downtown Moscow is being destroyed on a scale that isn’t commensurable with Petersburg. I don’t have any easy answers: this age of reaction really does deprive society of the collective ability to imagine other forms of governance and space. But reaction gives way to a different time: it is important to get ready for its advent.
ZAKS.Ru: Let’s change subjects a bit and talk about the fortunes of the contemporary art museum. Do you think that Petersburg needs this museum?
DV: That’s a complicated question. To answer it, first we need to figure some things out. What is “contemporary art”? What is a museum? What is its mission? As you’ll recall, museums as a cultural phenomenon appeared during the era of the French Revolution. It was an Enlightenment project, a bourgeois project. The museum is a product of the Enlightenment-era bourgeois mindset. Is today’s Russian bourgeoisie a new enlightened class? Compared to alcoholic Russian villagers or migrant workers, yes, it is. Historically speaking, though, it’s obviously not. The intellectual and political resources of our new bourgeois are too shallow, too limited, and, most importantly, too egoistic. It’s hard to imagine they’re capable of giving serious thought to notions of enlightenment. So if a museum is housed in Okhta Center, its function will be little different from the zoo, waterpark, and other accessible entertainment venues that are also being planned there.
ZAKS.Ru: But as an ambitious contemporary artist, don’t you want to see your own works exhibited in a museum?
DV: The hackneyed opinion that the museum is dead has some basis in fact, you see. Yes, the museum has died because the concept of enlightenment (meaning, the division of intellectual and political liberation) can hardly be re-invoked anymore. Nowadays, art’s political, emancipatory function (to which I relate my own work and the activity of our group, Chto Delat) happens outside the museum. The classical museum is still important as a site for conserving past aesthetic experience. But the contemporary museum has to a great degree already turned into Disneyland and as such doesn’t interest me.
ZAKS.Ru: Let’s assume that the museum in Okhta Center will be ideal in all respects: accessible, independent, educational, etc. Wouldn’t this mean that the tower’s opponents are also opposing the museum, which is a noble, progressive undertaking?
DV: It’s hard to even imagine such a thing. But it’s an old trap, tried and true. Like, let’s start a campaign to build an orphanage, but then we’ll build on twenty condos, an underground parking garage, a hypermarket, and an office complex. It’s clear that the orphanage is here a means to an end. This is the big con game we have to resist.
—“Dmitry Vilensky: Gazprom’s Insolence Is an Excellent Provocation,” ZAKS.Ru 6 September 2007 (translated by Our Swimmer)