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Dance of Immortality

Виктор Белозеров
Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019). Collage: Viktor Belozerov

Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019). Collage: Viktor Belozerov

From February 8 to April 3, an exhibition “Anton Vidokle. Citizens of the Cosmos” opens in the space of the New Tretyakov Gallery, dedicated to the study of the influence of cosmism on the 20th century. On February 13 within the framework of the program “Мне не нравится, что я смертен. Часть 1”, one of Anton Vidokle’s recent projects called “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019) will be shown. “Citizens of the Cosmos” is a visualization of the manifesto of biocosmism written by Alexander Svyatogor: the dead are resurrected and the dance of immortality begins. On the eve of the screening, I had the opportunity to talk with Anton Vidokle, asking him in detail about the creation of this film and cosmism in Japan.

Many thanks to Anton Vidokle for his detailed and incredibly quick answers, as well as to Nika Komarova for the opportunity and organization of the conversation with Anton.

Мне не нравится, что я смертен” — two film programs with free screenings

Антон Видокле. Граждане космоса” — about the exhibition and educational program

Interview with Anton Vidokle

Anton Vidokle. Photo: Shamil Hasanzanov (@shamilxasan)

Anton Vidokle. Photo: Shamil Hasanzanov (@shamilxasan)

Gendai Eye: I’ll start with the simplest and most obvious question: why did Japan appear in “Citizens of the Cosmos”, what is the role of its inhabitants and landscape in this project?

Anton Vidokle: It started with an invitation from a small art center in Tokyo to do an exhibition of my work. They have seen a film of mine in an exhibition is Okayama and approached me about doing something in Tokyo. This space is called "Asakusa", named after a neighborhood it is located in. It’s an interesting area: before WW2 it was famous for its theaters and nightlife and was rather bohemian: a lot of Japanese avant-garde artists and poets used to spend time there. It’s also a very mercantile area with a myriad of small shops and restaurants. There are very many temples, cemeteries and crematories and a peculiar type of local tourism where young people dress up in traditional Japanese clothes just to walk on the street as a kind of a casual reenactment of pre-modern japan, or cosplay. The gallery space itself is really tiny, I think only 40 square meters. It’s located in a maze of small houses that were built spontaneously right after the war, made from scrap materials and without any urban planning. Some of them are placed so close to each other that the street is barely wide enough for passage. People live so close to each other and walls are so thin that whole city blocks are like giant communal apartments. Basically, this place is like a huge film or a theater set.

When I saw this context, my proposal for Koichiro Osaka and Mariko Mikami, who run Asakusa, was to shoot a new film in this neighborhood, rather than to focus on more of an exhibition type project. They liked the idea and applied for some funding from the Municipality of Tokyo. Shortly before all this, at e-flux we translated and published Alexander Svyatogor’s Biocosmist manifesto called “Our Affirmations” for a book on cosmism edited by Boris Groys. I fell in love with this text: while he proposes similar ideas to Fedorov, the declarative language of 1920s futurist poetry and a rejection of religious bases for a kind of a new ethics also reminded me of some manifestos from that period from Asia. So I started imagining how these words would resonate on the streets of Asakusa. I also have heard from Anastasia Gacheva that there were some Japanese cosmists and actually, when I first heard the word “biocosmism”, for some strange reason I thought it sounded Japanese.

When I started researching the history of cosmism in Japan, it turned out that one of the first translation of Fedorov’s writings into a foreign language was in Japan and during the war. A Japanese scholar named Saburo Shimano, who was working in Manchuria during the war, came across these ideas in Harbin, which had a huge Russian emigree community. He translated Fedorov and published a book in Tokyo in 1943. There is also a bit of a strange family connection: my grandfather died in Manchuria in 1930s. He was a pilot in the Red Army and was shot down during the battle of Khalkhin Gol. So I was always very interested in this part of the world.

Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019). Dancer Akiyoshi Nita (top frame) and translator Rie Sakai (bottom frame)

Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019). Dancer Akiyoshi Nita (top frame) and translator Rie Sakai (bottom frame)

GE: What did the participants of your project think/understand about cosmism? How did you organize your work with volunteers and how did you explain “cosmism” to them?

АV: There were quite a few people working on this project, with very different backgrounds. Some were Slavist scholars who helped translate Svyatogor’s text. They were very knowledgeable about Russian literature and were familiar with cosmism. There were also many young artists, curators, architects and designers who knew about my work, but nothing about cosmism. There were also people we found accidentally: for example, the owner of an old traditional house we rented for one of the scenes turned out to be an amateur Noh actor. His father was a professional actor and he learned certain vocal techniques by imitating him. So I invited him to act in the film. Or, while filming a scene in a small bamboo forest, we encountered an older man who was standing alone on a small bridge over a brook and singing at the top of his lungs. He sung very badly, totally off key, and explained that his family asked him not to sing in their house because it was so terrible, which is why he went to sing in this forest. We also invited him to participate in the film. The dancer, Akiyoshi Nita, who has one of the main roles in the film was initially hired just to be a translator, but then I saw some recording of his performances and was really amazed by his movements. The main female character, Rie Sakai, is a professional translator for business contracts and speaks Russian without accent.

There were also some more formal educational situations: we organized several public lectures and workshops on cosmism prior to the production, in order to explain the ideas, we were working with and to see how people reacted to them, and also to find more people who would be interested to act in the film. This worked quite well and a lot of the audience from the lectures later came to the auditions for the film.

GE: What is there in your idea of Japan that would be partly consonant with cosmism? Can cosmism lay claim to national models and their modifications?

АV: I think the main connection is related to animism. Fedorov’s main goal, beyond resurrection and immortality, is to animate and spiritualize the universe, to transform it into one, interconnected, conscious organism. He thought that because humans and animals have the faculty of consciousnes, we have an obligation to share it with all the dead, inorganic matter of the universe. Taken literally this means teaching stones, water, or molecules of air to perceive, to think, to feel.

Japanese cosmology is deeply animist. It’s one of the very few countries in the contemporary world where animism was not hunted down and exterminated as something savage and irrational, but was integrated in a technophilic and modern culture. It’s really unusual. For example, in Tokyo there is a temple where there is a ceremony to “retire” old or broken sewing needles. During this ceremony they are put to rest inside a piece of tofu, so as to make them comfortable. A certain “personality” is transferred onto these objects and a relationship with them becomes possible. It’s interesting.

But there are also huge differences in world views. For example, ideas of immortality and resurrection, that are so central to Christian societies and to cosmism — these are quite foreign because Japanese tradition is largely Buddhist, where the idea of reincarnation is central. And reincarnation is incompatible with immortality.

Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019)

Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019)

GE: What has changed during your work on the visualization of texts, converting them into film material, including in “Citizens of the Cosmos”, where the manifesto takes on a voice and image?

АV: I think one of the changes in my approach was that when I realized that singing, dancing and role playing is so natural and enjoyable for so many people in Japan, my approach to the film became lighter and more playful. It’s almost a musical compared to the trilogy I shot in Russia. Many of the scenes are borderline silly, like the skeleton dance. I am not sure I would have staged them if I was shooting this in Archangelsk. But I don’t know… Some things I shot here are kind of playful too.

GE: I was interested to ask you about the role of language in “Citizens of the Cosmos”. On the one hand, you wanted to go beyond the limits of the Russian language, which is why Japanese language arises. On the other hand, we still need subtitles to match what we hear with what is the text of the manifesto in the original. How do you feel about this ratio, does it limit us?

АV: Yes sure, to be honest at some point I got really tired of the “Russianness” of Russian cosmism. Both in terms of how deeply it’s rooted in Slavic and Russian traditions and history, but also how my films were perceived as something primarily Russian: a heavy, dark mystery wrapped in an enigma, or whatever the cliché is. It started feeling like a limitation. So I really welcomed a kind of a departure and an opportunity to see if these ideas make sense if I take them out of the landscape, language and culture of Russia. Cosmism is supposed to be universal: it’s immortality for all. So why not in Japan?

Now that I made several films in languages other than Russia, I notice that something does get lost in translation. I am not totally sure how to articulate this yet, because it’s something subtle. It’s like there is something to the sonic resonance of the Russian language, its etymology and root structure in terms of how meaning is constructed, and also the landscape: it could be that some substance is lost in translation when I work elsewhere. So I really want to make more films here.

Yes, in the Japanese film the sad thing is that one of the most important scenes—the demonstration against death that we staged— unfortunately is lost on people who don’t speak Japanese and cannot read the slogans on banners that people are carrying. The slogans are quotes from Svyatogor, Fedorov and other cosmist writers. They are very strong words. We almost got arrested because we did not have a permit for a demonstration, only for filming, and the police saw this as a real demonstration.

Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019). Demonstration

Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019). Demonstration

GE: I can’t help but pay attention to the musical component of this project, how was your collaboration with Alva Noto? What role do you assign to music in the composition of your film?

АV: I have been working with Carsten Nicolai for many years. We first met in New York around year 2000 and became friends. I didn’t really engage with his music until I started making films. Before that I was more familiar with his visual works.

I first asked him to help me when I was making the first film in the cosmist trilogy and wanted to use a recording by John Cale. It’s a very minimal, drone type piece from 1965 called "Sun Blindness Music". It’s very beautiful and saved this film in a way: I worked on it for a couple of years and could not finish the edit without this music. It’s like the music connected all the different elements and made it a film. But I was nervous that because I don’t have much knowledge of experimental music, I was doing something barbaric to John Cale’s work. So I asked Carsten to mix it for the film. He also mixed music for the other films in the trilogy and for Citizens of the Cosmos he decided to write some original sound.

Actually, before I wrote the script for Citizens of the Cosmos, Carsten and I did a music performance in Berlin at HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) in 2017. In this performance he improvised sound and made a very beautiful abstract pattern that was projected behind the stage. He asked me to read some of Svyatogor’s text from the stage and invited Dorit Chrysler to play theremin and sing. We joked that it was a kind of an opera and called it “Victory over Death”. Some of the sound from the performance ended up in the film.

GE: From a musical point of view, I was also interested in the moment associated with the use of theremin and matryomin [1]. Here, the Russian-Japanese theme seems to be combined, and on the other hand, the instrument correlates eventually with the 1920s. Not to mention that in the episode with the crematorium, the instrument seems to imitate the church choir. How did you come up with the idea of using these instruments and inviting Masami Takeuchi, the creator of the matryomin and one of the central musicians and popularizer of the theremin in Japan, to participate in your project?

АV: I think I found out about Masami Takeuchii accidentally. After the performance with Carsten and Dorit in Berlin, I was looking at various things related to Theremin online and came across the giant theremin orchestra that Masami Takeuchi assembled and conducted for the performance that is in the Guinness book of World Records: 289 theremin players performing together in a concert hall. This was visually stunning, but also during the first few seconds before they start playing, when they test and synchronize their instruments, the sound is incredible: it sounds like… cosmos.

I asked Dorit Chrysler if she happened to know Masami Takeuchi, because the community of theremin players is small, and by chance she did know him and gave me his contacts. He did not reply immediately because he recently had a stroke and was very ill, but we did manage to connect and he agreed to take part in the film. The idea of using statoscopes in the film also came from him and his matryomin instrument.

There is a lot of other experimental electronic music from Japan in the film. In 1950s and 60s there was a really amazing music scene there with remarkable musicians. Very eclectic and radical.

Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019). Masami Takeuchi and Matryomin Orchestra

Stills from “Citizens of the Cosmos” (2019). Masami Takeuchi and Matryomin Orchestra

GE: I quite often see that you take part in various group exhibitions in Japan. Could you please tell me, during all this time, what did you take away from the experience of being there and what do you think the Japanese audience finds in your projects?

АV: To be honest I have no idea. I am very drawn to Japan, but I am not totally sure why. On the other hand, Japan has some of the biggest audiences for Russian Avant-garde. It“s more popular there than just about anywhere else. They love the Black Square and all that. I suspect it”s more appreciated in Japan than it is in Russia. This could have something with the Japanese graphical sensibility: for example, I came across certain medieval flags and banners from Japan that look completely supremacist and abstract, but are from 15th or 16th century.

GE: What role do you assign yourself in your conquest of knowledge about cosmism? Are you a cosmist heritage researcher who uses the art form of cinema as a way to explore and realize knowledge? Or is it more priority for you to act as an adept, to continue their work? Both options?

АV: I don’t think that I am a cosmist myself. I think about and research cosmism, but my goal is to make films, translate and disseminate these ideas rather than to reorganize society to achieve immortality or resurrect dead people. For me cosmism is something that really stimulates my imagination, produces new ideas and images.

GE: In Japan, there is a slightly different attitude to death, to the formation of the cult of ancestors, their desire to be a part of everything and at the same time detachment and isolation within themselves. What did you manage to understand about death/immortality in Japan while you were working on this project?

АV: Yes, sure, the ancestor worship is an important part of Shintoism and also is important in many Buddhist countries. There is a whole economy attached to it: basically, the dead ancestors have needs in the Netherworld and you have to provide for them: send them food, money, various objects by way of burning effigies. This is a very ancient ritual and I came across similar rituals in Mesopotamian religions. At the same time there is the idea of reincarnation and multitudes of lives in different forms to experience all the facets of being. It’s not totally clear to me how these two ideas coexist: on the one hand you have to provide for your ancestors perpetually, on the other — they may have already been reborn as something or someone else. But religious beliefs are often paradoxical.

I am not totally sure that the relationship to death is all that different in Japan. The rituals are different and people can be outwardly less dramatic in how they manifest grief and loss. But this does not mean they feel it any less.

GE: What awaits a human being after immortality?

АV: According to Fedorov, what comes next is an eternity of creative labor. It’s that project of animation and spiritualization of the universe that I mentioned earlier, which he specifically calls an art project. So maybe after immortality, everyone becomes an artist.


[1] Matryomin is a musical instrument created by Masami Takeuchi based on the theremin and matryoshka in 1999.

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