Letters on Institutional Vanity and Amnesia

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22:00, 21 ноября 2020
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Pavel Arseniev is an artist, poet and theorist, editor-in-chief of the literary/theoretical journal [Translit] and one of the initiators of the Street University, an educational self-organization that existed in St. Petersburg for several years and operated directly within the city environment.

As part of the project “Political Dimensions of Cultural Praxis and Knowledge Production,” we are publishing his critical (auto)ethnographic notes, in which he constructs his own mental map of communities and non-institutional spaces that existed and continue to exist in St. Petersburg, and attempts to decipher their history and everyday life.

Read more about the project — https://syg.ma/@sygma/political-dimensions-of-cultural-praxis-and-knowledge-production

Текст на русском можно найти по ссылке — https://syg.ma/@sygma/pisma-ob-institutsionalnoi-tshchietie-i-amniezii


The first letter, poorly recorded and hardly preserved, remains silent about the events that led to the beginning of these notes.

At that time we lived right between a gay brothel and a children’s art studio.

Position of the relay: a trusted person of a documentary filmmaker begins dating one of the characters.

And then, it starts to carry me even further away from ourselves, the old-fashioned ones.

It is necessary, however, to proceed from the hypothesis on the possibility of communism and love, just as it is necessary “not to evaluate experience”, but to be grammatically in the subjunctive mood. This, however, should not be utilised too often.

Is not every avant-garde “method” a step from parole liberta to rhetorics?

And then I will sell your letters and your contempt will finally have its foundation.

It is necessary, however, to mention the addressee. His companion reflects on the position in which this letter puts her. And therefore, she does not write. We will leave this right to her (but we will not force on her the obligation to remain silent). It is enough that it is thanks to her that this speech is unfolding.

Since a letter never precedes personal contact or even a mode of being-together when walking (it is in fact only a mourning for them), these letters also begin with a walk that either followed or preceded awakening.


Pavel Arseniev's drawn map from the “Revision: Places and Communities” exhibition. New Holland, 2018

Pavel Arseniev's drawn map from the “Revision: Places and Communities” exhibition. New Holland, 2018

0. Revision of the mind map

Editing my own words, spoken into a dictaphone and transcribed selectively and in a slightly arbitrary order, I first set myself the task of restoring to these words their chronological sequence and the logic of their presentation. It soon becomes clear, however, that this process is dragging me further and further beyond the framework of preparing the text for the exhibition [1].

2005-2007: mapping

In search of a place — preferably a quiet one — for an interview, I suggest Solyany Lane, where the construction of the cultural movement at the turn of the 2000s-2010s once unfolded. A mind map of this movement will be drawn here. Such a map must be outlined in its chronological development, which is already inseparable from the personal history of exploring. Therefore, everything starts with Kanonersky Island, from where my independent — that is, independent from the routes technologically suggested for me — bike route ran. First to the university and, after a rather quickly developing disenchantment with it, to subsequently founding the journal [Translit] as “a mouthpiece of student dissatisfaction with philological education” [A] — then to 'Borey' [B], onwards to 'Pushkinskaya' [C] and finally into other traditional nodes of the mid-2000s’ artistic life.

The true meaning of the map unfolded via a number of different characters. It was only after meeting them that every secret margin of the map could finally be revealed. Arkady Trofimovich Dragomoshchenko [D] was one such figure, perhaps the only one who could bridge places like “Borey” with places like Smolny [E], where on Saturdays he held the seminar “Other Logics of Writing” (in his words, he didn’t so much “hold” it, but “went out for a smoke”). Or Ivan Dmitrievich Chechot [F], who crafted himself an even more ephemeral space, which included lectures in occasional galleries, a course on the history of art at the European University [G] and Studia Humanitatis Insterburgesis, held over summer in the castles of East Prussia. Such figures established a taste not only for connoisseurship or particular traditions and methodologies, but also for certain rhetorical and intonational gestures. According to the unofficial Leningrad tradition, these figures principally did not have any schedule, nor were there any announcements on websites or even on the web-site per se. One could find out about the next meeting only by having been to one before or by personal invitation, after which it was not only impolite not to appear, but logistically fatal as there would have been no chance to learn about upcoming meetings. This period of increasing derailment from the university, which is organically incomprehensible to the young who construct their subjectivity through the accumulation of prestigious institutions on their CV, is also the period, which increasingly coincides with the search for the elusive legend of the artistic map of St. Petersburg. It can therefore can be considered the first period that relates properly to the city.

2008-2013: applying one’s own markings

Actually, after all of this came into existence (or, more precisely, was obtained in an independent effort of discovery), there was no particular deficit and nothing demanding additional actions. The second period begins with the defense of the Street University [H] as a fundamental form after an attack on one of the elements of this self-assembled intellectual infrastructure. There was a transition from exploring the situation to the first experiments in changing it; from reading the map to the first attempts to put one’s own dots and other written signs on it. (Or, in any case, putting poetic inscriptions in unintended places, since the usual places one would intentionally inscribe — universities and magazines — were no longer perceived as poetic as such.)

And although the [Translit] magazine had already existed for a couple of years by that time, it was in 2008 that it also moved from studying the literary process blindfolded [2] to forming its own agenda — which was immediately announced to be a left one. As a result, at the commemorative presentation at the Pen Center [I], principled and hysterical criticism came from the liberal literary intelligentsia, who considered their monopoly on common political sense and good literary taste a natural and irrevocable privilege.

In the same year, the first form of collective artistic subjectivation, the Laboratory of Poetic Actionism [J], appeared, which, as is now becoming clear, was called upon to overcome the gravity of a larger astronomical body next to which it found itself, and, upon gaining the necessary acceleration, disintegrated. A need for a headquarters soon became pressing and in a year’s time a commune on Kuznechny Lane [K] become the site where a process of politicisation of artistic practice unfolded until 2013. Then, political defeat of that generation — something that should happen in one form or another with each generation — and at the same time its inevitable cultural institutionalisation became obvious. This period of exploring the map will end along with some seemingly indestructible alliances. That is why one will have to go beyond the margins of this map in what one could consider an educational and therapeutic emigration.

2014-2017: archiving

Upon returning a year later (which naturally determines the beginning of the third period), one has to proceed not so much with mapping as with archiving the history that was available at that time [3], as well as transferring experiences of, or the impulse towards, non-institutional activity to younger collectives. The domestic seminar “Pragmatics of Artistic Discourse” [L] becomes the theoretical core of the journal, while there is success in infecting the theatre collective 'Vokrug da okolo' [“Around and Near”] [M] with a passion for nomadic theatre and bringing it to the streets. With them, my own theoretical and artistic evolution. I manage to oscillate between and combine these two poles for quite a long time, participating in artistic excursions and scientific conferences on approximately the same days (I had to go to defend my master thesis the morning after one performance on a bridge, for example). Sometime at the end of this third period and the “second commune” [4], I again found myself pushed out of Petersburg by the exhaustion of the living world in approximately the same direction, which was always a place of exile and anticipation of historical events.

Pavel Arseniev's drawn map from the “Revision: Places and Communities” exhibition. New Holland, 2018

Pavel Arseniev's drawn map from the “Revision: Places and Communities” exhibition. New Holland, 2018


The second letter, which discusses the narrational distance which we are assigned when moving, researching and shooting a film

Only a week had passed since they became close, starting these walks or, what is the same, these letters. They sit again on the bedspread in this room and talk, having smoked a little. He continues his efforts to express his strange sense of narrational time and methodological homelessness that gripped him upon return to his hometown. After recent reproaches against him about the organisation of the museum, of the self, and the subsequent loss of stable space, he instinctively began to settle this museum in speech and in the distance to which he was now inevitably pushed not only geographically, but also grammatically. The tearing of ties with the environment, the interruption of production cycles provoked a memorial heresy, but on top of this, the research optics gradually acquired by him turned out to be the same irreversible operation on vision and habitus, which deprives one of a simple and intelligible sense of the moment (“here and now”, as one of his friends used to repeat). This operation allows us to consider any moment historically — that is, as already having passed — even if one has to occasionally return to it.

It was these aberrations of perspective, and not even the withdrawal syndrome that made him more sensitive to that film, which was shot as if about him by a familiar cineaste. It is not our era that is dull in itself, he always convinced himself, but rather that not enough dictaphones and cameras (of “foreign correspondents”) were pointed towards us. After all, the obvious intensity of movement and the fascination of a context have always been generated by the play of reflections of interested (kino-)eyes. It is they who give rise to the experience of the importance of what is happening and, in retrospect, really turn it into a great era as well as a lost one. The cultural revolution is, first of all, something that is well documented. Even in the Era of Stagnation [mostly, Brezhnev’s period 1964-82], so often recalled this summer, foreign correspondents were considered to be dangerous, not because they threatened to export and thus reveal some inconvenient details of what was happening in the wretched life of ordinary Soviet citizens: but, rather because they risked importing a sense of its importance.


1. Map legend: the palace of culture, the attic and other relics of the Soviet past

On the first of September I am going to a lecture, which I accidentally found amongst the announcements of an art historian around whom I spent a lot of time in my youth. Upon arrival it turns out that the lecture has been cancelled. The cancellation of a representative of the neoacademic community at the beginning of another academic year allows me instead to head to a self-made art center which has been inviting me for a long time, but to which the path has not yet led (despite for some time being strongly affiliated also with this circle of “left activism” [5]). Actually, the last time I was at the Krasnoye Znamya[“Red Banner”] factory, where this art center is now located, it had been in my capacity as a “protest artist”, the problematic of status of which I have felt more strongly ever since. At that time, almost ten years ago, we protested against the exhibition 'Space of Silence' [N]. Those who participated in the exhibition belonged to a certain extent to the left camp and published in our magazine; as artists, however, they were oriented towards painterly forms and avoided performative damping. It turns out that this was not a political front, but rather a genre disagreement over whether objects and installations or activist happenings and free seminars were needed in that former monument of constructivism.

Ultimately, one did not succeed in gentrifying the Krasnoye Znamya fabric, that was already at that time a rather depressing building, and it ended up in the hands of activists from the Rosa Luxemburg Cultural Centre [the literal translation is “Rosa Luxemburg Palace of Culture”, a reference to the club-houses in the Soviet Union] [O] as well as of a number of other tenants who had nothing to do with art. Paradoxically, it was the real estate market that produced the conditions under which the space was inherited and infused with revolutionary conversations.

Despite the fact that the Rosa Luxemburg Cultural Centre was conceived as a typical European art-activist space, the Soviet past of both the space and the name added to this project connotations that were not quite planned, or perhaps stronger than planned at the beginning. And this reinforced the already articulated sense of alienation from the local context. On the one hand, there seem to be a lot of familiar faces, and you know this aesthetics and rhetoric by heart, but on the other hand, a kind of shiver runs through the picture-sequence from time to time, and there is an eerie feeling of a provincial recreation center in the literal (or old) sense of the word — an institution with some kind of amateur self-made hobby circle, operating without a shadow of irony in relation to the Soviet experience. If there are so many enemies around, who are intensely ironic over this very experience and who disagree with it “purely stylistically”, then here, on the contrary, one can see an absolutely unconditional attachment to this style: some dusty corridors, photos of production leaders that turn out to be a conceptual part of the exhibition. In these corridors there are people in suit jackets who turn out to be old friends-poets and who immediately begin to explain that they found this jacket in the garbage, while on the walls there are slogans about “Soviet women” and something “for any season”.

All this gives rise to the feeling of oneiric travel back to Soviet times but with certain familiar faces inserted. Among the unfamiliar students there is a PR director of a large cultural platform experiencing a lack of community and a poet, who once used to burst out laughing at the mention of “left art”. They were stationed here, as the German army in 1944. When there was a recruitment for this School, I received an invitation from Tsaplya [an artist and a member of the Chto Delat? collective] to join albeit with an undefined status. As an Apprentice? A Master? Not quite expecting this opposition from myself, I then answered: “Why go to School if we have already organised a University ourselves?”

Althusser once said that “any class struggle can sometimes be reduced to a struggle for the word or against the word. Some words fight with each other, like enemies, others retain ambiguity”[6]. Perhaps it is precisely this ideological ambiguity that some words retain, provoking sarcasm in some while for others these words signal the possibility of joining the tradition of their use and continuing it under different conditions. For example, behind the words ‘Palace of Culture', “Red Banner”, “Soviet women”, hide a lot of different things: unreflected everyday practices, gestures and manners which constitute primary objects of interest for the ethnographer of literary and artistic everyday life.

If, however, the struggle unfolding between words was obvious from the perspective of France in the 1960s the sharpness of these optics significantly decreased, sometimes leading to the complete indistinguishability of the front line — above all discursively. Many of those who lived, unlike Althusser, in the epicentre or in the ruins of a Socialist experiment made it possible to suspend the negative prefix:

— Soviet? No, you are wrong!
— Well, anti-Soviet then. What“s the difference?”[7].

The next morning I share my impressions of my visit to the he Rosa Luxemburg Cultural Centre with a friend using a messenging app I ended up using only to communicate with him:


The Andrei Bely Center or [ABCenter][P] also comes from that era, but is from the disgraced dissident tradition: attics, foreign diplomats, planted manuscripts :)

Petersburg is mired in an unconscious reenactment-acting out of “this legendary era”, at least at the level of designing everyday life: try to look at what we are dealing with from the outside: a palace of culture with activists and an attic with dissidents :)


ABCentre, of ​​course, looked as if it was from the 1970s. I haven’t been there for several years. It now lives in my head like its been completely overgrown with cobwebs, etc.


I left both places, the ABCentre later, and in the Rosa Luxemburg Cultural Centre the renovations never end by definition :)

But my very “quit it” also comes from “this legendary summer”, although it may seem like an interweaving of intrigues to you


more like an operational-tactical unweaving

but, mind you, it is still better than the New Holland [a new cultural centre located on the island under the same name in Saint Petersburg].


well, what do you think: that I am campaigning for new friends against old ones? :) Perhaps there is such an impression and the point is obvious in my nascent geo-epistemological distance, that is sometimes mixed with forgetting: new people, institutional amnesia. We didn’t make a chrono map in due time, but New Holland did at this festival — with the aid of friends. Sadly, it turned out to be the most effective force, crushing the ATD tradition [The tradition of writing, inherited from Arkady Trofimovich Dragomoshchenko and unofficial Leningrad poetry] and now mastering the 2000s.


The third letter, in which it is decided to exchange letters and how these have received their initial name

Once again, finding themselves on the bedspread in the middle of the room, they begin to talk about times and figures already referred — by “life itself” — but now with the necessary narrational distance. He no longer simply sees someone by whose speech he was once fascinated, even seduced. Perhaps the main thing that attracted him to this figure and other sources of voice was their own fascination with their speech. Maybe this should be called “the skill of loving-oneself-speaking”, which he inherited from them despite all the puzzling differences in views and posture. Even a little earlier he would have said that this passion (which even earlier would have seemed to him obscene) is developed by practice and by being in a certain environment. But now his hypothesis is that it is of a more embodied nature: simply motor skills, movements of the muscles of the articulatory apparatus; a “tongue without bones” makes speech an erotic organ.

For a somewhat related reason, he is convinced that a letter [or writing — which is the same word, pismo, in Russian] must exist between him and her, otherwise the relationship will end before it has begun. This letter can be understood as abstractly as one likes, but he himself would prefer writing in the most material sense of the word. Letters about institutional futility and amnesia, which has become his obsession and a frequent subject of their conversations. He admits that he misses this out-of-fashion genre adopted by the likes of Diderot and Shklovsky.

In the end, written and the oral minds are not self-sufficient separately, but must work in collaboration: one is to be able to fix, hook, the other –– to let go of it as a bearer of a coincidence. This hybrid genealogy, say, becomes quite apparent in some hastily dictated books and pre-written lectures. Very often, erotic relationships were involved in these media constructions (or generated them themselves). In the end, couples are just successful media-technical assemblages: he has a total of minus ten, and she wanted to remain invisible. In turn, his voice in these letters sounds uninterrupted, and she liked to listen to him.


2. Neo-academic auctions

We find ourselves at an exhibition of photographs of a familiar artist at a familiar gallery worker’s house. At first, there is no one, we come first and just look around in this half-apartment, half-gallery, listen to records and communicate with the gathering artists, with whom in no other situation there would have been an opportunity to exchange even a word. People soon begin to gather at a growing pace; not only artists appear, but also some unfamiliar and even slightly alien people who are surprised by a baby bottle alongside a rolled joint. But with these people children also appear and my hands are freed (in which there immediately appears a glass of wine) and my tongue is untied.

At first, the conversation is guided by artistic narratives. The institutional inertia in art is duly noted: the very nature of the medium makes artists mimic themselves, while the medium of the poets –– letters or even the apparatus of the typing keyboard — forces them to make breaks and removals.

But all of a sudden the routine discursiveness of artistic gatherings is broken — at first as a joke — by the rationality of the auction. As always in this tradition of the New Academy [Q]. Either it is still a radical fair of identities, or already a business. I catch myself thinking that this is probably my first time at an art auction experiencing a sense of instinctive hostility to the idea of ​​retailing works of art. At the same time, I instantly become an anthropologist, starting participant observation, and I cannot take my theoretically suspicious eyes from the functioning of the apparatus, ably controlled by a familiar gallery worker, to whom I hold even a certain admiration. Everything that happens, including the involvement of a friend in this performance (due to her instantly recognisable flamboyant appearance) comes across as quite uncanny. The unheimlich moment itself lies precisely in the fact that all is happening as a joke — what kind of sales can an artist from a circle of critical feminists muster? [8]. At the same time, the initial bid is set at 50 rubles and real steps are taken to sell the works. That is, on the one hand, there is neither full adherence to the procedure (for example, children are running everywhere, whose cries are taken to be upping the bid). On the other hand, there is no complete disavowal of the procedure. Parody turns out to be capable of supporting the work of the apparatus being parodied.

It seems that you are faced with some kind of matrix scene of the art market. I cannot boast of having anti-democratic prejudices [9], but anti-mercantile prejudices still remain. My own place in the economy and “position in industrial relations” have probably become so foreign to direct market interest and, at the same time, from the organic nature of the St. Petersburg scene, which has experienced such unexpected transformations [10], that I feel something like disgust. I nevertheless recognise this feeling as a consequence of my own position. I feel more like an adherent, perhaps, of that poor aristocracy of refusal and evasion — an aversion less of profit, but rather some particularly suspicious productivity. In any case, this tendency is quite strong in literature, where it also often turns suddenly into the fact that poets, realising “that you can”t make money off books', go to their Harar to sell coffee or to their New York to do fashion photography.


The fourth letter, in which the reconstruction of scenes of the past is undertaken and the disposition of the present is analysed

Soon they were so impudent from the pleasure given to each other that they were drawn to formulations about their past and future — whatever that means. They begin with the mediological aspects of literary history and his own history of gender-communicative misadventures. Once, the only intrigue of parting with a woman was a dictaphone recording (and the fact that that completely stopped listening to him). But it turns out that she heard something — a strange recording made secretly (“Yes-yes, talk my dear, I hear everything”).

Given the current interlocutor is knowledgable about psychoanalysis, he confesses to her that he also had to put a camera in the room in which he lived with the actress, without telling her about it. Then they would loop back perfectly. Perhaps even one of their common friends, a video ethnographer, would not have refused to be behind the camera. That cross between documentarism, the inclusion of video surveillance or even video interference, inherited by Jean Rouch and Soviet kino-eyed cinematographers, is here replaced by a rather observable (by others) object — although he feels a lot like a native, accompanied in the most ordinary affairs, he quickly is subdued by the camera and begins to actively play the native on it.

The genital organ of the video ethnographer inevitably turns out to be the camera lens, which he/she does not hide in a particular way and which fascinates everyone, be it as a phallic agent or as a passive light-sensitive surface on which breath and heat have already settled. Finally, it is not so much the so-called “creative personalities” that are related here, but media-genre attitudes. A certain theatre, a certain magazine, and finally this phallic kino-eye, which not only captures the signal but itself turns out to be a potential object of literary reflection. Just as editorial life could easily become the plot of a play called, for example, “Editorial Board”.

A characteristic feature of this conversation is that it was recorded from a certain moment on a dictaphone and is dedicated to the discussion of media-discursive relations between the sexes and the arts. That, perhaps, makes one, along with this reconstruction of scenes of the past and the situation of the present, embark on some fictionalisation of the future.

They are lying like this and they say / well, I don’t think in terms of an academic career / university is a concentration camp / but everyone at first says that / and then they meet again / twenty years later, there are lying here like this / well, how many doctoral students do you have? / do you have time to write anything? / how is your husband?


Pavel Arseniev's drawn map from the “Revision: Places and Communities” exhibition. New Holland, 2018

Pavel Arseniev's drawn map from the “Revision: Places and Communities” exhibition. New Holland, 2018

3. Street University: annals (stories) of everyday life

Everyday life is what we experience every day. Each new day awaits us like a fresh shirt on a chair, Benjamin says, and our task is to catch it. In Certeau“s view (no less poetic, but this is the poetics of a different genre), what we feel every morning, being torn apart by fatigue and desires, is the severity or difficulty of life under certain conditions. Everyday life is not only a very personal, but a very irrational story: a world full of memories of childhood places, memory of the body, the automatism of habitual gestures and obtained pleasures. In any case, what interest historians of the everyday is the invisible. This experience cannot be verified, it is impossible to prove that 'everything was not like that.” In a narrative haunted by ghosts, it is impossible to isolate and classify events, places and communities whose familiarity in sensation will always be confused with the strangeness of retelling.

Everything becomes even more confusing when we are talking not just about existential topography, but about the socio-ethnography of cultural everyday life, especially if this has not yet been consecrated by institutions nor provided with an archive, but rather exists as a bet or hope that something will work out without any guarantees and knowledge of its fate. The fabrication of places and rumours about a particular cultural everyday life, the creation of imaginary communities with unclear criteria for belonging, the tactics of attracting adherents and excluding apostates are practically beyond documentation. Any attempt to consolidate the emerging process is tantamount to an announcement that it has reached the limits of its growth, an announcement of self-dissolution. However, if one does not grope for any external definitions, does not search out the material factors conditioning its existence and does not describe the habits of its protagonists, these moments run the risk of simply slipping through one’s fingers. This is the inevitable contradiction of the so-called “cultural practices”.

It is impossible — “with all the expressiveness of the protocol, responsibility, clarity of the document” — to say that “The Street University was…”. Such descriptions work within the wrong genre and pathos, although there is a feeling that the documents of our past have been destroyed. In the absence of records, digitized archives, and even an entry in Wikipedia, one has to create a legend to the map of one’s own exploration of the urban environment. By shirking this task the ghosts of past situations and invisible communities risk settling forever in yourself. Every experience of creating a mental map is a socio-psychoanalytic act of luring the cultural generation“s phantasms outward. And that is why these maps coincide so little with those from other generations. In the case of multiple intersections, phantasms pass into the status of social facts. Naturally, those who have existed for a longer time in the cultural environment of the city have phantasms as well as facts. But this does not mean that they are more valuable in comparison to the operational phantasms of those who have moved to the city a couple of years ago and already found out about the existence of 'Pushkinskaya-10”.

The collective development of a public space by a community or a generation occurs as a result of its growing out of private space and the connection of these spaces to each other — the socialisation of the intimate and the appropriation of the public. According to Pierre Mayol [11], just going out into the street from one’s home is a cultural act that is not arbitrary and not devoid of consequences: it means entering into a network of social differences that precede and surpass the user. Perhaps I began to participate in the work of Street University came to Solyanoy Lane every Sunday because there were too many people at home on weekends: no one went to work and classes so it was impossible to work or study. Unlike in those days when it was necessary to traverse as much urban space in as little time as possible (to get to the university), on Sundays the task was the opposite — to spend as much time in as much local space as possible, to make one quarter of the city as habitable as possible. This, by historical coincidence, turned out to be the area of ​​Solyaniy Lane, next to which appeared the Mukhina School of Art and Design [R], the Theater Academy [S], the European University and other centres for the non-utilitarian pursuits of the youth.

Seeing in the windows the reflection of our dreams about travel, experiencing fleeting emotional movements, meeting random acquaintances, remembering something from the smell of trees in the square, making joyful assumptions about our own destiny — experiencing all this at the same time — we were faced with the same eventful experience of the street, which was much more important than all the lectures and open-air seminars that preceded these joint walks, some of which stretched for several days. In short, we poeticised the city. That is, we reworked it to fit our needs, playing with some of the constraints built into the structure of the city, and adjusting to others that seemed to play into our hands. I do not remember what happened earlier: the decision to call our endeavour a Street University or the discovery of benches on a street that could form something like a classroom? The decision to hold seminars with illustrative material or noting an urban sculpture that resembled a stand?

But even more important than this “material and technical base” was the economy of gestures and various ways of speaking. Shared time, in other words, the quality not of objects, but of the connections that arose between their users (“things that teach participation”, as Tretyakov once called it). Between what was being discussed and the fact that it actually took place, and did so on the street, a constitutive gap arose. In a word, the urban space turned out to be not so much an object of cognition (of sociologists, anthropologists, “urbanists”), as an environment of recognition, in which not only “the ability to make” was developed, but also “the ability to live with”. Although none of us lived in the center we already felt ‘at home' on this and the adjacent streets.

There was no specific bench which we were more attached to; usually we migrated in search of the sunspots, which the Leningrad spring still offers. The street was crowned from the north by the “Museum of the History of the Blockade” (which once occupied the whole block, representing a rather unusual urban experience) and the cafe “Chez Jules”, which we wanted to visit, but could not afford. The “Little Odessa” looming in the south suited us perfectly.

The developing sense of neighbourhood and its corresponding discursive economy made us owners of the inner knowledge of the street; those who knew this area by heart. We, too, were so well known that sometimes the vendors sold us stuff on credit. Naturally it was usually alcohol [12]. It is rather difficult to overestimate the role of the latter in defamiliarising social codes. This was our pharmacist: in this tool of social defamiliarisation, not to mention fucking us around (since our experience was never limited just to perception, but systematically turned towards the practice of transforming the environment), there was always the danger of being disconnected from reality.


Of course, drunkenness goes much worse with a revolutionary mood. The individual or collective transgression of social norms had not yet led to social transformations (a meme comes to mind: “While the left drinks, the right decides”). Idleness had to be somehow tempered by activist work. From the journey we embarked on with a bottle of wine we had to go back to email lists, editing videos and sending out new announcements. And yet the wine was inscribed both in the temporality of Street University (spanning much more than a couple of hours on Sunday) and in a space that was not just restricted to a couple of benches on Solyanoy.

The preparation for the next Street University always began during the previous session, like Monday begins on Saturday. If, for most of our “working” acquaintances, the weekend was devoted to leisure time at home, for us they were our main working days. The rest of the week was for idleness. The fact that the city practically died out on those days suited us perfectly. We shared this street with the citizens of the everyday in turns. While other peers “practiced the city”, transforming on weekends from producers and prisoners of offices into consumers and flâneurs, we appropriated the urban environment for a self-educational process (interfered with during the week by study at the university). There were no big shops here and it was equally far from all the metro stations. For us, who mainly traveled by bicycles, this was a stroke of good fortune. Idle crowds mainly moved along Nevsky Prospekt, their trajectories could always be judged by the placement of street musicians and their hats. This area — our area — however, turned out to be a blind spot, both for users of public transport and for the hostages of the tourist buses.

These experiences remain inscribed primarily through the practice of oral stories (this text, to a certain extent, violates that medial tradition). The physical characteristics of orality — the time it takes for sound to propagate — turn any telling of a story into a continuation of the story itself, inheriting it indexically. The letter, on the other hand, covers — closes, obscures — what is being discussed. It transforms the space that records into haunted punctuation marks and periods. That which could not be consolidated in the urban environment is transferred to the paper and the screen from which it tempts any walk through the — geographically and politically — abandoned places. If any possible monument is to be raised here (one which is not made by hands, since the experience itself existed “not in logs, but in ribs”) it won’t be based on a sociological fact, but as a figure of collective imagination [allusion to a canonical poem of Pushkin that begins: I have raised myself a monument, made not by hands].

On the sideline of the debates over whether to build a skyscraper or cut down a public garden there are always less visible zones of opacity in the city. In these zones the political experience of a generation resides. These zones are populated or even haunted by memories of the possible scale of action. One of these is Solyanoy Lane: a rhetorical laboratory from which paths led to squares and avenues and with banners and megaphones. Eliminated from the order of the present — including current protest activity — it was a reservoir of the political imaginary, it organised around itself the legend of the map. It bears witness to a history which, unlike museum or book, no longer has its own language. The speech through which the story is heard is devoid of not only grammar, but also pedagogical value. The spirits of this place are actors not because they teach or tell about something but because of their strange dumbness, the erasure of relevance. The effacement itself creates the story, organises the space for possible future actions.

Where do these spirits dwell that transforms circulation into the possibility of collective experience? Perhaps in the trees that used to be planted around the entirety of Ligovsky Avenue — a shady boulevard, as it remains in childhood memories to this day, and which one day will be overgrown again. Or in the fountains that are now turned off, ready to stream again. It is impossible for this ghostly layer not to be museumified, nor to be put in the centre of a discussion. A proper tribute could only be the renewal of the city’s practice itself.

No institutional cargo-practice of “open libraries” and “open philosophical faculties” — always drawing attention to “openness” but, in reality, only cushioning the crisis of the university and the desolation of the cultural domain — is able to reproduce the political generation. “Intercepting parking lots” of cultural start-ups for those who have gone off the university rails, but have not figured out what to do next, they only inflame anxieties of never holding enough education, never enough familiarity with “new trends”. The more you go to public lectures, the more you move away from taking the floor yourself. The latter requires a fundamentally counter-institutional practice, a completely unmarked space, which is instantly recognisable by gestures, manners of expressing and handling things.

The city is inhabited by such a practice of the polysemy of places and things. To inhabit, the historians of the everyday remind us, means to narrate, to decipher the stories that hide the streets. As is known, the streets do not suffer from a shortage of text. If advertising multiplies our desires through the vocabulary of consumer goods, however, then the political memory of places can be articulated through syntactic connections that have too been assembling new collectives. The city thus turns out to be a space for the struggle of various mythologies. As we know from Barthes, the myth cannot be disavowed by criticism, but must be beaten by an alternative myth. An event is that which is told by us, even if we never had our own place.

on top of one city lies another, / the new and beautiful one / streets cut other streets, / older and narrower / on top of one story there is another, / more accurate and innovative / on top of one life lies another life, / more carefree and talented / on top of one person lies another person, / more modern and adapted / on top of one ashes lies another ashes, / of a later period

Author’s notes

[1] The exhibition in question is “Revision: Places and Communities” (New Holland, 2018). See the accompanying zine and the interview published in it on the cultural map of St. Petersburg of the 2000s-2010s.

«Revision: Places and Communities»: concept, exhibition — Polina Zaslavskaya, Vita Zelenska, Marina Israilova, Konstantin Shavlovskiy; research — Vita Zelenska, Marina Israilova; design — Ivan Gerts; video — Artem Stepanov; zine design — Darya Shiryaeva; installation work — Savvatiy Strelnikov, Galim Hayrullin, Pasha Ustal; copyedit — Anastasia Klubkova; with the involvement of Olga Grabovskaya.

[2] Which consisted in publishing certain authors, receiving criticism from certain others, publishing the critics in the next edition, receiving criticism from others, and so on.

[3] The next issue of the magazine has a historiographic and cartographic character, with a photograph of the commune on the cover. Its more speculative cartographic character contains a project for an exposition of a gallery.

[4] What began as a purely artistic reconstruction project of the first Manifesta instalment in the “Dirty Gallery” on Marat street soon turned into real, everyday life.

[5] This already happened: once, due to some disagreement with this activist milieu, I decided — as if out of spite — to direct all my creative efforts for the next month in the opposite direction. Not to the New Academy (here the relationship is more complicated), but to the then emerging organisation of the Andrei Bely Center, which then became the ABCenter with a logo and some kind of first sketch of a cultural program.

[6] La philosophie comme arme de la revolution — La Pensee, 1968, no. 138. Cit. from the book: Squaring of meaning: French school of discourse analysis: trans. from French and Portugese / ed. and introduced by P. Serio; foreword Yu.S. Stepanov. M .: Progress, 1999.S. 90

[7] — Tolya, — I call Naiman, — let’s go visit Leva Druskin.

— I won“t go, — he says, — he”s some kind of Soviet.

— What do you mean, a Soviet? You are wrong!

Well, anti-Soviet. What’s the difference. (Sergei Dovlatov, Solo on the Underwood)

[8] Who sits here in the kitchen and smokes but at the same time flatly refuses to appear in the film of “this performance by Kolya”.

[9] Such were the prejudices of my youth, aided especially by reading Eliot’s cultural essays.

[10] After all, until recently everyone sewed clothes for demonstrations and lived like dreamers.

[11] In this essay we are inspired by the (auto) ethnography of the Certeau group undertaken by Pierre Mayol, Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard. L’invention du quotidien. Tome 2, Habiter, cuisiner. Gallimard, 2006.

[12] When a few years later the music video “Drinking in St. Petersburg” was released, which for some reason was to be shot on Solyany Lane (and where the alcohol is also borrowed), it will already appear as decadent, vulgar, “the end of a beautiful era” in which Petersburg lived from its foundation.

Map legend

[A] [Translit is a literary and theoretical journal founded by Pavel Arsenev and Sergey Kitov in 2005.

[B] “Borey” is a non-profit exhibition and creative center founded in 1991.

[C] “Pushkinskaya 10” is an independent cultural center, founded in 1989 in a house that was settled during a major renovation, inhabited mostly by independent artists and musicians. There are still many workshops, small museums and galleries there.

[D] Arkady Dragomoshchenko is a Russian poet, novelist, essayist and translator.

[E] Smolny Institute is an institute of liberal arts and sciences in St. Petersburg

[F] Ivan Chechot is a St. Petersburg art critic, professor at the Russian Institute of Art History and the European University, co-founder of the Navicula Artis gallery on Pushkinskaya 10, an active participant in the Perestroika art movement.

[G] The European University at St. Petersburg is a non-state university specialising in education in the humanities, an important site in the intellectual life of the city.

[H] Street University is a self-organised educational initiative that emerged during the first closure of the European University by the Russian government in connection with a European grant to improve electoral monitoring.

[I] “Pen-center” is a Saint-Petersburg division of international human rights group, where various events are held.

[J] Laboratory of Poetic Actionism is an artistic group consisting of poets, artists and philosophers looking for new forms of the representation of poetic utterance such as through street actions, direct action, video poetry, interventions in enclosed spaces and transformations of the urban environment. Founded by Pavel Arsenev, Roman Osminkin and Dina Gatina.

[K] Commune on Kuznechny is a communal apartment in Kuznechny Lane, where artists, poets, activists lived from 2009 to 2014 (Roman Osminkin, Pavel Arsenev, Dina Gatina, Oleg Zhuravlev, Sergey Yugov, etc.).

[L] “Pragmatics of Artistic Discourse” was a home seminar, which succeeded the university seminar of the same name and was dedicated to the socioanalysis of literature, pragmatic poetics and history of science. Pavel Arseniev, Dmitry Bresler, Igor Kravchuk, Andrey Solovyev, Mikhail Knyazev, Tim Timofeev, Alexey Kosykh were among the participants. The issue of the “New Literary Observer” journal, which came out in 2016, featured articles by several seminar participanes edited by Pavel Arseniev and Dmitry Bresler.

[M] «Вокруг да около» (“Around and Near”) is an independent art laboratory and horizontal collective, consisting of four permanent members (Lisichka Ghen, Daria Bresler, Vlada Milovskaya, Leyla Aliyeva). Formed in 2012.

[N] The exhibition “Space of Silence”, curated by Anastasia Shavlokhova, was held in 2009 in the former production premises of the Krasnoye Znamya factory. It hosted artists from France, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Russia.

[O] DK Rosy (“Rosa Luxemburg Palace of Culture”) is an initiative of the informal association of artists, critics and philosophers “Chto Delat”. The space at the Krasnoye Znamya factory was opened in 2014, it draws on the history and tradition of Soviet culture clubs and provides a space for various circles, seminars and exhibitions.

[P] The Andrei Bely Center is a structural subdivision of the Andrei Bely Poetic Prize, aimed at expanding the disciplinary framework of purely literary research towards a more transdisciplinary approach. It serves as a space for lectures and seminars.

[Q] New Academy of Fine Arts was founded by artist Timur Novikov in Leningrad in 1988.

[R] The Vera Mukhina Higher School of Art and Design is today the Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design and is one of the oldest higher educational institutions of its kind in Russia.

[S] Theater Academy is today the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts, which is situated on Mokhovaya Street not far from Solyanoy Lane, where Street University meetings were held.

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