CHTO DELAT? What Is to Be Done?, ICA, London
Thursday 23 September 2010
The question above – Lenin's famous question, you may remember – refers to the name of a loose collective of leftist Russian poets, artists, philosophers, singers, set designers, critics, writers, etc. who are currently colonising various spaces at the ICA. They call themselves "a self-organising platform of cultural workers". They are all angry. They are all dissidents. They are all fiercely didactic.
How many of them are here exactly? The representative of the ICA I speak to doesn't really know. He hazards a guess at seven or eight, and he then informs me that they are currently engaged in a 48-hour "communal living" seminar – talk-in, eat-in, sleep-in – in the galleries upstairs. Shades of John and Yoko. Later on this month there will be a "Night of Angry Statements".
A more stable evidence of their presence here is an exhibition which occupies the ground-floor gallery spaces. WITBD is all about political and cultural activism. You could call it post-communist because it uses the iconography, the terminology, and the sloganeering style of communism. Another strong presence here is Bertolt Brecht, another famous leftist activist of yesteryear.
On the ground floor there are various centres of interest – I'm careful not to call these things artworks, because they are not artworks. There is a cinema area with raked seats which is showing a WITBD film called Songspiel. There are lots of slogans and cartoon-style drawings on the walls which depict the likes of Lenin, Chernyshevsky and Stakhanov, all of whom seem to be in characteristic fist-shaking mood. In fact, Stakhanov is wielding an electric drill of some variety – which may be anachronistic. There is a console in the shape of a red star – homage to the heroic Red Army – on which various monitors show other films by the group. And there is what looks like a cardboard simulation of a monument to the Yugoslav partisans which rises up at the back of the room and which you can climb up and shout and sloganeer from.
And, oh yes, there are many copies of the CHTO DELAT? newspaper papering the walls, spread by spread. These issues contain a great deal of very serious reading about – and I pluck out a few phrases at random to give you a taste of the breadth of the thinking – desubjectivisation, resistance, securitization and the politicizing of cultural production. These are all subjects that are being discussed, endlessly, upstairs, I imagine, between naps and bites.
But back to Songspiel, WITBD's latest film. Films are very important to WITBD (Didn't Lenin once say that the cinema was the most important of all the arts?) Much of this is pure Brecht without the wit and the talent. A group of grim-faced besuiteds sit at a table – capitalists at a guess. Below them a huge chorus line of workers, pretty girls and others, sing rousing choruses about the will of the avant garde and the truth-telling power of Russian poets. The Gazprom Tower destined to ruin the skyline of St Petersburg, is roundly lambasted.
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