What needs to be deformed? About (not) knowledge, clearance and refusal
After the exhibition co-curators , , ask their colleagues and comrades a question about what needs to be unlearned or what knowledge should be deformed. A series of five short essays by Aleksey Borisyonok and Vera Zalutskaya, Lada Nakonechnaya and Katerina Badyanova (Method Fund), Piotr Puldzyan Plutsenniczka, Magdalena Radomskaya, develops the problems of the exhibition held in the self-organized Domie space in Poznań.
What needs to be deformed? About (not) knowledge, clearance and refusal
After the exhibition, we decided to ask questions to our colleagues and comrades, who in their contexts are engaged in theoretical, artistic and activist work to rethink education, organization, artistic practice. Here are the questions we were interested in: Why does the gesture of refusal, non-knowledge, the strategy of "high-flying" become important for many artistic practices at a historical moment when the institutional field is polarized, leaving no space for artistic autonomy (in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine)? What should be unlearned or what knowledge should be deformed? How can artistic and activist practices, their ingenuity and willfulness, contribute to thinking about the production of (non)knowledge and affect and other temporalities that are out of time, imposed by power and capital?
In this short text, we ask ourselves the same questions in the context of Belarus and Poland, which have been embraced in recent years by broad protest movements that develop new approaches, refusals and methods of confronting the dominant ideas of knowledge and time.
We would like to start with the image of the old Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk, on the facade of which hung a neon sign from the times of socialism The Feat of the People Will Live for Centuries. Can it be imagined that something designed to live forever was destroyed so quickly? The museum building was demolished in 2014 and moved to a new location next to the Obelisk of the Hero City of Minsk (also known as Stella), which has become a significant place in the topography of the protests. On the first weekend after the rigged elections, protesters occupied the square. In the days that followed, the museum suddenly turned into a space that had to be protected by any means – all autumn, every Sunday, the museum was guarded by the armed forces to prevent the protest, symbolized by the white-red-white flag, and the victory in World War II from crossing history and modernity.
This image of the museum, inaccessible, closed, guarded by internal troops, still remains vivid. On one of the Sundays, when the protests turned into courtyards and the cordon was removed, one of us spent several hours in the museum itself. Cops sitting in beads parked behind the building used the museum as a toilet. Who guards temporalities, victories, memory, valor? Who are they for? Was the museum opened during perhaps the largest demonstration in the history of modern Belarus on August 16, 2020?
In one discussion, researcher Magdalena Radomska asked us: what needs to be unlearned? Our answer was awkward: to unlearn the temporality that unfolds the load of guilt, cutting off the emancipative impulses of the so-called past. What if museums — the museum of stones, the museum of the labor movement, the museum of war — can be freed from their preposterous paternalistic instrumentalizations that grind history into convenient and pro-government narratives? What if museums could show history not as progress and victory, but as heterotemporal assemblies of experiences and voices of resistance and rejection - strikes, guerrilla printers, women's tools? Magdalena in our conversation pointed out a paradox – many of the Belarusian artists and painters work in the gap between the official emasculated post-communist aesthetics and the authoritarian-capitalist language – not slipping into the national, but turning to the (post) socialist heritage, labor issues and criticism of power.
We think that in order to answer such a question, it is necessary to clearly understand the context in which the artists we are talking about work, as well as where and to whom their statement is addressed. The context of Belarus is interesting in that it is very different from the context of neighboring countries (Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine), which seem to have taken a step forward (forward where – to a bright “Western European” future?) in the process of decommunization. Belarus, on the other hand, looks like a country in which the prefix in the word “post-Soviet” means continuity not only at the level of authoritarian mechanisms of power and some aesthetic elements, but, as it were, of the entire Soviet ethos and culture. We think about what the artists who come to Belarus from outside see and subsequently broadcast in their works, at least from the Polish context, well-known to one of us. Often in their works one can see a naive belief that, knowing the history of their own country, one can clearly and quickly draw an analogy with the current Belarusian socio-political situation.
© Paulina Olovska: Univermag GUM (video fragment), 2018
This is how the work by Paulina Olowska, one of the most famous contemporary Polish artists, shown in 2018 in the New York gallery Metro Pictures on the leading Polish portal dedicated to culture is described: "Belarus, and in particular Minsk, reminded the artist the times of her youth in communist Poland, and it was this atmosphere that she tried to convey in her latest works.Olowska secretly filmed buyers and saleswomen who, due to the lack of alternatives, bought products made in Belarus and seemed unaware of the processes of globalization existing in other regions of the world".
© Rafal Milakh: photos from the Winners series, 2014
Or another example: the series of photographs , the author of which, Rafal Milakh, photographs the winners of various competitions organized by the Belarusian authorities. The sad portraits of the Miss Belarusian Railways, the Queen of Fitness, the best janitor, the leading members of the Belarusian Republican Youth Union and many others are subjected to a specific grayish filter that refers us to the aesthetics of old photographs, film films, or simply to the legendary dullness of the Soviet Union. The mentioned works seem to say: "Through your present, we tell the story of our past." But this is a very problematic statement, in which there is no place for the understanding that thirty years ago all Eastern European countries without exception joined the capitalist "future", and the problems of the region cannot be solved in the process of decommunization, if we understand it as a radical break/rejection of Soviet history. These are rather examples of practices in which an authoritarian-capitalist language and aesthetics are manifested, orienting works for export, presenting an unambiguous picture of temporality and the connection of the past with the present.
© Marina Naprushkina: frame from the video Belarus Today, 2008
© eeefff: stills from video Outsourcing Paradise (Parasite), 2020
It seems to us that it is precisely in the ideological and aesthetic discrepancy and gap between the state pseudo-social and communist language and national discourses that artistic and activist practice deploys its double criticism. For example, the work (2008) resonates with the work (2020) of the group, where industrial and digital workers expand the field of their interaction, find a language to talk about alienation, labor and abstraction through ideological stamps and languages. At the same time, the "workers" of the two works of art overcome the ideological orbits of the state and the work ethic of capitalism, emasculating the stamp or referring to the collective affect of alienation and the common.
© Roman Trotsyuk: Sickles series, 2020–2021
Likewise, the works of are twin that quirk socialist symbols and turn us, as researcher Yustyna Kravchuk notes, towards acid communism – queer, egalitarian, and enjoyable.
Speaking of unlearning the habitual understanding of temporality, which brings guilt and cuts off emancipatory impulses, we think that we could try to separate the practice from the terminology that we use to describe certain phenomena. Practice is becoming and dynamic. The post-Soviet aesthetics and ideology used by the Belarusian authorities, in our opinion, does not prevent the possibility of critical and even creative work with the socialist heritage. On the contrary, if in Poland the demonization of the Soviet experience at the official level has led to the fact that the use of Soviet ideas and models of practice seems to be something radical, special, then from the Belarusian point of view it becomes obvious that socialist ideas cannot be reduced to Soviet ideology and aesthetics – here there is a field for creating new works, rethinking ideas and meanings, questioning, criticism.