INTERVIEW WITH DIMA VILENSKY/CHTO DELAT GROUP ABOUT UTOPIAN CLOTHES SHOP

D. I remember that when you and Tsaplya started working together, you tried to distance yourselves from any attempt at locating your work within the framework of feminist tradition. But at the same time, you also cooperated with some of Petersburg’s key figures in the feminist cultural discourse, such as Alla Mitrofanova and Ira Aktuganova. What has changed in recent years? How would you re-sketch your position today?

G. Our art has always addressed the inner world. It’s always been about the poetization of ordinariness, so that life would stop being so dull and depressing, so that the routines of everyday life would take on the infinitely gripping spirit of a performance. Tsaplya and I were drawn together by a love for adventure; this desire was always connected to opposing the existing order of things. We worked with clothing and with people, bringing them into our lives and our creativity. Of course, our work inevitably reflected the fact that we are women. At the time, we thought that feminism is when women go out onto the barricades carrying the slogan “To hell with men!” We were sure that politics were something unclean, that it was vulgar to get involved in politics. But now, everything is changing. We have already explored the problems of the inner world’s devices quite a bit and have come to understand that all of this “inner life” is connected to society, that it is important to take an active role in society.

D. I agree as far as your description of Petersburg during the mid-1990s is concerned. In Moscow, many leading artists worked as political consultants at that time. But in Petersburg, politics were understood as something that totally corrupt and alienated, hardly deserving any attention at all. Instead, most people immersed themselves into their personal worlds. They understood this self-imposed distance from practical politics as the most radical form of resistance.

G. What are practical politics, in the end? At the time, turning to the personal really was the most radical form of resistance. If all the others join the rat-race, artists will protest by fleeing to the private sphere. But today, everyone is gravitating toward the “private”, so we feel the need to explore ideas of collectivity and unification, making the private public. But still, the inner world will always be the most important thing for most artists.

D. Yes, but it is necessary to understand one thing clearly: if we talk about the politicization of art today, we are talking about a certain utopian possibility of reexamining our position in society. Today’s search for points of contact and influence with society often does not take place through the mass-media or through institutional work. Instead, it is more likely to materialize as a form of direct praxis on a micro-political level. In this sense, there is a certain logic to the fact that we are distancing ourselves from the cultural industry, as it is usually understood here. How you do see the possibilities for participating in social life? Is your art capable of influencing society?

G. My projects are connected with performance. In this sense, my store is a form of prolonged performance. I work with young girls, who produce specific clothing and objects, which we sell at the store. These are not ordinary articles of clothing. Instead, these clothes express the experiences of a particular human being. Earlier on, I did everything on my own. I am sure that my artworks were reflections of the Soviet regime’s consequences, which could be described as a deficient attentiveness to feelings and to the inner world. My mother recently said, “They taught us that private life, love, and the family are not that important. The main thing is work.” There was a constant shortage of privacy and personal space. Today, I understand all of the objects that I began to make back then as manifestos of concealed desire. Later, I understood that it is more interesting to make them as the result of a collective project, since working on things together performs the role of ergotherapy. Many monotonous female tasks – such as bead-stringing, embroidery, or patch-work quilting – help to overcome the state of desperation.
Yet another, more concrete reason for this project was an old lady called Natasha Sakharova, an acquaintance of my grandmother’s. She would always come over to talk about her unhappy love. Later, she began to drink. Then her husband died. She walked the city alone with her dog, completely alone, and in the end, she became an alcoholic. From time to time, she would come over to our house. We would feed her and listen to her colorful stories about her difficult fate. One day she asked me: “Don’t you have any work for me?” And I gave her a piece of embroidery with black beads. This was very complicated to make. Before this job, everyone else had refused to give her any work at all. But she finished the embroidery and came back in a far more lucid state than usual with the demand that I give her another job. It was then that I understood that all of these things can only make sense to me if they actually help someone.

D. Both your own pieces and the pieces you are currently making together with the girls are difficult to locate in the context of fashion design, nor do they really fit into the development of contemporary art in Petersburg. They too personal and sad for fashion; for the Petersburg tradition, they are far too physiological; they are far too saturated with “menstrual blood”. Should we understand this as a political manifestation?

G. Yes. The expression of repression is my form of protest. But now, I risk being overgrown by followers…

D. This observation is very important. People usually imply that the person who gives somebody work is an exploiter. But your collective is based on a different form of relations. How you do go about constructing your work with the girls?

G. My girls don’t know what they want; they haven’t yet found their places in society; they don’t have serious personal lives. Our work is a form of unique therapy that takes place through their participation in the working process occurs. By creating something, they become participants in the creative process. I am trying to teach them how to relate to objects, situations and things creatively. The objects that we make reveal a great variety of concealed desires. For an instance, one girl will come to me and tell me “I feel so bad, so very bad”. I’ll say “let’s make a bag”. I suggest that we make a bag with an embroidered letter inside it that that says how bad she really feels. Later, she calls me and suggests that we line the bag with splinters of glass. I react and say that people will hurt their hand, which is why it might be better to use fur, and she begins to understand. This is how our therapy unfolds. Sometimes, I also give them literary tasks. For an example, a girl comes to me and begins to complain, and I suggest that she write about what is troubling her. In the process of writing and through the resulting discussion, we understand what she is capable of expressing and what she is hiding. The boundary between the private and the public becomes visible. I really like the texts they write, most of all because they are sincere. Their writing results in special artifacts of trepidation, of their openness to the world. Most importantly, it produces a feeling of necessity, not economic necessity, although this is also sometimes the case, but simply appreciation for the fact that this process is occurring.

D. Disappointed by the art-system’s proposed framework, today’s artist is constantly trying to shift its boundaries. Although these boundaries can be shifted, they never really disappear. Yet still, it seems that the artist can be anyone she-he pleases. Which role do you play in your work? Are you a social worker, a psychologist, producer of mass events, or a fashion designer? How you do you define the project’s boundaries as art? What are its specific features in terms of aesthetics?

G. I work in traditional genres such as performance, objects, video, and installation. But the girls take part in everything. Through them, other, purely aesthetic elements will come to the forefront. For me, a young girl is something fragile but at the same time, she is very complex. She is neither this nor that yet; she is growing; she is full of chaos. Sometimes, it seems that I am working with them as raw material, which supplies purely aesthetic experiences. But since this is a mutual process, one might say that they are also working with me sometimes. I like to trace and observe the effect of these interactions in my creativity.

D. But you do see this process as your own personal form of interaction, or do you attempt to develop connections within the group?

G. At first, I place my bets on personal contact. But later, I also try to stimulate their contact among one another. But on the other hand, I understand the passivity of the girls in a situation like this – they are used to sitting around and waiting for their Prince Charming to come without doing much of anything at all. This is an attitude that we try to overcome. But it’s not that easy.

D. You talk about “the girl’s inner world”, about her “emptiness” and so on. It seems to me that when you pose the question like this, it makes us look at the girls as passive objects, which have lost their connection to society. On the other hand, you and Tsaplya have always taken on an active position; you have always constructed your relationship to society and to men as subjects that were socially active. How you do attempt to transmit this experience to the girls and how this is possible?

G. I think that it’s impossible to find a normal form of communicating with society itself without understanding yourself at least somewhat. Recently, I stumbled upon a quote by Joseph Beuys, who that “Sincerity is very important. But what does this actually mean? There is no good reason to hide your defects, your deficiencies, your wounds. You can only provoke interest and action in the world when you say: ‘I have nothing to hide!’ The truth is that my existence is faulty and imperfect. And when I show this to others, I allow the creative process to begin. It is only after recognizing and showing your wound, your imperfection, your fragmentation that you can move on and take what you are missing from the others. In general, humanity only moves forward through joint projects.”

D. Of course; nobody’s perfect and we all live in a perfect world. But to be completely irresponsible and to hope idealistically that the praxis of concentrating on inner processes will lead to perfection already sounds like contemplative religion. Look to our feminists, some of whom have proclaimed their withdrawal into the inner world, promptly becoming religious. In terms of sociality, this is a dead end. I am sure that it is necessary to examine how political and social action are made in the inner world. But on the other hand, I read an interview with one simple woman who taking part in a strike somewhere in the Russian provinces. She wasn’t worried about the development of her inner world. She was worried about surviving. And after the strike was over, having resisted the Militia, the Mafia, and the authorities, she was able to formulate the matter quite clearly: after defeating her boss at work, she wasn’t about to put up with her boss at home.

G. It is possible to act in different ways. You can approach matter from the outside if you like. But for me it is important to understand “my wound”, to accept my inner world. Only then will I be able to treat this wound in different ways.

D. But your “wound” and your inner world are constructed by society and class. This is really what you should focus on!

G. I disagree. Even religious consciousness, if it helps someone, plays an important role. I don’t think that religion is something that should be destroyed – it is also very important.

D. Yeah. As an opiate for the people.

G. No, maybe we just need new forms of religion. Maybe art is simply one of them…

D. It’s obvious to everyone that “it is base to speak for the Other”. What I like about your work is that you step back at some point and give the girls the possibility for expressing themselves on their own terms. At the same time, in your last action in the “Tram Museum”, you and Tsaplya were still meta-figures. By creating spaces for statements of subjectivity, you are actually appropriating and interpreting them. How do you see the possibilities for formulating a position where you and the girl are on equal terms? And is this even necessary?

G. I don’t see any inequality here. Our work is a collective product. This is very important. You could say that we are all pursuing a common goal. Girls like Tsaplya and I have always attempted to find new ways of opening ourselves up to public space. This simply occurs on a different level because we are artists and the girl we work with are not. But here, this hardly matters at all. If the girls were to become full-fledged artists, it might be a problem. I think that our group might even disintegrate as a result. But for now, we are working toward a common goal with different means.

D. How you do see further development of the girls in professional and personal terms?

G. I think that all people can become artists. All of the girls are very talented, clever, and kind. But I don’t want to pressure them into anything. The main thing is for them to become free people who have a better understanding of themselves. Who they will professionally is not really important. But if there were more people like those I would like to see these girls become, it would actually change the entire situation that we live in.

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