Marina Vischmidt in conversation with the Factory of Found Clothes

The Factory of Found Clothes (Fabrika Nadyonii Odezhdii in Russian, or FNO for short) is Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya and Olga Egorova, respectively known as Gluklya and Tsaplya. Founded in 1995 in St Petersburg, FNO have used installation, performance, video, text and ’social research’ to develop an operational logic of ‘fragility’ as subjectivity antagonistic to that which is the state of things – be that the repressive social and political climate of Russia or the reflexive futilities of international art scenes.

With this negative-utopian, rather than affirmative-ironic version of the subject of participatory aesthetics, something akin to Wittgenstein’s “the subject does not belong to the world, it is a border of the world”, FNO’s approach puts an interesting swerve on the ‘relational turn’ as enunciated in Western art discourse. It also gives some idea of an emerging Russian context for the valorisation of work which is neither object-based nor bombastically performative, cf. Bremer and Schutz. Futher, their exposure in international exhibitions and festivals suggests the address of this kind of work to a European institutional milieu characterised by the aforesaid ‘turn’, now broadly replacing the support structures of Soros’ art funding programmes in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. In their stress on the quotidian, disregarded and culturally female, (’Shop of Utopian Clothing’) FNO seem to evoke the quieter, more wayward redoubts of feminist practice, while their penchant for historical re-takes that obliquely skew the present (’Scarlet Sails’) has plural analogies across the spectrum of current art production, as does the curiosity about the Situationists’ motives and methods visible in ‘Drift. Narvskaya Zastava’, a Chto delat? project that took place in a section of St Petersburg with strong October revolutionary echoes.

Gluklya and Tsaplya are also two of the coordinators of Chto delat? (’What is to be Done?’)a platform that investigates possibilities for the ‘re-politicisation of Russian intellectual culture’ in activism, art and theory. Chto delat? is also a publication printed in Russian and English and available online at Fourteen issues have been published so far, including texts not previously available in Russian by Antonio Negri, Felix Guattari, Cornelius Castoriadis and many others.

MV: Your practice with the FNO seems to emphasise ‘fragility’ as a vector for individual or social transformation – could you elaborate on this concept and what forms it’s taken in a few of the contexts within which FNO has operated?

Gluklya: We wrote this manifesto three years ago. It was published in the first issue of ‘Chto delat?’

Manifesto of the Factory of Found Clothes:
The place of the artist is on the side of the weak. Fragility is what makes people human, and the overcoming of weakness is what heroes are made of. We don’t celebrate weakness as such, we make an appeal to tenderness and humanity. It’s time that compassion returned to art-making!

Compassion – this is trying to understand the vulnerability of the other, and working together to go beyond it. You can’t really call it sentimentality. It’s the freedom of baring your chest on the barricades, fighting for the child in each of us! You say that art is only for the clever, that it’s an intellectual game? That there’s no space left for direct impact, that intense emotions are the province of Hollywood? It’s not true! Because in that case art would be meaningless – cold, unable to extend a helping hand!

Art is not an abstract game, but an adventure; not cold rationalism, but a living emotion. The artist is not a mentor or a tutor but a friend; not a genius, but an accomplice. We don’t need didactic social projects, but the desire to help people not to fear themselves anymore, to accept themselves and develop in the way they wish. Society consists of people. It’s only by helping people on the path of self-transformation that we can change society. There is no other way.

Tsaplya: When we say that art should be on the side of the weak, we mean weak in the broadest sense. Not only on the side of the oppressed, but in solidarity with those that resist so-called ‘strength’: power and money. Art needs to be dedicated to what is often, especially in Russia, known as ‘weakness’: tenderness, compassion and humanity. Everything that opposes what is supposed to be ‘strong’.

Our understanding of fragility is connected to human frailty. Because it’s easier to respect strength than to be on the side of the weak and subjugated. Frailty is the source of our common humanity. To be more precise, that frailty can be powerful, can be transformed into a source of strength. What is considered ‘strength’ in our world? It’s linked to success, power, money, with the desire to obtain these at all costs. But even the most hardened evildoer contains a child – abused, unloved, bad-tempered, but capable of change, of maturity (a broadening of the soul) and communicating with it could make something happen.

Gluklya: Our concept of fragility is related to compassion, because ‘fragility’ is that sensitivity that an artist needs, in the broadest sense of the word, to perceive people and events.

If a person retains a sense of fragility against everything that acts to brutalise their perception of the world, then that person inevitably arrives at the idea of art as compassion.

When we were young we noticed that there was an attraction between us and outsiders, who would suddenly start telling us about their lives and the little things that happened to them. Nowadays we’re more conscious and more reflexive about the fact that our work has to address itself to the vulnerable, to the weak, that is, to be situated in the problematic zones of society. It’s in people’s consciousness that the gaps open up, where disruption can happen. That’s the main difference for us between ‘real’ art and spectacular art.

What is the understanding of ‘participation’ you’re working with in FNO? How do people participate, or how are they instrumental to the realisation of projects?

Gluklya: When we invite people to participate, we try to make it a meaningful experience for them – so that they’re able to resolve some problems for themselves with our help. In our Shop of Utopian Clothing performances, the ‘issues’ of the participants take priority, we don’t try to distance ourselves from them. We’re acutely aware of people’s isolation and unsociability, the conflicts and problems that come from this, and think art can help people make personal changes.

Tsaplya: We try to collaborate with the participants and spectators in our projects, so that it’s an experience that can change something for them (as the initiators, this is always the most interesting task for us). We don’t like artistic situations where the viewers are turned into consumers: here you are, have a piece of something ‘magical’, eat it up without any effort. That’s not right. Only collaborative work has any real interest for us.

Aside from that, we try to ensure that our work is not intended for everyone on the planet, not for some kind of imagined audience, but in relation to each singular person. For instance, we have a performance called Psychoanalytic Cabinet of Whites in which people tell us about their problems, and then, by going out into the city and navigating with a map, they each find a personal ‘medicine’ (trivial objects, supplied with instructions for use). But in doing that, they have to inquire in shops, from the police, the person begging on the corner, etc. Entering into this strange mode of communication is an experience that has the potential for change.

MV: Would you say the Factory of Found Clothes is more of a project or a strategy? Would you make this distinction?

Gluklya and Tsaplya: The Factory of Found Clothes is a general strategy that can incorporate many kinds of projects.

What has been your experience of art institutions in the West (or elsewhere outside of Russia) in terms of the collaborative nature of the FNO project? Does ‘participation’ play out differently in different contexts?

Tsaplya: Usually Western art institutions take our projects very seriously – whereas in Russia they’re considered to be completely whimsical – and spectators and participants throw themselves into the game. They’re really happy to be invited to play. People tend to be more suspicious in Russia.

Gluklya: However, we had a different experience in the ‘Kultur-Kontakt’ residency that we did in Vienna. That was an object lesson in idiotic and conservative notions of the genius-artist that sits in the studio and creates masterpieces. The people there were completely unconcerned about how the artist relates to people. We couldn’t even bring our children, as that was prohibited. I would invite friends to visit (mainly Russians) and we’d make ‘home videos’ in our flat, passing the camera amongst ourselves, and the plots would be re-enactments of the work by the Viennese artists that we’d seen.

On the other hand, in the residency our colleagues invited us to do at IASPIS in Sweden, we were really able to engage with the local scene. We did a collaboration with the gallery ‘Reality’ [is this the Swedish name?] which was an artist-run space.

The people at IASPIS were wonderful, not only were children allowed, but they helped to run a day-care centre there. That’s where we found the Sound of Music video and re-enacted a scene from it that concerned the enlightening role of art. We asked the locals to be involved and there was even someone from the government. It was a really joyful and enthusiastic process.

We also had a good experience of collaboration with local residents in Finland. We started our current project ‘Child-Mother’s relations at the age of immaterial labour’ [is this the correct name? I wonder if it’s a bit too direct as a translation as it sounds abit clunky?] there. We talked to a number of women who were artists and mothers, and made a video in which a female artist discusses her conflicts and insecurities.

MV: How would you articulate the themes of what you do with the FNO in?the ‘Chto delat?’ [can you provide a translation of Chto delat? As it would be nice to have one in brackets here] project?

Tsaplya: ‘Chto delat?’ is basically a workgroup which includes philosophers, poets and artists. We’re quite diverse, but we share vitally important ideas grounded in a leftist tradition of thought, such as social equality, justice and the struggle for emancipation. We’re not monolithic as a group, nor are we anonymous. Each of us has our own creative and personal projects. But we like to have discussions about everything, to argue – we have fights sometimes – but it’s a living process that gives each person opportunities for growth and development. Besides that, ‘Chto delat?’ creates possibilities for initiating our own projects and bringing in other people – things that present difficulties to an individual are much easier and more interesting to figure out together. So for example, Gluklya and I have embarked on a major project dealing with motherhood and the ‘care economy’ more generally, and we’re really counting on the input of our friends from ‘Chto delat?’, which could push the project in an unforeseen direction.

The theme of ‘Drift’ as another ‘city’ where you could feel alive was very close to us, as it connected directly to the conception of fragility as that which eludes the control of domination, and comes to life. And in the exhibition ‘Self-Education’, young anarchist women presented ‘fragility’ in their project of explaining the meaning of long-forgotten words such as ‘dignity’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’.

Would you say that a broadly ’socially engaged’ or ‘public art’ sphere of producers exists or is emerging in St Petersburg/Russia, and how would you position FNO, and the ‘Chto delat?’ workgroup, in relation to such a thing, if it exists? If it can be said, broadly, to exist, in what way, and what are the specificities of the political and institutional landscape in St Petersburg?

Gluklya and Tsaplya: For us there’s a big difference between ’socially engaged’ and ‘public art’. We can relate to the term ’socially engaged’. But ‘public art’ in Russia refers to monumental public sculpture or kids decorating fences. When we asked one of our friends in ‘Chto delat?’ whether ‘public art’ could apply to, for example, our project with the sailors marching through the city (the video was exhibited), he said it couldn’t. We had some discussions about it and finally concurred at least on the fact that for us ‘public art’ could be any municipal sculpture. That makes evident the disparity in the relationship of public and private between Russia and the rest of Europe. As for ’socially engaged’ practice, this is something that is only beginning to carve out a space in the art world. The process is underway, and it points to a greater sense of responsibility among artists. But it has to be said that people here will defend the autonomy of the artist to the very last. Anarchism is very popular as well.

MV: Can you describe your individual practices, or other collaborative involvements you have besides FNO and ‘Chto delat?’?

I have my own project, which is developing a methodology for ‘consciousness raising’. Some of that is realised in the Shop of Utopian Clothing and some of it in a project with older women. My recent exhibition in St Petersburg was called ‘I’m Naked, You’re Not’ and focussed on social and psychological inequality and on the position of the artist in society.

Tsaplya: I also have a ‘methodological project’, on the exploration and critique of various rules and norms of behaviour that subtly shape our existence from birth. I’m making methodological films and excursions.

MV: How would you discuss the ‘feminist’ dimension to the FNO’s work? Is it there? Is it important? Does it draw on the specific historical, national and political experience of feminism in Russia/Soviet Union? Is it also in a dialogue with feminist art practice in the West, especially performance-based approaches?

The relationship to feminism in Russia is dual. On the one hand, the October Revolution proclaimed (at least verbally) universal equality and women’s right to vote. Although feminism wasn’t made welcome in Soviet Russia – “what’s this, separate rights for women?” – women had unprecedented freedom. At any rate, a new ideal of womanhood came into being – the sportswoman, the activist, the youth leader – rather than the cook, seamstress or cleaner.

Gluklya: Russian women got their freedom on a platter – there you go, you’re free now! Russian women never fought for their rights like American and European women did. But a person only values what they had to fight for. That’s how you get this double morality – on the face of it, there’s equality, but in the family for instance, everything has stayed pretty much the same. Russia always was, and still is, a deeply patriarchal country. “Woman was created to beautify the world” is a common saying in Russia and defines the ideal type of feminity. Feminists, on the other hand, are “unattractive women who’ve been unlucky in love and that’s why they want to eliminate men. Then they’ll take over like the Amazons in a sci-fi film”.

Tsaplya: That’s why even simple educational work makes sense in Russia, so this forms a part of what we do. But what’s even more significant for us is to reconceive feminism in our own work. That brings us back to the question of ‘weakness’. The entrenched binaries ‘strong-weak’, ‘masculine-feminine’ frame the feminine as weak by definition. The question is how weakness can become strong, without relinquishing everything that’s good about being weak.

Gluklya: That’s why we have a lot of questions to put to feminism. We have at times encountered some odd positions in feminist theory that seem to be about foisting masculine ‘rules of the game’ onto women, under the banner of “we’re no worse than the men”. We believe that qualities like compassion, sacrifice and tolerance for the other are traditionally attributed to women, and being a feminist is no reason to lose sight of them.

Tsaplya & Gluklya: We think that all our work operates with a strong feminist principle, but the project ‘Shop of Utopian Clothing’ is our most obviously feminist project. It is supported by the Cyber-Femin Club in St Petersburg and the WGF/USA Fund. Among other things, the Shop is interested in the centre-periphery question, one that’s emerged with particular clarity after the collapse of the USSR. There isn’t a trace left of Lenin’s dream of the merging of countryside and city. The girls who work in the shop come mainly from the peripheries or suburbs. They’re completely shocked at first by our unorthodox approach to clothing and clothes shops, which is a great opening for conversation and mutual education.

MV: Any touchstones or inspirations for your work?

Tsaplya & Gluklya: All our work draws on literature – this is definitely our biggest influence. 19th century literature is very important, European and Russian: Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Balzac, Maupassant, Dickens, Poe . . . From the 20th century, Maeterlinck, Marquez, Cortazar.We were always very intrigued by the life and destiny of Mary Shelley, and Percy Byshe Shelley, we’ve always wanted to make a video about them. Since we spent our childhood and youth in the Soviet Union, stories of heroism had a big impact, and the remarkable accounts of revolutionary and war heroines: for instance, Zoe Cosmedemyanskaya, whose never betrayed her comrades despite being captured and tortured by having her breasts slashed; or Juliana Gromovaya, who was doused with boiling water by the Nazis but didn’t give away her fellow fighters. Pioneers, heroes, saving the lives of others even on the point of being killed themselves. We bawled our eyes out over Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Cosette from Les Miserables, and all kinds of little novels where poor characters had a sorry fate. Later on we got into Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Woolf, Lewis Carroll and English absurd verses – Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc – then Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Guy Debord, Hannah Arendt. Artists that have influenced our work include Valie EXPORT , Kiki Smith, Rebecca Horn, Georg Schneider and Janet Cardiff. The Futurist, Dadaists and Fluxus are also reference points for us.

Inspired by Natalie Pershina | Copyright © 2018