More light! Build more lighthouses! Drink phosphorus! As autocrats and neo-feudalists in the United States, Turkey, Poland, Great Britain, and other countries turn off the lights, something must shine the brighter. But what? What should be done? Chto Delat?! That is the signature question under which this collective of artists, intellectuals, and activists from Moscow and Saint Petersburg have worked together for the past fourteen years. In 2014, however, the group ran out of answers—in an Exhibition at Kow, they sealed their hopes that art might offer a critical response to the war in Ukraine and Putin’s neo-nationalism in a time capsule and launched them toward an unknown future. The show was an open admission of their perplexity and marginality. The shock that had agonized the Russian collective has now reached the West. They have worked through it and are coming back to Berlin with a fresh look at their prospects and ours—and, at KOW, they build a lighthouse.
Nothing less is at stake than the fate of the Enlightenment, an increasingly global state of emergency, and the ruined illusion that liberalism might survive on a few islands. Also at stake is a possible way for art to keep speaking up. The upstairs gallery memorializes men and women who were burned or shot to death or killed by water guns in recent protests. Towering above the five sculptures commemorating the brutal demise of free public expression is a lighthouse scaffold that takes inspiration from Gustav Klutsis’s agitprop kiosks, a historic form of mass communication that effectively publicized progressive ideals after the Russian Revolution. But instead of broadcasting confident messages rallying the masses to build a better future, Chto Delat raise a monument of gloom, a black beacon of mournful uproar, as well as a transmitter mast for the saturnine incantations of recently deceased writers and musicians, from John Berger to Leonard Cohen, who knew about the power of darkness and now chant a requiem for the fallen heroes of freedom.
Lighthouses may illuminate the world around them, but the signal they send is a warning. They mark places that navigators had best avoid. In the downstairs gallery, the lighthouse becomes the symbol of a refuge that has lost its way. In cooperation with Artists at Risk, a nonprofit that organizes stays in so-called “Safe Havens” in Europe for artists who are under threat, Chto Delat shot the film “It Has Not Happened to Us Yet. Safe Haven”(1) on the Norwegian island of Sula in 2016. Their two-channel video installation tells the fictional story of five artists whom a fellowship enables to escape war and repression for a remote islet. Interspersed in the narrative are documentary shots: in interviews, the islanders explain their solidarity with refugee artists, gladly explain local rules and the conditions for social integration, and sing the island’s hymn. But it gradually emerges that the artists’ hope to leave the world’s conflicts and their own disputes behind for a peaceful exile was an illusion. The story might well become Chto Delat’s own future, or that of many others, and it reminds us of the countless individuals who had or still have nowhere to escape to.
A few steps away is Putin’s reality. In an expansive assemblage of images found on the Internet, Chto Delat document how the new Russia perpetually produces politics and everyday life as performative rituals that proliferate in social media. We stand amid the theater of sometimes utterly absurd gestures and emblems of neo-national identity to observe an experiment: a monitor shows a public square in Saint Petersburg. One after another, three demonstrators appear wearing signs around their necks that read: “Hug me, I’m your enemy,” “Beat me, I’m your sister,” “Pinch me, I’m dreaming you.” Passersby and actors respond in different ways to the quiet protesters’ appeals, revealing, en passant, the surreal nature of public life beneath the banner of the Russian Bear. Who is telling the truth? Who is playing a part? Who speaks for whom? Who is being threatened, and by whom?
Chto Delat’s exhibition is a statement on the political present moment. It responds to the ever more aggressive attacks on liberal values and revisits historic—and yet not entirely historic—episodes of anxiety, flight, and powerlessness. Here are Walter Benjamin, Trotsky, and Hannah Arendt, intellectuals forced into exile; here are Bertolt Brecht’s observations on the disintegration of the German public sphere in the run-up to the Nazis’ rise to power. Each might be matched to a similar figure today, their situation now made worse by a new global condition: the ideas of equality and justice have fewer and fewer passionate defenders—they seem to have become dispensable in the “prolonged twilight of reaction,” as Chto Delat put it in their notes accompanying the exhibition. If some optimistic light nonetheless glimmers in our galleries, it is due to the confidence of a collective of unflinching thinkers and practitioners who, when asked what should be done, would throw in that art at least sees possibility even when the lights go out.
Call it their keen sense of reality. Or in Leonard Cohen’s words, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Chto Delat’s exhibition was fabricated in the galleries at KOW and in Petersburg in the weeks before the opening. In 2017–2018, it will travel to various locations and keep growing. New productions are scheduled in which theatrical and documentary forms will be interwoven. The social and institutional staging of reality calls for commensurate choreographies of critique, complemented by poetry, sculpture, and an enlarged repertoire of capacious installation art that translates progressive forms from Russian avant-garde and Soviet culture across boundaries of genre and ideology into a queer popular aesthetic. In the face of a world (and an art world) that is variously dumbstruck, ensconced in elitism, or dissipated in foolish chatter, Chto Delat are committed to a language that stands by its ideals, that seeks to make itself understood, and continue to regard social emancipation as the unchanging mission of their shared work.