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Interview with Arseny Zhilyaev

I decide to drop by Arseny Zhilyaev’s workshop at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow last November, only to find that instead of sitting quietly in the corner and listening to presentations, I am expected to assume the role of artist myself. Along with my new-found colleagues, I am to make art as part of a role-playing game set in the Russian Cosmic Federation of the near future. By this point in human history, all art is created by AI, but man’s input is still required to advance the performance of machines. What we produce is to be evaluated by an assistant curator at Garage, and Zhilyaev himself, who will decide which of us is to represent the Russian Cosmic Federation at an Intergalactic Biennale.

 

I am nervous before the game starts, and bubble with excitement as everyone around me transforms into inhabitants of a post-futurist art world. But I get prematurely bored after the first two rounds of producing concepts as a member of the collective, Experimental Zombie Formalism. Turns out the art world’s grip on creative freedom can feel suffocating, even in the future. In response, my comrades and I go on strike, organize an alternative (and highly irreverent) annual biennale, and end up establishing a cult, of which I am the chief goddess. Fictional CEO of a fictional cult, with a divine status acknowledged by a board of devoted disciples – not the worst outcome for a struggling artist in a precarious sci-fi future. My brief period of art making, however, does not bring me intergalactic institutional recognition, nor does my work make it into planetary collections. I shall perish, nameless and forgotten, as my body dissolves into the ether.

 

Zhilyaev’s work – a mixture of installation, fiction, archival research, publishing, and most recently role-play games – combines Russian cosmist philosophy with a vision of a dystopian soon-to-come. The philosophy of cosmism – a mind-boggling combination of science, technology, and spirituality – was originally dreamed up by the nineteenth-century Russian thinker Nikolai Fedorov. Fedorov advocated for immortality, and the resurrection of all human beings, proposing that our ever-extending species populate other planets. In this new phase of our existence, the museum was to play a special role, serving as a depository of historical knowledge, including a full account of every person who has ever lived.

 

Zhilyaev’s fascination with theories of the future and cosmism has taken him to various places: his native town Voronezh in Russia, where he organised his first exhibition on the topic in 2014; Princeton’s Cosmism, a Superhumanity symposium last December; and Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW), where he took part in the exhibition Art Without Death: Russian Cosmism, in 2017.

 

The doctrine of immortality, all-brotherly love and interplanetary travel captured the minds of numerous artists, writers and scientists in early Soviet Russia, most notably inspiring the exploration of outer space. Today, it retains its magnetic pull. Cosmism’s idealism may be ludicrous and outlandish. It also makes it totally irresistible in our wobbly times.

Q

The White Review

—  When did the idea of using role-play games first emerge?

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— I used to write small plots for video games when I was a child. In the early 1990s there were magazines in Russia where children could publish their ideas and scripts for new computer programmes. I had ZX Spektrum, which was one of the first accessible personal computers for gaming and programming. Since primary school, computer languages and simulated reality were my obsession, but around the age of twelve I gave up gaming and programming. Twenty years later, I was surprised to suddenly discover that my projects and methodology bear certain similarities with early computer games.

 

Q

The White Review

— Which projects were these?

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— My installation Cradle of Humankind (2015)  – a fictional future museum – is composed in a way not dissimilar to Doom, one of the first computer games. It looks like a 3D adventure quest, I realised post factum. I mixed the aesthetics of Western and Soviet museums with all the typical elements of both – pompous architecture, stained-glass windows, glass cases, marble pedestals. Textured wallpaper covers the walls, and the spatial organisation makes experiencing the work resemble wandering from room to room in a computer game. There are also tapestries that, due to technological limitations, look very similar to 8-bit graphic.

 

Q

The White Review

— In 2017, I visited Tate Modern’s Ilya and Emilia Kabakov show, Not Everyone Will be Taken into the Future. The title made me think immediately of NII SOVRISKOPT, the game we played at the Garage. How much of an influence has Ilya Kabakov been?

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— It is difficult to speak of Kabakov’s influence. On the one hand, his approach could be described as fundamental for almost every cultural producer in the (post)-Soviet world who came after him. The Moscow Conceptual school was formed around Kabakov, and his artistic practice was at the centre of the Soviet underground art scene. From this perspective, even the Actionism of the 2000s and the 2010s {Russian protest art of the post-Soviet era} could be viewed as following in his footsteps. For example the Voina group, out of which Pussy Riot emerged, considered themselves students of man-dog Oleg Kulik {an artist who often assumes a role of a dog, or other animals, for his performances}; and for Kulik, Kabakov was the artist who defined Russian cultural practices well into the 1990s. So there are these continuities all along.

 

On the other hand, Kabakov’s language is so elaborate, so totalising, there is nothing one could add to it. Perhaps this is why young Russian artists in the 1990s criticised him as the dead-end of local art production. I use a metaphor of the first generation of Apple computers for describing this paradoxical situation. Those first computers were built as a wooden box to house the inner components. A couple of decades later, it was out of this box that devices that changed the world emerged, becoming an inescapable part of our lives. For me, Kabakov is an example of such a prototype.

 

It’s been over five years that I have been thinking of doing a collaborative project with my friends from the role-playing community. Some earlier games were cancelled because of bureaucracy and political fears. As you know, Russia has had a very turbulent past decade, which had a huge impact on contemporary art. NII SOVRISKOPT, the game we played at the Garage, became the first project of this nature that I realised. Its plot reflects some of the current tendencies in art production – like automatisation, bureaucratisation, AI, block-chain technologies, and, of course, total control and commodification. For the game’s framework, I used some of my typical cosmist intuitions, like collective creativity, and the fight for eternal life. In this regard, NII SOVRISKOPT has much in common with Cradle of Humankind. In both, people have disseminated into outer space, and planet Earth has lost its primacy for mankind, and been turned into a gigantic museum of life-origin. The museum operates as a business corporation, where one can buy the DNA of one’s ancestors and introduce the genes into a new body. Although many cosmist projects are realised in this dystopian world, capitalism has survived, and flourishes in its mutated form.

 

Q

The White Review

— Cosmist philosophy has obviously marked your work, aesthetically and epistemically.  How did it become important to your practice?

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— I started working with cosmism in 2013, 2014. My first cosmist show, the Memorial Exhibition (2014), took place in my hometown Voronezh. It turned out that the father of cosmism worked as a curator – and, curiously, in Voronezh as well! Fedorov spent several years of his life in Voronezh, where he organised six exhibitions, and the archival materials I discovered from this time served as one of the inspirations for my show.

 

Memorial Exhibition was dedicated to a fictional rocket corporation and revolved around the topic of ufology. In the 1990s, Voronezh became the centre of attraction for UFO studies, and the topic was actively discussed in the local media. Often, the primary sources of information were schoolchildren’s reports. I remember, as a child, we talked a lot about contacts with extra-terrestrial civilisations and UFO observations. I think this was partly due to the collapse of the USSR: people projected their fears or hopes into the sky, towards something unidentified, uncertain, and radically different…

 

So in my exhibition, Voronezh ufologists become the followers of Fedorov – which is partly true. The ufologists organise a rocket corporation, and, on entering the exhibition, we find ourselves in their headquarters. One of the rooms featured a futurologist article, The Voronezh Museum of 1998, written by Federov in 1898.

 

Q

The White Review

— Human transformation and immortality are the foundation of cosmism. In Cradle of Humankind, for example, one of the central objects is a statue of a man with the face of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin: a gold statue lying in a glass case, like an embalmed body in a mausoleum. Though perfect, the body is devoid of a reproductive organ, and represents a future post-human being: a super-creature that feeds on sun, air, and cosmic energy.

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— The sculpture you are referring to is an example of the first artificial body used for resurrection by my fictional museum corporation. The sculpture is based on the philosophy of another proponent of Russian cosmism, Alexander Gorsky, a forgotten Soviet author, close in his intuitions to Georges Bataille. In his text from the 1930s, Phallic Pupil, Gorsky describes the evolution of the human body as a process of transformation into a sun-fed creature, with no digestive apparatus or reproductive organs. A ‘light body’ without inner organs would be capable of overcoming gravity and learning to fly. Two parts are to play the biggest role: the pupil, which has the highest sensitivity to light – the only resource of energy needed – and the phallus, a tool for the prolongation of life and dissolution of creativity. Gorsky also speaks of female ‘cloudy eroticism’, which is apparently more important for future development than male eroticism. But this whole theory would only apply for a transitional period. In the end, there would be no sexes or genders anyway. In my Venetian project, Future Histories (2015), a perfect body with the face of Yuri Gagarin represents the first experiments in this field.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In Future Histories, the installation Cradle of Humankind forms half of an exhibition – the other half consists of the work of Mark Dion. what brought you and Dion together?

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— The exhibition was organised by the V-A-C Foundation, and the curator Magnus af Petersens. They thought a joint project with Dion would be interesting, since we both turn to museology and its history. In his case, it is the analysis of pre-modernist traditions and the cabinets of curiosity that come into focus. In my case, it is the early twentieth century avant-garde museums, and museum futurology. So in a way we supplement each other well.

 

We met for the first time when preparing for the exhibition. Mark is an amazing person, and very unusual for the world of contemporary art. He is more like a professor or scientist. In the late Soviet Union there was a dispute between “physicists” and “lyricists”, technical intelligentsia and the humanities. In Mark’s case, a physicist – or rather a naturalist – and a lyricist are united in a single persona.

 

Q

The White Review

— The question of gender, reproduction, and female subjectivity, is often sidelined from conversation on cosmism. How do we cope with gender roles in the cosmist dream?

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— Almost everyone who takes up the texts of Fedorov feels uncomfortable with all his ‘fathers and sons’ talk. Every international conference ends with questions around sexism and the omission of women in cosmist theories. ‘Mothers and daughters’ do also feature in Fedorovian writings. Ultimately, though, people of the future should become sexless.

 

If we think about classical thinkers associated with cosmism, there are a few intriguing things to mention in relation to sex. The philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, for instance, writes a lot on the impossibility of interpreting Jesus as an individual of the male sex. One of the direct followers of Fedorov, Valerian Muravyov, openly defends sexual equality. For another thinker, Vladimir Solovyov, love and sexual relations also take an unconventional form in the cosmist future. According to Solovyov, humankind should be freed from the necessity of procreation, and, therefore, redistribute its activity to other tasks, such as life-creation as a new art form. The active, creative component of human desire is to be put to more important ends, other than simple procreation – a theory that arguably inspired abstinence among some cosmists.

 

Q

The White Review

— In his book The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers (2012), George Young writes about a common habit among some intellectuals to practice married celibacy, while others took up a variety of erotic experimentations. Platonic love and Dionysian eros, extreme ascetism and drunken orgies, androgyny and homoeroticism, and sometimes all of the above…

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— In the cosmists’ view, love is the highest creative power, the be-all and end-all of human existence. But its potential is fully absorbed by the fight against death. Love channels into sexual relations, resulting in procreation. In order for humans to realise the true power of love, they have to find a technology that would enable the possibility of eternal life without the necessity of physical propagation. As soon as this happens, love will spread over the entire world, serving as a creative tool for transforming reality, and, most importantly, for returning loved ones. Reproductive organs will lose their significance. I think that with all the technologies available today this theory doesn’t even sound too far-fetched. Some are already arguing for the use of lab child-bearing instead of a natural process of pregnancy, others are advocating for the possibility of using female DNA only for reproduction purposes. Genetics is getting closer and closer to embodying our dreams (or nightmares, if you like).

 

Q

The White Review

—  In his writings, Fedorov speaks of growing police surveillance, but he would probably be excited by big data as a phenomena. He would certainly see it as a huge leap forward towards his goal of the museum as a depository for all human history.

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— I think Fedorov would have viewed many changes that have transformed our contemporary lives as fast-forwarding humanity towards his ‘common task’ of eternal life. How could a person living in the nineteenth or even the twentieth century imagine total surveillance via social networks and mailing services? This really is still unbelievable, even today. What is Orwell’s Big Brother in comparison with Yarovaya Law, according to which the Russian state must collect all internet traffic, and any traces of mobile communication, by its citizens? But from Fedorov’s perspective, as from ours, the most problematic aspect is what this data would be used for. He would undoubtedly be against any form of political violence and enforcement, or the use of big data for commercial purposes. What is to be done to transform the current state of affairs into something more aligned with Fedorov’s ‘common task’? The answer is relatively old. As the media theorist Evgeny Morozov says: socialise the data centres! Meaning, take control over the infrastructure produced by capitalism and use it for better ends, such as education, healthcare, transport, food aid, and scientific research, which would finally lead humankind to defeating death. I guess the ‘common task’ from this perspective is not a wild-goose chase.

 

Q

The White Review

— What is the relationship of your work to the political landscape of contemporary Russia?

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— Until 2011, my projects were closely connected with the political situation in Russia. I was part of the protest movement against unfair elections, as well as working with non-authoritarian socialist groups. At that time, it seemed possible to use art as a tool of political struggle: to use it not as a provocation, but to create a real alternative to what we had in our political spectrum. With the artist Ilya Budraitskis, I staged Pedagogical Poem: The Archive of the Museum of the History of the Future, a project that took place in the former Museum of the Revolution in Moscow. The project comprised exhibitions and a year-long educational program. Our original goal was to explore the possibilities of working with history in a museum setting. But, as it turned out, the project coincided with mass protests. History and revolution went beyond the boundaries of the museum and spilled on to the streets. I was torn between activism and museum work. It was a very interesting experience, which allowed me to better understand the relationship between art and direct political action.

 

Two years later in 2014, I created the M.I.R. (the Museum of Russian History), which resulted in two exhibitions, M.I.R.: New Paths to the Objects in Paris, and M.I.R.: Polite Guests from the Future in San Francisco. These exhibitions revolved around the idea of a museum set in Russia in the near future, but related to the situation in Russia in the present. It was so-called ‘short-range targeting’ sci-fi, as they said in the USSR in the 1970s. Later, my projects moved further and further away from the present day towards a distant future – a future which, nevertheless, represents one of the possible scenarios for the development of current trends.

 

Q

The White Review

— To return to Young… he talks about the popularity of cosmism in Russia today, explaining how it is seen as a native philosophy, providing a home-grown alternative to the rational and ‘soulless’ Western theories. Could ‘cosmism’ be anything other than ‘Russian cosmism’?

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— There is an opinion that cosmism is somehow convenient for the Russian authorities. For example, in his address to parliament, Putin once referred to the ‘common task’, though in a completely non-Fedorovian interpretation. According to legend, one of his speechwriters is a specialist in Russian religious philosophy, so from time to time hidden quotes from Fedorov, the cosmist and Slavophil Ivan Ilyin, and others, appear in the president’s addresses. For some among the liberal intelligentsia, cosmism has become a strong irritant. It is considered a totalitarian doctrine well suited to supporting the Russian ideology. Some Western academics even posit that cosmism has been successfully integrated into the political life of the country, using statements of some marginal pro-Kremlin politicians of the ultra-right wing, or the red-brown Stalinists, to support their claims. Neither of the above however have anything to do with actual intellectual and cultural production in contemporary Russia.

 

As a matter of fact, it is difficult to imagine anything more distant from each other than the cosmist doctrine and modern-day Russia. Although Federov was a monarchist and a devoted Orthodox Christian, nothing he offers could possibly fit into the frameworks of either traditional Christianity, or the capitalist system. Fedorov is very difficult to instrumentalise – he is most ‘inconvenient’ in this regard.

 

Q

The White Review

— The museum, according to Fedorov, would become an integral aspect of the project of resurrection. In your work, however, the museum turns into an institution of control. I am curious to hear your take on the utopian, rather than dystopian, museums of the future.

 

A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— A positive, constructive vision of a museum is an impossibly difficult task: a utopian museum is really hard to conceive as an art project. I suppose my attempts at direct action and ‘propaganda’ in some early works, however, could be described as close to idealist. For instance, The Museum of Proletarian Culture, a fictional museum I imagined for an exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in 2012, was an institution dedicated to a new art history that would emerge after a great social revolution in the future. My Russian Cosmic Federation has its own evolutionary path: sometimes, it is presented as a dystopian empire; at other times, a revolutionary upheaval transforms it into an anarchic coalition of free star clusters.

 

In general, I would like to see my projects as movements toward a methodology that Dostoevsky called a ‘polyphonic novel’ – a particular type of narration that approaches a problem from different, often opposing, perspectives, so that you cannot clearly identify which is the author’s position. Dystopia and utopia are already present in the now, they are just not evenly distributed.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you consider yourself a cosmist?
A

Arseny Zhilyaev

— I suppose I am a cosmist. And how could it be otherwise? Cosmism offers a rather sober view of death and technological development. Moreover, cosmism complements the social aspects of art that are important to me. In general, I have not yet abandoned my critical – Marxist, if I may say so – position. Although it has certainly undergone an evolution.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is an art writer and editor living in London.

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