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Boycott Manifesta 2014 in St. Petersburg?

August 29, 2013

Dmitry Vilensky on the question of boycotting Manifesta 2014 in St. Petersburg

Read the original boycott petition here:

 In response to this petition, Manifesta Director Hedwig Fijen stated :

Of course we are concerned about the current conservative climate [in Russia]. But should we isolate all countries that have not yet committed to a just standard of human rights? Or should we not much rather try to build bridges and establish a cultural dialogue? [Read the original here.]


Dmitry Vilensky:

The idea of boycotting an event is always based on radical solidarity. At the same time, this solidarity is seriously limited, as it is always from a negative position and does not really offer an alternative. A boycott generally presents a moralistic assessment of a situation, and it is heavily dependent on a major event against which is it directed. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a moment in art history when a boycott was successful – in a situation of ambivalent cultural politics the event almost always takes places, even if there are a few hundred signatures gathered against it and several important names refuse to participate. However, boycotts are important to my mind, even if they are doomed to failure – as they make the organizers aware of the need to rethink their politics.

For example, for us  (the Chto Delat collective) it was important to demand  an answer after the disgraceful dismissal of Viktor Misiano from the Moscow Biennale organizers. It was also important to demand an answer from the Kandinsky Prize organizers for rewarding an openly fascist artist. And it was also important to demand that Alain Badiou reject his invitation to Moscow at the invitation of the Gleb Pavlovsky Foundation. And I am very glad that these and other similar interventions have had concrete consequences.

Do we now need to demand a boycott of Manifesta? It’s a rhetorical question – the demand already came and it sounds very compelling, so now we need to analyze who is behind this demand and what the stakes really are.

For me, the real problem is that the boycott comes from the “outside,” in relation to the local players – moreover, as St Petersburg doesn’t actually have an art community that states its position and suggests alternatives. Chto Delat’s position has always been that of grassroots self-organization of the local cultural life, but in our specific case, when all forms of civil society are collapsing, we realize clearly that we lack actual opportunities to formulate a serious counter-power to these “outside” players, with their superficial understanding of what is happening in the city. That is why, speaking from a relatively marginal position within the art scene, I would say that for us calls for a boycott are still premature.

The conversation should be taken to another level of demands (and pressure should be put on all sides). Manifesta should be faithfully trying to fulfill its mission, by finding artistic means of expression that reflect on the collapse of “social dialogue” in Russia, which goes beyond the LGBT community. If this event is willing to take this challenge, then it is worth supporting it and the experience could be important and unique – if it is not ready, then the artistic community still has enough time to take the necessary maneuvers.

Now, however, we see certain warning signs. The counter-petition, written by Manifesta organizers, states that it will strive not to interfere in “internal” politics and instead “engender” a kind of taste (?) for some abstract values of tolerance. Bur what’s that?? Instead of a declaration of solidarity with the LGBT community, with all of those who are persecuted in Russia (from migrants to the members of art collectives sitting in prison), we hear that Manifesta will not participate in any propaganda, instead it will attempt to maintain a neutral space for dialogue. There is no such thing as a neutral space for discussion in Russia today – you are either on the side of the repressive conservative ideology machine, of cheap entertainment and mind-wasting of the creative class, or you are fighting to develop a viable alternative to all of this. In the current situation, forcing a Cold War between “The West” (with its civil society values) and Russia only leads to a psuedo-union through art type of rhetoric – a starry-eyed take, more appropriate as the mission statement of an international charity organization. Real contemporary can and must deal with antagonism and conflict. This is the only position Manifesta can take faced with the problematics of presenting a democratic art project in a situation of legitimizing the power of an archaic escalation of violence on every level of civic and political life. This is truly a radical conflict, and it’s unclear how it could be resolved, but as we have learned from China or the Arab countries, Western cultural machines are always prepared to compromise, retreating behind the rhetoric of respecting “differences,” when in reality they are quite clearly dictated by financial speculation and the obscure idea of fostering “all that is well and good.”

What we are seeing now is that Manifesta is drawn in a compromise with the city officials that finance it, who happily “bought” Manifesta brand for the city, the same bureaucrats who are directly connected to the most outspoken homophobes and religious lobbists in Russian politics today. As we well know as insiders in this situation, these figures have never been willing to support any basic principles of “autonomous” political expression in the arts. It is worth mentioning that in the current Lissitsky – Kabakov exhibition at the Hermitage a painting was taken out because it contained obscenities – if such a direct censorship of a (quite harmless) classic in a leading Russian museum is  possible with impunity, we can only imagine how it affects the work of young contemporary artists.

In the production of the Manifesta project in Petersburg there was from the beginning an explosive mixture of the interests of the Manifesta Foundation, the will of the curator (Thanks to for the information about the identity of the curator – Kasper König), the city administration, the yet-unrealized projects of the artists and the Hermitage – all this together with the unpredictable Russian politics create a situation that can explode at any moment, with or without the petition. I also assume that Manifesta is under a lot of pressure not only from the protesters, but also from the organizers in Russia who hardly have any experience working on a contemporary project of this scale (or with contemporary art for that matter). And they will do their best to brand Manifesta with the comfortable slogan “the Olympics of contemporary art.” (the St. Petersburg city administration must have bought this event just to use this slogan) – whether Manifesta will be able to critically engage all of this and how it will manage to do so, will become clear very soon.

And then we will act based on the development of this situation.


Translated from Russian by Corina L. Apostol. Read the original here:


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