Russian Video Art in the New Millennium: a chorus of Soloists

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Russian Video Art in the New Millennium: A Chorus of Soloists

Antonio Geusa

In Russia, video as an artistic practice had a painless birth. The first video cameras and recorders became available in the mid-1980s, at a time when art disrespectful of the canons of Socialist Realism was forbidden from public display and confined to the podpolye (Russian for “basement” or “underground”): a few studios and flats of Non-Conforming artists where unauthorized meetings and exhibitions took place. Video equipment entered the contemporary art arena in conditions of semi-clandestinity since all means of technological reproductions were under the censoring control of State organizations regulating the production and fruition of art. Going around with a video camera would have caught the attention of the police and led to trouble with the authorities. However, even without the risks of having the video cameras and tapes confiscated (or, in the worst scenario, being sent to jail) the prices of first video cameras, recorders and tapes on the shelves of “commission shops” – official outlets where it was possible to buy foreign-made, high-quality luxury goods – and on the black market were too high to attract the interest of the art community. Before the Iron Curtain was once and for all removed in 1991 and the resulting surfacing of underground art and the opening of the first contemporary art spaces, very few artists had the chance to get access to video equipment and use it.1 Moreover, for quite a long time the production of these pioneers of Russian video art remained largely unknown. In other words, video art had been born, but its birth had not been ratified.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 had as immediate consequence the abolition of all restrictions on the use of technological devices and the fall in the prices of video equipment. At the same time relevant financial support was given by private galleries – which were not indifferent to the interest shown by the public although video had no commercial value on the domestic market – and by non-profit organizations that started to operate in the country with the specific task to promote contemporary art. Affordable, simple to make and display, easy to be sent (also abroad) with no worries about damage or loss, art on videotape rapidly became very popular.2 It proved to be the perfect medium that artists had at their disposal to (re)define their identity as Post-Soviet artists, to speak about the function and role that art should have in the painful metamorphosis into a capitalist entity that the whole country was going through, and to build a direct dialogue with a public that was now much wider than that of Soviet times and eager to get acquainted with that type of art that previously had been forced to survive underground for not being realistic in form and socialist in content.3

By the end of the 1990s, videoart4 was shown in many places of the vast territory of the Russian Federation. However, crucial peculiarity of video art in Russia is that this popularity was not accompanied by any theoretical support. McLuhan’s equation that the appropriation of the medium would allow the success of the message which had made video flourish in the West prompting the art community of the second half of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s to use it to challenge the authority of television and build alternative channels of production and distribution of information was unsuitable for Russia. Artists working with video did not have enough financial means and easy access to the right technical resources to build similar channels. Consequently, an updated (and adapted) version of such a theory could not take root. As a matter of fact, no theoretical theses were applied to or developed around video practice in any of its forms. Russian video art grew without the guidance or reference of critical examinations that would put the whole production into one single discourse.

The literature available on the topic does not mention a current that could be labeled as “video art movement”. From the moment video entered the public contemporary art space at the beginning of the 1990s art historians and critics did not ignore its importance but it was always put in relation to a general concept (that of a particular exhibition) or to the maker’s previous production. Similarly, now that the Cold War was over, despite video turned out to be an effective and practical instrument to express the much felt need to break the long years of isolation and become an active member of the world art community, the videos made were not put in relation to the history of Western video art. Video entered the art community claiming no tradition. It did it very quietly. It was not accepted as a unity of measure of a complex art movement of national scale. In short, the question “Why are we making video?” was never asked.

Progressively, the number of artists who adopted video technology as the form to best express their vision of the world grew year after year. By the end of the 1990s it became clear that it was a very effective medium to get oneself known and, for what concerns those areas in which contemporary art had not yet taken root, to escape isolation. A look at the geography of the development of video in Russia demonstrates that video played a relevant role in the production of those artists who did not live in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Peculiarity of Russia is that all main chapters of the history of contemporary art seem to have been written in Moscow (mostly) and Saint Petersburg (partly). It appears that the censoring vigilance of the Union of the Artists – the most powerful Soviet organization supervising art production – was too strong to allow elsewhere the survival of a compact underground art community disobeying the golden rule of Socialist Realism. Even though the Soviet empire had collapsed, artists who were not based in Moscow or Saint Petersburg had to fight harder to get their voices heard. A chronicle lack of private money, very little assistance from state cultural organizations, almost complete absence of spaces devoted to contemporary art and a public who showed not particular enthusiasm were serious obstacle to overcome. Video turned out to be for many an artist the way out. The “Blue Noses” collective (Dmitry Bulnygin, Vyacheslav Mizin, Konstantin Skotnikov, Maksim Zonov) from Novosibirsk are a pertinent instance. In 1999, the four members of the group locked themselves up in an old air-raid shelter for a few days and made fourteen short performances for the video camera. As a matter of fact, their choice to live underground in a bunker was a form of protest against the abovementioned difficulties faced by artists living in Siberia. Once recorded and edited the five-minute long tape was sent to Moscow to take part in an art competition organized by one of the leading galleries of the capital.5 That was the start of a long career, prosperous on both national and international level, that has seen the Blue Noses becoming today one of the most acclaimed Russian contemporary art personalities. Without any doubts, video is the instrument that allowed them to achieve so great a success.
Whereas it would be inappropriate to speak of a self-conscious video art movement advocating the revolutionary qualities of the technology when applied to art, starting from the year 2000 – a useful conventionality that has to be taken as a flexible reference point –, it is already possible to encounter a few artists who had demonstrated in the period seeing the consolidation of contemporary art in the open (that is, the second half of the 1990s) that video was the ideal medium to express their view of the world and were referred to as well as referred to themselves as “video artists”: AES+F, Viktor Alimpiev, Bluesoup, the duo Aristarkh Chernyshev and Vladislav Efimov, Anna Jermolaewa, Nina Kotel, Aidan Salakhova, Vladimir Salnikov, Olga Tobreluts, PROVMYZA, zAiBi, amongst others.

When taking into consideration the quick pace of the affirmation of video art in Russia, this group of video makers belonging to the stage in which video had reached full maturity can be counted as the third generation of video artists since Andrey Monastyrsky recorded his “Conversation with a Lamp” in 1985. Chronologically, they follow that of the Soviet pioneers (1985-1991) – Andrey Monastyrsky, Boris Yukhananov, and the three collectives Pirate TV, Prometheus Institute and Collective Actions – and that of the early experimenters who brought video art into the newborn public contemporary art spaces – Tatiana Dober and Aleksandr Alekseev, Vadim Fishkin, Aleksey Isaev, Vadim Koshkin, Yuris Lesnik, Timur Novikov and his New Academy of Fine Arts, Kirill Preobrazhensky, Gia Rigvava, Seven, Aleksey Shulgin, Sergey Shutov, Leonid Tishkov, Andrey Velikanov, Andrius Ventsolova, German Vinogradov, to name some.

Throughout the 2010s, year after year, more and more artists entered the list of the mature stage of Russian video art: Marina Alekseeva, Kirill Asse, Vika Begalska, Lyudmila Belova, Blue Noses, Oleg Blyablyas, Sergey Bratkov, Aleksey Buldakov, Dmitry Bulnygin, Olga Chernysheva, Aleksandra Dementeva, Electroboutique, Escape Program, The Factory of Found Clothing, Marina Fomenko, Lyudmila Gorlova, Vladlena Gromova, Dmitry Gutov, Anton Litvin, Vladimir Logutov, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, Aleksandra Mitlyanskaya, Irina Nakhova, Radek, Vasily Tsereteli, Evgeny Umansky, Yuri Vasilev, What Is to Be Done?, Zer Gut all have made a few works that have met the favor of the public and appraisal from the critics. By the end of the decade, the number of artists working mostly, if not exclusively, with video had sensibly grown to such an extent that it would be probably unnecessary effort to take a census. At the same time, the geography of production of video art became progressively wider and wider. Both private and state managed new venues devoted to contemporary art which constantly showed video opened in many cities of the Russian Federation – Yekaterinburg, Samara, Vladivostok, Kaliningrad, Nizhniy-Novgorod, Petrozavodsk, amongst others – allowing artists living here to have a close outlet for their work with video.

Furthermore, distribution channels also expanded. A key phenomenon of the 2010s was that of the video art festival. In Russia, financial support to contemporary art had never been particularly consistent. The administrations of many cities and regions did not consider art made with new technological devices a priority in their budgets. By and large, a video art festival offered the advantage of relatively limited organization and production costs. Usually in the form of screenings in cinema halls or similar auditoria, a festival was much more affordable than a video art exhibition, especially if this included interactive or multi-channel installations. Undoubtedly, the festival played a very important role in favoring the production of video art and broadening its public. Amidst these festivals it is pertinent to mention some. The oldest of all them is the Media Forum (since 2000), a yearly video art competition taking place in Moscow at the beginning of summer, the “Kansk International Video Festival” (from 2002) in Kansk, a small town in the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia, the “Pusto Street Video Art Festival” (2002-2008), also in Moscow, that had the peculiarity of taking place outdoor, “Outvideo” (2004-2007), a travelling festival originated in Yekaterinburg shown on advertising screens, “Videologia”(2004-2008) in Volgograd, “Videoline” (2007-2008) in Kazan, and, for what concerns the most recent ones, the “No Festival” (from 2008) in Chelyabinsk.6

When telling the story of a battle historians usually report the size of the armies involved, but never all the names of the private soldiers fighting in each of them. Understandably, it is always the generals’ and the other commanding officers’ names to be mentioned. It is around the heroism (or cowardice) of these leaders that the story of the battle unravels. Similarly, amongst the large formation of Russian artists working today with video there are a few who have developed through the years very specific, original and personal “video poetics”. Clearly, subjects, reference points, manner of execution, production resources, and target audience are not the same for everyone but vary from artist to artist. However, what these artists have in common is the possession of an inimitable combination of style and contents, that is to say an unforgeable signature, which singles each of them out. Moreover (and most importantly), these artists have illustrated and explained in artist’s statements for exhibition press-releases, in articles on art magazines and in public speeches the main characteristics and research directions of their work with video. In other words, although in Russia the question “Why are we making video?” was never asked, the same cannot be said for the question “Why am I making video?”.

In countertendency with the Soviet pioneers and first experimenters of the early 1990s who did not make many efforts to analyze in depth their work with the newly available video equipment, the most recent history of Russian contemporary art boasts a number of artists who have extensively written about and publicly discussed the body of their video works. Ultimately, it is the work of these artists who possess a unique ability at exploiting the possibilities of video tools and a clear view of what they want to say and what objectives they want to reach that fills the pages of the history of Russian video art of the past decade, a chapter for each artist. Accordingly, the following artists deserve special mention: AES+F. Viktor Alimpiev, Vika Begalska, Bluesoup, Blue Noses, Oleg Blyablyas, Sergey Bratkov, Aleskey Buldakov, Dmitry Bulnygin, Collective Actions, Electroboutique, Dmitry Gutov, Anna Jermolaewa, Anton Litvin, Vladimir Logutov, Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, Andrey Monastryrsky, Kirill Preobrazhensky, PROVMIZA, Aidan Salakhova, Sergey Shutov, Olga Tobreluts, Evgeny Umansky, Yuri Vasilev, What Is to Be Done?, Vadim Zakharov.

It would be pertinent, at this point, to give a few explanatory examples of the reasons why the video poetics of these artists is unique. Viktor Alimpiev made his first video, the animation “A Few Presents for Oleg” in 1996. Since then, he made about twenty works and gained international critical acclaim as well as commercial success. Characteristic features of his videography are the use of a pink-grey background, preference for closed spaces reminding of the theatrical stage, repetition of obsessive gestures, lyrical dialogues often recited in the form of a song and, in general, a rather schizophrenic representation of reality. In his writings he relates his work with video to the search for pure visuality. This vigil attempt at building a “new visuality” is, for example, illustrated in the essay “Visuality: The Invention of Habit” written as theoretical support to the single-channel video “Ode” (2001).7 Here, it is explained that the rituals performed by the actors in the video are “surrogate habits” functional to the representation of the “authentic”:
We can call this new visuality an elevated media. (“Elevated” is not a word from the media. We use it according to the logic of contemporary art). We present the TV set as we had formatted it through ecstasy, the place where all our nice habits are shown. In the West visuality is already a nice habit. We now try to create here these habits and put them into a ritual. We can not be naturally visual anyway, but we long to transform visuality into art. We transformed it from naturally non-existence into an artistic [artificial] being. This is surely better than nothing.

In a way, new visuality is exultant “mediality”. Suddenly, the possibility to be simply visual arises.8

1996 is also the year when the Bluesoup collective (Aleksey Dobrov, Daniil Lebedev, Valery Patkonen and from 2001 Aleksandr Lobanov) made their first video. Only five years later, they had gained national and international fame for their “minimalist videos”. In 2003, to avoid misunderstandings and to make clear once and for all the guidelines of their way of making video art, the artists wrote the following manifesto:
BlueSoup has nothing to do with politics, morals, State ideology, economics, power, violence, sex, sport.

BlueSoup has something to do with poetry.

BlueSoup has something to do with mystic.

BlueSoup has something particular to do with the Beautiful.

BlueSoup has nothing to do with humor and irony.

BlueSoup has something to do with harmony.

BlueSoup does not provoke.

BlueSoup does not react.

BlueSoup is often video.

BlueSoup Video is, as a rule, very short video.

BlueSoup Video is when almost nothing happens.

BlueSoup Video is the absence of characters, editing, plot, start, culmination, and end.

BlueSoup Video does not tell a story.

For this reasons BlueSoupVideo has structure, rhythm, composition.9

By and large, these rules have not been broken with the production that was made after this manifesto was written, when their works took the form of the large-scale installations requiring sophisticated equipment to properly display their 3D modeled images and, in terms of content, took a turn towards the representation of psychological landscapes.
Writes Anna Jermolaewa:
I regard video art as a territory where the narrativity of the cinema meets pictorial art with its spatial, installation aspect, making it possible to drag the viewer out of inherent passivity.10
To shake the viewers and turn them into active spectators Jermolaewa does not resort to socking images. Quite the contrary. Her world is populated with the everyday in its unspectacular form. Her way of operating the video camera to capture the surrounding world is very straightforward and unsophisticated. Peculiarity of her video art is the representation of reality the way it is, without altering it in the editing room. The grotesque inherent in the recorded fragment of reality becomes apparent only when it is cut out from the original context and moved to the contemporary art space. Coherently, her staged works have a similar effect. They abound in the use of ordinary objects – often toys – performing simple actions that turn out to be for the viewer rather disquieting and unbalancing.
The What Is to Be Done? collective led by Dmitry Vilensky are undoubtedly the most dynamic representatives of art moved by social and political commitment. Their single-channel videos and installations are clear statements that expose the disinterest of the ruling class in improving social welfare and their dependence on perverse logics of money and power. Vilensky’s texts accompanying these works – often published in the group’s magazine with the same name – are motivated by anger against social injustice and the desperate need to fight for awareness and the development of collective consciousness that in the long run would bring forth radical changes and overcome the stiff status quo. Their conspicuous videography is the illustration of the leading principle at the core of their activity, that is to say the need to make art that “ aims to reflect a new logic for contemporary artists to create a platform for the collaborative work, rethinking of a role of the art in dynamically changing local communities”.11
The video art of the abovementioned Blue Noses collective consists mostly of short videos characterized by the use of low-definition technology, use of handmade written captions, abundance of fat men and women in their underwear (or naked) wearing paper masks of famous people from the world of international and national politics, science, religion, pop culture and so on, and fireworks fired directly from trousers. In 2010, Blue Noses have written a sort of manifesto to accompany the showing of a large retrospective of a videos made over a decade in which they explain the “core” of their video production and by extension their art as a whole. Here, they praise video for allowing them to bring contemporary art closer to the mass contrasting the tendency in Russia of believing it exclusively an “elitist project”. Accordingly, their art, “low tech in form and sharply social in content” [Низкотехнологичного по форме и остро социального по содержанию] is a “more populist, ‘people-oriented’ form of contemporary art”. Boldly, although inaccurately from an historic point of view, they also state that they have invented a new type of video art, which was not “extensively long, boring and not interesting, not even to specialists” like that of their predecessors. Video is for them the perfect medium not only to reach a wider audience, but also to stimulate young people to make art. Through the years, they taught how to make “lap-horse video” – basic use of the video camera, primitive editing with a computer and a choice of everyday life topics narrated in a humorous way – in many places all over Russia (in particular, in those area were the culture relevance of contemporary art struggle to get recognized), and abroad.12
Twenty-five years after its humble birth in the semi-clandestinity of a flat in North Moscow Russian video art has come a long way. Today its importance in the ongoing process of affirmation of contemporary art started when it emerged to the surface after the collapse of the Soviet Union is undisputed – especially for what concerns those areas of the Federation in which contemporary art still struggles to get places of fruition and financial support for production. Undoubtedly, listening to the voices of those artists who have found in video the ideal instrument to give an uncompromised and truthful representation of laws of the world we live in allows to get a better understanding of the culture revolution – evolution or devolution, maybe – that Russia has gone through in redefining itself as a new political, economical and social structure after the Soviet flag was removed from the Kremlin. If only we watched...

1 For a detailed account of the early years of video art in Russia see “History of Russian Video Art - Volume 1”

2 Initially, video flourished in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, only at a later stage in other cities of the Russian Federation.

3 An explanatory text on the role and function of video art in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union can be found in “History of Russian Video Art - Volume 2”.

4 Russian for “video art”.

5 The competition was part of a project called “Culture Heroes of the 21st century” curated by Marat Guelman for his gallery.

6 For more comprehensive information on festivals see the Program sections in this catalogue.

7 Co-author: Marian Zhunin

8 Alimpiev, Viktor, Sergey Vishnevskiy, and Marian Zhunin. ‘Visuality: The Invention of Habit”, Moscow Art Magazine, no. 40 (2001) p. 57.


10 Jermolaewa Anna, Artist’s statement, Ad Oculos (curator: Vitaly Patsyukov), National Centre for Contemporary Art, 2009, p. 12.

11 “FEZA Projects”, What Is to Be Done?, no. 3, 2003, p. 16.

12 Blue Noses. “Lap-Horse Video. Film Retrospective 1999 – 2009”, Guelman Gallery, Moscow, 2010. Exhibition press-release.

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