unrest, Ekaterina Degot

narrator Ekaterina Degot
term unrest
published 7 December 2014, Moscow, Russia, Europe
affiliated institution Academy of Arts of the World

Famously, the notion of ‘unrest’ (Unruhe) is at the core of the Hegelian definition of the subject. Hegel refers here to Aristotle, for whom a subject is the one who moves by oneself (Hegel understands this as a work of self-reflection, dialectical negation, work of antagonisms), while subject’s counterpart, the object, is mainly characterized by its immobility. By reflexion of its own otherness and difference, the subject moves his way through time, while what the object does is occupying space. A subject does not exist outside the process of subjectivization, of becoming.

 

The birth of the modern subject is often connected to its mobility, be it just flânerie or less leisurely displacement; self-reflexion goes best while on a train or a plane, and even better when one finds oneself deracinated. In postmodern, neocapitalist, global society, better adapted subjects (like, let’s say, international curators, or wandering theorists, or biennial artists) try to circulate as much as commodities, to demonstrate themselves rather than commodities, to become commodities, describing their mode de vie as constant self-design and themselves as ready-mades (as Boris Groys does). Talking ready-mades in changing circumstances – this is basically the description of both artists and artworks today. Artist (or curator, or theorist) is constantly moving around the globe to perform, basically, oneself in new contexts. Artworks have been seen circulating for a century already, but what is new today is the performative turn inside object-hood: art object is in unrest as well, it is unstable, it is often a cluster of different site-specific versions of the same installation, or video, or performance. From here, I can imagine going in two directions, which I outline here briefly.

 

Vector 1: Unrest of the object: performative turn and time-specific art

The dehumanization of the subject goes hand in hand with the subjectivization and humanization of an artwork, a process that has been developing over the course of the twentieth century. The decolonization of the subject-object asymmetry and the shift towards more equality was part of the agenda of the historical avant-garde, especially Russian and Soviet, where abolishment of traditional painting (in its paradigmatic version, done by a male artist using a female model) was seen in the context of women’s liberation. Avant-garde’s ‘new objects’ that define the range of forms of contemporary art today (installations, books, photomontages, even new type of painting) were to replace this old asymmetrical model of creation, as they were supposed to enjoy the status of friends and comrades to humans, or even of humans themselves.

 

One after-effect of this neo-human status is a different approach to the notion of quality, that we profess today (without really reflecting on its novelty). De-commodified and subjectivized artworks reject the criterium of exchange value in favor of – not even use value, but ‘human value’ that, ideally, would exclude any quantitative comparison.

 

Another consequence is the fact that the artwork is understood and shown in time rather than space. ‘Unrestful object’ ceases to be identical to itself and is understood “in becoming”, as part of time-based practices (including performance), or even what I call “time-specific exhibitions” – I recently produced one with Yuri Albert in Moscow, as his retrospective that was constantly changing during the time of its opening.

 

Vector 2: Immobilized subjects: fiction as subjectivization

In this world of planetary mobility that is ours, what about immobilised subjects, excluded from the vortex of a global economy? I am talking here about the wretched of the earth and sky, those physically and economically challenged, but also those politically isolated and not even having access to the way out of immigration. Lots of attention is brought today to displacements, to legal as well as illegal migrants, to refugees, but to some extent, these people are already privileged in comparison to those who have not found means to leave the country where they have neither agency nor security. (Not Even Refugees – that was the title of the new play by Keti Chukhrov we just presented in Cologne, which he later changed to Not Even Dead, – the play is about Russo-Georgian war of 2008.)

 

This immobilisation is evoking, of course, the traumatic experience of isolation inside the communist block during Cold War, – relative isolation in the case of Eastern European ‘people’s democracies’, total in the case of post-WWII, neomodernist Soviet Union.

 

In this particular context of post-war Soviet Union, at least, this isolated, confined, and nonglobal subject was raised in everyday educational practice, as well as conceptually constructed, as a radically global one, with extremely universalist approach to culture, where Marx, Shakespeare, Titian as well as Nasym Khikmet and Rabindranath Tagore were considered main intellectual landmarks of Soviet subject (to a much bigger extent than local Russian culture). Soviet Marxist philosopher Ewald Iljenkov, as well as other theorists, insisted that true communist subject shall build itself as a ‘holistic’ one (vsestoronny – universalist, encompassing), i.e. opposed to the ‘narrowly specialised’.

 

The desired width and amplitude of knowledge that encompassed world culture was to express the deconstruction of the capitalist division of labour, as well as democratic and internationalist aspiration of radical inclusion, and even aesthetic beauty, since the narrowly specialized, was routinely described as “ugly one-sided”. However, since the real subject of this projection, the Soviet individual, was strictly confined even in his of her own city let alone country, the experience to be “everywhere” and to know “everything” had to be lived only vicariously, with an acute conscience of one’s own political and geographical disability.

 

Enormously vast horizon of knowledge of contradictory cultures combined with this confinement represented the “unrest” of an immobilized subject. That subject invested him/herself in imagining oneself elsewhere and someone else, in the culture of translation, fiction, imposture, irony and cynicism, – all these words could be substituted to “unrest” at the title of this fragment, as instruments to construction of the subject in opposition to the hegemonic institutional narrative. As Brecht once said through the words of one of his characters, “the best school of dialectics is emigration. The most acute dialecticians are refugees”. But Hegelian unrest and subjectivization can also reside in dis-mobility of inner emigration and not-even-asylum-seeking. (It goes without saying that drastic and grim historical surprise of Russian aggression and civil war in Ukraine, as well as an abrupt change of the situation in Russia itself, represents the background of these brief reflexions).