Interview with Boris Groys on Art, Politics and Communism
For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website
Simon Dawes interviews Boris Groys about his article, interview and book reviewed in the March issue of TCS (28.2)
Simon Dawes: One of your main interests is in the relation between art and politics, or, more specifically, in how politics is artistic, rather than in the politics of art. So you see communism as an artistic project, and Soviet Russia as an exhibition space. But in applying postmodern thought to a re-evaluation of Stalinism, aren’t you risking dismissing all that was bad about Soviet Russia – seeing Stalin’s terror (to use Claudia Mesch’s paraphrasing of your own terminology) as simply the cost of doing business in Plato’s kingdom of philosophy?
Boris Groys: I assume that everybody already knows what was bad about Soviet Russia – so it makes no sense to repeat it. And I also do not write a history of the “real” Soviet Union. Rather, I try to describe the Soviet imagination – philosophical and artistic. I am not so much interested in the Soviet reality but, rather, in the image of the “Sovietness” that the Soviet state presented to itself. And because of the divisions of the Cold war this image is less known outside the former territory of the Soviet Union as the alternative “totalitarian” image that was produced by the West. At the same time both images are products of modern imagination. They are interconnected –and they are connected with many other images that modern imagination produced. And it is the functioning of modern imagination – more than any individual modern image – that interests me in the first place.
SD: If the market and the economy are more important than language in capitalist systems, what role does language continue to play – are you suggesting that capitalism is no longer about ideology? In your article in TCS, you stress that the economy’s significance to art is greater than the ‘art market’ itself, but that artworks should be understood more as ‘linguistic grimaces’ than as commodities – what is the relation between language and the economy here?
BG: Well, artworks are the “linguistic grimaces” precisely because they cannot speak but only circulate on the art market. The artworks are suffering because of that, the grimaces express sorrow and pain – and I try to draw attention to their suffering.
SD: In your interview in TCS, you discuss museums as the ‘pyramids of capitalism’, in which are stored the corpses of commodities, and see these as suggesting the possibility of a life after capitalism. But although the physical objects themselves cannot be exchanged (except in a very limited way), information about them certainly can, and, furthermore, their physical presence continues to play a role in the identity or brand (and value) of the institution in which they’re housed. How important is it to continue focusing on the production, exchange and consumption (or otherwise) of physical objects, when it’s increasingly the production, exchange and consumption of information that drives the capitalist system?
BG: I do not see much difference: Information is also material. Information carriers are material (stone, paper, electric cables, electromagnetic waves etc.) and information itself is material – being a fragment of language. Everything is material. Everything can be stored, archived. And that means that everything can survive its capitalist use and be used in a different way – not only in the museums but also under different political and economic conditions.
SD: You also discuss the fragmentation and privatisation of the archive, but what about the continuing salience of public archives – i.e. the information about ourselves stored in the databases of various public institutions? You also emphasise the individual’s agency in representing themselves online or in controlling their archive, but information about oneself is privatised, of course, in other ways by corporate bodies, whose activities challenge the boundaries of privacy and control of access to personal information. How do you account for these different forms of privatisation?
BG: In our time everybody feels himself under surveillance. We know that we are exhibited, exposed to the gaze of the others. Our private sphere is permanently invaded and controlled by the state and private institutions. And the visual regime under which we live is an asymmetrical one: we do not see the others watching us because the means of visual control are mostly hidden from our eyes. Thus, this regime is different from the panoptical regime as it was described by Foucault, e.g. as the regime under which we could see the subject of power that saw us. The question is: How to react to this asymmetrical visual regime? One way is to defend one’s private space. But this strategy is obviously ineffective. The second way is to manipulate one’s own image in a conscious way – to create this image by showing more than the other wants to see and to invent what one shows.
People put the information about themselves on the Internet, including Facebook or Youtube, precisely because they want to be observed, controlled and be robbed of their privacy. They know that they are always already exposed – and they consciously manipulate this exposure as a kind of simulation, of cover up. And at the same time they also enjoy the most radical self-exposure. In fact, it is more intolerable to them to be ignored than to be controlled. There is the anxiety to be exposed to the evil eye of the other. But there is also an even deeper anxiety to be exposed to no eye at all, to remain completely unseen.
SD: Finally, you argue that although the internet and new media usher in new conditions for cultural innovation, the economic-spatial logic remains the same, and you refer to the digital age as the ‘new virtual Middle Ages’ – i.e. the same model in different conditions. But could peer-to-peer possibilities suggest the possibility of embracing these new technological conditions in a way that transcends the individualising logic of capitalism?
BG: The question of possibility of intimacy, of an intimate “non-mediated”, “authentic” dialogue that would transcend the normalized, socially regulated verbal exchange was discussed many times during the period of modernity. And there is no basic difference between private conversation in the “real space” and virtual peer-to-peer exchange. Now, we know that the literature of the 19th and 20th Centuries was sceptical about the possibility of an authentic dialogue because it never could free itself from a third person – the invisible, absent but nevertheless virtually present figure of a spectator that was the actual addressee of this dialogue. That can be said also – and even to a greater degree – about an Internet conversation.
But, indeed, I believe that the Internet is bringing us back to the Middle Age because it is not so much a medium of communication as an archive. The centrality of Google in our culture is obvious for everyone. And Google rewrites the previous (modern) culture in the same way as medieval monasteries have rewritten the antique culture: by means of fragmentation and recombination of the text fragments that erase the meaning of the original texts.
Boris Groys is an art critic, media theorist, and philosopher. He is currently a Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University (USA) and Senior Research Fellow at KarlsruheUniversity (Germany).
Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society