Part 1: On the 1970 Situationist Reorientation Debate, the Never Work(ing) worker. Mayakovsky / Tatlin & the Red Brigades .......
Conchita, the young Latino American from Los Angeles once asked about stuff we had written though never published and which, by the by, had been mentioned in passing. She wanted to see them in the off chance they could be interesting. Then suddenly all contact was lost.....
Over a year later rummaging through a veritable mountain of dust-covered files scattered throughout a much disorganised apartment the following texts came to light dealing iconoclastically with aspects of the Russian avant-garde in the early decades of the 20th century especially Mayakovsky and Tatlin together with an inter-linked hard-edged critical re-appraisal of the so-called 'revolutionary' festivals from that period. Vaguely remembering these scribbled essays in an almost undecipherable longhand they'd been presumed lost long ago.
On rummaging further, a battered old cardboard box was unearthed in which had been placed texts on terrorism amongst other odds & sods connected with the Italian situation in the 1970s. Among this motley collection was a translated article on the Red Brigades along with the phenomena of "diffuse terrorism" by Collegimenti plus an interesting journalistic account around the death of the publisher Giangacomo Feltrinelli in 1972 while inexpertly attempting to prime a bomb strapped to an electricity pylon near Milan. Musing through these tatty bits of paper brown with age, inter-connecting missing links sparked a Eureka moment: surely there was an overlap between individual terrorism and all those explosive moments involved in the decomposition and death of art which still have such shattering ramifications?
The text on the Red Brigades was to be part of a long book on Italy we were putting together in the late 1970s and was to be included as something of a counterpoint and compliment to the Debord / Sanguinetti theses of a state created / manipulated terrorist outfit that would subdue and disorientate a developing autonomous insurgency, whereby Sanguinetti considers the state "as the exclusive author and beneficiary of artificial modern terrorism." In 1970 Sanguinetti had said: "Italy will now continue to become more complicated, until it opens to a radical simplification".
That simplification not only in Italy but elsewhere in the world we still must make happen. In the meantime the example of a state-manipulated terrorism, especially an armed groupuscule Islamic-suffused fascism has increased in scope and range throughout the world proving to be one of the most effective weapons deployed by states everywhere slowly evolving the cleverest totalitarianism in the history of capitalism expressing its essence through an opaque complex of hideous financial instruments very cleverly presented to an increasingly dumb-fuck mass of spectators who lap it up. This moment of terrorist implant (on the ground and more importantly in our heads) may now have peaked which could portend that western states especially will have to 'discover' another demonic enemy to keep 'the people' afraid of expressing their authentic desires.
More mundanely what we have here, is a Collegimenti text emphasising the role of the "the other workers' party" (the armed wing of the Italian Communist party at the time of internal resistance to Mussolini's rule) and its baneful resurrection in the shape of the Red Brigades. The text also contains a few sentences on "diffuse terrorism" which unwittingly seemed to resonate for me with Mayakovsky's 'terrorist' wish-fulfillment in his mid-1920s poem which ends with a tirade on the necessity of bombing Lenin's funeral. Such incitement is referred to in my accompanying comment here on Mayakovsky as "disorganised terrorism" that really needed to be replaced with something more appropriate such as "extreme vandalism"; acts though necessary and appropriate that don't play the state's game. Like the term "communism" equally the term "terrorism" has become so deliberately misused and abused it's better if we drop its usage altogether or, at least, be extremely careful in how we deploy the term.
The above books, the English version of Sanguinetti's On Terrorism and the State (Chronos Publications) and the Portuguese version of Calls from the Prison in Segovia (Antigona) written by Debord though never putting his name to it, reflect two connected but rather different interpretations of terrorism one of which, the Segovian one, can be described as justifiable armed combat. Sanguinetti in On Terrorism and the State denounces all modern -day terrorism developing what some would say at the time almost a quietist response. Calls from the Prison in Segovia on the contrary is a clarion call of support for about 50 Spanish anarchist who had been robbing banks, distributing money to strikers, the unemployed and autonomous revolutionary groups and were non-party libertarians and therefore quite different in character to hierarchical bodies like the Red Brigades. This history is relatively well known so it's best to refer to Len Bracken's book, Guy Debord Revolutionary for better insight, just to add in passing, we later found out one of the Segovia prisoner groups had been infiltrated by the Spanish police.
The "Never Work"(ing) workers.......
These separate but related texts presented here overlapped in another way as both described a moment when the "workers" had lost the initiative of independent self-activity, becoming in the process reified beings and passive recipients of ideology the like of which we had never known? Yet wasn't this moment, even a little later in 1979 when Debord in his Preface to the Italian edition of "The Society of the Spectacle" had proclaimed "to my knowledge it is the factories of Italy that this book has found for the moment its best readers." Was this in hope based on weaker facts (a repeat say of the Futurist periodical Lacerba's readership perhaps as mentioned below in A Catastrophic Social / Creative Impasse (....by way of the personal tragedy of Mayakovsky.) or was something else taking place? Certainly Debord's comments were well anchored related to wildcat strikes, constant sabotage and especially amongst these protagonists, a growing "lucid refusal of work and their contempt for the law and all Statist parties." Therefore these workers were well prepared to subjectively grasp the wider ramifications and benefits from the best body of theory going. Apart from one serious omission: though the revolt of the Metropolitan Indians in 1977 was a splendid autonomous revolt, the more typical workers from the big centres of production in Italy did not join in and already the grand potlatch that had marked their efforts from a few years previously were on the wane.
It could be said that during the early 1970s there was a vague situ-like flavour to many workers' protests thus the revolt against work in the 1970s started to figure high in a revamped ultra left everywhere in Europe and America surfacing in many rightly acclaimed sizable publications from Echange in France, to John Zerzan's Revolt Against Work in America. There were many others. However, it was never more than that; no conscious higher-level situationist disruption- that long wished for "Strasbourg of the Factories" - ever really took place though there were moments when small coteries of situationist influenced workers had an effect in Italy, Spain and, briefly, among shipyard apprentices in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England. (Possibly there were others that remain unknown).The common denominator between all these separate forays was a "lucid refusal of work" often playfully presented and very disruptive but never seeming to go beyond these promising beginnings which still remain hanging there tantalising us with curiosity; memories of what could have been if only protagonists had pushed harder, more creatively. Certainly those involved in these playful but deadly serious escapades never seem to have put reflective pen to paper so that we now would have had a better handle on things. Thus the disruption and communication remained largely on the level of the spontaneously verbal - typically a workers' reaction- perhaps like the realisation of free-form be-bop ensembles in their heyday but sadly, without the recording studio in tow! Only better!
Perhaps 'the worker' with the most profile in all of this, name of Yves Le Manach crystallised this tendency in his Champ Libre book of 1973, "Bye –Bye Turbin" (possibly a vernacular term or more likely a French pun for a jet engine factory in which he'd worked for over 16 years and could be simplistically translated as "By-By to the Daily Grind"?) The book evidently became "one of the most stolen books in the bookshops of the Latin Quarter in Paris" and once partially translated into Spanish was avidly picked up - possibly in manuscript form - by factory workers in Barcelona. Extrapolating further, the book amounts to disparate accounts of the moment when a worker's identity dissolves into subversive play and / or at the gateway of encompassing total critique, undermining all blinkered sociological categorisations and all previous notions of 'the worker'. Later Manach commenting on the general impasse that befell this hoped for trajectory said rather profoundly, "I need to supercede my conditioning as a worker, whilst on the other hand I am faced with the impossibility of overcoming my past." In some ways it could be said the book is a subjective mirroring in some of the accounts at the time of similar on-going antics in American factories and elsewhere like turning production lines into playful beach scenes with guys turning up in swimming trunks ready to spend the day in fun and games chucking water all over whilst also engaging in immaculate sabotage of top-end engineering product though sadly lacking on a much needed more general theoretical level, less lucidly informed than Manach's interventions, (c/f Bill Watson's, Counter Planning on the Shop Floor). For Yves Le Manach après Turbin, odd job work and unemployment was a far better temporary basic survival solution and also offered better prospects for a creative use of 'free' time which then unfortunately got too waylaid by art – precisely because all free time is now under surveillance – followed by a terminal, indeed rather mad run-in with Debord which wasn't a pretty sight, seeing in him, in his everyday personal behaviour, little more than a superior bourgeois of the old school. In this Le Manach's response was little different from people like ourselves confronting our own ex-radical elite. It could be said Debord's often haughty manner in the period of his own magnificent decline could have been a lot more tolerated if he hadn't become so cushioned with Lebovici's money effectively preventing him - like some neo-artist beholden to his patron - experiencing life at the sharp end.
(The above are part of Yves Le Manach's series, ARTICHAUTS DE BRUXELLES, which are small, folded pamphlets freely distributed dealing with a wide-ranging variety of topics and 'problems 'all within the backdrop of total revolution, proving that former working stiffs without the very dubious benefits of education can take on the totality and really get somewhere......
In 1970 and post the uprisings of the late 1960s, a serious re-examination happened almost everywhere over a puzzling "What do we do now" syndrome? More specifically in France there was "The Debate of Orientation of the Ex-Situationist International." Regarding the limitations of past workers' councils it was realised that a renewed similar explosively democratic body today would have to encompass a far wider critique of the totality of an ever-increasing alienated non-life. Debord specifically said, "Its councils will have to be Situationist" with the demanding though lucid rider that, "workers were going to have to come to the Situationists whilst remaining autonomous from what was left of the organisation." In Debord's concomitant "Problems of a Class Society" the crux of what's to come, "demonstrates all the possible and desirable characteristics of the next revolution, analysing all the difficulties, serious uncertainties and the obscure points that it will have to overcome." Note well here the emphasis on the obscure because this was obviously a new tone; a possible new beginning and what are the new pitfalls ahead?
Taking the situationist critique to those at the real sharp end, seeing it didn't materialise at this juncture which, in any case, was bound to be the most difficult – but also the most fruitful – of recoveries through transfer was going to involve massive changes from both sides of a coming together which could have turned many Brilliant Corners. Thus Rimbaud's "knowing music falls short of our desires" was again deferred for more receptive times. The workers of workers' playtime did not flock to Debord's salon as he so wished in the "Reorientation Debate" (or somewhat demanded in that sub-Leninist disposition he often half-seriously donned though with more than the flavour of a comic put-on e.g. in the prelude to the founding manifesto of the SI in 1957 entitled One Step Back) and there is much to be said still on this difficult conundrum. Yet so many thousands in the early 1970s, who avidly took bits and pieces of the best of situationist conclusions in basic active critique, renouncing all careerism and having then no choice but to survive as largely occasional, part time workers had, by the end of the decade, lost their way. Only a few remained remorselessly carrying on with the quest.
At that time we and closest friends realised that those at the sharp end were going to have to go in for greater personal / social reflection; critiquing their own struggles more than ever, becoming dialecticians the more we were pushed up against the wall. Our published theoretical texts were therefore placed side by side with critical accounts by the combatants themselves e.g. in Wildcat Spain Encounters Democracy via the way 'the workers' comments had been given profile in the magazines around Contra a Corrente in Portugal. A little later, in France Goes off the Rail, a largish pamphlet on the wave of French strikes in 1986, prominence was given to the detourned comics printed by the lascars; in short, apprentices appropriations of a situationist anti-publicity style. Sadly this development wasn't by any means so advanced in the English speaking part of the globe so the contribution by Jean (see Part 3 of this web trilogy) was something of an exception. We were hoping these vital contributions would really begin to catch on in a future getting ever more profound in subversive acumen little realising all real thought was on the cusp of destruction with the growing triumph of utter stupidity demanded by the diktats of the free market. However in this have-assed / half-finished process so many deep and drunken, lusty questions were thrown up which again must be prised open; otherwise only the museum of situationist texts and moments set in aspic will remain getting ever bigger, ever more learned, ever more fleshed-out; alas, only for us all to merely passively consume just at the moment perhaps a renewed, amazing praxis beckons.
Previous to this development in the late 1950s / early 1960s, there had been recourse at say, the conclusion of situationist conferences, for something like a quick snap shot of the workers, our friends, fraternising together! Well nice but what happens when push comes to shove? Around that time, or rather a few years after the Reorientation Debate, Jaime Semprum noted that some workers Debord had befriended on a relaxing pub level were a boring lot not really saying much of interest. He may have been right; on the other hand that's how it is, though from the angle of 'the craic' (in the Irish sense of drift) is often how things germinate and then seemingly out of the blue, there's take-off. Certainly this warm, simple friendliness was at odds with the commanding tone of the theoretical / practical Reorientation Debate. Maybe Guy had sensed there was a problem here that needed to be more sensitively approached and weren't 'workers' with more than half an idea somewhat scared of approaching him wary of his ferocious reputation plus his considerable learning, anti-academic though it was? John Ruskin many decades previously after having published Unto This Last, a book much influenced by his sojourn in Bradford, was dismayed to learn that some workers in that quirkily clued-in though friendly city had wanted to meet him but were afraid to do so half-suspecting he'd disparage them; an insult that would have been too dismaying in a life based on social rejection, made worse perhaps by Ruskin's final insistence in his book that that there is no other value in life than life itself.
One of the insulted and the injured named in the Veritable Split, a man who was regarded as a "mediocre crook" regarding the theft of SI funds massively cast himself adrift and after a period of mental breakdown, slowly began to rebuild his life in an exemplary manner. His name is of course Rene Riesel and in the back of beyond began to make an excellent subversive contribution ironically working very hard as a renewed peasant massively deepening revolutionary eco-critique in an environment far removed from too many artists, careerists, professional cop-out eco's, and cadres. Working hard for Riesel really did mean working hard, delightfully illustrated by a gal from Os Cangaceiros who a few years ago noted his bewilderment as a leather –clad, platoon-like, intellectualised, Encyclopaedie des Nuisances brigade with whom he was aligned, tried ineptly to build a makeshift market stall. Impatiently Riesel grabbed a hammer from them and did the job himself within a few ticks. (Ah, how well we understand that reaction!) As for Semprun he went on to write some excellent stuff which shamefully hasn't been translated into English including Abrege (A Brief Summary) and a critique of Debord that isn't rancourous noting that, "Debord is the last artist in a world without art" intimating very perceptively that the next and last avant-gardes in pre-history will be the most persecuted of all having no product to purvey or remotely commoditise. (In passing it should be welcomed and noted that in Science & Capital by the Dublin-based Livewire Publications, Phil Meyler – ex King Mob – has recently translated some of Semprum's writings into English).
Now however the times are indeed dark and the "dismal decade" of the 1970s turned into something far more horrendous and which remains brutally impinging on us. The wildcat strike wave catastrophically collapsed especially in Europe and America wherever the neo-liberal free market was kicking-in and work, work, work, work, was to be acclaimed like never before as a 'new' worker appeared in the shape of "presenteeism" ably abetted by a financial totalitarianism everybody at the sharp end was forced into submitting to and what remained of leisure (formerly free time) merely became an adjunct to work, often even more tiring and draining than 'work' itself. At the same time ever-increasing surveillance and the transformation of many workers forcibly press-ganged into acquiring auxiliary policing roles has meant all playful prospects and relaxation in everyday social space has been virtually extinguished. And all concomitant with the moment in south-east Asia a factory proletariat has grown up almost overnight and, larger then ever, is experiencing 19th century conditions of super-exploitation. It is this contemporary chaotic nexus; on these disparate levels that alienated non-life still must be broken apart......
Dave W. 2011
The following are a couple of texts from the very early 1970s
A Catastrophic Social / Creative Impasse
(....by way of the personal tragedy of Mayakovsky)
Of all the Fururists and Constructivists, Vladimir Mayakovsky was the only avant-gardista to have been in the Bolshevikh party and to subscribe to the theory of the social revolution well before the Russian revolution of 1917 had occurred. He was no fellow traveller. As early as 1905 Mayakovsky was jailed for being a member of the Bolshevikh party only to leave the party soon after his release as he felt the Bolshevikhs didn't understand what he was getting at artistically. From then on, he remained unto himself, alone (as it were) and Mayakovsky's vision of the coming revolution (a very personal one) is seen in "A Cloud in Trousers". He was thus the first of the avant-garde to have reservations about the Bolshevikhs; reservations which in the heady years after 1917 became more and more pronounced from the satire of "Re-Conferences" to the bitterness of "The Bedbug". His personal critique revolved more and more around the bureaucratic rigidity of the party wanting freedom – personal freedom – at all costs. The unresolved contradiction between his sense of duty to the Leninist vanguard and the need to fulfil himself ended in suicide. The conflict was agonising.
I have no intention here of deifying Mayakovsky, nor do I suggest that Mayakovsky's particular historical contradiction / intervention in the revolution has any relevance today in the exact form or path it took. Thus such 'poets' like Adrian Mitchell, Adrian Henri and even Roger McGough who in some ways, consciously or more subconsciously have modelled themselves on Mayakovsky's example have long ago had their day. Mayakovsky's originality lay in a moment of time pregnant with the disintegration of all artistic form; that moment when 'creativity' was beginning to slip the leash from "the ball and chain of art" as Andre Breton eloquently put it sometime later. Since the conclusion of the Second World War we have been witness everywhere to a repetition of cultural disintegration – now largely press-ganged, and institutionalised in the service of consumer production which hasn't had – or could have had – any of the original vitality of Mayakovsky's day, though perhaps its momentum is more important historically for the coming total revolution chiefly because this repetition is everywhere.
Mayakovsky's tragedy though remains relevant as it is the tragedy of a man or woman caught in the horrible nexus of a society without hope, one that gives no satisfaction on any level; in work, in personal love life, even in what passes alas for pleasure and creativity. Is it a bourgeois tragedy? About 150 years prior to Mayakovsky's suicide, Goethe wrote about another suicide in "The Sorrows of Young Werther" which Lukacs in "Goethe and his Age" says expresses a predicament which will remain until bourgeois society is overthrown. In some ways Mayakovsky's tragedy echoes young Werther's, though Werther as a young Jacobin was situated in the still feudal society of Germany in the late 18th century. However, Werther's subjective extremism appealed to individuals in the two major bourgeois democracies of the time: France and Britain.
And in response to the above, common enough ripostes will loudly but sadly take the form of "Surely the two suicides cannot be compared because Mayakovsky's took place in the context of a socialist/communist society?" And there's the rub. His suicide must testify to the truth of the reality that the so-called revolutionary communist society wasn't revolutionary or communist in any meaningful sense, which is why we cannot deploy the term 'communist' any longer for what we want because such description has become contaminated, lacking veracity. What Mayakovsky was confronting was in reality an emerging, increasingly hideous bureaucratic state capitalism he found too painful to live with. In a post social revolutionary society I don't think there will be suicide in the sense we recognise today. No doubt there will be individuals who may want to end their lives, but not because of a desperate, imposed painful alienation they have no control over. Today, those 'revolutionary' individuals around us battered by the reflux we are now painfully experiencing post the end of the glorious late 1960s insisting on the right to commit suicide do no more than repeat in an inevitably vulgarised manner the debates of the Enlightenment, in particular David Hume. Opposed to the taboos of the church, radical liberalism on such points then had real meaning. Today in conditions of intensified exploitation it means life hasn't any meaning and "Is there life before death?" as the King Mob graffiti put it becomes more poignant then ever. Moreover in conditions of increasing inhumanity how far is the "right to commit suicide" from "the right to starve?" In Herbert Marshall's book on Mayakovsky, Maurice Bowrie says, "In the end the struggle was too much for him, and in a moment of deep melancholy, such as was not unknown to him, he shot himself. Many guesses have been made why he did so, but as with most suicides it was probably in the last resort inexplicable." All such comment fits in well with Mayakovsky's epitaph in Pravda which said his suicide was due to personal reasons! The fact is Mayakovsky's death was like Van Gogh's, an individual "suicided by society" in Artaud's telling phrase.
And yet Mayakovsky's last poem – if one can call it that - had the upbeat, chirpy title, "The Coming Bright Decades". So what were the particular circumstances which forced the guy into a kind of fixed form of Russian roulette?
Mayakovsky's will power cannot be doubted. In fact there was an over-will. His egoism or hedonism and such a common feature of the artistic avant-garde (and ,by the way, a constant in other avant-gardes too, not least the political) was loudly proclaimed, "I – Mayakovsky – versus the Universe".....And it was an I, I, I, I, all the way but an "I", an ego, on a journey that became more and more frustrated as the path (the quest) became more and more blocked as he reacted to the all the different environment s around him; to those who blindly worshipped machines; to agit prop; to the bureaucrats and finally to his own unbearable loneliness, standing there, perhaps ahead of most people in the world. "I am so lonely as the single eye of the one-eyed walking towards the blind" (notice he is only one-eyed), or in "The City" a 'poem' screamed out in 1925. "I'm fed up – I'd like to gaze in the face of just one soul whose fellow travelling with me. It's boring here, ahead of my own on earth."
Yet that "I" was no selfish I; it was the selfish with a plus sign pasted on the end. Mayakovsky wanted to be released from himself, to be released even from people like himself; to be released from the artistic role. He didn't need a middle class style therapising help replete with sensitivity-pose, self-denial and 'concerned' paternalism but a real ambient help inseparable from the everyday spaces of real existence. "In the thirteenth year of the Revolution, I'm under the impression I need help...I demand help – not the gratification of non-existent virtues."
This is the exact opposite of sacrificial militancy. But where could this help come from? Moves towards self-realisation – so inextricably and intimately connected with the momentum of revolutionary moments superceding themselves; a collective self-realisation; of highs within the lows and lows within the highs were disappearing / evaporating, as a black square of nothingness rigidly descended. Instead of Mayakovsky encountering an ever-widening circle of friends, he experienced nothing but contraction, disavowal and recurrent stabs in the backs. The disaffection of friends hurt like hell and the guy expressed the feeling baldly – just the way it is - like losing limbs. On the night of his "homemade jubilee" prepared by close comrades, a former friend who had recently attacked him moved to congratulate him. Mayakovsky turned away poignantly saying, "No let him go away. He hasn't understood a thing. They tear me to shreds, they tear people from me with pieces of my flesh...Let him go..."
Self-absorption, self-pity? Isn't it all part of hedonism, its downside if you like? What more is to be said to about hedonism? Now, in the early 1970s all around us, hedonism is declared something like a petite-bourgeois phenomenon, especially by the Althusserians. It can be, but more essentially it is part of the social process of collective self-realisation and the will to live, a rage, a desire more powerful than ever it was in Mayakovsky's time is now a revolutionary trajectory. We make disruption; we make revolution for our own fulfilment and pleasure as the desire for authentic life rages ceaselessly inside our bodies. And the "I" constantly moving and becoming must also find some kind of relation with an ever-uglier world within the orbits of uglys own alienated movement – the movement of capital. If the "I" doesn't find that balance it flounders in illusion and the history of late 19th and early 20th century art and anarchism is littered with the dislocated "I" –from Van Gogh to Ravachol. Certainly Mayakovsky's "I" can be explained partly (but only partly) by the individual trajectory of the rebel which Victor Serge comments upon so well in "Men in Prison". On his own past and that of the Bonnot Gang too, Serge says, "We have committed great errors, comrades. We wanted to be revolutionaries, we were only rebels. We must become termites boring obstinately, patiently, all our lives: In the end the dike will crumble"..... "The bolts are still locked, but already I feel free, sure of myself, somewhere within me, there is a calm hatred, like a still ocean. I will turn it into strength."
And isn't that also illusory and just so boringly part and parcel of this excuse we still call life? Mayakovsky for sure couldn't take such a dispassionate view of himself yet we know the terrible pain that Serge went through simply by reading "Men in Prison" and "Memoirs of a Revolutionary". Surely it was no less a pain than Mayakovsky's? However there's an essential difference: the very dynamism of the now disjointed revolt of words and syntax expressed in and through Mayakovsky imperiously demanded the world as its arena. The liberation of words demanded (equally imperiously) material realisation in everyday space and time where everything was possible. They still do. Serge's style of presentation, though not his content is traditional; it doesn't want to be there as a living presence, as fact, in a humdrum everyday which can become superb almost in an instance. It was a form of sublimated writing whereby you were able to dull the pain and thus so different to the terrible dilemma raging within a Mayakovsky who couldn't sublimate. On the threshold where everything was possible, nothing was deemed possible. Inside Mayakovsky's body an emotionally insupportable future of impotent rage and endless, painful super-frustration was beginning to congeal, which in his poem, "Lenin", attacks the cult of "bronzing Lenin" embracing a spontaneous terrorism. "Surely Lenin won't be mobbed: Leader of the Grace of God! / If he had been royal and divine, I wouldn't have spared myself out of rage, / I'd have pit myself against the procession line, cut across the crowd and the funeral cortege. / I'd have found enough cussing and fucking words for blasting ears, And before they could smother my cry and down me, / I'd have hurled to the heaven blasphemies, And battered the Kremlin with Bombs:- Down With."
Yet even with the 'communist' secret police around Mayakovsky got away with this! Yet isn't this the nub that has never been brought to light: that connection between the artistic avant-garde and an explosively but necessarily disorganised 'terrorism'? (If it was organised it would lose its point); of that concrete overlap between the Impressionists, the French individualist anarchists and ESPECIALLY, the Symbolists. It was more than sympathy for each others seemingly different paths; they, as it were, detonated each other. Yes there was a gap though hardly amounting to a separation for the simple reason that as the years rolled by they tended to blur and blend with each other sucking in even the more psychotic aspects of detonation as the subconscious was more and more prized open. (One need only think of the ultimate surrealist act of going into the crowd and shooting at random).
The increasingly wild rebellion of Mayakovsky's thoughts and almost uncontrollable body reactions goes - as further years rolled by –to the actuality of the Angry Brigade in the UK along with those other individuals who came out of a repetitive artistic avant-garde of the 1950s and early 1960s – and therefore because it was more or less a repeat, was experienced as that much more inauthentic – and as consequence almost ineluctably seemed to engender a detonating, quasi 'terrorist' fandango i.e. like happened to Kunzelmann of the Berlin Commune (though there were thousands of others) once the truth dawned that they weren't creative originals. But in these latter decades things generally have been getting worse and worse as social / spatial life has becoming that much more colonised as capital has invaded everyday life sucking away our very life blood. Alienation has been ever increasing, expanding its domain as life's promise of an infinite expansion of authentic possibilities narrows towards programmed, deathly perspectives. It thus became a natural reaction; a life affirming natural reaction to lash out simply to try and cast aside that fever seemingly implanted inside a head swollen with a brain pressing against a delicate cranium like a molten lump of iron. Pushed, pushed, as it were to a revolutionary suicide far more intransigent than Mayakovsky's experiment with Russian roulette which was straightforward in comparison though this typically for Mayakovsky was a gamble with fate.
Perhaps as I've intimated, Mayakovsky's "I" was the birth of a new kind of "I" of a bebop-like, free form, collectively autonomous individual which this increasing hell is pregnant with. Mayakovsky came too early; he couldn't adjust that "I" to anything like a coherent social trajectory because such a reality simply wasn't in the offing. It's easy enough to say that the isolation of the real revolutionary must not be something to be feared and that in difficult periods it must be stoically, even grimly tolerated, as, after all, populism and a general opportunism are much worse disasters but then hell, you've only got one shot at this brief candle of life. Psychological delirium is an absolute nightmare and shit, there are many tragic instances of this conundrum in revolutionary history. Rosa Luxembourg wrote rather sensitively about this vis-à-vis the 'betrayal' of the Second International in "The Junius Pamphlet: The Crisis of German Social Democracy" saying, "The voice of our party would have acted as a wet blanket upon the chauvinist intoxication of the masses. It would have preserved the intelligent proletariat from delirium."
If you like Mayakovsky was poignantly aware that he was increasingly separated from his 'poetic' constituents for as the revolution unfolded he deliberately altered the tone of his futurist endeavours. He tried to deploy common language within the "verse libre" of Futurism; a process that didn't just take place overnight but slowly accelerated. Gleb Struve says, "He deliberately vulgarised and lowered the poetic vocabulary to suit the vulgar, unrefined taste. Among his pre-revolutionary works his long poem "A Cloud in Trousers" is typical of what he is capable of, so far as the powerful poetic effects and the unmitigated vulgarity of speech and coarseness of content are concerned,"
After the revolution using new techniques, even speaking on the radio, Mayakovsky conducted simple propaganda work which occasionally used new formal freedoms evolved through Futurism. He warned the people not to drink un-boiled water, explained the Soviet's new laws and made general 'commercial' advertisements for the state which Mayakovsky saw as an educational medium appealing to illiterates to build a new society.
Then we encounter a new contradiction! Mayakovsky's language was a very different language, it was neither 'common' nor was it the language of the so-called 'cultured' as syntax and generally acceptable meanings of words were considerably – and intentionally – creatively mangled. Neologism as with much Futurist verse was frequently used by Mayakovsky against the backdrop of a Russia where widespread illiteracy was perceived as a serious problem and it caused quite a problem not only for others but Mayakovsky too, especially those in power. Although here, one cannot go into the greater problems of language and semantics, enough to say that Lenin had a very narrow conception of the meaning of words – a narrow conception that has been inherited by the legion of toy Bolshevikhs. Enough to say too ,that the workers and peasants were meant only to learn proper sentence construction; thus the wider, evocative powers of language, the sensual language that Mayakovsky innovated / assimilated / evolved through his own originality was anathema to the conceptions of the Leninist political avant-garde. Indeed Lenin's comments upon Mayakovsky's language are banal and blinkered: "He shouts; invents some kind of distorted words, in fact everything about him isn't what's wanted and difficult to understand."
But was it that difficult? Mayakovsky more and more got caught up in street argot montaged on to futurist neolgism as well as consciously mimicking the jerkiness of new industrial techniques where " workers' soviets plus electrification" seemed to herald the promesse de bonheur. His was a creative transition from the written to a more compelling, active spoken lifestyle; anticipation perhaps, a pre-figuring maybe of a colourful jive language jam-packed with a rich, everyday subversive flow threatening the whole empire of established discourse. Regarding future hopes, one can safely say that the liberated speech of total creative revolution will hardly be the language of academics and the diction of museum curators. That doesn't mean a future of a vague, inchoate free-for-all (although that necessarily will be in the creative mix too) but it does mean that language will acquire new and strange ways of communications, one more upfront, less prone to deceit, manipulation and lies. For certain if the revolution discriminates against the historical becoming of such a new language it will discriminate against the essence of the revolution itself; in short a 'revolution' not worth preserving. As for myself, I hope to re-find the vernacular of Co Durham pitching it at higher levels; to rid myself of the deadening niceties that have been imposed upon me by academia; in short to resolve my language dyslexia (a schizophrenic mix of the illiterate and the high flown) in a richer social becoming.
As for Mayakovsky he certainly wanted to realise his transitional free verse in the poetic impulses of the masses. Deploying their language was one bridge to the future; another was by directly speaking to them without intermediaries, whilst yet another was becoming a chaotic tribune of the people – if that don't sound too corny. Mayakovsky actually did go from town to town and from village to village, from factory to tank, to warship to... whatever and wherever, forever trying to slough off the typical artistic, cultural venue. He tried 'to know', to speak to the people through trying to realise himself as a new troubadour of revolution; therefore not really a traditional tribune at all but one who was also out for a good time; somebody who helped enlighten in a more rounded, dialectical sense, listening as well as propagandising. "When you got up with bullets and lay down with a gun, / where your breath merged with the masses own breath / with such a hand you march to life again, / to rejoicings, to work and to death."
But doesn't this also have something which smacks of dishonesty too? Mayakovsky certainly wasn't part of the Russian civil war embattled proletariat. Much of such 'identification' was more to do with wish fulfilment as he certainly was never in the thick of any fighting as Victor Serge undoubtedly was. It could be said that Mayakovsky's visceral need for real contact meant he tended to move in all directions at once, even in unprincipled directions like joining RAPP, the Stalinist, Revolutionary Association of Writers which according to Victor Shklovsky, Mayakovsky participated in order "to get closer to his workers' auditoriums" only to fall into a "dead sea, surrounded on all sides by interdictions and citations."
In fact all of Mayakovsky's attempts, notwithstanding the "150 million" to get into 'contact' with the masses amounted to little more than utter rubbish for what really excites us today are Mayakovsky's regular incitements to something amounting to ubiquitous vandalism amongst all his pretensions to 'good works'. And it seems this excellent, attractive posture has been politely forgotten or pushed to one side by all today's legions of 'socialist' poets / cretinous artists / aspiring cultural bureaucrats who wish to lead (ugh) the 'cultural' side of the 'new' revolution.
Moreover, increasingly Mayakovsky dropped his posturings and pretences as he increasingly withdrew from the boisterous presentation of an ego that was beginning to disintegrate. It could be said he was finally encountering the authentic the more the mask slipped going in search of love and beginning to speak in lyrical, sweet tones without ever abandoning the revolution where "the love boat of life has crashed on philistine reefs". This latter line from Mayakovsky's poem / anguished tirade, "About This" wasn't mentioned or written about for a full twenty years after publication, a statement where love and the revolution fuse with each other, "lyrics we've attached with repeated bayonet digs", though finally it was the obverse which happened: the lyrical turned against him hurting more than ever a bayonet thrust could. In his suicide note, Mayakovsky said, "love has wounded me forever." What and for whom was that unrequited love? It seems on the surface to be a general comment on society at large; the failure of a revolutionary erotic ambience to materialise. And for sure that's all true but in "About This" Mayakovsky seems to be also commiserating with the young communist leaguer who wants to jump off a bridge into the river Neva. Now we also know that this was a metaphor for his own erotic failure, indeed the catastrophic failure of his own personal relationships. For years he openly (?) had loved Lily Brik, wife of Osip Brik the rich patron of the Futurists. This love seemed unrequited. Desperately Mayakovsky had looked for others, finally I reckon to fall in love with Lily's sister, Elsa who lived in Paris and had married a French cavalry officer. Alas that too like a "destiny of libido" (Freud) quickly involved rejection and beyond that lay delirium. Later Elsa Triolet divorced the cavalry officer and went on later to marry a man, a surrealist who was to become an arch French Stalinist, name of Louis Aragon well after the latter's great creative days re the Paysan du Paris and Traite du Style etc. had gone forever.
I would finally suggest that Stalin basically had taken everything away from Mayakovsky adding insult to injury by deliberately canonizing him but only in the knowledge the guy was well and truly dead and buried. In "The First Circle", Sholzenhitsyn disdainfully recounts how in his particular gulag prison a book of Mayakovsky's writings (probably by then obligatory reading by a Stalinised state) was used in the oppressive summer heat to keep a broken window open. It was as though on every level Mayakovsky had been brutally check-mated, cynically dispatched to oblivion by myriad sleights of hand......
David Wise: 1972
Tatlin: The Great Fool...
Vladimir Tatlin's aim was to put cubist space into a three dimensional lived form and it's all kind of old hat now for us at the end of the era of modernity we have found desperately wanting and empty. Ehrenburg said that the Café Pittoresesque where Tatlin along with others of the Russian avant-garde displayed more than their wares was "the only café that all the artistic sewers in Europe's capitals would envy." as, after all, Tatlin in collaboration with El Lissitsky, had fundamentally altered its interior. From then on Tatlin wanted to spatially recreate the world......
On the one hand Tatlin is seen as the most modern of the moderns of the first 50 years or so of the 20th century and indeed the first written re-appraisal of Tatlin in Russian didn't come about until 1966, thirteen years after his death! On the other hand the guy was also in person a somewhat yob of a guy from the back of beyond, of an old peasant Russia, which was rapidly dying out and as he got older he seemed more and more to cling to this past. Then Tatlin shared his sleeping quarters with his famous Tower and the less famous glider, sadly taking refuge in painting. The German Dadaist George Grosz said of him: "I met Tatlin the great fool once again. He was living in a small, ancient and decrepit apartment. Some of the hens he kept slept on his bed. In a corner they laid eggs.....behind him a mattress, entirely consumed by rust was leaning against the wall; on it sat a couple of sleeping hens, their heads in their feathers. This was the good Tatlin's frame and when he played his homemade balalaika – it was growing dark already outside the uncurtained window, the panes of which had been replaced by small plates of wood – he gave the impression not of an ultra-modern constructivist, but a piece of the genuine, ancient Russia, as if from a book by Gogol; and there was suddenly a melancholy humour in the room."
Tatlin may have died forgotten but in the early 1920s he was regarded as one of the leading Russian artistic revolutionaries. Nay more than that: he was a kind of innovative cultural boss sitting astride the new hierarchy. I think it's this moment which makes Tatlin's example so appealing to so many younger so-called revolutionaries today, gauchiste artists who in their baneful dreams would like to take over culturally bankrupt institutions becoming new 'enlightened' bureaucrats and powerful careerists of creativity! (Ugh) After all Tatlin was elected leader of all artistic organisations in Moscow. He was head of the Narkompros Board for Plastic Art and Head of the Dept of Painting at the Free Studies School in Moscow. He was commissioned by the Commissariat of Education under Lunarcharsky to make the Monument to the Third International (the Tower) and which has become the most famous of the Russian avant-garde constructions. Many copies have been made. Perhaps the most notable is by Ulf Linde in Utrecht and another stands (painted red) in the forecourt of the Management Studies building of the Central London Polytechnic. As a symbol it is the insignia of New Left Books. Yet as a monument does it really have much relevance for us today? Like shite it does.
As with many others involved in the Russian avant-garde Tatlin wanted to grasp the whole of space again by a kind of unity of the arts through the use of new materials – his famous "culture of materials". He intuitively - more than theoretically or through historical knowledge – realised that all the central reference points in the arts had been lost and the only way out of this impasse, this avoidable crisis for Tatlin, was through a huge extension of formal, modernistic, machine-made radicalism applied to the everyday utilitarian objects we make use of which should become charged adjuncts of a changed revolutionary lifestyle in the process of being realised in revolutionary Russia. It went little deeper than that for if he'd look behind surface appearance, Tatlin would have realised the revolution had soured pretty quickly and we should be preparing for a really subversive new revolution! Instead he accepted the shibboleths. In a manifesto Tatlin wrote in 1920 apropos of the Monument to the Third International he says, "The results of this are models which stimulate us to inventions in our works of creating a new world and which call upon the producers to exercise control over the forms encountered in our everyday life."
The points to make here: What new world, what changed everyday life? Hopes yes but precious little realisation and we saw how Mayakovsky came to grief over this growing absence. The Third International had become threadbare; the Kronstadt sailors' revolt was only a year away, and an ultra-leftist, anti-Bolshevikh communism well on the rise around the corpse of Rosa Luxembourg and, yet it seems Tatlin's ears were closed to all this! Moreover, about the only familiar and human detail in the monument is the canteen, as basically The Tower is a representation of vulgarised communism assisted by a crude technolatry, or should I also add a technology which has little to do with any liberating practical science like say a Brunel had practised e.g. his improvisations when constructing the Great Western Railway. If you like Tatlin's is an aestheticised technology based on the synthesis of architecture and the leftovers of sculpture and painting that had been in a purposeful, creative freefall. Tatlin had said the artist's "creative method is qualitatively different from that of an engineer" and in reality the tower's dynamic central spiral is similar to that of the "Bottle in Space" by the Italian Futurist Boccioni. I think this comparison is better than the usual one, that of the Eiffel Tower in Paris though I think there's little point in researching the iconography of the Tower. Trotsky in "Literature and Revolution" had also compared the Monument to the Third International to the Eiffel Tower. He said of the latter, "It stimulates us by the technical simplicity of its forms but it alienates us by its purposelessness". (Later, never forget the International Lettrist, Chetchglov in the 1950s was going to blow the Eiffel Tower up, an early indication of a drift into tachiste spontaneous 'terrorism' harbinger of the Angry Brigade and an argument elaborated in, "A Catastrophic Social / Creative Impasse (....by way of the personal tragedy of Mayakovsky)."
Nonetheless Tatlin subscribed to a utilitarian ideology that for the life of him he could never adhere to as always the poetic and evocative was attempting a takeover within the depth of his being. In one of his final brochures, "The Man on the Stage", a photo displays bent discs hanging from the ceiling which when illuminated, evoke the moon, like something out of Elizabethan poetry in Shakespeare's time. Indeed Shklovsky called Tatlin's utilitarianism "a strange utilitarianism". Trotsky was more than in agreement seeing little that was utilitarian in the Tower. Somehow you get the impression of scaffolding that the builders have forgotten to take away. In any case why should revolutionary meetings take place in cylinders and cones amidst all the debris of Cézanne and Picasso? However Trotsky's critique remains on the level of the visual and goes no deeper; now we must more than plummet greater critical depths we must again practically act upon our conclusions.
The Ornithopter (the glider) was also called Le-Tatlin a Russian futurist neologism meaning to fly. Many contemporary commentators immediately invoked the experiments of Leonardo and Lilienthal. Tatlin himself mentioned that Icarus was the first to fly. Again, this is a big harking back spliced onto an aesthetic technology at once, as Zelinsky said, humdrum "home handicraft" and / or "technological Khlebnikovism". As for myself I can look at the Ornithopter as a bizarre piece of Art Nouveau. Moreover, science, apart from spontaneous science is of little avail here. Tatlin was far too much the primitive, watchful, old fashioned peasant for that and for inspiration he simply watched the flight of bees in meadows, although some commentators have rather pointlessly tried to make some connection between the pioneer of Russian rocket research, K. E. Tsiolkovsky who in 1912 had said," if the aeroplane is ever to be replaced by ornithopters, then rational planning of the latter will demand an even more thorough study of birds and insects ability to fly." I doubt if Tatlin ever read Tsiolkovsky. In any case it was Tatlin's belief that the machine could be propelled by muscular power alone and therefore quite at odds with Tsiolkovsky. Tatlin himself said of the glider, "I have made it as an artist...don't you think "LeTatlin" gives an impression of aesthetic perfection, like a hovering seagull?" This is early ecological stuff and what's even more interesting, Tatlin then went on to say, "I want also to give back to man the feeling of flight. We have been robbed of this by the mechanical flight of the aeroplane." I also like to think it's more than that, more to do with a multi-dimensional world and the insights of various mystics, that sensation of flight that goes back to ancient religious sects, to the witches on fly agaric and the shamans; all a far cry from the Age of Enlightenment.
So often the Tower and the later Ornithopter are regarded as early examples of aestheticized objects (objet d'art?) which began to bridge the gap between art and modern technology. Perhaps but hasn't this trajectory since Tatlin only had baneful conclusions resulting in a plethora of spectacles and ludicrous constructs like the recent displays of the idiotic Nicholas Schoeffer's light towers he refers to as Cybernetic Serendipity or on an even more banal level, the pseudo technical / industrial apologetics of the Art Placement Group. (In any case how can you make the baneful social control inherent in cybernetics become playful serendipity?) None of these pathetic, so-called experiments ever once question the traditional role of the artist and the omnipotent sway of now bankrupt art objects have today over our lives. Do we need a 'new' aesthetics or, do we dispense with aesthetics altogether? For me the only aesthetic question that has any relevance today is, "How much does it cost?" True there must be a creative technology but then creativity and aesthetics are no longer synonymous; in fact they are poles apart. The useless pursuit of a fusion of art and technology is nothing but a reification avoiding the question of how technology can become genuinely creative and relevant way once a world total social revolution is reaching a stage of no going back i.e. when the capitalist mode of production has been thrown into the dustbin of history when something like a permanent festivity is beginning to emerge within a daily life on the cusp of magnificent renewal. At that moment technology, for the first time in world history especially of the last 150 years or so, will do most of the work that the wage labourers of today have no choice but to do and not as is the case in the present organisation of society, part of the increasing organic composition of capitalism defraying some of the costs of variable capital (wages). Indeed some of the Russian avant-garde vaguely intuited some such future scenario. El Lissitsky, surprisingly, considering his often baneful pre-figuration of something like a Russian MaLuhanism said, "Communism will have to be left behind because suprematism which embraces the totality of life's phenomena – will attract everyone away from the domination of work."
Although not really elaborated – it's not much more than a vague intuition – it is a remarkable enough forecast. The best I think that can be said about Tatlin's experiments were that despite heading for a cul-de-sac there was something interestingly mock heroic about them; they were attempts to bring about radical, fundamental changes before the wider perspectives and possible subsequent problems had been thought through. There is of course, no point in even attempting to repeat them. It could be said that the Tower reveals Tatlin's bourgeois cum bureaucratic conceptions re the functioning of a transitional 'proletarian' democracy, ('proletarian' deliberately italicised because the proletariat must, of course, abolish itself through a successful uprising). Tatlin in his construction envisages a separation between executive and legislative to be housed in distinct cones or cylinders and thus (whether the guy was conscious of this or not) a feature of bourgeois state rule. All previous experiments in transitional proletarian democracy, the Paris Commune of 1971, the 1905 revolution in Russia had seen a fusion; a possible supercession of the legislative, executive and judicial with no supposedly neutral civil service proclaiming declarations and distributing / enforcing enactments etc. In the 1905 uprising we saw for the first time in world history, the creation of workers' councils where delegates were elected from work places on permanent revocable mandates. In short tendentially creating the most advanced form of democracy (direct democracy) the world has ever seen. Most revolutions since then have tended to throw up similar forms of proletarian, self-management, including Hungary 1956 and to a lesser extent May 1968 in France (though the French Communist party managed to stymie or derail much self-organisation in the factories).
But where is all the earlier experience of direct democracy in Tatlin's Tower. Well it ain't there folks because this is for The Party and nothing but the Party Line! In fact it falls in line with the Bolshevikh dictatorship (the baneful Workers' State) over the autonomous power of the Workers' Councils. Let's face it; the guy was ignorant regarding a lot of basics. On the general level Tatlin was submissive, at best naively following all the changes in the Bolshevikh party line. At worst, his "Art into Technology Manifesto" is prefaced by a singularly stupid comment of Stalin's, "During the epoch of construction, technology determines everything."
As for the future will we need such Internationals housed in such monuments? Come off it, of course not! Assemblies, Workers' Councils (call them what you will) will meet anywhere and everywhere: a university building, a factory, a mill, a warehouse, a football stadium, a concert hall, a cinema – what buildings are appropriated won't be of any consequence because these structures will also be in the process of losing their former roles, never, hopefully to return to their original purpose. In any case such popular ferment will contain within itself radical critique of all monumentality and all the edifices of state functions etc. as well as the ubiquitous application of all the stylistic 'innovations' of modern art nowadays applied to vast stretches of our urban spaces, especially our living areas. Inevitably too, consciously or not, there will be a critique in motion of all modernist processes not only elaborated by Tatlin, Malevich, Lissitsky and others but for us in the West omnipotently imposed by all the fallouts from the Bauhaus to De Stijl, especially the sheer brutality of The International Style as moulded by the horrors of Le Corbusier etc. And, let's face it, the Russians tended to back all this crap to the hilt. In one of his letters from the Unovis School in Vitebsk, Malevich ended with the salutation, "Greetings to non-objective Holland and all the innovators living there." For let's be honest, the difference between Russian applications of modern art to most aspects of design – supposedly 'communist' in orientation – differed little from what was taking place in the West; a little bit more bizarre perhaps (e.g. Malevich's crockery) but not fundamentally that different (e.g. the Dutchman's, Rietveld's nutty De Stijl chair and both meant to be utilitarian objects that are profoundly non-utilitarian). Even today, a blinkered leftist will always persist in coming out with the notion that the Bauhaus was better once the Communist party apparatchik Hannes Meyer took over from the social democratic Walter Gropius.
Anyway within the context of contemporary advanced Workers' Councils once the repressive state apparatus has been subdued and conquered, immediate tasks - no matter what – regarding the exigencies of the urban situation will still, first and foremost have to deal with the immediate socialisation of the land and the abolition of rents and mortgages etc. meaning that an active critique of modern art and design will come about somewhat farther down the scale of urgent tasks. In any case such critique is more likely to happen spontaneously anyway outside of any solemn decrees from on high (no matter that it is from some top dog workers' council) and happen it will and quickly simply because the proletariat has been at the drastic receiving end of a modern art funnelled through design, especially an architecture degree zero and will be only too delighted to critique its miserable presence in a probably almost endless, mass active alteration and supercession, particularly an urbanism built around car transport. At that point the pathetic notion of the "philistine workers" in comparison to the "enlightened intellectuals" will well and truly have bitten the dust. Of course it isn't ( and never was) as cut and dried as that and while recognising that many Russian "workers" laughed at the Tower unfortunately preferring traditional sculptural busts of Karl Marx and at some moments thoroughly objected to Mayakovsky's free verse, elsewhere this was not so, particularly in Italy. Gramsci mentions even before the First World War that the radical workers of Milan and Turin supported Italian Futurism and that three quarters of the copies sold of the futurist periodical Lacerba were bought by them.
More to the point, it hasn't been easy to supercede the perspective of an interlocking art / technology / new architecture syndrome. The project of the total work of art was there well before the Constructivists especially throughout the latter half of the 19th century with John Ruskin, William Morris's Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau and even the Pre-Raphaelites. Since the closing of the Bauhaus in the early 1950s we have had the New Bauhaus which, though rather more subversive (capitalism was at least regarded as the enemy) fell within the same paradigms of the grande projet – a slowly disintegrating Le Corbusier-ism – whereby the designs of seemingly liberated individuals would from on top help liberate the people living in this new habitation of movable spaces made of ultra-modern, manufactured, pliable, lighter materials. But who wants these on top enlightened supermen liberating us? Why cannot we free ourselves in a wonderment of different ways - neither modern nor ancient - and collectively remake our own spaces from the bottom up minus the guidance of the grande projet? Let there be the abolition of money among wildness, wilderness ..... and sanitation.
"Revolution is the Festival of the Oppressed" Or is it and in what way?
I am still of the opinion that the festivals remain the most relevant moments of an almost neo-artistic situation in post revolutionary Russia, though almost in this context still had miles to go. Most of these festivals were directed by artists and in fact grew out of the theatre through experimental individuals like Evreinov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin and even Mayakovsky. Because of this imposition these festivals weren't therefore examples of spontaneous festivity and nowhere near as organic to a restless urban population as say the jazz festivals and cutting contests redolent of New Orleans, Storyville were around the same time; even earlier. Moreover, some of the Russian events were really very tightly organised particularly the staged repeats of aspects of the October 1917 'revolution' (some, more accurately, would say Bolshevikh coup d'etat). Most of this street staging was meant to celebrate 'communism' and the factory and the Noise Orchestra directive in "The Concert of Factory Sirens and Steam Whistles" correspond to the period of "war time communism" especially the emphasis on electrification following Lenin's famous call for "Soviets plus electrification". I think these celebrations were deliberately manipulated by messages especially that of a prevailing technolatry and consequence of this, they were not by any means anonymous events allowing for a democratic, leaderless, spontaneity. Most were due to the initiative of two poets, Gaster and Mayakovsky. According To Fuelop Mueller, "They pointed out that proletarian music should no longer be confined to a narrow room, but that its audience should be the population of the whole district. The factory whistle was in their opinion, to be adapted to be the new and predominant orchestral instrument, for its tone could be heard by whole quarters and remind the proletariat of its real home, the factory." Jeez, and what a middle class assumption; only somebody who'd never been in a factory day in day out could come out with such bilge. As for a factory whistle remember on a clear night a decade or so before these Russian spectacles, Buddy Bolden's horn could be heard twelve miles away in the alligator swamps of the Mississippi delta!
Let's cut the crap; I think this was more the bald truth of the matter. A few decades later and things have been given the gloss of rose-tinted spectacles. By 1966 a Russian critic name of Mayeov (?) in a periodical called ISSKUSTVO seems to reflect, to impose ideas emanating from contemporary France and which are probably well wide of the mark. Of these staged festivals he says, "They are a living intercourse between human beings, unrestricted by objects or hierarchic structures. [You what?] Its specific feature is play, self-realisation, without which no one truly exists." ...... and, "Unlike art, which in its aims is equally ideal, the festival realises in a more active manner the aesthetic transformation of reality." .... because "in this festive union of the people, man is liberated from considerations and obligations".... for in, "The principle of play, action is the antithesis of watching, it supports the tendency to eliminate all difference between actor and spectator." Fine words but they don't remotely describe what was taking place on the ground; a leftist recuperation, a distortion, even a lie, because the masses in these Russian spectacles hardly ever acted spontaneously but were organised by the Artist / Director. True, the better, more honest artistic directors at this moment in Russia did tend to see something of their contradictory position merely hoping they could help facilitate the self-realisation of the masses. Finally even Mayeov comes back down to earth recognising that the ideal of the festival is to include all the people in "common brotherhood" but this is only possible when all "barriers of property, class, culture separating people have been abolished and this ideal can only be achieved in communism." (Interestingly the abolition of money or wage labour isn't mentioned here).
The Russian festivals remained situated at the junction between art and life; the festival becoming the mediating event or moment between the two separated plains of art and life. They remained contradictory: the alienated watching, spectacular element remaining mixed with an active participation which, in reality was nothing more than pseudo participation because programmed. Thus these so-called festivals weren't really genuine festivals at all (in the mass subversive sense we now recognise by the description) but really extensions; a loosening maybe of a generally rigid Bolshevised monumentality. Most certainly they aren't a pre-figuration of tomorrow's genuinely revolutionary festivals inseparable from subversive uprising and which have been pre-figured in the recent ghetto insurrections in American cities or even the sub-cultural expressions of collective juvenile delinquency from the 1950s onwards. Moreover, before that there were also many moments of ritual mass celebration that completely altered their character and got out of hand. Take for instance that suppressed but notable incident on the eve of armistice in 1945 when the drunken crowds in Trafalgar Square took to mass copulation, and an alienated festival thus acquired a sudden sensual authenticity, a realisation, if you like, of Hegel's curlicue, "The true is a moment of the false."
This was play in the widest definition of what an evolving sense of play is and it could be said that such play has been there lurking in the background for millennia. The difference is this evolving definition has acquired an urgency of realisation which must become the dominant thrust in society starting right now by collectively and imaginatively subverting the miserable conditions of modern capitalism as collectively we create the conditions for a new world. Inevitably we will immediately encounter all the forces of the old order out there to stop this happening and who will deploy all their police units and their vast techniques of subtle conditioning and deadly persuasion. Once, it was said, "The church used to burn those whom it called sorcerers in order to repress the primitive tendencies to play preserved in popular festivals. In the society that is at present dominant which mass produces wretched pseudo games (Isle of Wight pop concerts etc) devoid of participation, any true activity is necessarily classified as criminal. It remains semi-clandestine and comes to life as scandal." (From an anonymous leaflet).
In a sense it could be said there is something of a link between the modern day Isle of Wight pseudo festivals and the earlier Russian, stage managed events in the deployment of a common pseudo participation which passes itself off as real. The most we can say is these festivals (and there are more and more of them) have finally at least given rise to very deep insights into the nature of authentic festivity as opposed to a reified dancing-like passivity (the seeming spontaneous movement of the spectators) and it's a concept that has now become central to all genuine revolutionary theory and practice.
David Wise: 1973
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