Art Without Death: Russian Cosmism
Conversation between Anselm Franke,Boris Groys, Anton Vidokle, Arseny Zhilyaev, and Francesco Tenaglia.
Art Without Death: Russian Cosmism, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, comprises a film trilogy by Anton Vidokle (Immortality for All!), an exhibition of Russian avant-garde curated by Boris Groys (Cosmic Imagination), and a new installation by Arseny Zhilyaev (Intergalactic Mobile Fedorov Museum-Library, Berlin) to brings us straight into the visual and philosophical depths of Cosmism. Spread at the end of the 19th century around the figure of the librarian/ philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov and his circle of followers, this influential movement called for a unified, single task for all humans: immortality for the living, resurrection for the dead, space colonization, and self-evolution of man via technology.
Francesco Tenaglia: Cosmism has been regaining popularity within and outside Russia. Why this show, and why this show now?
Anselm Franke: For us at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, it’s relevant in the lineage of several concerns we have been following and developing projects on for the last few years, for instance the Anthropocene Project of 2013–14. One can see Cosmism as one of the genealogies of the Anthropocene—the quest that is on the one hand radically utopian, and on the other hand about a planetary technology. To invoke these historical dimensions is important for us. Another overarching theme we have been following is called 100 Years of Now, which looks to the past one hundred years to develop perspectives on thinking differently. I think there’s a lot in the Cosmism complex that could help us think differently about the present. Anton [Vidokle] and Arseny [Zhilyaev] are both artists who have been contributing greatly these past few years to a revived interest in Cosmism. Boris [Groys] is the main academic voice who, since the beginning of the 1990s, has been bringing our attention to these aspects of utopian thought that are not exactly Marxist orthodoxy.
FT: Cosmism is not a speculative philosophy. It’s more about doing things than observation. One of the reasons the exhibition is so interesting is because the historical aspect of Cosmism is there, but also you activated some parts of the philosophy, via the museum, for example.
Anton Vidokle: I first heard about Cosmism through Boris, who once told me that around the time of the Russian Revolution, there was an unusual philosophy of immortalism that inspired a lot of artists and writers. For instance, Kazimir Malevich’s sculptures from the 1920s (the Architectons) were designs for space stations—orbiting cemeteries where bodies of the dead could be frozen for future resurrection. Boris is such a great storyteller that it almost sounded too good to be true: vampiric blood transfusions, corpses frozen in cosmos, resurrection of the dead communist leaders and so forth… Then about five years ago, through Ilya Kabakov, I encountered these ideas again and realized they weren’t a myth or an anecdote, but something based on historical reality. I started to research this and came across Nikolai Fyodorov’s Philosophy of the Common Task, which was incredibly impressive for me on many levels—ideas, language, futuristic imaginary, etc. His writing is very unusual. Almost every sentence contains several images. It’s almost like writing with pictures, so for me as a visual artist, this was completely irresistible. I’d never read philosophy like that. Rather than being speculative theory, it was from the start conceived as radical social activism. Not surprisingly, many of the protagonists of Cosmism worked as medical doctors. And if they were scientists, a lot of their research had medical applications. They were all actively pursuing something very direct, which was to keep people alive as long as possible—to push death away a little bit by any means possible: science, technology, art, social organization. This impressed me and had a strong influence on the direction of my own work with Cosmism. It would have felt hypocritical to deal with it purely as documentary or historical research. To understand motives behind Cosmism, one has to sublimate its goal: the universal fight against death.
Arseny Zhilyaev: I agree with Anton; we can say the same about Cosmists philosophers. They did not see themselves as speculative thinkers but as engaging people in practice. In this sense, Cosmism has something in common with Marxism, because they developed more or less at the same time and tried to react to the same problems. Even technologically, Marxism is a kind of anti-philosophy, whose main goal is to change reality, not to explain, as Marx once put it. But it is obvious that today people consider capitalism as a natural order of things. Looking to the popularity of inscribing to Jemeson and Zizek the aphorism that it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of current political and economic regimes speaks for itself. Capitalism became an ontological, cosmic problem. And it needs coherence to this scale solution. It’s true: If nature is unfair, you must change it. And Cosmist thinkers started to do this around a hundred years ago.
AV: People tend to understand immortality as a fantastic, metaphysical, mystical thing. But it can also be understood more pragmatically: It’s about a rejection of violence and militarism, food and prevention of famines, health care systems, right to rejuvenation, and so forth. On a certain level, Cosmism is about redistribution of resources so everyone can live a healthier, longer life until people stop dying entirely.
FT: I’m intrigued by the relationship between Cosmism and Marxism. Cosmism goes beyond some forms of Marxism with this idea that you design humanity itself. It’s even more than creating a new society with a new social structure and a new architecture, without God and without nations. It’s a super exciting project from an artistic perspective.
AV: Within Russian Marxism, there were some key protagonists who advocated what they described as god-building. This was in the 1920s. Arseny knows quite a bit about this.
AZ: Yes, there was a small sect of god-builders—headed by Bogdanov, Lunacharsky, and Gorky in the Bolshevik party—that tried to use theology to engage the proletariat in Marxist struggle. They share with Fyodorov and his colleagues an interest in scientific immortality, an obsession with (as much as possible) organizing of the world and general stake on evolutional development of the human species with the final idea of a god-like being. But I think the connection between Cosmism and Marxism is deeper. Possibly it lies in the using of theological structures on a secular level. At least for the religious branch of Cosmists, the main idea was to fulfill God’s promise without his help, by means of only rational effort of humanity. There is an opinion that if we speak about revolution, it means total destruction of the past. But for many Marxists, it was opposite. There is Lenin’s quotation where he says that revolution is first of all restoration. Of course, he meant a restoration of optimal production relations and fair social order. Another example is Trotsky, who said that he was an adherent of tradition, but the name of this tradition was revolution. So even radical revolutionaries had the intention to restore an ideal condition of life. And thus Cosmism—with its desire for the resurrection of all and the restoration of everything—and Communism converge. But the difference is that if the Marxist project aims to outwit progress by making it a conscious goal, then Cosmist thinkers propose to abolish progress by learning to control time itself, realizing it as only one of the tools of life.
FT: So is it safe to say you are interested in how Communism and Cosmism coexist? Overlap?
AZ: Actually, it is more interesting for me to ask how Cosmism can exist under contemporary conditions, for example when “resurrecting” technologies such as healthy lifestyles and health care are mainly the privilege of the elite minority. Cosmism presupposes the existence of its own Bolshevik party that can organize humankind for a common task against the main enemy, which is death. In a sense, it’s far easier than dealing with a class of exploiters, because death concerns everyone, and so the association against it can be inclusive regardless of social, racial, or gender identity.
AF: Not to reject the pragmatic reading that Anton underlined, but more to contrast it with perhaps a more allegorical reading of the aesthetics of the historical works that Boris has assembled for the show, I perceive an allusion to cosmic travel—the ontological un-grounding that Arseny has brought up. It is as much about what an ontological revolution might be. What it does to our minds is akin already to space travel, with its upsetting of coordinates and undoing of gravity, not only in the physical sense of leaving the planet, but also in this sense of the loss of space and time, and our usual cognitive understanding of the world. This aspect allows us to reread parts of the otherwise very well-known avant-gardes, for instance the Constructivists and Productivists.
FT: Boris, can you say something about your selection of historical works? A lot of Cosmists were polymaths and the movement involved various philosophical, technological, and literary experiments, but it was never a formalized visual arts current.
BG: The images are all by artists who were interested in ideas of Cosmism and immortality, or are more or less explicitly connected to these ideas. During the 1920s, there was a shift from the pure abstraction of Suprematism and Constructivism toward a kind of utopian—but perhaps also sci-fi—imagination. I selected images of this kind.
FT: I find it extremely interesting that Fyodorov was a librarian. I’m not going to get into three-penny psychology here, but he was clearly concerned with the idea of preservation of the existent, and the activities undertaken at the museum must have struck him as a nexus between the living and the past. The museum as both a metaphor for resurrection and literally a place where the past comes back into existence.
AV: Arseny and I published Fyodorov’s essay on museums in a book called Avant-Garde Museology. For Fyodorov, the museum is central in the constellation of human institutions because it is not focused on progress but dedicated to the preservation of memory, of the past. Resurrection as a concept does not work without memory. The library where Fyodorov worked at is a short walk from one of the oldest museums in Russia, a museum of zoology. For the last two hundred or so years, it has maintained a collection of taxidermy and zoological displays. I’ve spent some time there filming, and it’s easy to imagine what Fyodorov could have been thinking, which is: The preserved animals are so lifelike. They look like they could easily come back to life. So if museums are already able to preserve and conserve and restore, then, according to Fyodorov, they need to radicalize their technology to not merely preserve artifacts but actually bring back life: resurrect. In this way, a portrait gallery should not stop at merely preserving the likeness of ancestors, their images; it should use its resources and technology to bring them back to life. Fyodorov means this literally: He envisions a universal museum where everything is preserved for a universal project of resurrection.
BG: In our time, museums are less sites of permanent exhibition and research of the past, and more stages on which temporary exhibitions, performances, screenings, and so on can be displayed. Whereas for Fyodorov, the museum is the only place that allows us to practice resistance against the ideology of progress that tends to destroy everything that does not fit into the (pretty narrowly defined) framework of contemporaneity. Another key difference is that our museums today are specialized: There are museums of art, natural history, and technology, but also libraries, cinematheques, historical museums containing objects of everyday use from different epochs, different sites of memory, even house-museums where notable people lived. Whereas Fyodorov envisioned a universal, integrated museum that would be able to reconstruct and reenact the past in its entirety.
AF: I think it’s good to remind ourselves that from the very beginning of modern museum history, museums have always been likened to mausoleums. It was one of the earliest critiques of the Louvre. There’s a long-standing debate around what it means for things to enter the museum, in relation to them coming to death there, and how art itself is alive or animated. This is a struggle between art and the museum. To think of that as a tension, as something that animates the debates about the museum itself, in a larger context of modernity, is also interesting. When you think of a museum of everything, it’s also like a link between the artistic and scientific lineages of modern thought. In a way, modernity, or the scientific part of modernity, set out to create a universal census of everything—the encyclopaedic project. Think of that together with what André Bazin has called the mummy complex. He says that if we were to subject the plastic arts to psychoanalysis, it would become clear that the embalming of the dead and victory over time are its central projects. In relation to Cosmism and Marxism, we must remember how important the Revolution itself was as a victory over time. Looking at that now, how could we possibly overcome that mummy complex? It becomes like the eye of the needle, to pass through—to live up to the predicament of the modern.
AZ: This victory over time, in the case of Cosmism and Marxism, is really important. It tries to provide for humankind infinity of time. It’s a kind of race, usually: You must always be in the endless production of life. Cosmism does not try to participate in this race, or to rationalize capitalism, but to take an additional step to achieve victory over the restrictions that nature places on us.
FT: Cosmism was one of the few futurist or avant-garde movements that didn’t want to destroy museums.
AV: Yes and no. Actually, Malevich advocated destruction of museums, but it came from a profound optimism that art can regenerate itself, even from ashes. I think he felt that museums and art are indestructible—that even if you burn everything, somehow the ashes will spawn anew. He wasn’t afraid of destruction because he believed that art is indestructible, which is a Cosmist sentiment: Everything will be resurrected, and the totality of history will come back to life. A lot of people at the time felt that it’s not possible for something to disappear because of the first law of thermodynamics.
FT: Another topic I want to tackle is whether and how Cosmism, in pursuing how to make life theoretically infinite, intersects with transhumanism, humanity-plus.
AV: For me, Cosmism is a radical, delirious materialism. It’s very deeply grounded within materialist thought, which is very old, in the sense of pre-Socratic philosophy. There were really early efforts by humans to try to understand the nature of reality, arriving at the conclusion that there is no transcendental realm, that everything is matter. As Boris once pointed out, you could say that the body is a kind of machine, and any machine can be repaired. If you keep a machine in good order, it could probably function infinitely, indefinitely. But it’s very different to think you can somehow separate a person into hardware and software, into a machine and a spirit, and extract the spirit and put it into another machine, which is what a lot of post- and transhumanists think. Such thinking is like returning to the delusion of the religious concept that the soul could exist separately from the body, and that it would have its own realm, or perform all sorts of activities without the body. I think the ethos of materialism is that the soul and the body are one entity. If you want to resurrect someone, you have to resurrect the body. You cannot somehow capture the soul and put it into this iPhone, like, “this will be my father.”
FT: Do you think that perhaps today, our devices are skewing our thinking about such things?
AV: Absolutely. The concept of computer engineering has so permeated the popular concept understanding of intelligence that even animal psychologists are using computer models and metaphors in their work, which are inapplicable. Brain structures work so radically differently. There are no memory cards or databases in the brain, it’s not a biological computer at all. But somehow this concept of hardware/software became such a strong dominant that it’s only natural that posthumanists and transhumanists—and many others—are completely consumed with the idea of capturing or transcribing consciousness.
AF: It’s haunted by the dualism that exists in terms of software and hardware, certainly, but another ghost is the metaphor of the equation of life with code: DNA code, computer code.
AV: Sure, but DNA determines general parameters, like hereditary diseases, general appearance, allergies, immunities, and so forth, while the computer code actually determines every possible action a machine can perform.
FT: Arseny, I know you have used the exhibition as an artistic medium or expressive framework for some time, in the process referencing bits of histories of experimental museology of the Soviet era. Can you speak a little about this?
AZ: I rediscovered Marxist museology by visiting the former museums of the Revolution that have preserved their exhibitions more or less from Soviet times. These are among the few places in Russia where the word “revolution” is not forbidden. In my opinion, Marxist museology is a forgotten part of the historical avant-garde. Some of it goes much further than the known experiments of Constructivist and Productivist art. The experimental Marxist exhibitions of Aleksei Fedorov-Davydov in many respects anticipate conceptual art and institutional critique. It is important to note that museums at that time were no longer associated with art, in the sense in which art exists under capitalism. Although, at the same time, they retained the exhibition format. To the same, I aspire. In Cosmism, the museum becomes a platform where art and science unite for the purpose of accumulating as many traces of life as possible, in order to preserve and study them. The resurrection of the dead and the subsequent settling of them in the cosmos must begin from the museum. The third film in Anton’s trilogy is devoted to an interpretation of the museum in Russian Cosmism.
FT: Yes, Anton, tell us about your film trilogy, Immortality for All.
AV: I started working on the films about five years ago as a kind of a research-based project. Actually, the first manifestation of it was a kind of an amateur short play I staged at HKW for the Former West conference in 2013 or so. It took a relatively long time to find visual language and structural logic to speak about Cosmism, because it’s so multifaceted and constantly moves back and forth between poetry, philosophy, scientific and technological topics, and works of art. I think at the beginning, I thought an exhibition of documentation of some sort would be the right form to present all this material and ideas, but then I realized that a cinematic project may be more effective for me because it combines images and narrative, and can be a very immersive experience. Each of the films is approximately thirty minutes. This is partly because I do not have any background or education in filmmaking, and a feature length piece would have been too overwhelming of an undertaking in terms of scripting, filming, editing, and so forth. The short format I ended up using is related to the Soviet genre of popular science films. These were unusual films—rather popular in the USSR—that do not have a parallel in the West. Toward the 1970s and 1980s, some of them became increasingly eccentric and experimental. A number of very talented filmmakers with unusual ideas about cinematography and speculative content were not allowed to make feature films, but they could make these short, experimental essay-films that weren’t so closely scrutinized by the censorship board. Interestingly, this format works well in the context of art exhibitions, because it combines images, sound, and narrative, and the length makes it possible for visitors to see one or more of the films without having to stay all day. So perhaps my film trilogy is a kind of contemporary popular science film.
AZ: A lot of the filmmakers who made these science fiction films were interested in Cosmism. Felix Sobolev was incredible. In Kiev, there was a special studio for popular science films, and Sobolev made Cosmist films there. It is rumored that his last film, which he died before he got to make, was about technological immortality—a popular topic within Soviet scientific circles in the 1970s. Sobolev apparently planned to do interviews with biologists and biophysicists who were working in the field, but ironically died before he could start shooting. A colleague of mine found all of his notes in the archives in Kiev. Maybe we’ll try to complete it for him one day.
FT: Arseny, tell me about your project in the show, Intergalactic Mobile Fedorov Museum-Library, Berlin.
AZ: Literally, it will be a library with books on Cosmism in English, German, Russian, and some other languages. There is one huge table shaped like a star. It’s one of my typical forms with which I work. From my perspective, it can be understood like a UFO or spaceship or time machine bringing knowledge to our time. Usually I work with series or circles—not in the way they were used in 1960s or 1970s contemporary art, but more in a way that is used by science fiction writers, for example, who invoke not just circles but worlds. In my case, I operate in different stories or worlds. In Berlin, there is a continuation of the fictional Russian Cosmic Federation in the future, when humanity spread all over outer space, and the Earth lost its original meaning, and humanity decided to build a huge museum network on the planet where it appeared. We don’t have precise details about the future the installation refers to. We don’t know if it’s good or bad, Communist or capitalist. I like to play with such balances. In the case of this project, I don’t want to interpret this Fyodorov library as an evil brought to Western democracy, another type of dystopian life, but mostly as a question: How can we interpret the possible future of the museum and of art, and even Russian Cosmism itself?
FT: So it’s science fiction?
AZ: Yes, I consider my installations as models of possible futures. So science fiction is my main medium for thinking about that. A kind of science fiction about art. But as a real library, it’s something in between, because there are books there for you to use. It’s also a tool.
FT: I personally react with instinctive fear to the Cosmist desire to have all the humans who ever lived back again. To me, the prospect seems somehow nightmarish. Wouldn’t it slow things down if everyone who ever lived came back to life in society? And on a deeper level, could we educate someone from the Middle Ages about the idea of, for instance, interracial marriage? It would take so much effort to make the people who come back happy.
AV: Clearly, there could be serious problems. The beliefs and morals of an average person who lived in Bologna in the fourteenth century, say, would make them uncomfortable if resurrected into our contemporary reality. It could be even more difficult further in the future when we are all transgender immortal beings mingling with aliens and so forth. In one of our conversations about this, Arseny proposed that there would need to be planet-scale museums constructed, to avoid offending the sensibilities of a particular period, so that people from the past are not confronted by things that would frighten them. But as we talked about it, I had this weird déjà vu moment of, well, are we living in this right now? Are we already living on a Cosmist museum-planet devoted to “our time”?
FT: It’s like areas in cities that are class-based.
AZ: This is a dystopian and nightmarish interpretation of Cosmism, but it’s one of the possible scenarios. If we go back to the contemporary situation and possible Cosmist interpretations, my problem with Marxism, and today’s condition, for that matter, is the lack of connection with the (let’s say) promise of absolute. Cosmism provides a possible solution for this: How can we get reconnected? Not through an absolutist God who sits somewhere in the sky, but as an ultimate infinity of life. I think that’s why we don’t need to try to understand this future world with billions of resurrected people precisely. It will possibly function differently from what can imagine today.
AV: An important thing to keep in mind is that for Fyodorov, immortality was not the end. In the Philosophy of the Common Task, everybody becomes immortal and is resurrected, and then this immortal, total, resurrected humanity lives throughout the universe. We learn to live in the cosmos. We improve our bodies, make ourselves stronger—maybe we don’t need oxygen anymore, or are self-feeding. If we have an infinite amount of time on our hands (because we are immortal), what are we going to do? Fyodorov says suggests that we should all become artists, and humanity will become a living work of art. For him, a work of art is beyond a painting, a photograph, or a sculpture; the task of art would be some kind, no less than the spiritualization of inorganic matter, of the universe. He argues that it’s our responsibility that we might come to teach all of the molecules of the universe—the planets, the stars, the asteroids—how to see, how to perceive, think, and feel.
FT: We teach them, or we just discover a way to communicate with them?
AV: I don’t think Fyodorov explains the methodology pragmatically. It’s more inspirational or conceptual. But he feels this is our obligation as conscious, thinking beings. He thinks that reason is a unique faculty of animal life/humanity that we must share with the rest of the universe that does not yet have this capacity, and in that moment—when it starts to think—the universe will become one interconnected god-like organism/entity. Godlike. That is his horizon. Its infinity is not going to be boring or oppressive; everyone is going to be really busy as an artist or an astronaut.
FT: In a way, this is very contemporary. Very close to today’s ideas of enlargement of rights, like animal rights.
AV: It’s also reminiscent of Baruch Spinoza and his understanding of God as this infinite, thinking substance. Spinoza was very influential in nineteenth-century Russia.
AZ: It’s a theological interpretation of the universe but in a more secular and materialistic way. I agree with Anton that it’s a typical Fyodorovian interpretation of art where the final step is that the universe is transformed somehow through artistic practice. This attempt—
FT: —at god-building, essentially.
AZ: Yes. We can compare it with Walter Benjamin’s idea of history or stopping of progress, for example, when communistic revolution is not just the final destination, but something opposite, the start of real life. The same could be thought of Fyodorov: Resurrection was not the end, but an initial point for transformation of life.
FT: Is there any chance that Cosmism will come back in a real way, not just as a source of inspiration or a historical reference?
BG: Well, in the context of modern and contemporary life, the most important factor was and still is the technology. However, technology is perceived by us as leading from nowhere to nowhere—away from the unknown past toward an unknown future. On the contrary, Cosmist thinking is teleological. Its goal is to use technology to realize the fundamental human desires (youth, immortality), and not only for the future but also for previous generations (in the sense of weak, political, and technological messianism of which Walter Benjamin spoke). Today, we are living in times of crisis for the basic leftist ideas: central planning, universal government, a common historical project. Contemporary humankind believes, rather, in competition and nationalism. So, it is not easy for the Cosmists’ ideas to be understood and accepted. It takes time.