Approaching the border construction technologies in Russia
The exhibition “Die Grenze” [The Border], curated by Inke Arns and Thibaut de Ruyter, invites reflection not only thanks to the serious artists that participate, but also because of its mode of assembly. Individual boxes that simultaneously serve as crates and vitrines recall Sarat Maharaj’s evocation of Marcel Duchamp in his seminal text “The Congo Is Flooding The Acropolis”1. “Boîte-en-Valise (1935-1971) … is made up of 69 small-scale facsimiles of work [Duchamp] has produced by 1935”, writes Maharaj in 1991, the year new borders have sprung up all over Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union’s demise. “They are contained in a box which slips into a valise. It serves an archive of his oeuvre, a ‘portable museum’. The Boîtes-en-Valise are made for carrying about, for travelling and journeying, the immigrantartist's [sic] handy kit of artworks”. The connection between Duchamp, “Die Grenze” and the Post-Socialist condition calls for a reflection, presented here, that builds on these crossroads.
In the inherently political process of mapping and practice of cartography there is, arguably, no act more strategic than drawing borders. To establish a border is to put a finishing touch on a nation-state’s pretense for sovereignty, to create a virtual island surrounded by perceived cultural and social backwater populated by inferior Others. The freshest examples of this border demarcation creativity are profoundly aggressive: Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America partly thanks to a campaign promise of a wall on the border with Mexico; ISIS is eager to resurrect the caliphate because a truly Islamic state cannot exist without redistributed landmass; Russia annexes Crimea to further the revisionist agenda aimed at restoring the Empire to the point where it has arguably started during the reign of Catherine the Great. So, a lot of politicians worldwide get very assertive, creative even, with the concept that has seemed destined to become obsolete a decade ago, when Thomas Friedman’s neoliberal dreaming made the world look flat.
Borders seem to be unique to fossil-fueled life forms, as artificial intellect is proving to be operating on a different basis to map spaces. AlphaGo Zero, a new AI program that plays ‘go’, defeating an earlier version, shocks the experts of the game with moves in the center of the board, counterintuitive to most players’ reliance on stories and territories. Particular stories are spread over particular territories, and a narrative’s reach beyond a border is always conditioned by a policy, something that a digital program intrinsically lacks. One can only imagine what, if anything, can be done by automating foreign policy or just one session of the United Nations.
All border projects, both real and demagogic, are based on the notion of supremacy inside a proposed borderline. They are Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”2, but the bureaucracy is very real. There is no border without a passport, and a passport without a visa, and the lack of both produces an illegal immigrant, someone who is physically within, but fantastically beyond the realm of the imaginary community. This is, in Zygmunt Bauman’s parlance, “human waste”3, first seen during Europe’s preparation for the World War II and manifested in tragedies of the region’s many displaced jews. The opposite of “waste” is Friedman’s “flat-earthers”4, “globalists” and everyone that exists within a dignified situation that calls for a prefix “trans-”: transnational, transgressive, even transgender - because even when you are the latter, you are positioned to have rights or fight for their implementation.
Thinking about borders cannot commence “without understanding the colonial difference”5, in Walter D. Mignolo’s suitably rigorous assertion. Is there anything else left but the colonial difference to explain or at least address the power structures that keep the borders intact and move them? And this way of ideating has only started to unfold in Russia’s academia for the last two decades. By now, with new layers of urgency added every year to the question of borders, colonial difference presents new and important ways to overcome Russia’s old and stereotypical conundrums. In Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, Raskolnikov’s famous dilemma “whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right” is usually thought of as an ethical transgression. But colonial context gives a new perspective, situating Raskolnikov’s drama squarely in the political sphere.
What thinking colonial difference can give to a Russian is not only a firmer grasp on identity politics, but also a much-needed perspective on the last hundred years. World War II should be understood as a bid for Germany and Italy to get their own colonies, in Russia and Africa respectively, driven by the fact that these nations were left out of “the Scramble for Africa” in the 1870s. Both Russia, as Larry Wolff showed in “Inventing Eastern Europe”6, and Africa had been sufficiently primitivized and racialized by that time. What complicates things is that Russia, at first driven by fur trade, for centuries has had already been a colonizing power on the unclaimed vastness of land populated by (largely) pre-urban cultures. This multi-level oppression created highly conflicted personalities, and Raskolnikov is one fictional example among many of different origins, most of them very real, like the hero of Georgi Derluguian’s brilliant book, “Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography”7. Raskolnikov’s question can and should be reformulated as “whether waste or whether trans-”. It’s all too fitting that on the superhuman pole of absolute right to kill he identifies with Napoleon Buonaparte, a failed colonizer as global as Hitler, though with a modern (and not retro-modern) agenda.
Thus, a subject spliced between various active and passive modes of the verb “to colonize” holds a passport with multiple accepted and denied entries. She has a visa to modernity, for example, while being left out of the United States. Or a visa to capitalist economy, while being left out of political decision-making. The situation, all too deeply felt, but rarely articulated in Russia, calls for a new kind of global passportization that will include visas to physical, political and mental states, while making visible all the power structures that exclude participation. We do not have to choose between waste and trans- because everyone is both by a factor of – how much?
Valentin Diaconov (born 1980, Moscow) is a curator at the Museum of Modern Art "Garage", critic. Doctor of Cultural Studies, the thesis is devoted to the Moscow art scene during the period of the Khrushchev thaw. He writes critical texts for art publications since 1998. Since 2012, he is engaged in organizing exhibition projects in different cities of Russia.
 Maharaj, Sarat, “The Congo Is Flooding The Acropolis. Art in Britain of the immigrations”, in: Third Text, No. 15, Summer 1991. P. 81.
2 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities, Verso Books, London, 1983.
3 Bauman, Zygmunt, Wasted Lives, Cambridge, Polity, 2004.
4 Friedman, Thomas, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, New York, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2005.
5 Mignolo, Walter D, Local Histories/Global Designs. Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2000. P. 6.
6 Wolff, Larry, Inventing Eastern Europe. The Map Of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1994.
7 Derluguian, Georgi, Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography, London, Verso Books, 2004.