Berlin-based philosopher Armen Avanessian travels the world, seeking to create platforms for a different future and to abolish the distinction between theory and practice. Moscow is his latest stop.
With the World Cup underway, Moscow is the place to be – and not only for football fans. For those interested in how contemporary art functions outside of its Western dominions, V-A-C Foundation’s exhibition ‘General Rehearsal’ is a unique insight into the future of artistic production in Russia.
The foundation was started in 2009 by natural gas billionaire and philanthropist Leonid Mikhelson and curator Teresa Iarocci Mavica. V-A-C champions contemporary art and artistic production in Russia, and while its Venetian space Palazzo delle Zattere is already bringing Russia’s most prominent young artists to the international art community, GES2, the foundation’s Moscow’s headquarters designed by Renzo Piano, is under construction.
“General Rehearsal” is a preview of how V-A-C might experiment with its own space, once it’s open. Thus, a rehearsal — or an exhibition game, to keep with the football spirit. A multidisciplinary project, it was developed in collaboration with Kadist, an organization with spaces in Paris and San Francisco, and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. The project is divided into three acts. First, Chekhov’s Seagull, which reimagined artwork, ran from late April to mid-June. The second act, titled “Metaphysics from the future,” premiered last week and is curated by Armen Avanessian, an Austrian-Armenian philosopher (“half-Austrian irony, half-Armenian melancholy,” explains Avanessian).
Avanessian works within the framework of speculative realism and accelerationism, perhaps the most integral streams of European thought since the decline of postmodernism. He is also obsessed with narrating a new future which, Armen insists, is very different from merely talking about it. This topic is a subject of the articles, speeches, films, and exhibitions that Armen curates. Ultimately, it’s his preoccupation with the future that made Avanessian’s life trajectory rather unusual. With degrees in philosophy and literature, he previously lectured in Austria, Germany, and the United States, where he held visiting fellow or teaching positions at Columbia University, Yale University, and the California Institute of the Arts. He authored half a dozen books, and his writing has appeared in such different platforms as DIS or October. Once he even co-founded an imagined intelligence agency, an enlightened version of the CIA, for the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. In other words, Avanessian has more than enough credentials for a successful career in academia and the art world. Instead, at 45, he wants to live up to a new future.
“I’m trying not to fall into trap of institutions, and I’m paying a certain price: I don’t have a job, I don’t have a regular income,” says Avanessian. “But hopefully this might change soon. At least meanwhile this allows me to really experiment at the margins of institutions. Or within institutions that are about to come, like V-A-C.” He remembers that when Francesco Manacorda, the foundation’s artistic director, contacted him about the project earlier this year, he was immediately interested. However, he didn’t have enough time to come up with something completely new. Instead, Avanessian offered to turn what occupied him at the time – a study of the metaphysics of the future that has since turned into a book manuscript – into a play. One can call it an adaptation, but Avanessian prefers to think of it as “a categorization, or chapterization” of the book.
So how do we create different narrations of the future? Armen offers a roadmap instead of an answer. “Let’s try different tools for once, and let’s see the world not as something present, but something building from the past or something coming towards us from the future.” The new temporality is one of the key notions of Avanessian’s philosophy, and it is building on the analysis of what he calls “pre-phenomena” — the obsession of late capitalist societies with the prevention of all dangers. “Preemptive warfare, preemptive policing, preemptive personality; all the phenomena that show us that our present is governed from the future.” So what do we do about it? “It’s not about getting together a few smart people. It’s about changing the platform. That’s what you see in Silicon Valley: they’re not simply inventing the future. They’re inventing platforms and events and institutions and architectures in which our future is then invented.”
“It’s no accident that I often show up where things are not yet established and patterns aren’t formed,” says Avanessian. The New Normal, a postgraduate program of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design in Moscow, is yet another example of such institutions. The program brands itself as “a speculative urbanism think-tank” and lists Avanessian among the program’s visiting faculty.
“For me, Strelka is a good example of how theoreticians and practitioners meet together and reshape academic or semi-academic structures,” explains Armen. He says that during his last visit, he decided for a change not to lecture but rather to ask a question — what role does theory play in life? “It was a self-reflective experiment. For me, teaching is not about bringing this or that “ism,” but finding what is the interest of students, and showing them how to sharpen it, how much theory there already is.”
It’s not that Avanessian wasn’t always preoccupied with theory. The difference is that now, it’s suddenly in vogue. “Surprisingly, everybody is eager to consume theory. Especially in the art world, but also in design and architecture. And I find myself in the midst of this interest.” He stresses that with the new importance of theory, there are also new roles prescribed to it, and this time around it should no longer just provide explanation or guidance to concrete artworks. “Theory is not an opposite of practice or a meta-discourse. Artists need less and less explanations of their work, they’re rather eager to understand what it means to be productive. Also, every practice is theoretical.”
Armen says that if one wants to get a good sense of theory, they need to study how it is produced. “I try to understand how artists communicate and distribute their knowledge or their images.” The process takes him from art to film to writing — and even theater. “In theater, my interest is what dramatic or theatrical elements theory always has.” Avanessian explains that theatrical elements are inherent to theory, as the process of teaching it takes place in an auditorium, a physical setting with its own rules of communication. “That’s also something I learn from architects and artists — it’s the surrounding or the setting that structures the output. The content is not independent of where and how it is produced.”
Avanessian’s collaboration with V-A-C mirrors this pursuit of a theory that can also be a practice. “We’re always already doing metaphysics, whether we want to or not — the question here is whether it’s a good one or a bad one, is it a realistic one or is it completely detached and ideological.” He hopes his own metaphysics are an example of the former, not the latter — and it’s up to existing institutions to overcome their conservatism and open up to his ideas.