Cyber-PiraMMMida: Exposing Fake Horizontals and Perverting Power Verticals

Authors: Michał Murawski, Maria Mileeva, David Roberts, Denis Maksimov

Cyber-PiraMMMida is a transdisciplinary, transmedia project devoted to ridiculing, tricking, twisting, queering, resisting—and perverting—the pyramidal specters and structures which haunt the worlds of architecture, art, academia, and the everyday. In particular, Cyber-PiraMMMida is fascinated by “fake horizontals”: pharaonic edifices of exploitation masquerading as paragons of grassrootist virtue.

Cyber-PiraMMMida is named in anti-homage to MMM Bank, an infamous pyramid scheme established by convicted fraudster Sergei Mavrodi (1932-2018) in 1991 in Russia. MMM Bank spread to much of the Global South and Global East in the 2000s and 2010s, in the process defrauding millions of vulnerable people across the world of their livelihoods.

The pyramidality of socio-political structures is embedded in our collective human imaginaries, materialities, and passions; it has survived a multiplicity of plagues, wars, natural disasters, and other calamities over the centuries. The current COVID-19 outbreak is no exception. The plague is not a leveler.

Cyber-PiraMMMida—an online portal and a consequent virtual symposium, the online version of PPV’s show at the (COVID-postponed) Venice Biennale of Architecture 2020—is constructed around three conceptual cornerstones: Power, Planet, and Plague. It comprises more than twenty contributions created by artists, architects, thinkers, activists, scholars, and other piraMMMidalists, in which they explore the politics and aesthetics of the present-day pyramids (and pharaohs) populating our planet in a time of pandemic, ecological meltdown, and fascism resurgent.

In this text, the project’s curators, making use of lenses and perspectives honed over the course of their collaboration, mull over some of the ways in which pyrammmidal structures loom over four fields of endeavor with which they are intimately familiar: Art, Architecture, Academy, and Agony.

Cyber-PiraMMMida is a project of PPV (Perverting the Power Vertical: Politics and Aesthetics in the Global East), a nomadic seminar and event platform anchored to the FRINGE Centre in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), University College London.

 

Art

By Maria Mileeva

Where does art go from here? This question might suggest a search for a “new beginning,” a necessary and urgent departure in a time of current crisis. Instead, I see this forward-thrusting force as precisely our pitfall and, if not careful, it will lead us again into a rabbit hole of utopian thinking to a place that doesn’t exist. A better option would be to ask “how can art respond and intervene?” Can we think beyond existing hegemonies and adopt new tactics that refuse to repair and fix the system, but rather seek to bring the system to the point of its collapse? In this sense, we can imagine PiraMMMida as an anarchitectural project (Gordon Matta-Clark) and this is why we must begin from the core of the pyramid and seek to unbuild it. In this sense, our collaboration with S.a.L.E. Docks was critical to our ambitions to twist and resist the hegemonic machine of the Venice Biennale. It is not enough to call out the vertical ascent of power relations behind the structures of the art world (the art market, the museum, the archive). In order to build and create, we must unlearn existing structures of oppression, racism, and power that govern our world, paying heed not to reproduce, reiterate, or simply reframe those narratives.

Images from “A Ball of Hands” by David Bernstein

The universalisms behind the projects of modernism and socialist realism based on notions of transformation and advanced progress have long failed, and their underlying structures have been exposed as thinly disguised facades of competing power struggles. But one instructive take-away might be found in the histories of the Bauhaus, the Higher Art and Technical Studios (VKhUTEMAS), and the Black Mountain College, where connection between education, design, and philosophy put focus on art practice as a process and not as result. Its preliminary courses developed new teaching methods that looked at color, volume, and form through a process of experiment, error, and practical engagement with materials. In his art lessons, Josef Albers adopted tactics that sought to rid art and society of hierarchy. Working and living together, students at the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College were asked to make sculptures out of newspapers, to draw their name backward and upside down, and to take three colors and turn them into four. The focus on teaching method and not content transformed the classroom into a school of invention.

Taking root from the Bartlett School of Architecture, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, The Courtauld, and Avenir Institute, PiraMMMida provides a foundation upon which to rebuild a new mode of art practice for a habitable future. It is a space for engagement in generating alternative narratives, processes of undoing, and a space for healing and care. Together we can construct a potential history of art that doesn’t reflect the pyramidal structures of oppression but builds new constellations, a modular structure, an artwork with no end.

 

Architecture

By David Roberts

“The president of Kazakhstan wants a pyramid. It has to be finished in 21 months. Let your imagination soar.”Nigel Dancey, Foster + Partners

The pyramid has never been an isolated structure, but part of proliferating, tessellating, and segregating architectural complexes. Then of stone and brick, holding tombs, temples, causeways, and pavilions across Mesopotamia, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, western Asia, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Mesoamerica, Mexico, Latin America, and Pacific Ocean islands. Now of concrete and glass, hosting, as Michał chronicles and catalogs in Wild Capitalisms, kiosks, restaurants, shopping malls, concert halls, architecture studios, pedestrian subways, and police stations spanning the post-socialist world and reaching its apogee in Foster + Partners’ Palace of Peace and Reconciliation for Kazakhstan’s autocratic president Nursultan Nazarbayev, symbolizing the pyramid’s enduring potential to be colonized, corrupted, and crammed with ideology.

As a non-denominational contemporary building form, the pyramid is resonant of both a spiritual history that dates back to ancient Egypt as well as a symbol of amity for the future.” —Foster + Partners, Palace of Peace and Reconciliation press release

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation by Foster + Partners. Photo courtesy of Ninaras, Wikimapia

Far from amity, these symbols of opacity, verticality, and hierarchy preside over unfettered systems of oppression, extractivism, and racial capitalism, prompting Peg Rawes to urge for new ontologies, new vocabularies, and new imaginaries in architecture. Cyber-PiraMMMida shines a prismatic light on the bricks and shards of a deconstructed pyramid, finding emancipatory potential in transdisciplinary, transmedia, transversal contributions from Thandi Loewenson’s weird sci-fi fanfic research log to Alberto Duman’s dystopian serialized novella, from Georgia Martin’s maquette Mars base crafted from Amazon delivery boxes to Jane Rendell’s seven watercolor studies of a holding environment, as well as our own adjourned plans to construct a deconstructed pyramid in S.a.L.E. Docks in Venice, extruded into David Brodsky’s spotlit black-stained table under a translucent curtain tent and Natalia Romik’s inverted cloud pyramid of dollar bills and chocolate coins hanging from ribbons, ropes, and strings.

King Zhou’s Pyramid/the Zamstats Building in Lusaka. Photo courtesy of Thandi Loewenson

PiraMMMida at S.a.L.E. Docks. Exhibition design by David Brodsky

 

Academy

By Michał Murawski

The more tragicomically hyper-managerial and super-centralized the academy becomes, the more its institutional language seeks to smokescreen this centralization.

For example, staff meetings at many departments in British universities have recently been renamed “town hall” meetings. Asked what the rationale for these name changes are, departmental managers have sometimes been reported to provide enigmatic responses along the lines of, “The old phrase sounded so authoritarian—I decided that ‘town-hall’ meeting was more democratic-sounding.” These gestures of cosmetic procedural democratization, of course, are not hatched at the departmental level; they are decreed (or “recommended”) from on-high by the university’s central authorities; “the Centre,” as it is called, often without irony, throughout our institution (University College London)—or “Moscow” as we sometimes say in our (East European Studies) department. These managerial logics, structures, rhetoric, and aesthetics of hypernormalization-disguised-as-decentralization (and surveillance-masquerading-as-connectivity) have now gone into a dizzying level of overdrive following the COVID-enforced move online.

PiraMMMida at S.a.L.E. Docks. Exhibition design by Natalia Romik.

The jargon of the academy, however, sometimes produces curious and revelatory slippages into antique and monumental tongues. Vague, ill-defined and non-binding “best practices” [puke] guideline documents are named, inexplicably, concordats, after the term for a diplomatic agreement between the Holy See and a sovereign state. And the architecture of the university, too, possesses a tendency to revert to seemingly-obsolete verticalities and monumentalities. The budget-drenching “capital investments” (i.e. buildings) erected by our university in recent years are finished in a fairly terrifying neo-Babylonian mausoleum style, which recalls the totalitarian aesthetics of the 1930s more than it does the quasi-sustainable greenwashed “agritectural” aesthetic commonsense of late capitalism. These revelatory slippages allow us to see through and to pervert the absurd façade of horizontality and to apprehend the true shape of the pharaonic academy. Once you have carried out this perversion, you begin to see pyramids everywhere: in the relentless exploitation of outsourced, predominantly non-white cleaning and security staff, in the unbudging gender pay gap, in the shameless overrepresentation of privately educated students and their privileged treatment by faculty whose accent and habitus they share.

So, what is to be done? What forms and shapes should we coalesce into as we work to topple the pyramid? And what styles and structures will replace it? What attitudes and strategies can we adopt if we happen to find ourselves within the academy? I would like to tentatively suggest that the higher up we find ourselves within the power vertical of any modern institution, the more responsibility we have to pervert and not merely to “critique” it; not merely to “abuse its hospitality” (as Fred Moten puts it in his theorization of the academy’s undercommons) but to invite others to squat, defile, and abuse its hospitality together with us.

 

Agony

By Denis Maksimov

The institution of horizontal political deliberation of interests is formally a cornerstone of the contemporary Western democratic design. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as a product “of fair and reasonable discussion and debate among citizens.” Ensuring the public good is its primary purpose. Self-interest is mediated by collective considerations. Society gradually becomes fairer and therefore better. The concept of deliberation developed by critical theorist Jürgen Habermas had a major and direct influence on the design of the institutions of the European Union, as well as the manifestos of major pan-European and national political parties.

This logic contradicts another fundamental element of the Western idea of developed society: neoliberalism. Inherited from the Cold War-era designs of anti-communist groupings, the financial instrumentalization of debt and its trade progressed leaps and bounds following the collapse of the Soviet-led bloc (led by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank). The weaponized agenda of creating economic dependencies to crush alternatives and to foster political and economic reforms of a specific kind—mostly related to colonial privatizations of national industries by the victors of the new unipolar world—reshaped the world anew. Just before Hitler came into power in Germany, political theorist Carl Schmitt elaborated on the concept of political agony. There is no possibility therein of consensus or deliberation—society is a jungle and one should simply aspire to become the most dominant animal within it. Cultures are structured around the rigid borders of “us” versus “them.” The idea of the enemy, both internal and external, is the ontologically essential component for the affirmation of statehood, just like a flag or an anthem.

Images courtesy of Liva Dudareva

In the last decades, political agony and the evolving conservative neoliberal agenda of economic reforms with creeping accumulation of capital in the hands of fewer and fewer interconnected agents led to a radical “agonization” of politics. For the woke citizen of a liberal megapolis in the US, there is only a choice between the army of angels of democracy behind Joe Biden or the turgid mass of stupidity behind Donald Trump’s “deplorables.” Needless to say, both descriptions are far removed from reality, but they are, in fact, getting more—rather than less—absurd by the day.

The dichotomy of agony and deliberation was turned into a triangle, a two-dimensional pyramid, with capital performing the role of the arbiter, at the top of the flat pyramid. Capital is something that you either have or don’t have, driven by the desire to accumulate. It is not complicated to see that deliberation found itself outnumbered. Its horizontality had been turned into an aesthetic façade. The discourse of public politics and consequently the electoral process were reduced to poor quality theatrical performances.

We can only hope that the answer to the question “Where do we go from here?” is still far from the outcome of the last time political agony was proposed as a dominant framework for conceptualizing power.

Cover image courtesy of Liva Dudareva

Denis Maksimov is an aesthetico-political theorist and independent curator. He is a co-founder of the artistic research collective and think-tank Avenir Institute and a co-convenor of the research seminars Power Vertical: Politics and Aesthetics in the Global East and Queer, Weird, Other.

Maria Mileeva is an associate lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She is an art historian working on twentieth and twenty-first century art and visual culture of Russia, the former Soviet Union, and its transnational entanglements with Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas.

Michał Murawski is an anthropologist of architecture and lecturer of Critical Area Studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He is a co-convenor of PPV and co-director of the SSEES FRINGE Centre. He is the author of Palace Complex (2019) and is working on a book about the political aesthetics of Putin-era Moscow.

David Roberts is a lecturer in Architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture and a Research Ethics Fellow at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, part of the collaborative art practice Fugitive Images and of architecture collectives Involve and BREAK//LINE.

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