Soviet Houses of Culture

The research by the group Chto Delat (f. 2003, St. Petersburg) traces the genealogy of Soviet Houses of Culture.

Еxploring them as spaces where different emancipatory encounters with art and culture happened, the project aslo involves investigating how these experiences can be translated into current day counterculture practices.

The Soviet Houses of Culture were popular institutions in the Soviet Union, created as public spaces to engage workers in various life-building programs. Their genealogy can be traced back to nineteenth-century Italy, when similar spaces formed out of workers’ desire for literacy. In their theoretical studies, Chto Delat trace another important parallel between the Houses of Culture and early avant-garde experiments such as Alexander Rodchenko’s Worker’s Club; institutions such as social centers; and contemporary museums’ public and educational programs. At the center of the current investigation is a reappraisal of the role these institutions have played and an examination of how the activities and training courses have been key for several generations of independent artists, including some of the members of Chto Delat. Another important aspect of the project is to look at how the Houses of Culture have contributed to the emergence and development of self-organized initiatives, such as DK Rozy (Rosa’s House of Culture) in St. Petersburg, which was founded by the group as a practical outlet for their theoretical propositions.

Faithful to their belief in the power of collective work, Chto Delat have selected a group of fourteen young artists, many of them graduates of the group’s School of Engaged Art. Each artist selected and researched a variety of Houses of Culture in towns and cities across the former Soviet Union, operating from the early twentieth century to the present day: St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk, Korkino (Chelyabinsk Region), Kaliningrad, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Kara-Zhygach (formerly Ala-Too, near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan), Togliatti, Shelota (Vologda Region), Jõhvi (Estonia), Minsk (Belarus), and Gorodnya (Tver Region). The choice of the House of Culture was informed by each artist’s personal interests and experience. Their stories and discoveries show how the remains of Soviet infrastructure have influenced the development of the post-Soviet intelligentsia. An entire section is also dedicated to three successful artist-run initiatives, in Moscow (DK Delai kulturu); Novosibirsk (kakoe na dne?...); and St. Petersburg (DK Rozy). The emergence of such projects today points to a growing need for new public spaces where the audience can interact with art in a different, more open-ended way and be involved in its production, with such initiatives providing a counterpoint to the current consumerist approach to culture. 


Исследование начато в 2016 году.

Коллектив «Что делать» при участии Анастасии Вепревой, Екатерины Ивановой, Виктории Калининой, Антона Карманова, Олеси Мюнд, Татьяны Пильниковой, Елены Ревуновой, Марины Русских, Марийки Семененко, Екатерины Соколовской, Артема Терентьева, Дианы Ухиной, творческого объединения «Наденька» (Мария Рыбка, Надежда Никифорова, Маша Александрова), группы Na-Ka (Катя Михатова, Анастасия Волохова)


If our soup can could speak: Mikhail Lifshitz and the Soviet Sixties

Artist Dmitry Gutov (b. 1960, Moscow), founder of the Institute of Mikhail Lifshitz, and curator David Riff (b. 1975, London), lead a research project examining the complex meaning of 1968 in Soviet society in relation to the unique relevance of aesthetic philosopher and cultural critic Mikhail Lifshitz (1905-1983).

The creative inquiry into Lifshitz's legacy was inspired by the personality of Lifshitz himself: a fierce critic of modernism who was not afraid to accuse the entire movement and some of its most revered representatives of aiding totalitarianism and consumerism. Lifshitz's critique, which stirred heated debate among his contemporaries, was radically different from the standard anti-Western rhetoric of Soviet art criticism. Today, it still offers a strikingly original perspective on modernist art.

Since the launch of the Field Research in 2015, the project team has studied over 200 files of documents from public archives, including the Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts; the archive of the State Tretyakov Gallery; and the family archive of Lifshitz's daughter, Anna Pichikyan. Documents include unpublished dossiers and notes on political purges, correspondence, manuscripts, shorthand lecture notes, Lifshitz's photographs, and his unpublished thesis. Over the years, Gutov and Riff have developed a practice of research consisting of regular and intensive group readings of the critic's texts and ideas. The practice of reading as well as translating is an important process for finding and analyzing the questions that arise, especially during the translation of Lifshitz's polemical works.

The results of one such a meeting are presented here through an installation comprising an audio work and a triptych of paintings. The audio features a situation where Riff, a teacher as well as a translator and curator, is put in the position of a “student” and is being taught by his longtime collaborator, Gutov, how to read Russian texts by Lifshitz. The paintings, made by Gutov, give another, visual layer of interpretation. They feature Lifshitz's quote on Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828-1889), which reads: “People should see that Chernyshevsky's writings are brilliant, subtle, and ironic; that, like Socrates, he played the fool for the purpose of uncovering the truth and scandalized his contemporaries with shocking opinions in order to wake them up from their sleep.” This sentence is important because it could also be interpreted as a disguised confession by Lifshitz on what his own writings meant.

The researchers began collaborating in 2003, at which stage Gutov had already founded the Institute of Mikhail Lifshitz (1993), and Riff had translated to English key texts by Lifshitz, including The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1933). Lifshitz's most polemical book, The Crisis of Ugliness (1968), is currently being prepared for publication to accompany the two researchers' exhibition at Garage, scheduled for 2018.

Initiated in 2015.


Russian Deaf Culture: From Boarding School to Museum

This interdisciplinary research is conducted by the curatorial collective Council (f. 2013, Paris) in collaboration with artists Tarek Atoui (b. 1980, Beirut) and Alison O’Daniel (b. 1979, Miami).

Brought together by their shared interests, they look at how our idea of hearing is represented in the arts and how it is transformed by artistic practices. The investigation is unprecedented for both the Soviet and post-Soviet historical contexts, as it raises the question of access to archival documents and scientific research relating to “deaf culture.”

Exploring physiological, social, and artistic aspects of hearing, the project analyzes non-evident connections between society’s understanding of deafness; the development of academic music; the history of mime; the Soviet phenomenon of radio enthusiasts; the legacy of filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky; and sound art. As well as visiting museums and educational institutions relating to the culture of hearing, which are the main object of their study, the artists and curators visited the All-Russian Society for the Deaf; the Museum of Deaf Education; the E. T. Krenkel Museum of Radio and Radio Enthusiasts; and the M. I. Glinka Museum of Musical Culture. The research was organized in collaboration with Garage Inclusive Programs Department, the first museum department in the country to be dedicated to developing new interpretative and accessibility approaches for people with various forms of physical disabilities who wish to participate in museum activities and in culture at large.

Working within the local context and with the team at Garage, the researchers collected a number of important questions posed by deaf and hard of hearing artists, curators, museum staff, and potential visitors. These questions have been condensed into an interview and feature in the video A Portrait in Progress, presented here. The interviewee is Vlad Kolesnikov, manager of Inclusive Programs at Garage. A hard of hearing museum professional, deaf teacher, and signer, Kolesnikov shares his personal and professional views on different aspects of the project. Suggesting new approaches to understanding deafness and its connections to sonic culture, this first interview will eventually be one of five portraits that will be shown alongside the exhibition Infinite Ear, which will be presented at Garage in 2018. The series will lay the foundation for a discursive platform for the exchange of individual experiences of sound, hearing, and deafness.

This interdisciplinary research project is part of TACET—a long-term inquiry initiated by Council at the Sharjah Biennial in 2013, which continued with the exhibition Infinite Ear, developed in collaboration with Tarek Atoui’s project WITHIN and presented for the first time at Bergen Assembly in 2016.

Initiated in 2017.

Council (Sandra Terdjman and Grégory Castéra) & Tarek Atoui with Alison O’Daniel

E. T. Krenkel Museum of Radio and Radio Enthusiasts

All-Russian Society for the Deaf


Comb in the Grass: Small Descriptive Models That Have Turned into Action

The project by Alexandra Sukhareva (b. 1983, Moscow) focuses on the Siege of Leningrad (September 8, 1941– January 27, 1944). In this research, the artist’s key concern is to explore the variety of channels and spiritual outlets through which people sought something to rely on in the face of the uncertainty.

The 872 days of the siege—or the blockade as it is also known—traumatized an entire generation, causing many events to be repressed in the collective memory. With sporadic access to information from the outside world in the first months of the blockade, the city's inhabitants began to look for alternative ways of understanding and constructing reality, which brought about a major shift in people's daily preoccupations and rituals. Sukhareva’s research focuses on documents of human experiences that show how hope can produce a different kind of reality, exploring the way we process information at the time of social convulsions.

Since the launch of the project, Sukhareva has conducted extensive research in public and private archives and institutions, including the State Hermitage Museum; the Museum of the Defence and Siege of Leningrad; the Roerich Family Museum and Institute; the Central State Archive of Political and Historic Documents in St. Petersburg; the Moscow Theosophical Society; the Museum of Sadriddin Ayni in Samarkand; and the State Museum of the History of the Temurids in Tashkent. Many of the materials found in the process of research are gathered here in the shape of six folders or “volumes,” as Sukhareva refers to them. Each volume contains a selection of documents relating to one subject, person or event. Two of them will remain closed at this stage of the project and will be filled with the continuation of her research in the future. During the exhibition, Sukhareva will lead a number of tours and talk about her research and the story behind each volume.

The first volume tells the story of Olga Obnorskaya (1892–1957), a member of the group of theosophists who lived in the village of Guarek, near Sochi, in the 1930s. Obnorskaya was a medium and continued hearing voices and seeing visions after she left Guarek, including while living in besieged Leningrad. The second volume examines objects that belonged to Helena Roerich (1879–1955): her brooch and a weathered silk rose, which were among the objects that witnessed and survived the siege in the house of Lyudmila Mitusova. The third volume is centered around a drawing made by schoolboy Misha Mironov, who walked out of the besieged city in 1941 in an attempt to be reunited with his relatives in Moscow and was never heard from again. The fourth volume opens with a late-eighteenth-century Masonic image that entered the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in 1941. The meaning of the image is not clear even today, but it is surprisingly contemporary.

The exhibition also features an object the artist describes as “impossible:” a Ouija board that people used to talk to spirits.

The object does not seem to belong in the Leningrad of the early 1940s, however the artist inserts it into the context of her research, creating a distortion of the historical narrative that allows the trauma to manifest itself.

Initiated in 2016.


Olga Obnorskaya was a talented medium. During her stay in Guarek, she wrote down her first “dictations," which were similar to those received by the well-known occultists Alice Bailey and Helena Blavatsky. She continued to receive them for the rest of her life, including in the besieged city of Leningrad in 1942, and signed them “K.H." or “Teacher M.” The voice she referred to as “Teacher" seeped into the verbal reality of the besieged city, interrupting the linguistic dystrophy provoked by the blockade. Most of Obnorskaya's writings were destroyed during the searches of her home at the time of her arrest in the mid-1950s.Olga Obnorskaya lived in a theosophist settlement in the village of Guarek. After the destruction of the post-revolutionary period, the Caucasus region played an important role in preserving a wide range of spiritual movements. The Tolstoyan agricultural communes, theosophist collectives, anthroposophist and anarcho-mysticist groups that settled in the region largely consisted of intellectuals who had given up their careers and life in the city to work the land and try to attain the ideals of harmonious communal living through spiritual growth and physical development. Although they were driven by very different ideas, these groups influenced each other, exchanging views and practical experience. What was the result their experiment? Was it a truly common experience? What obstacles did they find in their way? In the 1930s, over 40 people were accused of promoting a boycott of the Soviet way of life, as part of the so-called Sochi case. As a result, the story of a common undertaking broke into a number of personal histories.

This volume includes previously unpublished photographs from a number of personal archives in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as excerpts from Olga Obnorskaya’s writings and artist’s reconstructions. It was compiled with the assistance of Andrei Gnezdilov, Elena Shestopalova, and the Moscow Theosophical Society.


Before leaving Petrograd for Central Asia, and onward to India, the Roerich family left almost all of their possessions with their friends, the Mitusovs. The weathered silk rose that Helena Roerich had previously worn on her dress became a witness-object, one of the few things in Lyudmila Mitusova’s house that survived the Siege of Leningrad. The life of such objects during the siege conformed to the logic of reduction of “excess:” they were objects of exchange, whose value was determined by the need to survive. The objects discussed in this volume were not converted into currency. Hard to sell or use as fuel for the stove, they existed outside the blockade economy. What were they? And what might they become?

Literary critic and blockade survivor Lidiya Ginzburg recalled: “Our daily routes pass houses that have been destroyed during the bombardments, each in a different way. Some of these ruins bring Meyerhold’s theatrical structures to mind." Such shifts of focus, allowing people an aesthetic experience of the unimaginable, horrifying side of objects, are often produced by extraordinary events. In this case, the event was the war, which ruptured peaceful life and broke the usual connections between objects and their meanings. As everyday rituals changed, so did the shape of objects, the properties encrusted in their surface.

The thick woolen blanket that once “burned with fire that did not consume” in a Mongolian desert enters into a tense inverse relationship with the blockade mode of life, with its primitive fire pits inside furnished apartments.

This volume features barite paper photographs of Helena Roerich’s silk rose from Lyudmila Mitusova’s house, which is now the Roerich Family Museum and Institute, as well as photographs of a table mirror and a woolen travel blanket. It also contains excerpts from Helena Roerich’s letters and photographs of her in Kullu, India, in 1942, wearing a similar silk flower.


The drawing of a black sky crossed by spotlights and the white triangle of a boat’s sail in the foreground was made by Misha Mironov (1926—1941 ?) in 1936, and is titled Future Moscow.

The fragment of a figure caught in the spotlight to the right belongs to the famous phantom image of Lenin atop the Palace of the Soviets, a grandiose project which was never built. The drawing would have been nothing more than an example of propaganda imagery reworked by the unconscious, had it not been for a strange turn in the artist’s life that made the image an eerie premonition. Left alone in besieged Leningrad in 1941, Misha recklessly decided to walk to Moscow in order to travel onward to Inta to find his mother, who had been arrested, or to Central Asia to reunite with his sister, who had been evacuated. Captured by German soldiers and later detained by the Red Army, he eventually made it to Moscow and then went missing, leaving behind only words and drawings.

This volume features a copy of the 1941 drawing Future Moscow and Misha Mironov’s letter of October 5, 1941.


The fourth volume opens with a Masonic watercolour dating to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. It is from the collection of the State Hermitage Museum, where it is catalogued as “A drawing of Masonic symbols, Russia (?), late 18th—early 19th century, watercolor, ink.” We know that it was acquired in 1941, but its provenance remains unknown. Art historian Galina Printseva describes the drawing as follows: “A sheet of paper, folded in half, featuring an image of a symbolic painting of a cave, where a beheaded man sits at a table on which there are Masonic objects. Above him is a burning forest, to his left, a steep waterfall. A black frame is painted around it. The inscription on the first page reads ‘Tableaus’ Above the scene in the cave is the word “Vengeance.” Just like contemporary art with its catastrophic sensibility, the drawing gives a sense of trying to solve an impossible riddle.

This volume features a copy of the Masonic drawing provided by the State Hermitage Museum and related documents discovered in the course of the research.

Two volumes remain closed to the public at this stage of the project.


Research on the Soviet influence in Congo

The research project initiated by artist Sammy Baloji (b. 1978, Lubumbashi) explores the transformation of the Belgian Congo into the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1964, Patrice Lumumba’s role in the country’s struggle for independence, and Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s dictatorship, which lasted more than thirty years.

Looking at how communism influenced Congolese art and culture during Mobutu’s rule, the research draws parallels between two historical periods: the political perturbations in the eastern European socialist republics after World War II and the Zairianization movement of the 1970s, which became state ideology under Mobutu. Baloji’s analysis of Soviet influence is not reduced to politics: it includes a study of cultural and lifestyle changes during Zairianization, with its ambitious goal to revive traditional African culture. The research project spans several cities, including Brussels, Kinshasa, and Lisbon, where Baloji visited the National Archive of Torre do Tombo and interviewed a number of experts, including Belgian anthropologist Jean Omasombo and Congolese historian and writer Kivilu Sabakinu. The research in Moscow started with an interview with Russian film cinema expert Alexander Markov and will continue through 2018.

Here Baloji presents archival materials he discovered at the Center of Archives of Communism in Belgium. The materials include propaganda leaflets and posters that were distributed in Belgium by youth groups with communist leanings, which show the relationship between the former colony and Belgian communists.

A second element in the presentation is Frise Obus (2016), a photocollage specially made for the exhibition, which uses copper shell cases as pots for plants originally exported from Congo: chlorophytum comosum, sansevieria trifasciata, begonia rex, and ficus elastica, which are now common European houseplants.

Sammi Baloji.
Frise Obus (Frieze with Shells), 2016
Color photographic print
Courtesy of the artist

Through this work, Baloji explores the ecological and sociopolitical issues that remain central to Congolese history such as the exploitation of natural resources, especially copper and uranium, in order to produce weapons, from bullets to the atomic bomb. For Baloji, materials like copper, which is still used locally, draw a link in time between the pre- and postcolonial histories of Congo, reminding us of the cruel nature of colonial policy in Congo and the severe ecological consequences for the entire world even today. As congruent material that attempts to unite the research conducted outside Russia and the further development of Baloji’s thesis of Soviet influence, the Soviet film The Proud Son of Africa (1961) is also presented here.

Initiated in 2016.


Dialogue with Power. The Case of Shukhov

The research by curator and art critic Susanna Gyulamiryan is centered around questions of how contemporary art and—more broadly speaking—culture, relates to power, especially within the Soviet and post-Soviet (national) contexts.

In order to understand the Soviet legacy in more depth, which would be incomplete without an analysis of the social, political, and cultural aspects of both the Tsarist (Russian) Empire and the Soviet Imperial Hegemony, Gyulamiryan looks at the figure of Soviet engineer, architect, and scientist Vladimir Shukhov (1853–1939). Responsible for building one of the most iconic symbols of the Soviet era and an earlier instrument of Soviet propaganda—The Shabalovka Tower in Moscow—she uses him as a first case study and examines Shukhov’s method of blending different ideologies in his practice.

Choosing the format of a travelogue, Gyulamiryan presents her discoveries, personal experiences, and critical thoughts during the process of research using a mural designed by artist Alexey Shigalev. The mural is a compilation of the researcher’s personal journey and critical reflections, as well as thoughts of Shukhov and other researchers on power—historical quotes, excerpts from dialogues Gyulamiryan has recently had—creating an idiosyncratic visual map.

Along with the mural, videos of interviews with experts active in the contemporary cultural scene such as cultural critic Hrach Bayadyan, artist Dmitry Gutov, and art historian and curator Viktor Misiano are screened. The interviews are built around three main topics that each is asked to respond to. The topics help elucidate and clarify certain aspects of the Soviet Empire and post-Soviet conditions we are living in today: “The thinking class in dialogue with power,” “The Soviet avant-garde and the hegemony of the Empire,” and “Is the Post- in Post-colonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? (the name of this topic is borrowed from a journal article of David Chioni Moore “Is the Post- in Post-colonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique”, PMLA, Vol. 116, No.1, Jan. 2001).

These interviews marked the second phase or second case study of the Gyulamirian’s research, but in terms of the importance of conceptual articulations, critical reflection they became the core issue of the whole research project Dialogue with Power.


What We Left Unfinished

Mariam Ghani (b. 1978, New York), an artist of Afghan descent, conducted research that focused on collecting cinematic material in order to explore how the Afghan war was constructed cinematically for the Soviet people—and how it was framed for the Afghan people—through cinematic methods influenced by Soviet filmmakers.

For over five years, the artist has been working at the Afghan National Film Archive to uncover and reconstruct five film projects that were never completed due to the political and social upheaval in the country. Raw footage, fragments of films, forgotten pictures, and other archival materials gathered by Ghani shed light on the dramatic events surrounding Afghanistan’s Communist Party (later the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan), which came to power after the Saur Revolution of 1978. The reforms that followed the revolution led to radical changes in the country’s policies and influenced Afghanistan’s development for many years to come. Ghani sees this period as unfinished and unreflected, and therefore still haunting.

Juxtaposing footage discovered in the archives with documentation of the filming process and filmmakers’ interviews, the artist highlights the rift between fiction and reality, between the dream and the failure of the Afghan communist project. Ghani also presents a large collage of archival photographs and stills from Afghan films, mapping an alternative national history of this period through the history of the country’s only film archive, where most of the photographs and films were discovered. During the research, missing fragments of the unfinished film The April Revolution (1978) were discovered at the Russian State Archive of Film and Photographic Documents, having been incorporated into the documentary Afghanistan: The Revolution Continues (1980). Excerpts from the film are shown here, placed for the first time in their original context. The link between Afghan and Soviet Central Asian cinema from the 1960s to the 1990s was an equally important area to explore, as many Afghan films were produced with the assistance of Soviet specialists, Soviet support, or at Soviet film studios, due to the close ties between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. Afghanistan: The Revolution Continues is no exception. It was produced by Uzbekistan’s Studio of Scientific and Documentary Film, in collaboration with Afghan Film.

Initiated in 2016.

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