Communication Front 2000 Book, "Crossing Points East-West"

Interview with the Russian media artist Dmitriy Pilikin during his stay in Sofia in October 1998

Iara Boubnova

[A version of this interview was first published in "Kultura" weekly, Sofia, Issue 46, 20 November 1998 <>]

I. B.: How and why are you in Bulgaria?

D. P.: I met Luchezar a long time ago. Since then we've been seeing each other at various Syndicate meetings. He's always been of great help for me translating from and into English. I've never studied English - though sometimes I have translated the lyrics of various groups, I was interested what the hell they were singing about.

Apart from this, I have always had obsessions. My previous fixed idea was the fusion of the Moscow and Petersburg cultural scenes. This was something I dedicated a long time to, exhibiting in St. Petersburg almost every famous Moscow artist. And then this year I felt I don't need to continue working on this, that I've seen it.

I. B.: What, didn't it work?

D. P.: No, on the contrary. In fact it was amazing that my humble efforts produced some result. I guess I did it for myself. The thing is that I've never engaged in painting, I did other things.

I. B.: That's close to our idea.

D. P.: Yes, but 80% of the Petersburg artists are painters. And the things I was doing, the purer they became, the less anyone was interested in them. Without an adequate context, I was deeply disappointed at the lack of feed-back. I was really upset. So I worked hard on creating that context - all my curatorial work came out of this effort. I don't dare say I'm a curator; I don't have that type of background. I cannot say I'm a journalist either. That seems to have come about by chance. But I've always had this overarching idea, inappropriate and juvenile as it may seem: I don't want to have a teacher, someone to submit myself to, to be a student. I refuse to make student works. And every time I started something new, something that may or may not succeed, I dreamt of being a great artist. For example, I read an interview with Kabakov in an Israeli magazine in which he was asked: "You participate in so many exhibits, how do you deal with all this?" And he replies: "You know, I've never told anyone, but everything starts out with that great fear, with the thought that until now I've been successful at fooling people into believing I'm an artist, and this now is the moment they'll understand that I'm no artist at all."

It's the same with me. You see, now I've come here from a small town in Germany. I suddenly found myself there. Someone had recommended me. None else than Kaspar König himself [1] had made the selection. The initiative was a sculpture symposium, organized by two countesses. They had needed an expert, and of course it had to be the greatest. They invited him, paid him and showed him different photographs. I understand quite well what he must have told them: Hmmm, you'll need a bit of this, a bit of that - according to the political correctness. Invite Russians, let's say women. It seems it was not all that important what he said exactly.

I. B.: Well, the choice was hardly accidental.

D. P.: Ok, sure. He came, we met several times. They had some photographs of old objects of mine, from the time when I worked with wood. But I'd never made a sculpture. I had not worked in that field for 7-8 years. What I was thinking of was something virtual, but after all I said what the heck - I'll go there, and I'll see. When I arrived they showed me a piece of wood that would not do. All they had there was stone, and good tools for working it. I felt uneasy to explain that I'm no good at it, and finally decided that I would do it - a work of stone. And the amazing thing is that I made it, and they even bought it. And then - I am always afraid of such things - there was a strange meeting with the chief architect of Frankfurt. He invited me, together with two German sculptors, and offered us to enter a competition for a small plastic work for their central square, just next to the stock exchange.

I. B.: That's what I'd call official.

D. P.: Yes. And I asked him why. Well - he says -, there are indeed many famous curators working in Frankfurt whom we could invite, like Richard Serra for instance. Our city is not big, many bankers work here, but they have a very bad opinion of contemporary sculpture. They don't understand what it is for, and don't want it in their city. They barely put up with Borofski, even though his work has become a symbol of the city. And really, I looked around, and there's these terrible sculptures all over the place, some kind of nightmare that claims to be contemporary. And what is it that they actually wanted? They wanted people to understand.

What I ended up making was an "inner" conceptual work - something resembling the image of man, after the one proposed by Beuys. You know Beuys proposes a rabbit, and we have a fairytale about Koshtshey the Immortal.

I. B.: Yes, his life's been kept in an egg, the egg in a duck, the duck in a rabbit.

D. P.: Exactly. In fact I think this is the story of the genesis of humanity. Immortality is actually the image we strive towards, because we acutely feel how the body dies, but not consciousness. Which means that in a way we don't die. That's what the tale is about. As you already mentioned, the next generation after the rabbit is the duck, which means the possibility of existing in three environments - on the ground, in the water, in the air. Anyway, that was my reasoning. In principle, I should have included one more, the next generation - the egg. That is the autonomous existence with indirect contact that needs to be facilitated by some "We". The egg is not in direct contact.

But we cannot see that far. While I was setting up this imaginary order, I took a walk through the neighborhood, wondering who would ever come and see these works from the symposium in this small and lovely town of Arnsburg that takes pride in its 16th century church demolished by Napoleon, its golf fields and duck-hunting area. I was walking perhaps in Mike Kelley's footsteps, in the period in which he was making plastics "à la kindergarten." I made something between a duck and a rabbit, after three weeks of hammering away at the 300 kg rock. I built up muscles. I didn't have any experience. All sorts of machines were available. When I didn't know something, I asked. There were helpful people around. But I guess we've moved away from the thread of our discussion.

I. B.: No, we haven't moved away at all - what do the stone "rabbit" and the Syndicate meeting in Skopje have in common?

D. P.: That's right, even my friends ask me, and I understand them: What is it that you are really working on? Who are you? Do you work with objects? - Yes, I do. - Do you work with photography? - Of course. - Are you an artist? - Yes, I am. - Are you a curator? - Yeah, I do something of the kind. - Are you a journalist? - Looks like it, I do work in that field, too. On top of all, this year I started post-graduate work at the university.

I. B.: Why? What for?

D. P.: The main idea was that one somehow has to earn money. One way to do this is to hold lectures, but you need to legitimize yourself. I mean, you need documents, you know, a diploma.

I. B.: Are you studying History of Arts?

D. P.: No, philosophy.

I. B.: And what is your background?

D. P.: Very funny - I graduated from the Geological Mining Institute. In fact it isn't funny; I did this deliberately. When I had to make a choice I decided that I didn't feel like studying at an Academy of Fine Arts. This has been a big obstacle but a productive one. Moreover, it is rather late that I realized I wanted to be exactly that - an artist. I think I did have some sort of artistic consciousness, but to become an artist. I was working on, perhaps this should be put in quotes, literature and playwriting. Then I worked on other things - about ten works over the course of five years, but I did finish them. I remember my encounter with oil painting - all in all I made three works. It was horrible. Nothing seemed to work. I couldn't understand why. I then applied the well-known method: Try not to make it obvious that you're no good. I started inventing - here you paint like that, there you rub with a cloth - later I was explained I'd been inventing the velatura technique, also known as scumbling.

I. B.: And what about photography?

D. P.: Personally, I've never worked as a photographer, even though I ran a photo-gallery for three years. I did this because I understood that photography is a technique that is very well adapted to contemporary art. I met interesting people, photographers such as Dmitriy Jawlensky. We worked together, but then he immigrated and now is running a gallery in Frankfurt, a place developed by Lev Kopelev. There he exhibits, Kuprianoff for example, again photo works. Why did he, the photographer, listen to me at the time? I talked to him about installations, about extending into three-dimensional space, about the necessity to make photo based art, etc. In 1995, together we won the prize for the best exhibition of the year, at the Gallery 21.

Later I had quarrels with the "Free Culture" foundation that supported us, but nonetheless I was given a studio, the smallest one - 12 square meters. Which is good - I have to pay for it though. This was the time of our post-vagabondage activity, when the foundation was forced to impose to everybody to pay the municipality for their gallery in order to avoid problems with the authorities. They say it is not much, $200 a month. But where do you take $200 from every month?

I. B.: Ok, I can see your point. But tell me about everything you do. First of all - the gallery; second - a cyber café; and then you also do a folio in a newspaper.

D. P.: Yes, in the newspaper "At the Bottom," [2] which is partly financed by British News - Scotland.

I. B.: So you write, run curatorial projects, in particular non-physical ones - the CD is in a way post-mortem for the artist and the artistic object. Add to that your own artistic activity. Plus Syndicate. How do you cope with virtualizing all this?

D. P.: Well, it is not without a hitch. When you said "everything you do," it even scares me a bit. After all, the gallery is not my own. It had its "fortified tower" - Irina Aktuganova. [3] I published an interview with Alla Mitrofanova [4] and with her in an issue of Syndicate, a history of media art in St. Petersburg through the prism of the gallery. [5] Her own story sounds simple: She had a commercial gallery, was making money and then decided that the peak of commercialism had come to an end. Then I showed up, and we found a common language. Thus she invested her money in the media gallery, and at the beginning also sponsored projects. She was interested in finding people who understand the deadlock situation and what is actually going on, and she set herself a concrete task. She staked on Alla Mitrofanova, who was already a well-known curator, but Alla, as a media person, is rather odd - when you speak to her, if you don't know what precisely the discussion is about, you don't understand a word. It was the time when the Stubnitz [6] project was drawn up. It was a curatorial project of Alla's. It was back in what could be called the heroic period of Soros, the time when Katja Andreeva was there. Although she was an ideologist of Petersburg "Neoacademism," she turned out to be a person who feels compelled to take risks. This became evident by the time she had left Soros. She was interested in the advent of new ideas. She was capable of stake on completely unexpected, unforeseeable things.

I. B.: And what was your idea for the gallery?

D. P.: At first Irina, as an art historian who had worked with commercial paintings, said that after the end of the "red wave," when sales had ceased, the gallery would not deal with paintings. In a sense she actually made things more radical. Alla on her side had made contacts with Soros, was running ahead of the times. She was a person with access to information, including due to her stay in New York for six months on some grant. She had personal experience. She was traveling all the time to some conferences, reflected on media at a time when in Russia there was practically nothing. We even thought to ourselves that it was speculation - she travels, speaks, and here. nothing. Later on, when we started traveling too, we realized how this works.

I. B.: This is another phenomenon.

D. P.: Here we have an example - the Stubnitz project. [7] In St. Petersburg a big German ship, an East-German ship, was due to arrive. It had a new owner, and Armin Medosch, who is now a Syndicate guy, was the curator. We had been told that the ship, which was quite large, would carry the newest equipment, video installations, media installations. Well, the equipment turned out to be old, but this is a project that, despite all the obstacles and complications (and the money that vanished in thin air), was driven by the enthusiasm of the gallery, without any financing. And this was a very powerful experience. On the Stubnitz arrived Andreas Broeckmann, [8] Lev Manovich [9] and others, with whom Alla had been in contact. After all, it was not all that difficult: There was money for traveling, one could live on the ship, and they even had a kitchen there. Speaking about myself - it was on this ship that I first pressed the keys of a computer. Not that I hadn't known computers existed, but I considered I had nothing to do with them. There I first saw interactive installations, too, saw what it's all about. This was some kind of heroic period for me - I made works, put in money of my own, which was not enough to cover documentation, not even to make photographs. They were quite simple video installations.

That's how we got our first computer through the Stubnitz project, but the gallery on Pushkinska St. was a puzzling place, and the computer left us - I mean it was stolen. This may have been for the better. We had it only two months. Everybody was switching it on, but we had no idea what to do with it. All we did was enjoy it. Later, with a Soros grant we bought a new one and started using E-mail, Web and other stuff. These were Irina's ideas. She felt that.

I. B.: Hold on, I've got another question. In what way does, what she was working on at the time, exist in object form?

D. P.: Ah, I see. Well, a letter from Andreas reached us, in which he let us know that there was going to be a conference in Rotterdam, the founding conference of the Syndicate. He suggested someone make a site, to participate with something. Irina suggested this to various artists. I brought in a completely conceptual idea. I couldn't really imagine what is a computer site, hadn't used Internet yet. I knew neither HTML nor anything. I looked around, of course, but didn't know how do look. And yet, I made up a project. A guy came, we had promised to pay him, we were going to work on Windows 3.11, which means by hand. He was of the absent-minded computer type, in a hysteria I made the design, then we ran out of money. When two months later I tried to remember how I'd been working in Photoshop, I just couldn't. That's what I went to the conference with. It is still there - a crude project.

I. B.: All right, there is this Syndicate. I've known about it for quite a long time, since I met Geert Lovink who had arrived in Bulgaria for unknown reasons.

D. P.: He likes marginal zones.

I. B.: That's right. But our problem is that many young people here have learned that they have to be "net artists," that they have to be a part of some network. They are convinced that once in the network, they'll immediately do well. From your point of view, what is Syndicate?

D. P.: On the one hand, I think it is a headache that the V2 organization decided to create for itself, and on the other - I see their point, since the West is a field that has long been parceled out, and their structures are not so rich either, that they would want to retain places for themselves that do not yet exist, to create new spaces. And more precisely - an "Inter-home" of their own. The East was one such space with which everyone wanted to work.

I. B.: Hold on. We know who "they" are. They have their logic, which usually is not hard to see through, because there is a professional system according to which they act. And what is the Syndicate for us, or for you in Russia?

D. P.: For us this was a paradoxical, but nonetheless real chance to be aware of the long list of current problems. Another thing - who, for instance from Soros, would have sent me to Documenta?

I. B.: But doesn't the strange logic of the Syndicate confuse you? In America for instance I entered all sorts of commercial networks. They are based on the network logic itself, not on the person who makes the networks. They obey their own system, which looks most adapted to a consumption environment. But we, as a kind of outsiders, do they fish us in their net, or are we trying to use it?

D. P.: The net is something like the great illusion of the graphomaniac - we've discussed this many times. The artist has a similar illusion - the offended artist whom no one wants to accept.

I. B.: We call this the "culture of complaint."

D. P.: When he doesn't understand what is going on at a given moment, the artist has the feeling that he is not accepted anywhere. When the Internet shows up, a certain illusion appears that one can bypass the institution of the experts and can offer oneself. This is indeed possible, but it doesn't mean a thing. Another mafia is set in motion, on which the location of your site depends. It is the same thing when you make an exhibit in Sofia or some other small village. Your site is actually your location. In order for people to find you, your message has to reach the right place. Otherwise nobody will find it. Not to mention that graphomania is flooding the Internet.

I. B.: That is interesting. It turns out that despite the virtuality of the space, at least because of coordination there exists a "place." We become envious when we think about access to globalization. We are told - forget your culture, that culture of complaint, the one you live in. And we complain: We are a small country, 500 years of slavery, the Soviet Union humiliated us for 50 years, the population is decreasing, our demographic problem is gigantic, our nuclear power plant is among the oldest, the Black Sea is polluted, when there is a war in Yugoslavia we cannot cross the borders to get to Europe. All this "culture of complaint" that helps, in the context of the system of political correctness. If you can say where it hurts, the doctor will understand you.

D. P.: You see, I for instance don't have a computer. So what I do is merely touch upon things, and what I touch upon is not the product, but the ideas. What did the working on our CD lead to? A crisis. We are in contact with a certain European community which speaks of something and is able to create a product. We are unable to offer such a product, we cannot compete with them. We were frustrated, but afterwards the question surfaced: What does Russia have to offer at all, besides its intellectual product? So we decided to work on the post-informational program, on the space after computers.

I. B.: On a program for the time after we've been saturated with information, or after they've convinced us that information is accessible to everyone?

D. P.: The first, I think.

I. B.: So, after yet another objective mythology?

D. P.: That's the opinion of some Petersburg intellectuals: It's clear that all this will come to an end, when we've played around enough and feel the need for human things. How will we live in a post-post-computer space, what will be lost and what will be gained? Some think we are losing our sensory organs, narrowing the spectrum of their perception.

I. B.: Okay, but before society becomes post-post-informational, are we consumers or participants of society?

D. P.: You know, this is a matter of position. When someone is distrustful, without meaning to he accepts the position of the one being used, whereas when he enters normally and relaxes about whether these are new media or not, he has a chance of taking the position of the one who uses. In a sense, this is something, and at the same time it's nothing. It depends on how you treat it. If your aim is to conquer the world by putting your site on Internet, you're completely wrong.

I. B.: You are for the first time in Bulgaria. You don't know that many people here, but even for Sofia three days don't seem enough. What are you going to remember from your stay?

D. P.: Nowadays we are dealing with information in a completely different way. We do not possess it, but only touch upon it. It seems more important to feel the energy of a field than to get to know the details. Why did I walk around town all day long today? I wanted to be on my own, to feel the space. I cannot name the results now, but I know some impressions of Sofia are now stored inside me.

I admit that I have not seriously thought about Bulgarian art, even though I knew Luchezar Boyadjiev and I like his works and his stories. From the point of view of the European context, each country has the right to have its own art. When you get to some place, especially these days when it is so difficult to say anything new in art, you find that it's not easy to attune your mind to recognizing it. To such an extent everything has long ago been said that anything new that appears is absorbed right away.

Translated from Bulgarian by Ralitsa Tomova


[1] Kaspar König is professor at the Städel Art Institute in Frankfurt am Main, and one of the most influential curators worldwide - eds.

[2] "At the Bottom" is a weekly newspaper for the socially disadvantaged classes in St. Petersburg and is distributed free of charge. From the moment D. Pilikin started running his pages on cultural life in the city, the newspaper became popular and influential in artistic circles, and attracted the attention of collectors and other wealthy circles. Then the best journalist of the city started working for it - eds.

[3] <> - eds.

[4] <> - eds.

[5] <> - eds.

[6] Conference "Stubnitz - Art in Transit" and many other events in St. Petersburg in June 1994 - eds.

[7] In June 1994 the Rostock based Media Space Ship M/S Stubnitz - an 80 m former freezing trawler - sailed through the Baltic Sea as an experimentation forum for art and technology; cf. <> - eds.

[8] Andreas Broeckmann is one of the founders of the Syndicate, and the author of the text "Small Channels for Deep Europe (almost a sermon)" in this volume - eds.

[9] Lev Manovich is a famous American theorist of electronic media <> - eds.

Tazi statiq na bylgarski / This text in Bulgarian
Back to Contents in English