Prigov’s Video Performance with Newspapers

In my essay “The Geopoetics of the Newspaper from Tret’iakov to Prigov,” just out in Slavic Review, I was able to illustrate my discussion of some of Dmitri Prigov’s work with a number of images. I couldn’t, however, reproduce Prigov’s extraordinary Video Performance with Newspapers (1989). I am therefore posting the video here along with the commentary from my essay.

Prigov’s Video Performance with Newspapers (1989) begins with a close up of his face. He appears to be lying on a pile of newspapers with an edition of Pravda carefully arranged behind his head. For the first minute or so, Prigov silently mouths words apparently read from the newspaper. Then he begins to read aloud as the camera pans out to reveal him lying on a couch of newspapers with further sheets of newsprint engulfing what appears to be an apartment. Prigov then rolls about in the papers, picking up, apparently at random, various items of news, including an article about Gorbachev speaking on perestroika, which Prigov reads with rising volume and agitation.

By placing his performance piece in the interior of an apartment, Prigov emphasizes the newspaper’s role as a liminal object between the domestic realm and the outside social and political world, ironically recalling Benjamin’s earlier emphasis on the Soviet elimination of the public/private divide and Sergei Tret΄iakov’s insistence on the power of the press to reach “every corner” of the Soviet Union. After reading the article on perestroika, Prigov spends several minutes searching through deep piles of newspapers that at one point threaten to submerge him completely. His search illustrates that the newspaper is composed not just of public information but also of dreams, desires, and other feelings that were given new voice by glasnost and that are here experienced spatially and bodily. Prigov’s body touches, is seemingly soothed then roused by the newspapers, whose crinkling white noise matches the confusing and overwhelming verbal noise produced by glasnost and by the rise of previously suppressed nationalisms. Prigov registers these competing nationalisms and their challenge to Soviet spatial unity by reading, in an increasingly hysterical voice, the Central Committee’s condemnation of the August 23, 1989 protests in the Baltic States as “nationalist hysteria.” The disordered newspapers and seemingly disordered mind of the speaker produce a sense of proliferating fracture and dispersion that matches the diverse opinions found in perestroika-era newspapers and the confusion of Prigov’s newspaper-strewn apartment.

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Svetlana Boym

BoymMemorialI was deeply shocked and saddened to learn last year of the death of Svetlana Boym. A few weeks ago, at the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting at Harvard University, I joined colleagues, friends, and family for a session of “Readings in Memory of Svetlana Boym.” Below is my brief contribution to the commemoration of a brilliant scholar.

I first encountered Svetlana’s work, while writing my honours dissertation on Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Her book Death in Quotation Marks was, at that time, a revelation. It opened my mind to the complex intermingling of everyday life and literary fact in Mayakovsky and in Russian literary theory from Viktor Shklovsky to Lidiya Ginzburg and Yuri Lotman. Svetlana’s book also introduced me to the field that would become my own: comparative literature.

I spent the 2003–4 academic year at Harvard University, where I was closely connected to the Slavic Department and so was finally able to meet Svetlana. My book, A Common Strangeness, owes a great deal to her response to a talk I gave that year and to her subsequent invitation to me to contribute to a special issue on estrangement that she edited for Poetics Today.

In my talk, I quoted a passage from Svetlana’s essay “Estrangement as a Lifestyle” where she writes of Shklovsky harbouring “the romantic and avant-garde dream of a reverse mimesis: everyday life can be redeemed if it imitates art, not the other way around.” She commented afterwards that she had come to revise her view. Indeed, in The Future of Nostalgia, she adds a qualification: “Yet estrangement does not allow for a seamless translation of life into art, for the aestheticization of politics or a Wagnerian total work. Art is only meaningful when it is not put entirely in the service of real life or realpolitik, and when its strangeness and distinctiveness is preserved.” Here, Svetlana echoes Walter Benjamin’s caution against the aestheticization of politics, while also worrying––as a child and student of Soviet culture––about the politicization of art for which Benjamin called in the same breath.

In my memory, I can still see Svetlana sitting in Café Pamplona just off Harvard Yard engaged in an intense and raucous discussion with conceptual artist and poet Dmitri Prigov, who famously turned his own life into a literary fact. This memory might lead me to speculate that Svetlana lived life with the same persistent questioning of everydayness and strangeness that I find in her writings––from the Russian opposition between everyday grind and spiritual existence to the relationship between artistic and political freedom. “But,” as Svetlana warns, “responsible theorists should not speculate about unrealized twists of plot. They only try to see how fiction is made, not how life is made.”

I’m glad that Svetlana did not heed her own half-serious admonishment. Without her exploration of the relationship between strangeness and everydayness, art and life would be much the poorer.

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New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium

The first 2016 meeting of the New Zealand Modernist Studies Consortium will take place at the University of Otago, Dunedin, on Friday 19 February, between 10am and 5pm.

Participants in our February 2016 meeting may choose to contribute a paper for discussion (max. 4,000 words; max. of four papers to be discussed in the day), but we also welcome participants who will read and provide feedback on the circulated papers.

If you are interested in participating, please write to Jacob Edmond: jacob.edmond@otago.ac.nz.

The NZMSC is open to academics and independent scholars working on any aspect of modernism, broadly defined. For further information, see the NZMSC website.

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What in the World Was Postmodernism?

Plywood mural by Michael Hewson in Christchurch.

Plywood mural by Michael Hewson in Christchurch.

I’m looking forward to the “What [in the World] Was Postmodernism?” symposium, which will be taking place here at the University of Otago in Dunedin over the next three days. The symposium is convened by my colleague David Ciccoricco and includes keynote addresses by Simon During and Brian McHale.

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Asia in New Zealand Lives

cover_jas_dec2014I want belatedly to draw attention to the publication of “Asia in New Zealand Lives,” a special issue of the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, edited by Henry Johnson and myself, and to thank the contributors for their diverse and insightful essays on prominent New Zealanders, including Nancy Kwok-Goddard, Vic Percival, Anand Satyanand, and Edmund Hillary.

These essays help to complicate understandings of an increasingly diverse Aotearoa / New Zealand society, going beyond the population statistics that tend to dominate public discourse around multiculturalism in New Zealand. They offer a historically grounded and rich account of, in the words of our introduction, “the dynamic interactions among a web of different Asian cultures and traditions that have helped shape the lives of all New Zealanders.”

All articles in the issue are freely available for download here.

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Vanessa Place and the AWP

Contrary to the AWP’s statement regarding the removal of Vanessa Place from the AWP Los Angeles 2016 subcommittee, Place’s tweeting of Gone with the Wind is not “explained” in my pieces on Jacket2. (I cite but don’t discuss the twitter feed.) I do discuss other works by Place that draw on Gone with the Wind, but my commentaries are hardly an endorsement: “a performance of that racist ideology’s stifling of other voices” (http://jacket2.org/commentary/not-repeating-gone-wind); “a white author, repeating this caricatured imitation of black speech” (http://jacket2.org/commentary/whose-speech-who-speaks). Place’s Gone with the Wind work is about racism in US literature and society. But that doesn’t stop it from being racist and offensive. Those who defend Place miss the point. Place’s work rightly provokes outrage; it therefore also garners attention. The question is: is this attention to racism or to Place? (For a very smart analysis of race, social media, and the attention economy in the US today, see Justin Simien’s Dear White People.)

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Prigov’s concrete poems get bigger

Photo: Margarita Chistova One of Dmitri Prigov’s Stikhogrammy (poemographs or versographs) about which I write in A Common Strangeness has been blown up to the size of a multistory apartment building as part of an art project in Belyaevo, an area in Moscow closely associated with the late artist and writer. You can view some great images of the resulting work here. I’ve blogged previously about Prigov’s series of concrete poems here and here.

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