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No Avoiding the Apocalypse!

Techno-Poetry Cooperative

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From the East: Week #6 No Avoiding the Apocalypse!
Techno-Poetry Cooperative
2021

75 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Date
Repeating till Tuesday, February 22, 12pm EST

In the early days of the First World War, not long before the opening of the legendary Cabaret Voltaire, Hugo Ball wrote that during such political perturbations, “All living art will be irrational, primitive, and complex; it will speak a secret language and leave behind documents not of edification, but of paradox.”

Touching on a wide range of important social and professional issues that concern the artists involved, Techno-Poetry's phantasmagorical video-vaudeville No Avoiding the Apocalypse! (or Let there be an Apocalypse!) is imbued with the spirit of Ball's “living art”—and contains formal references to Dada cabaret practices. The vaudeville begins with four queer travesty characters meeting to discuss current issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic and its social, political, and psychological repercussions. In particular, they are interested in the question of social distancing, which they approach in the spirit of Giorgio Agamben's critical comments on the quarantine as a directive power procedure that disconnects people within society. The scene ends on a question: Where do we seek refuge? Offering their answers are invited “agents of the future”—today's activists speaking as their doubles from the future worlds made possible through their work in the present. Parallel to that, the storyline develops as a series of redemption exercises: conspirological discussions, magic rituals, and interactive healing practices, in which the audience is invited to take part. In the closing scene, the characters that open the performance reappear to announce the unhappy conclusion: Let there be an Apocalypse! Whether this prophecy will come true—or, in Agamben's temporality of the ”time that begins to end,” whether it will continue to come true in the present—depends, Techno-Poetry believes, on our activities in the present.

Techno-Poetry Copperative's No Avoiding the Apocalypse! is the sixth and final installment of From the East: Some Strange, Scary, and Funny Messages, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Dmitry Vilensky (Chto Delat) as the ninth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

The film is presented alongside a text response by Zairong Xiang.

From the East runs in six episodes released every Monday from January 10 through February 20, 2022, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned response published in text form.

From the East wraps on Monday February 21 with a one-day repeat streaming of all six films featured in the program.

The End of Globalization?
By Zairong Xiang

The end of history was the beginning of globalization as we know and continue to live with it, which is rapidly ending. The old is dying and the new is yet to be born.[1] We are living in an apocalyptic moment, and we have only two options for dealing with it: pretend that it doesn’t exist or face it. My fabulous comrades of Techno-Poetry urge us to do the latter, providing some diagnoses and recipes in Russian through their kaleidoscopic vaudeville No Avoiding the Apocalypse! (also rendered as Let There Be an Apocalypse!). But what do I know about all things Russian? I, we (?) rarely hear Russian these days, let alone in a context of universality as that of our apocalyptic predicament. A Russian friend points out that the word “apocalypse” (in Russian pronounced apokalipsis) derives from the Greek roots apo (un-) and kalypsis(covering), meaning not closure (as popular usage tends to suggest) but dis-closure, revelation (as theologians carefully delineate for us).[2] This provides some solace. I know nothing about Russia and had to rely on English subtitles and second-hand Greek etymology. Naturally, many of the nuances and irony are lost in translation; they always are, let alone in an apocalyptic disclosure. But I trust my commrades. In any case, Russia and all things Russian in China have always been a translation, which makes them both foreign and familiar, not because of the sound of the language, but because of the socialist or “post-socialist” as a living memory of my own, and of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations (definitely also theirs). Dmitry Vilensky frames this program within which this film is being shown under “the expanded post-socialist context,” and therefore I gather that our shared positioning, despite post-socialism’s historic inaccuracy as a concept, is what potentially grants the legitimacy of these reflections of mine being put side by side with Techno-Poetry’s No Avoiding the Apocalypse! They also trust me.

On the other hand, or actually in the same vein, amidst the collapsing spectacle of end-of-history liberal and neoliberal globalization, Russia and China have once again been grouped together under a new banner or bloc incompatible with or even threatening “our way of life,” a banner yet to be named, although the theory of a new “cold war” is already in circulation since the Trump administration and the US-China trade war, intensified by the imminent invasion of Ukraine as we speak. If the original Cold War was built on incommensurable binary opposition, the end of it would have meant a sort of dualism, comparable to the dualism theorized by feminists whereby the masculine founds itself as the generic and legible, and therefore “women cannot be said to exist.” In a similar way, post-Cold War geopolitical dualism has been hierarchically structured in such a way that the non-Western, non-liberal, and non-democratic spaces are knowable only as on their way to becoming Westernized, or in less nuanced hands, becoming “free”—liberated from the “waiting room of history” (Dipesh Chakrabarty). That they might not even want to is outright unthinkable, for “how can they not want to be like us?” (The specter of the post-socialist/Soviet vast “empty land” is a salient example.)

Post-1989 globalization is a geopolitical dualism that presents itself—and is largely experienced—as a unilateral, inevitable transition towards US-sanctioned neoliberal market-opening, political democratization, and of course, the popularization of the English language and the Hollywood narrative of self-making, while the Others (notably China, Russia, and “the Arab world” for example) linger like ghosts of authoritarianism, techno- or theo-cracies in different degrees to be eventually exorcised. The end of the post-1989 dualism will likely not bring us back to the simple binary opposition of the Cold War, despite the imminent threat of a new war in the name of nationalism and/or democracy, depending on where one is looking and speaking from. The spectral “post-socialist” in the post-end-of-history in Chinese, Russian, or (bastardized) IAE[3] is indeed a fertile place to explore different conjunctures, constellations, and contentions in our present of history’s revival or survival. It is at this intense moment of transition that I’d like to interrogate how the complexity of Techno-Poetry’s multifarious vaudeville has come to make sense, or not, to me.

The post-socialist/Soviet landscape is a “cold emptiness,” in the sense that we[4] Chinese know very little about it despite its geographic vicinity and historic intimacy, often conflating it with residual Soviet sentimentality saturated with anachronistic melodies, from “Moscow Nights” to “Troika” to “Dorozhenka,” all heard only in their translated versions. I even studied ten years of accordion starting in primary school, Soviet style! This historic intimacy has had a vivid personal impact: When someone is from the (former) socialist countries, the third world, the global south, and yafeila,[5] I am ready to empathize with and trust them, even if more often than not I know very little about them. Meanwhile, having grown up in the immediate aftermath of history’s proclaimed end, my entire generation is at least also partially a product and, in most cases, also a beneficiary of the triumph of global capitalist (neo)liberalism. Else, I would be writing this in Russian and wouldn’t almost automatically identify and in fact understand in Techno-Poetry’s video only the English expressions of gender theory, pronounced with Russian inflection, such as “toxic masculinity” or “gender fluid” that circulate widely across the liberal spectrum from contemporary art to academia. Suddenly, I am no longer sure in 2022 whether my sense of trust and allegiance to Techno-Poetry’s apocalypse comes from their supposed former-/post-socialist positioning or from their drag personification and presentation. To find out, please allow me to continue summoning history’s magic.

Rewind thirty-two years back to when the other apocalypse was posed, in fact as a question, by Francis Fukuyama in his in/famous essay. 1989 began an era of false homogenization first and foremost by way of a globalizing (financial) market, and of false confidence in the universality, superiority, and perpetuity of liberalism and its coupled political, social, and cultural forms and institutions. The world, some lament, and some hail, after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 (and subsequently, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991) became one happy village, even though the destruction of an artificial wall that once divided a city could not have had such magic powers as to provide a fairytale-style ending to the segregation of the world into and in-between cold “blocs.” But history, even the end of it, is not always awful, it is also miraculous. Watershed events aggregated around the same time when that first apocalypse was announced. They might or might not have any causal relation.

In 1989, Jean-Hubert Martin curated the groundbreaking show Magiciens de la terre (Magicians of the Earth) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, another city that often carries magic powers of world transformation in the form of historic accounts. For the first time, contemporary artists from all over the world were presented together in one show. Johannes Fabian’s “denial of coevalness”—an anthropological term of great relevance for contemporary art—was effortlessly overcome, or so it seemed, albeit not without controversy, in the capital of capitals of Western Europe. Many then completely unknown magiciens became leading artists on the global stage in the decades that followed. The Cold War, which was neither too cold nor had ended for everyone, rapidly disappeared from public consciousness and became the last important historic event that we managed to finish living through before the turn of the millennium. The Soviet Union fell, two years later. The cold dichotnomy of east-socialist/authoritarian vs. west-capitalist/democratic melted together with the ever-flattened planet thanks to the rapidly heating-up carbon footprint of contemporary-art-as-global-art, with its glittering global citizens and opulent openings of biennials and triennials, among other bright sides of globalization. However, this contemporaneity was achieved simultaneously as a result of the benevolence of thinkers, curators, and artists from the imperial centers in complicity with those of the “non-West,” as well as of a rapid erasure, inconspicuous and coercive, of what were deemed illegible and illegitimate forms of life, governance, and culture-political systems.

Around the same time, Judith Butler published her lastingly influential Gender Trouble and announced yet another apocalypse—the end of gender. In coining the by-now canonized term “gender performativity,” Butler was inspired by glittering drag queens and kings performing gender as parody, suggesting it as the way out of the gender/sex dichotomy and its oppressive heteronormativity. Yet, as with the rapid depoliticization of global solidarity through/as shiny cosmopolitanism, the subversive acts of Black/Latinx queer struggle have gradually moved from the underground to the almost household mainstream. You can pay by the hour (or with a monthly membership) to have voguing classes even in Shanghai, not so much as a political act but as an individual lifestyle. No one here would take you to task if you have never heard of Paris is Burning or the word “ballroom.” The library is closed. Drag culture has been wholeheartedly embraced by capitalism: I am thinking about RuPaul’s Drag Race (sorry Ru!), which has become unbearably neoliberal by incessantly preaching and reifying the supremacy of the atomized individual as asset and entrepreneur (without irony!).

Now, not only Paris but the whole world is burning, with a rapidly collapsing ecosphere apocalyptically visualized by the satanic fires raging through the Amazon forest and many other forests, alongside heated-up anti-China and anti-Russia campaigns as a self-righteous discursive preparation bringing us to the brink of another war, hot or cold. Amidst all this, thirty years after the end seem to mark yet another end, the end of globalization, the end of a false flattening of the world through discursive consensus, otherwise known as the Washington Consensus (which is arguably ending, allegedly on its way to being replaced by the so called Beijing Consensus—a hallucination of the end-of-history geopolitical dualism deemed necessary to be resisted).[6] Nation states sealed off, mouths covered, international flights halted, the burning world has plunged into an unprecedented pandemic bearing the anniversary’s number: COVID-19. Thirty years into the globalizing neoliberalization, the pandemic appears as crystally apocalyptic, that is, an accelerated disclosure that reveals and exacerbates pre-existing problems, pre-existing fires: the problem of the atomized individual hailed by (neo)liberalism as the means and end of progress; the problem of the privatization of public sectors and the deregulation of the private sectors in the West and increasingly everywhere; the problem of neoliberal capitalism’s ill-acclimatization or rampant take-over in places like China, Russia, and yafeila; and so on and on and on.

Yet all these problems don’t seem to need further revelations. We could more or less agree on them, at least those of us who frequent these pages on e-flux. Quite counterintuitively perhaps, amidst seemingly widening polarization, this agreement might be precisely the symptom if not the problem, that of consensus of discourse and methodology, that which turns critique into cliché, voguing into voguing classes, resistance into hegemony. For example, why is my immediate reaction to No Avoiding the Apocalypse! first and foremost to seek a geopolitical explanation (or even, its denial) for the dazzling multiplicity Techno-Poetry prepares for us, which has little to do with either the Soviet or the Russian per se? Why am I compelled to relate this to the ghettoized Chinese or Russian or the so called post-socialist, or even communist? When what makes us legible to each other is almost entirely through these globalized formulaics, even if they originated from radical and progressive politics?

At this apocalyptic moment, or grand opening (another way of saying disclosure), we need a genuine dissensus that is built not on geopolitical ghettoization and “self-positioning” but on shared struggles and solidarity across the board. What is to be done, chto delat indeed? For one, we cannot, need not, and should not try to get rid of the formulaic, the ways we have been socialized to make sense to each other, in the same way that the socialist “past” cannot (and need not) be erased. To relegate, say, “gender performativity” to an imperialist imposition of the liberal West onto the we-are-different-East is at best a self-flagellating orientalist heteronormativity, a malicious rhetoric of nationalism that milks the critique largely internal to the global left (whether such a thing exists or not is a separate matter). Gloria Anzaldúa, the forgotten forerunner of queer theory, writing two years before “the end of history” from a position caught in-between many lands, languages, and identities, says:

“Being the supreme crossers of cultures, homosexuals have strong bonds with the queer white, Black, Asian, Native American, Latino, and with the queer in Italy, Australia and the rest of the planet. We come from all colors, all classes, all races, all time periods. Our role is to link people with each other—the Blacks with Jews with Indians with Asians with whites with extraterrestrials.”[7]

Does it really matter whether our trust, the basis from which any conversation is possible, comes from a romanticized view of the yafeila-solidarity or of queers-of-the-world-united? No Avoiding Apocalypse! delivers some hints through its cacophonic, eccentric, extraterrestrial messengers by establishing a relation with the viewer who could be postsocialist, post-globalization, post-gender, “post-anthropocentric” (as one yoga-like practice in Episode 9 is called), or even post-neurodiverse (as the ironic self-identification of the character in Episode 6 goes). The dancing drag king proclaiming apocalypse at the end of the video adds a pinch of irony to these contemporary clichés but staying with them as trouble and promise: “queer communism, all-inclusive, my feminism.” The men who drink kefir to remedy their early-onset erectile malfunction utter the words “white Russian … cisgender heterosexual men” with utter boredom rather than conviction, as their anachronistic looks seem to suggest (“Us? Cis-gender white men?”). Like kefir penetrating our bodies, kefir makes us queer. And queers don’t avoid the apocalypse.

[1] I am perhaps slightly more hopeful than Antonio Gramsci who said, “the new cannot be born.”

[2] See, for example, Catherine Keller, Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances (Orbis Books, 2021).

[3] International Art English. For a critique of the notion of IAE (a form of bastardized English we all proudly practice) as derogatory and classist, see: Hito Steyerl, “International Disco Latin,” e-flux journal no.45, May 2013. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/45/60100/international-disco-latin/

[4] “We” is a strange position. I often jokingly but not quite jokingly present myself “as a product of communist China,” in reference to Gayatri Spivak’s self-description as “a product of the Bengali middle class.” While the latter is heard and smiled back at, the former often raises red flags.

[5] Yafeila stands for Asia (ya), Africa (fei), Latin America (la).

[6] Petrus Liu has recently written a comprehensive overview of the false equivalence of the “Beijing Consensus” through the life of a crucial concept of “gender” in its global travel. See: Liu, Petrus “Thinking Gender in the Age of the Beijing Consensus” Feminist Studies, Volume 47, Number 2, 2021, pp. 341-371.

[7] Gloria Anzaldúa, “La Concience e la Mestiza: Towards a New Conviousness,” eds. Robyn Warhol-Down and Diane Price Herndl, Feminisms REDUX : An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism (Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 308. (Essay originally published in 1987)

Zairong Xiang is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Associate Director of Art at Duke Kunshan University. He is author of Queer Ancient Way: A Decolonial Exploration (Punctum, 2018). He was chief curator of the minor cosmopolitan weekend at the HKW Haus der Kulturen der Welt (2018), and editor of its catalogue minor cosmopolitan: Thinking Art, Politics and the Universe Together Otherwise (Diaphanes, 2020). As a member of the Hyperimage Group, he has co-curated the 2021 Guangzhou Image Triennial. He is working on two projects, respectively dealing with the concepts of “transdualism” and “counterfeit” in the Global South especially Latin America and China. He was Fellow at the ICI-Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry (2014-2016) and postdoctoral fellow of the DFG Research Training Group minor cosmopolitanisms at Potsdam University (2016-2020). All his writings can be read on his website: www.xiangzairong.com.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Category
Film, Music, Performance, Theater
Subject
Russia, Post-socialism, Queer Art & Theory, Covid-19
Return to From the East: Some Strange, Scary, and Funny Messages
Return to Artist Cinemas

The interdisciplinary Techno-Poetry Cooperative (Anastasia Vepreva, Anton Komandirov, Roman Osminkin, Marina Shamova) was founded in St. Petersburg in 2018. Performances include: Techno Poetry: How to Sing Together, Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow (2018); Greenhouse, Shelter Festival, Helsinki (2018); Daily Briefing, SDVIG Studio of Performance Arts, St. Petersburg (2019); and Hands Off the Vagina of Culture: The Benefits and Dangers of Censorship, Tak Sebe Festival, St. Petersburgn (2019). Group exhibitions and festivals include: Séance of Tenderness (Paris, 2018), Barents Spektakel (Kirkenes, Norway, 2018), Santa Clause is Against (Helsinki 2018, 2019), The above is an accurate account of my statement (Navicula Artis, St. Petersburg, 2019), Baltic Glory (Loviisa, 2019), Freie Tanz-und Theaterszene (Stuttgart, 2019), Art Prospect (St. Petersburg, 2019, 2020), and Paradistopia: Outlining Imaginary Communities (online, 2020). Techno-Poetry was among the organizers of a concert to support detained participants of Pride 2018 in St. Petersburg and of a reading to support the victims of domestic violence (PANDA Theater, Berlin, 2019). They took part in the marches Feminism is for Everyone and For a Law Against Domestic Violence (St. Petersburg, 2019). They have performed in Berlin, Kyiv, Moscow, Leipzig, St. Petersburg, and other cities. Techno-Poetry Cooperative were winners of Goethe-Institut's Culture in Motion program in 2020. They live and work in St. Petersburg.

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