The Kids Want Communism: A Conversation with Joshua Simon
By Ben RatskoffApril 24, 2020
Now based in the United States, Simon is a curator and author whose work focuses on theories of objecthood (e.g., his 2013 book Neomaterialism) and curatorial knowledge (e.g., his forthcoming book Metastability). His writings constitute one of the most ambitious attempts in contemporary art criticism to develop an aesthetics consistent with historical materialism. On November 13, 2019, the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive hosted a conversation with Simon celebrating the publication of Being Together Precedes Being. The conversation was moderated by Ben Ratskoff, founder and editor-in-chief of the journal PROTOCOLS, and their discussion addressed the book, the “Kids Want Communism” project, and the horizons and trajectories communism offers us today. The conversation has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
BEN RATSKOFF: Let’s start with the title. Why did you name the book Being Together Precedes Being?
JOSHUA SIMON: Being Together Precedes Being is the idea that everything depends on everybody — including all the people involved in the exhibitions that went into the book, for example. But, more specifically, the entry point to the project was the 99th anniversary of the October Revolution in 2016. One could sense what the big museums would do, like MoMA, for example. We thought they would of course do an exhibition framing 100 years since the Russian Revolution. And, believe it or not, they did: A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde.
There are three things worth mentioning about it. First, they showed all of their masterpieces of the avant-garde years. As much as these are exciting works, they don’t really reflect Soviet art over 70 years. Second, 100 years is very much contained, a story supposedly told from beginning to end. It happened and you can move on. Third, this idea that it was a Russian revolution — yes, there was a revolution in Russia, but that is not why we are here today discussing it. It is because it was a communist revolution. The name USSR does not even have the word “Russian” in it; it is, rather, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. It can really be anywhere. It was the American President Woodrow Wilson who was clever enough to understand that, if you territorialize this communist revolution, and by doing so make the Bolshevik a foreign agent, then you can attempt to stop it.
In this sense, the MoMA show continues, perhaps without being aware of it, a long tradition of anticommunism. And, as we know, stopping communism is the core of the history of this country in the 20th century, and apparently also the 21st. In this country, there’s a president who is not afraid of the ice caps melting but is afraid of socialism.
Yes, but your show and project were initiated in Israel of all places …
That is exactly the point. In Israel, where I come from, the Communist Party is a non-separatist political movement. It’s a Jewish-Arab joint political project for a joint commonwealth. So that was the original idea behind this project, to engage with that sort of political organizing. But now, here in the United States, we are in a situation where, although communism is not a viable option in any kind of mainstream politics (or in any post-industrialized country, really), it still can teach us something. It teaches us about anticommunism. Because anticommunism is present in every side of mainstream politics, including in what is called the left. Neoconservatives, neoliberals, Wahhabism, the internet as it exists today, all of these are legacies of anticommunism.
Our project begins with the following statement, paraphrasing the Communist Manifesto: “Specters are haunting the globe. Specters of anti-communism.” Of all the ideas that are now tainted, maybe communism was not only the best idea but also the one most betrayed (through the incarceration and murder carried out in its name). Can we use this idea? Or are we are going to let our enemies decide for us that it is no longer of use?
Anticommunism really frames the book, which invokes comparisons to the rise of interwar fascism and the role anticommunism played in that. You redefine both neoliberalism and neoconservatism in the same way, essentially as negative politics of anti-communism. I’m wondering what’s at stake in that kind of reorientation, in bringing anticommunism to the fore as a central, unifying feature of neoliberal and neoconservative regimes. How do you see contemporary anticommunisms in relation to those of the 1920s and ’30s?
We started this project in late 2015. Obama was president in the United States. There was the incursion into east Ukraine, into Crimea, around that time. And we began to ask ourselves, “Who won the Second World War?” Seriously, who won? I mean, this was before Charlottesville. It was obvious the communists did not win the war. Maybe the Nazis won the war?
Let me put it metaphorically. While the Berlin Wall was falling, Soviet TV brought on a psychic, a guy to do séance sessions. And the idea was that he would tell people, if you have back pain, bring a cup of water, put it next to your left ear, move it around. He was kind of controlling people’s minds. A very conservative reading of that event would hold it as proof that the whole Soviet experiment, as they call it, was just mass hypnosis, daydreaming, mind control. And the fall of the Berlin Wall was like penetrating that dream. An alarm clock — reality waking up. Now, we are 30 years after that supposed penetration of reality into the dream, and it’s obvious that that’s not what happened.
What happened is more like a Luis Buñuel film. We fell into a deeper dream where we think we woke up. It’s called false awakening. We are in this long false awakening where we are inside the dream, but we think we are awake. So, we don’t have access to the dream of, say, socialism. But we also don’t have access to reality. We are stuck in this false awakening. And of course, the digital amplifies this false awakening. Specifically, in terms of fascism, the energy of the extreme right everywhere today — admiration of the state and hate for government, which follows Alberto Toscano’s concept of late fascism. But where did they get this hatred for government? They got it from neoliberalism. Fascism is now the heritage of neoliberalism.
So, the book itself is organized according to themes and it was published after the exhibitions finished. The exhibitions traveled to different places, over two and a half years, under the title “The Kids Want Communism.” Can you explain the process?
The idea was that communism would be made up of both archives of actually existing socialism, with its achievements and its crimes, and also horizons. So, the “communism” in our title signifies both the archives of historical socialism and this trajectory, this hypothesis, this horizon of what can happen, what might happen, what might still happen to us. Going back to our difference from the MoMA show, we wanted to mark 99, rather than 100, years because of that horizon. There are all the potentials in the past and all the potentials of the future.
“Want” in the title stands for what Jodi Dean, in her 2012 book The Communist Horizon, calls the “collective desire for collectivity.” And the “Kids” are those who are here now but will also be here in the future. There is something about communism that doesn’t only apply to an “us and them” kind of mapping of the world but also to an “us” becoming the future. Because we will be different after the revolution. The revolution is us becoming something else.
To get back to the book, if “being together precedes being” is, as you describe, the guiding principle of communist politics, how does this principle relate to the material work of the project? All of these exhibitions were dispersed around the globe, but somewhat synchronically, and ultimately collected in this book. This principle is kind of an archival principle, and the book seems to represent it. What is the role of archival work, then, in communist politics? Bringing together, organizing, putting in relation …
I can speak very practically in terms of making an exhibition in Israel. What do you do when you work in a museum that’s funded by the municipality and applies for funding from the state, a state whose crimes are so open and blunt? You take all their money and do a show about communism. That’s a strategy that does not represent a position of purity, outside of the game. Because you cannot be outside; there is no purity in a small, centralized country like Israel, or maybe anywhere. It’s basically impossible not to engage on some level with the state. And so, how do you, to use this American phrase, how do you own it? This strategy was, I think, well understood by our partners, who all come from very complex places.
The second thing is that, when you do a show about communism, perhaps only five percent of the artists have thought of communism as something beyond what they heard through anticommunist indoctrination about what happened in the 20th century. And out of those five percent, maybe only five percent think about it in similar ways as you. So now, what do you do? Do you force everyone to your line? Or, maybe you think about what communism can be to these artists.
For example, Noa Yafe’s “Red Star.” Yafe is an artist who makes dioramas. This is a room of dioramas based on photos of Viking 1, a NASA spacecraft that went all the way to Mars in the late ’70s, dropped a rover, and the rover got us the first black-and-white photo of Mars via radio. Where is Mars in our moment today? It’s all these fantasies of colonization, sending Matt Damon to Mars, sending some scientists, they will create a kind of biosphere, only to bring capitalism there to ruin that biosphere. That’s basically the plan. But the Red Star had a different meaning. In the book Red Star (1908) by Alexander Bogdanov — and also the film Aelita (1924) — Mars stands for another world being possible. As a curatorial practice, we were also working within the history of Soviet museums, which brought planetariums and observatories into art museums in the 1930s. In Bogdanov’s novel, there’s a moment on Mars where they go through an art museum.
That’s interesting. By making the art museum less of an autonomous institution, by actually connecting with planetariums, observatories, institutions to which we don’t necessarily think art museums have a natural relationship, you make the art museum a part of this logic of being together. Today, it feels like such an endeavor would be immediately branded as some sort of “big collaboration,” which would ultimately emphasize that the two don’t belong together. But here we have a different perspective, that we have to begin from that kind of collaboration.
Ohad Meromi, an American artist originally from Israel, created this kind of communal machine for collective daydreaming. It’s an installation called Structure for Rest that’s based on this kind of idea that actually comes from Ernst Bloch, about daydreaming. You are in reality, but you are also, apparently, in this machine. It’s something we do together. You are together, thinking of another world, while you are in this world. There is an exhibition, but the exhibition does not happen without the people becoming a part of it. And this goes back to my idea of communism. How does it work with an exhibition, with actual artists, with their perspectives?
This idea of daydreaming in the world now and of the world to come, this idea seems very related to a concept foundational to the book: the communist horizon. Jodi Dean, whom you mentioned, describes the concept of the horizon as that which reorients us and creates a new perspective for us in the present. This idea of communist horizon actually comes from the writings of the recently deposed vice president of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera. How do you see the communist horizon in reality, then, in real-world politics?
The communist horizon in this sense gives you a perspective on the world. In Genesis, when God wants to create something, she first has to make a horizon, divide sea from sky. That gives perspective for things to appear. Even though we live in a very different world from what communism might be, it offers us a perspective on this world. Every resistant action we do feeds the system. It can appropriate everything. So, the communist horizon is a way to speak of a different reality, from within this reality that seems without an outside. What if we are secret agents, dormant cells, of a state that is yet to come? What if we do not even know that we are secret agents, like a true dormant cell? That is also an approach toward communism, which actually gives me a lot of optimism every time I meet a new person. They are unaware that they are dormant cells for a state that is yet to come.
In the section of the book titled “Communist Horizon,” we encounter The New Barbizon Group, a group of women painters who grew up in the USSR and now live in Israel. Their contribution to “The Kids Want Communism,” called “Back in the USSR” — obviously alluding to the Beatles — juxtaposes original drawings the artists made as children, while they were growing up in the USSR, with new paintings representing this childhood from their position today, living in Israel. So, there are a lot of layers of representation. There’s also a specific history of migration out of communism and looking back on communism. These are people who are coming out of a Soviet past. They are not idealizing the Soviet Union in any way but are still looking back at it, engaging with it, creating work with it. What kind of communist horizon is suggested by this work?
The New Barbizon Group — Zoya Cherkassky, Olga Kundina, Anna Lukashevsky, Asya Lukin, and Natalia Zourabova — were educated in the Soviet Union with an insistence on mastering pictorial capabilities, and they came to Israel where the scene has a kind of bastardized Arte Povera at its heart. With an Israeli art scene that sees itself as very conceptual, the painterly technique of the New Barbizon Group artists did not mean much. But their practice is a highly conceptual one that contemplates our relation to picture-making. They paint in the open air. They go out and they paint.
So, first of all, these female artists have a public presence. People approach them. It is action-painting in the sense that the action of painting is performed in public. But they also post their paintings on social media. It’s a report. There is a realism there in the immediacy of the gesture that says, “I was there. This is what I saw.” A lot of times they would go to the central bus station in Tel Aviv, where there are a lot of refugees and migrant workers. One of them met her husband, who’s from Nigeria, in this way. So, this kind of reporting, while doing work that sometimes borders on illustration or caricature, is combined with socialist realism.
What do you mean by socialist realism with regards to their work?
Our understanding of socialist realism often reduces it to the level of propaganda. But something happened in 1929: the first five-year plan. And with that plan, a new subjectivity emerged, one not so different from those that have developed around social media. Today, this subjectivity is one of exhaustion and excitement; you are totally immersed in the machine and your subjectivity is built around this kind of labor. Back then, you had, for example, a character — Alexei Stakhanov, an East Ukraine coal miner — who became the hero of this first attempt at post-Fordism. Because what the miners were doing was exceeding quotas. He would have 120 tons of coal dug out in one day or something. They played with the numbers, of course, but the idea was that this system went beyond planned Taylorism, which was the basis for the Leninist understanding of rationalized production in the New Economic Plan. The five-year plan, with its shock work, was about going beyond the rational.
Stakhanov had these events he was obligated to attend where he went to Stalin to speak as the representative of the workers. Seeing Kim Kardashian or Kanye West go to Trump reminded me of Stakhanov going to Stalin. Here is a subjectivity built around these social media platforms — also attempts at post-Fordist protocols but still with an assembly line at the level of what Noam Yuran describes as a punch clock. (Every time you post, like, share, or tweet on social media you are punching in, saying, “I was here now.”) So, you exhaust yourself on these platforms just as your subjectivity is created by its very circulation on them.
The idea of socialist realism was how socialist reality should be, not how life actually was under socialism. When we look at what we call capitalist realism, following Mark Fisher, if you look at social media — it’s not how life is but how life is supposed to be, right? And everyone is supposedly participating voluntarily. The New Barbizon, in particular, are using their knowledge in relation to that history to actually approach our reality today.
The next section of the book, “Real Existing Capitalism,” maps out our present disorientation in a world in which capitalist democracy has supposedly vanquished the socialist police state. Something especially interesting is how this disorientation reactivates history. In the work of Jonathan Gold, for example, there are reenactments, simulations, and archival research going into the representation of capitalism. And you have emphasized mechanisms of repetition, such as role-playing or farce. How do the works in this chapter manipulate these mechanisms of repetition to offer an alternative perspective, a reorientation?
As you were saying, we were told that capitalist democracy defeated the socialist police state. But there was a synthesis in the sense that capitalism is very much reliant on a police state. We have been encountering, not a synthesis of socialism and democracy, but rather of capitalism and the police state. This is the synthesis that is real existing capitalism.
But there is a point we need to emphasize about the police state. You were followed, you had a dossier on you, and people would inform on your actions. Your kids would talk to the secret police. But you got housing. You got health care. Today, all of the technologies through which we communicate are surveillance technologies. Is anyone giving you an apartment? Is the state taking care of your health care? The relation between access and privacy, which you had to negotiate involuntarily under real existing socialism, has changed. Today you have neither access nor privacy.
Specifically, in relation to this mural by Jonathan Gold, we see in the piece people standing in line. One of the caricatures of real existing socialism is people standing in line waiting for bread. But the thing is, there are more lines than ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whether we are talking about consumerist lines, like a new iPhone or pair of sneakers, or Greeks lining up in front of ATMs to withdraw their money five years ago, or people in Korea in the 1990s, or airport security since 9/11 — we’re always standing in line. But when it’s a necessity, it’s transparent to us, and when it is by choice, it’s experienced as an event. It’s sometimes part of the excitement of a new food place, like a food truck, for example. It no longer exists as an indictment of a failed system.
Gold’s mural took a year to make. This was also a gesture of socially engaged art, which comes out of the legacies of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall had all this graffiti on it. These were read as gestures of individual freedom against a repressive state. That’s how graffiti was understood in the 1980s. But what happens after the fall of the Berlin Wall? There is no socialist project and society is atomized. The artist is now assigned to bring together all those people who are no longer part of a social community but are totally atomized. And these sorts of one-off projects, like making a mural together, are supposed to repair society. From Mexican revolutionary murals, which were intended to communicate the values of the revolution to the people, we now have murals as a gesture to compensate for the disappearance of society. Your creativity comes in place of your social agency.
This is how we should understand the rise of socially engaged art practices in the 1990s and 2000s. It asked artists to stand in for the vacuum of the social fabric. And as much as its imagery might have carried symbolic meaning for the community that was no longer there, it was practically a placeholder for real estate, many times literally overlooking an empty lot.
This is a great point to move to the next section of the book — “Shock Work.” In “Shock Work,” you present the idea that the artist no longer represents the world but rather has become a model for the world. The artist’s material conditions of precarity and exchange are actually a microcosm of broader conditions of production. How is it that the artist’s own relation to work, to labor, and to rest has come to model our relations to work, labor, and rest? How does this post-Fordist use of the notion of “Shock Work” describe our relation to the economy?
This is based on endless literature, including the 1970s Post-Operaists or Boltanski and Chiapello’s 1999 book The New Spirit of Capitalism. To enter it from a different path, I can suggest the following. In 1946, you have Vietnamese people revolting against the French. In 1949, you have the Chinese revolution. In 1952, Kenyans against the British. In 1953, Mosaddegh in Iran. In 1954, Algerians against the French. In 1959, you have Cuba. Nations are demanding self-determination against the empires. But when this wave gets to the industrial West, it collapses. Through its failure, the counterculture emerges, which is an individualistic project. You have to change yourself.
These shifts also had to do with a new reading of who is the revolutionary subject, who is the actor on the stage of history. What they had in mind in the West were the workers, of course. But after World War II, the workers get this deal of complacency. The communist parties in Italy and France are part of the matrix of power at the time. Suddenly, students become the revolutionary subjects. Even though at the same time there are actual workers in Africa, in South Asia, Southeast Asia, South America, who literally embody the revolutionary subject. But 1968 is the moment when the perception shifts to white youths, students, as those with the most energy for change.
And, basically, all the demands of 1968 are answered: against hierarchy, for creativity. All is answered because capitalism shifts into a logic that pretends to do away with alienation. The slogan “Nokia connecting people” seems to embody this logic. I mean, connecting people can be a serious political project. But in the 2000s, it was Nokia that was connecting people. And creativity, just to take one thing that we are supposedly the guardians of in the arts, if we look at what is called post-studio practices, artists are compelled to maintain low-intensity networks that will be activated according to project-based deadlines. So, you go to cafés. You meet with people to stay in touch. And then you got the grant. You got the commission. The curator called back. This is what we are trained to do. We all do that but for different projects. You’re an adjunct here, in the evening you’re a hostess there, you Uber there, you embed subtitles for this project. So, you are de-individuated, dispersed. You are the assembly line in this scenario. I think in this respect artists are the model for this world. Everybody now has to be super creative just to survive.
I want to get to the last chapter — “The Internationale.” In this chapter, you assemble archives that provide access to past internationalisms. There are Jakob Kösten photographs of the Palestine Communist Party, and films by Southeast Asian student filmmakers in Prague in the 1960s, an archival display of the Yugoslav school of Praxis. So, on the one hand, we have these incredible archival representations of the internationalism that is possible, especially this Jewish-Arab brotherhood, which certainly seems a horizon today. And yet, on the other hand, the very project in the USSR, starting in 1945, had already betrayed this internationalism with a kind of Russian superiority put at the top. What’s the work doing here?
Spain is considered to be the main example of the betrayal of communists by the USSR. Because of Trotsky, Stalin used that anti-fascist communist war for his own internal interests. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is another example. The narrow interests of the leadership in the Soviet Union had a different agenda, one opposed to the international revolution of communism. Cracking down on the Kronstadt sailors already in 1921 — there is so much …
And yet, the USSR offered a better future. It was the most progressive government. The abolition of private property in January 1918, all the family and marital laws allowing for divorces and abortion. Those things were made into law in the USSR and offered minorities a place that nation-states did not. Historically, cosmopolitanism has been code for Jewish. But communism was really supposed to be a cosmopolitan project: multinational, multi-racial, an all-inclusive project. So, hijacking it for the Russian people didn’t help the project.
That failure, that hijacking, speaks to the form of the “Internationalism” chapter. And I see it in its relation to archives.
We researched the photo archive of the Communist Party of Israel (MAKI), which was originally PKP (Communist Party of Palestine). We interviewed two men, David Rabinovici and Odeh Al Ashhab. Odeh worked as a printer for Al Ittihad, the Communist Party daily newspaper in Palestine, which is a daily newspaper in Arabic. He was 94 when we interviewed him. In our project, we start in 1946 — hence year one, after year zero, which is 1945. We focused mainly on a journey that culminated in the summer of 1947. A group of 20 Jewish and Arab Palestinians — among them Al Ashhab, Kösten, and Rabinovici — go to two places, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. In Yugoslavia, they go to help build the Samac-Sarajevo railway by invitation from Marshal Tito. They were simulating a Jewish-Arab commonwealth. They built the railroad, and it invited these simulations of reunification. We see Al Ashhab and Rabinovici in many of Kösten’s photos. They have these celebrations of Jewish-Arab political unity under communism. Thanks to their success, they are invited that same summer to the first congress of Socialist Youths in Prague. So, this journey of Jews and Arabs from Palestine to Yugoslavia, a multinational state, and to Czechoslovakia, a multinational state, can be seen as an expression of an existential understanding that in order for us to be what we want to be, we have to have internationalism.
This is the trajectory for all these nations — to have Slovaks and Czechs together, to have all the different ethnicities like Croats and Serbs together. So, when they get to Prague, you have this suggestive image of the delegation from Palestine walking with a banner that says “Palestine.” But they are also holding the flag of Israel. For us, it’s what you can call a multi-stable image. Where we are now, it is either-or — either Palestine or Israel. But this is a multi-stable image. This photo shows us that those things existed for them on the same plain or layer. They exist together. This is the meaning of the horizon as something that gives perspective. It is something that can inform us today. The trajectory of their imaginary offers a parallel reality that never matured. Through the archive, we can have access to that parallel history that never happened.
I think something remarkable about this photo is that both the banner and the flags are concealed just as much as they are existing at ease side by side. So, they are both kind of incomplete. What is especially optimistic and most tragic about this section, I think, is reflected in the relation established with these archival photos. This is very different from the relation the New Barbizon Group establishes between the past and the present. I mean, we have difficulty imagining this perspective at all in the present. Does that reflect our inability to access this horizon today?
It’s true — you have to activate it. For example, in addition to talks, we organized a reunion of generations of the Youth Movement of the Communist Party of Israel. It was a multigenerational celebration while these photographs were on display together with other artworks as part of the exhibition. Singing, telling stories — all this was an event for them, but it also informed us at the museum. But more representative of the whole project for me at the moment is “The Great Soviet Encyclopedia.” It takes its name from an actual encyclopedia the USSR used to publish in new editions from 1926. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia stands for the whole cosmos that disappeared in the 1989–’91 black hole. It is not only about what Stalin did, but about Evald Ilyankov, for example. He was a neo-Leninist philosopher of the 1960s who taught deaf-blind kids with the understanding that our senses are social.
All these worlds — not only Stakhanovism and shock work and their relation to social media, but many other things we could learn from it. And again, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia doesn’t necessarily mean only from the Soviet Union. I am interested in this peripheral communism, which is also where I come from. I never tasted a political victory in my life. But all the victories of all the rest inform my understanding of what can be done.
Ben Ratskoff is a Los Angeles–based writer and scholar. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of the new Jewish quarterly Protocols.
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