By ANNA SCOLA, August 2019
With their beginnings in the Soviet Union, the works of AES+F appear as a utopian construction, only to be a veil for the unapologetically critical imagery that lies in the details. The Russian collective, formed in 1987, consists of Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes. Their theatrical installations and new media performances comment on the tumultuous socio-political landscape that dominates the global sphere. I spoke with AES+F to better understand the psychology and development of their well-established practice.
AS: Two of the collective’s members are trained in Conceptual Architecture. What is conceptual architecture?
AESF: This movement was formed in the 80s in the Soviet Union under the term “Paper Architecture”, when a group of university students began participating and winning international architecture competitions with conceptual projects. This was a reaction to the impossibility of self realization within the Soviet Union. It was impossible to have a real architectural practice. This movement shaped conceptual thinking and was a critical response to contemporary international problematics while also being connected to the idea of an architectural social utopia. The projects made by the architects in this movement looked more like art installations or graphic works than real architecture that could be executed.
AS: AES+F use the term “social psychoanalysis” to contextualize their work, particularly the Islamic Project (1996-2003). Can you explain this term and how it has guided your practice?
AESF: When we were working on the Islamic Project, our idea was to create macabre and grotesque images in order to generate a discourse around taboo subjects that people either tend to avoid or have a singular, narrow perspective on. There was also a layer of commentary and parody of contemporary media that generates paranoia with images. It occurred to us that when people see these images, the stereotypical perception of the problem collapses. It is similar to catharsis or epiphany in psychoanalysis. Consequently, what we thought of as unthinkable grotesque ended up being very close to reality.
AS: The work King of The Forest (2001-2003) is a commentary on the images perpetuated by the mass media. Like in this work and many other larger projects, AES+F often work with models, actors, and participants. How strict is your direction with the performers?
AESF: It depends on the project. In King of the Forest, we asked kids to play a game. Some of them were ghosts, and some were statues. Some could move, and some couldn’t. The rest was improvisation on the part of the children. In more recent projects, we exercised total control over the behavior of the participants. It was important that the actor looks like a moving body without any psychological agency. This is done so that the viewer projects their own feelings and even their own consciousness onto the various characters they see.
AS: Many of your works involve a narrative approach of surrealist world building, like in Last Riot (2007). What are the aspects that you consider and what references do you use?
AESF: We use references that allude to the language of the body - from Old Masters to typical behaviors in video games. The surrealistic combination of the many different images and references that make up the contemporary informational stream is the most important thing that moves us, and is what we explore in our works. Historically, the Surrealists were occupied by the individual subconscious, but we look at the collective stream of consciousness, which at this point in time is no less surrealistic.
AS: AES+F was formed in 1987. How has the work evolved to reflect the socio-political changes in society, especially in Russia?
AESF: Since 1987, we have lived under 4 different governments. From relative democracy with Western values, to Putin’s authoritarian isolationism. In general, we were always interested in those changes in the sociopolitical landscape that are not necessarily local to Russia, but are global. If said changes in the West are smoothed over by influential Western institutions, we view Russia as a grotesque place where they are hypertrophic and readily apparent. We are interested in global problems such as immigration, global liberal capitalism, financial crises, “fake” news, revival of nationalism, the phenomenon of Trump, etc. These worldwide trends are amplified and concentrated in Russia, as if it is a controlled lab environment.
AS: How would you like the public to engage with your work and what is the reaction you hope to achieve?
AESF: When we see the public engaged at our exhibitions, that is enough. The main goal is to provoke the public to address its own understanding of the world, to stimulate the viewer’s imagination. Beyond that, everyone is free to interpret the work how they wish.
AS: Can you share anything about the projects or themes you are currently embarking on?
AESF: We are continuing to work on an autocratic, futuristic, techno-feminist interpretation of Turandot, which we premiered as an opera in Italy. It will become a standalone video installation by the end of this year. WM
Anna Scola is an American and Russian artist, writer and curator based in Singapore and New York. As a practicing artist, Anna uses performance and installation to explore issues of identity and insecurity that arise from personal and socio-political relations to contemporary migration. As a curator, she has conceptualized and managed a number of exhibitions that create unique conditions for the artists and explore the potential of a gallery space.
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