Launching “What Is an Art School?,” an ongoing series examining at the past, present, and future of art education, we take inspiration from the recent Avant-Museology symposium’s focus on early Soviet exhibitions to explore little-known Soviet educational practices. The following writing is connected to a larger set of translations—to appear in English for the first time—and commissioned texts focused on critically important, forward-thinking art teaching that will be published in the weeks to come.
The cinetrain has become something of a myth for us, as if in spite of differences and the width of the rail gauge, it had broken through its own time and place to join everything that is advancing and moving; the cinetrain, the train of revolution, the train of history, has not lacked reverse and switched points, but the biggest mistake one could make, is to believe that it had come to a halt.
—Narrator in Chris Marker’s film The Train Rolls On (1973)
The Walker’s recent Avant Museology symposium began, fittingly, with Arseny Zhilyaev—editor of the book Avant-Museology (e-flux, 2015), upon which the symposium was based—showing an image of El Lissitzky’s Kabinnett der Abstrakten (Abstract Cabinet). Commissioned in 1927 by Hannover Museum director Alexander Dorner, the Abstract Cabinet was a room meant for the modular exhibition of predominantly abstract works from artists such as Piet Mondrian, László Moholy-Nagy, and others. The walls, built in such a way to make for the easy movement of artworks around it, allowed for an instantly adjustable art history.
The Abstract Cabinet is similar in form to another project presented by Zhilyaev of a truck meant to carry messages of the new Soviet reality across Russia. These agitational propaganda, or agitprop, trucks could function disparately as a radio, library, cinema, stage, or reading hut, shifting form to bring ideologically appropriate information to the Soviet masses.
What links the Abstract Cabinet and the agitprop truck is not simply their formal similarities, but their engagement with a vision of a new society upon which these tools would be fundamental. Instead of presenting the future as a static, immobile endpoint where all needs are instantaneously met—a true heaven on earth—the two projects plan for a reality of constant change. It is this concept, of a world bound by flux, that is the true wellspring of these projects, and a source of consistent renewal to the radical left and avant-garde in education, design, architecture, and art. In these and other experiments of the 1920s and ’30s, we have, in short, an entirely different relationship to the standard idea of utopia.
Following the nomadic pathways of Lissitzky beyond Hannover is a useful starting point, as he came into contact with a wide-range of key artistic sites that can serve as touch points to this idea. As the Russian cultural ambassador to Weimar Germany, Lissitzky served as a hinge between the two cultures: moving within the German artistic world connected to the Bauhaus, of which we are more familiar, and the Russian world of that time that has been largely lost or forgotten. Within Russia he was a faculty member of both the Vitebsk Art School—connected to Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall—and the art school Vkhutemas (pronounced vee-HOO-tee-mas) in Moscow, which included among its faculty Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, and other key members of the Soviet avant-garde. Having a school associated with some of the better known names of Soviet art history would be interesting only in a cursory way if the teachers’ pedagogy and students’ work did not also suggest new possibilities of thinking, working, and living. The ambition of the school is immediately apparent through two of its students and their projects: Georgy Krutikov and his Flying City (1928), and Ivan Leonidov and his proposal for the Lenin Institute of Moscow (1927).
The Flying City was to be a radically new form of living for the world to come. In one variation of the city, eight building tiers for communal living hovered above the ground, gathered around a single ring. The ring contained entry points that were to be accessed by mobile capsules—aerodynamic, teardrop-shaped vehicles—that could move through the air, across land, and under water. The work was created in the studio of the little known Vkhutemas architect and teacher Nikolay Ladovsky, whose laboratory-based “Rationalist” educational method is explored in a text by art historian Anna Bokov. Ivan Leonidov was also a student at Vkhutemas (and an eventual teacher there, too); his proposal for the Lenin Institute of Moscow was to house both an auditorium that doubled as a planetarium for scientific research and a vast library with an automatic book retrieval system. The project was to be sited on the outskirts of Moscow atop a hill overlooking the city, accessible, of course, by high-speed train.
Vkhutemas is full of instances of this modular thinking across its pedagogic output by lesser known artist-educators, many who had a more pragmatic bent. One is the projected created by students of Vkhutemas teacher and artist Boris Zemlyanitsyn that envisioned a workers’ club display system. Workers’ clubs were an interesting educational proposition in and of themselves: while multiple in style and function, these “People’s Houses” were intended primarily as educational spaces, containing reading rooms, lecture halls, and other pedagogical forms meant to exist throughout the Soviet Union. In the first two years of the Soviet system, at least 7,000 of them were created,1 and they occupied the time of many artists, including Alexander Rodchenko. The Zemlyanitsyn display system designed for one of these clubs allowed members to constantly rotate through the various photographs that make up the story of the October Revolution, setting the images of history in motion with the flick of a wrist.
It is worth revisiting the story those panels told. When Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over Russia at the end of 1917, in the crux of the civil war that was to follow, there were many questions to answer about the future to come. At its core, of course, was the biggest revolutionary question of all: how to remake the world? The question had to be answered, however, within the specific histories and context that Russia—soon to be the Soviet Union—found itself. Russia was then, as it is now, the largest nation in the world, and expanding. Making this situation more complex was the intense illiteracy of the Russian people at time the of the revolution, particularly in rural areas.2
While Lenin may not have been emphatically supportive of museums or their educational role, he was deeply supportive of film, telling the head of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky: “You must remember that of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important.”3 In an illiterate society which still found film quite new and exciting, this made sense. With the exception of intertitles, the silent films of the time could carry a message primarily through visual and affective means while disregarding text. In film he found an ideal strategy to get the message out to the working class. Connecting the educational problem of the vastness of Russia with Lenin’s faith in the power of film created an interesting pedagogical solution, the agitprop vehicle.
Agitprop vehicles existed variously as trains, steamboats, and cars, rolling out across the Soviet Union starting during the Russian civil war to serve as a key educational arm of the new society. The functions within the vehicles were multiple and shapeshifting. The agitprop train was an interesting example, as it contained all the components necessary in the film production process: shooting facilities, a laboratory for development, an editing room, and a screening room. The trains at times displayed the artwork of avant-garde champions like Lissitzky, allowing his work to literally careen across the nation. The head of the Vneshkol’nyi Otdel (Adult Education) program that oversaw its implementation, was not without coincidence Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia. There are surviving film clips of Krupskaia traveling down the Volga River on the verbosely named Red Star Literary-Instructional Agit-Steamer of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee in Dziga Vertov’s film Red Star (1919). Clearly descriptive accuracy and political bombast edged poetics and concision in the language of the time.
The most radical version of the agitprop train was one begun in modified form in the early 1930s by Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin, referred to as a Kinopoezd (film train). Decades later Medvedkin was to become the subject of radical French filmmaker Chris Marker’s The Train Rolls On (1973) and The Last Bolshevik (1993) after he discovered Medvedkin’s 1934 satirical film Happiness. Marker’s films point to what differentiated Medvedkin’s film train from the previous agitprop version: the goal in Medvedkin’s version was not to present a set of agitprop films containing Soviet-approved messages, but to go to the collective farms and factories throughout the nation and create films in conjunction with the people to, as Medvedkin states, “help them in the work of constructing a new world.” In The Last Bolshevik, Marker shows a model of the film train, the end of it containing a car that could go out and shoot scenes across the land.
The desire for a world in motion is not limited to a Soviet context, of course. Aspects of this mode of thought within architecture and design can be seen from Buckminster Fuller’s 1930s Dymaxion projects through to the radical practices of the 1960s showcased in the Walker’s recent Hippie Modernism exhibition in designs by Archizoom and Archigram. It is also apparent in the Japanese Metabolists and the Nakagin Capsule Tower of Kisho Kurokawa, whose goal was to create a living structure with discrete living pods that would be replaced every 20 years—an architecture in service of a new way of life.
As an educational solution, Russia’s pre-internet, networked answer to the question of outreach—going to where people are rather than expecting them to come to you—feels consistently of the moment and remains a vital topic of conversation today. Contemporary parallels in art contexts can be found in the outreach buses of
LACMA or the Museo Tamayo, the Winnebago overseen by photographer Alec Soth, as well as the Walker’s own Walker on Wheels (WoW) project from 2001. That project was built in 1998 originally as a commission for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden working with the architecture studio Atelier van Lieshout. WoW was a section of a larger project, entitled THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, “a two-part sculpture with a semi-permanent stationary ‘cabin’ and a moveable, detachable ‘trailer.’” The WoW trailer, according to its website, was to be a “mobile unit that will travel to surrounding areas as a site for hands-on art projects, temporary exhibitions, performances, classes, workshops, and community gatherings.” Interestingly, in 2001 Walker on Wheels was “transformed into a media lab equipped with digital cameras and an editing suite for Walker Film/Video artist-in-residence Spencer Nakasako” that conducted workshops in various communities in Minneapolis. The dormant film-train lost to time, reborn in the 21st century.
A few months ago, on a rainy, frigid day, I visited the Nagakin Capsule Tower in Tokyo. The weather was fitting for what I found. The building, once the high point of Metabolist ambition, was collapsing. Many of the pods’ lights were off, the apartments unlivable. The cycle of rejuvenating change Kurokawa envisioned for the structure, for a variety of reasons, never came to pass; now only disrepair and the inevitable entropy of time was visible. A mammoth, skin-tight net had been placed over its entirety—not to ward off pigeons, but to protect pedestrians below from the crumbling pieces of both building and history.
Yet instead of cynicism, what I am reminded of is the moment of Chris Marker’s encounter with Medvedkin’s work and the film train seemingly lost to the past. Marker, in one of his rare instances of relying on cliché, writes:
It all began in Brussels’ Film Library (“Cinémathèque Royale”) when my friend Jacques Ledoux, the flamboyant conservator, received a package of brand new prints from Moscow. In it, classics like Eisenstein, connoisseurs’ choices like Barnet, and one totally unknown: Schastye (Happiness) by A.I. Medvedkin. Ledoux hadn’t ordered it, he didn’t even know the man’s name. Apparently, one hidden hand had thrown that bottle into the sea of Cinémathèques, hoping for a welcoming creek.4
As we work through the beginning of mining art education histories with the hope of dispersing not only these long locked away Soviet practices but many others, I cannot help but think of the desire expressed by this “hidden hand” to send something wonderful but increasingly forgotten into the world. And the equally strong desire by Chris Marker to bring back to life through Medvedkin that which was once thought past to handle the present. It is a gesture not unknown to others, as much a part of philosopher Amy Allen—who is interviewed for this series—looking back at Critical Theory, as it is of Marker’s.
At the end of all of this we would do well though to heed Marker’s advice: that the biggest mistake one could make in the present is to believe that what is past is ever truly past, and that the train of history had come to a halt.
1 Khan-Magomedov, Selim O. Pioneers of Soviet Architecture. Rizzoli, 1987. Page 434. This book also contains information about the Krutikov project that was vital to this writing.
2 Kerenz, Peter. The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929. Cambridge University Press, 1985. This and related analysis on the politics and context of education in the early Soviet state can be found in this book.
3 Malitsky, Joshua. Post-Revolution Nonfiction Film: Building the Soviet and Cuban Nations. Indiana University Press, 2013. Page 93. The references to Vertov’s film and related information in this paragraph is also within this book.
4 Marker, Chris. The Last Bolshevik Reminiscences of Alexander Ivanovich in Cineaste, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Fall 2008). Page 12.