On words that do not save lives

An open letter by Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan

From the editorial team: Nikita Kadan is a well-known Ukrainian artist whose work we have been following for several years. During this time, several interviews with him have been published on the portal. He recently asked us to publish his response to a letter from Russian artist and activist Dmitry Vilensky, one of the founders of the Chto Delat? group, who recently fled the country after his house was ransacked. Dmitry addressed Nikita with a public message after Nikita refused to participate in Jerusalem Art Conference #7 – at a joint panel with speakers from Russia and Belarus.

Dear Dima,

Reading your open letter addressed to me, I discovered with some surprise that it makes no mention of my primary reason for withdrawing from participation in the Jerusalem [Art] Conference: on inviting me, the organizers failed to inform me that I would be taking part in a joint panel with speakers from Russia and Belarus. This brings to mind other occasions: an earlier situation at a teach-in at the Vera List Centre in New York, where contributors from Ukraine were not told in advance that any Russian participants would be present, and the sales of limited edition works from Artists at Risk at the New York Frieze, where the same happened. You venture into darkness, following someone you trust, but suddenly light is switched on and you find yourself sitting at a negotiation table. It was actually a sufficient reason for not taking part.

I must say I have already learnt to ask when I am invited to a collective event ‒ will there be anyone from Russia? It certainly does make you feel as if all of your professional interactions were caught inside some kind of paranoid net, but at least you don’t feel like a hostage to somebody else’s decisions. And yet I did not ask the question as I was invited to the Jerusalem conference: considering the Middle East issues on the agenda, you would expect the organizers of this event to be hypersensitive about these things. It seemed quite improper to even ask ‒ my mistake.

Interestingly, on all three occasions the Russian participant ‒ or at least one of several ‒ just happened to be you. Both at Vera List as a speaker and at Frieze with your ‘What Is to Be Done?’ photographs. Does it mean that an invisible force is mystically pushing us toward each other all the time? Or that your presence in the world as an ‘artistic expert’ on the current war is so solid that my rare appearances at public events simply coincide with your numerous ones for purely statistic reasons?

Also ‒ why are you addressing me via an open letter, without making an attempt to write to me personally, considering the long acquaintance between us that you refer to? Was my withdrawal a public gesture? Was it accompanied by some sort of statement you wish to argue with? Or is it that your wise words are addressed not to me at all, but only to the international audience, to whom you wish to present your own increased “willingness for dialogue” and, accordingly, “unwillingness” of mine and maybe even of Ukrainians in general?

When I first saw the published announcement of the event with our names, it appeared to me either as a monument to the ‘three brother nations’ (plus Ivor Stodolsky, presumably in the role of a contemplator of this image of unbreakable unity), or the above-mentioned table of unsolicited negotiations. Later, however, another nuance struck me. When the organizers invited me to take part, it was first and foremost my personal experience of surviving and carrying on making art in a frequently shelled city during a war that is gradually morphing into genocide that I could propose as a subject of my presentation. I also offered to touch briefly on my art practice exploring paradoxes of the memory of collective trauma. As for your theme, it was announced the following way: ‘In this talk I respond to the situation that developed after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in 2014, its escalation in 2022 and growing repression in Russia and Belarus following the mass protests in 2020. We have to deal with these issues in the broader context of climate crisis, austerity measures, growing nationalistic tendencies, haunting spirits from the past, proliferation of necropolitics and urgent demands for decolonization, demilitarization, and solidarity.’  Basically, it works like this: an artist from Ukraine speaks about their personal traumatic experience and about execution pits of the past, while an artist from Russia incorporates this experience into an extensive universalist picture, into their global analysis. Do you not perceive anything imperial in this composition? And the subtlest final touch in this is the fact that the hosts have somehow omitted to let the Ukrainian speaker know that roles would be cast exactly this way.

As for the role of Marina in all this ‒ I regard her migrant activism at Moabit (please note that she did not propose to speak in the genre of international panorama, either) with enormous respect. Passports do not play a decisive role here.

Apart from the constantly repeating story of being invited to blindly step on ‘a common platform’, I also find in unacceptable that a Russian intellectual speaks about ‘the situation as it has developed’ from a meta point of view instead of choosing the issue of personal responsibility as the point of departure. Essentially, I do not understand what issue other than the responsibility of Russia could be the focus of attention for any ‘progressive and thinking’ Russian. It is certainly incomparably much more convenient in every sense to identify just with the ‘transnational networks against Putinism and the war’ right now. But the thing is, we are still to an enormous extent shaped by the places that we are most strongly linked with biographically. And the recent years, including the eight years of this war, were a time when the Russian artistic and intellectual milieu positioned itself as a façade attribute to the Russian-Putinist ‘civilised’ way of life, holding on to a ‘critical’ role while simultaneously developing a regime of ever so gracefully evasive self-censorship.

The whole cultural landscape of the Russian Federation and its resource-providing institutions, from Rosa Luxemburg Foundation to Garage Museum, allowed this form of existence to entrench and develop. Of course, this oscillating form of existence, balancing between a search order and a vernissage buffet, does not seem enviable at all. Nevertheless, it was a matter of choice, and, as you, [Russian intellectuals], made it, you missed the moment when the authoritarian-kleptocratic regime transformed into a genuinely fascist one. You did not stop them when you could have. You relativized; you confused the principal problem with second-rate ones. Of course, it is but one millionth of the whole load of responsibility; of course, there was a pressure of circumstances that is sometimes stronger than a human being. And yet ‒ you do not speak about that even after leaving Russia. What you expound on is the ‘broader context of climate crisis, growing nationalistic tendencies and urgent demands for solidarity’.

And I am not in the least inspired by the rhetoric of the ‘progressive’ citizens of the Russian Federation ‘against Putinism and the war’: the cause they should unite behind right now is the defeat of Russian fascism and the collapse of the RF that would follow.

And I will also tell you that in my picture of future after the defeat of the RF, after the ensuing parade of the current ‘federal subjects’ declaring their sovereignty one after another, a proper and genuine self-defascistization must start in Russia. And perhaps then didactic Brechtesque films will indeed serve as a perfectly real instrument for transformation of the public consciousness, and discussions on ‘the use of art’ will be founded on some real ground. Incidentally, you can consider the latter assumption as evidence of my interest of many years in the practice of your Chto Delat (‘What Is to Be Done?’) group.

Right now, I have no use for the profound wisdom of joint Russian-Ukrainian discussions of the catastrophe along the same lines as all the previous ones that not only did not avert but even failed to predict the selfsame disaster. I have no use for speech that does not take into consideration the situation of the speakers within this catastrophe. I have no use for words that do not save lives. For now, I prefer to stick with my own experience, with collecting knowledge about the crimes that are being committed before my very eyes. My thoughts are not with recovering ‘the territory of dialogue’; my thoughts are with recovering the occupied territory.