Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

Boris Groys, Philosopher

For the fifth installment in the Domus 2010 interview series, I spoke with Boris Groys, a philosopher, theorist, and Professor of Aesthetics, Art History, and Media Theory at the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. Groys is an expert on late-Soviet postmodern art and literature, as well as on the Russian avant-garde. We talked about communist vs. capitalist cities, the myth of purely virtual space, and the shift in cultural production from elites to the masses.

In this interview series, we’re trying to get a sense of the changing state of urban life and how technology and politics influence how we live. I’d like to talk to you about the nature of public space – both in its physical form in cities and its virtual form online. In the past you’ve encouraged understanding public space as a moment in time, rather than a physical condition. To begin, could you explain that concept and talk about what the current forms of public space say about this moment in time?

First of all, I would say that I see an immediate connection between virtual space and architectural space. We should not overlook the fact that our virtual reality and virtual spaces are ultimately based on something material, namely hardware. When I read a text about some sort of virtual utopia where everything is immaterial, I’m always very skeptical about it, because I think that our virtual world is firstly material. It’s firstly material, because if you don’t have this infrastructure – these connections and gadgets and all this stuff – and if it is not placed in a real space in a proper way then you would not have this virtual, immaterial reality. So I think we have to have a look at this materialist, hardware aspect of virtuality itself.

That is, of course, connected to the concept of public space. The public space that is created by the Internet, social media, and so on is first of all a result of a certain kind of selection that is related to the capability of people in different parts of the world to use this hardware, to have access to it, and so on. That’s just one aspect of it. The second aspect of it is that, in my opinion, the social networks change our concept of mass culture. The great topic of twentieth century thinking, philosophy, and art was the phenomenon of mass culture. The movements in high art, avant-garde, modern art, critical theory, and so on were reflecting the phenomenon of mass culture and trying to struggle against it.

What we have now is a deep sea change in the structure of mass culture. The dominant model of mass culture in the twentieth century had a top-to-bottom structure. The masses were understood as passive consumers of the mass culture produced for them, and the artists of that time tried to struggle against this passivity. What we have now is a complete reversal of this process: these masses begin to produce; they begin to produce images; they begin to produce texts. Actually, these websites and entries to Facebook and so on look very much like conceptualist artwork.

What people are now doing is mass production – ideological, philosophical, theoretical, and artistic mass production – and you cannot oversee all that. Only maybe God could oversee all that. So, with this huge mass production, you see the fragmentation of social space, fragmentation of the public space. The unified public space that was created by the mass culture of the twentieth century now has completely disappeared, and it’s been substituted by this kind of fragmented space. At the same time, we have exploitation of the new possibilities of this new space by advertising. So we have, on the one hand, fragmented public space and, on the other hand, a certain kind of viral advertising through Google and the other corporations that control this space. We have a completely different architecture, you could say, a completely different typology of space than we had in the twentieth century.

And that typology is basically a fragmented space unified by overriding corporate interests.

I think that the problem is precisely this: according to the classical model of the twentieth century, you had a control of mass culture by producers who offered certain cultural commodities to the masses. Now the masses, especially on the level of software and virtual space itself, produce their own contents. They produce their own images, messages, and reflections. They practice something like a self-representation. But, the means of production – the hardware, the system of distribution, and so on – are still pretty much centralized. What happens is we have a certain kind of proletarianization of cultural production. Everybody produces some cultural contents, but using means of production that are controlled in a centralized way.

There’s a phrase by [Jaron] Lanier, “digital Maoism”. He speaks about this kind of proletarianization of contemporary cultural production through the Internet. But I think that the metaphor is not quite correct: we don’t have, as was the case in Maoism, the State as the central party that controls cultural production. So we don’t have ideological control. But we have a control on the level of hardware; we have control on the level of means of production.

But there is some form of ideological control even over virtual space, because the Internet, as least in its current form, is the product of a relatively small number of people and cultures who constructed this hardware and decided that it would function in a certain way. That way is, as you mentioned, in intimate connection to advertising and with free market principles.

Yes, that’s true. But I ask myself: What are the mechanisms of this influence? How do you structure virtual space? You do not structure it by censorship. You do not structure it by imposing on it some ideological contents, as it was in the Soviet Union and China during the communist times. But if you control the means of production, if you control the material side of the structure, then you decide where certain systems are installed, how the connections are generated, what kinds of structures will be imposed. You have a great freedom in shaping these means of production, and of course in this way you influence the whole space. So it goes not in the direction of traditional, twentieth century ideological control, but a control by other means. And I think that this kind of control is overlooked by many people who are idealistic about “the new Utopia” and “virtual free space” and who, in the ’70s and ’80s, were looking forward to a kind of liberation in virtual space from the controls of real space. That is all pure Utopianism – not in a good sense but in a bad sense of this word – because in fact there is no such thing as immaterial, purely virtual space. There is always some kind of material basis.

Let’s talk a little bit more about space as it was characterized during the Soviet times. As you know, this conversation will be published in China, which, as you mentioned, has in some ways a similar background to Russia in terms of politics and ideology. And, like Russia, China has undergone radical changes in its transition from communism to capitalism or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. I know that you’ve studied this post-communist experience closely. Could you speak a bit about your work on this subject?

What I’ve tried to do is connected to what I was saying before, because communism was a typical phenomenon of the twentieth century in its attempt to organize something like a unified space of mass culture. Actually it was a mass cultural phenomenon – an attempt to organize a whole way of life, the entire everyday life of people, on a very basic level. It was a kind of artificial artwork I would say. It was an artistic production that said that, on the deepest, everyday level, everything should be organized according to some kind of cultural project that unified the whole society. This was so that the society would no longer be natural, because the great Marxist project was to go from nature to art, from natural to artificial. Everything should be planned, organized, thought through, decided. Nothing that was simply natural was allowed.

So you have this phenomenon of communism, this attempt to organize public space as an artificial whole. This, of course, is in the context of a culture that is not commercial. You don’t have markets and all that. So you do not satisfy desire; the goal of commercial culture of the western kind – culture that is serving the market – is to satisfy certain desires, to react to certain needs of the population. To be sexy, to be entertaining, to attract. Communist culture is a completely different one. Communist culture does not want to attract and be entertaining and so on. It is a culture that wants to teach. It wants to teach the population how to live in the future. It was not created to satisfy the immediate needs and thirsts of the public as it is; it was designed to change this public, to transform it.

What happened after the end of communism is two-fold. First, the emergence of the Internet, digital world and virtual world was a direct effect of the end of the Cold War, because all these means of communication were declassified and allowed to spread at the end of the ’80s and beginning of the ’90s. So it is a post-communist, or post-Cold War, phenomenon in itself. Then, we ask ourselves, What happened to culture and art after the end of communism? I would argue that what we have now is a kind of new Romanticism, a phenomenon that is reminiscent of the Romanticism of the beginning of the 19th century. If you remember European culture at the beginning of the 19th century, Romantic poets and artists tried to reproduce the Utopian ideals of the French Revolution in their own art. They recreated these spaces and territorialized Utopias in their artworks. That is what is happening now: post-communist art and culture is interesting because we see everywhere projects of participation, of open spaces, equality, social transformation, and so on. So you have actually the same phenomenon of re-territorialization of communism on the territory of art and culture, or you could say the culturalization of communism. That is very characteristic of contemporary culture.

Do you see any traces of communism in virtual space?

I think so. Let’s analyze that. One the one hand, you have the concept of equal participation of all, a kind of unified cultural space where everybody participates, nobody has privilege to dictate anything in particular. Then, in this space, you see people organizing some cultural projects, organizing some processes, organizing events through the Internet as an artistic action that has a goal to change reality in some way. Those are all effects of this re-territorialization of communism. On the other hand, if you look at the virtual world as a whole, then you see, of course, a capitalist system that is controlled by big corporations. That is quite clear to us. So, as I said, we have a strange condition that is like the beginning of the 19th century: on an economic level – the level of basic materialist forces – the market dominates; at the same time, people try to organize islands of communism. Not on the level of hardware, but software: I would say that it is a software communism under the condition of hardware capitalism. This kind of duality is typical not only for the Internet but for cultural production and art production in general. Everybody is nervous about that, but it’s simply how it is.

It’s true that in places like the Soviet Union and China during the Cultural Revolution, the State tried to choreograph daily life almost to the most minute detail, and architects such as the Constructivists tried to manifest that ambition in buildings. It’s also clear that, with the dismantling of that system, the population was left in a kind of ideological vacuum and it seems to me that the Internet and the free market generally are very poor replacements for the clarity of the communist approach, because there is simply too much choice and it requires massive commitment just to navigate what is available and define for yourself a program that you find satisfying.

Yes, absolutely. I think that there are two aspects of that: from the side of the user, there is no possibility to control that space, on that I agree. But there is a possibility to control the space from the side of the producer and on the side of the corporations that actually install and administer these networks and use them for commercial needs. That’s why I speak about this ambiguity: software communism and hardware capitalism. But, at the same time, if you speak about China or Russia and other post-communist countries, you have to recognize that the basis – the ideological, phenomenological, philosophical basis – of capitalism of the western type is a certain belief in the stability and unchangibility of human nature. The American constitution begins with that and the French constitution begins with that. So, as a starting point for formulating political programs, commercial programs, and so on, under capitalism of the western type you find this concept of unchanging, fundamental human nature. Human nature is understood as searching for happiness and happiness is understood as success and sexual gratification, and all that. So we have all this kind of anthropology on which the political and economic system of the west is based. Now, communism didn’t have this anthropology. Communists took completely different anthropological positions. The communist believes in the changeability of human nature; communists believed that, through culture, art, education and so on – through a reorganization of everyday life – you can change human nature. That was a deep belief.

After the end of communism, in a very strange way, that belief is not changing. Russians and Chinese believe that you can change human nature toward capitalism. So what they now try to do is educate people on how to be capitalists. It’s a paradoxical project: in a very centralized way, they try to educate the population to be capitalist in a western sense of this word. The population is taught to have certain desires – to want to consume certain goods, to want to be successful in certain ways, to look in certain ways. It’s a post-communist project of re-education of the Russian and Chinese population to make out of them western subjects, western subjects of a capitalist economy. It’s a curious project, and I do not quite believe that this project will be completely successful.

I’m not sure either, but also I’m not sure that the end goal is to create western capitalists. At least in China, I think there is a deep ambivalence towards the free market, especially on the part of the government. Over the past couple of decades, it’s tried to incorporate some of benefits of the market while maintaining a core of state control and, as you say, maintaining this idea of the government as a kind of guardian or teacher of the public.

Yes, that’s true. Maybe I have the example of Russia in mind, more than China. In Russia, like everything in Russia, it was very radical. In the last ten years, people are being systematically educated in consumerism, in loving certain goods and trying to acquire them, and so on. That amounts to a huge re-education program going through the whole country. As I was in Shanghai last year, I had a comparable feeling. I had a feeling that there is also some kind of fascination with consumption and an attempt to educate the people to consume in order to feel happier.

Right, I don’t mean to imply that that phenomenon doesn’t exist in China. It clearly does and in Shanghai it is very blatant.

And it seems to me that we have in both cases something like a state program of re-education and a centralized cultural effort to change people. It’s not like in the west where the market and the capitalist political system are understood as something corresponding to human nature as it is created by God – as created by God according to the American constitution and as created by nature according to the French constitution. In post-communist societies you don’t have that; instead you have a project to remodel human nature in a way so that it fits into contemporary international markets. So it is another program of re-education; after the communist program of re-education, now we have another program. But it is still based on an assumption of changeability and malleability of human nature.

Let’s talk a little more specifically about architecture and cities. What’s your impression of how these two systems – communist and capitalist, with all the assumptions built into each – were manifest in the cities that these ideologies produced?

There are some obvious differences. For example, Soviet cities, as well as socialist cities in China and elsewhere, were produced in a centralized way. That produced a kind of homogeneity, in terms of architecture and structure, organization, etc. There were, of course, no advertisements, and that also was very significant. And this did produce something gray – huge and very well-organized gray spaces of homogeneous architecture that made no claim to please the people living within it. It was educational, because people became accustomed to live in a kind of unifying universe. Of course, the moment that that was broken you saw the emergence of advertising on a huge scale as well as the emergence of different styles of architecture and real estate speculation. Now wealthy and well-connected people could just buy land and build what they want to build, and this produces an entirely different view – an agglomeration of different styles, like in the west. So that produces, at least in Russia, a very curious combination of old communist propaganda patterns and advertisements, because new advertisements use the most effective devices of the old communist propaganda.

A final issue that I wanted to discuss with you is the role of tourism in shaping contemporary as well as future cities. I recently read your essay “The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction” where you make the point that tourism today is similar to communism in that it represents a supranational movement that makes very particular demands of public space. Could you expand on that point?

The central argument I was making there was that architecture and city planning changed their nature in the last two decades under the pressure of global tourism. For a very long time, cities were made for the people living in them primarily. The image of the city was reflecting the desires and plans and culture of the people living there – not completely but to a much greater extent than it is the case now. It seems to me that now cities are built and planned and changed under the gaze of, and in expectation of a reaction from, international tourists. As a result, the whole world becomes like a museum and every city is like a room in this museum. You come to the city and you look at what is interesting and specific to that city, comparing it to other cities as you would compare one room of a museum to another room. That imposes a lot of pressure on city planning and architecture in terms of the need to create monuments, landmarks, images, and lifestyles even that could be interesting for international tourists. Even the lifestyle of the people living there is accommodated to these tourists; they have to look in interesting and exotic ways, they have to offer some exotic goods and so on. They have to build restaurants that are specific to this area, but which are actually not specific as such, but which seem specific in terms of the international tourists comparisons.

That also affects communist countries, because at the end of communism there was a tremendous iconoclasm; throughout Russia and eastern Europe a lot of monuments were destroyed and city images were changed as much as possible. But now people of eastern Europe and Russia understand that they made a huge mistake and are trying to recreate some kinds of socialist spaces that could be attractive to international tourism, for the people who are coming to eastern Europe and Russia to look at something communist. So you have this pressure from tourists – and I think this pressure is growing – and as a result cities are planned and built more and more to satisfy these visitors and less and less to satisfy the needs of the indigenous population.

I agree with that. I often find that when I’m in a new city, particularly if I’m being guided around it, I feel like a pinball bouncing around from one attraction to the next with very little sense of what is going on in the lives of the people who live there. Although the causes extend far beyond architecture, can you imagine ways in which architects could respond to this trend and in some way complicate it?

I had this very strange impression traveling to two cities – Warsaw and Montreal. They seem to be very different, but in fact what was interesting for me was a certain similarity between these cities in terms of how they demonstrate their cultural specificity. So, if you say in Warsaw, “I would like to see something Polish,” then you are sent to an area where only international tourists are. There is almost no Polish population there, because this is an historical part of the city that was restored after World War II and is completely artificial. It was a state project under communism at that time, but from the beginning it was made as a kind of artificial Jurassic Park of the Polish past. But now it is actually part of Warsaw where the tourists are sent. It’s the same in Montreal: if you ask about the French period of the city, then you are sent to a huge area which is artificially built over the last decades to create something like French cultural identity. So you have not only individual monuments but entire areas, and the people living in these areas are basically made to fit the gaze of international tourists.

How can you counterbalance that? Maybe by what many star architects are doing, basically building the same buildings all around the world. Then for the international tourists and the local population there are two trends occurring at the same time: one trend is localization, the other is updating the image. In general, it seems to me that a good word for the contemporary city and architecture is “updating”. Cities are updated in terms of their compatibility with international tourism, like you update your computer to fit your communication needs into contemporary communication systems.

We’ve discussed a few trends of this kind – not only to do with tourism but also the nature of virtuality and its relationship to the physical. I’m curious to know how you see these trends playing out in the future. Is it possible to forecast where these phenomena might lead?

I am bad prophet.

It’s not necessarily about prophecy. Part of this interview series is about thinking in a purely speculative way about the future of the city, so that people involved in architecture and planning might begin developing strategies to take advantage of or counter the prevailing trends of the present. I’m curious if, as a person who has rigorously considered and studied the present, if you have any thoughts on where we might be headed.

You know, all these processes that we’re speaking about are very much dependent on the global political context in which they take place. If we have a major war, it will change a lot of things. If we have a financial crisis that develops itself to a degree that requires a global answer, we will find ourselves in a different situation. My general opinion is this: whatever happens, it seems to me that we have two contradictions: one, as I’ve said, about software communist spaces and hardware capitalist means of production, but we also have a contradiction between international markets and economic agencies and local and national political agencies. We have economic internationalism and political nationalism, ultimately. Even though there are alliances and so on, still politics is national. I see that as a gap and, in the most general terms, virtual space, Internet, international tourism, international art, international architecture, all this is existing in that gap. You can say it another way by asking, Where are all these developments taking place? They are taking place in a gap between national political control and international economic activity. And that is a gap in which they develop projects that are something like imaginary political projects. The Internet, for example, is an imaginary political project, with its own forms of citizenship, communication, participation, and so on. But it does not have its own form of political power, so it is therefor imaginary.

So you have this kind of unaccounted international or, let say, transnational space. It seems to me that it’s inescapable that the political power will expand into this space. So I think we’re moving – maybe in a peaceful way, maybe in a more confrontational way – toward a soft or strong international political authority. If such an authority would appear, then some kinds of communist methods will be remobilized. So you will see the question of how to educate the population, how to plan activities in a centralized way, how to make the Internet more moral, more responsible, less dangerous, less criminal, etc. considered in a much more radical way. These questions are already there, but they will be reformulated in a radicalized form. It seems to me that it will go into some kind of more centralized planning, more centralized control, more political involvement, and more communist than it is now. That is my feeling, because I do not believe that this gap between international markets and national political authorities can exist forever. I think there will be attempts to narrow this gap, if not close it completely.

So you’re implying that communism basically amounts to greater state control, whether national or international?

You know, communist countries define communism in a very easy way: communism is a primacy of politics in relation to economics. That’s the idea: out of political considerations, you can control the economy and you can decide in which direction it goes. You have to have political authority to do that. It seems to me that, whether it is more or less confrontational, that is the direction. I think capitalism will be restricted and certain kinds of neo-communist, neo-socialist central planning on a global scale will be installed in one way or another. So, if I can make a prediction, that is my prediction.

Do you see that initiative coming from post-communist societies or from reforms in the west?

Both ways. I think the west is more and more nervous about being delivered to free-flowing international financial markets. Western states are in deep, deep financial debt, all of them. The situation in Europe is very unstable, financially and politically, because they organized this European Economic Community without central political authority. Now everybody sees that as an example as how you actually should not do it. On the other hand, you have Russia and especially China that are much more balanced because they don’t have these debts, they don’t have diminished authority, because they control the markets in a certain way. So, in general, I think there will be a tendency to put things under control – in the east and in the west. Everything is too chaotic, too uncontrollable and too dangerous. I think the states like these free flows less and less. You know, the Cold War was a time when political control all over the western part of the world was also pretty tight and well organized. Now we don’t have that. I think what will emerge is a search for international political order and global political control, and that will necessarily require the remobilization of certain socialist and communist projects. So, the communism comes back.

Originally published Domus China 46 (June 2010)