Anton Vidokle : When Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley, the curators of the 2016 Istanbul Design Biennial, told me the subject of the show—the question “Are We Human?”—I immediately thought of the writings of Nikolai Fedorov and other Russian Bio-Cosmists, and their ideas about the unfinished state of human evolution.

Cosmism is a little known intellectual and artistic movement that arose in Russia towards the end of the 19th century. At its base is a philosophy of immortality and material resurrection of every person who ever lived through technological means. Starting with Nikolai Fedorov, Russian Cosmists —whose ranks included numerous philosophers, novelists, poets, avant-garde artists, scientists, medical doctors, activists, revolutionaries, and many others—believed that the evolutionary development of humanity is far from complete, and that our main task is to evolve further, using our faculty of reason so as to become immortal ourselves and also to return all of our dead ancestors to life. Since the capacity of Earth to support this enormous resurrected and immortal population will be insufficient, Cosmists advocated the development of space travel, colonization of other planets, and human expansion throughout the Universe.

Bio-Cosmists advocated a complete reconstruction of society and human relations, as well as a metabolic reconstruction of our biological body in such a way that it can regenerate limbs and organs, exist without oxygen, derive energy directly from the sun like plants do, and also become androgynous or transsexual in the sense that the need for distinct genders and sexual reproduction would end once immortality and the resurrection of all previous generations became possible.

If this question “Are We Human?” was posed to Fedorov or any other cosmist, they would probably say no, because we have not yet perfected our design and have not overcome death.

Arseny Zhilyaev: Asking this question today is similar to asking the question of whether we still live under capitalism, or rather under something more horrible. In both cases, if we speak in 19th century terms it is possible to say: “No, we are not human in Fedorov’s terms, and we don’t live under capitalism as it was described by Marx.” One popular argument is to define humans as inherently insane creatures who want to violently impose their identity and limitations onto the rest of universe, and thus claim it is better for us to find altogether non-human ways of thinking and operating. In other words, the argument insists that we try to avoid being human altogether. But in my mind, this is a really tricky claim, not to mention endeavor. There is an interesting case, again from the nineteenth century, involving Russian revolutionary activists from the People’s Will movement (Narodnaya Volya in Russian), the vast majority of whom came from affluent, aristocratic backgrounds and were extremely well educated, yet nevertheless wanted to act on behalf of peasants and workers. Leaders of the People’s Will advised their members “to go to the people” in order to promote revolutionary ideas of liberation, which meant to live and work as members of the ordinary, oppressed classes. Their attempts failed completely. Peasants didn’t trust them and ended up helping the police arrest them. It seems to me that when artists today try to give voice to oppressed plants or try to act as non-human agents, they are being as naïve as these activists of the nineteenth century.

I think that it is only within our nature as thinking animals, with all our limitations, that it is possible to reach what could be called “real will” and a universal voice. This doesn’t mean that we should preserve human superstition, but rather the opposite: we should consciously plan to overcome the natural, social, sexual, and other limitations of our species. Fedorov was one of the first thinkers to advocate for this. For me, the main question here is who will take responsibility for this transition, for this permanent overcoming? To state intelligence services and corporations, we humans probably look like houseplants in need of cultivation and regulation. Because of this reality, I’d like to go back to Fedorov and develop more personal, or more properly human ways of speaking about our transformations.

For me one of the most intriguing questions for the contemporary artist who works with Russian Cosmism, or one who has an interest in reaching a non-human condition in art, is: Do you personally want to be immortal? Because for me, as a conscious event, death is one of the most crucial points of humanity. Can you personally imagine your artistic life without death or aging at all?

Anton Vidokle: […] I think everything depends on what we mean by artistic life, how we imagine it. On the one hand, an image of a zombified artist painting crapstractions for all of eternity is rather tedious. Fedorov, however, had a much more complex conception of art than simply the production of aesthetic or conceptual objects. The kind of eschatology, the horizon of life he outlines in his writings, seems to suggest that the ultimate work of art is to work towards the spiritualization of inanimate matter: a kind of a vast, animistic project of teaching the matter that makes up the universe to perceive, to feel, to think. Fedorov believed that the most unusual and significant quality of human beings is our capacity to feel, to understand, to think and to be conscious, and that this capacity has to be shared with all the matter that does not already possess it. I am not sure where this desire to animate the world comes from, but it’s not entirely unique to Fedorov. There is a kind of a shamanistic sensibility to the entire geographical region from Japan to Scandinavia, and Russia is very much a part of that tradition. So Fedorov, despite being a devout Orthodox Christian, felt it was our evolutionary responsibility to teach the cosmos reason, and that precisely this activity is the real work of art. How long would a work like that take? Probably an eternity… So from that perspective, immortality becomes a necessity and we should begin working on it immediately.

Arseny Zhilyaev: This sounds a bit new age…

Antond Vidokle: Yes, but we have to keep in mind that we are speaking of a very different sensibility, one that comes forward at the end of the Russian Empire, continues through the communist revolution and a number of wars, and actually results in a manned space flight and all that. So this is not like having a pet rock and hallucinating on peyote; it’s a kind of a materialist delirium that is both ultra-rational and totally fantastical. […]

Arseny Zhilyaev: […] I once discussed the ideas of Russian cosmism and resurrection with an artist friend, who was really resistant to them. “Why should I like the idea of resurrecting my father?” he asked. “There is nothing good in resurrection for all. Sometimes death is better than being alive.” Here is one more problem of Fedorov’s vision: Should we resurrect criminals like Hitler, or people who were simply tired of life and who may not want to return? And after all, how should old fashioned people feel after meeting people from a much more advanced species, with immaterial or transformed bodies? Will those older humans be able to find purpose in their new resurrected lives?

Anton Vidokle: This is a really interesting point. Clearly we can imagine many problems in mixing the older resurrected generations and their later, more evolved peers. […] I think one solution to this problem could be exactly what you recently suggested in Moscow—that various planets could be set up like period rooms in museums; there could be a planet populated by generations of people from the twelfth century, another planet for people from the early capitalist period, a stone age planet, and so forth… A population management system where people’s sensibilities are not invaded by sensibilities incomprehensible to them. The whole thing could be managed by artificial intelligence and everyone would be happy. Or it could be a total nightmare… When you described this type of organization, my initial thought was that we actually may already be living in this system now, and that the Earth is just one big period room within a universe-scale museum.

Arseny Zhilyaev: Yes, it’s possible to imagine an artificial intelligence in charge of universal life development, but why would it need humans? [… And]not everyone wants to be an object in a museum. Boris Groys speaks about Russian Cosmism as a curatorial project. If you can’t resurrect everyone at the same time, you will have to make choices, effectively forcing you to be a curator. […]

Anton Vidokle: I think artists are already at least potentially immortal. Similar to kings who are said to have both a physical body that can age, get sick and die, and a political one that is indestructible and is immortal (The King is Dead, Long Live the King!), artists probably also inhabit two different bodies. In this sense one could say that Duchamp or Dostoyevsky are as alive now as they ever have been, because their living presence in society extends beyond the death of their physical bodies. So in this way artistic process is always an attempt to overcome physical, mental or temporal limits; an attempt that most of the time does not succeed, but always has a potential to overcome death.

This is not exactly the kind of immortality that Fedorov had in mind. But I think this potential for immortal life through art is precisely one of the reasons art is so central to his thinking and why he refers to art so much in his writings, more than any other philosopher I know. Almost everything we know about the past is given to us through preserved artifacts: works of literature, poems, sculptures, drawings and paintings, decorative objects, architectural remnants, and so on. Inevitably this is what forms the contents of most museums. Fedorov’s universal museum, where he thinks resurrection will take place, is simply a radicalized, expanded and more inclusive version of the museums we have now.

As you say, the closest thing we have to a universal museum—a museum that preserves everything—is the internet, which also doubles as an enormous data collector used for anything from commerce to government surveillance. From this perspective, immortality or resurrection made possible through a vast surveillance mechanism sounds sinister. But I also think oppressive structures, like intelligence and security agencies, often don’t really realize the long term ramifications of what they are doing. The CIA thought they were resisting the Soviet Union by funding religious schools in Afghanistan, but instead they helped to create militant Islamism that later turned around and attacked America. So the NSA may think that they are collecting data to fight terrorism or control a population, but at a later time it may turn out that they were actually building an elaborate museum archive that will be used to resurrect people.

Arseny Zhilyaev: And what does this mean from your point of view for artists’ projects?

Anton Vidokle: […] The duration of any one artistic project might appear very short; it is difficult for me personally to imagine working on something for more than five or ten years at most. To some extent this must affect the degree of complexity of the projects people tend to undertake. I would be very curious to imagine what a work that requires several hundred years to make would be like, not merely in appearance but in conceptual scope. […] Arseny, if you had a few hundred years to dedicate to an art project, what would you do?

Arseny Zhilyaev: You know when you mentioned it, I felt like it is almost impossible for me to imagine such a long project as well. I consider my practice to focus on making experimental models that work to test possible political, aesthetic and historical scenarios by way of the viewer’s experience. Each new project has its own visual and conceptual language; they are completely different from one another. […]

But then I think that time is just the effect of the specificity of our universal setting. There is a new theory proposed by Australian scientist Joan Vaccaro that speculates about the origin of time. And according to her research, “T violation, or a violation of time reversal (T) symmetry, is forcing the universe and us in it, into the future.” A universe without this violation should be symmetrical in space and time, which means absent of temporal flow, of coherence. In such a world, time can be used in the same manner as space; each thing can only be in one place and one time. If you impose this model on art history, you would achieve the historical avant-garde’s demand for the radical independence of artwork from previous forms or even art history itself, a demand that consciously or unconsciously limits the production of even the most radical anti-narrative experiments. If scientists can make such models, why do we as artists limit our imagination to the historically known world of art? […]

But I feel that there is a serious tension between existing in both a space and time that forces humanity to go onwards in its development, and the possibility that we could just get tired and give up. In this case even the short life of contemporary art projects can be too long. What do you prefer Anton: to have all the time in the universe to do everything, or to have a limited time to do nothing?

Anton Vidokle: I prefer art without death…