Can we say that the October Revolution was not really about socialism and communism, but about “immortalism and interplanetary-ism” as the Cosmists claimed in 1922? Do we have to rewrite history?

No, I don’t think so. The Bolshevik Party, which planned the October Revolution, was a strictly Marxist organization that pursued very specific political goals. Yet the transition from the old to a completely new order awakened hopes among many intellectuals and artists to redesign life radically, even to the possibilities of living in cosmic space. They dreamed that humans would no longer rely on sexual reproduction but reproduce by means of technical procedures, that we would no longer have to rely on sleep and that we’d also find a way to remain young forever. It was an era of reactivation of these not-so-new hopes and it all intensified in a historically unique way.

You selected about fifty works owned by the Greek art collector George Costakis for your exhibition at HKW. Can you tell us something about this selection?

I was always interested in the second phase of the Russian avant-garde. The 1920s are particularly interesting to me in this context because they’re neo-figurative and complex, and also because, during this phase, art integrated social realities in and of itself. Interestingly, there are many works from this period in the Costakis Collection. This is probably because Western museums tended to overlook them, as they didn’t conform to the canonical notion of abstract art of the avant-garde. Perhaps this is why many works of this phase remained in Costakis’ homeland, Greece.

The works I chose from the Costakis Collection move along the boundaries between abstraction and science fiction. For example, the Red Light by Ivan Kljun (1923) could be understood as a purely abstract form – like a planet in the cosmos. And some works are direct representations, for example, of cosmic devices, cosmic journeys, or of the Resurrection painted in the constructivist style of the Russian avant-garde. 

Let’s talk about individual artists in your exhibition. I’d like to know more about Solomon Nikritin.

I consider Solomon Nikritin one of the most interesting Russian artists of the twentieth century, comparable to Andrei Platonov in literature. He has an incredible ability to be enthusiastic about things and at the same time, ironically, to distance himself. For example, the two black squares he appropriated from Malevich, this is the sort of thing you don’t find until the 1960s in an American context. Strictly speaking, it’s more radical than American minimalism.

In the 1930s, Nikritin was accused of formalism, a highly dangerous accusation at that time. He wasn’t allowed to exhibit in the Soviet Union until his death in 1965.

The Soviet artists’ association used one of Nikritin’s paintings, The Old and the New of 1935, to set an example. Coincidentally, the short report of Kurt London’s discussion of the image was published in the West. Throughout the Cold War, it was the most important document about the ideological discussions relevant to Soviet art. Nikritin, therefore, has great historical significance. In Russia, however, he is best known for another painting he made in the 1930s, People’s Court. It is the most famous image, one that evokes the atmosphere of the show trials. A very dark picture. So, Solomon Nikritin is very diverse, very complicated and very interesting.

Gustav Klutsis was arrested in 1938 and then shot shortly thereafter.

Klutsis underwent the same evolution as everyone else in the context of the Left Front of the Arts [LEF], Rodchenko for example. Klutsis was very talented, and later, some of the socialist realist artists copied a number of his photo collages in paint. His arrest and execution was not because of his art, it was due to his political connections; he became involved in the campaign to eliminate party opposition.

In your book Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin, you describe how the ideas of the Russian avant-garde could become totalitarian art under Stalin, which triggered some debates. Could it be that your position has become a bit milder in Art without Death?

I think that was all a big misunderstanding back then. I was never critical of the Russian avant-garde; it always fascinated me. The point I was making was that artists no longer wanted to limit themselves to the production of certain objects; that they began to shape the contexts in which their works circulated. For me, the [Russian] avant-garde stands for the expansion of the artistic will to the outside world. I didn’t see that critically, but more as inevitable. I also don’t think that it was a wrong turn, but more as the only one possible.

Of course, we must also consider the consequences of this will, for example the attempt to unite political and artistic power. That was the art of the 1930s: the Stalinist era. After the Second World War, this development was again limited to the art scene. Yet, the processes that began in the 1910s and 1920s are still having effects today, even if they no longer possess the same virulence. It would be absurd to criticize something like that. It would be equally absurd to criticize art itself. It was just the way things happened. And that’s exactly how I tried to describe it.

Back to the ideas of the Cosmists. In George Orwell’s 1984, he writes, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Orwell certainly parodied it elegantly. He describes a society in which the past constantly gets rewritten. It’s a repetitive process. What the Cosmists wanted, though, was a revolution. A re-volution, a turning back, but a one-time turning back, so that the future would be shaped by the entire reconstruction of the past.

How does anything new come into a world where only the past is restored?

The new doesn’t come into this world. The new is only a sign of evil infinity. The new is something demanded by the market at best. I’ll talk about that at the HKW conference, about how, for Buddhists, absolute enlightenment lies in the power of self-birth. Perhaps you’re aware that in many Buddhist sects, absolute enlightenment reaches those who at the moment of copulation choose the couple that later gives birth to them through this act? They thereby become ancestors of themselves. And the ancestors of their ancestors. That’s the idea. The power to produce oneself by transforming the world that produced you, so that what you want comes about in the end.

Today, are we perhaps closer than we realize to the ideas of Nikolay Fyodorov, who was close to the Cosmists? Many transhumanist ideas don’t strike me as dissimilar to those of Cosmism: Improving humans through technology, uploading our consciousness to machines, or freezing the human body for a future where medicines are improved. Were the Californian transhumanists familiar with the Russian Cosmists?

Yes, of course. Fyodorov was translated into English; Alexander Chizevsky was available in English. The social sciences and economics adopted both of them. For me, however, the transhumanist movement doesn’t seem revolutionary today. That’s an important difference. The dream of bringing the past back to life is un-American in the extreme, and not observed in California. Moreover, this whole development seems to be more fantastic than plausible, at least presently.

In what way?

Because there is one crucial ontological limit here: If you buy a computer, it won’t be useful in two to three years’ time, because technology develops so rapidly. Therefore, if you imagine the creation of a transhumanist being, that being will be obsolete in two to three years’ time. We’re living in an era where the speed of innovation and the obsolescence of these innovations have almost converged.

To stabilize this process so that we could consecutively update the human would mean controlling the next generation. But every generation thinks their parents are nitwits. The whole of today’s political, economic, social and technological system no longer contains a promise of continuity, which would be fundamental for such an enterprise.

The same goes for museums. When the Cosmists speak about the museum, they mean a permanent collection. But permanent collections have almost disappeared today. Museums have become a stage for different, changing events. We’ve entered an age that no longer promises continuity. As Walter Benjamin rightly said, you need a revolution to stop progress. Then you can start a continuous project. But without a revolution, things don’t look promising for transhumanism.