The Bioaesthetics of Evgenii Iufit

By Thomas H. Campbell (Yale University)

[pdf version]

The professor cynically congratulated himself on taking his pleasure from behind, but the offspring always turned out to be runts and wents, bits and pieces, if not stupid vulgarizations. (Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) [1]

Introduction. Coinages in Search of Meanings

The folly of the project I outline here is aggravated by the fact that I am not entirely sure what is meant by one of the words in the title of my essay. [2] What is bioaesthetics? The current online editions of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia Britannica don’t offer any clues, and a Google search [on December 8, 2005] yields a mere 372 entries . When we examine the scant scholarly literature, we find utter terminological confusion: “bioaesthetics” is (usually vaguely) applied to everything from the cutting-edge body art of Stelarc to state-of-the art dentistry; from Chris Ofili’s dung paintings to the functionalist marketing theories of Wroe Alderson ; from a line of skin-care products to a new trend in literary studies that takes evolutionary biology as its conceptual model. [3] “Bioaesthetics” is also invoked by those engaged in the larger (essentially conservative) project to reunite the “two cultures” of the physical sciences and the humanities. [4] Given this varied, contradictory but apparently fashionable interest in “bioaesthetics,” it is not all that surprising, then, that the creators of the Internet role-playing game Big Ideas, Grand Vision should list bioaesthetics among the religions practiced by its imaginary tribes of outer-space colonists.

My focus, however, is the bioaesthetics of Petersburg filmmaker Evgenii Iufit. To readers who are familiar with Iufit’s unique cinematic experiments, an apparent contradiction immediately comes to mind: what would the founding father and (to all intents and purposes) sole remaining viable practitioner of necrorealism have to do with a bioaesthetics? As José Alaniz and others have persuasively shown, Iufit and his band of hooligan filmmakers, painters, actors, and performance artists were only part of a larger trend, in late-Soviet and post-Soviet society and culture (a trend also exemplified by Iufit’s more well-known contemporary and erstwhile mentor, Aleksandr Sokurov), characterized by an obsession with death and dying, with the moribund and the corruptible—that is, with all the categories suggested by the very name necrorealism. [5]

According to legend, Iufit himself did not know what he meant when he coined the term necrorealism. The neologism occurred to him, allegedly, during one of those freewheeling, frenzied gatherings of young would-be artists and out-and-out n’er-do-wells and punks that were an important part of perestroika-era Leningrad second culture, the culture that produced such phenomena as the counterculture Diaghilev and painter Timur Novikov, the band leader and media trickster Sergei Kuriokhin, [6] the cult film ASSA (Sergei Solov'ev, 1988), and the pop band Kino. Charmed, no doubt, by the aptness of the coinage (especially given what the surrounding social and physical landscape would have looked like to someone of Iufit’s age and sensibility during the early 1980s), Iufit, both solo and in collaboration with creatures who bore conspiratorial codenames like Tsirkul' (“Compass”) and Mertvyi (“Dead Guy”), has spent the last twenty or so years filling in the contents of the artistic movement he conjured into existence on a whim. [7]

The product of a whim or not, necrorealism has been interpreted as a barely allegorical manifestation of total social collapse and anomie, of the hypercharged atmosphere of cynicism and doubleness acutely diagnosed by Berkeley anthropologist Alexei Yurchak among members of “the last Soviet generation.” [8] Local witnesses and the necrorealists themselves concur on necrorealism’s sociohistorical genesis. Aleksandr Borovskii, head of the State Russian Museum’s contemporary art department, calls the necrorealists “flesh of the flesh of homo soveticus,” while necrorealist showman Iurii “Compass” Krasev admits that “necrorealism [was] a product of the age.” (Mazin, 42) And, as Ellen Berry and Anessa Miller-Pogacar argue, in their seminal essay on the movement, in a “society known for chronic shortages of those things the body craves most: bread, alcohol, tobacco, affection [sic],” it was no wonder that “[p]ure idiocy, the Soviet equivalent of panic boredom” erupted everywhere. [9]

While all these reflections on the reasons for necrorealism’s appearance seem well grounded in what we know about the ignominious end of the Soviet Union and the affective states it engendered, I would like to map Iufit’s works onto another—also, bioaesthetic—conceptual model. This model by no means excludes the kind of sociohistorical causality I have sketched just now. If anything, the model I propose here—what I call the biopolitics of necrorealism—helps us to see how his films allegorize not only the catastrophes of a totalitarian society, but also the world system that undergirds capitalist societies. The coordinates of this system help us to locate our own post-historical age of dominant neoliberalism as much as they did the dead ends of “actually existing socialism.”

This world system is known as biopower or biopolitics. A regime of “power/knowledge” (a sociopolitical structure and discursive formation), it arrives, in rudimentary form, with the advent of modernity—as the “disciplinary society.” [10] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri define it as

[A] form of power that regulates social life from its interior. [...] Power can achieve an effective command over the entire life of the population only when it becomes an integral, vital function that every individual embraces and reactivates of his or her own accord. [...] Biopower thus refers to a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself. [...] Power is thus expressed as a control that extends throughout the depths of the consciousnesses and the bodies of the population—and at the same time across the entirety of social relations. [11]

Such seemingly disparate recent events as the war on terror, the Terry Schiavo case, and what Giorgio Agamben has dubbed the “biopolitical tattooing” of foreign visitors to the US demonstrate that biopower has only become more tenaciously entrenched in the daily life of postmodernity. [12]

The philosophers who have constructed a critique of biopower are well known: Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Giorgio Agamben, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. What is less often recognized is the contribution to this critique on the part of artists. Prominent among these are William Burroughs and Andy Warhol, who was not without influence on the large coalition of young Leningrad alternative artists known as Novye Khudozhniki (the New Artists), which included Iufit and the necrorealists. [13]

Iufit employs the elements of this critique both as thematic content and as device. Some of the peculiarities of his films—especially his mature, feature films, which I have elsewhere called his “Crackpot Evolutionary Theory” trilogy —seem less peculiar when we view them as aesthetic responses (rather than mechanical, symptomatic reactions) to our common biopolitical conjuncture. I organize my own analysis here around keywords borrowed from Foucault, Agamben, Burroughs, Warhol, and Deleuze and Guattari. These keywords—discipline, surveillance, the viral, the nomadic, bare life, automatism—denote the principal vectors that emerge when the state and its discourse make war on the human and its body. [14] I will show how these categories manifest themselves as the leitmotifs and devices of Iufit’s films, as well as within the practices of the alternative arts community from which he emerged. I will then discuss how Iufit construes his own bioaesthetics—especially in his later films—as an allegory of contemporary society and its inability to come to terms with the contradictions and dead ends of its own recent history and present impasses. The madness and stupefaction experienced both by Iufit’s characters and by the viewers of his films is a symptom of this paralysis. The contemporary artist and the delusional, narcissistic subject of postmodern life are both situated, as it turns out, at the point where bare life and automatism intersect. Iufit’s films serve as an aesthetic map of the biopolitical, but at the same time his allegorical rendering of this map indicates the limits of its ability to illuminate as well as of its power to liberate.

Intermezzo. The Biopolitics of Necrorealism

The most obvious necrorealist emblem of biopower and the way it inscribes its discipline on bodies is the fantastic, spike-studded experiment chamber, constructed by the scientists in Silver Heads (1998) to effect the symbiosis of man and tree. This powerful (and powerfully funny) emblem is multilayered. In it, we see combined a parody of the Russian spiritual and aesthetic attachment to trees; an allusion to the tree as a symbol of hierarchical organization (as opposed to the Deleuzian rhizomatic “an-organization” represented by the film’s renegade mutant “Z-individuals”); a reference to trees as the source of the paper that the textual component of the state’s authoritative discourse is printed on (in this sense, the scientists turn their bodies into parchments for the state’s word); and the tree as the phallus, the transcendental signifier. For Iufit’s scientists, discipline entails masochistic, orgiastic submission to the phallus—as figured by the wooden spikes of the chamber, which penetrate their “docile bodies” from all sides. (This enthusiastic yielding up to transcendental authority is also exemplified by the apeman’s ecstatic coitus with a birch tree, at the end of Killed by Lightning.)

The motif of the heroic (Soviet) scientist, sacrificing himself in the name of scientific progress and the welfare of a future humanity is a familiar one, found in films such as Nine Days of One Year (Mikhail Romm, 1961) and countless socialist realist novels. The ultimate absurdity of this sacrifice is prefigured, already in the Thaw era, in The Unsent Letter (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1959). It is rudely dirempted in Iufit’s “diploma” film, Knights of Heaven (1989), whose heroes perish on a military-scientific expedition of earth-shaking importance whose goal is never specified, and in Silver Heads, where the selfless pursuit of a (literally) chimerical end leads to melancholy and suicide. This mythologized enchantment of sacrifice is the libidinal investment required by discipline, by the administrative, bureaucratic, institutional aspect of (gerontocratic) power. (Power as geronotocracy is figured by the chief scientists in Bipedalism and Silver Heads, played by actor Nikolai Marton.)

The mad scrumming, frolicking, slapstick chasing and fighting that appear, in one form or another, in Iufit’s and other necrorealist films might be imagined as rebellion against the regimes of discipline. In some ways this is true, of course: the early, pre-cinematic “experiments” in public performance carried out by the necrorealists were obviously meant as a parody of the Soviet cults of aestheticized discipline—of heroic exploits, athletic feats, and beautiful (workers’) bodies—and thus as a provocation of their sometimes accidental audiences of innocent bystanders. The sheer repetitiveness of these physical gestures and sequences suggests, however, that discipline has overfulfilled its plan to the point that bodies writhe from sheer overcharging. Necrorealist counter-discipline tends to ossify into a meaningless but nevertheless decipherable sequence of poses, such as the signature mostik (the Russian equivalent of the American “crabwalk”), which in the early films and performances almost seems to function as a mating call. These poses act as overloaded signs: they stand for the body shot through and buffeted by the disciplinary field of force as much they do for the abject body that persists even after history and culture have had their way with it.

In the original screenplay for Killed by Lightning (2002), this sense of the unfettered corporeal and the abjectly biological as a counterforce to biopolitical discipline is given a parodic twist. The heroine, a female scientist, theorizes that homo sapiens is an evolutionary glitch that nature has attempted to correct by introducing a super-species—homosexuals. She sets about collecting the blood of homosexuals (who are murdered for her by her zombified husband, an ex-submarine captain) in order to design a perfected creature whose existence will not threaten the biosphere. “Criminals, sadomasochists, and homosexuals,” she explains, “are the strongest beings. They have turned their backs on a repressive [social] order, they have surmounted the barriers of a counterfeit morality, they are free from the burden of self-analysis.” [15]

As a complement to discipline and as a means of enforcing it, the state depends on surveillance. Surveillance is, first of all, a territorializing gesture, a means for the state to create a “milieu of interiority,” (Deleuze and Guattari, 352) to define itself by defining its absence, its exterior. Within this interior, the state strives to establish a condition of “conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”(Foucault, Discipline, 201). In Iufit’s films, the mode of surveillance is figured in the multiple camera eyes and other recording devices used by his artist- and scientist-heroes, and in the misappropriated newsreels and manufactured experiment footage Iufit includes in his montage. Cinema itself is a means of spectacular control, one of the ways that the state represents itself to the population in order both to legitimize its political and discursive acts and to demonstrate the kinds of selves it wants the population to emulate. As imagined and practiced by Iufit, then, cinema is less an art than it is a technology for documenting the successes and failures of the state’s experiments in “eugenics.”

This biopolitical utopian project becomes the object of obvious parody in Silver Heads, Killed by Lightning, and Bipedalism (2005). The attempts by the scientists in these films to create a hardier human species result only in ridiculous failure, in the apparently unwanted generation of frolicking Z-individuals, homicidal-homosexual proletarian sailors, and train-robbing bipeds; in beings who dwell on the margins of society, in forests, submarines, and the “anomalous zones” around bridges, power lines, and railroad tracks. (These are the places where the chief scientist, in Bipedalism, tells the search party to look for the escaped hybrid bipeds.) The experiments are not total failures, however—as the chief scientist in Bipedalism puts it: “The new people are already a reality.” In its effort to colonize ever-larger regions of life and thus maximize its productive and administrative capacities, the state (that is, capitalism) creates subcultures whose members behave suspiciously like Iufit’s cinematic mutants—that is, like Iufit, the necrorealists, and the other New Artists in their glory days as unreconstructed punk artists of life. The results of these experiments in aesthetic and behavioral marginalism are then recuperated and commodified as new trends in lifestyle, fashion, design, entertainment, and habitation. [16] Iufit’s films—and the products of avant-garde art in general—can thus be seen as surveillance reports (like the “Report No. 51” we see throughout Bipedalism)—from the bioaesthetic frontlines. [17]

The rock musician Swine crowned Iufit the Lenin of the punk movement, a man with the power to infect those in his orbit with his psychosis. (Mazin, 45.) For William Burroughs, language and culture were viruses, the avant-garde of an alien conspiracy whose goal was the control of humanity and our planet. [18] This infrahuman and infradiscursive level—the viral—is present in Iufit’s films, explicitly and implicitly. In Killed by Lightning, the submarine captain and his crew succumb to the contagion of man-man love and fratricidal murder, while the Z-individuals in Silver Heads infect all with whom they come into contact with their back-to-nature, alogistical ethos. More broadly speaking, (pre)historical culture is imagined by Iufit as a virus that never ceases transmitting its incoherent but irresistible code into the present, thus making it almost unlivable. The decaying newsreels and experiment footage that the artist finds in the cellar of his country house in Bipedalism are the celluloid realization of this viral sequence. The past, whether primeval or Soviet, endeavors to reproduce itself endlessly, inducing alternating bursts of extreme lethargy and unmotivated frenzy in the visual and discursive fields of Iufit’s films.

Deleuze and Guattari assert that “nomads have no history; they only have a geography.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 393.) Indeed, both Iufit’s films themselves and the early practices of the necrorealists provide a graphic illustration of what the French thinkers call the nomadic. The necrorealists and their allies in the New Artists movement deterritorialized urban space, injecting mayhem into it via the squats NCh-VCh (“AC/DC”)—right under the surveilling gaze of the city’s KGB headquarters, the so-called Bol'shoi Dom (the “Big House”)—and Pushkinskaya-10. [19] They also engaged in an indiscriminate harvest of the forms and signs of both serious and popular culture, thus turning it into a simulacrum of nature. [20] During this same “heroic” period, the necrorealists were cultivating the anti-state virtues of tupost' (obtuseness), bodrost' (vigor), naglost' (insolence), muzhestvo (courage), and matërost' (“tough-guyness”) through a way of life that favored such activities as “fun trips to the countryside, mushroom picking, fishing, outings to the circus and the zoo,” and, most important, “merrymaking” (vesel'e) in the form of massive simulated fights (draki ponaroshku). [21] It is precisely this form of bioaesthetics, of life-as-art (zhiznetvorchestvo), that prompted José Alaniz and Seth Graham to call the necrorealists a “rural fight club” (Alaniz and Graham, “Early Necrocinema,” 9).

If, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, “[e]very thought is already a tribe, the opposite of a State,” (Deleuze and Guattari, 377) then the nomadic lines of flight effected by the necrorealists echo other retreats in Russian culture—by Cossacks and Old Believers, by turisty (Soviet camping enthusiasts) in the 1950s and 1960s, and by members of Collective Actions, whose conceptualist rituals during the 1970s and 1980s took place in the forests outside of Moscow. Like the Collective Actionists, the necrorealists fancied themselves “ambulant scientists,” whose “minor science” was advanced through “experiments” in the production of collective cognitive dissonance. During one such experiment, alongside a commuter railway line in the suburbs of Leningrad in 1987, two necrorealists, their pants down around their legs and their heads wrapped in bandages, simulated anal sex, while a larger group of their comrades staged a brawl behind them (Mazin, 120).

The zombies, Z-individuals, and neo-primitives of Iufit’s films seem to be nomads par excellence, a pack of wily creatures whose persistence stands as a permanent rebuke to the statist logic of territory and discipline. Viewed less positively, they also seem to dwell in Agamben’s “state of exception,” the zone where the full, irrational foundational violence of the sovereign/state is brought to bear on the homo sacer, the man who (in Roman law) is not deemed worthy of sacrificial punishment, but who can be murdered by anyone with impunity. Agamben contends that, in the modern world, this state of exception has now become permanent and ubiquitous. His concept bare life is a formulation of the way that legal subjecthood and citizenship has now revealed itself for what it always was—a fiction. [22] We all are potential outlaws, liable to detention in camps and sudden extermination. For our own alleged safety, we are subjected to total surveillance; for the health of the species, we are infiltrated by “technologies of the self” and managed from without by “political techniques” of population control. [23] The health of the population (rather than the commonwealth of citizen-subjects) can and does give rise to everything from the new American “culture of life” to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib; from NATO’s humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia to Auschwitz. Much of the mock violence in Iufit’s films—homicidal, suicidal, sexual, scientific—manifests this state of humanitarian terror both literally and metaphorically. [24] It is easy to see why this filmic message can often produce both resentment and stupefaction in audiences both in Russia and elsewhere, especially when, as in Iufit, it is obtusely transmitted by images of naked men pursuing each other through the woods.

The inverse of the passage to bare life is the exposure of social and cultural life as automatism, as mechanism. Just as Andy Warhol famously expressed his desire to be a machine, [25] the machinic and the automatic are strong undercurrents in Iufit’s work. The typical necrodenizen is a kind of wind-up robot, executing its simple programming. Iufit’s cinematic practice underscores the machinic status of cinema and culture in general, producing endless variations on the same motifs, themes, and images. If history and culture are virus-like in their transmission, so too are they like faulty but indefatigable machines, like the loop-to-loop tape recorder that spins pointlessly at the end of Bipedalism, or the science-film beavers who groom themselves interminably at the beginning of The Wooden Room (1995). [26] The newsreel footage in Bipedalism is the visible trace of the machinic code that continues to administer life in the present, reanimating the eugenics project, initiated by the artist’s father, as “gene-therapy” and an “investment opportunity.” The status of contemporary culture as the always-already happened, as automatic anachronism, as endless mechanical repetition, as broken record, was revealed after one of the screenings during the Iufit retrospective at the 2005 Rotterdam International Film Festival. Two middle-aged Russian women came up to Iufit to express their shock that he was still alive and that Bipedalism wasn’t a product of the 1930s. [27]

Conclusion. Iufit’s Bioaesthetics as Allegory

Even the stupefied necro-viewer will have noticed a preoccupation with scientists and theories of human evolution in Iufit’s mature films. In part, his sudden turn to “respectability” in the post-El'tsin era—to a simulacrum of narrative and plot, to characters with strange albeit recognizable motives—parodies the explanatory apparatus proffered by those critics who saw in early necrorealism a mechanical reflection of late-Soviet and post-Soviet social decay. It is almost as if the psychiatrist who diagnosed the necrorealists as necrophiliacs and sadists on the perestroika-era TV program Fifth Wheel had been incorporated into Iufit’s necro-world to do combat with its insane denizens by imposing a discursive straitjacket on them, by performing experiments on them (Mazin, 50, has a description of the TV psychiatrist’s livid reaction to necrocinema). Iufit’s obsessive pursuit of these “scientific” themes indicates, I would argue, the pursuit of a more complicated reflection on damaged contemporary life. This involves an overcoming of the alleged sociopathological origins of necrorealism and an unconscious working through of the biopolitical paradigms I have just described. When seen in this perspective, Iufit’s entire body of work—his bioaesthetics proper—stands as a thoroughgoing albeit cheerfully obtuse allegory of the social, political, psychological, artistic, and critical dead ends of the present day.

The obsession with “evolution” exhibited by Iufit’s characters is always linked, in the first instance, with questions of personal identity and selfhood. In their attempt to improve on feeble homo sapiens by creating a hybrid between man and tree, the trio of foolhardy scientists in Silver Heads use themselves as test subjects not only out of a misplaced suicidal altruism, but also because they hope to create better selves. Filmed during a period when the streets of Petersburg teemed with people sporting buttons bearing the Nutra Life slogan—“Want to lose weight now? Ask me how!”—Silver Heads thus stands as a comic warning. Such “technologies of the self”—whether weight-management or “arboreal eugenics”—conceal a desire to leap backwards into prehumanity or forwards into posthumanity, to escape the all-too-human contradictions of the present.

In Killed by Lightning, the female scientist’s radical theory of evolutionary reversibility and discontinuity is bound up with the mysterious disappearance of her father, a submarine captain. He and his crew were overcome by a form of collective insanity, characterized by pubescent homoeroticism and homicidal violence. It is the heroine’s dim, nightmarish intuition of this real personal history, recollected and mythologized by the younger self who narrates the film, that spurs her early interest in evolutionary biology and forms the emotional basis for the fantastic theory she constructs as an adult. Similarly, in Bipedalism, an artist unwittingly stumbles upon the solution to the dark mystery of his childhood: he discovers that his father was the central figure in a Soviet-era eugenics program known as the Bipedalism Project. The goal of this project was to recreate, in laboratory conditions, the primeval natural catastrophe (a sudden solar eclipse caused by an asteroid crash) that, allegedly, shocked contemporary man’s simian ancestors into standing upright. [28] The artist-hero is driven mad by guilt for his father’s sins and by what seems to be his psychic connection with the project’s present-day errant ape-man hybrids. The seepage of past enormities into the idyll of the present is triggered by his unwitting purchase of his childhood country home, where his father had been continuing his tests unauthorized before his arrest by the NKVD and the hero’s removal to an orphanage. We are led to wonder whether the artist might not also be a product of the eugenics experiment, given his affinity for the natural world and his work as an animal painter.

Before he sets off either to join or to destroy his biped half-brothers, the artist leaves his wife a tape-recorded message in which he utters a mysterious phrase: “What changes never disappears” (To, chto meniaetsia, nikogda ne ischezaet). We might imagine that the artist has the monstrosities of evolution—whether naturally selected or “bipedally” engineered—in mind, especially given what he has just discovered about his own parentage. His dictum, however, is oddly reminiscent of something Boris Eikhenbaum once wrote: “In history there is never any repetition, simply because nothing ever disappears but only changes shape.” [29] Just as state and capital move out from the confines of politics and the economy to make all of “life” their domain, so too, in the regime of biopower, in reaction, our efforts at understanding where and who we are often collapse into “biologisms,” which are themselves a variety of pseudo-scientific mythology. The proper study of history deflates into identity politics (at best) and lifestyle choices (at worst). Hence, in the present-day Russia that Iufit inhabits, a Russia that was only a decade ago submerged by the floodtides of historical revelation and resurrection, the racialist and geopolitical obscurantism of such thinkers as Lev Gumilev and Aleksandr Dugin enjoys immense popularity. Russian “exceptionalism” (just like the American commitment to “freedom”), thus, becomes a matter of nature, not of man-made past history and present policy. Like the genetic code, history-as-nature can merely be recorded or (at most) reshuffled to create “hardier” hybrids, never rejected as a misreading or recognized for what it is—a social realm fully amenable to our collective wills and affected by our individual actions.

It might be objected that Iufit’s evolutionary tall tales are all too easily read as straight-faced OBERIUtesque reflections on the excesses of the Soviet period, that their allegories are there for the taking on the surface of the films. Iufit himself is, on the contrary, notoriously reluctant even to admit to this much meaning. [30] Two moments are more significant, however. First, the effort to remember is experienced by Bipedalism’s artist-hero and Killed by Lightning’s scientist-heroine as hallucination, nightmare, and psychic paralysis. Second, their quests for identity takes place in a chronotope that I would call a post-Stalinist past-perfect tense—a present tense, that is, where the signs and shapes of the past reduce the present itself to near-phantom status. Because the technologies of biopower, as visualized in this chronotope, are invariably outmoded, obtrusive, clunky, always on the verge of ruin, and the disciplines are portrayed as forms of extravagantly slapstick suicide, a kind of factory hands-ballet of self-destruction, we could argue, as chief necro-critic Viktor Mazin does, that Iufit’s necrorealism is a colossal work of late/post-Soviet mourning and melancholia. While this is undoubtedly the case, melancholia—at least, Iufit’s cinematic version of it—can also been as a deliberate retreat from present-day contradictions. The failed effort to remember the past anxiously masks an unwillingness to see the present.

A stronger reading of Iufit’s bioaesthetic essays is required, then, to reveal them as allegories of the present. Such a reading would begin by asking, for example, who are the bipeds, “grandpas” (dedy), Z-individuals, zombies, and other neoprimitives who roam the necrorealist landscape. First of all, as we have seen, they are the necrorealists themselves: under Iufit’s direction and with help from critics and curators, they have narrativized a liberatory “body art” that was hardly distinguishable from hooliganism. Nevertheless, this art was quickly theorized as a healthily unhealthy physiological reaction to the triumphantly failed and unhealthy attempt to breed the new Soviet man. And just as necrorealism was picking up curatorial steam and sending TV psychiatrists into fits, Vladimir Bortko’s TV version of Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog (1988), another fable of hybridization gone awry, was winning critical acclaim. What no one seems to have noticed—at least not in connection with Iufit’s misfits—is that the “new people [were] already a reality.” The reality generated by these new people—products of a Soviet biopolitics whose aims, if not outcomes, were wholly consonant with the aims of American consumerist technocracy—is, of course, the present era of institutionalized organized crime and the “redivision of property” (peredel sobstvennosti), a time of “primitive accumulation” and low-scale civil war that has been abetted by the military and police, and whose considerable gains are now being recuperated with such gusto by the state and its patrons. Iufit recasts this contemporary reterritorialization as a pastoral, part of whose obtuse genius is to obscure its clear message in buffoonery and Tarkovskii-esque cinematic environmentalism. In Iufit’s and Igor' Khadikov’s original screenplay for Bipedalism, for example, the bipeds are being trained by their military-scientific minders to carry out a bank robbery. In the finished film, this bank robbery plot survives only as an illegible trace: the bipeds instead wage a senseless campaign of terror against trains, bridges, and power lines, while only the double presence of necrorealist actor Aleksandr Anikeenko, who appears both as a secret-services “suit” and a footloose bipedal, reminds us of the genetic and practical connection between the forest “brotherhood” and state power.

Where is the place of the subject—the artist and scientist, the “creative” and “technical” intelligentsia—in Iufit’s filmic world? The bare life (figured, obtusely, by men with bare butts) and aggressive nomadism of the early short films seem, as Iufit’s career has progressed, to have faded into the background. For example, the Z-individuals appear in Bipedalism as a group of “nudists,” barely visible on the other side of a pond. In similar fashion, the real-life bandits of yesterday appear more and more as the perfectly harmless villains of new Russian TV serials. The foreground has been seized by “normal” characters and, more remarkably, a kind of Iufitian “heroine” has materialized, in Killed by Lightning and Bipedalism. These heroines even provide the “logos” of the films, the voiceover narratives that frame the action. Most bizarrely, for hardened necro-viewers, Bipedalism treats us to a strong, “happy,” nuclear family. Perhaps this is a reflection of Iufit’s newfound status as husband and father; perhaps this also serves as an allegory for the forced return to patriarchal values and the “need” for a “strong hand” in the real country in which the film was made. All this family happiness and cinematic feminism is an illusion, however. The artist’s attempt to secure a country idyll—with the prize-money he won for his service to the state as a painter of insects (!)—crumbles when he realizes that his entire identity and the house he wants to rebuild are founded, literally, on the biopolitical terror whose skeletal and cinematic remains he finds in his basement. His delectations of the simple pleasures of dacha life, amidst the unearthing of this truth, look more and more like escapism. His endless and identical crude sketches of his future studio take on the outlines of a prison, a cognitive map of our political powerlessness, our capture by our biopolitically generated desire to “just live” and not to act.

The center of Iufit’s map of biopower, then, is not occupied by a subject who surveys and controls the comic nightmare unwinding around her. Rather, the subject—be it a female scientist, concerned housewife, artist, or art house film-viewer—is nothing more than the product of the flows and these “striations” of social space, as Deleuze would have put it. It is this insight—into the true origins of the present crisis—that drives the hero of Bipedalism mad.

*****

Foucault concludes his essay on biopower with the weary reflection that “[t]he irony of this deployment [of sexuality] is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance.” (Foucault, History of Sexuality, 159). The irony of the ephemeral utopian moment in Leningrad’s second culture, a culture in which Iufit has played a prominent role for the last two decades, is that the liberating energies it released were so quickly rechanneled as commerce, its nomadic lines of flight so precipitously taken by the powers-that-be as guidebooks for the privatization of experience and space. And in fact, the history of how bohemian liberation and capitalist reaction managed to be on the same side in post-Soviet Petersburg is a history that remains to be written.

In this post-utopian moment Iufit’s work is increasingly coming to be seen, in Russia, as a node of aesthetic resistance. Bipedalism prompted one viewer to comment: “After a film like this, you begin to feel you have the right to live and even hope for something,” [31] while before a recent screening of The Wooden Room, Mit'ki artist Viktor Tikhomirov told a packed house of mostly twenty-somethings that Iufit was the only “decent” (prilichnyi) filmmaker in Russia today (Rodina movie theater, Saint Petersburg, 14 December 2005).The feeling of hope and decency emitted by Iufit’s films might have something to do with his independence—that is, first of all, with his determination to make compelling works of art on a shoestring budget, without state funding or substantial support from big-name producers. I would argue, rather, that we should seek the source of their power in Iufit’s stubborn hearkening back, materially and technically, to a cinema that, while it might not have been less innocent, was more confident in its ability to think the world, to “decode reality,” as Vertov put it. Deleuze asserts that “[c]inema’s concepts are not given in cinema[;] [a]nd yet they are cinema’s concepts, not theories about cinema.” [32] The biopolitical concepts I have mapped here onto Iufit’s films are not his concepts. It is testimony to his power as an allegorist—which is all that the true artist ever really is—that his films so cheerfully and stubbornly resist the strictures of the troubled place and time they describe so accurately. It is precisely in this sense that Bipedalism’s double ending is not a fantasy of escape, but a material reminder that authentic living and hoping require a thought and an art that are immune to their counterfeits.

 


Notes

1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 1987): 42.

2] An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 2005 Pittsburgh Russian Film Symposium (May 2-7, 2005), as part of a graduate student panel entitled “Frenzy and Folly: Madness in Russian Cinema.” I want to take this opportunity to thank the organizers and staff of the symposium—Professors Nancy Condee and Vladimir Padunov, their graduate students Alyssa DeBlasio, Julie Draskoczy, Michele Kuhn, Gerald McCausland, Petre Petrov, and Tim Schlak, and their interpreters Anton D’Auria and Masha D’Auria—for their extraordinary hard work, generosity, and hospitality.

3] On Stelarc: Peter Ulrich Hein and Maria Eva Hein, “Human, mutant, machine. On the relationship of body cult and genetic engineering,” New Genetics and Society 19.3 (2000): 323. On dentistry: Website of the OBI Foundation for Esthetic Dentistry. On Ofili: Divya Tolia-Kelly and Andy Morris, “Disruptive Aesthetics? Revisiting the Burden of Representation in the Art of Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare,” Third Text 18.2 (2004): 159-60. On Alderson: Stephen Brown, “Reading Wroe: on the biopoetics of Alderson’s functionalism,” Marketing Theory 2.3 (2002): 249. On skincare products: website. On evolutionary biology in literary studies: Jonathan Gottschall, “The Tree of Knowledge and Darwinian Literary Study,” Philosophy and Literature 27 (2003): 261.

4] This project is best exemplified, in recent times, by the biologist E. O. Wilson; see his Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (NY: Knopf, 1998). Wilson refers in passing to bioaesthetics in chapter ten of this book, where he discusses the capacity for artistic creation and innovation as an evolutionary adaptation of the brain.

5] See José Alaniz, “Necrorama: Spectacles of death and dying in late/post-Soviet Russian culture,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2003; and José Alaniz and Seth Graham, “Early Necrocinema in Context,” Necrorealism: Contexts, History, Interpretations, ed. Seth Graham (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Russian Film Symposium, 2001), 5-27.

6] Kuriokhin’s own form of bioaesthetics was displayed in the infamous 1991 TV lecture in which he “proved” that Lenin had turned into a mushroom. For a description of this lecture, see Alexei Yurchak, “Nochnye tantsy s angelom istorii: kriticheskie kul'tural'nye issledovaniia post-sotsializma,” 15 .

7] For an account of the origins of necrorealism, see Viktor Mazin, Kabinet nekrorealizma: Iufit i (Saint Petersburg: Inapress, 1998): 21-53.

8] On the “cynical reason” of the late-Soviet period, see Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2006).

9] Ellen E. Berry and Anesa Miller-Pogacar, “A Shock Therapy of the Social Consciousness: The Nature and Function of Russian Necrorealism,” Cultural Critique 34 (Fall 1996): 197.

10] The classic account is, of course, Foucault’s; see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, (NY: Vintage, 1995): 135-228.

11] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000): 23-24. Again, the first definition of biopower was ventured by Foucault; see Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, (NY: Vintage, 1990): 135-159.

12] See Giorgio Agamben, “No to Bio-Political Tattooing,” Le Monde (10 January 2004).

13] In 1985, the New Artists sent Warhol some of their works. Warhol famously replied with a gift of autographed cans of Campbell’s Soup and copies of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. For a recent account of this exchange, see Ekaterina Degot', “Uorkhol gazoobraznyi, Uorkhol zhidkii, Uorkhol tverdyi,” Afisha 22/66 (24 November 2005): 42-43. According to Degot', the Leningrad artists ate the soup—while carefully preserving the autographed soup-can labels.

14] The conceptual apparatus I use in this essay is the collective labor of the members of Professor David Joselit’s spring 2005 graduate seminar at Yale University, “Towards a Bioaesthetics: Burroughs, Warhol, Deleuze”: Courtney Martin, Daniel Barber, Frida Rosenberg, Harriet Salmon, Imo Imeh, James Moore, Jennifer Stob, Jennifer Sorkin, Kristi Kent, Sara Stevens, and myself. The keywords in my essay are borrowed from the “cognitive map of sovereignty” we constructed at the end of the seminar. Our map takes the form of a semiotic square of the biopolitical field. The contraries and contradictions arising from the interactions between the master concepts state (discourse) and human (body) generate the sides and diagonals of the square, which we labeled with terms made meaningful by the “bioaesthetic” philosophers and artists whose theories and work we examined in our seminar. I take, however, full responsibility for the “misuse” to which I put our labors in this essay.

15] Nataliia Skorokhod and Evgenii Iufit, “UBYTIE MOLNIEI (stsenarii polnometrazhnogo khudozhtvennogo fil'ma s ispol'zovaniem motivov proizvedeniia Edgara Allana Po ‘Ubiistvo na ulitse Morg’),” Kabinet: Kartiny Mira II, ed. Viktor Mazin (Saint Petersburg: Skifiia, 2001), 371-72. The anti-disciplinary “gay resistance” has taken a peculiar shape among alternative artists in late-Soviet Leningrad and post-Soviet Petersburg. Whether in their guises as the Club of the Friends of Maiakovskii, or as decadent neoacademists and savage necrorealists, Petersburg’s aesthetic “rear-garde” (the coinage is Mikhail Epstein’s; quoted in Berry, 186) has engaged in a conscious performance of “gayness” as a device to provoke its local and foreign publics and to create corporate identity. See Thomas H. Campbell, “Homosexuality as Device in Recent Petersburg Art,” an unpublished paper delivered at the 2004 national conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (Boston, Massachusetts, December 2004). Early on, Iufit was given the role of monster within this faux “gay artists” community, as New Artists chief conspirator Timur Novikov and others spread legends about his rough-trade predilections. See, for example, the interview with Timur Novikov and Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev, transcribed in Viktor Tupitsyn, “Drugoe” Iskusstvo (Moscow: Ad Marginem, 1997): 301-309. Novikov explains that Iufit “used to pick up drunks who were hanging out in the alleyways. He’d get them so loaded on vodka that they’d pass out and then he’d fuck them in the mouth” (302).

16] The co-opting of Leningrad alternative culture has become particularly intense in the last several years, as the alternativshchiki’s own middle-age tendencies toward retrospection unhappily combine with the nostalgia of the Kulturträgers in Putin’s “managed democracy” for “authentic” culture. This tendency is particularly well represented by government-run Petersburg Channel 5. In programs such as Cultural Layer, A Week in the Big City, and A Fashion for Everything, the perestroika-era bohemian cultural opposition is declawed (often with its own semi-cheerful consent) and presented for consumption by the general public. In this respect, it is telling that magazine and newspaper articles and TV reports about a recent retrospective of Iufit’s films (Rodina movie theater, Saint Petersburg, 27 November-25 December 2005) invariably refer to Iufit as having become “respectable” and “part of our history.” See, for example, Sergei Polotovskii, “Vse umerli: nekrorealizm v formate 35 mm,” Delovoi Peterburg (2 December 2005): 12.

17] In a similar vein, David Joselit argues that 1970s American conceptual art incorporated elements of (self-)surveillance. David Joselit, American Art Since 1945 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003): 171. Boris Groys also links recent trends in what he calls “art documentation” with the transition to a fully biopolitical regime. Boris Groys “Iskusstvo v epokhu biopolitiki: ot proizvedeniia iskusstva k dokumentatsii iskusstva/Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation,” bioMediale: Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture, ed. Dmitry Bulatov (Kaliningrad: National Center for Contemporary Arts/Iantarnyi Skaz National Publishing House, 2004): 164-177.

18] See, for example, William Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (NY: Grove Press, 1967), as well as the other novels of his “Nova Mob” trilogy; see also Joselit’s analysis of the viral in the context of Burroughs’s prose technique and artworks; David Joselit, “Burroughs’s Virology,” Art in America, November 1996: 94-99.

19] For a brief history of the artists’ squat movement in perestroika-era Petersburg, see Andrei Khlobystin, “Skvotskaia zhizn': Istoriia kapremontnykh khudozhestvennykh masterskikh Leningrada-Peterburga 1980-90kh godov,” Novyi Khudozhestvennyi Petersburg, ed. Oleg Leikind and Dmitrii Severiukhin (Saint Petersburg: Izdatel'stvo imeni N. I. Novikova, 2004): 101-120.

20] For a discussion of the totally semiotized late-Soviet “urban jungle” inhabited by the New Artists, see Mikhail Trofimenkov, “Nezavisimoe iskusstvo: starye i ‘novye’,” Molodezh' i problemy sovremennoi kul'tury, ed. Sergei Dobrotvorskii (Leningrad: N. K. Cherkasov State Institute of Theater, Music and Cinematography, 1990): 59-62.

21] For a description of these virtues, as theorized by necro-painter Vladimir Kustov, and their realization in practice, see Mazin, 71-85. Curiously, the necro-virtues parallel the “negative” qualities of the “man of war” (in Deleuze and Guattari’s account, the nomad’s double), as seen by the state: “stupidity, deformity, madness, illegitimacy, usurpation, sin.” Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus, 354.

22] See Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998); and Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2005).

23] These are Agamben’s formulae for what Foucault calls “the administration of bodies” and “the calculated management of life.” Foucault, History of Sexuality, 140.

24] Agamben’s zone of bare life is reminiscent of two aesthetic/narrative models that also serve as apt descriptions of Yufit’s necrorealist space—Deleuze’s “originary worlds” and Bakhtin’s “chronotope of everyday life.” The naturalistic, formless settings of Deleuze’s “impulse image” cinema, originary worlds exist somewhere between the neo-Platonic “any-space-whatevers” of the “affection-image” and the realistic “determined milieux” of the “action-image”; they are populated by “human animals” seized by a “special kind of violence” that, in some cases, is indistinguishable from “radical evil.” Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Athlone Press, 1986): 124-25. Bakhtin describes the chronotope of everyday life as “the nether world, the grave, where the sun does not shine, where there is no starry firmament.” At its heart is “obscenity, that is, the seamier side of sexual love, love alienated from reproduction.” Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981): 128

25] “I want to be a machine, and feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do”; quoted in G. R. Swenson, “What is Pop Art? Part I,” Art News, November 1963: 26.

26] As the director of such essays in non-action as Blow Job (1964) and Empire (1964), Warhol might not have influenced Iufit directly, but Iufit’s kindred fondness for cinematographic longueurs, for scenes which “create the impression that, on the other side of the lens, the cameraman has simply dozed off,” is apparent. Sergei Dobrotvorskii, Kino na oshchup', (Saint Petersburg: SEANS, 2001): 83.

27] “Priamokhozhdenie v Rotterdame,” Cine Fantom Week 4/16 (16 February 2005): 4.

28] The plot of Bipedalism is loosely based on the inglorious career of Soviet eugenics pioneer Il'ia Ivanov. For a possibly apochryphal account of his life, see Paul Stonehill, “Half-Human, Half-Ape,” FATE Magazine, April 2005.

29] Quoted in Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972): 97.

30] See, for example, “Ia rezhisser, ia kino snimaiu, filosofiiu ne budu rasskazyvat'” (16 February 2005).

31] Quoted in Lev Pirogov, “Priamokhozhdenie Evgeniia Iufita”.

32] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989): 280.

Thomas H. Campbell© 2006

Updated: 26 Jan 06