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Today, there is often talk of a lack of alternatives, a crisis of imagination, and “defuturing.” Many believe that in order to escape the claustrophobic lack of alternatives of neoliberalism, one needs a new perspective that opens up possibilities for a better world. However, this appeal itself is not quite a new one. Humanity has been dreaming for centuries, longing for happiness, opening up possible worlds, building projects, scenarios, and utopias for the future. Throughout its long history, some of these world-building dreams have been realized and unexpectedly turned into terrifying dystopias. Isn’t this a good reason to look analytically back at the risky history of dreams themselves?
In this lecture, we will explore the demiurgic avant-garde art that emerged after the First World War. This was a time when artists indulged in grandiose fantastic projects and expansive horizons. Using examples from the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s, we will examine both the visionary and self-exploring, reflexive aspects of utopianism. Soviet poets, writers, and artists of that time sought out possibilities even in the most peculiar and seemingly insane projects, that violated the principle of common sense reality; simultaneously they explored the dangerous limits of their dreams, too.
In the first part of the lecture, the context of the time will be recreated, and some of the strangest projects of Soviet art of that time will be described – the search for God (богоискательство) and the construction of God (богостроительство), the search for an ideal cosmic language, the “aesthetic revolution” when art should penetrate into the everyday practice of millions, the liberation of animals and social engineering experiments with biological species, overcoming old age, uniting the proletariat through “blood brotherhood”, and more. The second part will focus on Russian religious criticism of utopianism (Fyodorov) and its traditions in the 1920s: the cosmism of Tsiolkovsky, the biocosmic project of immortality of Al. Svyatogor, and finally, the genius work of Andrey Platonov, which will be considered a laboratory for the ultimate test of all utopias.
Alexander Kiossev is István Deák Visiting Professor of Slavic Languages, The Harriman Institute, Columbia University. He is professor in History of Modern Culture and Director of Cultural Center of the University of Sofia. His research interests are in cultural history of post-colonialism, history of utopia and post-socialism. He published four books in Bulgarian language and was editor of many collective volumes in English and German; many of his essays are translated in English, German, French, Dutch, Ukrainian, Czech, Polish, Romanian, Serbian and Macedonian languages.
Image: © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum