‘(Ne)soveršennye teksty/(Im)perfect texts’:Trash Aesthetics and the Problem of Representation in Video Poetry of the Laboratory for Poetic Actionism
Post by Dorine Schellens
In a video-poetry project from 2011, the St. Petersburg artists Pavel Arsen’ev and Dina Gatina present a rather unusual interpretation of Andrej Monastyrskij’s poem “Dotted Composition” (“Punktirnaja kompozicija”). The viewer sees the verses written on run-down walls, discarded objects and damaged road signs, in other words, on garbage. Moscow conceptualism provides a powerful source of inspiration for the text-installations, poetry and video art created by Arsen’ev and Gatina, who together with the poet-cum-performance artist Roman Osminkin founded the art collective “Laboratory for Poetic Actionism” (“Laboratorija poètičeskogo akcionizma”) in 2010. The title of this contribution is a bit of a pun on the Facebook platform “Soveršennye teksty. Perfect texts”, a page dedicated to works from world literature and their authors, who, according to the bloggers, express “thoughts, feelings and anticipations” in a “perfect” (“bezuprečno”) way. As the example of Monastyrskij’s poem written on garbage already demonstrates, the Laboratory acts very much against the notion of the ‘perfect’ (i.e. pleasing or faultless) aesthetic expression. By making extensive use of trash aesthetics, the artists offer a re-interpretation of conceptualist poetry and performance art from the 1970s and 1980s, as I will show by taking a brief look at their video-poetry project “Dotted Composition”. For my discussion, I need to dwell for a moment on the content of the poem as well as on the concept and aesthetics of trash.
Andrej Monastyrskij wrote “Dotted Composition”, which he called a ‘Stimmungsgedicht’, in 1973. After he had completed the poem, he invited a group of fellow artists to record their impressions of the text in drawings (cf. Monastyrskij 2010: 70). This probably was no easy task. “Dotted Composition” consists of no less than 19 parts and 77 partially rhymed stanzas. Although we encounter recurrent motifs such as ‘wandering’, ‘nature’ and ‘death’, the poem offers no coherent narrative. Instead, each stanza develops its own small textual world of images, significations and intertextual references, which resists ‘logical’ interpretative efforts. Monastyrskij’s humorous play with language structures leads to a defamiliarization of conventional word meanings. In the following stanza, for instance, he rhymes the words ‘maroz’ (‘frost’) and ‘paravoz’ (‘steam engine’). Apart from the obvious sound association, the reader is left to wander about any further significance of this word pairing:
Медленный поезд Slow train
как прорезь [runs] like a cut
в жизни in life
по жизни through life
Паровоз. Stream engine.  (Ibid.: 71)
For their eight-minute video adaptation, Arsen’ev and Gatina selected approximately a third of the stanzas, which the viewer sees written on several pieces of discarded material, such as rusty traffic signs lying by the side of the road:
Мало Little стало left в дали: in the distance:
Ничего. Nothing. Ни меня. Neither me. Ни его. Nor him.
Это никому, This is for no one, и потом and then никому, for no one, и не брату, neither for your brother, и не свату, nor your father-in-law, и не мужу твоему. nor for your husband.
I propose that the artists make use of garbage to interpret the defamiliarization of conventional word meanings in “Dotted Composition” as well as the poem’s general resistance against attempts of ‘logical’ interpretation. Literary theorist Mikhail Epstein defines garbage as a “metaphysical category, indicating the presence of nothingness within the presence of material things; it represents something that is simultaneously nothing” (2010: 68). In a recent study, cultural theorist John Scanlan links the ‘indeterminate’ nature of garbage to language criticism. He argues that waste disrupts language as a system of representation, as it lacks clear symbolic referents: “And because ‘garbage’ does not strictly refer to an object, but is a jumble of inexactness, a disordered condition (in the metaphorical sense), or degraded husk of some former object, it seems to lack conventional symbolic referents […]” (2005: 16, italics in original). Scanlan underlines that garbage points out both the power and limitations of language as a system of representation (cf. ibid: 10). “The language of garbage”, he argues, “the various terms that point to residues, remainders, and so on – is difficult to pin down. This is for the very good reason that its utterances refer to the excrement of meaning itself” (ibid.). To a certain extent, therefore, garbage defies representation.
Let us now return to the two stanzas cited above. The combination of image and text suggests that the narrator is struggling to pin down the nature of the discarded objects, resulting in a long list of negations. Garbage is “Little/left/in the distance” and no longer of use to anyone: “Nothing./Neither me./Nor him.//This is for no one”. In the closing scene, the video explicitly links the thrown-away objects to the problem of linguistic representation: “but we should/not speak of it”. The last verses therefore seem to echo Wittgenstein’s notion that we should remain silent about the things we cannot speak: “Life is coming to an end./The music/is about to stop,/the tongue*language/no longer obeys.”
А мы живы But we are глубоко, deeply alive, а мы сшиты and we are широко, broadly stitched, только все only all потеряно, is lost, а говорить but we should не велено. not speak of it.
Где я? Where am I? в непогоде. in bad weather. Жизнь Life на исходе. is coming to an end. Музыка The music кончается, is about to stop, язык the tongue*language заплетается. no longer obeys.
By making use of trash aesthetics, Arsen’ev and Gatina succeed in translating the strategies of defamiliarization in Monastyrskij’s poem into visual images. In a talk held at the symposium ‘Sublime Imperfections: Imperfection and Trash Aesthetics in Russian Modern and Contemporary Art’, I argued that the link between ‘imperfection’ and ‘representation’ does not just hold linguistic, but also strong political implications for the Laboratory for Poetic Actionism. An examination of their work therefore provides valuable insight into the connection between imperfection, language theory and contemporary Russian protest culture.
 Natalja Fedorova has been the first to comment on the importance of Moscow conceptualism for the LPA’s work. Cf. Place 2012.
 All translations are mine.
 The video is available under https://vimeo.com/22888731
Anonymous: “Soveršennye teksty. Perfect texts.” URL: https://www.facebook.com/perfecttexts/?fref=ts [last visited on 05/01/2017]
Epstein, Mikhail (2010): “The Philosophical Implications of Russian Conceptualism.” In:
Journal of Eurasian Studies 1, 64-71.
Laboratory for Poetic Actionism (2011): “Punktirnaja kompozicija.” URL: https://vimeo.com/22888731 [last visited on 14/12/2016]
Monastyrskij, Andrej (2010): Poètičeskij sbornik. Vologda.
Place, Vanessa (2012): “Conceptualist ostranenie: A Dialogue between Derek Beaulieu (Canada) and Natalia Fedorova (Russia).” URL: https://jacket2.org/commentary/conceptualist-ostranenie-dialogue-between-derek-beaulieu-canada-and-natalia-federova-russ [last visited on 19/01/2017]
Scanlan, John (2005): On Garbage. London.