THR: A PLAY UPON THE LOST FUTURES OF RUSSIA
‘History would be a wonderful thing - if only it were true’ Leo Tolstoy
There is an often quoted passage in the essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ by the early twentieth century German theorist Walter Benjamin, in which he reads the figure portrayed in the Paul Klee painting ‘Angelus Novus’ as the ‘angel of history’. He describes the angel caught in the winds of time, blown into the future but facing the past. It is often imagined that the angel is blown in one direction, in a straight line of progress, but perhaps it is more appropriate to imagine him dragged over the surface of our planet in the complex patterns of geo-historical dynamics, and over Russia at least, caught in all kinds of eddies, cyclones and tornados. Such at least, was the experience of Derailed Lab on its summer 2016 expedition along the Trans-Siberian railway from St Petersburg to Vladivostok, where we found evidence of multiple lost futures, estranged pasts and dynamic presents, all active across the Russian landscape.
Derailed Lab had been founded earlier that year by Jon Goodbun and Raluca Cirstoc as a research vehicle which would use a series of very long distance journeys – along with art and design methods and practices – to experience, explore and document the geopolitical forces, spaces and times which shape the contemporary world.
Over the course of three weeks a group of fourteen artists, architects, designers and writers travelled 10,000km from the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Japan on the longest train ride on this planet, in an attempt to perceive a section through the contemporary world, and the ways that global capital is re-organising landscapes, cities, cultures and people.
We had seminars with anthropologists at the European University of St Petersburg, the descendants of constructivists in Moscow, robots in Perm, Buddhists in Ulan Ude and gamblers and economists of various kinds in Vladivostok. Just as importantly we met travellers, technicians, engineers, train workers, soldiers and vendors of various kinds.
Periods of intense working, compression and collectivisation combined with expansive moments, long walks and new readings. The train journey became the laboratory in which we recorded our thoughts thorough writing, drawing, filming. There were seminars, discussions and performances. The carriage was an ideal observation post from which to witness changes in landscapes, societies and selves, as the heterotopic and strangely metropolitan spacetime of the train moved through the landscapes of the Siberian summer of 2016.
Having previously presented our reflections upon this expedition at the Strelka Institute in Moscow through a large scale drawing-performance, in this new work Derailed Lab has re-imagined the Trans-Siberian railway as a trans-historical space-time machine, and has designed a strategy game to explore the parallel histories – both really-existing and counter-factual – which co-exist in this territory.
The design of the game was itself a play, a method for us to reflect upon our experiences and as a tool to test ways of thinking about geo-historical forces and actors. The railway itself was born out of a Tsarist imperial spacetime, and this nineteenth century technology co-evolved with the revolutionary constructivist architectural experiments of the twenties and thirties, which punctuate the towns and cities along the railway, and which suggest an alternative future that still haunts us today. The Stalinist palaces built later in the twentieth century - both underground and overground - project a neo-classical timelessness of sorts, while the recent anxious developments of Putin’s Russia now agonises alongside the memories of these and all kinds of other spaces, temporalities and modes of existence.
The exhibition and game were conceived, organised and produced by Raluca Cirstoc and Jon Goodbun together with Joseph Brennan, Cosimo Campani, Miranda Dixon, Edith Fung, Lydia Karagiannaki and Myung Lee. Thanks also to fellow expedition travellers: Joanne Garner, Lisa Mandemaker, Kamonnart Ongwandee, Josephine Sweeney, Abbie Vickress and Jozef Wardynski.
With special thanks to: Grad Gallery, London, European University, Sank Petersburg, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Promobot, Perm, Aleksandr Lavrentiev, Stroganoff Institute, Moscow, Pavel Kuznetsov, Melnikov House, Moscow.
We are especially grateful to Strelka Institute, Moscow, and the Institute of Light, London for hosting us.