2014, HD video, color, sound, 28’10”
Drawing from Nikolai Fedorov’s belief in death being an evolutionary mistake, Anton Vidokle’s This is Cosmos is the first in a trilogy of films, “Immortality for All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism,” which retraces the roots and influences of the Russian technological utopian movement “Cosmism.” Shot across various locations of the former Soviet Union and with John Cale’s (mixed by Carsten Nicolai) soundtrack, the film considers the historical, philosophical, political, and religious influences of Cosmism on society and culture.
Liam Gillick: A number of things are striking about the film. The first is hearing you speaking Russian. It is you, isn’t it? It is an interesting decision that has implications for how non-Russian speakers get to hear the text’s fragments and quotes in their original language.
Anton Vidokle: Yes that’s my voice. The first version of the film was actually recorded in English, also using my voice. I wrote the script in English. The film was actually premiered in English and then I changed this. It was a deliberate decision, which happened rather late in the process. I am still surprised by this decision because it complicates the circulation and reception of this and the other two films, and even though Russian is my first language, I don’t think I’ve ever made any works in Russian until now. I did this mainly because in the process of working with this material and reading the writings of cosmist authors, I noticed that the language itself is very peculiar. Firstly there is a very particular sound, rhythm, and syncopation to it that I like a lot. And although Russian does not come across to me as an archaic language and is extremely modern, it does not borrow many Latin roots. I guess that even beyond Romance languages, most contemporary Western languages, like English, have Latin as a certain foundational base, which also reflects a certain historical presence of the Roman empire and all that. The roots of words and meaning construction in Russian rest on something else: very old Slavic words, Byzantine, Mongolian, Persian influences and so forth. It’s a totally different soup of ingredients and ways to put them together to create meaning. Some of this comes across almost like spells or incantations rather than normal speech. There are many words and notions that simply do not translate to English, or become flat and uninteresting when translated because they lose their specific references and connections to other words. I think I understand much better now why artists of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde were so keen to play with language: there is something very unusual with how easily it opens up to various forms of estrangement and a kind of mutation of meaning. So I wanted to try to work with this.
LG: The music is also extremely important for me. How did you work with Carsten Nicolai?
AV: The music is by John Cale, mixed by Carsten for the film. It’s an early recording that Cale did in Texas in 1965, produced by Tony Conrad. Its called Sun Blindness. As far as I know it has no direct connection to Cosmism (other than the Sun in the title), but experimental and electronic music was something that many amongst the Soviet avant-garde were interested in, starting with Victory over the Sun, written by the painter Mikhail Matyushin, who was interested in synesthesia, fourth dimension, etc., and was quite aware of Nikolai Fedorov and other cosmists. After the Revolution you get the Theremin and particularly the ANS synthesizer—created by engineer Evgeny Murzin—, which was eventually used to record music for Solaris (1972), etc. Carsten has been interested in this and did a lot of research into electronic instruments. He also worked with John Cale’s music previously so it was very natural to collaborate with him on the sound for the film.
LG: There are important visual intervals between the spoken parts that give space for reflection—to take in the extraordinary ideas of Fedorov. What was the editing process like? How did you get the timing right? And what was the order of filming? Was the entire thing heavily planned? Or did you arrive and start looking for the right situations to carry moments for thought?
AV: The intervals are there because we did not use professional actors but regular people: a taxi driver, a store clerk, some kids, etc. None of them could remember lines so when we filmed them speaking, I read the sentences to them and they simply repeated them after me. Then in the edit we cut out my voice, which left these strange gaps or pauses. I liked the strange, unnatural timing this created and cut my voiceover in a similar way. This also determined the pace for the picture edit, music, and everything else.
There was not much of a plan. I actually didn’t really know what to film. There was a text I wrote, which is the voiceover, but no real script. It was kind of ridiculous. I traveled with a film crew for a month or so and shot several hundred hours of material. Most of it was totally useless and peripheral because there was no object to film: it’s like making a film about radiation—it’s invisible and does not register on film. But you can probably show its effects on plants, animals, people, etc. It’s a bit like a crystal stopper: there are all these facets that reflect the surrounding world, but what is in the center is invisible. So it was a nightmare to edit this material, it took almost two years and made me feel like a total looser: I really did not think I could make it. Then it just came together by itself.
LG: There is a film within a film. Tell me about the 360-degree cinema and what we are seeing there?
AV: Yes, it’s a 360-degree film from the 1950s. A number of these films were made with a special camera for panoramic cinema at VDNH (a kind of a vast amusement park in Moscow of various industrial, scientific, agricultural and other showcases of the USSR economy that Stalin commissioned in the 1930s.) This cinema was a Nikita Khrushchev era project, launched around the same time as the 1959’s American exhibition in Moscow with the Buckminster Fuller dome and the Eames multi-screen films of American highways, and all this modernist futuristic stuff. There were several theaters similar to this, at the Disneyland for instance. I think now only the Moscow cinema still remains. It’s very beautiful.
LG: At the end of the film you talk about the way the Russian Revolution was connected to Fedorov’s ideas. Is this pure speculation on your part?
AV: Yes its speculative, although Cosmism reached into the very center of the Bolshevik party: Alexander Bogdanov, its co-founder alongside Lenin, was a Cosmist. Trotsky was also exposed to these ideas, as well as quite a few other leading figures. Actually a lot of early Russian communists and revolutionaries were not exclusively Marxists and it wasn’t very unusual for a commissar to also be a member of a masonic lodge, an anthroposophist or some other esoteric society—things were very fluid and everything seemed possible... This ended when Joseph Stalin took over.
LG: What was the reaction to Fedorov in his time? Was his writing well known and specifically his writing on Cosmism?
AV: Fedorov did not publish almost anything during his lifetime, in part probably because he was genuinely a modest person who worked as a librarian for most of his life. But I also suspect that he did not want to risk being excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox church: he was a devoutly religious person, but his ideas are completely heretical because he proposes human-made immortality and resurrection which supersedes the essential dogmas of the church: god, divine providence, the last judgment, etc. However, despite not being published, his ideas were circulating among the intellectual elite, and figures like Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Soloviev, and many others, were in communication with him and were well aware of his work. His first collection of essays was published a few years after his death, in 1907 in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The edition was less than 500 copies and had an inscription that it’s not for sale, which is kind of unusual.
LG: I can’t tell if you have a critical relationship with him or are mesmerized by the concepts. Your interview with Hito Steyerl on the subject is so ambiguous.
AV: I also can’t tell… it’s a bit of both. I think what interests me is maybe not so much a personal desire for immortality and resurrection, or even space travel, but the kind of perspective that opens up if you imagine a society organized around these main organizational principles. So much in our society is based on reproduction, death, transfer of property, on being subjected to gravity, dependence on food, oxygen, and so forth. These conditions determine literally everything. So it becomes interesting to try to imagine things differently, which is what Cosmists do in thinking, art, certain life choices… because conditions can change and evolution is something ongoing.
A film by Anton Vidokle
Camera: Marcello Bozzini
Editing: Meggie Schneider, Anton Vidokle
Music mix: Carsten Nicolai
Script: Anton Vidokle
Based on writings by Nikolai Fedorov
With text excerpts and poems by:
Cast: Iman Musa Kulmohhametov & Svetlana Lyahova
Music: John Cale, Sun Blindness Music 1965
Sound mix: Joschen Jezussek
Color grading: Patrik Metzger
Voiceover recording: Ilja Köster
Field sound recording: Tisha Mukarji
Typography: Alan Woo
Funded in part by: Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow
Special thanks to:
Brian Kuan Wood