At Escape Velocity We’ll Move to Another Observation Point[1] / Maria Veits

The last Soviet citizen was cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who was witnessing the collapse of the USSR from space. Unable to return home in July 1991, as initially planned, after 10 months in orbit, on March 25, 1992, he eventually landed at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in already autonomous Kazakhstan and ended up in a different world where his country didn’t exist anymore. Instead of the Soviet Union, there had been 15 independent countries and even his hometown of Leningrad had been returned its initial name – St Petersburg. The usual order of the Soviet system that seemed everlasting, crumbled overnight, and even though it was somewhat expected, it was nevertheless shocking [Yurchak, 2006].

Similarly, in 2020 US astronaut Jessica Meir and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka found themselves in new conditions upon arrival on earth on April 17, after 7 months in space. The global pandemic not only has deteriorated economic processes, set new communication routine, and established restriction of movement, distancing and touch. It has also largely affected major political structures and social institutions, unveiling their obsoleteness, fragility and systemic violence embedded into them so deeply that we had stopped acknowledging it. Starting as a global health issue, COVID-19 has quickly catalyzed chronic long-neglected world problems of equal access to healthcare, domestic violence, racial and class privilege and shaky right to the future for those who aren’t lucky enough to have it. Very quickly we had to adapt not only to the new normal but also to start embracing the fact that we need to reconsider our very vision of normality and the ways it’s presented in the media, arts and education.

Accompanied by the recrudescent colonial space ambitions that unfold amid the state of emergency,[2] the expanding strain of racism, xenophobia and misogyny enhanced by the virus outbreak brings back the discourse of ’unwanted’ and ‘prevailing’ race, gender, and class of the Cold War era. Far from being overcome, this returning rhetoric of inequality and dispossession fueled by capitalism, augmented borders and growing digital control obtains new layers of meaning and calls for additional reflection and readdressing the political realities that it had formed in. Describing collective interest in the violent events of the 20th century and earlier times, memory researcher Aleida Assman states that «this burden of the past still weighs heavily on the shoulders of the present, demanding attention and recognition, urging the taking of responsibility, together with new forms of remembering and remembrance» [Assman, 2013]. The past indeed seems very present, when it comes to the questions of social reproduction of inequality and consistent hatred: despite the de jure segregation ban in 1964, structures of systemic racism are still incorporated in all levels of the sociopolitical fabric in the US. As for Russia, after the collapse of the USSR, it inherited «the double-faceness of the Soviet discourses [that] combined an external ideological lack of racism and its constant internal presence in the actions of the Soviet empire and its citizens» [Tlostanova, 2013], that together with enforced Russification eventually led to erasing cultural memory and history of whole peoples. Clearly, state racial politics of the two Cold War opponents of the space race were also embracing most economic fields and spheres of knowledge, including the space industry: it was very hard or almost impossible for non-white or ethnically ‘unwanted’ people to join the space program. If they managed to do it, it was either that their «otherness» was silenced (like Soviet Jews among Soviet cosmonauts) or their contribution was long invisible and intentionally non-recognized (Black engineers in NASA). Being excluded from the field that symbolized progress and future also meant exclusion from overall political imaginary and impossibility to be taken to the future on conditions of equal engagement and full inclusion.

At the same time, the future as a sociopolitical project and cognitive concept, alongside the linear paradigm of historical narrative, was very deeply rooted in collective thinking and promoted through channels of education and propaganda. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the utopian idea «found its place in the imaginary museum of ‘futures past’» [Assman, 2013] and the hope for progress and development was replaced by feeling of concern and disappointment. Slow cancellation of the future described by Mark Fisher as a state of belatedness and deflation of expectations [Fisher, 2014], accompanied by slow violence caused by our impact on the planetary resources [Nixon, 2011] and technological development would suggest that the future would be somewhat predictable but not necessarily positive, mostly continuation of the present that is also far from being bright.

The pandemic has brought the future back – multiple predictions and speculations communicated through the social and regular media show that it has become a platform for projecting fears, hopes and dreams, for searching new ways of living. Suddenly we have faced the situation when we will have to re-draft future scenarios together and start training our collective political imaginary again, using new vocabulary that would reframe and re-articulate our notions of history, hierarchy, race, gender, inclusiveness, political memory, dominance of historical narratives and state ideologies. Discussing the possible aftermath of the virus on the global state of affairs, Arundati Roi suggests we look at the pandemic as a portal, a gateway to the next world, imagined anew [Roi, 2020]. We can enter this portal either with the intention to reproduce the same violent discourse and cartography of power or we can enter it with little luggage and ready to fight for the new world. Seeing the monuments symbolizing colonialism and white supremacy going down could be a step towards this portal – but only if this overthrow of the traumatic and painful past is analyzed, contextualized and mediated from a variety of positions, including counternarratives and viewpoints of the subaltern and invisible histories, that had been long ignored by the dominant historical and ideological narratives. Otherwise, ghosts of unreflected and under-dethroned fallen monuments tend to come back[3].   And activists, researchers and historians can hardly do this difficult, mindset changing job alone – artists, curators and other cultural workers, who might not always have a direct impact on the political processes, can alter the way people see and shift their usual lens by resisting the oppressive narratives imposed by the totalitarian and oppressive governments [Amin, 2016]. Artistic strategies of unpacking inconvenient knowledge could be used now to attune the mechanisms of revisiting history and its linear imperative. Updating the discursive approach of difficult pasts and introducing non-hierarchical terms and concepts that would be based on principles of care, solidarity and equality would help forming and describe a more just and inclusive future. If the aesthetic sphere has always been able to articulate the possibility of another way of life, maybe the joint efforts of artists, activists, curators, and museums could help the world grope a portal to leap into tomorrow, which will be different from today.

 

References:

Amin, Heba Y. 2016. Towards a Spatial Imaginary, Walking Cabbages and Watermelons. ibraaz.org. July 5, 2016.

Arundati, Roi. 2020. The Pandemic is a Portal. Financial Times, April 3, 2020

Assman, Aleida. 2013. Transformations of the Modern Time Regime. In: LORENZ, Chris, ed. and others. Breaking up time: negotiating the borders between present, past and future. Göttingen [u.a.]:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, pp. 39-56.

Fisher, Mark. 2014. Ghosts of My Life. Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester: Zero Books.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tlostanova, Madina. 2013. Post-Soviet Imaginary and Global Coloniality: a Gendered Perspective (Madina Tlostanova).

Yurchak, Alexei. 2006. Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton University Press, 2006.

[1]The title  is paraphrase of the song Escape Velocity (2010) by «The Chemical Brothers».

[2] On May 30, 2020, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX launched its first manned flight called Demo-2 becoming the first private company to both place a person into orbit and to eventually dock a manned spacecraft with the ISS. Further, the launch was the first time since the end of the Shuttle Program that an American Astronaut has been launched from the USA on an American rocket.

[3] After the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, where First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s in his «Secret Speech» denounced the personality cult and dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, the monuments of Stalin across the country were eventually dismantled. It was initiated by the state and was done quietly so it didn’t spark a massive public outcry. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, together with the communist ideology, there were destroyed thousands of monuments of the former Soviet leaders, who had represented the Soviet state and its legacy. During Putinism, when the figure of Stalin again started to gain authority as an ‘effective manager, who won the WWII, his new monuments and busts started to appear in smaller towns across the country.