Perverting the Power Vertical:
Shapes and Styles of Subversion in the (Trans-Socialist) Global East
Venue: 4 Morwell Street, First Floor Back, Projective Cities Studio.
This talk draws its core ethnographic material from fieldwork on architectural aesthetics and contemporary art in Warsaw and Moscow. It deploys the notion of the Power Vertical – a term used by political scientists to refer to Vladimir Putin’s brand of post-Soviet authoritarian governance – as a conceptual pivot. What are the aesthetics of the Power Vertical? Are they resolutely upright and ostentatious, like Moscow’s proliferating neo-Stalinist skyscrapers and turbo-charged Victory Day Parades? Or are they happy-go-lucky, dissipate and chaotic, like Putin’s villainous trickster wink (or Trump’s insomniac Twitter sessions)? Moreover, in the era of resurgent populisms, re-militarization and the oligarchization of capital, are the styles, shapes and affects of the Power Vertical making a mark on the planetary political-aesthetic New Normal?
While seeking to make sense of the Power Vertical, this paper also looks beyond it, exploring the heterodox shapes, styles and ideologies populating the “Global East” – a loosely-sketched zone encompassing the (post-)socialist world and its transnational entanglements. Moreover, it probes ways in which scholars can collaborate with artists, architects and activists from across the Global East: not only to analyse the Power Vertical (not only to take the Power Vertical seriously), but also to develop tactics, strategies and imaginaries to ridicule, trick, twist, undercut, queer, resist and pervert it.
With this in mind, this paper also seeks to highlight the powerful (and subversive) legacies of Actually-existing State Socialism (AeSS) – and its multiple “still-socialist” (Murawski 2018) afterlives – in the Global East and beyond; and it sketches some ideas towards a concept of trans-socialism: a radical and intersectional mode of socialist aesthetics, urbanism and political economy. Trans-socialism theorizes AeSS’s many actual and imagined migrations through space and time (beyond the “socialist block”, as well as beyond the notorious expiry date of 1989-1991); and it mines the Global East for progressive dimensions of the AeSS legacy – in the realms of urbanism, aesthetics, class, gender, race and ecology – which can be re-harnessed to exert a defamiliarizing and destabilizing effect on our late capitalist present and future.
Michał Murawski is an anthropologist of architecture and art based at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, where he is Lecturer in Critical Area Studies. His book, The Palace Complex: A Stalinist Skyscraper, Capitalist Warsaw and a City Transfixed, was published by Indiana University Press in 2019; and, in Polish, by the Museum of Warsaw in 2015. During 2017-2018, while a Visiting Scholar at the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, he carried out fieldwork for a new book project on architectural aesthetics and politics in Putin-era Moscow. With Jane Rendell, he co-edited A Century of the Social Condenser, 1917- 2017, a special issue of The Journal of Architecture (2017), and he has published in scholarly and media outlets including Third Text: Critical Studies in Contemporary Art and Culture, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Anthropology Today, Social Text, Laboratorium, Focaal, The Calvert Journal, Strelka Magazine, Forbes and The Architectural Review. In 2018, he co-curated the exhibition Portal Zaryadye – featuring 18 new works by Russian artists exploring the relationship between architecture, politics and ecology in contemporary Russia – at the State Shchusev Museum of Architecture in Moscow.
Caption: Zofia Kulik, Human Motif, 1989. Foto-dywan 240cm x 480cm (24 panels 80 x 60cm).