Today is Lenin’s 150 birthday; I want to celebrate his unique role in the revolutionary socialist movement. That can only be done by attempting to understand the ideas he fought for. There are though more ways than one in grasping what he stood for and this is a story about that.
In October 2017 in the middle of the gigantic political upheavals that were taking place at the time in Catalonia, me and a group of artists who organised under the name “Badart Barcelona” decided to create a performance. We were a mixture of nationalities and we were participating in the independence movement. We called our event “Revolution now and then”. This was part of a world tour that I was coordinating at the time which took place in 15 countries about the 100 years anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
For me it was one of the best collaborative works I have done to date. Not only was it experimental and successful, but also highly politically provocative. It was also about developing a discussion with a group of young people about what Lenin’s work on the rights to self determination really meant in the moment when it mattered.
At the time some Spanish Communist and left leaders were quoting Lenin but not supporting the uprising that we as Catalans and non-Catalans felt to be also our struggle. It seemed to me their position was – “we support your the right to self determination unless you want it”. This was the inspiration behind creating the Lenin plaque which in Catalan says “I voted” in reference to the referendum of October 1st.
This performance was also done in the teeth of opposition of a revolutionary party who adhered to Leninism that I had a short affiliation with at the time. They had zero understanding of art, the art of struggle and probably in truth of Lenin himself. The plaque of Stalin (see below) and the smashing of it had a wider reason but for me it also had a personal feeling for these inflexible comrades.
Insurrection as Art
The event was held in the fundico del Poble nou, Barcelona which was an edgy collective of radical artists who ran an old foundry building for art creation and community activities. I was a resident artist there for 6 years. Unfortunately, it’s now gone as the gentrification developers eventually knocked it down.
The day started with a successful open meeting on the struggle of artist today and linking of the artists struggle with the workers movement. It is not enough for an artist just to present their creative work and see the job as completed. For us organising, being part of the wider workers’ struggle and building for the ending of Capitalism was key to our need for freedom of expression. This meeting in reality was the first part of our performance.
We wanted to create a performance that mixed our different artistic abilities to tell the story. We were dancers, visual artists, sculptors and musicians. In the end our performance relied partly on improvisation, in large part because the actual process of revolution that we were representing requires that the actors must overcome unforeseen obstacles and act according to changes on the ground. It was in this spirit that we trusted each other’s abilities and the central themes of our collective ideas. It was also the reality and lack of time to rehearsal due to real revolutionary movements developing outside. In fact many of our rehearsal times were spent discussing the Russian revolution. This process of creation was affected by reality inside the workshop as the local community were using our space to organise the local committee for the defence of the Republic. Although not soviets, they had an element of them and certainly had characteristics of revolutionary local committees.
To tell our story our performance was divided into 6 sections. Disorganization, Building of Dreams, Conflict of Organization, Revolution, Counter Revolution, and Rebirth
Disorganization – Many problems exist in our society but without focus there is not a clear idea of how things can change. With this in mind, Mike Haas ran an art workshop from early in the afternoon. He created a wooden/card based revolutionary tree. The tree represented the growth of ideas that come from seeds of thought, the branches were the different ways these ideas can develop and the roots that can get created when a correct idea takes hold. The workshop created the leaves to give the tree real life. Some of the leaves had political messages.
The leaves were placed in a voting box. This represented the courage of the Catalan people under the repression of Spanish state forces to vote on the 1 October. While the workshop ran guest DJs played tunes. The period of Disorganisation was a thinking time and included many political discussion around the table. There were here loose elements of representing the work of Lenin’s ‘What is to be Done?’.
Building of Dreams – In this act the live synthesized music of Jonas Langer began. This indicated the real beginning of the performance. Jonas sounds started as simple ambiance but was from this point ever present in creating all the moods of the whole performance. Then the sounds of percussion on stone was introduced by me. I carved stone in time to the music and played a unique percussion on a stone drum kit. The final layer was added by a film of historical clips of the Russian revolution made by Tash McCammon that create the backdrop to the performance. This set the scene perfectly for the first audience participation of the evening, the adding of the leaves from the ballot box to the revolutionary tree.
Conflict of organization – In this act of 4 parts, Shawn Tarver and Jaime Latre dance performance gave a narrative to illustrate the struggle of ideas needed to create a revolution. Their section was named ‘Dialect of Movement’.
Central to the dance was a fight over Lenin’s booklet on the rights to self determination. These ideas are central to the discussions on the left in this epoch, not just in the Spanish state but across the world. A correct understanding of national question was central to the success of the Russian revolution, as were his writings on state and revolution which also played a part inside the performance. There were copies of both booklets for sale at the event.
They utilised their individual styles of Popping and Break-dance to illustrate not only the conflict of ideas but the need for a common programme and the need for unity to win the masses in struggle. They used combat and the style of ciphers to create amazing energy and emotion in the task to win the audience/masses to revolution.
Revolution – This act in the performance had everyone playing to their full energy. It included having the whole audience involved, being led by the dancers. We had previously discussed that audience participation here was key to the revolution and therefore the whole performance. With great relief we achieved this.
Counter Revolution. To represent the painful and often inevitable period of counter revolution, we changed the atmosphere of the performance for this section. Our dancers stopped and returned the audience to their seats, the music became dark and a sculpture of Stalin was placed on the now empty stage. This for us symbolised the betrayal and defeat that can affect revolution.
I was representing the working man struggling to find a way to overcome the counter revolutionary forces as I began to interact with the sculpture. Symbolically with an Ice pick I defaced Stalinist image in time to the beat of the music; this literally caused sparks to come from the stone. Then with a heavy mallet Stalin was smashed on the beat of the music and this then lead to the rebirth of the revolution.
Rebirth – The performance and music erupted again into another revolution, this time the audience were given percussion items to join in the music in the way of a cassolada, a traditional method of protest in Catalonia. This last part of the performance was like a party, a celebration. It continued for some time. Then we finished as the revolution had been completed … at least for now.
I wrote at the beginning of this article that this was one of the best collaborative works I have done. It’s partly due to the youth and energy of the participants (not me) and the environment we did it in. But mostly it was a moment in time with fine young comrades who all knew we needed to be on the street, that we needed to organise, that we needed to fight for revolutionary socialist change, but we also needed art and culture to tell the wider story.
Some at the time thought this old Bolshevik was leading the youth astray like some sort of drunk Plekhanov (if only) but in truth it was the willingness of young people to learn from all sides, in a fresh way to truly express and to make themselves broader revolutionaries, to learn from history inside the reality of today, that was inspiring. Yes, we probably got some bits wrong, but its only the wanna be cut and paste Lenins that don’t make mistakes when trying to learn to tell a story to a new generation. That’s why this was one of the best collaborations I have done. I hope Mr Lenin you would agree, anyway happy birthday and hopefully everyone can come to your party.