Re-activating language: The work of Chto Delat and the Logos of the Revolution
People of Flour, Salt, and Water (1/9)

Re-activating language: The work of Chto Delat and the Logos of the Revolution

An exploration of the ethos behind the Russian art collective Chto Delat.

It is somewhat difficult to sum up the work of Chto Delat in a short text, since the collective has been making it their task not to fit into boxes and frameworks. One thing is certain, their practice is a carefully crafted collective proposition on the commons as an artistic path, through an embodied politics of care. 

The group is involved in realizing a lot of (im)possibilities in relation to the power structures that concern education and its systems. They occupy themselves with the transfer of so called “non-epistemic knowledge,”[1] resonating with Indigenous, feminist, and intersectional leftist practices, to abandon classical hierarchies within the educational system. Instead, they propose a non-hierarchical exchange and a redistribution of power/knowledge/experience, common to left-oriented communal political ideologies. One could say that Chto Delat is a group that operates as an alchemist of embodied knowledge, political awareness, and transformative collective practice through alternative education. What is most important is that, a priori, for the group the frustrations and errors of left-wing ideology are pushed aside, not out of a lack of recognition for its mishaps or dead-ends, but because of them. These mishaps and dead-ends metamorphose into possibilities for a future in a politically emancipated universe that wishes to be truly intersectional and egalitarian while actively performing the commons. 

Working with Chto Delat entails being in a constant dialogue about politics, current affairs, life, the neoliberal conditions of the art world, and the current turbo-capitalist anthropocene that we inhabit. Embarking on the experiment of working with migrant communities in Greece was an idea organically developed through conversations the collective had with local artists such as Theo Prodromidis as well as their extended visits to the Solidarity Schools of Athens, run throughout the city by volunteer teachers. These schools have been excelling under the superhuman effort of hundreds of teachers that have been toiling to overcome the immense obstacles of the Greek state’s bureaucracy, with its slow violence directed towards all migrant subjectivities, and the increasing racism that comes not only from the official outlets of the state apparatus, but also from a part of Greek society, specifically since the financial crisis intensified after 2014. 

The idea for this collaboration slowly developed after discussions and inquiries about the power of political writing and the possible outcomes that might arise if such texts were used with students who learn a new language. Chto Delat have been developing methodologies of performative education for some time, therefore such inquiries were a continuation of an already existing practice. It seems that the specific conditions of Athens brought forward the common desire to experiment with the political writings of the Zapatistas, with whom Chto Delat has worked with over the past few years. Through their large body of work and various editions of the Summer School of Slow Orientation in Zapatismo—which introduced the ideas of Zapatismo to various audiences and proposed its philosophy and vision as a way to be in resonance and reflect on our own struggles and political imaginaries—Chto Delat is looking into possibilities of the commons from the ground up. The idea of encuentros (encounters)—the horizontal assemblies through which the Zapatistas meet with local communities in their region—is also employed in the practice of Chto Delat. The encuentros for Zapatistas are ways to spread information about the struggles against neoliberalism the world over and to link local communities with global struggles. For the current conditions of Greece—with a government that has introduced a police state, increased extraction and fracking, and is abolishing the last remnants of a meagre welfare state, all while being openly anti-LGBTQI+, anti-feminist, and anti-migrant—the words of the Zapatistas seem necessary. How will they be perceived by migrant communities that struggle to survive in an increasingly racist society? The questions proposed through the Zapatistan texts, which have been collected and selected for the school’s reading groups, are pivotal in Greece’s current context;  Chto Delat also asks how can the Zapatistas’ way of life be translated in a non-Indigenous context, in a South East European capital that has for a decade been experiencing an extreme financial and ethical crisis? 

Two winged white figures wearing red bandanas over their faces carry a smaller figure wearing a black ski mask and holding a book. This figure has an exposed anatomical heart.
Chto Delat, Flying Figure* (2017), sculpture/lamp. Part of It’s Getting Darker: Memorials to the Weak Light (realized with Alena Petite). *This sujet refers to maestro Galeano—a Zapatista teacher killed by right-wing paramilitaries. Soon after his assassination Subcomandante Marcos adopted his name.

The questions that arise are many and open-ended. In my view, we can think of Chto Delat’s practice as very much connected to the idea of repair and regeneration. Reading their work through this lens is interesting, as it is very much linked to the core of what the Solidarity Schools in Athens are doing, that is, trying to repair the collapse of the educational system and respond to the thirst for knowledge that migrant communities experience when arriving in a new unfamiliar place. Also it has to do with aiming to regenerate and activate participation in collective emancipatory structures, while building on a pre-existing community of care, solidarity, and empowerment. Because a school is both the ultimate paradigm and the form of a collective practice, which includes on one hand a set of rules and regulations, and on the other possibilities for different structures and improvisations—it can also be analyzed as a model and be reformulated.  The idea of schooling in the traditional sense is one that Chto Delat is departing from, instead proposing a fully democratic exchange of knowledge that suggests instead of imposes. One might possibly find echoes of their ideas in the ancient Greek academy, which was a model of collective learning where students and teachers intertwined, and students taught one another. In the ancient Greek academy ακαδημία for the cultivation and acquisition of true knowledge, the condition of one’s success was to walk in the path of virtue [αρετή] that entailed an idea of ethical practising of citizenship. These systems of teaching, based on a horizontal exchange of knowledge and a circular way of teaching, can also be found in more contemporary forms of schooling found in many parts of the globe. Specifically in Mexico, these ideas have flourished in recent examples of the Escuelas Normales, widely known as Rural Teachers Colleges, which have created learning spaces with campesinos and Indigenous populations since the 1920s.

Para todos todo,
para nosotros nada

Cuarta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona

How can migrant and refugee subjectivities address the questions posed by Zapatistan texts, while they are guests in an unknown—and at times inhospitable—land? How can we use the knowledge of Zapatismo to imagine our lives and society differently, citizens and denizens alike? What is the meaning of progress in a country that has just exited the IMF support mechanism and is currently run by a government that uses the vehicle of privatization and performs slow and fast violence through police crackdowns and ecological disaster? And what is the power that migrant communities have in such a society? How can we think of life in a harmonious coalition with land and earth? The words of the Cuarta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona[2] are resonating in this geopolitical location: Para todos todo, para nosotros nada [Zap. for: Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves]. 

The biggest question that arises is: What is the role of culture in a process of liberation—and how much agency can art have when assuming the role of the vehicle (or the toolbox, if you will) towards ideological emancipation? Is this a romantic idea? Possibly. But it is not an impossible idea. Art has rarely had the agency for direct political change. However, art that is engaged in a direct dialogue with societal struggles, art that is reflecting on the conundrums of contemporary society while transferring the message of politically sound theory, could hold the answers to the current predicament that we find ourselves in. With an ecological catastrophe around the corner, with neo-fascist ideologies spreading like a virus, with a recorded rise in alienation and apathy in contemporary Western subjectivities, art that unearths, proposes, and carries the message for an emancipated politicized life that walks the path of αρετή [virtue], can become a positive propaganda tool through λόγος [logos]. 

And language here is important. It is with care and attention that texts were addressed, taught, and discussed in the slow readings of the Solidarity Schools. Words unfolded and revealed their hidden meanings and messages. Language is one of the most important factors in autonomy and self-determination, or “self-definition,” which I prefer as a term since it includes the descriptive element of narration through language. And the quest for autonomy is important not only for Chto Delat, not only for the Zapatistas, but for all movements that strive for it around the globe, such as the Kurds that actualized it through the Rojava Revolution. Let’s for a moment carefully consider this link between autonomy, self-definition, and language. Autonomy, according to the words of Chto Delat, must be “built on a politics of dignity and equality.” For the teachers in Solidarity Schools, dignity and equality is the core of their curriculum. For the Zapatistas, dignity and equality form the core principles of their society.

By strengthening and expanding the language skills of the students, the artists are enhancing their feelings of belonging. Furthermore, the teachers construct concrete, alternate ways of community life, based on ethics, self-care, and care of others. Therefore, the profile of the Solidarity Schools echoes many of the values of Zapatismo. The role of the artist here is to gently and invisibly connect the threads between two similar forms of collectively building a micro-society, and two different paradigms of the commons, which nonetheless have a shared agenda: to walk in the path of virtue. In today’s terms virtue seems to be a continuous struggle; a struggle against inequality and the influence of capitalist globalization, a resistance against the destruction of traditional forms of living and the environment (which occurs all the more through forms of contemporary land appropriation via fracking or extraction), and the general struggle against repression of Indigenous people, LGBTQI+ people, women, and all vulnerable communities. 

If art can bring together people that think alike, then perhaps it can regain its political potency.

Note: This text was developed for Chto Delat’s exhibition “When the Roots Start to Move”, which was presented at State of Concept Athens as part of the research platform The Bureau of Care. 


[1] I use here the term “non-epistemic knowledge” to direct to the existing enclosures created for forms of knowledge generated and operating outside of the academy of the Western canon. 

[2] Signed by Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena-Comandancia General del Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional in 1995.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


iLiana Fokianaki is a curator, theorist, and educator based in Athens and Rotterdam. Her research focuses on formations of power and how they manifest under the influence of geopolitics, national identity, and cultural and anthropological histories.

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