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Radically Distributed Collaboration: The Russian Modernist Enterprise “Contemporary Art”

In a lecture entitled “Fairytale about Three Sisters: Painting, Architecture, Sculpture,” influential fin-de-siècle Russian architect and devotee of the art nouveau style Fyodor Shekhtel proposed that, “architecture, painting, and sculpture ought to go hand in hand in friendly collaborative work; this friendship, of course, encompasses equally artists working in furniture, bronze, ceramics, painting on glass and all the other branches of applied art.[1] By anthropomorphizing artistic genres as friendly collaborators and equating the genres with their human practitioners, Shekhtel emphasized a key tenet of modernist interior design: namely, that aesthetically conceived and decorated interior spaces comprised a creative ecology of multidirectional relations. Following Shekhtel’s interest in the aesthetic partnership among the arts and bolstering his proposition with insights derived from new materialisms, I wish to suggest that collaboration is not an exceptional kind of creative process taking place solely among human agents; rather, it is also a radically inclusive set of material and affective relationships distributed amongst the more-than-human assemblages that constitute our built environments. I take as my case study the enterprise called “Contemporary Art” (Sovremennoe iskusstvo), part art gallery and part furniture showroom, which opened in St. Petersburg, Russia, in January 1903.[2]

My analysis of Contemporary Art pushes the limits of what comprises sociality and collaboration by advocating for more-than-human assemblages as sites of coworking. While previous scholars such as Vera John-Steiner have treated collaboration as an inherently social activity embedded in cultural and historical milieus, I take a more radically inclusive approach to studying modernist material praxis by investigating collaboration as a process widely distributed among human and more-than-human actants. Together with other essays in this cluster, my case study of the Contemporary Art showroom expands the definition of collaboration in ways that unsettle anthropocentric views of agency and creativity.

The Enterprise Contemporary Art

While art nouveau is often conceived in terms of aesthetic style, a key feature of the movement in fin-de-siècle Europe was the elevation of applied arts to the same level of appreciation as the traditional fine arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture. In Russia, too, the decorative arts emerged as a domain for serious artistic practice. Munich-trained painter Prince Sergei Shcherbatov wrote:

Applied art ought not to be imagined only as another kind of carefully chosen showpiece; rather, it ought to be seen as a kind of integrated conception of many artists, enlisted one by one to decorate the rooms’ interiors, like some kind of organic and harmonic whole, where, beginning with the treatment of the walls and furniture, and ending with all the details, the principle of unity—which I have pointed to as an unshakable law—would be carried out.[3]

Shcherbatov’s view on the comprehensively networked nature of aesthetic experience developed in conjunction with his wish to organize a group of artists who would each design the interior of one room in an apartment, along the lines of lauded initiatives in western Europe.

Belgian architect Henry Van de Velde was at the forefront of approaching the decoration of domestic living spaces as a collaborative endeavor, both in terms of multiple participants and in terms of design features comprising an aesthetically unified whole. Following Van de Velde, German-born art patron Siegfried Bing opened his Salon d’Art Nouveau in Paris in 1895 and refined the stylistic principles and practices five years later at the Maison Bing.[4] The interior of Maison Bing was a collaborative effort of artists and craftsmen “[w]orking toward a common goal of creating perfectly designed and carefully integrated environments” (Weisberg, Art Nouveau Bing, 169). The Paris project served as inspiration for Prince Shcherbatov and Baron Vladimir von Meck to launch their own collaboratively designed domestic interior, which would celebrate the aesthetics of the “modern style” (as Russians called their iteration of art nouveau); as well as the practice of producing stylistically unified rooms and elevating domestic life to an artistic experience (Bowlt, Moscow & St. Petersburg, 133). They named their enterprise, which was to be a long-term, financially self-sustaining exhibition space and storefront Contemporary Art because it would epitomize, in their view, the aesthetics and forms of collaboration integral to the new artistic sensibility.

Interior design at the turn of the last century was a fundamentally cooperative practice that revolved around two axes of collaboration: first, the contributions of multiple human participants (artists, craftsmen, financiers and logistical organizers, and even jewelry makers and fashion designers); and second, the interactions between the guest-spectators and their stylized material environments (more on this below). Shcherbatov and von Meck, an amateur fashion designer, entrusted postimpressionist painter Igor Grabar with responsibility for recruiting artists to realize their vision. Grabar associated with the influential circle of artists affiliated with the journal World of Art (Mir iskusstva), including such vaunted figures as Lev Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Alexander Golovin, Konstantin Korovin, and Eugene Lanceray (many of whom would later become known mainly for their contributions to the renown Ballets Russes as costume and set designers).[5] Grabar enlisted these trained easel artists to design one room a piece, and himself designed the stairwell. Each artist had carte blanche to create a unique design: individual rooms were to be independent wholes, which contemporary symbolist writer Zinaida Gippius likened to flowers. She implied the aesthetic logic of assembling rooms that were each their own style as akin to gathering a bouquet of varied blossoms: “all flowers are lovely, even though they are not identical.”[6] Gippius rapturously described the artistically realized quarters as a way “to live in beauty, to bathe in it endlessly.” By characterizing the experience of beauty in physical terms (Gippius uses the Russian verb kupat’sia, which literally means to splash around), the poet foregrounds the embodied experience and conveys the sensuousness of lavishly produced material conditions.

In employing a coterie of artists, many of whom were already accustomed to working together under the directorship of Sergei Diaghilev, Grabar also inherited their ingrained antipathies. He recollected that “Korovin and Golovin amused us with their famous dislike for one another”; and Benois complained in his memoirs that he didn’t really want to participate in the project, but Grabar hounded him until he reluctantly agreed.[7] The collaborative aspect of this initiative, therefore, cannot be said to have succeeded because the members liked or sympathized with one another. However, in lieu of focusing on the productive friction between human collaborators as other scholars have fruitfully done (including Brian Norman and Jarek Paul Ervin in this cluster), I turn now to the second axis of collaboration: the creative and affective work taking place in the more-than-human assemblage comprising the interiors at Contemporary Art.[8]

As an immersive and embodied experience, visiting a showroom like the Contemporary Art boutique comprised real-time physical interactions between guest-spectators and the built environment that were materially and aesthetically conditioned, as well as the affective experience they engendered. The array of perceptual and affective relations linking the guest-spectators to the built environment is a kind of meshwork or assemblage, which critical thinkers in a host of disciplines have been actively theorizing under the rubrics of posthumanism, ecocriticism, and new materialism. From developmental psychologists like Lev Vygotsky to sociologists like Howard Becker, Michel Callon, and Bruno Latour, scholars have elaborated the central role of dynamic social relations in producing human knowledge, consciousness, and culture.[9] The actor-network theory of Callon and Latour has been especially influential in broadening the realm of social agents to include nonhuman forms of life and objects, which Latour calls actants. A consequence of this expansion is that causality no longer solely resides in human will and intention; rather, it is the product or effect of human-nonhuman networks.[10] Rosi Braidotti, inspired by the democratizing impulses of feminism and Marxism, has proposed a horizontal, relational ontology in which even subjectivity is an assemblage of the “human and non-human, planetary and cosmic, given and manufactured.”[11] In their overview of new materialisms, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost note the dynamic possibilities that emerge within more-than-human assemblages:

[T]he human species is being relocated within a natural environment whose material forces themselves manifest certain agentic capacities and in which the domain of unintended or unanticipated effects is considerably broadened. . . . It is in these choreographies of becoming that we find . . . objects forming and emerging within relational fields, bodies composing their natural environment in ways that are corporeally meaningful for them, and subjectivities being constituted as open series of capacities and potencies that emerge hazardously and ambiguously within a multitude of organic and social processes.[12]

The implications of such new materialist thinking for our understandings of human subjectivity, and of what is generally referred to as the mind, have been explored in recent work by Lambros Malafouris, an interdisciplinary scholar. Malafouris suggests that agency and intentionality are not embodied properties of the human; rather, they are “distributed, emergent, and interactive phenomena.”[13] He argues that material agency and human agency cannot be disentangled: agency and intentionality are not human properties, but rather properties of engagement.[14] He views agency not as a what, but as a when: it is an emergent product of mediated activity (Lambros, How Things Shape the Mind, 147). Pointing out that such ideas have been in circulation since the turn of the last century, Malafouris cites philosopher Henri Bergson, who was equally influential in fin-de-siècle Russia and Europe, as saying, “Humans are self-conscious fabricators that become (ontologically and phylogenetically) through their creative engagement with the material world.”[15] Building on Bergson and adopting the extended mind hypothesis of early twenty-first century cognitive scientists, Malafouris’s book How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement argues that the material world with which our bodies interact shapes the mind; or, as Malafouris puts it, “material culture is potentially co-extensive and consubstantial with the mind” (How Things Shape the Mind, 77). In other words, human consciousness labors in conjunction with the natural and built material environments, in which we are embedded.

Recent scholarship on collaboration has expanded the parameters of the practice to include an array of actants ranging from the material, to the institutional, the electrical, and the ethereal. In their introduction to a 2019 special issue of Literature & History dedicated to the topic of Modernism and Collaboration, Claire Battershill and Alexandra Peat point to the materialist turn in critical theory as offering particular insights into modernist collaborations. They write: “A growing body of work in modernist book history and material culture helps us understand collaboration as a particularly modernist praxis.”[16] Their collection therefore looks not only at human actants but also at the institutions that facilitated cultural production, from professional organizations to publishing houses. The present cluster on collaboration and networks proposes even more expansive models of multiple authorship: Adrian Paterson’s piece on George Yeats as a spiritual medium and collaborator with the dead; and Jennifer Iverson’s piece on the Barron Studio, which takes into account the role of electronic circuitry of sound recording and production equipment in musical collaborations. Together with my case study of the Contemporary Art showroom, the articles in this cluster fruitfully advance “additive possibilities” of thinking in widely inclusive ways about aesthetic experience, creative production, and more-than-human actants.

Interacting with Built Environments

By all accounts, the most distinctive room at Contemporary Art was Golovin’s terem, an architectural term used to designate the separate living quarters for women in seventeenth-century Muscovite Russia. Made entirely of wood and decorated with carvings of traditional folk motifs, the enchanting room seemingly cast a spell on its visitors, including Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, who planned to purchase it for his own enjoyment.[17] Grabar recalled the fairytale-like appearance of the terem: “carvers brought in from Moscow carved all the walls from linden in a ‘primitive style’ like the old barges on the Volga [River], with mythological sirens, lions and all sorts of ‘grasses’” (Grabar, Avtomonografia). In addition to carved walls, the ceiling beams were aligned in the same direction as the wooden floorboards, enhancing the room’s material unity and creating a strong frame for the rich ornamentation that bedecked the vertical surfaces, as well as the furniture.

The room designed by artist Aleksandr Golovin in the style of an old Russian terem
The room designed by artist Aleksandr Golovin in the style of an old Russian terem, the term used to designate noblewomen's separate living quarters, for the enterprise "Contemporary Art" in St. Petersburg, Russia (1903). Image from the journal Mir iskusstva [World of Art], Issue 5-6 (1903), 246. Source:

Woodcarving is similar to sculpture in the way that material is removed in order to transform matter into an aestheticized object. The resulting texture—a mix of flat surfaces, beveled and rough-hewn edges—invites the touch and stimulates an inner haptic awareness. The relationship between the visual and the textural, or the optic and the haptic, was first theorized by Austrian art historian Alois Riegl in his study of ancient Egyptian and Roman sculpture. He proposed that the experience of beholding low-relief sculpture is akin to touching it, and vice versa: for him, touching is a form of close-up or close-range vision. Riegl’s work set a foundation for thinking through how visual images work in relation to our human experience of embodiment and implies that optically beholding texture is akin to direct haptic sensation. Intertwining the optic and haptic, the representational and the material, suggests that visitors to Golovin’s terem could experience the tactile pleasure of textured woodcarvings by looking at them.

In beholding the terem’s wooden ornament, such as the owls with their protruding bellies along the top of the walls, the visitors were touched on an affective level as well. Contemporary Dutch architect and scholar Lars Spuybroek argues in his theory of entanglement that the Latourian actor-network theory, which asserts the mutually influential agencies of humans and nonhumans, is incomplete. His book The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design draws on the sympathy-based, affect-oriented aesthetic theory of Victorian art critic John Ruskin.[18] Spuybroek advocates for adding feelings, or sympathy, to the otherwise antiseptic system of relational arrows uniting subjects and objects.[19] The architect sums up his ideas on affect and materiality in the tidy aphorism “Feelings are felt relations.”[20] In other words, relationships with natural and built environments are not just spatial and temporal; they include psychological and emotional involvement. He writes, “Between us and a decorated thing, or, more generally, between things, there exists not an extensive, neutralized Cartesian space but a curved, charged space, the space of involvement and felt intensity” (Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things, 279). The generative space that Spuybroek identifies as mediating our perceptual experience of material objects is a field of emergence: from the dialogic interactions that transpire between us and our material environment in this “space of involvement” emerge relationships that are physically and emotionally felt. Spuybroek argues for including affective experience in the analysis of material culture: a viewer can kinesthetically touch the physical objects and be touched emotionally by them. Malafouris also asserts that thought and feeling are inseparable based on numerous examples from field work that demonstrate the emotional power of things.[21] From this follows that mutual touching, physical and emotional, constitutes a form of collaboration in producing the lived, embodied, and affective experience of textured ornament in a space like Golovin’s terem.[22]


My methodological approach to analyzing the assemblage of relations that together produced the experience of the immersive showroom Contemporary Art is indebted to Malafouris’s work on creativity. He provocatively asserts that all acts of creativity, whether labelled as collaborative or not, are fundamentally distributed and “found in the techniques and material relationships that constitute things.”[23] Creativity, he argues, is a form of materially and environmentally situated cognition, not a sudden burst of insight in the mind of a single genius. If we are to accept this radically inclusive and additive approach and say that all acts of creativity are collaborative and collaboration is therefore a fundamental part of being enmeshed in a more-than-human network of materiality and feelings, do we run the risk of gutting the concept of collaboration—and are we losing something of value? Once creativity and collaboration are no longer restricted to the domain of intentionally directed human interactions, new challenges to our practices of attribution and economic valuation arise. How, for example, shall we value the “collaboration” of the ocean in grinding down rocks and seashells to make the sand from which human-owned factories manufacture glass? In addition to challenging traditional western notions of labor, the model of collaboration that I propose troubles the Enlightenment-era privileging of human reason and free will. Collaboration becomes a defining attribute of human and more-than-human assemblages, wherein affective and physical touching emerge as vital relational connections among material entities.


[1] Fyodor Shekhtel, “Skazka o trekh sestrakh: zhivopisi, arkhitecture, i skul’pture,” Totalarch: Teoriia arkhitektury. [“Fairytale about Three Sisters: Painting, Architecture, Sculpture,” Totalarch: Theory of Architecture]. All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

[2] See John Bowlt, Moscow & Petersburg, 1900–1920: Art, Life & Culture (New York: Vendome Press, 2008), 132–36 for photographs and more details.

[3] Sergei Shcherbatov, Khudozhnik v ushedshei Rossii [An artist in Russia's Past].

[4] Maison Bing began as a pavilion called Art Nouveau Bing at the 1900 Exposition Universelle Internationale in Paris (see Gabriel P. Weisberg, Art Nouveau Bing: Paris Style 1900 [New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986]).

[5] Grabar recalled, “Benois and Lanseray designed a stylish living room, Bakst—a charming boudouir, Korovin—a room based on the motif of green rye and cornflowers, Golovin—a Russian terem, carved from wood. I took what remained: the main entrance with stairs and tiled stove.” Igor’ Grabar’, Avtomonografiia [Automonograph]. Accessed September 1, 2018.

[8] On collaboration as both inherently social and necessarily problematic, see: Jill Ehnenn, Women’s Literary Collaboration, Queerness, and Late-Victorian Culture (New York: Routledge, 2016); Holly Laird, Women Coauthors (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000); Bette London, Writing Double: Women's Literary Partnerships (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); Lorraine York, Rethinking Women’s Collaborative Writing: Power, Difference, Property (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

[9] For more on Vygotsky’s contribution to ideas about sociality of creativity, see Vera John-Steiner, Creative Collaboration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3. Also see Howard Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Michel Callon, “Actor-Network Theory—The Market Test,” The Sociological Review 47, no. 1 (1999): 181–95; and Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor–Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[10] For more on the networked interactivity of human and more-than-human actants, see Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Material Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). For more on ecological materialism and the openness of bodies as systems that exchange matter and energy with their physical environments, see Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010) and Elizabeth Grosz, The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

[11] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Oxford, UK: Polity Press, 2013), 159.

[12] Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, introduction to New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 1–46, 10.

[13] Carl Knoppett and Lambros Malafouris, introduction to Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach, ed. Carl Knoppett and Lambros Malafouris, (New York: Springer, 2008), ix–xix, xiv.

[14] Lambros Malafouris, How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement (Cambridge, MA: MIT 2013), 119.

[15] Don Ihde and Lambros Malafouris, “Homo faber Revisited: Postphenomenology and Material Engagement Theory,” Philosophy & Technology 32, no. 2 (2019): 195–214, 200.

[16] Claire Battershill and Alexandra Peat, “Introduction: Modernism and Collaboration,” Literature & History 28, no. 1 (2019): 3–9, 4.

[17] This plan did not materialize, however, because as he was leaving, the Grand Duke hit his head and considered it to be an ill omen (Shcherbatov, Khudozhnik v ushedshei Rossii).

[18] One could also consider Vernon Lee later in this context (see Benjamin Morgan, “Critical Empathy: Vernon Lee’s Aesthetics and the Origins of Close Reading,” Victorian Studies 55, no. 1 [2012], 31–56).

[19] Malafouris draws on the work of Manuel DeLanda who outlines a concept of assemblage meshwork (see A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity [London: Continuum, 2006]).

[20] Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 317.

[21] Regarding the emotional power of things and objects, Malafouris refers to the volume Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, ed. Sherry Turkle (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

[22] For a consideration of these factors in the context of theater, see Florian Vassen, “From Author to Spectator: Collective Creativity as a Theatrical Play of Artists and Spectators,” in Collective Creativity: Collaborative Work in the Sciences, Literature and the Arts, ed. Gerhard Fischer and Florian Vassen, (Amsterdam: Brill, 2011), 299–312.

[23] Matthew Walls and Lambros Malafouris, “Creativity as a Developmental Ecology,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Creativity and Culture Research (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016), 623–38, 626.