Kristin Romberg

The Phillips Collection - George Washington University Postdoctoral Fellow

Art in the Battle for Time: Aleksei Gan’s Island of Young Pioneers

The interwar period witnessed a number of attempts to define new spaces for experiencing art. When Duncan and Marjorie Phillips opened their home to the public in 1921, they conceived of it as a new kind of “intimate museum” and “experiment station.” The same year in Moscow, Aleksei Gan, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Varvara Stepanova used remarkably similar language as they founded the First Working Group of Constructivists, talking about organizing “a hearth for artistic innovators, a new kind of club able to meet the demands of modernity.” This lecture reconsiders how exactly the constructivists understood modernity’s demands by focusing on one of their lesser-known projects, Aleksei Gan’s film Island of the Young Pioneers.

Scholarship on constructivism has tended to gloss over the cozy images of gathering spaces invoked in the First Working Group’s description above, instead characterizing it as the rejection of artistic self-expression in favor of a technocentric and rational refunctioning of art into a tool of mass production. Constructivism was indeed born of a moment when the demand to rapidly modernize permeated the Soviet sphere—the press talked incessantly about developments in “the battle for time,” by which they meant the campaign to increase production through time-saving labor technologies in preparation for another world war. Yet, the movement’s relationship to this larger context was complex and varied. In Gan’s work in particular, production was never solely about the mechanical multiplication of material goods; it always also involved a concomitant process of self-production.

This lecture considers that Gan was waging his own counter-battle for time with the production of Island. Filmed in the summer of 1924 in a local Pioneer camp (the Pioneers were the Soviet version of the Boy Scouts),Island was an explicit response to debates in the cinema industry about the rationalization of artistic labor. (Dziga Vertov produced his first feature-length film Kino-Eye at the same time and for the same purpose.) For Gan, it is not the film, but the Pioneers’ making of the film that is a new kind of space for experiencing art, a sort of campfire for artistic innovators in which the production of selves was privileged over the production of things.