NOMA or The Moscow Conceptual Circle


YEAR: 1993



The artist

Collection Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg


Hamburg, Hamburger Kunsthalle
NOMA Oder Der Kreis der Moskauer Konzeptualisten, 10 Dec 1993 — 6 Feb 1994


The term ‘NOMA’ appeared in the beginning of 1988. In order to avoid using definitions from ‘art criticism,’ I proposed to use this term for convenience (any codification, in the final analysis, can be reduced to sacralized convenience and sacralized ‘ease’) in my paper ‘The Ideologization of the Unknown’ that was a major part of the larger paper of the Inspectorate of ‘Medhermenutics’ titled ‘Unbribeable Bureaucrats of the Era of Fading Flags.’ These papers were presented at the seminar ‘New Languages in Art’ held at Moscow State University in January 1988. We shall return later to this desire to depart from identifications used in ‘art criticism.’

The term ‘NOMA’ was defined in that paper in the following way: ‘NOMA’ signifies a specific circle of people that identify themselves as a collective body by means of an ‘inner’ complex of linguistic manifestations. Specifically speaking, this word indicates what previously was referred to sporadically as the ‘Moscow Conceptual Circle,’ or the ‘Circle of the Moscow Avantgarde.’

In the first place, NOMA signifies the psychological space of perception created by the whole complex of texts, oral and written articulations, special slang and intonations, that were used by Moscow Conceptualism in discussing itself from the very beginning of its existence. The conceptualism of NOMA is a result of the ‘circle of discussions.’

In the second place, as a complex of linguistic manifestations, NOMA signifies and describes itself as a community of specific people, a circle of interaction. Insofar as we recognize culture to be a system of familial relationships, we thereby see NOMA as such a family, the members of which do not necessarily know one another, but they interact with each other through a network of self-descriptions that are extraordinarily important for these people. (‘The Ideologization of the Unknown.’)

It would seem that the term ‘NOMA’ is much more vague than the preceding definition suggests. However, this term turned out to be quite appropriate and ‘entered the language,’ in all probability because it contained to a certain degree precisely this tendency toward vagueness, fluidity, strategy, and even a cult of evasiveness. As has been discussed many times, this term refers to the arbitrary linking of cultural allusions, each of which, in its own way, is significant for the self-consciousness of that circle. Primarily, such ‘NOMA’s’ were territorial units of Ancient Egypt, named according to the names (‘nom’) of the parts of the dismembered body of Osiris: each part was buried in one of these territorial units. In and of itself, this analogy leads us to one of the central problems of NOMA’s – the problem of territoriality, of ‘place’ as a semantic inciter, of ‘place as text,’ the analysis of which includes ‘secondary texts’ that have arisen within the ‘motivational field’ of this theory. (Here we must refer to the texts by Monastyrsky that are classic texts for NOMA discourse: ‘VDNKh – The Capital of the World,’ ‘Earthly Works,’ ‘River Mills of Soviet Charisma’ and others.) On the other hand, in reference to the ancient Egyptian situation with the dismemberment of Osiris, we have the problem of the collective body, its division into pieces: the individual ‘monologic’ speech act in this scheme is to a great degree doomed to reflect a fiction engendered by ‘large’ collective formations. Instead a small local circle built on the basis of the individuation of its participants and capable of undermining and repudiating the integrity of communal speech and its collected ecstasy through a system of transitory dialogic sequentions. Here we have the concept that is so important for NOMA of psychopathology and perversity: … this type, conditionally speaking, of the ‘intellectual elite,’ like NOMA, represents a small collective body based on individuation, that is based on the congregation of individual sets of perversions with the goal of elaborating a more or less common bibliography for them (‘The Zone of Incriminations’).


Dear Borya!

Many times we have discussed how it might be possible to represent clearly and ‘materially’ that work and that concept which actually really existed under various names: ‘noma,’ ‘mani Circle,’ ‘Moscow Conceptualism,’ etc. The peculiar quality of the object we are discussing rests in the fact that, like all such ‘objects’ consisting of entirely material ‘reality’ (paintings, drawings, acts, gestures, commentaries, meetings, events, exhibits, etc.), it cannot be grasped and comprehended by any single one of these things listed or their entire ‘aggregate.’ The task turns out to be excruciating, irresolvable, and all the more so aggravating since the solution is localized by both place (Moscow) and time (1970’s-80’s), and by real people. All of this is reminiscent of trying to catch a snowman or the search for the Loch Ness Monster.

I am saying all of this on the threshold of one more expedition to discover them. But if the method of the new undertaking remains the same as in previous attempts, then despite the new and probably considerable money, the ‘mysterious stranger’ will again escape capture. Yet another ‘enormous,’ ‘representative’ exhibit will enter the ranks of the same disillusioning failures, just like the exhibit in Boston, Jurgen Harten’s in the Kunsthalle, the exhibit of Sprovieri, and many others in the past. Moreover, the result will be, yet again, the same familiar reactions, like: ‘vain attempts;’ ‘there was never and is not anyone or anything interesting there;’ ‘wasted money;’ ‘a weak facsimile of the West of the 1960’s;’ etc.

And the entire thing is an ‘incorrectly posited experiment.’ Let’s look at analogous situations in the past. The circle of Duchamp and Fluxus, for example. Is it really a matter of the urinal and the broken glass, of the keys with nails hammered into them and in sawed-up records? These are merely the ‘traces of the processes,’ as a physicist-researcher would say. In some way, that process (imperceptible and invisible) turned out to be illuminated and comprehended by these ‘traces.’ It was a process which only through the urinal and the broken piano keys could be ‘seen,’ but which does not consist either of the urinal or the piano.

Here a comparison from electronics is apropos – the appearance of a magnetic field between electrodes. It is impossible to stick your finger into a magnetic field; it emerges and is, given a specific position of the electrodes which are clearly visible and into which one can easily stick one’s finger. All of this is said because in our case, too, we are once again talking about (like all similar so-called ‘spiritual spheres’ from the Encyclopedists to the Decembrists), a specific active and tense, magnetized process. Serving as the origin and stabilizing factor of this process (similar to the ‘standing’ electronic ring in the synchro-phasotron) 2, is the unique social, cultural, and psychological atmosphere in this place and at this time, a certain quantity of highly flammable (capable of radio-disintegration) material (in our case, a certain quantity of neurotics with sound psyches and the ability to articulate their own neuroses), and a specific professional preparation of these neurotics. All of this turned out to be sufficient for launching the whistling high-speed process, stable in its tension and continuity (lasting 20 years).3 The so-called ‘paintings,’ so-called ‘drawings,’ so-called ‘photos,’ so-called ‘texts’ etc., turned out to be a deposit, an expulsion, ‘traces’ on the screen and other ‘Evidence’.4 But if we describe the very process itself, then according to my observation, it consists of three interconnected ‘procedures.’

A little more detail, though everything is clear as it is:

1.) Incessant ‘Fictions Production’: this is the abundant creation of ‘works’ of art, literature, poetry, which are by their very nature absolutely ‘imitative,’ imitating something: paintings, posters, drawings, poems, stories.

2.) Incessant ‘Chatter’: These are the incessant conversations – dialogues, trialogues, conversations in fours, fives – academic research, the establishment of connections, of a common ‘field of understanding,’ the establishment of a unified network of communication between phenomena which have until now not participated in the communication (or have seemed impossible for communication: the areas of politics, psychology, art history, poetic tropes, metaphors, etc.).

3.) Incessant ‘Introversion’: These are the introverted journeys’ of each of the participants in this common chatter. We have in mind here the inclusion in common conversations and texts of incessant descriptions, not only of external but also of internal circumstances – personal psychosis, autobiographical adventures. This means the establishment of a unified horizon, as a complete volume of all-inclusive description, for the entire field of descriptions – descriptions of the external world, other participants, and oneself – without building hierarchies. This is an important step in including oneself in the common field of discourse.

All of this is fine, but how can we convey an impression of this ‘Moscow Conceptual Circle’ 5, so that it could be just as comprehensible and so that it might become a concept like ‘Duchamp’ or ‘Fluxus’ or the ‘Decembrists’?

The answer: a synchro-phasatron must be built.

The shell of this ‘phasatron’ must be built to a specific size and length (otherwise the ‘plasma’ will not emerge from the electrons), and also a specific structure and materials must be provided. This is 1) the Exhibit-Installation, and 2) the Book.


1.1. A large circular space with a diameter of 20 meters. A dark semi-transparent ceiling is lowered into this hall similar to a cone with a cut-off top, through which a blinding flood of light flows. (The entire space is illuminated reflectively by this light – from the light in the center to the semi-darkness on the walls.) The cone-shaped semi-dark ceiling creates the atmosphere of a depressing basement or a ‘temple.’ The entire space is divided by stands radiating from the center. In this way ‘slices’ are formed, resembling a lemon cut in the middle. The passageways from ‘slice’ to ‘slice’ are via doors, authentic old ZhEK doors so that in another sense these rooms are both isolated and joined.7 (Viewers pass through them.) These ‘slices’-rooms open into the center of the hall toward a common light. In the center of the hall, in the illuminated circle, a few low and wide pedestals stand, arranged in a circle, in the middle of which there is nothing but brightly illuminated emptiness.

The overall impression: this is some sort of secret, ritualistic place, a departure site of some sort of cult – ‘altar’ stones are in the center, there are booths separated from one another and opening into the center, there is light and semi-darkness. There is something of extreme secrecy and mystery. (But it shouldn’t be forgotten that we are actually talking about some sort of ‘closed’ and secretly existing ‘order’ which is not that easy to enter.9 1.2. Each ‘slice-compartment’ is given to one of the participants of ‘noma,’ ‘mani,’ the ‘Circle’ etc: there are 12 compartments and 12 participants. A ‘slice’ consists of three walls. One wall (a) (the actual wall of the dwelling of the installation) is devoted to the theme: The External World (social, political, artistic) during my time and how I see it. The second wall (b) is devoted to the theme: My ‘Others’ – those with whom I interacted, entered into dialogue and contact with at that time. The third wall (c) – that which I myself proposed, what I entered into the dialogue with, what I produced, etc. Each booth is an entirely closed world of subjectivism, not objectivism; it should be made by the very inhabitant of the ‘cell’ himself and should consist of texts (most of all) important for the inhabitant (his own texts and those of others), as well as of drawing-illustrations of what he would like to say. Actually, little drawings (in a childish style, perhaps) resembling how we explain how to get to the metro, for example. But here there could be yet other graphics rubbish – painting, reproduction, photograph, map, garbage, objects … But it’s important that this is not the wall of the room where you live, but your stand, i.e. a selected representative collection 1. about the world around, 2. about other participants, and 3. about yourself.

1.3. The pedestals standing in the center of the ‘temple.’ Each one is devoted to one of the key ‘word-concepts’ which are in circulation in this circle. For example, an ‘artistprotagonist,’ a ‘kolobok,’ ‘absence,’ ‘empty action,’ etc. Each word is on its own pedestal with an interpretation of its meaning (or a pseudo-interpretation). It is clear that this community, like any other, has elaborated its own keywords, and they should be in the center of this cosmos, which is verbal in its essence. One of the pedestals – a map of Moscow, the place of residence, and communication of the participants.

1.4. Other thoughts:

  1. a) The entire space is painted gray.

  2. b) The general content and impression, both external and internal: a sea of texts, a sea of glued paper, there is nothing to look at, only words and words.

  3. c) Semi-darkness, mystery, a basement, light in the center.

  4. d) All the spaces are equal in size.

  5. e) Perhaps the sound of voices, muffled, like mumbling, over a microphone (Prigov, Rubinstein reading, recordings of dialogues).

f ) There are no last names of the authors in the compartments. There is nothing of ‘the author,’ representative, individual, overemphasized. This point is very important. Everything is only the ‘body.’

  1. g) The concentration of attention is regulated by the arrangement of light.

  2. Book

Only texts, there are very few reproductions of works of art. In essence, it is a collection of the materials of this installation, a repetition of them in the form of a book, of course, with adjustments to account for the specifics of a book.

List of Participants

  1. Boris Groys

  2. Joseph Bakshtein

  3. Dmitri Alexandrovich Prigov

  4. Lev Rubinstein

  5. Vladimir Sorokin

  6. ‘Medical Hermeneutics’ (Sergei Anufriev, Pavel Pepperstein, Vladimir Fedorov)

  7. Yuri Leiderman

  8. Andrei Monastyrsky

  9. ‘Collective Actions’ (N. Aleksejev, Andrej Monastyrsky, Nikolai Panitkov, Georgi Kizevalter, Igor Makarevich, Elena Elagina)

  10. Nikita Alekseev 11. Vadim Zakharov 13. Ilya Kabakov



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1993Megan BartonComment