This Cyprien Gaillard Video Work from 2007 Is My Anti-Meditation for the Trump-Era

While you’re in self-quarantine, allow me to recommend this video of two Russian fight clubs dueling.

by Annie Armstrong
Mar 15 2020, 9:30am

A really worthless, yet incredibly human, emotional response to the tumultuous times we live in is to compartmentalize. While we’re subjected in a month to enough horrifying headlines to last a year, it’s an understandable coping mechanism to pick your battles if you’re able to. I feel a lot of admiration for those around me who still have access to feelings of exasperation. I’m not proud to admit that my metaphorical blade has been dulled significantly since 2016. I can’t really muster up the same feelings of urgency, of desire for immediate action. I try not to be too hard on myself about it, but it’s undoubtedly a privileged place to be in to still have a blind eye to turn.

As an arts journalist, I am, of course, a very visual person. To combat this malaise and refuel my fire, I have found one short, er, anti-meditation that has helped: a portion of Cyprien Gaillard’s Desniansky Raion, a video piece from 2007 which has absolutely nothing to do with American politics. Yet, I watch this video to get the kind of effect of a movie-style “Pull yourself together!” slap across the face.

I first saw it pretty soon after the 2016 election on the blog ArtFCity. It premiered at the New Museum’s first Triennial Younger Than Jesus, but I wasn’t in New York to see it, so I had to find it via blog. I’m glad though, honestly. After the election I felt very disillusioned by art. Engaging with the theoretical in the coddling space of a museum just didn't seem appropriate at such a dire moment. However, this piece brought me back into the belief that art can inspire direct change and action.

In the piece, two rival gangs from an underground fight club approach each other in front of brutalist housing projects in St. Petersburg, Russia. This is only one section out of three from the whole piece, which spans Paris, Belgrade, and Kiev as well. It’s the only part of the piece that I’ve seen, since it’s the only part of the piece that I can find on the internet (though if I’m wrong, please DM me).

So, I won’t pretend to have a mastery over the entire piece, but I can speak on the direct impact that this one portion continues to have on me. It starts off with two clusters of men approaching each other from across a parking lot. On the left, the men have on blue shirts, and, yep, you guessed it, the men on the right wear red. Behind them, housing blocks of what we can assume are government housing from the USSR looms behind them. We’re looking at the fight from a voyeuristic-angle, and the shoddy camera quality evokes the perspective of someone recording a Worldstar video. Entropic violins introduce a club beat, and the melee unfolds. The ensuing violence is mesmeric. Flailing arms create a clumsy front-line, and those reds and blues start to blend into a rat-king of brute force.

The fight rages on and my mind glazes over as it does. It’s kind of like watching molecules bond or a flock of birds form—it’s natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s soothing. It’s the same way my mind glazes over when I read one too many horrifying headlines in a day, and my empathy shifts into first gear. Watching from afar, like from the perspective in the video, I get to look on without the responsibility of action. What I’m seeing is depraved, but my interiority is completely dulled. Eventually, the fight breaks up, and I’m left with an odd sensation of guilt for going effectively slack-jawed at the sight. By the time the fight re-engages on a bridge nearby, I’m shaken up enough to actively want the fighting to stop.

Out of all the art I’ve come across in my life, this piece has the most direct utility to my psychic well-being. Honestly, before I watched this, I wasn’t entirely convinced that pieces of art could even have a lasting direct impact on me. It put my feet back on the ground after the shock of the 2016 election, and it still continues to give me a swift kick in the pants when I’d like to lie back in my theoretical armchair. It’s the anti-meditation, and I think we all ought to have one. What's yours?

cyprien gaillard