DMITRY VOLKOV: “I like to be moving in all dimensions”
An entrepreneur, a successful businessman, a co-director of Moscow Center for Consciousness Studies, a philosopher and an organizer of philosophical forums, collector and connoisseur of modern pictorial art, a participant and an organizer of exhibitions of contemporary art, a musician, an actor, an athlete and an investor – can all of these roles be fulfilled by one person, can they fit into his life space and still be carried out one hundred percent? The answer is “yes”. How? This is what we are going to discuss with a clever, a little modest, and incredibly charismatic Dmitry Volkov.
PHILOSOPHYA large part of your free time is devoted to philosophical questions – to finding a solution to the problem of consciousness and free will. Where does such an unusual choice in spending your free time come from?
– Philosophy caught my interest in my youth, when I was reading Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and was fascinated with Buddhism. At that time I felt the need to answer the “big questions”: What is the meaning of life? How should I live? What is my essence? What happens after death? Then, being in search of these answers, I returned to MSU to get a second degree. I was 25.
During my studies, I realized that the wisdom of life’s progress and professional philosophy are not the same thing. Philosophy mostly doesn’t engage the “big life questions”. And it’s not a coincidence. Those questions, in fact, are not that big and difficult. Answers to some of the questions about existence are just obvious. And some simply make no sense. For example, you can endlessly rack your brains over the meaning of life, but for your parents (or even your dog), the question about the meaning of life is a silly question. Your existence is valuable to them in everything: it’s a source of happiness, a source of pride and hope. We are here for each other – it’s not a special philosophical puzzle.
Thus a search for one’s essence is also a fairly controversial topic. Some people leave for Tibet for many years to find themselves. But there is no need to go so far. The answer is on the surface: you are what you do. There is no constant unchangeable fundamental nature. You have to create yourself, to grow, to build, and not to search somewhere. And the identity construction is a practical question, not a philosophical one. Instead there are other problems that seem to be really hard, and this is what contemporary philosophers are engaged in. Among these topics is the question of free will, and a so-called psychophysical problem. Their solution is what I dedicate my time to.
Can this knowledge be put into practice in your life?
– Philosophy to a large extent is a school of critical thinking. I can’t imagine a more practical thing in life than the ability to think clearly. Proper thinking means avoiding contradictions, thinking in a structured and clear way, and explaining one’s position. Philosophy also teaches us to question the basic affirmations, to distrust the general assumptions, to doubt. This is a very useful skill. This can be applied to the search for optimal solutions, development of strategies, negotiations. Philosophy, obviously, acts as a school of competent, correct, critical thinking. But for me, it also has another function. One more benefit that philosophy brings to me – it creates the Chinese wall. I found out that work has a tendency towards all-absorption. It can expand and occupy one’s entire space of life. Work comes into the house, the car, the country house, it penetrates everywhere. This leads to fading and loss of efficiency. Sometimes in order to solve one task or another all you need to do is distract yourself. And philosophy has created in my life that same Chinese wall – a space where work vanishes. I’ve been deliberately choosing themes that are most distant from my business interests (though there are topics that could be closer to my business in philosophy). Leaving on vacation, or coming home at night, I sit down to read books or write, and when I do this, I’m absorbed with it as much as I was absorbed before with work. And at that moment, surprisingly, I rest.
You communicate with philosophers from all over the world. How did you succeed in creating such a network, given that philosophy is not your main preoccupation?
– It all started with an introduction to one of the key philosophers of our time – Daniel Dennett. At that time I’d been writing a thesis on his theory. In the process I had a lot of questions and objections, thus I decided that I should definitely meet him. I found information about his lectures that he planned to read on a cruise from North America to Mexico, and bought tickets. Literally in the first 15 minutes, after I found myself on a huge 18-deck ship, I met him in person. I approached him, said hello, introduced myself and said that I had come specially to listen to his lecture. Dennett was pleasantly touched. Eventually, we started maintaining good relations. I wrote a thesis on his works, then I published a book. We’ve met many times since, talked and corresponded. When once again I came to visit Dennett in his house on the shores of a lake in Maine, we decided to find a new interesting place for philosophical discussions. We began talking about Greenland. I’ve been there once, heli-skiing. Dennett has also been there, but with a different activity. He is a yachtsman. Since Greenland was very close to both of us, we agreed to meet there on a sailing schooner. Initially it was planned that the meeting would take place in a private circle, but over time this idea had acquired a large number of supporters. As a result, the schooner welcomed two camps: a camp of physicalists headed by Dennett and a camp of dualists led by Australian philosopher David Chalmers. He is the second very significant philosopher of today’s world. And what a debate it was! A real battle! However, no one was killed. All participants treated each other with respect, and the conversations turned out to be very productive. In terms of intellectuality, it was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.
Four months later we held a summer school of philosophy. I invited my colleagues from Moscow Center for Consciousness Studies, several students of the MSU and young American and European scientists to join us at the Volga Kolkunovo. The format of this event also proved to be very interesting. On the schooner in Greenland it was a battle of titans, and we were more like spectators. But at the Volga, in the summer school, we had the opportunity to ask silly questions and be more involved in the debates.
You are a collector of contemporary Russian artworks. You are surrounded by them in your house. How do you live with them? And what attracts you to this direction of art?
– I live with them pretty well. The paintings are often rotated. I have a small storeroom. So there is a constant change of the interior.
Since childhood, I have enjoyed classical art. I loved classic literature, was fond of classical music (Romantic and Baroque). I liked the ballet, and in painting I preferred Renaissance. Back then, contemporary art seemed to be primitive. Now I think those cravings for classical art were somehow connected with youth, the search for ideals, the need for support and the desire to appear older. In my 30s, a shift took place. It began with jazz. Then Eifman Ballet. And finally, in painting, I discovered for myself Russian contemporary art. The first artwork I bought was Gutov’s picture “Schubert”. It was dimensional, made of metal rods, and I was struck by the fact that the coarse material was creating a small optical effect. It was as if I’d been looking at it through stereoscopic glasses. Some advanced technology companies are now working hard to show the image in 3D without glasses. And Gutov succeeded in this by using rusty metal rods. I guess, the painting “Schubert” still remains my favorite today.
The paintings that I like and collect are conceptual. In terms of technique, they can’t compete with the skill of the geniuses of the past. But contemporary painting contains ideas, and they are a response to our era in history. I draw my inspiration and courage to work from contemporary art. I am engaged in technology, and the technology business is entirely based on innovation. If you just repeat what others have done, you’ll always come second or third, and in business only the first gets the great prizes. From contemporary art I draw a new perspective that further allows me to perceive devices, programs, and ideas for business differently. It’s like lemon juice, which tastes caustic and sour but has a refreshing effect.
In the meantime I understand that some of these works are venture investments. They reflect the time when the artist is living. Thus there is a high probability that some of these works will vanish in time. Both the artist and the collector take a risk. If I did not want to take that risk, I would have bought Modigliani.
One more issue is that collecting demonstrates some degree of patriotism. There is something that I love in Russia above all. It’s the art. That’s why I try to support Russian artists and not buy works from foreign artists. We publish books about contemporary Russian artists and organize joint activities to help Russian art receive recognition among a larger number of people. To do so is an active stance.
Together with collecting, I also take part in performance art. Performances, in my opinion, are one of the most important forms of contemporary art. They capture a very important feature of art – transience and immateriality. A performance can’t be resold. It can’t even be repeated. It is a one shot event – it must pass. And that’s the whole point. It’s a condition, an experience. A performance captures the moment. Participation in these performances is a kind of a homecoming for me. As a youngster, I used to perform in the theater a lot and also acted a major role in a movie, but then I deliberately abandoned my acting career. It seemed to me that to go public, to go to the stage, you need to have something to say. You need to know what you’re saying, because the actor’s and director’s influence is very significant. To say something on stage, you need to have content. And the form must correspond to the content. At that time I didn’t have much confidence. So my current participation in performances is a comeback to the theater. For example, I took part in a performance with Oleg Kulik called “A strict proof of the external world existence”. For many people it was a wonderful act. Two people gathered to play ping-pong on a table covered with logical equations. In fact, the performance had an important meaning.
Kulik wanted to play a ping-pong game with me. At that time I’d been discussing with my colleague in philosophy studies – Professor Vasilyev – the possibilities of illustrative proofs of philosophical theses. Vasilyev recalled Moore’s article about the proof of the external world existence. And I suggested to Kulik to combine that proof with a ping-pong game. He seized on the idea and in the evening I wrote the text. Kulik suggested placing the actors underneath the table, so that they read there, and then we decided to make the table transparent so that the actors could be seen, and we began to rehearse. That’s how all this came into being. So we presented a book dedicated to the art of O. Kulik.
Now I’m planning the next performance with a woolen piano, a group of Barbies and the piece “December” from “Seasons” by Tchaikovsky. It will be a tribute to the art of other Russian artists – Dubossarsky and Vinogradov. I plan to introduce the performance at the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada Desert. I think it will be interesting.
What role does music play in your life?
– Music is an opportunity to experience emotions for which there is no room in daily life. The repertoire of emotions in life is limited, especially in correlation with age, when “everything seems to become repetitive”. At work I usually feel enthusiasm, excitement and the sense of being alert. Music gives me an opportunity to experience much more sophisticated and pure emotions. Listening to Schubert I experience peace, the state of contemplation; listening to Beethoven I feel happiness or sorrow; Bach’s or Chopin’s music gives me delight; and with Debussy I can admire something infinitely beautiful and enjoy the depth of reflections.
Jazz brings me completely different emotions. Swing and rhythm deceive my expectations and cause joy or exhilarating sadness. Jazz is like a lively evening conversation. For me it’s impossible to enjoy the music without participating in its creation. Listening to music and not playing an instrument is like feeling love, but never touching its object. I love music and I can’t help but touch it. However I don’t perform frequently. Just sometimes for my family and my loved ones. Relatively recently I’ve played with a trio at a charity concert, I also played at a graduation concert at Skolkovo. It’s nice to get feedback from the audience. Eventually, I would like to share with others what seems especially valuable to me.
You ski on the virgin slopes, regularly swim and do fitness. Do you have any particular passion?
– I like to be moving in all dimensions. I used to enjoy scuba diving a lot. Then I began to pilot a helicopter. And the air conquered the water. A helicopter represents the freedom to move in the third dimension. A helicopter is very convenient, you know. You can fly with it to collect mushrooms ... I piloted in America, I’ve flown right over New York, over Central Park and the Statue of Liberty. Now I plan to fly with my friend to Stockholm. I haven’t had any international flights yet so I’m a little nervous. And the weather is going to be bad during our flight. It seems we have checked almost everything. Will we have enough fuel, where will we land, how long will it take to fly over the water. However, I still have a slight nervous excitement inside.
You have a beautiful husky dog. How did it appear in your life and what are the current relations?
– My dog’s name is Nord. My wife and I dreamed to have a husky, we even came up with its name more than five years ago. It was supposed to be named Enekoski, after the name of a city in Finland, where we went on vacation a few times. It’s almost a Zen place in North Karelia: quiet lakes, not a soul. Due to circumstances, our paths diverged, but despite all that I still decided to have a husky. However, I didn’t manage to convince the rest of my relatives to name him Enе koski! What a weird name they said. That’s why we called it Nord. It’s a very crafty dog. It doesn’t talk, but it’s very crafty. And it’s nimble. We are friends when he’s not trying to trick me!
Author: Polina Ryabinina Photo: Mitya Gorevoy Stylist: Irina Bruna