An itinerant project exploring urban errors, discrepancies, and territories in Walter Benjamin's Moscow Diary (1926)


Straying: Diary of a Cold Universe

An exhibition retracing Walter Benjamin's winter movements of 1926 and their contemporary spatial and political resonances

Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Curatorial practice
  • Philosophy / Theory

Organizing Institutions



Trust for Mutual Understanding, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania


Curated by Xenia Vytuleva, Aaron Levy and Eduardo Cadava

Opens to public





50% Formal - 50% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "Straying: Diary of a Cold Universe," an exhibition retracing Walter Benjamin's winter movements in Moscow in December 1926, and their contemporary spatial and political resonances. The exhibition will be on display from December 3, 2015 - January 25, 2016, with an opening reception and conversation with the curators on Thursday, December 3, 2015 from 6:30-8:30pm. A closing conversation will take place on Friday, January 22, 2016 from 6:30-8:30pm.

The exhibition begins with Benjamin's journey to Moscow in December 1926, as recorded in his personal diary, and his movements through an unfamiliar language, culture and territory. Zig-zagging on the frozen streets of the city, he is exposed to a strange and uncoded universe. Benjamin registers unique and astonishing pictures, all paradoxically "created out of nothing." These range from frost ornaments on frozen windows, to peasants' shawls knitted with frozen ice flowers, and the madness of temperature scales extending beyond zero. The irresistibly cold urban landscape of Moscow becomes for Benjamin a prism that enables continuously shifting interpretations about a matrix of issues ranging from the interpersonal to the spatial and the political.

We also revisit the psychological and neurological landscapes that Benjamin constructs as he wanders through this cold universe. He seeks moments of compassion and illumination that will mitigate the crush of the old society and the upheaval of an emergent social order. Today we similarly grapple with the dark melancholia of extruded airplanes, mass displacement, and the ubiquity of catastrophe and violence. The presence of these traumatic events has radically transformed our relation to safe zones, and disfigured our cities into grotesque grey zones and contested territories. How do we record this cartography of erasure and eternal loss? Here, straying takes on new ethical and theological resonances that implicate both the individual and the collective. Straying mutates from an aberration to a universal, and becomes a new formula, metaphor and trope for geopolitical tensions worldwide.

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The exhibition at Slought will feature a series of contemporary diagrams, historical films, and original artifacts retracing Benjamin's winter movements in Moscow in December 1926.

The diagrams, developed by Xenia Vytuleva in partnership with Evangelos Kotsioris of Princeton University's School of Architecture, will track Benjamin's intersections with temperature, humidity, geography, cinematography, and political agendas.

Screenings of historical films and plays that Benjamin attempted to attend in 1926 will also be featured, including Sergei M. Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, Dziga Vertov's A Sixth Part of the World, and Vsevolod Meyerhold's The Inspector General.

Finally, in January Slought is honored to display a series of original artifacts through the generous support of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts - Nizhny Novgorod (Государственный Центр Современного Искусства) and Moscow State Central Cinema Museum (Музей Кино), formerly under the directorship of Naum Kleiman.

These objects include original posters, children's toys, galoshes and other personal possessions that Benjamin collected during his journey, and that helped him decode and survive the cold universe of Moscow Diary.

Public Program

Please join us for "Revolution and its Discontents," a public conversation about Walter Benjamin's Moscow Diary and its translation, on Friday, January 22, 2016 from 6:30-8:30pm.

The program will feature brief remarks by Richard Sieburth, who translated the diary into English, as well as by scholars Xenia Vytuleva and Aleksandra Wagner. The discussion to follow will be moderated by Jean-Michel Rabaté and Aaron Levy.

Some of the questions to be discussed will include: the specificity of Moscow Diary in relation to Benjamin's other autobiographical writings; the Diary as a translation of the city and its urban codes; the absent lover and addressee, Asja Lacis; and the curious relation between Benjamin's interest in toys and the Russian revolution.

Additionally, the conversants will provide an explanation of the political and economic situation in Russia at the time, as well as Benjamin's complex engagement with the Russian cultural landscape.

"Life here in the winter is richer by a dimension: space literally changes according to whether it is hot or cold. People live on the street as if in a frosty hall of mirrors, and every decision, every stop becomes incredibly difficult: it takes half a day of deliberation to go drop a letter in a mailbox, and despite the bitter cold, it takes an effort of the will to enter a store to buy something."

-- Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary