Russian anarchist guerrilla artists from the Voina art collective
Nick Sturdee ............... Russian guerrilla artists from the Voina art collective are facing criminal prosecution for their controversial brand of political street art. Nick Sturdee reports on the widespread frustration that has fostered the movement... Scandal goes down well in the art world, and the organisers of this April’s prestigious state Innovation art award in Moscow clearly decided to make the most of their moment. The queues outside the cavernous Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture — Konstantin Melnikov’s 1927 constructivist bus depot refurbished as a gallery for Dasha Zhukova, Roman Abramovich’s wife, and graced by Amy Winehouse at its opening in 2008 — were to be expected; so of course were the chic crowd and the TV cameras. But the on-stage video installation of revolution in Cairo, Japanese tsunami, and London student riots — accompanied by epic dissonant swells and jabbing chords, lyrics shouted by a male voice choir and an albino’s falsetto solo — was an unmistakable statement. We live in momentous times, Russia is no exception (or hopes not to be) and Russian art is ready for the challenge.
Meeting by a historic St. Petersburg castle where cops like to hang out at night (or as Voina explicates, "have their nightly orgies"), Voina ran into a problem. Their toddler kicked a ball under a cop car. And there's only one way to free a trapped ball, isn't there? "Help the child -- Help your country!"
WAR ON THE STREET
Voina’s action had been brilliantly planned and executed, it was refreshingly low-tech and delightfully accessible. Over two weeks of clandestine observation, the group calculated they had an average of just 30 seconds between traffic being stopped and Liteinyi Bridge being raised for the night. Over the same two weeks they practised daily with water in a parking lot, dividing the phallus into five “cuts” with one artist responsible for each, and perfecting the assembly of the five cuts into a well-formed and recognisable whole, completed within the 30 seconds. Fifty-five litres of white water-based emulsion paint mixed with water were divided into five-litre canisters, two together for the penis head and testicles in order to achieve the required thickness. Further activists distracted the bridge security in their roles of drunken football fan, nervy woman driver and cyclists. On the night, the group stormed the bridge and completed the phallus in 23 seconds; the only blemish a slightly ill-formed left testicle due to one of the artists being taken out by a security guard. An incredulous crowd wondered and photographed as the bridge towered insolently above the FSB headquarters.
The Palace Coup was the culmination of some four years of relentless political art and actions by Voina designed to challenge the viewer and mock the Russian authorities and law. Oleg Vorotnikov says the aims are still wider: to demonstrate to people that they should not be scared of the authorities. Some performances are political and lifestyle statements that enact plays on words, thus apparently drawing from Russian conceptualist art. “Fuck for the heir the Little Bear!” was an orgy displayed by the group at the Moscow Biological Museum at the end of February 2008, on the eve of Dmitry Medvedev’s election as president, where the election was portrayed as a ritual of copulation in order to greet Putin’s anointed successor, whose name derives from “medved”, Russian for “bear”.
“How to steal a chicken”, in July 2010, showed a Voina activist in a shop doing just that, by concealing it up her vagina (a verb from the Russian slang for vagina means “to steal”). The action demonstrated Voina’s lifestyle principle of not paying for food, thus not recognising, and “fucking”, the “thieving Russian economy and authorities that are destroying the Russian people”.
Other performances have been more straightforward and more directly aimed at the police and other groups charged with upholding law and morality in Russia. In July 2008, Vorotnikov dressed up as an Orthodox priest with a policeman’s hat, entered a supermarket, filled a trolley full of food and left without paying. In November the same year, Voina commemorated the October Revolution by staging “The Storming of the White House”: a huge anarchist skull and crossbones were projected on the national government building, the White House, and scenes from Sergei Eisenstein’s film October were re-enacted by scaling the complex’s towering gates. (In October, it was the Winter Palace that was stormed.) In May 2010, Nikolaev mounted a car belonging to a Kremlin security official with a blue traffic cone on his head to protest at the impunity with which officials are perceived to behave in Russia. (This was during a wider protest movement at bureaucrats’ abuse of privileges by using emergency lanes while the rest of the population had to stand in traffic. The bureaucrats’ cars have blue flashing lights on top.)
Action "Dick captured by KGB". 14 June 2010. This acton had been made to assert the power of unconquerable Russian phallus.
POLITICAL ART ON THE MAP
When Voina made the shortlist for the visual art category of Innovation, it was evidently a major embarrassment for the authorities. After the nomination there followed a treadmill of rumour and behind-the-scenes pressure. First of all it was claimed that the group had not consented to the nomination. Then the entry was excluded on the grounds that documentation was lacking or late. Finally, the Ministry of Culture attempted to bypass the award’s jury and leave the decision to the far more conservative “organisational committee”. When the jury complained, nominated artists threatened to drop out and publicity became too great, the Voina nomination remained. Then pressure on the jury began in order at least to prevent the bridge from winning: it would be fine for the action to win for purely aesthetic reasons, argued officials, but it would be improper for a piece of art to win that appealed to people’s political views.
COP HUMILIATION IN HIS OWN DOMAIN .. Video in 2 parts. .. May 6, 2008 .... 1st police station, City of Mytishy; Yubileyny area police station, City of Korolev... The action is set on the eve of the inauguration of president Dmitry Medvedev -- "the Puppy Bear".... In it's latest action the Voina group decorates police stations around the Moscow area with the image of the Puppy Bear the day before the presidential inauguration on May 7. Voina organizes a team of high school students to present the image of the newly elected leader and question the professional ethics of Russian police.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
While Voina has been the most successful — and most controversial — exponent of art “instead of politics”, the group is not alone. Novosibirsk artist Artem Loskutov has for two years organised absurdist street demonstrations called “Monstrations” , where hundreds of participants march with apparently meaningless signs (such as “Yyt”, “Chunga-Changa”, “Why are you so nervous?” and “Tanya, don’t cry!”). The effect is a carnivalesque subversion of politics and plays on the lack of dialogue in the political scene in Russia. Ilya Falkovskii, Aleksei Katalkin and Boris Spiridonov and their music and animation group PG Dreli post playfully menacing videos on the internet — such as young men firing a bazooka at Vladimir Putin’s motorcade — and photographs such as “Somalia is Here” (with armed militants firing on government buildings in Moscow). Grigory Yushchenko exhibited a series of traditional “lubok” pictures of drunken policemen in a Siberian art gallery, while the group “Sinie Nosy” (“Blue Noses”) produces satirical prints, the most famous of which — “The Era of Mercy” — depicts two Russian policeman kissing tenderly in a snow-covered birch forest.
On the night of August 24th to the 25th 2007 the Voina group staged the action PIR in the Moscow subway. The action was dedicated to the memory of the poet Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov. At Krasnopresnenskaya station a dozen of the groups activists entered the train car at midnight with tables and special bags of snacks to proceed in the clockwise direction on the Circular line. A festive table was instantly set up and guests who entered at the next station were met with dishes, drinks and food. Those commemorating the great postmodernist poet made a complete round on the Circular line with toasts and the chanting of Prigovs poetry. Back at Krasnopresnenskaya station everyone left the train car, and the festive table continued its way into obscurity. The world-famous Moscow subway has always been presented by authorities as a specially guarded object and a target for terrorists. Yet the traditional 40-day commemorative feast for the late poet found no resistance from underground police.
Not only can it be difficult for observers and journalists to define a difference between art and political activism. In recent years artists and activists in the growing political underground in Russia have increasingly been targeted with the same legislation. A raft of laws have been used: most notoriously, two articles in the Russian Criminal Code, 282 and 213, both ostensibly designed to protect society and religious and social groups from “incitement of hatred” and “hooliganism”, have been deployed increasingly often against artists and political activists. This has been facilitated by the importance the Russian executive and legislative authorities have afforded anti-extremist legislation — to which Article 282 is related – that has been developed and bolstered since 2002. Critics complain that the wording of legislation is vague, thus allowing the police and security services to wield the same legislation against Islamist terrorists, neo-Nazi gangs, anarchist groups, bloggers and artists. Other laws, such as “insulting a representative of the authorities” (Article 319), and breaking the “official use of state symbols” (Article 17.10 in the Administrative Code) — in other words, misusing the Russian flag — have also been cited.
An important case occurred in spring 2008, when curators Andrei Erofeev and Yury Samorudov were charged under Article 282 with the incitement of religious enmity for their 2006 exhibitionForbidden Art, which had shown pieces of art that had been recently banned — mostly for their questioning of or mocking stance on religion. Prosecutors sought a three-year prison sentence, but the two men were just fined. Erofeev then lost his job as contemporary art curator at the Tretyakov Gallery. At about the same time, observers began to notice a tendency for the phrase “social group” — which Articles 282 and 213 both list as potential victims of a crime — to be applied to various arms of the state and its security apparatus. The musician and blogger Savva Terentyev was arrested and subsequently given a suspended sentence for “inciting hatred” of the police as a social group in his blog, also under Article 282. In 2009, Artem Loskutov was called in for questioning by the local Extremism Police just before holding the May “Monstrasia”. He was cautioned against conducting the action and, after ignoring the warnings and another invitation to chat, was later stopped by police who he claims planted marijuana on him. At the trial it emerged that the Extremism Police had been wiretapping his phone. In December 2010, he was once again detained, and as a result has now been charged under another law, Article 319 — insulting a representative of the authorities. Allegedly he made offensive remarks to a police officer on duty — on the occasion that he claims the drugs were planted. He was also accused of being offensive in his online account of a night spent in a police cell, in which he caricatured a policeman. The trial started in June.
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31 March 2011 anarchists and art-group "Voina" blocked Nevskiy avenue and poured cops with urine.
PG Dreli, a politically active group, fell victims to a security forces clear-up in streets near the Kremlin, where they had managed to find a studio. Ironically, it seems that these anti-fascist activists lost their prime location partly as a result of nationalist and racist riots near the Kremlin in December. According to other artists who also lost their studios, the Kremlin security outfit was carrying out a full reconnaissance of the area in the wake of the violence. When they entered PG Dreli’s studio, they were shocked to discover artwork such as a series of photographs of guerrillas taking pot-shots with bazookas at key buildings in Moscow (including the FSB headquarters, the Lubyanka).The security personnel are also reported to have seen “Vampire”, a video the group made depicting a man plotting to attack Putin’s motorcade as he stood, bazooka in hand, next to the very window from which the studio looked onto the Kremlin. One imagines the Kremlin security outfit found it hard to appreciate the art they were beholding. The property developer owning the building was instructed to remove PG Dreli from the studio (he also evicted the other artists from their studios for good measure). Security guards met one of the suspected artists, Ilya Falkovsky, as he arrived to clear his stuff out. During the course of a long nocturnal discussion, agents allegedly threatened Falkovsky with violence and to plant drugs or weapons on him in order to ensure a lengthy jail sentence; they also asked whether he would like to act as an informer on “extremists” he knew. Falkovsky left the country for – of all places – China (where his wife is from).
This bizarre story illustrates the deeply problematic gulf between artists and Russia’s security services. Naturally, where anti-extremism police may fear real action, Russia’s political artists’ work is symbolic. For critics like Ekaterina Degot, this is proof that the artists are actors of the aesthetic rather than political sphere. And yet, in an atmosphere of increasing radicalisation and alienation among young people in Russia, the concerns and action of the authorities may even make their fears closer to reality. As I sat with Voina in a St Petersburg burger bar, they were discussing their lives since their release. The prison experience, continued attention from the Extremism Police (who seem to survey the group), and the threat of real prison sentences following criminal charges, leave decreasing time for art performance. They are spending considerable time, and the money they have received from Banksy and from the Innovation award, on their legal struggle and on supporting others they see as facing persecution from the authorities. As Oleg Vorotnikov says, “Banksy is bankrolling the next Russian revolution – and I think he’d be pleased.”
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Performance "Contemporary art is fuckin' pus and bloody vomit" by Alex Plutser-Sarno, a VOINA group activist. It was held on the 28th of January 2010 in the Skuc Gallery, Ljubljana.
Voina are now apparently staying in a basement with no running water and say that the demonstration was not one of their performances. Indeed, it seems they have not been able to enact one since their release from jail. But now they appear to be preparing for something new. “We have been preparing a very powerful and daring plan for two months now”, they write. “It will be a wonder-action. We have little strength, we are cornered by the police on all sides, but our ambitions are beast-like. The result will be something very joyful and very frightening! But very harmonious.” It will be interesting to see what this extraordinary group comes up with. Russian political street art is certainly on the move, and the parliamentary and presidential elections over the next six months might well provide a good stage.
Dim lights Embed Embed this video on your site28 November 2007Central House of Artist, MoscowAction video footage, clip, 3 min. 48 sec.On November 28 2007 at the opening of the “Non-fiction” book fair the Voina group presented the “Plan of Putin”. During preparations for the 9th annual intellectual book fair the organizers stepped forward with an idea of a monument to the late poet Prigov in the Central House of Artist [CHA] in Moscow. Voina was assigned to complete the task. As the project was in its final stage the administration of the CHA demanded that the group be ideological and rough in its work. The board of directors and members of the Voina group decided all together that it would not be possible to fill art with the necessary Putinist content without a radical modification of artistic form. Sheep were first covertly sneaked in the CHA. During the opening ceremony sheep-hugging female activists rode down banners from the balcony to the main floor to give the Voina definition of the Plan of Putin. The Plan of Putin was widely publicized at the book fair in time for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Three days after the opening, on December 2, the “United Russia” party won an overwhelming majority to allow Putin to proceed with his assault on the Russian people and their freedoms.
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