I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The international debut of Russian performance art group, Voina, came with the news that two members are facing jail time for their revolutionary art actions. Forrest Muelrath corresponds with the group through email and prison walls.
The above photograph was taken of a performance titled Palace Revolution by the Russian art collective Voina (war). The performance consisted of members from the group overturning seven active police cars in St. Petersburg. Although the obvious controversy will often cause the viewer to question whether this is a work of art at all, it is in controversy that Voina has found an artistic cleverness that makes their performances among the few acts that have social value on the contemporary international art scene.
Founded by the Moscow artists and philosophers Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol, Voina gained attention in Russia for acerbic performance art that blends criticism of local culture with a brash aesthetic. Their aesthetic plays with anti-intellectualism and an orgiastic energy that translates like a more social-realistic Kurt Kren film.
The brilliance of Voina is that they breakthrough the barriers of liberalism that obstruct most contemporary art interventionists. This is the liberalism that has enabled anti-capitalist graffitists to become international gallery superstars, a complex situation wherein the freedom that enables the art also invades the space of what is being rejected. This mode of creation becomes fruitless as the original value of the work is superseded by the narcissism of self-criticism.
Voina’s dissociation from the art world by performing their actions in public and then displaying them on the internet, but never in a commercial gallery, allows them to occupy a space greater than an innocuous bubble of narcissism, and to create more effective social realism than that created by art interventionists who rely on the systems they criticize. Voina may have made the only logical step one could take beyond that of the art-situation occupied by artists like Banksy, the world’s most successful anti-capitalist graffitist. Banksy acknowledged the group’s progress by donating £80,000 to their legal fees when two members recently found themselves facing prison sentences.
Although the work of Voina may recall ’60s activist movements and collectives such as Viennese Actionism and Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, it is important to consider the cultural differences that have allowed the group to create inspired and unique political performance art in today’s world. Whereas many political artists in Western Europe and America have acknowledged the futility of acting directly against the liberal systems that have made them successful, as Claire Fontaine acknowledges in this 2008 BOMB interview, Voina’s non-violent art actions have threatened their reigning establishment to the point of retaliation.
Banksy’s high-profile advocacy further underlines these cultural differences. The anti-capitalist graffitist sold 175 prints from a series titled Choose Your Weapon to raise the £80,000. Although some of Voina’s anarchist and antiglobalization themes are similar to those of Western street artists, the group also struggles against a social conservatism unlike any strictures that artists like Banksy are up against. Their situation allows for political action/art free of the ironies that riddle the work of Western activist artists.
I had the opportunity to interview Voina through email. Our communication was obstructed by not only our subjective understandings of differing artistic cultures, but also by language (I don’t speak Russian), and in the case of two members, the difficulties involved with communicating from a Russian prison. Thankfully, Yana Sarna, the group’s photographer and editor, was able to facilitate a translation as well as respond to some questions. All four leaders were able to participate despite the circumstances. Yana explained to me that each member of the group holds a specific title: Natalia Sokol is the main coordinator of the group; Leonid Nikolayev is the “face” of the group; Oleg Vorotnikov is the ideologist and the founding father of the group; and Alexei Plutser-Sarno is the main artist, the author of the group’s media art and texts. Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev answered the questions from prison. Alexei Plutser-Sarno has fled Russia and is in hiding.
Forrest Muelrath Why were Oleg and Leonid arrested?
Leonid Nikolayev We are arrested because of our protest art actions. The present Russian radical right-wing authorities felt an ideological threat in our left-wing innovative art.
Oleg Vorotnikov The corrupt, dirty cops started hunting for us after our action Dick Captured by KGB, in which we painted a huge phallus—65 meters high and 27 meters across—on the Liteiny drawbridge in St. Petersburg. As the bridge opened, the erect dick weighing four thousand tons menacingly showed a massive “Fuck you!” to a building directly opposite the headquarters of the KGB’s successors, the Federal Security Service.
Alexei Plutser-Sarno Dick Captured by KGB was not just a “fuck you” to the corrupted authorities, but a mocking parody of a fascist Russia’s vertical power structure. The great protest strength of all Russia’s people was concentrated in that dick, attacking the authorities who systematically violate the human rights and freedoms.
Yana Sarna Besides, our Dick rose on the eve of the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. So to some extent it became a symbol of anti-globalism.
Natalia Sokol We stuck the biggest Russian dick in the venal authorities so deep that they decided to destroy us. Since then the activists are being followed, wiretapped, and prosecuted. For a half year, hundreds of the officers from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Federal Security Service were tracking the Voina art group.
FM How have the arrested artists been treated? And what are the conditions like in prison?
APS First of all, Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev were arrested illegally. The plainclothes men, who broke into the secret flat, didn’t show either IDs or an arrest warrant. Being captured, the artists with handcuffs on their hands and plastic bags on their heads were thrown into a minibus and were carried from Moscow to St. Petersburg on the iron floor for ten hours. During this trip, cops kicked Oleg, the ideologist of the art group, in the kidneys and head. And now Oleg and Leonid are being held in mass cells with prisoners who are suffering from tuberculosis and hepatitis. The Russian prison is much worse than hell.
NS During the first week of detention, Oleg and Leonid didn’t have the opportunity to choose the right defense attorneys for themselves and they were treated badly. They were being “questioned without a transcript.” Two weeks later the human right defenders and the medics, who visited the arrested artists in prison, found hematomas on Oleg’s body in the kidney area and handcuff marks. Leonid had bruises. At the present time, they are regularly visited by their attorneys.
FM What charges are you facing?
OV We are accused of crime “carried out on motives of political or ideological hatred or animosity towards a social group,” namely, the police.
LN The authorities rate our symbolic art actions as group hooliganism. They are trying to charge us by two criminal articles. So we face up to seven years in prison.
APS I am accused of “organizing and leading a criminal community”—namely, the Voina art group. In Russia this accusation implies a term of imprisonment of between 12 and 20 years.
NS During the search the cops illegally took away my ID. My one-and-a-half-year-old son and I are not able to get any medical treatment since then. The cops are going to deprive me of my parental rights. They threatened me openly that they would put Kasper in an orphan asylum and me—prison.
FM What is the political purpose of Voina?
OV We revive a political protest art. We declared war on socio-political obscurantism and a right-wing reaction. We are struggling for the freedom of contemporary art.
LN Our aim is to destroy the outdated repressive-patriarchal ideologies. By means of art we are fighting for human rights.
APS In Russia the civil society is destroyed. There is not the slightest trace of democracy left. The reign of obscurantism came upon the country. The censorship became fierce and total.
YS We want the whole world to know about it.
FM What actions do you think best represent Voina’s work?
OV In 2009 there was a disgraceful trial against the curator Andrei Yerofeyev. The Voina activists secretly carried two guitars, microphones, and amplifiers into the courtroom and plugged them into sockets behind the back row of benches. When the judge started her speech, we turned on the stage equipment to the full volume, jumped onto the benches and performed a song “All Cops are Bastards—you ought to remember that!” That was the action titled Cock in the Ass.
LN The Voina group organized a mock public execution by hanging of three illegal Central Asian migrant workers and two homosexuals, one of whom was a Jew, in the city’s biggest supermarket. The lynching was a special gift to the corrupted Moscow Mayor, who pursued a policy of homophobia and xenophobia. The action dubbed Decembrists Commemoration was held in the memory of the first Russian revolutionists, called “Decembrists,” who were hanged in 1826. The group wanted to make the Russians remember the libertarian ideals of the country’s first revolutionists.
NS At the action Crazy Lenya is Our President! held in the Kremlin embankment, Leonid Nikolayev with a blue bucket on his head climbed onto a fed’s black car and slid down. It was a protest against the illegal use of blue emergency lights by feds who don’t stop at a red light and kill people on the road with perfect impunity.
APS On the eve of the Biblical Judgment Day in the center of St. Petersburg, Voina overturned seven police cars with sleeping drunk dirty cops inside. The action dubbed Palace Revolution was a demand to reform the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is full of bandits and criminals, who beat people at peaceful demonstrations.
NS One of the best actions of the year 2008 was The Storm of the White House. We fired a laser projection of an anarchy symbol— 40m-high skull-and-crossbones—onto the White House exterior.
YS In 2008, the totally naked Voina group fucked in the hall of the State Biological Museum in Moscow. The action was held on the “silence” day, on the eve of the President Medvedev election. It was a portrait of the pre-electoral Russia, where everyone metaphorically fucks each other and Medvedev looks at it with delight. That was the first action I took part in as a photographer.
FM Do you think Voina serves a purpose on the global stage, or are your actions aimed at enriching local culture?
APS We sympathize with ideas of anti-globalism. The local cultures are of a great value. But our art is innovative and at this point it’s very international. That’s why, on the scale of the Russian art scene, where till now there were no left-wing protest art, our actions are a breakthrough into the future.
In Europe, of course, there were a lot of outstanding actionists. There was Viennese Actionism. The name of Hermann Nitsch means a lot to all of us. But no one held such radical protest actions. Our sixty-five-meter-high dick will remain the biggest anarch-punk-dick in the world!
FM Transgressive body art has been commodified in American galleries, (the retrospective of Marina Abramović’s work in New York’s MoMA last summer is one example). Do you consider your work to be separate from this tradition of commodified transgressive body art?
OV We don’t cooperate with commercial galleries, curators, and art institutions. We don’t sell our works on principle. It is impossible to “embed” us into the art market for the simple reason that we don’t give a shit about it!
NS We struggle against glamour and conformism. In our action How to Snatch a Chicken? The Tale of How one Cunt Fed the Whole Group, a female activist stuffed a chicken into her vagina. Such kind of body art would make a glamorous gallery visitor vomit.
APS One of the group’s aims is to create an innovative up-to-date art language, that would be adequate to the present cultural and socio-political context. That’s why we use the aesthetic of ugliness, absurd, and even nonsense. We destroy the border between the Real and the Imaginary. We turn the reality into nonsense. In our actions, fiction becomes a part of Life. We experiment on the edge between Life and Death, between Art and Reality. I’m sure that today real Art can live only in this frontier zone, in this area of wild experiment.
YS By the way, almost every day in mass media Russian experts aggressively try to prove to each other that our actions have nothing to do with art. This fact of negation approves our works as an innovative art.
FM Does Voina have any affiliations with global political groups? I have read you consider yourselves anarchists. Do you associate your work with any of the popular anarchist movements in Western Europe and America?
APS Our group is absolutely independent. We don’t participate in the political movements. But we do sympathize with anarchists, punks, and all the other transgressive persons with floating identity.
FMConfrontation takes courage. What drives you to find the courage to perform your actions? Do you believe confrontation is a necessity in your work?
NS There is no fear. There is a disgust towards a fascist discourse, which the authorities are imposing onto Russia.
YS We are against confrontation. We are for peace, love, and freedom!
APS But the Russian authorities force the confrontation. They have already begun the war with their own people, who are no more than an obstacle in the petrodollar plundering.
FM Would you appreciate it if your performances were reproduced by other groups in or out of Russia?
APS We are for free, open information. We are against extremes with the copyright. We would be happy, if someone would be inspired by our example, as we make an absolutely non-commercial art.
FM Can you explain the artistic or political purpose of the Palace Revolution action?
APS The group overturned seven police cars in order to tell the world that it had gone mad and topsy-turvy. And it’s urgent to “set it on its feet.” That’s a metaphor by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The world should change.
YS We tried to show the world how cruel and crazy it is.
FM What is the purpose of violence in your work?
NS Within three years not a single person has been harmed in our actions. On the contrary, we ideologically fight against violence. Within the mentioned period Russian cops have killed thousands of people, using their possibilities for “legitimate violence.”
APS There is no violence in our works, but just the depiction of it. In the Decembrists Commemoration action held in the supermarket, all the activists were hanged onto the safety equipment and imitated dead men.
YS We made a parody of the authorities killing and torturing people.
FM Why is subjectivity important within the group?
APS Because the limits of personality widen in the group.
FM Do you have any advice or thoughts for artists who wish to perform poignant activist actions elsewhere in the world?
NS You have to be extremely honest, never think of money, and do not to be afraid of anything.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee