Critique of the “Living Romantic Role Model”. Commentary on the Interaction between New Actionism and Art in Russia
Dmitry Vilensky Born in Leningrad in 1964. Artist, member of the working group “Chto Delat’?” [“What is to be done?]. Lives in St. Petersburg.
In recent times, a whole range of critical materials about the phenomenon of new Russian activism appeared. Here are just some examples: a text from Pavel Arseniev’s blog on the “Radio Svoboda” [“Radio Freedom”] website; Anatoliy Osmolovskiy’s publication on OpenSpace.ru; Andrei Erofeev’s article in “Artchronika”. It is worth mentioning the activities of the gallery “Zhir” [“Fat”], specializing in the representation of street and activist art. The latest loud actions by the “Voina” [“War”] group; the recent arrest of two of its activists; the release of an “Artchronika” issue dedicated to their artwork, and, of course, the award of the “Innovation” state prize, have also fueled interest in the question, what is activism in its street-performative forms, and how does it correlate with art, politics and everyday reality?
For me, this is not an abstract question: I speak from the position of a participant in the collective “Chto Delat’?” [“What is to be done?”], which is also, in its own way, involved in activist politics. I proceed from the fact that today, we need to create a new composition of politically engaged, solidary and independent creative forces. This presumes various forms of carnival street protest, as well as direct actions, the establishment of self-organized initiatives of critical knowledge, autonomous media resources, a mass culture of resistance, and many other things. For this composition of forces to be possible, it is necessary to develop a foundational language of communication, which would enable the correlation of one or another activity with the common goals of the politics of liberation. It is necessary to form such a position, that would allow a community to develop its own criteria of evaluation. At present, the situation is that the sole such criteria is the presence of a repressive reaction to one or another artistic expression from the side of the authorities and its popularity in the media. It seems to me that such an approach negatively impacts all politically engaged practices, since it forces them to exist on the same plane as the language of power and populist media demands.
This kind of approach is also supported by leading Russian experts. In a recent article on the “Artchronika” website, Andrei Erofeev proposed a detailed model of social actionist opposition (which he calls a mocking parody [“peresmeshnichestvo”]) to the mainstream of the Russian art world (minimalism, depressive expressionism and new age). According to this model, each artistic gesture needs to instigate an immediate reaction from the Center for Combating Extremism [“Tsentr po borbe s ekstremizmom”], otherwise, it cannot claim any kind of political significance. Thus, we have cornered ourselves into a situation where only these forms of activity are read as politically significant. In my view, and I will try to substantiate it in this text, the majority of such practices do not only call into question the mechanisms of power, but conversely, play into the hands of the Russian system of political manipulation/administration.
Practically all the local actionist practices originate from a moral (and moralizing) imperative, which at its basis presumes that any “non-whorish” [bezbliadstvenniy] (formulation by the “Voina” group) creative act must be realized outside of the boundaries of the institutions of contemporary art, without external financing, preferably without money altogether, and without any kind of self-reflection. In principle, the bases for such a position are clear and intelligible—it is difficult to find anything more “whorish” than the Russian art world. It is essential to depart from it. What is also obvious are the origins of paranoia stimulated by authorities in relation to activities in international space, for which the term “grant sucking” [grantososanie] (under which, for example, falls our collective “Chto delat’?”) stuck, so apparently, departing is only possible onto the street, in the hope of success on the Internet.
At the same time, it is important to understand what is our “street,” and how much—having found themselves outside the international system of art and having renounced critical procedures on the production of knowledge and the investigation of society, and neglecting responsible forms of real social and political engagement—actionists became entangled in the space of imposed rules of play, which they cannot self-reflect. It is necessary to analyze and dissect how these rules form through the manipulation of public space, and how they are built into certain politico-technological games of the media, power and liberal discourse. But the problem, in my view, is that in their anti-intellectual populist drive, our activists are not capable of any kind of self-reflection about what, strictly speaking, they produce, for whom and what kind of consequences could result from these activities. “Voina’s” last text published on the website of the campaign for their release from prison, gives a general answer to the question about how they position themselves in society—these are role models of romantic heroes, carrying out their solitary battle amongst the darkness and horrors of local life: “the creation of the image of an artist as a romantic hero, conquering evil. The creation of living romantic role models in today’s soulless commercial conceptual art”.
Through their actions, interpretations and subsequent strategy of everyday behaviour, “Voina” brilliantly converts a centuries-old archaic tradition of Russian foolishness into a contemporary media image. It is obvious that the history, customs and language of foolishness are well known to the Tartu linguist and PR liaison of the group, Plutser-Sarno, who, in terms of media success, chose a surefire move for our situation; one that abolishes any form of critical reflection and political work, which, in the end, only leads to an even greater collapse of public space.
What could be more archaic than a language describing how the FSB [Federal Security Service] is able to slay a Herculean cock? It is evident that only a hero of superhuman qualities can break through the chains, having renounced the “world”—money, home, language, clad in rags and starved in body. The “Voina” group takes on this role, carrying it to the limit of expressiveness (they even found themselves a tax collector—Lenia Ebnutiy [“Lenia the fucked-up”]). The only thing that eludes society’s reflection, which joyfully receives these and other forms of foolishness, is that the figure of the fool and his rebukes(-incrimations), however radical they might appear, are always limited by the negative justifications of the sacral foundations of power and faith.
If anyone still had any illusions that activism must be correlated with social work and political reason, then in that case, the “Voina” group shows us that reason is not at all required for Russian politics and the public sphere. Instead, what must be shown is that there are heroes that are living in an intense struggle for everything good against everything evil. Evil is the state and all of its institutions: cops, nazis, “putin,” dough, worldly futility; and good is everything that spurs a rush, a drive, is “non-whorish,” expressive and fun. It turns out that the main “dark” component of Russian politics that archaizes society receives its legitimation, since what is required for real changes is a radical deconstruction of the mechanisms of power, which in “Voina’s” practices persists as some dark natural force, confronted by a similarly irrational torrent of “the masses.”
Voina’s actions are successful because they scrupulously lay bare all the mechanisms of manipulation of public space in Russia. They represent a brilliant (un)conscious “layout” of all the players, right and left, liberals and conservatives, artists and activists, proving to be vulnerable only in the sense that they are built out of the same common, local rules of the “layout.” But this is not their problem, but the problem for all of us, who were incapable of creating real mass oppositional politics. This is also the common problem of activism, attempting to practice international methods of “subversive affirmation” on Russian territory, perceptible in the examples of “Voina” group’s actions, where an imitation-hanging of gays and foreign workers was carried out in a supermarket, and a dramatized “March of the Contended” was organized in St. Petersburg by various activist groups. Seemingly, everything is neatly done, according to tried-and-true activist recipes tested over decades. But in our situation, where the majority of the population agrees that “migrants and fags need to be thrashed,” and the number of participants in the action of the discontented is close to zero, the political meaning of such assertions loses its unmasking power and forfeits (in contrast to international examples, which it references) its mobilizing as well as instructive pathos.
New practices of Russian activism are becoming in demand largely in the form of serial photo-, and video-, documentations circulated on the Internet. Such actions are reduced to the replication of a spectacular/scandalous image that is readable in a second.
All of this is capable of slightly rousing the local declassed office workers, the millions of apolitical and cynical internet trolls, chained to their computers through their producerly social position. It is possible, of course, to dedicate oneself to their pseudo-education, but this is unlikely to succeed in any other way than through yet another helping of entertainment at the computer, and the potential of subsequent publication on the pages of glossy magazines, which we are now witnessing based on the example of “Voina” group’s success, having become instantly in demand by the editors of our rotten tabloids.
As a result, Russian activism is reduced to various forms of actionism and becomes external to international tendencies, where social-political engagement is understood as the kind of practices that are primarily tied to strategies of public institutional work (autonomist establishments of new communities). These practices, on the one hand, appeal to the equality and democratization of relations of production in culture, owing to which ideological opposition is structurated; and on the other, to the active artistic engagement in tackling real social problems—difficult and mundane social work. Feel free to correct me, but I am at pains to remember a single real interaction of politically involved creative workers/activists with a single category of marginalized people, with whom our society abounds. Neither with pensioners, nor the infirm (whether AIDS or cancer patients), migrants, the disabled nor victims of abuse, workers nor apartment dwellers, nor whoever else. The heroics of the gesture galvanizes much more strongly than routine work, which is really heroically sustained by people like the soldiers’ mothers, ecologists-human-rights defenders, or FrontAIDS activists.
In many ways, the situation is still very distinct from the former parade of actionism of the 1990s, which Anatoliy Osmolovsky makes exemplary to everyone. In his critical text, he forgets to touch on one important difference. Actionists of the 1990s—both the main artists and the scholars of the visual—were the most published authors of their time, releasing periodicals, carrying out public debates and writing manifestos. There is a sense that today’s actionists have nothing to say. They can only parody the language of foolishness in Plutser’s blogs, or, with teenage naïveté recite the basics of anarchism. Russian actionism is becoming a new sector of the local entertainment industry, and thus, drops out of the space of art as well as the space of politics. Returning to the theme of the interaction between art and actionism, it is worth saying that when an international artist or critic suddenly begins to assert that (s)he is not interested in whether one or another action is art, it is most likely that such an assertion acts as a conventional artistic gesture, possible only within the space of art. I have grounds to suspect that when a Russian actionist speaks of their contempt for the system of art, (s)he is also slightly disingenuous, living in the hope that someday, his or her statement will acquire legitimacy precisely in the space of art. Such convictions that the initial negative “exclusion” guarantees deferred admission (similar to the saying that the remains will heal after death) are unlikely to have an effect today. Notwithstanding that this “exclusion” is practically non-existent, and the majority of our actionists in one way or another have some experience in participating in local and international artistic projects. The problem is that in today’s circumstances, neither the institutional, nor extra-institutional work can claim radical formal newness that would automatically usher it to subsequent recognition. At least I do not know of such examples—all the formal devices of actionism and contemporary art are conspicuous in their secondariness/tertiariness, etc., in relation to the archive of similar practices. And this is a completely normal situation. Actions, as well as art on the whole, become a historically convincing and socially significant fact only owing to the procedures of comprehensive and reflexive work of the artist. I am not asserting that each artist must burden their art with virtuosic intellectualism, but what is truly necessary is an arrival to a different level of complexity in the description and construction of reality. Let’s take a sample of international artists, the likes of Renzo Martens, Clemens Wedemeyer, Omer Fast, Mika Rottenberg, Yael Bartana, John Bock, Johanna Billing, the Etcetera group (I specifically enumerate those, whom one would obviously not label intellectuals), and many others, are creating precisely a different level of complexity of the interpenetration of art and politics without losing the spectacular power of the image wherein. Precisely this combination makes them valid and significant artists.
At the same time, there is a great demand from the system of art for radical chic and ethno-trash, which constantly feed the speculation of the art market. Vladimir Ovcharenko (the co-owner of the Zhir Gallery), as the most cutting edge local gallery owner, understands that this is worth his investment. All the more so, since the investment is paltry compared to his stakes in the real art business. In the long run, someone may fetch quite decent prices, especially, as I have already pointed out, because the majority of Zhir Gallery authors engage in fairly fetishizing practices in the form of photographic prints of actions and entertaining objects (PG group, for instance), whereas a serious narrative video format and artistic examinations are practically missing. Thus, with its stakes on the static/pictorial documentation, contemporary Russian actionism can be quickly and easily written into the most unexpected turns of the market. A new disposition is unfolding in the local context, where actionists could seriously oust the “new dullards” not only from public discussion (as has already happened), but also from Moscow exhibits. The general consensus with granting Voina the “Innovation” prize—even supported by antagonistic voices: experts Degot’—Erofeev, and gallery owners Selina—Gelman—speaks in favour of the possibility of such an outcome.
Everything that I formulated above is more of a description of a tendency, and up against it, any kind of critique could be interpreted as boring grumblings. Mass and media culture, which preserves stable archaic archetypes—the fetishization of heroes, the acceptance of sacrality of any power and authority, a hysterical adoration of the body of an idol, contempt to any forms of intellectual work, amongst other things—is the foundation of any kind of populist politics. Not only in Russia, but especially in Russia, these archetypes are used for the creation of a vivid, provocative-scandalous, carnivalesque language that legitimates power. Could this language fulfill other goals? In my view, it cannot, and that is why I consider it necessary to fight for the expression of a different position. Populist gestures in a situation of absence of mass mobilization cannot become either good art, nor effective politics at a moment of deployment of a political reaction. If, let’s say, militants are marching at the head of a colonnade of thousands, then they do not fight cops with bottles filled with urine, but with Molotov cocktails, and upturn cars not in search of a child’s ball, but to build barricades. But at a moment of reaction, it makes sense to create politics and art in such a way, that when one day a class will take to the streets it will know how to articulate, defend and protect its interests, and not a mob, united by a slogan such as “death to cops,” comprehensible to every frat boy [gopnik]. At the same time, I want to note that if contemporary Russian actionism has a chance, then it is also not in the repetition of the politically correct Western populist tendency of small gestures (community art, art therapy, conflict management, art and creative consulting). If these practices do appear, then they will likely acquire some form of Gelman—United Russia patronage of concern for society (for me, this is exemplified in Olga Zhitlina’s honest work with foreign workers, who was condemned to exhibit in the institutionally murky Perm’). It is necessary to invent something of one’s own, even in the fairly eerie situation in which we find ourselves. And it is not worth writing everything off to the horrors of “Putinism” and the turbidity of the Russian people—strictly speaking, this horror and darkness are the derivative absence of a real programme of enlightenment the responsibility for the construction of which can only be taken on by the educated class, realized in close collaboration with the organic intellectuals from every echelon of our society.
And in this respect, everything is not so dark after all, and we have examples, both historic and contemporary ones, on which to lean on. The “Street University” in Petersburg demonstrates an attempt for a completely different understanding of the goals of formation of a student environment and grassroots mobilization (it is also worth critiquing it, but based on the level of objectives, compositional and performative approaches and discursive examinations, it is possible to notice all the prerequisites for serious work). Traditional anarchist initiatives also look worthwhile, such as “Svoi 2000” [Ours 2000] and Affinity Group, which are organically rooted in their environment and consciously work on the development of a certain subculture (developing the aesthetic of the Crimethink periodical), capable of influencing societal change (antifascism, feminism, ecologism)—it is enough to remember the powerful demonstrations in Khimki. It is impossible not to mention the experience of DSPA [Dvizhenie Soprotivleniya imeni Petra Alekseeva] (Petr Alekseev Movement of Resistance), which also attempts to find zones of social struggle that can be creatively reassessed in collaboration with other people. And the recent activity of the Voina group that has created a fund for the support of political prisoners in Russia and that has turned to a number of civil campaigns, commands respect and the hope that their future actions will find a new dimension.
In conclusion, it can be said that an activist could not be a hostage to the insanity of political space. Precisely activists, artists and intellectuals are required today to answer the call and attempt to create an autonomous public sphere capable of seriously resisting the murky manipulations of political strategists, creatives from glossy magazines and the world of art. This is why they are needed for society, which is always in the process of becoming. Whether this is boring or not, it is something that needs to be done—otherwise, what awaits us is an even more boring fate—to be held hostage in someone else’s game.
St. Petersburg, 2011
- ^ See these and other internet resources used in the current text: Arsniev P. Voina. Written without Quotes? [Voina. Pishetsia bez kavichek?] // www.svobodanews.ru/content/blog/2255107.html; Osmolovsky A. About the “Voina” Group and not only about them. [O gruppe “Voina” I ne tol’ko o ney] // www.openspace.ru/art/events/details/19135/; Artchronika, no. 4, 2011.
- ^ See: free-voina.org/goals