Read the second article of our "No Fear" series looking into Russian artists protesting the country's politics, this time focusing on performance art.
It is hard to find someone who has never heard of Pussy Riot or Petr Pavlensky (mostly known as the artist who nailed his testicles to a Red Square cobblestone, you know, crazy Russians). Russian “political” performance art is quite often misunderstood/rarely represented in all its diversity. This situation is widespread not only in foreign but also in domestic media, disseminating propaganda. Well, we are here to fill in those knowledge gaps!
Taking into account things as media “freedom”, “freedom” of assembly (as well as “freedom” of movement, “freedom” of thought, conscience, religion and so on and so on), performance art as a form of political protest has a huge potential in Russia. Excusez-moi for this tiny historical intro: after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the cultural market was extremely poor/didn’t exist really, and institutions didn’t support young artists. Such conditions caused appearance of performative practices, which were then documented and shared with the media. And that’s basically how Moscow Actionism—the community of activists behind a number of key protest performances—was born.
Methods to combat repressive Russian government are constantly changing, but the need for freedom is always much stronger than the fear imposed by the state. Some performances reflect the political situation, others become a part of it and affect the policy-making processes. They clearly show the limits of freedom and how those limits are growing in time. Three main waves of performance art development can be identified. I’m not gonna focus too much on the oldest one, nevertheless, out of respect, we gotta mention them too.
Long story short: it gave a start to an “informal” revolution that was quickly suppressed by state forces. This wave started in early 1990s with performance by the E.T.I. collective called “Э.Т.И. – Текст” (E.T.I. – Text). On the Red Square cobblestones, activists wrote one well-known Russian word “ХУЙ” (DICK) using their own bodies. The end of the wave came fast, particularly after the “Против всех” (Against All) 1999 performance by the same collective, aimed at changing the parliamentary systems of Russia. Such intervention in “real politics” was seen as real crossing of the line, which resulted in restrictions of the activists’ rights to act freely.
Long story short: Medvedev’s “Thaw” and beginning of Russian media activism. It was quiet for a while: during the first two presidential terms of Putin, actionism in Russia basically did not exist. But since after the calm, there is always a storm,” a new generation of activists started to act drastically. The art collective Vojna made its way onto the stage during the 2008 presidential campaign. They organized a number of significant performances, for example, “Ебись за наследника Медвежонка” (Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear!), during five couples fucked in one of the Moscow science museums next to the huge and scary looking bear taxidermy. The main message of this action was pretty clear – “medved” means “bear” in Russian, and Medvedev, Putin’s good pall, was on his way to become the president back then. The second wave activists were acting fast and desperately. The end came in 2012 with famous Pussy Riot performance called “Панк-молебна” (Punk Prayer). I suppose there’s no additional descriptions needed, as Pussy Riot’s story became a huge media scandal.
Long story short: direct democracy using social networks. Proceduralism, large number of actors, institutional change. The third wave highlights the importance of the process of communication, which sometimes lasts for months or even years. This is a key difference between the new Moscow Actionism and its predecessors. Before the third wave, activists themselves were at the center of attention, but here it’s no longer the case. One can say the level of radicalism dropped, but well, that’s not the truth necessarily. The message is still the same, but effectiveness and methods are different.
I will start with performances by quite well-known and mentioned earlier Petr Pavlensky, who can be seen as a pioneer of the wave. The “Угроза” (Threat) performance in 2015, during which the artist set on fire the door of the central Federal Security Service office in Lubyanka street, is the pinnacle of his style. While being in detention (guess why) Pavlensky never stopped his act. For example, he invited three sex workers to witness the trial and made a show of the whole process. It is clear that Pavlensky was not going to defend the rights of sex workers, he rather wanted to reverse the stigma imposed on them by society and aim against the society itself and against his judges at the first place. He didn’t say a word during the trial.
A similar situation happened after his 2014 “Свобода” (Freedom) 2014 performance, after which he was arrested. Pavlensky turned his interrogation by investigator Pavel Yasman into a well-planned, psychological play. It’s hard to say what exactly happened, but after those interviews Pavel Yasman left the Investigative Committee and was ready to defend Pavlensky in a court – he, quite literally, switched sides. A transcript of the conversation is published online in the form of a play.
The next significant figure of the third wave is Katrin Nenasheva. Communication is the basis for her performances. During the “Не бойся” (Do Not Be Afraid) campaign in 2015, Katrin was living her normal life permanently clad in a prison uniform, meaning visiting cafes, doing groceries as well as taking pictures with strangers who supported her. After that, she sent those pictures to female prisoners with contacts of people who wanted to start correspondence. The last part of this longtime performance happened on Red Square, where another activist Anna Bokler publicly shaved Katrin’s hair. Unsurprisingly, they both got arrested. Subsequently, Katrin explained the meaning of this performance: she was trying to make prisoners more visible to the society, and to also draw attention to the problem of reintegration after incarceration.
The “#тихийпикет” (#silentpicket) performance, started by Daria Serenko in 2016, has become the most “participation-friendly.” People from all over the country were silently holding a poster with short texts, poetry, drawings, simple questions, political slogans, or statistical data in public spaces, addressing mostly feminist and LGBTQ issues in Russia, but not only; different forms of discrimination were pointed out.
This is how “political” performance art in Russia is developing right at this moment. It is easily accessible to anyone who wants to participate, it is not extremely shocking and radical, but rather long-lasting. Yet, it is still being punished and the situation is not getting better, but it is just less visible from the outside – less scandalous art, less scandalous censorship. Even in Russia, these performances are not covered much by the media. Nevertheless, something is always happening. Yes, we are under pressure. No, we are not silent.
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