In October, two members of the Voina art collective were imprisoned for overturning police cars in provocative protest against corruption. As their criminal case continues, Danila Rozanov explains how their controversial methods have made it difficult to mobilise support.
On 1 May 2007, the art collective known as Voina (‘war’) announced its entry to the world by lobbing stray cats at the counter staff of a McDonalds restaurant. “We wanted to carry out a wild action, with an emphasis on wildness, rather than illustrating an ideology” was how the group's founder Oleg Vorotnikov presented the action.
Voina was the successor of another art collective called “Sokoleg”, itself created by another group called “Bombily” and two humanities students from Moscow University, Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol. In the beginning, its activities centred around the studio of renowned performance artist Oleg Kulik. The group consciously styled itself as a “left-radical art group”. In the words of spokesman Alexei Plutser-Sarno. “the left side of the spectrum was at the time completely absent from Russian art”.
Voina rejected contemporary art as “boring and rotten”, and claimed Russian conceptual artists as their forbearers. Their idols included master of conceptual art Andrei Monastyrski and poet Dmitri Prigov. Just prior to Prigov’s untimely death in 2007, Voina had intended to carry out a joint action with him: the poet was due to to read his poetry while being carried up the stairs of a high-rise building sitting in a wardrobe. Following Prigov’s death, the group organised a wake on the Moscow underground. The performance, entitled FEAST, involved elaborate celebratory tables in commuter carriages, with vodka toasts and pickled gherkin chasers.
Plutser-Sarno claims that what unites Voina's ill-assorted participants is a “protest against what is happening in Russia”. And indeed, many of the group’s performances have had an intensely social and political flavour to them. The activists, however, justify their provocative behaviour and willingness to cross the lines of morality in terms of choosing a language “appropriate to the reality surrounding them”.
The Russian Carnival
Voina were first noticed by the press after a performance carried out inside the Timiriazev National Biological Museum. Held just before the 2008 Presidential election, the action involved group — and pregnant — sex in front of a stuffed bear and a poster that proclaimed: “F*ck for the Baby Bear Heir!” While copulating, Voina’s leader Vorotnikov urged the “protection of the bear population”, repeating: “All the bears will be extinct soon! We have to support the bears! We will give them the energy of our bodies! The bear is the totem animal of ancient Slavs! We must f*ck in support of baby bear!”
In case you hadn’t quite picked up the relevance of it all, it is probably worth pointing out that “F*ck for Baby Bear Heir!” took place against a backdrop of an election campaign in which the country's future president declared it was vital to improve Russia's birthrate. Not only does ‘medved’ in Russian mean ‘bear’, a bear is also the official symbol of Russia's ruling United Russia party. Voina activists later chanted the slogan “F*ck for Baby Bear's heir!” at a rally organised by the ruling party's youth wing, United Russia's Young Guard, as well as at a march organised by the opposition. The performance is a good example of one of Voina's artistic keys – the carnivalisation of an silly idea to its absurd extreme.
Another typical Voina technique is to bring metaphor to its literal life. Playing on the Russian swear slang for “nicked” — spizdit’, or literally ‘c*nted’ — one work saw a female activist come out of a supermarket with frozen chicken legs inserted in her perineum. While the activist was dealing with the chicken, other participants assembled eight posters into the word “B.E.Z.B.L.YA.D.N.O” (‘*unwhored’). Writing on his blog Plutser-Sarno — who is also a philologist, expert on Russian swear language and editor of a number of etymological dictionaries involving rude words — explains that the word blyad’ (‘whore’) has historically meant two things. In ancient Russia, the word denoted “lying, deceit, delusion”; currently, “it stands for the man in the street who dreams of a car, a dacha, a flat and debauchery”. Voina activists are presented in complete contrast to such characters: “A Voina activist is no 'blyad' since they do not buy or sell anything, and live without spending money... anything Voina needs its activists obtain free”.
Voina brought historical metaphor to life in another performance, this time taking place on the night of 7 November 2008, the anniversary of the October Revolution. After projecting an image of the Jolly Roger on to the White House [the seat of the Russian government], activists proceeded to imitate a “storming” of the building: they climbed over fences, broke a few cameras and hid inside the building. The allusions to events of 4 October 1993 were lost on no one.
Against Power Structures
The group’s have often focused their activity on Russia’s power structures. In May 2008, they presented “humiliation of a pig in his own home”. This endeavour involved bursting into a provincial Department of Internal Affairs in the Moscow region, attaching a portrait of President Medvedev to the bars of the detention cell, and reading from Dmitry Prigov’s famous cycle of poems about a policeman (“militsianer”). The entire proceedings were filmed by a camera hidden in an activist's fly. The subsequent commentary explained that Voina's intention was to “educate the pigs”, as it was to “shame them a little”.
In the following chapter, “Pig in a priest's robe”, Oleg Vorotnikov wore an Orthodox priest's attire on top of a police uniform. Presented as an “ambivalent being allowed to do anything and everything”, Vorotnikov entered a supermarket and proceeded to openly carry out several items of food without paying. The continuation of the performance was presented in photographs on Vorotnikov’s blog, demonstrating a character in a uniform indulging in debauchery.
The group's focus on the police is not accidental. Of all the governmental agencies it is the one closest to everyday life and the flaws in its work have an impact on the greatest number of citizens. But in their signature performance, focus was on another power structure, the FSB. In this unforgettable action in June 2010, Voina activists drew a 67 by 27 metre phallus onto the carriageway of the Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg. When the bridge was lifted the drawing pointed erect at the FSB building.
Voina activists made sure this provocation in St Petersburg was visible from the city's FSB headquarters
From Palace to Prison
The group's most recent performance in September had serious consequences for the group, as two of its members still find themselves in St Petersburg’s infamous Kresty prison. The action, entitled “Palace Revolution”, saw activists overturn a police vehicle parked near the Mikhailovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. The bureaucratic pretext of the performance was that the activists were trying to retrieve a ball from underneath the car.
Activists overturned a number of other police vehicles after that. It was claimed that some of them contained police officers who were asleep. “We located the pivot point and overturned the entire cop world...”, said Oleg Vorotnikov. Their message was clear: there was a more radical alternative to the police reform recently put forward by the Interior Ministry.
Voina consciously locates itself in the context of violent actions linked to a change of power. The “palace revolution” action was held on the anniversary of the 1801 palace coup, which resulted in the killing of Emperor Pavel I. The bridge phallus was done on Che Guevara's birthday. And a performance the “hanging” of three foreign workers and two homosexuals in the Auchan out-of-town hypermarket was held on the anniversary of the 1825 execution of the Decembrists. (This particular performance, by the way, was constructed as a “gift” for the then Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, notorious as he was for both banning gay parades and for a paradoxical migration policy that combined attracting immigrants to the city and ruthless anti-immigration policies once they were there).
Plutser-Sarno said his dream was to “revive the heroic ideals of the Russian intellectual in the style of Russian libertarian Decembrism”. Voina's main goals, he explained, were to “subvert and destroy outdated repressive and patriarchal social and political symbols and ideologies.”
One month after the “Palace Revolution”, Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev were arrested. They were charged with hooliganism motivated by “hostility towards a social group” (a charge usually reserved for race crimes). They face up to seven years' imprisonment. Plutser-Sarno, who happened to leave the country shortly before their arrest, has presented his absence as an escape from persecution.
A number of artists and public figures from around the world have expressed their support for Voina. British street artist Banksy even held an auction of his work and attempted to put up bail for them, unsuccessfully. At the same time, Voina has not received a level of public or professional support comparable with that enjoyed by the organizers of the Forbidden Art exhibition or by members of the Belarusian opposition and cultural figures persecuted in the wake of the recent presidential election. The reason, it seems, is an ambiguous attitude to the form of the group's activities. The perception of Voina's performances has been shaped not so much by the attitude to their declared aims as to the methods they use.
On the other hand, the oversensitive and hardline attitude the authorities have shown to more traditional forms of civic protest or to less morally controversial artistic forms of action will surely only swell the ranks of such radicals in future.