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Nailing things down…

Pyotr Pavlensky is the performance artist who nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square. Pained, the government reaction was to institute criminal proceedings against him. Yelena Kostyleva talked to Pavlensky the night before his first interrogation.

Kostyleva: Are you taking a suitcase? 

Pavlensky: My lawyers have told me to take socks and underwear, just in case. There are two options: you can go on the run, disappear in the crowd, and that’s it; or you refuse to acknowledge any guilt as a matter of principle – and I don’t think I’ve committed a crime. This puts the authorities in a position of weakness: any action they take against me will redound to their discredit, while I just look on. They can’t do anything to me – I don’t own any property, so all they can do is lock me up, and then let me go. What does that achieve? Nothing. For me the main thing is to DO something. Once it's done, my performance is out there for ever. That's all there is to it.

For me the main thing is to DO something. 

War 

Kostyleva: Oleg Vorotnikov, leader of Voina [War, the political artists' collective], considers that the time for these kinds of protests has passed, because after the Bolotnaya demonstrations the language has to change and become more suited to what's happening today: the government is increasingly repressive, the people are being squashed, almost literally with tanks; your response is an artistic performance. Not a very adequate reaction – it's rather like hitting someone in the face with a daisy. What do you say to that?

Pavlensky: I think Pussy Riot disproved his words.

Kostyleva: But he said it right after the Pussy Riot trial. 

Pavlensky: Voina was a clash between cultures, and it's not over yet. Yes, Voina is no more, and Oleg has left, but the clerics are still here and they're not going anywhere. They take over more and more broadcasting time on the state channels, so now what you've got is complete silence on the airwaves. This is where I come in, as I see it. If you do nothing, the system will crush you, because IT never stops for a moment. The area they choose for their attacks is culture, which gives the opportunity of establishing mega control. Why should we permit that?


Pyotr Pavlensky uses his body as a canvas for his political performance art. In May 2013 he wrapped his own body in barbed wire outside the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly. Picture: facebook.

If you do nothing, the system will crush you, because IT never stops for a moment.

A right performance

Kostyleva: When you're making a performance, you do it alone, without anyone else around…

Pavlensky: It's easier to answer only for oneself.

Kostyleva: So, tomorrow is the interrogation, and then they'll faff around for a bit, investigating.  Then it'll be a trial and some fine or other; or prison. The lawyers will appeal, but then…

Pavlensky: What's it all for, you mean?

Kostyleva: What I mean is, you're a lone hero, under duress for something you did. We'll all be watching in fear, because each day we'll be wondering whether you're going to be sent down or not, worrying, collecting money for you… 

Keep on DOING

Pavlensky: No, listen: there's no need to worry about me. What I'd really like is for there to be no more lone heroes. I want people to join together in groups, new people and forms to emerge like, I don't know, feminists, or whatever. A performance needn't be complicated: it doesn't need much. I'm an optimist, who believes that as long as you keep going, no one will be able to stop you. 

What I'd really like is for there to be no more lone heroes.

What I mean is, you just have to keep on DOING, whether you're an artist, a member of the opposition, or even a revolutionary. You must have a life project. It should never be the case that something's been and done – like, first you put it on one side, then out of mind, then say 'OK, I'm bored with that.' You have to see your life project through from start to finish, because there'll always be both some kind of continuation and an end of some thing or other.  It's not a hobby, after all – one has to be deadly serious.

Kostyleva: Are you being followed?

Pavlensky: I don't really know, but I'm pretty sure my telephone is tapped. It doesn't bother me: I just reckon that some things are listened to, some things looked at and others read. I simply don’t write down anything of importance. It only bothers me just before a performance, when the problem of not being able to make a call or write things down can be quite acute, but so far they haven't cottoned on to any of my performances or managed to prevent them, so, no, I don't think that I'm being regularly tailed. 

Apathy

Kostyleva: What was your performance about? 

The government has no need to grab its citizens by the balls.

Pavlensky: It was about what we've just been discussing – apathy. Nothing happens; everyone keeps quiet, and for me that's a good reason for doing something. My performance was an articulation of what's going on at the moment. The government has no need to grab its citizens by the balls, because people's phobias, apathy or even laziness mean they're doing it themselves. Everyone's talking about Bolotnaya, but that was only an act of looking at political prisoners; if you stop doing, engaging in action, then you are allowing the government to keep on doing what it's doing, because it's not going to stop any time soon. Its reaction is not 'Oh! Good, they've calmed down, so we will too.' No way; they just keep on doing, doing, doing… 

Kostyleva: But what are they doing?  Putting the squeeze on? Repression? 

Pavlensky: It’s quite clear: they’re intervening in people’s private lives, getting a hold over the children, making mincemeat of those reforms that came in after the USSR collapsed: science and culture, for instance. There are more and more ‘men in uniform’ or siloviki. It’s a police state. Why should the state bother about building relationships with people, when the only ones you really have to get on with are the police? The government acts and the people submit. Silence is taken as consent. As long as you carry on consenting, they’ll carry on doing stuff to you.

Kostyleva: What do you mean exactly when you talk about apathy?

Protest never became part of their lives, because it was just a fragment of time.

Pavlensky: Well, it’s when people just go about their daily lives without thinking about anything else. That’s what brought about the end of the Bolotnaya protest movement; people came out on to the streets, but that’s all they did, there was no continuation. Protest never became part of their lives, because it was just a fragment of time: went out, stood at the demonstration with a bottle of beer, and then went home. That’s not protest, just a way of passing the time. 

I don’t like it when people live in that illusory bubble that says they must, at all costs, stay inside their comfort zone. When they think they’re worrying about their safety, what they’re actually worrying about is the safety of the government, supporting the culture of decay and regression. You can call it appeasement, collusion…whatever. People look at each other and think ‘well they’re not doing anything, so I won’t either.’ You shouldn’t pay any attention to other people, at all. 


Video footage of Pavlensky nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones of Red Square in November 2013. [WARNING: GRAPHIC]

An ideology

Kostyleva: Artists don’t often have an ideology.  What about you? Are you a Marxist, an anarchist? You’re clearly anti-clerical, but why? 

Pavlensky: I’m probably closest to anarchism in the sense of my refusal to accept the disciplinary institutions and the whole apparatus of government. This is based on my life so far – as soon as I’ve had anything to do with any institution (they have been mainly educational), which are a microcosm of the state, the talk has always been of the need to do away with personality. Every time, I managed to resist all the pressures being put on me, and I found myself in a position of strength; this led me to conclude that when you regard an organisation and its hierarchy as the enemy, and interact with it accordingly, you will be the stronger, and able to resist any attempts to crush you.

Kostyleva: So, on the eve of your interrogation, you consider that you have the upper hand?

Their actions will only boomerang back against them.

Pavlensky: Of course. As I said before, their actions will only boomerang back against them. If they hadn’t started criminal proceedings, everything would have gone quiet in three days. I would have slept peacefully at home, and been planning my next performance. After Red Square, I had an avalanche of telephone calls such as never before; I couldn't keep up with them, and in the end stopped answering the phone; that was them – their anxiety about the fact that my performance had been documented, led them to behave in a way which simply betrays their stupidity.

Another way of behaving

Kostyleva: Who is this all for? Yourself? Russians? Your children? 

Pavlensky: I do it to show that there’s another way of behaving. I find it very difficult to live with indifference, so I do what I do to overcome that, for myself, so that I can feel I have defeated the ideas that are foisted on us. I do it for other people too, and in support of culture.

Kostyleva:  So, your performances are to overcome your own fears?

‘You have to act as though freedom does actually exist.’

Pavlensky:  Well, as I said in a recent interview, ‘You have to act as though freedom does actually exist.’

Kostyleva: You talk about freedom, but you might be on your way to prison: an elegant paradox, perhaps? 

Pavlensky: The concepts of ‘free’ and ‘not free’ are also relative.  I liked Avdei Ter-Oganyan’s performance, ‘Young Atheist.’ He left Russia, so as to avoid going to prison. He’s in the Czech Republic, surrounded by neutrality and resignation; and I don’t think he’s finding it easy there – he’s free, but not free, as it were. Prison will only be for a time, but if it happens, it won’t be a lack of freedom for me, just part of my life experience. I have no desire for comfort, and a lot of my work takes place in one space, quite like a prison cell actually; and when I’m fixed on one path, that’s also quite restricting. Women have babies, and they also lose their freedom because they’re tied to them by love and duty. So, what am I saying? You can be free (or not free) of some kind of fear, if you overcome the phobia, then you’ve liberated yourself from the fear.

You can be free (or not free) of some kind of fear, if you overcome the phobia.

Stage fright

Kostyleva: You say you’re not afraid during your performances…not at all?

Pavlensky: I have to be very collected, because I have the same phobias as everyone else; and before a performance I can be overwhelmed by them. I get paranoid about being surrounded by enemies, and being followed wherever I go. When I’m in a performance, it’s not the police I’m afraid of, but simply that a bystander will come up to me and sock me one in the side, say, but these are known phobias, and I have learnt to control myself. Fear is a physical reality – it’s only a question of not giving in to it. I’m certainly not completely fearless: the state instils fear in us via the media and culture. The Pussy Riot trial, for instance, was a show trial to scare people, though it actually had the opposite effect: people didn’t allow themselves to be frightened, and a new situation emerged. Okay, they’ve been locked up, but I have now done something, and at some point the girls will be released. If I go down, then someone new will come on the scene. We’re not short of people, after all.

Kostyleva: I saw a heading in a Western newspaper to the effect that ‘Pyotr Pavlensky nailed his testicles in Red Square, so you don’t have to’ – in the same way that Christ suffered for all us, perhaps?

Pavlensky: It doesn't have to be nailing testicles, but someone has to do something… and I did. A performance doesn't have to be planned – it can be improvised, anywhere, probably best at work. What's important is resistance to the government as a machine of violence. 

The message

Kostyleva: For Russian prisoners that action of nailing your testicles (or a hunger strike) is a protest action of last resort. Why did you choose to do what you did? Was there a kind of poetic achievement in it? 

Three times I’ve managed to wrong-foot the authorities.

Pavlensky: It’s a metaphor. I try to find a sign, not a symbol, but a sign that is fairly clear and quickly understood; this is the most important. Three times I’ve managed to wrong-foot the authorities: they turn up and walk round me in circles, but they don’t know what to do. Then they start making phone calls… They even organised a picket when I was sewing up my mouth [with barbed wire]. They usually ask for my passport, but it’s quite easy simply not to respond.

Kostyleva: Are your lawyers working for no money?

Pavlensky: Yes, I make it clear from the outset that I don't have any money to pay them, and I don't want anyone collecting money on my behalf. 

Kostyleva: This is your message, isn't it? 'Don't worry about me or about my going to prison; don't collect money for me – people should just DO something themselves. If you want to help Pavlensky, do something yourself.'

Pavlensky: That's right. Anything that will annoy, and go on annoying, the authorities; I want people to see…

Kostyleva:  What about a message for the West? Do you have one? 

The West lives by the same phobias as we do, though the forms of control are somewhat different.

Pavlensky: Well, my message is really for Russia, but the West lives by the same phobias as we do, though the forms of control are somewhat different. The way people are managed is not the same as in Russia, which are savage and unsubtle. In the West they're more precise and manipulative – it was, for instance, that sort of control in Norway that produced Breivik.

If you think about it, I am a product of the authorities, only, if they were like the authorities in Europe this wouldn't have happened – our lot produce their own monsters… 

The next day Pyotr Pavlensky was interrogated and released. Investigation of his case and a trial are still to come. 

About the authors

Yelena Kostyleva is a poet, writer and journalist based in St Petersburg.

Pyotr Pavlensky is a Russian conceptual artist based in St Petersburg. 


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