Art Group Voina’s phallus on the Liteiny bridge opposite to St. Petersburg FSB headquarters has been awarded the Innovation 2010 price for best visual work of art. Many RussiaWatchers are inclined to interpret the award as a sign of further liberalization. Some of the more exalted reactions make me think that Voina’s dick could even be the ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ of Medvedev’s thaw. Others question the merit of Voina’s performances and their underlying morality. All the more reason to take a closer look. Who are these people who call their art group ‘War’?
The most interesting source on art group Voina I found is written by Russkii Reporter journalist Marina Akhmedova, who invited eight members of Voina’s core group into her house. The interview, in fact a transcription of a heated philosophical discussion between Voina’s leader Oleg ‘thief’ Vorotnikov, his wife Natalia ‘goat’ Sokol, Leonid ‘crazy Lyonya’ Nikolayev and journalist Marina Akhmedova, is a great example of Russkii Reporters engaging journalism. Several parts of interview will make up the core of this post. The original article in RR is called “‘War’ and peace, why contemporary artists are so malicious”.
Before exploring the more philosophical questions about the merit of art, activism and morality, let us have a brief look at some of Voina’s performances, as compiled by RR.
August 24th 2007 – Banquet
The art group conducted a funeral repast for the poet Dmitri Prigov in the Moscow metro (Soviet dissident and leader of the conceptual art school started in the 1960s ) They set up a festive dinner table in the middle of the last car. Earlier the dean of the philosophy faculty at the Moscow State University refused permission for a joint action of Voina and Prigov in the student hostel, soon after which the poet died.
February 29th 2008 – Fu*k for Your Heir the Bear Cub!
Three days before the presidential election of 2008 the group organized an orgy in the State Biological Museum. According to the ideologue of the group, Plutser-Sarno: Everyone fucks each other and the cub bear (Medvedev) looks at it with disgust. I personally prefer the explanation by Oleg Vorotnikov as recorded by Kommersant in the video report above. I paraphrase ‘If people are deprived from a political choice, their activity moves from their brain into a lower part of their body’. In other words, the absence of political freedom makes us into animals.
May 6th 2008 – Cop humiliation in his own domain
The group visited a police office in the village Bolshevo in the Moscow oblast, hung a portrait of president Medvedev on the bars of the holding cell and build a human pyramid in front if it. The second part of the performance involved bursting into a police office, decorating the wall with a new portrait from the recently elected Medvedev and bringing along the cake to celebrate.
May 22th 2008 – Censorship
In the building of the Tagansk inter-regional procurator office, where a session was held in the case against the curator of the exhibition ‘Forbidden art 2006’, Andrey Erofeyev, the activists of Voina organized a collective chanting of the slogan ‘Art critics don’t wear robes!’
Oleg Vorotnikov dressed himself in the uniform of an employee of the Ministry of Internal affairs with a priest’s robe on top and visited a supermarket, where he filled five plastic bags with the most expensive products and demonstratively carried them past the cash desk, without paying.
September 7th 2008 – In memory of the Decemberists
‘Voina’ decided to present Yuri Luzhkov with a present for the Day of the city. In the electronics department of an Auchan hypermarket, activists of the group hung five people from the ceiling: Three immigrant workers and two gays.
In the night before the anniversary of the revolution, the assault brigade of the art group broke into the territory surrounding the House of the Federal Government and installed a laser to display a skull and bones on the facade covering 12 floors of the building. After the laser was activated they escaped through the fence and went into hiding.
The artistic team of the art group appeared at the session of the Tagansk regional court in the case of the organizers of the exhibition ‘Forbidden art 2006’. Musicians took off the covers of their instruments and began to perform the song ‘All cops are bastard dogs. Never forget it.’
May 22d 2010 – Crazy Lyonya ‘roofs’ the federals
With a blue bucket on his head, Lyonya jumped on an official car of the State Protection Service with emergence lightning, which was waiting for a traffic light on the embankment next to the Kremlin. Lyonya walked over the roof of the car and managed to escape the officers coming after him. The blue bucket movement has denied their involvement in the performance.
In 23 seconds the groups activists painted a huge phallus on the Liteiny bridge in St. Petersburg. When the bridge was opened, the painting appeared right in front of the FSB headquarters. Two fire trucks were called in to clean the bridge, but without much success.
During the night in St. Petersburg the activists of ‘Voina’ turned several police cars up side. Some of the cars contained people. The aim of the performance was to show how to conduct true reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The Eroveyev connection
At least two observations need to be made. Firstly, the Voina group has at least twice come out in support for the case of of the organizers of the exhibition ‘Forbidden Art’, who stood trail after complaints were made by the Russian Orthodox community. One of the organizers on trial, Andrey Erofeyev, was part of the seven person jury that awarded the innovation 2010 award to Voina.
Radicalization, prison and support
Secondly, although it is not possible to discern a linear process of radicalization in the above mentioned performances, it is fair to conclude that the last performance called ‘Palace Revolution’, was the most radical performance to date and that this performance did cross the line of legality by flipping over over police cars, in some cases with officers inside. The groups ideologue Pultser-Sarno had fled to Estonia prior to the performance.
After this performance two members of the group, Vorotnikov and crazy Lyonya spent three months in pretrial detention, which could be considered a harsh measure. The standard punishment for hooliganism is after all 15 days of prison time. The 7 years demanded by the procurator office are absurd and may have influenced the jury to come out on support of the art group. British artist Banksy is reported to have paid bail for the Voina group members. Art group Voina has now become a cause célèbre.
Note that the interview with Russkii Reporter was taken a few days after Vorotnikov and Nikolayev got out, which could partly explain their zeal and anger.
Contemporary art: What is it?
One of the most heard criticisms of the decision to award Voina with a price is the question related to the artistic merit of their performances. Is it truly art or more of a juvenile prank? Russkii Reporter Marina Akhmedova does a great job provoking the provocateurs and counterposing their ideas to those of herself, which I assume many of her readers can relate to. What follows is the first part of the interview. The first person is Marina Akhmedova.
Contemporary art is no longer art. I wiggle on my chair restlessly.
Compared to contemporary Russian journalism, which finds itself in someone’s ass, contemporary art must be flourishing, Vorotnikov reacts spiteful.
Art for me is something that can be made only by one in a million people, I say. My words are met by disdainful chuckling from the side of the activists.
That is not what art is about, goat says softly.
A painted dick. Is that art?
You talk about elitist art, Vorotnikov says and because of his tone I sense that it offended him. But that contradicts the very foundation of contemporary art, which is about transmitting the idea, that everyone can do it.
We always conduct our performances in such way, that others may repeat them, the voice of goat adds.
People tell us that they did the same things when they were young and drunk. Why are only some considered artists, while in fact everyone is an artist.
That’s not it, I interrupt. To be an artist is a gift.
Nonsense. You have a limited view of culture. You say ‘one in a million ‘, ‘culture needs to be protected’, ‘ locked inside a museum’, Vorotnikov begins to orate. Those last two phrases I did not use. ‘Cul-ture is – made by e-ve-ry-one, e-ve-ry-one, he makes me understand, clearly thinking that his stretched words have more chance to enter my corked up ears.
Culture, but not art, I say with pathos.
Art is the front line of culture.
When I watch van Gogh’s starry night, I feel myself reborn, I say with even more pathos. And when I watch, forgive me, your penis, I feel nothing.
You belong to a bygone era. Out of pity, we will not throw you on the scrap-heap, Vorotnikov snaps, and I thank him for his kindness.
A little later Vorotnikov says:
Journalists should understand that culture is something that is created by all of us. Art is the quintessence of culture, like poetry is the quintessence of language. Art formulates that, which culture will later implement in each little corner of society. Like philosophy provides a conceptual device or rather the possibility to create a conceptual device in each individual field of science, so does art also create the most general, the most standard of things.
Call for action
The simplicity and vulgarity of Voina’s performances deliberately counterpose elitist art. They wish to make art for the people in order to transform culture and society. In this sense they do see themselves as a vanguard. Not an elitist vanguard of course, but a vanguard of the common people. I cannot help to think of the similarities with the Bolshevik revolution. As Sean Guillory commented on Facebook: ‘a young Mayakovsky would be proud’.
Vorotnikov: The intelligentsia of today are the people, who are fighting with the police, who each day partake in actions, who burn cars and cash machines.
We paint a situation of civic action. Many say that they would gladly join the protesters, if they didn’t have to work, if they didn’t have a family, if they didn’t want to eat.
We show such a person that he shouldn’t say such nonsense. When you don’t wish to join us, go and procure your food in the big city. Everything is cramped with food. Go and eat! But don’t tell us that you can’t come to a meeting at 8 o’ clock in the evening.
Shop lifting as a method of civic resistance
At the start of the interview one of the group members offers to share a bag of pelmeni, which they say was stolen from a supermarket nearby. Journalist Akhmedova is clearly uncomfortable with this. Their disagreements will lead to a discussion about morality, but let us first look at the rationale behind Voina’s call to steal.
Shop lifting under the current system of wealth distribution is not only not a crime, but not even something disgraceful, Vorotnikov answers. Shop lifting is a method of civic resistance.
“So go out and steal!” Vorotnikov gives me instructions. And your money you should give to those who cannot work; the homeless, the crippled and disabled children.
We do work! The group says in chorus. Around the clock, no weekends and we do not accept money for our work. We only steal out of need, ‘goat’ says quietly. The money we give away. She doesn’t tell whom they give their money to, but I understand it must be the unfortunate.
We’re often told that ‘if we steal, others pay for us’. That’s why we call upon everyone to steal.
The fascists are the enemy
Stealing is presented a form of protest against a prevailing materialistic worldview. The ‘enemy’ is referred to as liberals (in the economic sense) and fascists. For art group Voina the fascists are people who put their own material needs before the well being of others.
Yes, when I earned that money, it’ is my right to use it. [Marina Akhmedova, says]
And you are surprised , when we call you a fascist? You are a liberal and liberals are today’s fascists.
You are perverted by money, Vorotnikov says and I feel the urge to burst out laughing. You are a pervert. You know people are dying, children …
A counterculture to the state
For Voina, the embodiment of that materialistic worldview is the (fascist) state, the system which draws borders and ‘barred windows’ between people and material items like food. Let me call it a strategy of ‘divide and rule’, which Voina aims to counter by saying to hell with those borders, just take whatever you need and share it. Marina Akhmedova disagrees. As a journalist she wants to believe that she can change the system from within.
Vorotnikov: You are simply immersed inside the state. But when you don’t like the state, you don’t have to be part of it, you need to create an alternative.
Akhmedova: But what if I do like the state.
As a rule, people that say that they like everything, they are simply enduring. And when you talk to them, they understand that they do not like everything, goat says. They don’t like that bread costs more than 5 copecks and that public transport is expensive and getting more expensive each month. People are not happy with these things. You look different at these things, because you have your salary.
If you wish to correct the system, then there are other methods for that, I say. And don’t take offense, but those methods that you use, evoke only rejection. It’s hooliganism and that’s it.
Only fascists reject our methods.
Do you read the comments on your performances on the internet?
Those are fascist comments
But, they are people, who write them. People, whom you call fascists and to whom you say to hell with you!
They can’t be helped, Vorotnikov says gloomy.
And I [Marina Akhemdova] tell you that love and hate don’t go hand in hand. You cannot hate people and try to help them at the same time.
We don’t hate anyone.
Well, you just said so. And you managed to sling a pile of unpleasant things at me.
You are disrespectful to people, who cannot work themselves.
I don’t respect you, who can work. And what concerns disabled children. the state is obliged to help them. Not me.
The word state evokes another round of laughs and chuckles.
The state is an obsolete form, Vorotnikov says. It’s no longer needed. It only exists thanks to ‘Russian reporters’ like you [stab at the journalists magazine] and media in general]. The state impedes on us with its barred windows.
More than anarchism?
Akhmedova wants to find out if besides breaking down structures, the art group has an alternative to offer. If stealing is allowed, what about murder? And what if there would be no state, how would society deal with murderers?
Akhmedova: And what should we then do with murderers?
Vorotnikov: Do you propose to keep them in prison?
What do you propose?
We thought of this for a long time. All our ideas are liberal. That can be, because these are such times and the people have endured a lot of cruelty. We don’t need a sea of blood. We think that a murderer should be banished to an island.
Well, on an island there is nature, fish, sea.
To simply lock someone up in a prison is meaningless. A prison will only strengthen one’s worldview. While in prison, I worked on my worldview and got through the time.
But you will agree that prison time isn’t pleasant. I hope it won’t happen to you again, I say, hinting at Oleg’s and Lyonya’s recent time spent in pretrial detention.
There are simply different approaches, Lyonya adds his voice. We don’t believe in the necessity to punish a person.
But, there are no alternatives to prisons, I say.
When we don’t want a sea of blood, there are no alternatives to the island.
Personally, I am for revenge, Vorotnikov says. When someone wants to take revenge, go ahead.
And when there will be no revenge?
We don’t need the state as a punitive power separated from society.
Okay, but who will punish? Otherwise murders will freely roam over the streets carrying axes. I just can’t get the image of Raskolnikov out of my head. Perhaps, because our interview so strongly resembles the conversation between Porfiry Petrovich [the detective from crime and punishment] and Raskolnikov about special people having the right to commit crimes. Let us think of a happy country, I propose, where the state fulfills its function, it serves the people and doesn’t turn them, the people in its servant.
The state is a prison and doesn’t fulfill any sort of function at all, Vorotnikov answers. What don’t you like about our plan for an island? Is it that on an island criminals would not be punished as much as in prison.
Yes, that is exactly what I don’t like about it.
That means that you are a sadist fascist woman! Vorotnikov says with fervor.
When someone has killed, that person should be sent to prison immediately, I confirm my sadism.
They should be relocated to an island, where murder is permitted, goat says.
But that is even more cruel, I note.
When I am not prepared to kill, then I should banish that person, Vorotnikov says.
What should we think of Voina?
Personally, I would describe art group Voina as a phenomenal exponent of Russia’s counterculture, mixing the revolutionary zeal of the Bolshevik revolution with contemporary dissatisfaction with a powerful, but ineffective and often unfair state. Russia’s swift and ruthless shift to capitalism and the materialism and individualism that comes with it should not be discarded either as the undercurrents shaping their worldview. And to add a bit of a pot shot. There is also trace of that messianic sectarianism, which is not typically Russian, but without denial a recurrent trend in Russian history.
It’s very important that this counterculture finds the room to breath. When suppressed or ignored it may only get more radical and destructive. In this sense the decision to award the innovation is commendable and even groundbreaking. You could call it a public endorsement of pluralism.
At the same time, I can also understand people like journalist Akhmedova, who find it difficult to agree with their choice of methods and the ‘bright future’ they wish to accomplish. I love at least half of their performances, but I confess to be somewhat shocked by their worldview as expressed in the interview. While Voina opposes elitism, they have created a self-image of a revolutionary artist, which exempts them from the moral implications of their actions. Is this what contemporary art is about? I doubt it.
Social and political dimensions
Another article written a few months before the innovation price was awarded sums it up pretty well:
‘Voina’ is phenomenal because they cause irritation even among the people who sympathize with the traditional performance artists. The group deliberately crossed the borders of both the artistic community and the protest movement. Contemporary art gladly uses political motives, but even in its most radical forms does not allow the departure from the realm of artistic expressions. Political activists on the other hand demand clear and unequivocal slogans. ‘Voina‘ defies the rules of both communities. The groups performances thereby eliminate of the borders between these two isolated spheres.
The members of the group accuse contemporary artists of hypocrisy and complaisance, and since they do not hold back in their expressions, they have caused many discussions within the art community. Should the art community support this group which is ideologically so different from us?
By now we know that the art community, or at least the jury of the Innovation price, has come out in support of Voina. But let’s be fair. In 2010 there just wasn’t an visual art performance, which got as much public attention as Voina’s penis. All questions about aesthetics, morality and legality aside, the jury would have simply discredited themselves and the award had they picked another performance.
I am sure someone may dive into correspondence between the Ministry of Culture, whose approval is officially required to select the jury, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art and find proof of political interference or the relative lack thereof. I will only note that by decree of the Ministry Eroveyev, the curator not long ago persecuted and convicted for hurting the feelings of Orthodox believers, was included in the jury. If the authorities really intended to hold the cultural community in an stranglehold, he wouldn’t have been there in the first place.
I am however not so interested in whether that particular glass is half full or half empty. The decisive force in the decision to award the innovation price to Voina has clearly been the public and the media, which just loved the defiance represented by Voina’s phallus sticking it up against the FSB headquarters.
Comparisons between Khrushchev’s thaw and Medvedev’s presidency are exemplary, but we should not forget that Russia today is fundamentally different from the Soviet Union in the 1960s. What we see today is not the appeasement of the people with cultural liberties, it’s a cultural rejuvination. The public and foremost the younger, internet generation is in charge.
Let us therefore not equate the award for Voina’s phallus with the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’. In the time to come Russia’s cultural rejuvenation will have much more to offer than the painting of a dick.
Please, what would our grandchildren’s children think of us?