Waging War (Sergey Chernov interviews Oleg Vorotnikov)

The St. Petersburg Times
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Waging War
Now in hiding, the award-winning, politically minded Voina art group is preparing a new stunt
By Sergey Chernov

The state’s pressure on the radical art group Voina — famous for its spectacular stunts spoofing the Russian authorities and the police — has increased in recent days, despite the broad recognition the group garnered after winning an important state-sponsored art prize, invitations to high-profile international art events, and the worldwide attention they have attracted.

Late last week, a local Petersburg court confiscated the bail money deposited for the release of Oleg Vorotnikov, the group’s de facto leader. The money (300,000 rubles, or $10,800) had been donated by British street artist Banksy from the proceeds of a special print sale in support of the group’s arrested members. The court ruled that Vorotnikov should be detained and placed in a pre-trial detention center for two months; it also issued an international search warrant for him. A national search warrant for Vorotnikov had been issued in May.

Despite attempts by officials to exclude Voina from the list of nominees, the Innovation Prize was awarded to them for “Dick Captured by the FSB” – a huge image of a penis painted on Liteiny Bridge, near the local headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB), in June 2010. The artists, however, are facing criminal prosecution for another stunt, “Palace Revolution,” which reportedly involved the overturning of one or more police cars in St. Petersburg in September 2010.

According to the artists, the action was a metaphorical demand for reform of the Interior Ministry and an end to police lawlessness.

In November 2010, Voina’s Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev were arrested in a Moscow apartment and taken in a bus, handcuffed and with plastic bags over their heads, to St. Petersburg, where they were charged with criminal mischief motivated by hatred toward a particular social group (in this case, the police) and remanded to a pre-trial detention center for three months. The offence is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

After Vorotnikov and Nikolayev were released on bail in February, the group became seriously involved in civil rights activism by helping prisoners whose sentences or lengthy pre-trial detentions appear to be connected with their political activism.

The artists have used the remainder of Banksy’s donation (4.5 million rubles, or $160,735) to help a number of political prisoners such as Taisia Osipova, a woman from Smolensk, in western Russia, who has been charged with drugs possession. Her supporters claim that police planted the drugs they allegedly found in her apartment during a search. Osipova is in her ninth month of pre-trial detention despite the prosecution’s dubious case, and despite the fact that she suffers from diabetes and has a young daughter.

Human rights organizations see her imprisonment as an attempt to halt the political work of her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, an activist with The Other Russia opposition party.

Voina members also did a photo session with Osipova’s five-year old daughter Katrina to raise public awareness of the case. They have sent various sums from Banksy’s donation to support other imprisoned activists, including Petersburg anti-fascist Rinat Sultanov, who was sentenced to two years in prison in April for his alleged role in a street brawl with neo-Nazis in November 2008.

Oleg Vorotnikov and Katrina, daughter of the imprisoned Taisia Osipova. Photo by Vladimir Telegin

Earlier this month, Voina donated 400,000 rubles ($14,400), the entire sum of their Innovation Prize money, to the Agora Human Rights Association, a Moscow-based organization whose lawyers have provided legal assistance to the group and other activists.

A new criminal case against Vorotnikov was launched in April after he and his wife, Voina member Natalya “Kozlyonok” Sokol, were arrested during a March 31 opposition rally. He faces up to five years in prison for alleged disorderly conduct, violence against a police officer, and insulting a police officer.

Earlier this month, Sokol was also named as a suspect in the case. Investigators claim she insulted a police officer, an offence punishable by up to one year of correctional labor. Vorotnikov and Sokol have a two-year-old son, Kasper.

Despite this persecution, Vorotnikov — who is now in hiding — said in a recent exclusive interview with The St. Petersburg Times that through its clandestine practices Voina has helped art to stay alive and brought it back into the limelight.

After winning the Innovation Prize, Voina was harshly criticized by sections of the media and the public. What is your reaction?

I don’t expect sympathy toward our art from anybody. And I’m always surprised when people say they like Voina. I then take a closer look at those people. Almost all of them live hard lives, and many have grief, losses, and disappointments in their past. The passions that have injured those people! But they’re still full of hope. These are the most interesting people in the world. It’s their scars and defects that make them lovable. I can imagine how, during sex, they touch and kiss the scars on each other’s bodies. There’s no other reason to love someone in this life. Kasper already has scars from the cops.

Voina’s work and political activities have unexpectedly drawn criticism from some people who see themselves as leftists.

The thing is that Voina reveals certain concealed and, say, reactionary qualities in people. I agree with observers who have noted that, compared to Voina, many leftists are not leftists at all, but rather centrists, maybe even rightward-leaning centrists. Before Voina, they were extremely leftist, leftist radicals, and then suddenly it turned out that they were simply philistines. They’re people who live on grants and write articles, and who imitate real protest work with such activities. So with the emergence of Voina, all of a sudden they’ve moved from the left flank toward reaction.

Yes, we fight the regime, because the powers that be are philistine and narrow-minded in the same way. All their ideals begin and end with a helicopter and a villa. Then they go for two helicopters, four villas. And that’s it: they don’t go any further; their ambitions don’t soar any higher. In that sense, we are against philistines. The philistines are our enemy. The regime is just a particular problem of our war.

So the philistines have taken up arms against us: they’ve seen that we’re against them. There are a lot of philistines: all of society has become philistine; the nation has become almost wholly philistine. In this sense, our struggle is quite an idealistic one. Because everybody sees it as an attack on themselves, an attack on the cozy aspects of their lives.

The critics seem especially annoyed by the fact that you take Kasper to your stunts and protest demos.

They get so hysterical over Kasper because it’s an affront to the cozy aspects of their lives. They’re used to handing their kids over to someone else and going out to make money. For Koza (Sokol) and Kasper, it was a shock when the cops separated them for over twenty-four hours: they had never been apart for so long.

But the public object. They say, “If they’re together all the time, what do they live on? It means they’re not poor. It means they’re well-off people or bohemians.”

They can’t even imagine a different situation. That we stick together not because we have a lot of money, but for different, ideological reasons. So our life is based on that. We’re with Kasper [all the time], and so Kasper makes us bend to his life.

Now many people have begun to realize that our war is endless, that it’s broader than just a war against some absurd criminal, gangster regime. It’s more a struggle against an abnormal attitude to life.

The fact that the prize, founded by the Culture Ministry, went to “Dick Captured by the FSB” did shock and upset many people.

Everybody went into hysterics. How can this be? A dirty dick is getting a prize! It was kind of an insult to them, to their finest petit-bourgeois sensibilities.

It’s wonderful that it happened, really. This is a real slap in the face of public taste! The joke was played out to the end: it didn’t remain on the level of marginal manifestos or underground exhibitions – although we are against officialdom, of course.

The joke is that they [the public] did not see the Dick before [it was awarded the prize]. They could allow themselves to turn a blind eye to it, because it was not approved at the top.

But now it’s like matchsticks have been stuck in their eyes and they just can’t close them. In the shape of the award, of the statuette, the Dick is always before them. They cannot help but see it, even if they would be glad not to. That drives them crazy.

I think art is also didactic and has educational goals. By struggling against the authorities, we’re also educating the people. It’s all very Russian.

Can you explain your method of working illegally?

It’s very important to work outside the institutions. They’re trying now to herd art into institutions, and many leftists such as [artist Anatoly] Osmolovsky welcome it. They simply think that the main problem of contemporary Russian art is the fact that we are not educated, that we have no degree programs in [contemporary] art.

But we show that the opposite is the case: that our salvation lies exactly in the fact that we don’t have these degrees. That we are cut off, not tied down, that we don’t walk like cows or calves on a lead. If we were on a leash, we wouldn’t be able to carry out our actions in the way we have. We would do something pathetic, something “creative” in the worst sense of that word. That’s why art should try as hard as it can to stay independent — even if it’s bad for your health, even if you might wind up with a prison term. Although it might be fraught with hardships for the individual, it’s the only way for art to survive.

The authorities began to persecute artists as early as the Yeltsin years, didn’t they?

Formally, it’s true. They started to persecute Avdei [Ter-Oganyan] for hacking up icons in 1998. But now I think we have recaptured a lot of space, because contemporary art — partly because of us — makes news. Before that news came from political life, public life, war, statements by prime ministers and maybe sports.

But now art is on an equal footing. If you look at the headlines, art makes news [as much as any other topic]. I don’t think there has been anything like this since the days of Leo Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn. Art hasn’t been a newsmaker for a long time. That is a big achievement.

Your art stunts appear to be firmly linked to a specific city.

Yes, our actions are always linked to a concrete location. It would be wrong to say that they’re universal, that they could be taken to any city and performed there. On the contrary, we arrive at a location and have a look around.

Our Moscow actions were very Moscow-oriented, like “A Cop in a Priest’s Cassock,” where I dressed up as a “priest cop” and shoplifted an expensive supermarket. There are simply no such shops in St. Petersburg, the insanely posh ones. So I went into one of those unbelievably posh supermarkets and shoplifted it. It was a very Moscow thing.

“Dick Captured by the FSB” or “Palace Revolution” could have hardly happened in Moscow.

When we’re [planning our actions], we walk around Petersburg, thinking, “This can be done here, and that can be done there.” Say, the installation in front of the Russian Museum (“Palace Revolution”) was not accidental. It’s very important that it was right in front of the entrance.

Few people have noticed that artistically it’s important that we showed that the main work of art is not inside the museum, but outside, near the entrance. It’s very important, you see? That was also decided on right on the spot.

I can hardly imagine what kind of action I would make in London. A funny thing once happened to us. We had an exhibition in Zagreb. We arrived there, and [the organizers] met us with open arms. They said, “It’s great that you came as a group. We’ve already agreed with the mayor’s office that you can do whatever your hearts desire here.” We said, “What the hell! You’ve robbed us of the chance to do an action here.”

But then I took a walk around and realized that even if they hadn’t robbed us of this chance by making an agreement with the mayor’s office, we would have been out of context there anyway.

It’s a totally different life. Our actions can’t be transplanted [to different cities] because they’re specific. The Petersburg actions are very Petersburg. The Moscow actions are very Moscow. Location is an important factor.

Does the radical form your work takes have something to do with the abnormality of the current political situation in this country?

That’s how they see our work in the West. We get letters from American universities (from students and teachers) all the time. They inform us they’re writing an honor’s thesis about our work, which they find very interesting. Then they tell us how they interpret our actions: the abnormal situation in Russia deprives people of the chance to influence events using standard protest methods like pickets whose goal is to directly identify a problem and insist that it be solved immediately. But these don’t work, and so those American students think that the need for this form — for nonstandard protests — was forced on us. It’s an interesting take, but it’s only one aspect of the problem, and somewhat superficial in my opinion. It’s more of a journalistic viewpoint.

If you go deeper, I think our actions are rooted in Russian culture. Russians are like our actions. Russians are precisely just such a people, with a touch of madness.

Your work has been described as “true Russian folk art.” Do you agree?

That’s probably right. We do try to speak on behalf of the people.

_______

en.free-voina.org/post/6755542565

World Organization Against Torture demands immediate release of Taisia Osipova

Eric Sottas, Director of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) in Geneva, has submitted an open letter to Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, demanding a prompt medical examination and treatment for Taisia Osipova, as well as her release in the absence of valid legal charges.

OPEN LETTER TO MR. DMITRY ANATOLYEVICH MEDVEDEV
PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION

Geneva, 21 June 2011

Re: Fear for the physical and psychological integrity of Ms. Taisia Osipova – Denial of adequate medical treatment

Your Excellency,

The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), the largest Network of NGOs fighting against torture, summary executions, enforced disappearances and all other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in the world, is writing to you to express its concern about the serious health problems of Ms. Taisia Osipova, 26 years old, who is currently detained in poor conditions in the pre-trial detention centre (SIZO) 1, in Smolensk, province of Smolensk. She has been denied adequate medical treatment since her arrest on 23 November 2010, although she is suffering from multiple chronic diseases.

OMCT has been informed by reliable sources that, on 23 November 2010, around 20 policemen and officers from the Department to Combat Extremism entered violently Ms. Taisia Osipova’s house, in Smolensk. The officers reportedly went from one room to another turning everything upside down while forcing Ms. Taisia Osipova to stay with her daughter in one of the rooms. Ms. Taisia Osipova was arrested and brought to the pre-trial detention centre (SIZO) 1, in Smolensk, after the officers allegedly found five packs of greyish substance among her daughter’s clothes and a marked 500-ruble note. Upon arrival at the detention centre, she was examined by a prison doctor only for bruises on her arms that she sustained during the arrest.

Ms. Taisia Osipova was later charged with illegal distribution of drugs by the Zadneprovskiy district court, in Smolensk, and she was remanded in custody pending investigation. On 3 May 2011, the court refused to release her on bail. The following hearing has been scheduled for 21 June 2011.

Since her arrest, Ms. Taisia Osipova has reportedly suffered pressure by officers of the Department to Combat Extremism in order to obtain a confession to the alleged aforementioned crime and information about her husband, who is a senior member of the political opposition party, Drugaya Russia[1].The pressure has reportedly included threats to remove her parental right over her daughter if she refuses to collaborate; poor conditions of detention (she is held in a tiny cell with six more persons although the cell is meant for four persons, with no running water. Despite the temperature of more than 20 degrees, the windows are tightly shut up with two frames. The official Russian radio is reportedly on the whole day which makes it impossible to have any rest) and denial of adequate medical treatment, although she has been suffering from sugar diabetes, pancreatitis, chronic pyelonephritis and chronic toxic-allergic hepatitis.

According to the same information received, Ms. Taisia Osipova was diagnosed with sugar diabetes type 1 in 2005, at the Hospital of Smolensk. She had been under insulin treatment and she had been controlling her sugar level with a glucometer since then. However, she has been denied adequate medical follow-up, including the use of a glucometer, and she has not been provided a diabetic diet since her arrest. In December 2010, she reportedly suffered a hypoglycemic coma but she was neither hospitalised nor examined by a prison doctor. She was only later in the month examined by a prison doctor who reportedly diagnosed a diabetes type 2, although she had been suffering from diabetes type 1 since 2005. Ms. Taisia Osipova was informed about the result only through her lawyer, who himself got the information from the media.

Ms. Taisia Osipova had also been under medical treatment for chronic pyelonephritis, pancreatitis and chronic toxic-allergic hepatitis, diseases that were diagnosed in 2009, at the Uromed hospital, in Smolensk. Nevertheless, she has also not been provided with adequate medical care for these diseases since her arrest. After several requests to the prison administration, an ultrasound scanning was eventually conducted on Ms. Taisia Ospivoa in March 2011. However, she only received the medical report in May 2011 and it reportedly stated that she did not suffer from any of the aforementioned diseases. It is feared that the report was fabricated. OMCT has also been informed that the prison authorities have threatened Ms. Taisia Osipova with reprisals, including solitary confinement, if she would continue to complain about her conditions of detention and the lack of adequate medical treatment.

At the same time, Ms. Taisia Osipova’s lawyer reportedly presented several requests for a complete medical check-up of Ms. Taisia Osipova on the basis of Article 110, paragraph 1.1 of the Code of Criminal Procedures of the Russian Federation, which allows for the provisional release from pre-trial detention of individuals with serious health conditions (including diabetes type 1), but to no avail. Ms. Taisia Osipova’s lawyer subsequently filed a lawsuit before the Leninskiy district court of Smolensk. On 16 June 2011, the court reportedly ordered the prison administration to ensure a medical examination of Ms. Taisia Osipova. To date, no such medical examination was carried out.

The International Secretariat of OMCT is concerned about the physical and psychological integrity of Ms. Taisia Osipova. OMCT has been informed that Ms. Taisia Osipova’s health has deteriorated. She has lost weight and suffers from accrue pain in the kidneys area. She has also reportedly developed allergy to some unidentified source. OMCT fears that adequate medical examination and treatment are being denied to Ms. Taisia Osipova to put pressure on her. OMCT is concern also about her conditions of detention and the circumstances of her arrest.

OMCT recalls that the Russian Federation is legally bound to effectively ensure the physical and psychological integrity of all persons deprived of liberty in accordance with regional and international human rights law, and in particular, the European Convention on Human Rights, the recommendations of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Accordingly, OMCT calls on the competent authorities to ensure that Ms. Taisia Osipova is promptly examined by independent doctors and that she receives adequate medical treatment. OMCT also urges the competent authorities to release her in the absence of valid legal charges and judicial process consistent with international legal standards, or if such charges exist, bring her before an impartial and competent tribunal and guarantee her procedural rights at all times.

OMCT hopes that the concerns expressed in this letter will receive the attention they deserve.

Yours sincerely

Eric Sottas

Secretary General, OMCT

[1] Drugaya Russia is a non-registered party that was created on the basis of the coalition under the same name after it fell apart. The coalition was the moving force of Dissenters’ Marches held in the period of 2006 to 2008.

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Filed under activism, contemporary art, interviews, political repression, Russian society

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