There are moments in life that make the fineries of art criticism seem inappropriate. Аesthetic differences are overshadowed by political choice: either yes or no, for or against. The arrest of two key artist-activists from the art group Voina is a case like that. On November 15, 2010, law enforcers detained Oleg Vorotnikov (aka “Vor” or “Thief”) and Leonid Nikolayev (aka “Lyonya the F*cknut”) for an action carried out two months before, in the course of which activists flipped a police car near the Mikhailovsky Castle in Petersburg, ostensibly to retrieve a child’s ball that was stuck under it, as a YouTube video – the actual artwork – shows. Though the damage was small, this was a step too far for the Petersburg police, who sent officers from Center “E” (a task force formed to combat “extremism”) on a special ops mission to Moscow to apprehend the culprits. They have been in custody ever since, on charges of aggravated criminal mischief. If they are convicted and given the maximum sentence, they face up to five years in jail.
No matter how skeptical one might be of Voina’s practices, it is impossible not to demand their immediate release. Russian law enforcers tasked with combating extremism go after artists who flip militia cars and paint phalli on bridges and charge them with hate crimes: “criminal mischief motivated by political, ideological, racist, nationalist or religious hatred or enmity against any social group whatsoever,” the social group, in this case, being the Petersburg police. This interpretation of the law stands in the same line as the application of Article 282 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code, a law designed to stop the “spread of national or religious discord,” but used to persecute curators and artists who broach Russian Orthodox religious taboos. And this while lethal right-wing extremism and national-religious fundamentalism go unchallenged, tolerated if not engineered by the state.
The perverse argument of victimization by representatives of the dominant culture will sound familiar; nationalists often construct their identitarian discourse on the “threat” by people from a “clashing civilization.” For example, when 5,000 neo-Nazi football hooligans held an unsanctioned demonstration in front of the Kremlin, their chief demand was for the state to protect them from people from Dagestan and other distant places, and law enforcers are inclined to concede to that demand to a point. Reviewing the footage of December 11, you can see Russian riot police holding back despite massive provocations and failing to protect migrants from getting beaten up, individual acts of heroism aside. According to one high-ranking law enforcement officer on TV, the police acted “loyally” until physically attacked. That is, they were “loyal” to the neo-Nazi football hooligans…
Another interesting slip of the tongue on the night of December 11 was when the head of the Interior Ministry, Rashid Nurgaliev, explained the violence as an eruption planned and inflamed by the radical left. Indeed, the so-called Centers “E” are known for harassing leftists of all ilk, including antifa activists, anarchists, and free trade unionists, as well as artists and intellectuals, simply because they are easy to raid, frame, and intimidate, though probably a little confusing to monitor. The chief instrument is that of any protection racket: undiscriminating, random violence. That is, masked Interior Ministry troops carrying automatic weapons and riot gear could bust down the door of a seminar held by leftist intellectuals, or confiscate editions of a newspaper where a libretto of a songspiel makes an unfavorable mention of Vladimir Putin. They could also randomly call in activists for questioning, and frame them with possession charges, if they prove uncooperative as in the case of Artem Loskutov in Novosibirsk, who was framed with marijuana possession charges and has been persecuted by law enforcers ever since.
Over the last years, such random violence has had a great effect, bringing home the overall securitization of Russian society (sometimes it seems like more than half of the male population work as security guards) to the art scene; it has produced a top-to-bottom system of self-censorship that runs all the way from printers and technicians, via editors, copywriters, PR specialists, and journalists to curators, critics, and artists, who collectively begin to enforce a system of taboos, if not to pander directly to those “silent majorities” that might potentially feel persecuted. Though there are not so many artists who seek permission from the Moscow Patriarchate to exhibit works with religious themes yet, the majority of Russian art professionals shies away from any politics beyond harmless spectacle, opting instead for a defense of “free art” and “autonomy,” which, under present conditions, can and should be understood as autonomy in a heavily guarded luxury ghetto (if the artist is lucky) or autonomy below the horizon of visibility or on the margins of society (if she or he is not lucky or really lucky, depending on how you see it). The right of artists to “live by their own laws” is predicated on the vast privileges of their patrons, and disappears once artists operate in the outer world in any visible manner.
Thus, it seems very tempting to defend Voina by demanding the impossible and asserting artistically motivated hooliganism’s right to offend. Andrei Erofeev, one of the defendants in the “Forbidden Art” trial and Voina’s principle supporter, makes such an argument, likening the group to firemen who break down the doors of burning buildings. This line of argumentation claims that artists should have a certain immunity from prosecution because they follow their own law, which includes the right to exercise satire and provocation, designed for minimal material damages and maximal social effect. In this argumentation, the action is obviously not motivated by political, social, national or religious hatred but by the experimental drive of the artist (in this case, the collective artist Voina); outrage and material violence (more of a threat and a taunt than a reality) are artistic devices, actor’s ploys, justifiable means subordinated to positive aesthetic and political ends. That is, Voina lays claim to a specific type of aesthetic violence that redefines art from outside its normative shell; it’s an old Dadaist method redeployed again and again throughout the twentieth century, and it only works when the transgression of aesthetic law coincides with that of administrative law, when the threat of violence and sanction are real and become self-evident, when the apparatus reacts with all its overwhelming stupidity. The apparatus’s reaction is a part of the artwork, in other words; the arrest becomes an aesthetic device, not so much a means as an ending.
What disappears, unfortunately, is the possibility to criticize Voina’s actions as art or to see them as art at all; solidarity with political prisoners requires that any discussion of their work be reduced to the level of supportive political commentary. They don’t need analysis, as long as it doesn’t directly serve the cause of vindicating them. As Ilya Budraitskis, one of the organizers of the rally held in support of Voina in Moscow on December 18, put it, “The time for aesthetic discussion about Voina was over once the activists were put in jail,” arguing that any aesthetic criticisms would, at this point, add to their predicament. Artist and theorist Anatoly Osmolovsky takes a diametrically opposed position: he writes that Voina was uninteresting to him until the arrest, and then launches into an attack on the group’s actions as a rehash of actionist strategies that he himself helped to pioneer. Osmolovsky’s article expresses a widespread sentiment that curator Oxana Sarkissian sums up: “I can’t support Voina’s artistic strategies, because they are inappropriate to our time.” Meaning: ten years of “normalization” under Putin have made radical public art impossible, and Voina, effectively, proves it yet again.
Art can only be “political” when it is criticized, attacked and/or endorsed by an art community and a broader audience, but it can only be art when the audience can appreciate, discuss, and criticize it without being held to a question like “do you want them to go to jail or not?” The point is that in the nineties, this was possible: Osmolovsky’s performance of laying out the word khui (“dick”) in human letters could be interpreted precisely because its then-still anonymous authors could successfully evade any punishment, because politics had not been silenced, but, on the contrary, was going up in flames. Moscow Actionism, one could see, was predicated on a strange power vacuum in the period of shock privatization and its political failures, a theater that unfolded in failed pubic space and an as yet uncontrolled no man’s land: it famously took the police over an hour to respond in any way to the barricade Osmolovsky built in 1998 down the road from the Kremlin. The early 2000s changed all that, redefining all the fields of visibility in Russian society, and effectively banishing artists to their autonomy zones.
Voina has flaunted those new conventions, but its actions were only art for as long as they created and exploited those new vacuums that have been arising within what outwardly seems quite forbidding and total, for as long as they evaded arrest. Of course, the risk of arrest was always part of the game; in fact, in one YouTube video, Vorotnikov taunts an employee of Center “E” and admonishes him for shaking down another activist. But arrest does not necessarily mean a cold New Year’s in prison, with the prospect of broken families. Voina was actually famous for caution, for “smart activism,” for flaunting the law without ever actually risking more than a misdemeanor. Many of my students dismiss their work not because it is risky or breaks taboos, but because it seems too calculated, planned as a spectacle with actors playing clearly defined theatrical roles, too close for comfort to the spectacular nature of football hooligan politics under Putin. One student actually said that his contacts on the radical right were big fans of Voina and saw them as brave allies in the battle against the police, obsessed with protecting its own interests (as a minority), instead of the interests of the (equally persecuted) Russian majority.
Such interpretations underscore the importance of art criticism, which suddenly seems more than appropriate, simply to avoid confusion and to keep Russian neo-Nazis from claiming Voina for themselves. Once they are released, we can discuss what might be wrong with Voina’s general pose, whether it is romantic or cynical or crazy or all of the above. We can talk about why the political motives are intentionally vague. We can wonder why Voina (and everyone else) is so clear about anti-authoritarianism but not much else. Why this obsession with the state and the elite? Isn’t it Bakuninist? Power, imagined in overly abstract terms, and countered with overly abstract means? This is typical for post-communist politics, and one of the reasons why Voina’s actions resonate so broadly. There is also a counter-tendency in Voina that seems more promising: one that addresses the dispersed violence in the everyday, as present in a nightclub frequented by neocons as in your average megamall. This could be one point to begin the discussion; another is that a lot of Voina’s work is conscious trash and camped-up kitsch, briefly captivating, but very much calculated for intermedial scandalizing effect. The rather traditional transgressive image of the romantic bohemian commune, having pregnant group sex in a zoological museum, does little to hold up the spread of fascism through the everyday, just as releasing roaches in a courtroom cannot stop yet another biased court from reading its verdict. The court can, however, stop us from ever discussing any of those topics and from seeing Voina’s actions as art, simply because it is unethical to attack them while they are in jail. In Russia, verdicts take a long time to read, and even longer to write.
Editor’s Note. To find out more about the work and history of the Voina group, the story of their arrest and updates in this case, and how you can help the arrested activists with their legal defense and in spreading the word, go to Free Voina.