If you haven’t yet made it to Chto Delat’s show at the ICA in London, The Urgent Need to Struggle, you have until October 24 to take it in. If London is too far away, here is just a little bit of what you’re missing.
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A Senseless Fax from Halifax: Nina Gasteva’s “Silent Dance”
During the only extended conversation I have had with Nina Gasteva, she told me how – during perestroika, or perhaps earlier – she and her husband had lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her husband represented the Soviet merchant (or fishing?) fleet in Halifax, and Nina took up dancing there as a way to stave off boredom and otherwise survive in an alien environment. When I first saw this video of a performance in December 2009 by Nina and her friends outside the entrance to the Petersburg Sea Port, I recalled this conversation. It occurred to me that “Silent Dance” was a kind of a message from Halifax to the regime that got Nina’s husband fired from his job, the event that was the immediate occasion of Nina’s initial solo protest performance outside the sea port in October 2009.
I don’t mean the real Halifax: I’ve never been there, and God only knows what really goes on in that fabled land. What I mean is the near-absolute incommunicability between “the current regime” in all its manifestations and ad-hoc attempts at grassroots solidarity on the part of union activists, antifascists, environmentalists, lovers of threatened old buildings, and ordinary citizens outraged at everything from police abuse to the dismantling of the last vestiges of the (post-)Soviet welfare state. Such protests are both more frequent than you would imagine if you’re transfixed by the overdetermined, nonstop performance known as “sovereign democracy” (the latest chapter in Russia’s centuries-long elaboration of the police state) and as likely to make an impression on the body politic and its media gatekeepers as a petition written in invisible ink and faxed in from Halifax.
And by “regime” I mean more than this Putinocracy. In the first instance, the regime is the place where Nina and her friends perform their dance: as a guard heard off-camera at the beginning of the video points out, the port is a rezhimnaya territoriya – literally, a “regime territory,” that is, a restricted zone, where the general public, much less a group of contemporary dancers in hats, scarves, and coats, is not expected to show its face. This regime of “regime territories” is also a regime established and reinforced by “violent entrepreneurs” (to borrow sociologist Vadim Volkov’s coinage), figured here both by the armored car (complete with a Kalashnikov-toting passenger) seen pulling up to the gates as the dancers sway imperceptibly as trees in the icy breeze, and Nina’s reference to corporate raiders, whose dirty work is often finished in Russia by armed, masked men, sometimes in state uniforms.
The effect of this top-to-bottom, violent securitization and overmapping of physical and virtual public space is, of course, stifling. It will sound like a cliché to say that the only way we can oppose this regime is to organize fragile, “senseless” gestures of solidarity within that space. When, however, this video was shown during the exhibition When One Has to Say “We”: Art as the Practice of Solidarity, at Petersburg’s European University this past spring, it elicited a spontaneous outpouring of unfeigned joy and astonishment among audience members, which is not an easy feat in a city whose cynical inhabitants have seemingly seen too much of everything. Since I was one of that tiny, joyful crowd, I can explain why we were able to instantly read Nina’s senseless fax from Halifax and why it felt to us like a minor breakthrough. Like the “friendship” that, before this performance, Nina had suspected didn’t exist, true solidarity is the self-organization of bodies (and hence of spirits) who feared they had nothing in common right in the midst of those territories where the regime wants to have nothing in common with them and for them to have nothing in common with each other.
You can find more videos of performances by Nina Gasteva here.