Monthly Archives: November 2013

Russian & British Years of Culture: A Counter Proposal

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The Obelisk of Freedom – symbol for an alternative year of Russian culture in the UK?

Next year will be the Year of Russian Culture in Britain and the Year of British Culture in Russia. According to the Guardian the highlights will be James Bond, Space travel, Stravinsky, Shakespeare, Peter Greenaway, A Monastery Choir and Malevich. In short, the kind of culture that while one is grateful for, one can hardly expect it to ruffle any feathers or to really provide any idea of real cultural developments in Russia (or Britain for that matter). There may be a few nods to some other events here and there, who knows. But let’s face it there is a lot to talk about regarding Russia that would be completely ‘off bounds’ for the prevailing establishment and, to be honest, the same could be said for Britain. In a Britain that, at least from afar, seems to be ever more culturally conservative and which descended into a hysterical monarchist frenzy during last year’s Jubilee is unlikely to offer anything radically republican and the Britain establishment are not going to ask Morrissey to give a talk about his idea of Britain in Moscow nor will it offer an exhibition about Gerrard Winstanley whose name on the demolished Obelisk to Freedom was eradicated this year to make way for the Romanovs. Probably because Winstanley’s ideas would horrify the British establishment as much as they do Vladimir Putin.

If the Year of Culture is going to be of any contemporary relevance how about planning ‘fringe’ festivals where other kinds of art would fit in, even the most radical and inconvenient.

What would the issues be that this fringe festival should not ignore?

The Clerical Assault on Culture: – The stories behind the art exhibitions under attack from ‘Beware Religion’ to ‘A Spiritual Feud’ – Discussion of the case of Anna Alchuk (hopefully with her translated poetry); an exhibition of the art work and photographs of the solidarity campaign in Russia; the autobus exhibition; invitation of people involved in this campaign.

Nationalist Terror: recalling anti-fascists and immigrants murdered by Neo Nazis, one could develop an exhibition to honour these figures. Translation of Stas Markelov’s writings (from his book in Russian ‘No One Apart From Me’), publication of a book in memory of victims of Nazi violence (the Russian writer Ilya Falkovsky himself is writing one to recall the migrant victims of Neo-Nazi terror), a showing of Valery Balayan’s film on Nastya Baburova.

Russian Actionism and recent opposition art– inviting figures historically linked to this art movement. A retrospective.

Rebuilding the Three Days in October Exhibition– curtailed by the Moscow authorities.

Other ideas/ proposals that may have much less controversy linked to them:

A film cycle devoted to underground film – the Cine Fantom phenomenon- a large retrospective.

Resisting capitalism, religion and monarchist nostalgia in post-Soviet Russian Film : a retrospectve of post-Soviet films challenging the return to a form of autocratic capitalism: for example, Lutsik’s Okraina, The Iron heel of Oligarchy; Svetlana Baskova’s For Marx etc (and maybe a Baskova retrospective) etc

An alternative political fest

For Another Utopia! Dissident Marxists in the Soviet Union : Ilyenkov, Lifshits as well as former Bolshevik dissidents, etc Radical post Soviet thinkers. Memories of another Left- recalling thinkers & their influence of the names eradicated from the Obelisk.

The Obelisk of Liberation (and early Soviet monuments)- in memory of a statue destroyed.

Feminist pencil – Lomasko and feminist cartoonists linked with the ‘Feminist Pencil’ exhibition.
Other cartoonists of the alternative art scene.

Sex of the exploited – art and philosophy inspired by the title of the book by Oxana Timofeeva, Seroe Fioletovoe, Kety Chukhrov etc but delving into the forging of a conservative morality in contemporary Russia. Inviting Evgeniy Fiks to talk about his underground history of gay Moscow etc.

Civil Poets – Kirill Medvedev and others.

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Reaction in Russia to ‘Fixation’: 1) Pavlensky’s post-act interview

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Pyotr Pavlensky

The reaction to Pyotr Pavlensky’s act in Red Square in many ways seems to have been a shorter lived one than expected. It has been rather difficult to find an article of any length in the world press that tries to ‘fix’ Pavlensky’s act in any context- whether political, social or historical. Not many words have even been wasted on the question “Is this art?” Of the single article that tried to contextualise the act historically in terms of shocking performance art, one would be hard put to find much in this but a listing of the first ten performances that came into the columnists head. It was, perhaps, only Masha Gessen’s short blog piece for the New York Times ( Self-Mutilation on Red Square ) which included a couple of comments from Russian art critics and tried to supply, at least a minimum of information relevant to an understanding of the action. In Russia, itself, there were a number of commentators willing to take the action seriously (as well as the occasional interview with Pavlensky himself), although many treated the act as most Western media did – as pure titillation. Echo Moskvy, the mininally liberal and oppositional radio statement decided to give their listeners a vote on whether Pavlensky should be sent to a psychiatric hospital.

Here in this first of two posts is Pavlensky’s own comments on this action taken from an interview with Yulia Gusarova for Snob.

PAVLENSKY’S OWN COMMENTS.

In my previous articles here I have translated an interview in which Pavlensky reflects on his own philosophy of art and actionism as well as his statement regarding the act itself. However, Pavlensky has given a more recent account of his performance and his own reasoning for this performance since the act itself in an interview published in ‘Snob’ magazine.

Discussing how he originally studied as a mural artist for the Stiglitz Academy, he stated how he was radicalized by the Pussy Riot trial. Expected that artists would react in as equally powerful a way as the state had done in imprisoning the punk trio and seeing that the art world only replied with speeches he decided that it was his own duty to do something himself. Creating an artistic character who bordered on the absurd while spouting a mixture of fundamentalist nonsense with occasionally intelligent statements, one of the slogans of this artistic character that he coined then was used for his performance where he sewed his mouth shut. This performance (sewing his mouth shut as metaphor of the demands of the regime to remain silent regarding the Pussy Riot Trial) both textual and visual, led him into thinking about the use of the body as a metaphor of the demands of power. The performance “Fixation” was also in its own way using the body to symbolise the requirements of power. Pavlensky mentioned how he had heard while being detained how as a reaction to increased repression in the jails, prisoners used gestures of fixing their their bodies to some object as their own form of reaction. He wanted also to add his own idea about the act of looking to this performance demonstrating how people simply watching pain and discomfort adds in its own way to the apathy and indifference of contemporary society.

Pavlensky also mentions a curiosity of his about building some kind of construction on the territory of power with which power wouldn’t know how to cope with. He further stated that he reached a condition in which he felt fear of the very idea of not being able to react to what was happening. With this kind of paralysing fear that non-action would lead him to not live his life normally, Pavlensky managed to act in a way which he wouldn’t do in his normal circumstances. In normal everyday life Pavlensky describes himself as a very calm person.

He spoke of his refusal to work for galleries and ‘to order’ because he wouldn’t be acting in the sphere of power which his actions are directed against. He also named a number of artists who have influenced him including Caravaggio, Chris Burden, Santiago Sierra (especially regarding his approach to the use of the body as material) and Avdei Ter Oganian (for his artistic response to the growth of a fascisitizing process in society as well as the growth of Rightist popular moods). Asked about Marina Abramovic he finds hers a rather “Hollywood” type of performance artist doing performance in an institutionalized context- Chris Burden’s ‘Shoot’ performance had already taken place outside this context and was, thus, far more radical. For him the Pussy Riot performance was a victory in the cultural field of art over power and clericalization. Although power, of course, would not react to this defeat in any way.

Pyotr Pavlensky in his own words about actionism and transgression. (Interview with Ivan Chuvilaev for Colta.ru)

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This interview was given by Pyotr Pavlensky on September 24th as part of an unsanctioned exhibition of political art at the Hermitage courtyard and timed to coincide with the publication of the journal “Political Propaganda”. For a little less than half an hour volunteers held up large reproductions of works by Anatlya Ulyanov, Oleg Mavromati and other artists who have serious legal problems. Until the exhibition wasn’t dispersed, Pyotr Pavlensky spoke with Ivan Chuvilaev about the language of actionism and the transgression of limits

The article in Russia is published here: http://www.colta.ru/articles/society/1088

Pyotr Pavlensky’s action ‘Carcass’


-Could you explain first what this ‘Political Propaganda’ review and this exhibition represents?
The publication was open a little less than a year ago, notice was given in the media and we spread the word through the social networks. As far as the exhibition is concerned the need for such a project became obvious after the summer when the show trial against Pussy Riot was over and it became clear at that very moment that a situation had arisen in which political art was necessary not just as one of the many forms but as a potential resistance against cultural chauvinism. The church and the state had become intertwined as a single apparatus and were promoting a single ideology. There was a concerted attack against art itself so that it would find itself under a vigilant eye- persecution, censorship, show trials. They wanted to demonstrate what could happen to those who speak out. It’s clear that there are protests in the streets going on but a very concrete massacre is taking place in the cultural sphere. The Russian Orthodox Church is aiming for a hegemonic role, power over people’s minds, for a monopoly over spiritual life. I myself studied at a number of artistic institutions … and I saw how people are manipulated, ‘formatted’. In six years a servile employee is formed from what could potentially have been a fine artist. There are departments of monumental painting where students are taught to serve clerical and state agencies, not to reflect on problems or work with materials in a new way but simply to exist according to the needs of state and church institutions.
– In your view, what is the meaning of an artists existence in such a situation?
There are actions – works in public spaces which, in my view, are more effective in the here and now. There is a link with the context and the public, it engages with you as an artist and comes into contact with you. An enormous quantity of people are drawn in, people who start to evaluate the action, reflect on the theme. And in this sense – yes, actionism – is an art for people and not simply for a closed art community. But one must understand that in so far as a massive and manifold attack is being unleashed against art, one single tactic is insufficient. It is necessary to reflect theoretically on what is happening. Besides a visual expression of speaking out there are also interviews, interpretations which are undoubtedly needed not as supplements but as valid things in themselves. This conceptualisation in terms of the “Propaganda” format is very important for me.
– In fact I saw some rhythm between the action at the Kazansky Cathedral when you sewed up your mouth and the exhibition at the Hermitage.
No, I rather see as aunity the action at Kazansky Cathedral and the action at the Legislative Assembly in Saint Petersburg (in which Pavlensky lay inside a roll of barbed wire – eds note)- here the speaking out takes place through the act of self aggression in relation to the body. My body becomes then a model of the social. I, for example, show what is happening with the other. But with the exhibition something else is happening. There is simple a layer/stratum of culture which people refuse to take as culture because it refuses to act within those rules, in short, not having any real meaning. This, too, is a kind of cultural chauvinism- a distinction of culture between the ‘correct kind’ and ‘incorrect kind’. There are no standards. But, nonetheless, there are some borders, yet there shouldn’t be. Take Anatoly Moskvin (the necropolist from Nizhny Novgorod – eds note) who we included as a participant in the exhibition. One can say what one likes about him but what he worked on was very close to artistic practice. But he didn’t come through that door, he didn’t declare himself to be an artist. One can take one’s own risks, incorporate him into a group of artists, delegate him with a mandate.

Pavlensky stands outside Kazan Cathedral with his mouth sewn up and a placard stating that ‘The Perforamnce by Pussy Riot was a replay of the famous action by Jesus Christ’


– By the way by including Moskvin in the list of authors, one can see a kind of provocation…
No, we have a definite conception- we struggle against the status of self-affirmation. When a person declares “I am an artist” and then only people regard him as an artist from this point. We insist there are no limits to art, art can be that which initially doesn’t set itself up as art. Otherwise everything is based on a kind of ‘poserdom’ or fakery. One needs to destroy this system introducing in the field of art such figures. And now the normative borders have begun to change, they have become more severe. Innocent gestures are becoming classed as extremist and an obedient society is being created whereby he who wears a paster strainer with spaghetti on his head can be included in the list of dangerous extremists. This is simply laughable. Moskvin is still being taught a lesson for his challenge to these repressive institutions.
– So it seems that the essential problem lies in how to explain how to exist outside of the frames when there are frames all around one.
– Of course one needs to force out these frames- normativity is provisional. Even for art itself this closing in oneself and limiting one’s circle is harmful. In this way art devours itself.
– More simply put by playing by the rules one needs to find room in such a childish lullaby.
Yes one can find room only if one saws one’s head off. But these rules are ephemeral, artificial. One can and must ignore them when one is prepared that the reaction of power can happen at any moment. But this is a necessary element of risk, one must not be hung up over this fact. This fear will steadily vanish.

Pavlensky’s latest most scandalous action.

On other recent protests in Moscow.

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That Pyotr Pavlensky’s latest actionist protest is likely to be the talking point in future days should not mean that we ignore other recent protests which are also of significance. Moreover, Pavlensky’s act in itself is as much an action of symbolic (and real) despair as anything else- the fact that an artist is willing to go to such lengths of potential self-harm should surely open up wider questions after the first exclamations of horror or raptures at such an extreme act of artistic scandal. That Pavlensky’s act alone is unlikely to stir this narcoleptic society suggests, at the very least, that the goals of actionism and its aims are as yet fairly wide apart.

That the Russian government is able to keep silent the whereabouts of Nadezhda Tolokonnikov for almost three weeks without any extreme indignation from any significant sector of Russian society still points to the fact that a form of indifference is hanging like a heavy cloud over Russian society. Whether it is indifference or an anomic generalized fear is hard to tell. All the same Pavlensky’s protest marks (whatever the amount of sympathy one may have for his extreme attempt to draw attention to society’s narcolepsy) potentially a low point as well as any high point that it may represent for actionism as such. Beyond this point it seems that art actionism is unable to advance ‘artistically’ without some truly suicidal action. In one’s more sceptical moments one feels that there is almost a hidden ‘market’ for this form of Russian protest- individualized, spectacular but as yet unable to reawaken society as a whole. So however powerful this action was, however scandalous it doesn’t look like it will be accompanied by any real change in social mentality.

It is important not to forget that other protests, too, have taken place in recent days. Small protests but indicative that the more openly political action is not at times without its creative side. On the 7th November Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s birthday was celebrated clandestinely in Moscow thus:

In an action aimed at highlighting the death by suicide of a Russian oppositionist at a Dutch detention centre early this year (and the failure of the Dutch authorities to fully investigate this fact), tomatoes were thrown by members of the Dutch Royal Family at their visit to Moscow. Interestingly, enough it was Liberals in Russia who were most condemnatory of this action with the nominally opposition radio station Ekho Moskvy calling the two members of the National Bolsehvik Party ‘hooligans’ and other justifying a punishment of fiteen days detention for the pair.

Anti monarchists start their own tour around the exhibition devoted to the 400th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty

Another action of note is related to the attempt of Russian authorities to ram down people’s throats a monarchist rewriting of history and this has included the opening of an exhibition devoted to 400 years of the Romanovs. A group of anti-monarchists turned up with their own guide to give their own reading of events with recitals of anti-monarchist poems and their own version of history. They also turned up wearing t-shirts proclaiming ‘Thanks great grandad for the victory’ referring to the overthrow of the monarchy by early 20th century revolutionaries. Interestingly other people at the exhibition were said to have applauded the recitation of anti monarchist poetry by many of Russia’s great poets and although the security guards were wary and nervous they didn’t prevent the excursionists from completing their tour. The alternative activist tour guide could be an excellent idea for Republicans in Britain too. In short, this action although small scale had a certain effect at least on the social surroundings and was rather original in form and content.

As well as Pyotr Pavlensky’s action on Red Square on November 10th, the previous four activists staged an impormptu demonstration to celebrate the day against fascism, racism and anti-semitism commemorating Kristallnacht. They were detained almost immediately by the police in the aquare:

One of the less reported stories is of the second strike at the Antolin factory in the region outside of Saint Petersburg. An attempt by the company to sack striking workers was met by more industrial action. These are a number of the small hopeful signs of an opposition to the regime coming the left and socialists instead of the nationalists with their pogroms and Russian marches. Any increase in working class organisation like from the workers at Antolin can only bring some more real hope that society is slowly reawakening from its narcolepsy.

“Stop pressuring the strikers workers of Antolin”

Pyotr Pavlensky & his extreme protest against state repression and societal indifference

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Pyotr Pavlensky sews his mouth in action against repression of Pussy Riot

Pyotr Pavlensky’s latest protest action against police repression by nailing his scrotum to a hole between Red Square paving stones.

Russian actionism has reached a new extreme in the latest protest by Pyotr Pavlensky who ‘celebrated’ the day of the Russian policeman by nailing his genitals to a hole between the cobblestones on Red Square. An action which had as its raison d’etre a protest against state repression.In many ways he repeats the self-harm ethos of the Viennese actionists while lending it a social and political context. His actions have engendered quite a lively discussion regarding whether the action was justified or not.

Here, however, is his own statement and his own rationale:

The action can be seen as a metaphor of the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of contemporary Russian society. It is not bureaucratic lawlessness which deprives society of the possibility to act but the obsession with our defeats and losses which nail us ever more into the Kremlin’s paving stones, creating an army of stuffed dummies patiently awaiting their fate.

Now as the authorities turn the country into one large penal colony, openly robbing the population and sending the proceeds so as to increase and enrich police apparatuses and other security services, society is allowing this tyranny and through its inaction the triumph of a police state is drawing nearer.

Russian Digest-A selection of Articles from the Russian Press: October / November 2013.

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Here is another selection of news, articles,videos and information regarding Russia which may be of some interest but which has not been very well-reported elsewhere:

1913 Moscow Firefighters

1. The Russian cultural theorist, film scholar and art historian, Mikhail Yampolsky, wrote an article for Colta.ru in which he tried to explain the central role that homosexuality has played in contemporary Russian political discourse. Trying to argue from a historical angle and analyzing the links in official discourse between homosexuality and children, he looks at how homophobia is contextualized in terms of demographics but also in how different bases for the family have arisen throughput history. Yampolski’s article can be found here.

2. I’ve written about the Media Impact (Media Udar) International Festival on art activists on these pages already. However, there are a number of articles, including an interview with the co-ordinator of the Feminist Pencil part of the Festival, Victoria Lomasko, which was printed in Novaya Gazeta. She talks about street art, the importance of the social in art and about women in art. An English-language article in the Moscow Times on the film showing of United in Anger on the ACT UP organisation in the US during the 80s and 90s is available here.

a) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n74IJ3sLNzs – Left Rap on Patriotism by Roman Osminkin.

3. Andrey Arkhangelsky wrote an interesting piece comparing how liberals and the pro-Kremlin press wrote about migrants after the recent pogrom and found all too-many commonalities. The metaphors and images were often identical. For Arkhangelsky (himself a liberal in many ways) “One can’t be a Liberal without Others. In short, there is no Liberalism without Others”. His article entitled Why we are not Liberals underlines that both Russian Liberals and Russian Conservatives are united in searching for a world without others.

b) Soviet Still Lifes

4. The Ural Worker printed an interview with the theatre critic and translator of Russian drama, John Freedman, who has lived in Russia for almost a quarter of a century. An interview on culture and migration as well as on being a “Russian American”.

c) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBXjwwUc2sA – Arkady Kots band singing Fyodor Sologub’s “A Spine-chilling Lullaby” which was devoted to the Beilis case 100 years ago.

5. The controversial Russian writer Edward Limonov recalls how he translated some of Lou Reed’s lyrics into Russian in 1977 while living as a Soviet ‘dissident’ (most of his dissent had as its target other Soviet dissidents as well as the American set up). Delighted to find lyrics about decadent life on New York’s Lower East Side and about police raids he set to work on translating them. No Russian language publication would take them though.

6. Viktor Golyshev tries to answer the question ‘How to Read Andrey Platonov’? – a fine essay and interview about reading one of Russia’s most original twentieth century writers.

Andrey Platonov

d) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS3m2hhWvZY – Elem Klimov short satirical film on Sole Fathers from 1968.

7. E-Flux has a fine article by Gleb Napreenko On the Format of the Divine in which he brilliantly characterizes the unbearable stuffiness of contemporary religious conservatism in today’s Russia. The article here is in English translation. Its conclusion deserves being quoted in full:

Of course, anarchist impulses of irritation in the spirit of Celine’s novels—destructive, sexualized, and subversive—are not enough to change the situation, as enlivening as they might be. But this impulse merely points toward the boiling up of the repressed and the discarded. What can we do so that to this boiling up isn’t just “bourgeois culture turned inside out”? How do we keep it from being reduced to the convulsion of delirium that falls upon the first victim at hand (“clammy palms,” “inner smile,” “voluptuous Russian Orthodoxy”)?

We need another system to give rise to meaning, one that does not delimit form from content, a delimitation that has the triumph of form as its consequence. Not the power of consensus, not the power of an ossified party or a church, not the power of capital or the image-makers. It’s time to grow flowers on garbage. That was the basis for hope once vested in the revolutionary role of the proletariat.

8. A Moscow Times photographic article on the Moskva-Petushky immortalized by Venedikt Erofeyev is of interest too.

9. Alexei Tsvetkov has written a fine essay on Evald Ilyenkov which was translated on these pages and for the anniversary of the Russian Revolution a few days ago wrote another though-provoking essay on the meaning of this revolution as well as a kind of nostalgic look at the dream of Communism which never came to fruition during Soviet times. A dream of communism present in Soviet era science fiction for which the struggle is, in some way, still realizable now if humanity could make the effort. His article ends with these words:

We could have been born much later and lived in a world where there is no class antagonism, world imperialism, exploitation and inequality allowing the 1% to stand self-assured on the shoulders of the 99%. But we live in the here and now and this means that we have an important chance to create this very type of world.

Storming of the Winter Palace

Do you remember revolution? Images from Italy 1977.

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Here are a few images of Italy mainly from 1977. One of the most interesting moments of post-war European history when tanks were sent to quell a revolt in red Bologna and the British and French governments were contemplating a coup d’etat to prevent Italy from sliding into revolution. Italy’s long cycle of struggles from 1968/9 to the late seventies are, in many ways, far more interesting than France’s 1968 but far less well-known. Here is a small selection of images. In the coming months a larger selection of texts will explore some of the phenomena linked with these images.

“the city was running alive with housing occupations, auto-reduction struggles, spontaneous unauthorised demonstrations, and “Mao-Dada” provocations at official ceremonies and demonstrations”

Francesco LoRusso, a member of Lotta Continua, shot dead by carabinieri in Bologna, March 1977

Bologna, 11/03/77

Bologna, 11/03/78 foto di Enrico Scuro

Radio Alice – the voice of the ‘movimento del ’77’, closed by the carabinieri in March 1977.

Bologna, March 1977

Feminist Demonstration

“Re Nudo” (The Naked King)- a counter-cultural magazine.

Fumetti of Andrea Pazienza

Metropolitan Indians

Let’s take over the city

Il Male – satrical journal

Fake copy of Paese Sera (made by Il Male) which states that one of Italy’s most well-known actors is the head of the Red Brigades

Newspaper headline about police clash with leftists who sell cinema tickets at reduced prices (in practice known as autoriduzione)

Another underground satirical magazine ‘ Cannibale’ founded in 1977.