With the news that the actionist artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been sent to the notorious Serbskiy Institute of Psychiatry in a clear case of punitive psychiatry (for more on this case and its context read an excellent blog post here: https://peopleandnature.wordpress.com/2016/02/17/russia-punishment-psychiatry-back-in-vogue/), there is clearly a need to highlight and protest this fact. But also a need to listen to the ideas of and concepts of Pavlensky himself. Here is a small extract that was published in a Russian magazine and will be part of a forthcoming book on the artist in the context of Russian actionism.
The original interview with Anastasia Belyaeva was printed in Snob magazine on the 16th February, 2016 (and is an extract from a forthcoming book).
It’s recently been announced that the organisers of the “Innovation” Art Prize have removed the action “Threat” by Pyotr Pavlensky (in which he set fire to the doors of the FSB building in Moscow). This is an extract from a book about to be printed “Pyotr Pavlensky in Russian Actionism” and which the publisher Ilya Danishevsky allowed the magazine Snob to publish an extract from.
Let’s talk about your audience. I am curious about this. In an interview with a Ukrainian television channel you stated that art should articulate because it’s rather difficult for people themselves to articulate why the state is crushing them. Your mission then is one of articulation?
A kind of dispersal is taking place. We all find in ourselves in a similar, political, situation. Basically certain conflicting things are happening with us, fairly unpleasant things. The question lies in what is happening, what and in what way. Everyone senses this in some way or other. But the problem is articulating what the authorities are doing – for they disperse all this. Someone reads the news, goes to a shop, walks along the street or has to go to work and he or she sees that all that is happening around is bad but this ‘badness’ is somehow dispersed.
You articulate this for your audience?
Well yes for those who can see and hear all this.
When you articulate, if you want your message to be heard you need to make some corrections to the stereotypes that people have, to their cultural code which they are not prepared for. It seems to me that as a result that those people who need some kind of explanation are simply not able to read your message and those who are able don’t need any explanation. So there is, perhaps, some senselessness to all this.
Those who are able don’t require explanation and those unable…
The audience of the state TV channels when they see your actions at most feel certain negative emotions- it’s unpleasant, repulsive for them. Then they are told for what reason you have done this. And this ‘displeasure and repulsion’ is somehow all mixed up with the reason for which you did this.
This is my very raison d’etre for my work. These temporary alienations are intentional. This precedent remains and then something happens and so a person will return to this. One user from a social network wrote to me to tell me that at one point he was against, very much against all this which I do. I wrote to him something in reply. And he wrote to me a letter that in the past he would write a lot against these actions but then he came up against certain situations in life. It seems that the authorities pressured him in some way. Now he supports such actions and wanted to apologise for his former stance.
I’ve come up against many situations and I’ve got a rough idea as to how people react to my actions. An excessively emotional response, as a rule, can be found a lot only on the internet. In real life when I meet people as a rule I see that people understand things very well. Only once in the metro was there any clash with someone, not even a clash, but a guy simply started to become hysterical when he recognised me. A rather young guy recognised me in a metro car. He began to check my image with that on the internet and then started to run along the carriage. We are all travelling, the train is moving and he is running through this carriage calling on people to rise up against me, to join forces against me. Not one person supported him. He stuck his iphone to people’s noses and they just brushed him aside as some kind of crazy hysterical citizen. I observed how people reacted. Not gaining any support he began to accuse me of humiliating our country, humiliating him, the square (Red square?) and something else. It become clear from people’s glances that even if they recognised me… I didn’t see amongst these people any kind of incomprehension towards me, or any aggressiveness. People are rather more understanding than not.
About that user of social media who wrote to you- was it pleasant to have such a reaction?
Of course, he supports some of my ideas.
Is this a rather unique case or does it periodically happen- this ‘I’ve finally understood you?’
Yes it does happen now and again. There is a whole range of human responses. Sometimes I feel the force of this whole range of reactions. When one prepares oneself for some kind of action the different public reactions start to float through my mind at moments of greatest pressure. And when you start to remove yourself in some way from this pressure there is a certain understanding at a certain level. Why can’t I even see this reaction in my mind? Because one bases one’s view on one and the same resources – the internet, maybe the television, papers and some other media. We all nourish ourselves with the same sources of information. And I confront this range of responses afterwards, after the action has been realised. And naturally there are both positive and negative responses.
And up to then it remains in some kind of lonely …
It will always stay like that, you began to say that this is an issue that some understand and some don’t. It’s such a thing that if I begin to think in this way and with these categories so as to make these actions more understandable, and that I need to do it like that elsewhere, then this will end up as a kind of populism. I’ll end up trying to please someone. This is not my goal.
It’s not a task. The task is to reduce things to some minimum and then in the process develop some clear symbols.
A body wound up in barbed wire, what could be clearer? You understand that here there is no way that one could be even clearer than this.
It seems to me that there is a kind of clear reaction when people see a man nailing his scrotum on Red Square and the first unfounded response is that people will name you an exhibitionist or homosexual. That is the initial Russian response- something is not right with him in the head. And in Russia abnormality is associated with homosexuality and if you’re a homosexual the thinking goes you’re a pervert. Regarding such reactions don’t you think, don’t you feel that the essential point is somehow being washed away?
If you’re talking about how the media tries to influence the response, then of course they are constantly attempting to make the pendulum of reactions swing between picturing it as a criminal act and that of an insane act and so one can always expect a certain incomprehension. But it’s another question as to whether this has an influence on people who actually see the action. During the ‘Fixation’ action one woman was constantly asking “What’s wrong with him, is he sick?” Of course this is rather sad that such a cult of psychiatry has such power over public consciousness. However, if some kind of genuine conversation about the psychiatric norm does start then that’s just great. That’s my first point. Second. About this gesture …. I’m trying not so much to invent some new gesture, not to concoct some original act. The gesture of nailing one’s scrotum is basically quite culturally entrenched. It is a gesture which prisoners sometimes use.
In relation to what do they make this gesture?
It’s related to many different situations.
As a protest?
Yes. To carry to an extreme their lack of freedom. The impossibility of movement. Often there are wooden floors. And they peg themselves in. And where can you shift him to? A person is already imprisoned, and here he has fastened himself in. This is fixation. And you know when I speak in my text about the way the country is turned into a prison camp, about a police state, I’m not talking about this lightly. 10 November was Police Day. Each year banners are hanging everywhere in the city – 10 November, long live our beloved police! All these signs on the surface. I work with these signs because they are a part of culture. It’s important to mark where all this comes from if one is to talk about the work with contexts. Without this the gesture of prisoners would remain behind these fences, doors and yet more fences. With these large number of barriers information just doesn’t get to us, one can’t even find photographs of this because no one in the prisons will be prepared to document this in such a way. Everyone knows that this is happening somewhere behind a large number of doors. And here this is happening at the very centre. However, if truth be told, a very conditional border was removed. 10 November, banners, books with the memoirs of dissidents and prisoners – these are markers which link everything in a single statement. If this doesn’t exist then a passerby will start to think: Red square, naked, I don’t know… I would dispute this notion of the naked exhibitionist, why naked, a person is naked because he is deprived of everything, even his clothes. The level of impoverishment is an indicator of absence.
No, not vulnerability. There was no attempt to talk about this. Naked is an expression of a condition, stripped, denuded, deprived of everything. It is, on the other hand, the body in general that which can be found under any clothes. In any case clothes mark you, are some form of mask. Building up some kind of identity. Whereas the body is simply body. All bodies in some way or other are similar.
To what extent are the police a part of your actions?
Basically a very important part. To a large extent they do it all, they arrange this all. There everyone changes places.
In the sense that they arrest you?
No, in the sense of how they react to it. It is not my body which turns out to be a victim. Everything is constructed so that the figure of authority is, in fact, a victim of the situation because they find themselves in a subordinate situation. They need to obey regulations. This is a work on Subject-Object relations. The law-enforcement officials are afraid in the first instance but they are obliged to exercise their authority.
They are obliged to free you.
To do something – or to free me…
The fact that they are the authority and are obliged to free you, does this fact become a revolutionary reversal of roles or something else?
They become the objects of this situation. That is they… I think that this is an important moment: the state objectifies people, compels them to subordinate themselves to regulations, somehow to move within a range of permitted and non-permitted actions, to find themselves in such a corridor. A man who submits is an object. When he realizes an action, he becomes an object, brought to a certain level perhaps. Beside while initially they are objects performing certain functions they then also become art objects. They want to neutralise and so they have a certain authority. They have a task to neutralise events, eliminate, cleanse the streets or squares. But this compels them to serve opposing goals. They begin to construct events. They become actors in these events. Everything is built through them. My own action is kept to a minimum. I simply sit there and do nothing. Or just stand there.
And if they hadn’t come, would you have still sat in Red Square?
Yes. It’s unclear how an event develops until it actually takes place. It is enough to denote a certain reticence. And the situation is then constructed around that reticence. Because the police, ‘ambulance’ or simply people who would attack me or do something else are simply a part of the social body. Something happens, some kind of rejection (or stigmatisation)- this, too, is a kind of interaction. A senselessly hermetic situation- I came, I left. Another important fact is that I speak with everyone in the same way. I communicate with journalists, with psychiatrists, with investigating officers in the same way. There exists definite rules as to how all this is drawn out. If one keeps to the rules of reticence and doesn’t react to signals from the authorities then there need not be any cooperation with it. I remain stationary and at that moment when the action comes to a concluding stage, when the doors have been closed then I begin to talk and to talk with everyone in the same way. I make no difference between journalists with whom I will tell all and, for example, an investigating officer. I could, of course, as it were, mock the investigating officer but it is not mockery as such. It is I who draws him into an artistic event. What did these dialogues lead to? Who attained their goals in this situation – art or the bureaucratic apparatus? And I with my work…
And if everything in the country was fine, what would you have done?
I don’t know.
So one could say that the worse the situation is in the country, the more work you’ll have?
I get it. What kind of situation. It’s an unrealizable utopia. There will never be such an ideal society and state. It seems to me that there are certain things in the nature of people- subject-object relations, an understanding of power, these things subordinate all others.
You don’t particularly like the concept of power? I take it that, roughly speaking, you believe that it can’t be a good thing, something reasonable? Can power be a good thing?
I believe not, because the task of power is to create a fully predictable individual. Because an unpredictable individual is a dangerous indvidual. The closer a person gets to the condition of Subject then the more he leaves some barriers, looking for something new and this is dangerous for people because he becomes ungovernable in this case.
Would you have protested in any country in the world?
Not in the same way. You must understand that there are different contexts. I’m not a professional protestor.
Political art. I’m not a professional of protest art. Political art and protest art are far from being one and the same thing. Protest art comes from poster art. There is a “NO” there and here there is a “YES”. This would be an over generalisation. I take as a premise that political art is work with control mechanisms.
Fine. Political art. Would you have exercised political art everywhere?
I don’t know. If I were to live in another country maybe I wouldn’t have exercised political art. Proceeding from how I now think I would probably have found some way in which to work. But maybe it would something close in form because different countries, different control systems give birth to different ways of suppressing the human imagination.
And is there a model or a regime of government which would be ideal for you? Anarchy perhaps?
Probably anarchy is an ideal model. I realise that its ideal is held in place by its unrealisability. It’s unlikely that humankind will decide to sacrifice the advantages of scientific and technological progress to a utopian vacuum of power (anarchy). Anarchy is a liberation from some kind of paradigms, it is resistance, a rejection of some or other enforcement of rules. Anarchy is precisely a work on the elaboration of the concept of power.
Anarchy is the closest idea for you? Or maybe something else too?
Yes it’s possibly close to me in some way. There is an insurgent anarchism and then there is another form of anarchism. Anarcho-communism is some kind of delirious contradiction. The dictatorship of equality against the dictatorship of freedom. Or there is one or there is another. It’s difficult to imagine the advent of punk culture in a dictatorial regime of general equality.
Would you like to live in a state where anarchy ruled?
There can be no state where anarchy rules.
A city. Where everything like this is created. There is anarchy. And there in any case something is built up.
Undoubtedly. That’s why I answered anarchy. The life of a person is spent in permanent struggle for his subjectivisation, for his self-assertion becase all possible resources, forces, interests and, in the final resort, other people or someone else, groups of people work towards that objectivisation, towards that subordination. Even if a pseudo-anarchic structure were to be built… then in any case there would arise groups or structures who will begin to turn all that…
To systematise it.
Yes, to turn it into a hard bone-like content mass. And it is easier to reject these dogmas because they have not managed to become a political disenchantment. History persuades us that the lesson of the 20th Century didn’t prevent Kibbutzim fit a secular idea of the commonwealth of property along with a defence of the growing and sacred borders of the state of Israel. All this needs to be rejected. This constant self- assertion. This is like an endless trial.
Is there some kind of ideal model for the existence of a person? Is this possible? So see it for yourself: so that nobody could usurp you, you don’t intersect with anybody?
It’s difficult for me to say. It all depends on a the human being. It all depends on the person. A person must overcome that which was imposed on him …
Globally – there’s a movement towards an anarchic model.
After which everything will once again run around in circles?
Without a doubt. There’s a certain range or continuum, of course. Like in the song: “Everything which is not anarchy is fascism” We find ourselves between these two poles. Fascism, clearly, not in terms of the Italian model or some other but as a kind of generic term. Fascism as absolute dictate, absolute and total control. And then there’s the other pole: anarchy as some kind of absolute freedom. In fact between them everything oscillates.
And in the middle is everything normal between these two extremes?
I’ve never thought about what can be found in between. I don’t know what’s in between. In between there is a dull liberalism with its shoddy political correctness.
I’m trying to understand what aim you have in that essentially closed circle. You understand that which would be wonderful will never in fact be realised.
In actual fact what is it that changes society and in general gives us some kind of transformation. Certainly not any political templates or schemes, because it is precsiely our work on cultural codes which is the most significant thing here. Conceptual precedents influence how people relate to that which happens around them, it is one’s reflexes produced by one’s relationship to different situations. Which associative models are activated there and how the individual gives a situational response. The person may give a quick response or may, reflecting, make a decision. And it is this field where the struggle takes place. Of course regimes change. There was a Soviet regime (tr.n here Pavlensky uses the pejorative word formed from the word Soviet which is hard to translate into English), before that there was the monarchy, the Russian Empire and now there is this regime. In any regime the military and security services are those with power. In 1917 there was a revolution, there were changes and there were significant changes in the cultural sphere. In art and in terms of how people related to each other. There was a movement for 15 years and then a reaction, the Bolsheviks smothered everything and things were forcefully rolled back.
Do you have some kind of “Super-idea” regarding what you are doing? Where are you taking all this? What point between fascism and anarchy seems to you the most appropriate?
One undoubtedly needs to push everything in the direction of anarchy because…
So that something moves at least a little bit?
Even for things to remain as they are one already needs a certain effort. If one makes a great effort one can move things a little further. There is a very strong force moving us towards the other side, towards fascism and absolute subordination. Working towards this are the strong resources of state apparatuses, an entire system of authorities. This is a constant collision. It will not cease. For me it is on this field where the head on clash takes place. It’s ridiculous to dream that those forces which are an obstacle will eventually dissolve, disappear somewhere and then we will suddenly find ourselves in anarchy and live under a different model. I think there is a more realistic perspective on things. But if we are to discuss things theoretically then, of course, when you loosen certain frameworks, move some borders further away then you will help others, those who come after you.