Last week Banksy declared that all profits from his current print sale would be gifted to Russian art anarchist group Voina. Known for drawing an enormous cock on a bridge opposite the ex-KGB offices, and instigating asex party in a museum (see above). We spoke to the group (half of which were replying from prison).
Voina (or “War” to give them their English name) are a radical art group concerned with challenging the Russian establishment on important political issues such as attitudes towards homophobia, race, and the totalitarian actions of the state, through creating outrageous and provocative art performances in Russia. Two of their members; Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev have been detained for more than a month at St Petersburg Prison on false allegations. Don’t Panic spoke to the group.
Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev, the artists from the Voina art-group, handled their answers from the St. Petersburg prison, awaiting trial on charges of hooliganism for one of their previous performances. Alex Plutser-Sarno and Natalia Sokol have sent their answers from the secret flat, where they are hiding from the police.
Could you introduce yourselves and tell us about the structure behind your group?
Alex Plutser-Sarno: At present in the center of the structure is a high impenetrable wall of the St. Petersburg prison, behind which two artists, Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev, are slowly fading away. You have to understand that Russian prison is hell. Being at large Natalia Sokol keeps coordinating the work of the group. I keep making media-art, writing conceptions and texts. The actions are published in my blog. There are some other activists in the group, who do important work, but their names remain unrevealed, otherwise the Russian insane right-wing authorities will arrest them as well.
Natalia Sokol: The basis of the group structure is in the complete equality of rights of activists and the openness of the group’s borders for new activists. Our group is an art-anarch-punk gang.
What is the inherent philosophy of the group?
AP-S: Every activist of the group has his/her own philosophy. In the political aspect we, of course, sympathize with anarchists, socialists and in general with all left-wing radicals. But first of all we are artists – not politicians or philosophers. And using our artistic methods we destruct the outdated repressive-patriarchal symbols and ideologies.
Oleg Vorotnikov: In Russia we have created the left-wing art front. Our aim is to revive the vivid political protest art.
Leonid Nikolayev: Our art-group is struggling with the socio-political obscurantism and the right-wing reaction.
What does anarchy mean to you, and how can it make Russia a better place to live in?
N.S.: Anarchism with all the utopian character of its ideas is the only cohesive, honest and fearless power.
A.P-S: Exactly! Respect to anarchists. But Russia won’t be a place for living for as long as the oil and gasmoney is flowing in. Within the next few years it will be the place for the natural resource pillaging, committed by the group of two-faced dirty dealing bureaucrats and other werewolves wearing shoulder straps.
Where does Voina fit in the current tendencies of contemporary art as well as in the context of political science and human rights?
A.P-S: Art is, first of all, a mode of thought, the ability to look at this mad world from a completely new point of view. Not to speak of the human rights, that are right out raped and crucified all over the world, so we will pass them over in silence.
O.V.: Today the innovative art-language is the only instrument to understand the xenophobic nonsense and chaos, which are around us. By our actions we depict the portrait of this crazy world. And make the world see it and get horrified. For example, our Fuck for the heir – Medved`s little Bear! – on the eve of Medvedev’s election – was a portrait of the pre-election Russia, where everyone metaphorically fucks each other.
L.N.: The language of our art is really able to resist the coming right-wing reaction. When our Dick on the Liteyniy bridge – 65 meters high, 26 meters wide, weighting 4 tonnes – rose menacingly into the windows of the FSB-KGB headquarters the authorities couldn’t find any other reply but to illegally put us away by a false accusation.
Dick captured by KGB– An enormous penis on a drawbridge in St Petersburg. It is opposite city headquarters of the FSB (ex-KGB)
Could you outline the ideas behind a few of your conceptions?
L .N.: The main thing for the artists is to be honest and not to make compromises. In Russia they put people to torture and execution – the prisons are again full of dissenters. Xenophobia and homophobia reigns. A new slave society is build. Cops beat and kill people. And here we are – holding the action Palace revolution, turning the police cars over. That was our artistic reform of the Ministry of Home Affairs
Palace Revolution, after which Oleg and Leonid were arrested
O.V.: Or, for example, on the Moscow City Day, as a protest, the Voina group came to the city’s biggest supermarket Auchan, where in the department of Light organized an execution by hanging of 3 illegal Central Asian migrant workers, 1 Jew and 1 homosexual. The lynching came as a present to the corrupted Moscow Mayor Luzhkov who pursued a policy of misanthropy and violation of human rights. We made this action as a commemoration of 5 Russian revolutionists, who were hanged in 1826. That’s why the action is called “Decembrists commemoration”. We wanted to make the Russians remember the libertarian ideals of the country’s first revolutionists.
In Memory of the Decemberists – A Present to Yuri Luzhkov, which presented the hanging of two gay men and three immigrant workers, as a direct attack against Moscow Mayor Luzhkov, whose policies have been denounced as racist and homophobic
A.P-S: When the prominent curator Andrei Yerofeyev was accused of fomenting ethnic and religious hatred and “insulting human dignity” for organizing an exhibition and was brought to the court, the Voina art collective interrupted the case hearing by performing a new song All Cops are Bastards from the album Fuck the Police Those Motherfucking Bosses right into the courtroom. The idea was simple, the implementation – honest and uncompromising
What do you think about a commentary on activism or radical art in Russia?
N.S.: Contemporary art is, first of all, an art activism for us, and not the piles of the art-rubbish kept in the galleries. Today activism is the only form of the radical left-wing art, which we are trying to revive in Russia. It’s important to understand that there is no any other radical art in Russia, except for the one represented by a dozen of art-activists.
A.P-S: Anarch-art-activism is the only lively activity in Russia. Nowadays, when even hope for democracy in Russia is ruined, painting flowers and pussy cats or making any other “pure” art, lacking a socio-political content, is to support the right-wing authorities. The symbol of anarchy – a skull-and-bones – has to be painted right at the Russia’s parliament building. That’s what we did Our Jolly Roger laser projection was almost 50 meters high, covering almost the whole front of the White House in Moscow.
Storm of the White House where-in a giant skull and crossbones was projected on the Russian White House
Tell us about the experience of being arrested by the Russian anti-extremist police?
O.V.: It can be said without hesitation, that the right-wing revanchist is in full swing.
L.N.: The Voina art group gave the authorities an acid test and the authorities went flop.
What is the charge against Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev?
N.S.: Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev were arrested illegally. People, who broke into the flat and left it in the terrible mess, didn’t have an arrest warrant. Everything was carried out in the Stalin style of the year 1937. Afterwards the artists, handcuffed and with plastic bags on their heads, were carried from Moscow to St. Petersburg for 10 hours on the floor of the minibus. The arrested were beaten with legs. Oleg Vorotnikov has hematomas in and around head and kidneys. This fact is recorded by the human rights advocates, who visited the arrested artists in the investigative isolation ward two weeks after the arrest. The bruises and scratches were so serious that they didn’t disappear in two weeks.
A.P-S: And now Oleg and Leonid are accused of “fomenting hatred and enmity to a social group,” namely, the police. I, as the main artist of the group, am accused of organizing and leading a criminal community — namely, the Voina art collective. This accusation implies a term of imprisonment of between 12 and 20 years. Both of my grandfathers were in the prison camps for 22 years during the Stalin regime. Dozens of my relatives died in the concentration camp of Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto. To do 20 years in prison for art activism under Putin is too much for my family.
What is Free Voinaand what can people do to help in the release of your two members Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev?
N.S.: Free Voina is a group of independent and honest Russian artists, who started to make actions in support of Voina. They made a web site, where the money for the arrestedare collected. They carry out protest actions. Anyone can join us in this struggle for freedom.