“I hereby officially declare that Petr Verzilov is not a representative of Pussy Riot and does not have any role in the group whatsoever. Moreover, Petr Verzilov repeatedly violated the core Pussy Riot principle of anonymity. To be precise: he met with journalists and made public appearances without having any right to do so on behalf of Pussy Riot.
Pussy Riot can be nothing other than a young woman in a balaclava. All of Petr Verzilov’s appearances in the media on behalf of the group are illegitimate. They were not conducted with our approval as full-fledged members of the group and were conducted with the face uncovered, which violates the idea of anonymity.
In essence, Petr Verzilov has taken over the activities of Pussy Riot in a strange, quasi-fraudulent fashion. As a representative of the group, I am offended by this. I would like to repeat that all future interviews and appearances of Petr Verzilov should be considered illegitimate to the say the least, and should at their worst be considered a lie and a provocation.
Petr Verzilov claims that he gets approval for all of his actions from the group members who are currently incarcerated. That is not the case. These claims are lies. They are lies intended to transfer unto himself the status of Pussy Riot’s legal and principal representative, which in actual fact he is not.
After our arrest, Petr Verzilov has usurped the decision-making and representation of Pussy Riot, as no one could do without violating the ideology of the group as such. That is because a legitimate representative of the group can only be a young woman in a balaclava. Moreover, the position of producer/promoter/organizer cannot be part of an anti-hierarchical punk group. All attempts to take on such a position are a betrayal of punk and of Pussy Riot.
Tolokonnikova N.A. October 11, 2012 Alyokhina M.V. October 11, 2012”
On 25th May an action “Freedom for Taisiya Osipova” was held in the Main Market Square in Krakow. A banner with a portrait of Taisya Osipova “Voina Wanted” was illegally put up in the gallery of Cloth Hall on the Main Market Square, a historical building and a branch of the National Museum in Krakow. The same banner was installed on the top of a giant head of Eros by Igor Mitoraj, an artist, on the Main Market Square. On the same day “Occupy Krakow,” a peaceful gathering on the Main Market Square was illegally dispersed by the local government of Krakow. During the incident, Alexander Łaniewski, an activist and the main character of actions in Krakow, participant in FA Krakow was arrested, along with Marzena Smolna, a participant of FA Black Galicia.
Action “Freedom for Taisiya Osipova!” Krakow, 2012
On 6th June a march of anarchists and social activists was held in Krakow. They protested against detaining hundreds of political prisoners, including the Pussy Riot group, in the prisons of Russia, Belarus and Greece. The protest march was blocked by the police in the historical Wawel Castle, and afterwards continued in the city.
Anarchists were holding the portraits of Taisiya Ospova, Igor Berzyuk, Ruslan Khubayev, Kirill Unchuk and many other political prisoners and were chanting slogans demanding the release of the prisoners of conscience. A. Plutser-Sarno was holding a banner entitled “Madonna Pussi Riot.” Then, an unsanctioned event took place at the National Museum in Krakow.
On 15th June an outrageous protest action took place during the press conference of the ArtBoom Festival. The activists demanded the release of political prisoners, drawing the media attention to the problems of political prisoners, human rights and freedom.
On 19th June a banner with a portrait of a political prisoner Taisiya Osipova was installed in the centre of Krakow, on the facade of “Bunkier Sztuki,” an art centre. On 19th June the Main Market Square plate was covered with a giant banner “Political Prisoners” without authorization.
The banner presented a portrait of Taisiya Osipova and the names of 22 political prisoners from Russia, Belarus and Greece: Taisiya Osipov, Igor Berezjuk, Nikolay Dedok, Alexandr Frantskevich, Ruslan Khubajev, Andrew Mazurek, Alexey Olesinov Igor Olinevich, Artyom Prokopenko, Mikhail Pulin, Olga Shalina, Alexei Sutuga, Pavel Syromolotov, Kirill Unchuk, Jevgenij Vskovich, Pavel Zherebin and many others.
Sometime before, on 18th June a banner with the names of political prisoners was also spread at the entrance to the famous Oskar Schindler’s factory, where an unsanctioned protest was also held.
A press conference and a solidarity action with political prisoners also took place on 25th June at the Ujazdowski Castlein Warsaw. Banners with the portraits of Taisiya Osipova and Oleg Vorotnikov were installed there, too.
We met Artur Żmijewski in St. Petersburg in the spring of 2011. That summer he invited us to become curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale. He told us he needed our help to transform art into politics. This doesn’t mean that as Biennale curators we are going to occupy ourselves with exhibition management, which in our opinion is rather useless: exhibitions harm contemporary art. All artists ever think about nowadays is what they can exhibit and where. Therefore the fewer art pieces the Biennale will have, the better. The basis of our curatorial activity in the Berlin Biennale is this: we work without any limitations, and the Berlin Biennale hasn’t mandated any kind of frame. We have a close exchange with Artur. He knows about the difficulties we face and how exhausting it is to live underground. Our work with the Berlin Biennale doesn’t mean that we are leaving our country for this. Our activities here in Russia make up part of our work for the Biennale. All our actions as curators have an official status; we act as associate curators of the Biennale, and the government has to accept this. Our most recent actions were radical. The rulers don’t dare to bring charges against us; they will probably not arrest the entire Berlin Biennale. Trying to leave the country wouldn’t be such a hard thing at all, but to live in St. Petersburg — where the “Commission on Fighting Extremism,” the criminal police, and the Russian department of Interpol search for us, and where our mug shots are even posted in the porter’s lodges of the museums—to live under such conditions is much more dangerous than the kind of elegant adventure of crossing a border. In principle, my position is: I’m staying here. The Russian government is at war against its own people. Many Russians, particularly those with a good education, have already left Russia. Millions of people have never been able to realize their life goals. This is the government’s fault. That’s why I can’t leave. My front line is in Russia. And this is also my aesthetic position: to stay in the most beautiful city in the world. In our opinion, it’s part of the ethics of an artist to resist against the ruling system and to make this goal accessible to the public as well. This is why we seek to make our aim shine in the best possible way. There is an anecdote or perhaps it’s just someone’s memory of Kazimir Malevich: after the revolution in Petrograd, armed with a pistol, he passed through artists’ studios asking who was still painting birches and demanded real art. Armed with a weapon. That is real art.
Aesthetics is the precondition of ethics. Today, ethics are much more important for art. Voina doesn’t tolerate cowardice nor greed—both are the source of betrayal which is the worst and most unforgivable thing for the art activist. I personally cannot deal with apathy or ineptitude. When both occur, moreover in combination with an inflated self-assessment, I become very unpleasant company.
We want to make a type of art that no longer inspires anyone to the idea of awarding us an art prize. But if the museums and institutions can’t let go and continue to suggest us for their idiotic competitions, they are going to regret it. It’s impossible to bribe revolutionary art, and playing games with geniuses is dangerous. It’s my friendly advice that one should take us very seriously. For us, art is not the measure of life. We create new life, new events, that one can refer to. Our rifles are charged and aimed at art so that it stays at a distance and will not spread its art stench over here. We hate PR. We are an underground group. Voina has become very popular. Books and films about us are everywhere, people copy our actions—and none of this has anything to do with us. It’s other people playing copycat. Lazy assholes that advertise for us… this does not have anything to do with our future.
In the Russian press hardly anything has been published about us that paints a true picture of reality. Here, the dishonest writing of lackeys has become the ideology of journalistic work. If one third of what they write is accurate, it’s already a big success. A typical example of this is how the press wrote serious articles about our participation in the corrupt Moscow Biennale in spite of our loud and public boycott. Since 2005 when we have existed as a group there has been a substantial flow of disinformation about us. But sometimes this also has positive aspects: when the police investigated about our action “Palace Revolution” they couldn’t find any evidence, except the wildly contradictory media rumors and artistic interpretations on blogs. Thus the whole thing collapsed in on itself.
Now it’s our aim to present the people with a convincing impression of decisive actions. Passive protest and symbolic actions—now when it is again about “big history”—are immoral. The events in Russia of December 2011 and February 2012 show us: both the government and the opposition (which humiliates itself in front of the government) make fools of the people by degrading protests to the level of consuming Internet memes. There is laughter and ironizing rather than arming ourselves for street fighting. We have taken Berlin. The next thing is the Russian revolution.
Since February 6 we’ve been fighting with RIA Novosti, the state news agency, to publish my interview. The agency asked us for it back in late December, on the 22nd. Only on the 19th of January did they send me questions, which the culture section took a whole month to draft and approve. On February 6, a journalist named Svetlana Yankina got the interview on the condition that it would be published without cuts or censorship. The condition was accepted. But after their newsroom got our answers, they started an endless “approval” process, which involved the editors sending requests to throw out the brighter remarks and totally remove all of the substantive parts of the interview. The editors started sending cowardly missives. “…since I am the interviewer, it turns out that I knew ahead of time about the actions you were preparing and did not inform the relevant authorities. Therefore, I am a co-conspirator. This creates risks not only for me, but for the agency where I work. That is why I suggest removing these fragments… Please understand, we are not talking about censorship.” And all kinds of crap like that.
A month later, we were forced to published the interview without the foul censorship the RIA Novosti news agency had attempted.
the Berlinbiennale Artur Zhmievsky before he invited you to take part in the group of curators.
Vor: Yes, we met in the spring of 2011 in Petersburg. And his offer to become a co-curator of the BB came that summer. Zmiy (Artur Zmievsky) came to Petersburg once more after that. We swam in the Neva river and kept working together after that.
SaLE-Docks April 24th – June 3rd Opening music + live set: Tuesday, April 24 h.18 Exhibition runs from Thursday to Sunday, from 14.30 to 19.00
Voina (from Russian: Война; eng.: War) is a group active in Russia since 2005. Their work has been shown in many countries and as a result of attempts of repression by the government, activists from around the world (from Venice in Fukushima, from Zurich to New York) have taken actions in solidarity of the collective.
Currently Voina is associated curator of 7. Berlin Biennale.
About Voina we loved the audacity and the decision to assume a full “biased” perspective. We can debate about their art, but undoubtedly the work of the group is separated from the hypocrisy that often characterizes artists and curators, very radical in words, but always extra careful to not get involved in certain paths, which could lead them to the margins of the system or possibly to confrontation with issues and needs that are outside their personal artistic agenda. There may be differences in the point of views between the method of Voina and that ofS.aLE Docks, but it seemed possible to produce a profitable linkage, thus giving space to the example of an artistic practice that has in common with us (and the whole movement in Italy which is occupying spaces in the name of a new cultural season) the idea that prudence, in art, risks to turn into sadness. And we feel that Voina, in the words of its members, agrees with this point of view: “We had sex in public and this doesn’t frighten us anymore, we invaded a police station and this doesn’t frighten us anymore. What more is there that can scare us? We will deal with death in the future. Soon we will be completely fearless. “(T. Peter, 2008). At SaLE Docks, will be projected several videos of the actions of the group, from the early years of activity to date: the famous giant phallus painted on the drawbridge in front of the headquarters of the Russian secret service, up to collective sex celebrated to denigrate metaphorically the passing of the baton from President Putin to his successor Medvedev, through the ironical invasion of a police station by some members of the gang, dressed up as supporters of the regime, until the sealing of the doors of a popular restaurant owned by a Moscow television star pro-Kremlin. Although Voina has a definite subversive attitude, the opposition to the regime of Putin & Co. has created in the last months a wide opposition movement that has spanned across Russian society and mobilized hundreds of thousands people in cities and in provinces . This movement comes from the outrage at the re-candidancy of Vladimir Putin in the presidential elections and was reinforced by the dramatic use of fraud and illegality during the elections in December 2011. Putin, more than any other, embodied the rhetoric of “stability” that has harnessed Russia after the chaos of post-Soviet 90s. A rhetoric that has created a parallel system, on one hand the government corruption and cronyism, on the other hand the birth of new mafia-style organizations encouraged by large institutional vacuum. It is in this social humus that in the first decade of the century a third option came through, the one of a new Russian-left composed by different political orientations which, in addition counts on, above classic activists, intellectuals, artists and collectives, all of them very far from the official nostalgic Communist Party. Of course, the big opposition demonstrations in recent months have not solved the emergence of democracy in Russia, the official information continues to be enslaved while blogs are censored, the Russian police is an institution best known for the ease with which resorts to torture, Putin (thanks to the fraud) was re-elected president at the first round of the elections. The movement itself seems to be slowed down from the liberal and quite distinct nationalistic part. Nevertheless, Russia, in the year of Occupy Wall Street and of the “Arab spring”, did not wait on the sidelines and raised up massively against the “Putinist stability” that, in the global crisis, appears to be the Russian feature of the attempt of the financial capital to maintain in balance the helm of the world (even in front of a growing social dissent). Voina is one of the most radical voices of this disagreement since a long time. It is no coincidence that some of its members have a federal and international policy arrest warrant pending and Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev have served four months in prison because of their artistic militancy. Artists and clandestines, the Voina arouse both great enthusiasm and adversity; what is sure is that their aesthetic extremism recalls the history of modern Russian art. Artists and writers (now considered classics) are those who, in the wake of the October Revolution, theorized and experienced, during the Twenties of the Twentieth century, the dissolution of art in life that became a litmus test of the historical avant-garde. Sergei Tretyakov and Sergei Eiseinstein, for example, literally brought the theatre into the streets, in the public space, and declined it as a means of pursuing social unrest and sabotage of that illusionism typical of the bourgeois performing arts. More recently, during the Perestroika and the parallel peculiar subsumption of Russian art in the global system, underground artists rejected the monetary hysteria to focus on a critique of the transition. Just think of “Mercy” (1991), the first exhibition at Trekhpudny, the alternative gallery in Moscow. The show consisted mainly of the presence of two homeless people inside the exhibition: the project by Konstantin Reunov e Avdey Ter-Oganian is just one example of an attitude alternative compared to the dominant one, namely the revival of symbolism and of the soviet imaginary on market purposes. Instead, the artists gathered around the Gallery Trekhpudny, formed an artistic adventure certainly alien from speculative interests and characterized by a stimulating confusion between the routine of life of the community catalyzed by the space and the Kairos of the artistic happening. We stop here, do not want to hazard historic-artistic lineages without merit, however, we were interested in photographing a certain attitude that, in various forms, has characterized the history of Russian art, coming up to Voina.
Activist art: For “Voina Wanted (in Fukushima)” Chim↑Pom and local artists help Alex Plutser-Sarno display the “Voina” banner at a dump site for radioactive tsunami debris in Fukushima
The photo shows an unshaven Russian glaring into the distance from behind prison bars. It’s a striking shot, so it is hardly surprising that when it was printed on a 4×6-meter banner and unfurled at an entrance to the 20-km exclusion zone around the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the police officers on duty were somewhat perplexed.
“They came out and asked us what we were doing,” explained Alex Plutser-Sarno, a member of the infamous Russian art group Voina, which has been holding similar “actions” around the world for the last few months.
Making statements: Alex Plutser-Sarno of Voina with Toshinori Mizuno, Motomu Inaoka, Masataka Okada, Yasutaka Hayashi and Ryuta Ushiro of Chim↑Pom talk about activist art at the Watari-um, Watari Museum of Contemporary Art. EDAN CORKILL
The man in the so-called “Voina Wanted” photo is the group’s leader, Oleg Vorotnikov, who was arrested in Russia in late 2010 after one of the group’s more provocative artistic forays — the overturning of an empty police car. Vorotnikov was eventually released on bail after British graffiti artist Banksy donated $20,000 to the group, but he remains on international wanted lists — and hence the “Voina Wanted” actions that have been held throughout Europe, the United States and now Japan.
“In order to properly define art, it is necessary, first, to cease to consider it as a means to pleasure,”(1) wrote Leo Tolstoy in 1897.
Voina, “Fuck for the heir Bear Cub!”
At the time Tolstoy was writing his way through a spiritual crisis, developing a body of work that outlined his unconventional beliefs. Today these writings function as a symbolic script for the provocations of the Russian performance group Voina, self-defined as “a street collective of actionist artists who engage in political protest art.”(2) As Tolstoy’s views grew increasingly more radical, he became a social pariah. In a similar fashion Voina’s mendicant members are sometimes in the news, frequently in trouble with the law, and always outside convention.
Separated by one hundred years, the author and the art collective Voina (which means “war” in Russian) comprise an unlikely couple within Russia’s avant-garde. Beyond their overlapping cultural heritage, Tolstoy and members of the street art group share an ideology tinged with ascetic undertones. Tolstoy reshaped his life, eschewing the excesses that would hinder his highly personal quest for spiritual purity. While Voina’s pursuit is more political than spiritual, its puritanical members live without comforts such as fixed shelter, cell phones or an overall sense of stability. Tolstoy and Voina’s rabid views regarding sex, money and truth set them apart from the mainstream. Both of these iconoclastic figures have found a place on what Voina founder Oleg Vorotnikov (who calls himself “Vor,” meaning “thief” in Russian), has described as “the un-whored path.”(3)
Koza and Vor of Voina
Yet Tolstoy’s path was not always free from whores. At the height of his virility when he served as the commander of an army cavalry regiment, Tolstoy (like his peers) frequented brothels and enjoyed the company of many women. To his credit he dutifully documented these encounters in his journals. Later, as Tolstoy was courting young Sophia Andreevna Behrs, sixteen years his junior, he had a unique pre-nuptial request: Sophia was to read his diaries in order to learn of her fiancé’s checkered past. Ironically, the unhappily married Tolstoy would endeavor to abstain from all sexual relations with his wife many years later. (This was a decision he reached only after he had fathered thirteen children with Sophia and one bastard child with a peasant, by the way.) Sex, according to Tolstoy (and his pen pal Gandhi), was an impediment to moral purity and therefore, piety.
While Tolstoy championed celibacy as a means of moral purity, the members of Voina utilize sex to deliver a political message. The rowdy art collective became an international media sensation in 2008 when the group staged a sex party inside Moscow’s Biological Museum. In front of a sign which read “bear-cub successor,” six couples disrobed and began copulating.(4) The performance took place in February, just one day before the presidential election. Titled “Fuck for the Heir Bear Cub!,”(5) this extreme action was a pun on the name of the politician, Dmitry Medvedev, whose moniker is derived from the Russian word for bear. Medvedev had waged a campaign with the Russian public to increase the birth rate. Voina responded with an orgy inside the museum. An inverted endorsement of Tolstoy’s abstinence, the performance inside the museum was a brazen refusal of the candidate.
“Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana”, 1908, the first color photo portrait in Russia
Sexual abstinence was but one source of discontent in Tolstoy’s marriage. The Russian writer and thinker also tried to quit smoking and give up eating meat. However, the deepest schism between himself and his family developed over his attitudes towards money. Born a man of privilege and wealth in society, Tolstoy rejected both his inherited wealth and the rights to his publications as his views became more austere during the final chapters of his life. Sophia, overcome with frustration and fearing poverty, was wont to throw herself in the snowy ditches on the property of the family estate at Yasnaya Polyana. The more enraged his family became as he gave up his fortune, the more Tolstoy fantasized about straying as a mystic and a peripatetic.
It is not surprising that Voina’s attitudes towards money are also unorthodox. In fact, the group lives without money altogether. Vor and his wife, fellow Voina member Koza (formerly Natalia Sokol; her artistic nom de guerre means “she goat” in Russian) have lived without money since 1998; they subsist on what they can steal and what they are offered. Vor believes refusing to pay for things like food or shelter liberates him to become a true force of resistance. Vor, who has two children with Koza, has stated:
“Most people make excuses for doing nothing by saying that they have to survive or feed a family. This justification doesn’t apply to us.”(6)
Voina’s art is expansive, not expensive. The group is a caveat to the often affluent milieu of the contemporary art world – in Russia and abroad. Money, or rather its intentional absence, makes the members free to focus on more important matters.
Family is potentially one such matter. Arguably, Tolstoy, the author of the oft-quoted passage “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”(7), had greater concerns. At the age of eighty-two Tolstoy left his own family behind. To find happiness Tolstoy believed that he needed first to unfurl the fetters of his life. Like the members of Voina, he planned to embark on the life of an ascetic, uncluttered with materials wares. This new life, however, was short-lived. At the time of his departure, Tolstoy’s health had already been poor; he would be dead within a week. In November 1910 on the day before his death, Tolstoy’s final words to his son Sergei were: “I love truth … very much … I love truth!”(8) As the octogenarian’s body caved to pneumonia, Tolstoy’s final utterances were hardly an apology and almost an explanation of the curious unfolding of his concluding years. Tolstoy, the aspiring ascetic, would reject even his family on his journey of the truth that he loved so dearly.
L. N. Tolstoy in his study. Yasnaya Polyana, 1908. Photo by K. K. Bulla
One century later the members of Voina are aligned with Tolstoy’s staunch commitment to truth seeking and sharing. Voina acknowledges that freedom of speech can come at a cost. Speaking the truth has imperiled the safety of the fanatic members of Voina, several of whom have been beaten and incarcerated by Russian authorities. Nonetheless, Voina remains committed to the truth, even when facing the ultimate form of renunciation, death. Koza spoke for the group when she declared,
“We’ve had sex in public and are no longer scared of it. We’ve invaded a police station and are no longer scared of it. What else is there to scare us? Death we will deal with in the future. Soon we will be completely fearless.”(9)
For the members of Voina, danger never outweighs the imperative of exposing the truth.
Through the negation of desire and the abnegation of pleasure in art, Tolstoy and Voina illuminate a deeply personal truth. The truth – be it for moral or political gain – is irrevocably linked to asceticism. Koza stated, “The situation around Voina constitutes an integrity test for the art community. Artists have to understand that before anything else they are citizens, and as citizens they must express their position in their art. It’s just a matter of being honest to oneself.”(10) While Tolstoy was true to himself – at the expense of his worldly comforts and finally, his family – to abandon pleasure for the benefit of a greater good is a test of integrity that many people and many artists will surely fail. Tolstoy and Voina have shunned, not just the whores but nearly everyone, on their path of purity.
(1) Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Late Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy, Jay Parini, ed. (London: The Penguin Group, 2009), 65.
Voina Group presentation. On the screen you can see the portrait of a Russian opposition activist Taisiya Osipova behind the bars. Taisiya Osipova, the wife of a Russian opposition leader, was sentenced in the end of 2011 to 10 years in prison for the alleged possession of half an ounce of heroin, a move that her supporters say is aimed at intimidating and dividing the Kremlin’s political foes.