Sergey Yermakov: Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

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Inflated rubber duckie at June 12, 2017, anti-corruption protest rally in Petersburg. The duckie was later detained by police. Photo courtesy of The Poke

Sergey Yermakov
Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

The final performances by Voina’s so-called Petersburg faction could be termed “actionism of fact” by analogy with “literature of fact,” a project the LEF mob tried and failed to realize in the 1920s.

Voina took ordinary actions from the repertoire of protest and resistance, actions requiring no special skills—turning over a police car, torching a paddy wagon, dousing policemen with urine—and simply did them in their performances.

What happened to the performances due to their actions?

First, the performances simply were carried out, like ordinary actions, bereft of aesthetic and symbolic depth. (We will bracket the question of Alexei Plutser-Sarno’s defamiliarizing press releases.) “They really did it.”

Second, the actions were glorified by the very fact they were performed by the actionists. They were bathed in an aura of glory, but note that this aura was totally colorless. It had no density whatsoever, and it produced no distortions in the albedo. This was because the actions were as commonplace as could be, actions available to everyone, actions to which nothing was added except their execution. (Well, yes, and the group’s signature.)

The actionist readymade (or “readydone”) and actionism of fact, unlike the classic artistic readymade, have no need of a special aesthetic space, such as a museum. Unlike literature of fact (if this literary project had actually been implemented in the twenties), actionism may well avoid the traps of language and representation.

Voina thus directly took on the issue of politically effective action. There is a certain actionist Platonism to it, but if we bypass Plato (no matter how we regard the violence of his gesture) we cannot ask ourselves about art’s attitude and access to politics.

In the Republic, Plato does not suggest banishing all poets for fobbing off the phantom of excellence (εἰδώλων ἀρετῆς) on citizens instead of virtue (i.e., the thought of action). He would let the non-mimetic poets, who glorify the gods and sing the praises of good men (ἐγκώμια τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς), stay in the city. Voina’s Petersburg faction non-mimetically sang the praises not of citizens themselves, but certain actions as such, simply by performing them. Their implicit message was something like: Look, this is up for grabs for everyone, and yet if you carry out this glorious deed, you will not be unoriginal and overshadowed by us, because this is basically something anyone could do. This is a kind of democratic and non-hierarchical political Platonism.

Voina did these performances before the May 6, 2012, clashes between protesters and police on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. They seemingly had offered the demos who took to the streets a possible repertoire of elementary actions. (Of course, the total number of such actions is much greater, and not all of them are either criminal or so primitive. What matters in this case is only the dimension itself.) But the demos did not heed their call, preferring to play at making witty posters, from the December 2011 rally on Sakharov Avenue to this day, and exchanging anti-regime memes in the social networks. (That is, the circumstances are in some way symmetrical to the exile of the poets. In this case, however, the demos itself has turned its back on genuinely political artists, immersing itself in the carnivalesque mimesis of the meme.) By rejecting the dimension of the glorious deed, however, the demos has refused to be itself, because it is eventful, rather than substantial, in contrast to the phantasm of the ethnos.

It took Pyotr Pavlensky half a dozen performances to get close to the place where Voina had arrived in the spring of 2011, that is, in order to torch the front door at FSB headquarters in Moscow. In many ways, the performance was a step backwards, for example, when it came to the question of withdrawal. The guerillas of Voina insisted on retreating in a well-conceived way and unexpectedly returning to strike again. (This is the only worthwhile “We’ll be back!” It is a far cry from Navalny and Co.) But Pavlensky, in many respects by way of accommodating an aesthetic impulse, stood his ground to the bitter end. He has thus proven to be a more direct follower of the National Bolsheviks than Voina when it comes to this issue.

So Voina is still waiting for its demos and valiant citizens back in the spring of 2011, scornfully gazing at rubber duckies, meme politics, and witty anti-Kremlin t-shirts.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Sergey Yermakov is a professional translator who was involved in several of Pyotr Pavlensky’s performances. My thanks to Mr. Yermakov for his kind permission to publish this essay here.

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