Darja Serenko’s Quiet Picket

Picketing the Everyday
Marina Simakova
OpenLeft.ru
May 7, 2016

Quiet Picket, a recent initiative by Darja Serenko, teeters on the verge of artistic intervention and protest action. Every day, Serenko boards public transport (often, the subway) bearing a new placard inscribed with an extensive message. Its purpose is to invite people to engage in a discussion. Serenko thus explores the space of communication itself: the distance between placard and recipient, and how potential interlocutors navigate the distance. So far she has produced fifty-four placards, gone through six markers, and directly communicated with ninety-three people. Marina Simakova spoke with Serenko about the background of the action and its effects.

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Darja Serenko: “I want to carry it myself.”

Tell us how and under what circumstances the idea for the action occurred to you. What was the occasion?

The action grows out of several occasions. On the one hand, the arrest of Ildar Dadin; on the other, the story with the itinerant exhibition {NE MIR}, when we artists were detained by police while carrying our artworks down the street. I had been contemplating a solo picket for quite a long time. I had a dream of doing an ordinary picket, holding a placard at chest level that would resemble the headings in children’s encyclopedias: “And did you know that…” But ultimately a kind of reformatting of the very principle happened in my head. My understanding of it changed.

And what defined its format?

I was riding the subway after the closing of a {NE MIR} exhibition. I had grabbed a small poster by the Lights of Eirene movement. It featured the famous photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their Bed-In for Peace, and next to it, a current photograph in which similar looking people were lying in approximately the same poses. I was carrying the poster unfolded so it would not be crumpled, and I noticed that everyone in the subway car was looking at it. It dawned on me then and there this was the perfect form of communication. It was completely unobtrusive.

Why did you decide to do it alone, without friends? Did you ask anyone else to join you?

I said from the get-go that the format was open. Two young women joined me, but each has changed the format to suit her. One of them, Sasha, joined about ten days ago. She has attached a placard to her backpack (it comes out more static), and she has been traveling with the same placard for a week. On the other hand, she usually prints it out, and it contains references. The second young woman, Valeria, has also been doing a quiet picket on public transport. She wrote me to ask my permission, and of course I agreed. I have asked the young women to share photos of their placards and stories about what happened as they are able. In no way do I want my action to smack of a manifestation where “I, the performance artist, march forth and educate people.” That is not how it is. Although I do conceive of it as an educational project.

So your action could go viral?

It is difficult to talk about a virus when there are only three young women. But this format really is networked, simple, and palatable. It also functions without me.

How has it been documented?

On VKontakte and Facebook, and a bit on Instagram.  I have a small public page on Vkontakte, and I post a written report on my personal page on Facebook every afternoon or evening, when I have a free minute. I try and describe the situations, the conversations, and the behavior, both my own and that of the people with whom I interact. I also post photographs of the placards.

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“#quietpicket is when you feel discouraged and your arms fall.” In Russian, the expression “[one’s] arms fall” means to “feel discouraged.”

And is someone watching and photographing you?

Yes, constantly. Stealthily, very politely. If people photograph at close range, they always ask my  permission. Actually, I have got used to thinking of my action as a tape. Today, something like two hundred people wrote me asking what the action was all about. They had not been following it, and I already find it hard to conceive it any other way and explain it all in a jiffy, because some things were improvised and then they caught on. The format of the action has been changing.

How has it changed?

Initially, I had planned to make a placard early in the morning or the night before, ride around with it for a day, and make a new one the next day. I could not imagine subsequent interventions into the placard. But then I sensed the need to alter it depending on the reactions, to write and draw something extra, to explain something on the back. First, the placards were one-sided, then they became two-sided, and then I started doing several narratives within a placard.

After hearing why I was doing this, one of my accidental interlocutors said, “Oh, I get it. You are making a social alphabet.”

Yes, you could say that as well, and so the alphabet format emerged in my action. I want to put together an entire alphabet. Yesterday, I traveled with Г, for gomoseksual’nost’ [homosexuality], and today it was Ш, for shovinizm [chauvinism].

There is also a storyline involving poems I write on the placards. They can be connected with the topic of the placard, as stated on the other side, or they might not be connected. For example, I have been riding around with texts by the poets of the Lianozovo School, the poems of Vsevolod Nekrasov and Igor Holin, and I have been telling people about poetry. And when people ask me whether I think they are poems, I say that of course they are.

Sometimes, the text on a placard is arranged like a dialogue. There is an enquirer of sorts and a respondent.  There was a photo stand-in placard with holes for the eyes and mouth on which I wrote about the social status of women. The allegory in this case was simple: almost any face could be placed on the placard. But, actually, each placard turns out different from the others.

The last few days I have been stitching the sheets of paper together with thread, because I have run out of tape. (I use A3 sheets, which I combine into one big sheet.) It is an excellent means of representing a placard, because while I am stitching it together, I can turn it over and still remain focused on some task.

Sometimes, I also sew a new placard to an old one. This is a palimpsest placard, and the one is visible through the other. The placards thus form strange seams and montages.

I now always have a pile of posters in my bag.  If I see a person is reacting to the placard I am holding, and realize that I want to say something to them, I take another placard from my bag and sew it to the first. When I was riding around with the placard “Our government is fabricating [in Russian, “stitching up”] yet another case against yet another political prisoner,” I sewed it as well I could, in several rows, with rough stitches. By the way, I have been stitching the alphabet placards into a single notebook so later you can flip through it.

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Darja Serenko, Photo Stand-in Placard on Social Status of Women (Quiet Picket), 2016

How do you think up the texts for the placards? Do you take advantage of items in the news?

Everything is unstable when it comes to this, too. For May Day I made a topical placard, and after Pavlensky’s action [when the artist summoned sex workers to his court hearing as witnesses—OpenLeft] I made a placard about prostitution. But there are issues I simply have to cover, so I conceive of Quiet Picket as an educational project, albeit semi-ironically and semi-seriously.  Although it happens that I see my action as a kind of monstration. I ride in the subway, look at people, and think I would like to cheer them up.

Besides the fact that the project is educational, how do you define it for yourself? As a series of political art performances or as a civic initiative?

I see it as a continuation of my own work as a poet. In the poetry I have been doing, I spent a long time trying to achieve some kind of interaction: I took readymades and inserted them into poems. I think this know-how has influenced Quiet Picket. I am not saying that Picket is a purely poetic endeavor, but thanks to poetry the placard itself has greater opportunities for communicating. And the aspect I cannot keep track of in poetry, the aspect of reading [meaning the reader and her interaction with the poetic text—OpenLeft] is a process I can observe in this case. I see the person’s eyes running over the text, and at the same time she can address me, while I observe how her interpretative mechanisms function, and I can influence them. Quiet Picket takes place in this gap, in the distance between the person and the placard.

Have you thought about urban studies? After all, your action is nothing less than an intervention in one of the most important urban infrastructural spaces, an intervention that would let you get a feel for certain problems, study the behavior of passengers, do work on communications, and so on.

I might prove insufficiently competent as a researcher in this field. I have been trying to document everything I do, and perhaps the outcome will be an article or essay I write. I have not drawn any conclusions for the time being. My research involves collecting information and gaining the know-how of conversing with people on pointed topics that many of them find painful.

There is a rather glaring contradiction in your action. On the one hand, it lays claim to a certain intimacy. It summons a man in the crowd to have a private conversation; it invites him to a politicized discussion. On the other hand, it is very public and open to multiple counter-statements. Could you comment on this?

I don’t see a contradiction here. The fact is that the star of my action is the person who has brought herself to engage in reciprocal communication. She is the master of the situation, not me. She defines her own borders. She can approach me and whisper something in my ear, or she can holler at me from the other end of the subway car, aware that everyone will hear her and thus let other people get involved. It has also happened that a person has asked me to exit the car and have a chat. In that case, I obediently go with him and talk.

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Darja Serenko in the midst of Quiet Picket on the Moscow subway

If we shift the focus from the action itself to its subject, meaning you, we can detect yet another problem. At first glance, you appear as a naïve angel in this action. Eyes downcast, silently but persistently, you broadcast your appeal to people. Prepared for any reaction, you throw yourself at the mercy of angry, tired subway passengers. There is a certain victimhood about all this, almost evoking associations with the holy apostles. At the same time, we can look at you in a different way, as an artist working in the aftermath of Situationism and rationally exploiting the temporal distance. So you are protected from the man in the crowd by theory and your own stance, which have found their own places on your placards, while your potential interlocutor, the so-called man in the street, simply has nothing to oppose to you. You thus possess a certain power from the outset.

First, the image of me as meek silent angel is not true. It has been conjured from a photograph of me that has become quite popular. Usually, I don’t look that way. Second, yes, I have a background in culture, a knowledge of manipulative devices, and a set of readymade arguments. There is no getting away from it, but in the process of communicating I still feel unarmed and naked. The things people say, their experience, and the situations they reference have often stumped me. It has happened that I have nothing ready to say to them.

You assumed this experience would change you, pose new questions, and, perhaps, even force you to undergo a kind of metanoia.  Or am I wrong?

I haven’t had the time to keep track of what has been happening to me. But as a woman and feminist, I do think about my own feminine subjectivity (and objectivity). The placard is an amazing agent. When I use the placard to broadcast a feminist agenda, which I do quite often, I am simultaneously the subject and author of the placard and its object.  When I have to dialogue with someone on the topic, I have to act as a subject. So I balance between these points like a pendulum, and this affects me. Of course, I know about the experiments of artists whose bodies, including social bodies, have become sacrificial bodies. But I am faced primarily by the task of a cultural worker. I really wanted and still want to tell people about certain facts. It pains me these facts are hushed up, many people don’t have access to them, etc.

And why should people believe what you tell them? The legitimacy of your claim to know the facts is supported by what? Are you appealing to the status of cultural worker?

Since my format is encyclopedic, I appeal to sources. You will have noticed the references on my placards. People and I often google something: they verify the information on the Internet. I realize that the informational field is infinite, and for various reasons people often deal with only a fragment of this field. I offer them an alternative.

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Darja Serenko, “This is how our government has been fabricating yet another case against yet another political prisoner” (Quiet Picket, 2016)

The action has been running for five weeks, and you certainly have managed to collect the most incredible textured. Could you tell us about the most memorable, unexpected or personally important incidents during the picket? I will phrase my question even more openly. Tell us about whatever you would like.

For example, an elderly woman read my placard about political prisoners and thanked me. We were sitting opposite each other in the subway, and she told me about her life. She was a medical worker who helped athletes recover after injuries. On the back of my poster was an old poster, the May Day poster, on which the phrase “Thank you for your hard work” had been written.  She then asked me to exit the subway with her and offered to reward me for my work by having a look at my back and spine.

How long are you planning to continue the action?

For a year. I have a palpable dream that one day I will hit on the right phrasing, the right interactive possibility, and a person will want to make a placard in response right in front of me—as a creative act, as a statement, as an expression of contempt for me or, on the contrary, out of a desire to express agreement or disagreement.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of OpenLeft.

Pyotr Pavlensky: We Live between Fascism and Anarchy

Pyotr Pavlensky: We Live between Fascism and Anarchy
afoniya.wordpress.com
February 19, 2016

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With the news that actionist artist Pyotr Pavlensky was sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of Psychiatry in a clear case of punitive psychiatry (for more on the case and its context, read Gabriel Levy’s excellent blog post), there is obviously a need to highlight and protest this fact but also a need to listen to Pavlensky’s own ideas and concepts. Here is a small excerpt, published in a Russian online magazine, which will be part of a forthcoming book on the artist in the context of Russian actionism. 

The original interview with Anastasia Belyayeva was posted on the website Snob on February 16, 2016.

—Giuliano Vivaldi

________

It was recently announced the organizers of the Innovation Contemporary Art Prize had disqualified Pyotr Pavlensky’s performance Threat, in which he set fire to the doors of the FSB building in Moscow. This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, Pyotr Pavlensky in Russian Actionism, which publisher Ilya Danishevsky has kindly allowed Snob to run.

* * * * *

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 is rather difficult for people themselves to articulate why the state is crushing them. Your mission is to articulate?

A kind of diffusion has been taking place. We all find ourselves in a similar situation politically. Certain controversial things are happening to us, fairly unpleasant things. The issue is what is happening and how. Everyone senses it one way or another. But the problem is articulating what the authorities are doing, for they diffuse everything. A persons reads the news, goes to a shop, goes outside or has to go to work, and he sees that for some reason everything is bad, but this badness is somehow diffused.

You articulate this for your audience?

Well yes, for those who can see and hear it. 

When you articulate, if you want your message to be heard, you have to correct for the stereotypes people have, their cultural code, what they are ready for and what they are not ready for. It seems to me that, as a consequence, the people who need an explanation are simply unable to interpret your message, while those who are able, do not need an explanation. So the outcome is somehow nonsensical.

Those who are able do not need an explanation and those who are unable—

The audience of the national TV channels experience, at most, certain negative emotions when they see your actions. It is unpleasant and repulsive to them. Then they are told why you have done this. And this “unpleasantness and repulsion” get mixed up with the reason you did it.

That is exactly what I work for. These temporary gaps are intentional. The precedent remains, and then something happens, and a person comes back to it. One social network user wrote to me that, at one point, he was very much opposed to everything I did. I wrote something to him in response. And he told me in a letter that in the past he had written a lot against the actions, but then he was faced with certain situations in life. It seems the state apparatus had ground him down somewhere along the way. Now he supported this mode of action and apologized.

[…] 

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I have encountered many situations, and I have a rough idea as to how people react to my actions. An excessively emotional response usually can be found in abundance only on the Internet. In real life, when I meet people, I usually see they understand things quite well. Only once in the subway was there an altercation with someone, not even an altercation, but a guy simply went hysterical when he recognized me. A rather young guy recognized me in a subway car. He double-checked my image on the Internet and then began running round the car. We were all riding the subway, the train was moving, and he was running round this car calling on people to rise up against me, to join forces against me. Not a single person supported him. He stuck his phone in people’s faces, but they just brushed him aside as a crazy, hysterical individual. I observed how people reacted. Not having garnered any support, he accused me of humiliating our country, of humiliating him, [Red Square], and so on. It was clear from people’s glances that even if they had recognized me, I didn’t detect any incomprehension towards me or any aggressiveness amongst them. People are rather more understanding than not.

As for that social media user who wrote to you, was it pleasant to get such a reaction?

Of course, he supports some of my ideas.

Is this a rather unique case or does this “I have finally understood you” happen periodically?

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 I prepare myself for an action, different public reactions flash through my mind at the moments of greatest tension. When you abstract yourself from it somehow, there is understanding to a certain extent. Why can I see this reaction even in my mind? Because we have the same sources: the Internet, maybe television, newspapers, and other things. We all feed on the same sources of information. I confront this range of responses afterwards, after the action has been carried out. Naturally, there are both positive and negative responses.

In the meantime, it remains somewhere in the same—

It will always stay like that, you were starting to say, this issue that some understand, while some do not. The thing is that if I begin to think in these terms so as to make the actions more understandable, and that in this case I need to do them such-and-such a way, it will end up as populism. I will end up trying to please people. That is not my objective.

That is not the objective. The objective is to get your message across in a minimum amount of time, straight away, in clear symbols.

A body wound up in barbed wire, what could be clearer? You understand that here there is no way you could be clearer.

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It seems to me 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 call you an exhibitionist or homosexual. That is the initial Russian response: he is not right in the head. In Russia, abnormality is associated with homosexuality, and if you are homosexual that means you are a pervert. Regarding such reactions, don’t you think the essential point is somehow diluted?

If you are talking about how the media tries to influence the response, then of course they are endlessly attempting to make the pendulum of reactions swing between regarding it as a criminal act and insanity, and so one can always expect a certain incomprehension. But it is another question how this influence affects people who actually see an action. During Fixation, one woman was constantly asking, “What’s wrong with him? Is he sick?” Of course, it is rather sad that the cult of psychiatry has such power over public consciousness. However, if a genuine conversation about psychiatric norms does start, that is just wonderful. That is a field that needs to be worked through. That is my first point. Second. About this gesture . . . I am not trying so much to invent or concoct something. The gesture of nailing one’s scrotum down is quite rooted in the culture. It is a gesture employed by prisoners.

Why do they make this gesture?

They do it in different situations.

As a protest?

Yes. They take their lack of freedom, the impossibility of movement, to an extreme. Often, there are wooden floors in prisons, and they nail themselves down. How are you going to move them then? A person is already imprisoned, and he has nailed himself to the floor. This is fixation. And you know, when I talk in my text about the way the country has been turned into a prison camp, about a police state, I am not talking about this lightly. November 10 was Police Day. Each year, banners hang everywhere in the city: November tenth, long live our beloved police! All these signs on the surface. I work with these signs because they are part of the culture. It is important where all this is drawn from if one talks about working with contexts. Without this, the gesture of prisoners would remain behind these fences, doors, and yet more fences. With this large number of barriers, information just does not get to us. You cannot even find photographs of this, because no one in the prisons would be prepared take them. Everyone knows this is happening somewhere behind a large number of doors. But here it is happening at the very center. However, if truth be told, a very conditional border was removed. November 10, banners, the memoirs of dissidents and prisoners: these are markers that link everything in a single statement. If this does not exist, then a passerby will start to think: Red Square, naked, I don’t know . . . I could argue that maybe he is a naked exhibitionist . . . I don’t know the degree to which it works. A naked man: why is he naked? A naked man is a man deprived of everything, even his clothes. It is a degree of impoverishment, an indicator of absence.

Of vulnerability?

No, not of vulnerability. That is not part of the message. The naked man is an expression of a condition, stripped, denuded, and deprived of everything. It is, on the other hand, the body as such. It is what can be found under everyone’s clothes. In any case, clothes always mark you, they are clothes of some kind; they build up an identity. While the body is simply the body. All bodies are similar in one way or another.

To what extent are the police part of your actions?

They are a very important part. To a large extent, they do it all themselves, they engineer everything. Everything changes places [during the action].

In the sense that they arrest you?

No, in the sense of how they react to it. It is not my body that turns out to be the victim. Everything is based on the fact that the authority figures are, in fact, victims of the situation, because they find themselves in the most subordinate situation. They have to obey regulations. I am working with subject-object relations. Above all, law enforcement officials are afraid, but they are obliged to exercise their authority.

They are obliged to free you.

To do something or free me.

Does the fact they are the authorities and are obliged to free you a revolution or something else?

They become the objects of the situation. That is, they . . . I think this is an important aspect: the state objectifies people, compels them to subordinate themselves to regulations, to move within the range of the permitted and the impermissible, to stay in this corridor. A person who submits is an object. When an action is carried out, they become objects, objects raised to a certain power perhaps. Besides the fact they are objects in the first place, performing certain functions, they also become art objects. They want to neutralize: their authority obliges them to do it. They are tasked with neutralizing and eliminating events, with mopping up streets or squares. But this compels them to serve an opposing end. They begin to engineer events. They become characters, actors. Everything is based on them. My own action is kept to a minimum. I simply sit there and do nothing. Or I just stand there. 

And if they had not come, would you have still sat on Red Square?

Yes. It is unclear how an event is going to develop until it actually takes place. It is enough to posit a figure of silence, and the situation is then constructed around the silence. Because the police, ambulance crew or just plain people who would attack me or do something else are simply part of the social body. Something happens: rejection is also a kind of interaction. A senselessly airtight situation: I came, I left. Another important fact is that I speak with everyone in the same way. I communicate with journalists, psychiatrists, and police investigators in the same way. There exist definite rules as to how everything is engineered. If one keeps to the rule of the figure of silence and does not react to the authorities, there should be no interaction. I remain static, but when the action phase ends, when the doors have closed, I start talking, and I talk with everyone in the same way. I make no distinction between journalists whom I am going tell all and, for example, a police investigator. I can, of course, mock the investigator as it were, but it is not mockery really. It is me who involves him in the art process. What has become of these dialogues? Who has achieved their goals in this situation, art or the bureaucratic apparatus? And with my cause I . . .

If everything in the country were fine, what would you have done?

I don’t know.

So you could say that the worse the situation is in the country, the more work you will have?

I understand. The situation is what? It is an unrealizable utopia. There will never be such an ideal society and state. It seems to me that there are certain defining things in people’s nature: subject-object relations and the concept of power. These things dominate all others.

You don’t particularly like the concept of power, do you? I take it that, roughly speaking, you believe it cannot be a good thing, something reasonable? Can power be a good thing?

I believe it cannot, because power’s objective is to create a fully predictable individual. Because an unpredictable individual is a dangerous individual. The closer a person gets to the condition of a subject, the more he goes beyond borders. He looks for something new, and this is dangerous for the powers that be, because he becomes ungovernable.

Would you have protested in any country in the world?

Not in the same way. You must understand there are different contexts. I’m not a professional protester.

Protest art?

Political art. I am not involved in protest art. Political art and protest art are far from one and the same thing. Protest art is when you take to the streets with a placard. There is a NO there, and here there is a YES. That would be a generalization. I take it as a premise that political art involves working with mechanisms of control.

Fine. Political art. Would you have done political art anywhere?

I don’t know. If I lived in another country, maybe I wouldn’t have done political art. Given how I think now, I would probably have found something to do. But maybe it would be something formally similar, because different countries and different control systems generate different ways of suppressing the human imagination. 

Is there a model or regime you find ideal? Anarchy perhaps?

Probably anarchy is an ideal model. I am aware its ideal rests on its impracticability. It is unlikely that humankind will decide to sacrifice the benefits of scientific and technological progress to utopian anarchy. Anarchy is liberation from certain paradigms, it is resistance, a rejection of certain impossible rules. Anarchy involves working with the concept of power.

Anarchy is what you find most congenial? Or is it something else?

Yes, I probably find it congenial in some way. There is insurrectionary anarchism, and there are other kinds of anarchism. Anarcho-communism is a contradictory delusion: the dictatorship of equality versus the dictatorship of freedom. Either there is the one or the other. It is difficult to imagine the emergence of punk culture in a dictatorial regime of universal equality.

Would you like to live in a state where anarchy ruled?

There can be no state where anarchy rules.

A city where everything takes shape in this way. There is anarchy, but something takes shape all the same.

Undoubtedly. That is why I say it is anarchy. The individual’s life is spent in permanent struggle for subjectivation and self-assertion, because all possible resources, forces, interests and, ultimately, other people or groups of people work towards objectivation, towards subjugation. Even if a pseudo-anarchist structure was to take shape, groups or structures would still emerge that would turn it all

Systematize it.

Yes, turn it into an ossified mass. And it is better to reject these dogmas before they have managed to become political disenchantment. History persuades us that the lessons of the twentieth century did not prevent the kibbutzim from reconciling the beautiful idea of communal property with the defense of the growing and sacred borders of the state of Israel. This constant self-assertion has to be rejected. It is like a never-ending process.

Is there an ideal model for individual existence? Is it possible the way you see it: that nobody usurps you, and you do not intersect with anyone? 

It’s difficult for me to say. It all depends on the person. A person must overcome the [rules] imposed on him—

Globally.

Globally, there is a movement towards the anarchist model.

Then everything will circle round again?

Without a doubt. There is a certain range or continuum, of course. As in the [Grazhdanskaya Oborona] song: “Everything that is not anarchy is fascism.” We are situated between these two poles. Fascism not in terms of the Italian model or some other model, obviously, but as a kind of generic term. Fascism as absolute diktat, absolute and total control. And there is the other pole: anarchy as a certain absolute freedom. In fact, all the oscillation occurs between them.

And in the middle, between these two extremes, normality rolls along?

I have never thought about what is in the middle. I don’t know what is in between. In between there is dull liberalism with its shoddy political correctness.

I am just trying to understand your goal in this essentially vicious circle. You understand that things will never be wonderful?

What actually changes society and generally produces transformation? Certainly not any political templates or schemes, because working with cultural codes is the most important thing. Semantic precedents influence how a person relates to what happens around him. They are his reflexes, developed vis-à-vis different situations. Which of his associative models are activated, and what kind of situational response does he make? He may give a quick response, or he may, upon reflection, make a decision. This is the field where the struggle takes place. Regimes change, of course. There was the Soviet regime. Before that there was the monarchy, the Russian Empire, and now there is this regime. In any regime, the siloviki [military and security services] are in power. In 1917, there was a revolution, there were changes, and there were significant changes in culture, art, and how people related to each other. Things were in motion for fifteen years, and then there was a reaction. The Bolsheviks suffocated everything, and things were rolled way back.

Do you have an overarching idea about you are doing? Where are you taking all this? What point between fascism and anarchy seems to you the most appropriate?

You undoubtedly need to push everything in the direction of anarchy because

Because something budges at least a little bit?

Even for things to remain as they are, you already need a certain effort. If you make a great effort you can move things a little further. On the other hand, there is a very strong force moving us in the other direction, towards fascism and absolute subjugation. The state apparatus with its huge resources, an entire system of agencies, is working towards this. It is a constant clash. It never stops. For me, the head-on collision takes place on this stretch of road. It is ridiculous to dream those forces that are a hindrance will eventually dissolve and disappear, and we will suddenly find ourselves in anarchy and living under a different model. I think this is a more realistic perspective on things. But speaking theoretically, of course, when you loosen frameworks and push back borders, you really help others, the people who come after you.

Translated by Giuliano Vivaldi and reprinted here with his kind permission. See my previous posts on Pyotr Pavlensky.

Pyotr Pavlensky: “The FSB Has Hammered an Iron Curtain Around Itself”

Pyotr Pavlensky: “The FSB Has Hammered an Iron Curtain Around Itself”  
Elena Kostyuchenko and Ekaterina Fomina
December 10, 2015
Novaya Gazeta

An exclusive interview with the arrested artist

He stands accused of vandalism for setting fire to the door of the FSB building. Pavlensky himself has requested he be tried as a terrorist as a gesture of solidarity with convicted terrorists Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko. Observing a vow of silence, Pyotr Pavlensky refused to answer the court’s questions. He did, however, answer Novaya Gazeta’s questions.


Photo: Yevgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta

Pyotr Pavlensky’s Works

Seam, July 2012. Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut with a coarse thread and stood for an hour and a half in front of Saint Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral holding a placard that read, “Pussy Riot’s performance was a reenactment of Jesus Christ’s famous performance.”

Carcass, May 2013.  Absolutely naked and not responding to anything, Pavlensky lay wrapped in barbed wired outside the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly. The artist attempted to show the new position Russian citizens had found themselves in after the adoption of repressive legislation.

Fixation, November 2013. Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to a cobblestone on Red Square and sat motionless looking at it. “It is a metaphor for the apathy and political indifference of Russian society,” the artist explained. Pavlensky timed his action to coinicide with Police Day.

Freedom, February 2014. Pavlensky and a group of activists burned around fifty tires on Mal0-Konyushenny Bridge in Saint Bridge, thus reconstructing the Maidan in Kyiv.

Segregation, October 2014. Pavlensky cut off his earlobe while sitting naked on the fence of the Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. The action was a protest against punitive psychiatry.

Threat, November 9, 2015. Pavlensky set fire to the main entrance of the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square. The artist stood before the burning door holding a fuel canister.

What is fear?

I think fear is an animal instinct. You find an example of how fear itself turns into an immediate threat to life in Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The question she returns to time and again there is, who was more to blame for the death to which a hundred concentration camp prisoners were led, the two guards who escorted them there or the prisoners themselves? Because they went willingly to their deaths, making no attempt to kill the guards or escape. Fear is dangerous because it suppresses free will. Without free will man becomes something like a domesticated beast of burden, which is not finished off and turned into food while there is the need to keep working it.

How and when did you conceive Threat?

[The answer has not been published in keeping with the requirements of Russian federal law.]

What did the preparation involve?

The choice of the site, the date, and time were the main things. When they have been determined, all that remains is the technical preparation, in which I try to do with the most minimal means.

Was Threat successful?  What constitutes success? Were the other actions successful?

I find it difficult to talk about, because my access to information is limited. But the fact alone that I managed to do it could be considered a big success.

Is there a common theme running through your works? Have your stance and objectives changed?

Yes, in all my works I talk about the prison of everyday life and the possibility of release from this prison. Seam, Carcass, Fixation, and Segregation are the prison of everyday life. Freedom is the possibility of release. But Threat is the power of coercion in this prison, meaning that it is the main threat to free will.

In most of your actions you haven chosen your own body as the object. Why did you decide to choose an external object this time?

This is not true. I have used my body when talking about the prison of everyday life. The statement about emancipation was constructed completely differently. Freedom was implemented by a collective subject. Now I have discussed the threat hanging over every member of society. This is a direct threat to the manifestation of everyone’s free will. I never said I was doing performance art or body art. I work with the tools of power, and what I do is political art.


Freedom.Photo: Pyotr Kovalyov / Interpress / TASS 

Whom are you addressing?

Society. I do not address people in power. I use them as material for undermining the scenery of power. My objective is to call into question the entire façade concealing the ruthless mechanics of control and administration.

Do you identify with the the society you previously depicted (Fixation and Carcass)? If not, where are you?

Well, now I am actually in jail. But if we talk about how much I feel myself to be part of society, then to the extent that we all are part of the same regime. I travel on the same public transportation, I watch the same news, and I hear the same advertisements. The informational field is the same,  and I have worked with elements of it. I take something from one context and transfer it to another context. The contexts collide and new meanings are produced. In this way I identify the discrepancy between the scenery and mechanics of power.

Do you know how people have responded to Threat? Can you follow events from jail?  How do you get the idea across when discussion of the action itself (the scrotum, the door) becomes primary?

No, I know very little about the reactions. But I did find out about the most interesting reaction: the entrance to Lubyanka was covered in aluminum. I have been told that “Lubyanka behind the iron curtain” is what the authorities called their action. The regime is erecting this curtain around itself with its own hands. No, it is still not easy for me to keep track of what is happening. I am partly cut off from communications. I get letters, and my lawyers can tell me some things. Other prisoners also tell me things, but generally the information is very sketchy.


Segregation. Photo: Oksana Shalygina / Facebook

Some say that the action could have caused harm to employees who were inside the building. Did you think about this?

No, I had no such fears. We could discuss such a threat if I had employed heavy artillery instead of a fuel canister.

You have called the FSB a “terrorist organization.” You see no difference between a suicide bomber at Domodedovo Airport and an FSB employee?

The FSB [excised in keeping with the requirements of Russian federal law] is a militarized, well-equipped, armed organization. And it combats its competitors, people who would like to take its place but who simply lack the resources. I think any state is a political institution that has formed as an outcome of long-term political terror.

Whic actionist artists (past or present) do you like?

There are quite a few artists, and not necessarily actionists. They include the Dadaists, Malevich and Suprematism, the works of Caravaggio, and many others. Chris Burden was one of the few good performance artists. If we talk about actionists, I would include Alexander Brener and the Moscow actionists of the nineties. Voina made a huge breakthrough, followed by Pussy Riot, including their last performance at the Sochi Olympics.

Can art exist separately from politics nowadays?

No, it cannot. Art was forced to served ruling regimes for many centuries. It was an effective apparatus for inculcating ideological paradigms. Art was able to free itself from functional obligations in the twentieth century. But regimes continue to exist, and every year they require thousands of new personnel: they make a lot of effort to produce these units. The very existence of these institutions for producing service personnel is already sufficient demonstration of the link between art and politics.


Carcass. Photo: Sergei Yermokhin / Interpress / TASS

Investigators have on several occasions asked psychiatrists to examine you. Have you ever doubted your own mental competence?

No, I have not yet had any reason to doubt it.

How do you understand the holy fool? Some have called you a holy fool. Can you agree with them?

No, I cannot. I am an artist who does political art. Political art involves methodical research of social responses and sets of codes. Aside from the actions, the work involves dealing with the many tools of the regime: law enforcement, psychiatry, mass media, etc. I do not think you can just call this a way of life. In this sense, early punk culture, the residents of psychiatric hospitals, and hippies like Charles Mansion bore a much greater resemblance to holy fools.

What happened after your arrest?

 Everything was fairly by the book: physical detention, handcuffs, searches, the first attempts at interrogation. Usually, during the first twenty-four hours, investigators try to get as much testimony as possible. That is exactly why you have to pay attention during the first twenty-four hours and say nothing at all. The same thing happens with psychiatrists, only they have more power. But much more important is what it means to me. For me, it is a process of defining the boundaries and forms of political art. And what the regimes calls arrest and paperwork procedures is nothing other than a bureaucratic ritual for producing criminals.

What are your conditions like now? Has pressure been brought to bear on you?

There was only one attempt to get me to sign a confession that I had not wanted to harm and threaten the lives of FSB employees. After an hour of back and forth conversation, they were unable to get what they wanted. I went to lockup to relax, and they left.


Seam. Photo: neva-room.ru

Why did you ask to be charged with terrorism?

 I thought about the action I had carried out and came to the rather interesting conclusion that the action of setting fire to a door was quite similar to what ultimately led to terrorism charges against the s0-called Crimean terrorists and the ABTO group. Only in those cases, the FSB added to these groups people who had made deals with investigators, and as a result of this cooperation, ringerleaders of terrorist organizations and their accomplices emerged. So I decided to demand coherent logic from the court and justice from the judiciary and law enforcement.

Are you going to remain silent in the court?

Yes, I am going to maintain my silence until the lawlessness of the judiciary and law enforcement comes to an end.

Does an action begin when it is actually implemented or afterwards? Is the action still under way now? Do you recognize the state as a co-author?

An act begins during its implementation and ends when the law enforcement system or psychiatrists detain me. But cessation of the action per se marks the beginning of the process by which the boundaries and forms of political art are defined. So we could say that it is not the action that continues but the process of political art.

What do expect from the future? Are you willing to continue living in a stagnated Russia? Have you thought about applying your energies somewhere else? Are you struggling for a better life for yourself or for the country? (And is it a struggle?)

Each of us is responsible for the situation of stagnation. And for this reason alone I do not want to live somewhere else. As for me and my life, it is not a struggle, but the only possible form of existence under state terror. Everything else is personal responsibility for the life of society within the bounds of border and passport control.

P.S. On December 10, Pavlensky was transferred to St. Petersburg, where the case of setting fire to the tires is being examined.

Translated by the Russian Reader