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.

Show Trial

Police Show Up to Evening in Support of Political Prisoners
Grani.ru
March 30, 2016

Police showed up at the Moscow cafe Dozhd-Mazhor, where an evening in support of political prisoners had been scheduled. Our correspondent reported that around fifteen officers entered the space, inspected it, and then went outside to the entrance and proceeded to ID everyone leaving the cafe.

Later, police tried to detain activist Habib Poghosyan. They claimed an APB had been issued for his arrest on suspicion of theft. Poghosyan refused to show the officers his internal passport, while they demanded he go with them to a police station. After several minutes of negotiation, the police officers left. The play started a little late.

Show Trial, a fantasy play about how Ildar Dadin‘s upcoming appeals hearing should turn out, and the itinerant exhibition {NE MIR} took place at the Moscow club Dozhd-Mazhor on March 29. Video by Vladimir Borko

“We believe that Ildar’s trial was a show trial, and so we decided to stage Show Trial, with a prisoner of conscience as the defendant. We will show people how such trials should be conducted, not only Ildar’s trial but also the trials of other political prisoners, including Darya Polyudova and Ivan Nepomnyashchikh, whose appeals are pending, and Dmitry Buchenkov and Pyotr Pavlensky, who are under investigation. We will also be recalling Alexei Sutuga, Alexander Kolchenko, and other people in prison on trumped-up charges for their beliefs,” said the evening’s organizers.

In addition to the performance, the art cafe hosted an exhibition dealing with the topic of unlawful arrests and trials. Poets and bard singers performed after the play.

Dadin’s appeals hearing will take place at 10 a.m., March 31, in Moscow City Court. Attorney Henri Reznik will represent Dadin at the hearing.

The hearing, which had begun on March 23, was postponed because the panel of judges had not been informed whether the defense had examined the minutes of the trial, and the defense had not been provided with audio recordings of the hearings.

On December 7, 2015, Judge Natalia Dudar of the Basmanny District Court sentenced Dadin to three years in a minimum security prison under Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code (repeated violations at rallies). However, the prosecutor had asked the court to sentence the activist to only two years in a minimum security prison. Dadin was accused of involvement in “unauthorized” protest rallies on August 6, August 23, September 13, and December 5, 2014.

It was the first guilty verdict handed down under the new law, which was inserted into the Criminal Code in 2014.

During his closing statement at the trial, Dadin said the article under which he had been charged was deliberately unconstitutional, “criminal, and political,” and has been designed to crack down on activists.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade VZ for the heads-up

No Peace for {NE MIR}

Police Detain Participants of Itinerant Anti-War Exhibition in Moscow
Mediazona
March 13, 2016

Police in downtown Moscow have detained participants of the itinerant pacifist exhibition {NE MIR} (NO PEACE), artist Ekaterina Nenasheva reports on her Facebook page.

According to Nenasheva, paddy wagons accompanied the artists from Kurskaya subway station to the Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art.

{NE MIR} marchers pose with works before boarding police paddy wagon
{NE MIR} marchers pose with works before boarding police paddy wagon

“The exhibition ended at Baumanskaya subway station and continued in a paddy wagon,” the artist wrote.

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Artist Ekaterina Nenasheva inside a police paddy wagon

She said it was the third {NE MIR} exhibition, featuring artists from Moscow, Petersburg, Murmansk, and Krasnodar, as well as Ukraine, Finland, and Austria.

OVD Info reports that fifteen people were detained outside Winzavod, including Nenasheva, Anna Bokler, Mikhail Oskarin, Ksenia Tretyushina, Alexandra Lavrova, Andrei Darklight, Angelina Trinten, Elvira Komarova, Tatyana Sushenkova, Ivan Karamnov, and Nikita Rasskazov.

The participants of the itinerant exhibition have been taken to Basmanny police precinct, where their papers are being checked. In addition, police are examining the artworks.

Nenasheva later informed Mediazona that thirteen artists are being held at the police station.

The police have not given any reasons for the arrests. According to Nenasheva, the artists will likely be charged with violating the rules for holding a public event (Article 20.2 of the Administrative Offenses Code).

Update. Nenasheva has informed Mediazona that the police have formally charged twelve artists with violating Article 20.2 of the Administrative Offenses Code. Their case will be heard in administrative court on March 16.

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Darja Serenko
Facebook
March 16, 2016

The judge refused to give my public defender access to the case file, forbade Gerchikov (who introduced himself as the head designer of the city of Moscow) from sketching in the courtroom (“if you don’t respect the court, then at least respect yourself”: how can you talk that way with the head designer of the city of Moscow), and found me guilty of unauthorized marching with photographic works from house no. 4 to house no. 8. The fine was 20,000 rubles [approx. 260 euros].

The whole day I was working on totally blacking out a little book called the Russian Federal Criminal Procedure Code: I discovered something almost therapeutic about this practice. The hearing was scary and I kept on shading in the book. I felt calmer that way. I did my best blacking out right when the sentence was announced. I am really grateful to everyone who came to draw and to support me (Vanya Simonov, Masha Menshikov, Marja Klinova, Dima the head designer of the city of Moscow, and everyone else), and I thank my civil rights defender.

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Darja Serenko, Blacked-out page of the Russian Federal Criminal Procedure Code, March 16, 2016. The remaining words produce the phrase “Freedom / is conducted in Russian / or another language / depending on the character.”

Although there was nothing really scary about our case and now it has turned into a bloated media blip that will survive for a week in opposition media, I think it was worth it. And our self-existent exhibition inside the courtroom was also lovely and reminded me of Harald Szeemann and his exhibition project, in which everyone brought their works literally right off the street into the gallery, and the curator found a place for the works. Because of all the noise made by the media, everyone forgot about the pictures. In this case, they are only EVIDENCE. Everyone is interested in the court hearing and certain heroic artists. I am not an artist. I am a mini-curator, and I was stunned by certain works and their power. I would organize an exhibition like this in the well-known spaces where I work. The exhibition {NE MIR} is the best work with space (in the broad sense of the word) I have seen. I hope we will get our hands on the work and be able to show it.

What matters is not whether it is an anti-war exhibition or a protest rally or not, but the fundamental fact that in our country the classic format of the outdoor exhibition is still imagined almost as a terrorist act. In my opinion, everyone should have already had their fill of the format: the outdoor exhibition should be an art object invisible to everyone. But a renewed political discourse has updated the format as well.

After the court hearing, I took the subway and found myself in an exhibition car: the Russian Geographical Society and Miklouho-Maclay were on display. I laughed hysterically. It was also basically an itinerant exhibition. It moved almost by itself, wonder of wonders.

When we were still outside the courthouse smoking, a man came up to us. He said he had just been freed and asked us for money. When we gave him some, he told us our fortunes and recited psalms. I am going to have two husbands. The first one will cheat on me, the second will cheat on me, but the third won’t cheat on me, despite the fact that I am going to have two husbands all the same. While he was telling our fortunes, a policeman who worked at the courthouse came up to us and asked what sort of gathering we were having. I think someone known as the Director of the City of Moscow orchestrated this day.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Video courtesy of Radio Svoboda. Images courtesy of OVD Info, Ekaterina Nenasheva, and Darja Serenko. Thanks to Vadim F. Lurie for the heads-up.

{NE MIR} Dialogues (Riga)

Vadim F. Lurie
Facebook
February 21, 2016

The exhibition {NE MIR} (NO PEACE), a sequel to and an elaboration on the itinerant exhibition/performance that recently took place in Petersburg, opens today in Riga. I sent my photographs of Antiwar Weekend, a walk around the city made by Ekaterina Nenasheva. She strolled around Petersburg in a blood-stained, camouflage uniform. We looked for places in one way or another connected with war, aggression, the army or the memory of them. Actually, we didn’t have to love for them: they were everywhere. Our city is traumatized. Aggression and the memory of wars are offered to tourists as souvenirs, and I see this as an attempt not only at self-assertion but also at conveying this feeling to everyone. As we walked round the city, passersby paid no special attention to the young woman in camouflage. She had become yet another military artifact, a customary sight here. Thirteen photographs, Petersburg, a sunny day in 2015.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Ekaterina Nenasheva, Antiwar Weekend, 2015. Photograph by Vadim F. Lurie. Items for sale in the far right of the kiosk include “Cities of Military Glory,” “Russia’s Naval Glory,” and “The Battle for Vyborg.”
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Ekaterina Nenasheva, Antiwar Weekend, 2015. Photograph by Vadim F. Lurie.
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Ekaterina Nenasheva, Antiwar Weekend, 2015. Photograph by Vadim F. Lurie.

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{NE MIR}: Dialogues in Riga
Opening: February 21, 2016, 7 p.m.
BOLDERĀJA, AVOTU, 29, RIGA

{NE MIR} is a series of antiwar street exhibitions launched by a group of artists from Moscow and Petersburg. The project’s objective is to discuss war in its different forms, make a collective artistic statement on the relationship between the individual and the state, and investigate the borders of street art in today’s Russia.

The first {NE MIR} exhibition took place in Petersburg on December 27, 2015.

In Russia, there is a law prohibiting marches and rallies (in fact, any political or public gathering of more than two people) without obtaining permission from the authorities ten days beforehand. Moreover, these rallies can be held only in specific places, which are usually situated on the outskirts of cities or are difficult for the public to access. The Russian authorities have the right to prohibit any rally, and in that case it will be considered illegal.

Since their request was turned down three times by local authorities, the artists who launched {NE MIR} had no other choice than to make mobile banners and wander the city under the watchful eye of regular police and riot police.

The urban environment, which dictated the form of protest (wandering round the city), thus functioned as the exhibition’s curator.

This interactive format raised many questions both in terms of art and civic involvement.

How should Russian artists act in the current situation when any statement is deemed disorderly conduct or even a crime? What is the visual code used by police and random passersby, and what are the circumstances under which dialogue is possible? How are absolutely defenseless artists regarded by viewers when they display their artworks in such an aggressive environment?

We intend to look for answers to these questions both inside and outside Russia.

{NE MIR}: Dialogues is a series of itinerant exhibitions and discussions held outside Russia in free art spaces and galleries. It is an attempt to promote dialogue among citizens, artists, and activists, and spark cultural and social interaction between people from different societies and countries.

The exhibition of the {NE MIR} project in Riga will include paintings, graphic art, installations, photographs, and video works by artists from Russia, Ukraine, Denmark, and Chile.

A discussion entitled “The Image of War: The Mass Image and the Private Image” will be held at 7 p.m. on February 21 at Bolderāja Bookshop and Cafe (Avotu 29, Riga), with the exhibition opening to follow at 8 p.m.

Adapted and edited from the original event notice in English on Bolderāja’s Facebook page