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.

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Ilya Budraitskis: Putrefaction as the Laboratory of Life (The 2016 Elections)

Nikolai Yaroshenko, Life Is Everywhere, 1888. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Nikolai Yaroshenko, Life Is Everywhere, 1888. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The 2016 Elections: Putrefaction as the Laboratory of Life
Ilya Budraitskis
OpenLeft
April 29, 2016

How do the upcoming Duma elections threaten the regime?

Today, it would seem that the upcoming September elections to the State Duma are a cause of growing concern only in the Kremlin. While polls continue to record a low level of public interest in the event, and the tiny number of parties allowed to run in the election wanly prepares to fulfill their usual roles, the president and his entourage are increasingly talking about possible threats.

The rationale of radicalization
At a recent meeting with activists of the Russian People’s Front, Putin noted that external enemies would preparing ever more provocations to coincide “with elections to the State Duma, and then with the presidential election. It’s a one hundred percent certainty, a safe bet, as they say.”

Regardless of their real value, the upcoming elections have been turning right before our eyes into a point of tension on which the state’s repressive apparatus has focused. Beginning with the establishment of the National Guard, the process has been mounting. Each security agency has now inaugurated its own advertising season, designed not only to remind the president and public of its existence but also to show off its unique capabilities, inaccessible to other competing agencies, for combating potential threats.

Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika has uncovered a plot by the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector, while in his programmatic article, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin essentially suggested canceling the elections since holding them could prove too dangerous. He made a direct appeal to stop “playing at pseudo-democracy” and provide a “tough, appropriate, and balanced response” to the country’s enemies “in light of the upcoming elections and the possible risks presented by the stepping up of efforts by destabilizing political forces.” With the appointment of Tatyana Moskalkova, even the previously neutral office of the human rights ombudsman has, apparently, been turned into yet another bastion of the fight against conspiracies.

This nervousness is certainly due to the fact that the growing economic and social crisis has had no visible political fallout for the time being. There have been no mass spontaneous revolts or sectoral strikes, although there has been an overall uptick in isolated labor disputes.  The political realm has long ago been securely purged of any uncontrollable opposition, while the president’s personal rating has remained phenomenally high. Nothing, it would seem, portends serious grounds for political destabilization this autumn. The absence, however, of real threats itself has become a threat to the internal stability of the state apparatus.

Where does the threat lie? In recent times, it has become obvious that decision-making at all levels and whatever the occasion has been subjected to a rationale of radicalization. Its principle can be described roughly as follows: no new decision can be less radical than the previous decision. Bureaucratic loyalty is measured only by the level of severity. MPs must propose more sweeping laws against latent traitors. Law enforcement agencies must expose more and more conspiracies, while the courts must hand down rulings that are harsher than the harshest proposals made by the security officials and MPs. Permanently mounting radicalism enables officials to increase budgets, expand powers, and prove their reliability, while any manifestation of moderation or leniency can cost them their careers. This radicalization, whose causes are rooted in the political psychology of the Russian elite (which suffers from an almost animal fear of uncontrollability), has set off an extremely dangerous bureaucratic momentum. Its main problem is the inability to stop. It is not only unclear where the bottom is, but who is ultimately interested in reaching that bottom and leaving it at that.

All this generates a strange situation vis-à-vis the elections, which have generally functioned primarily as a political balancing mechanism for the Putinist system, and even now function in this way. Elections have always been a reminder—not to voters, but to the elite itself—that varying opinions within a clearly defined framework have not only been possible but have also been encouraged. This reminder has been important not out of faithfulness to an abstract principle, but as confirmation that political bodies (first of all, the presidential administration) have had the monopoly on deciding domestic policy, not a military or police junta.

Fixing the broken mechanism?
For the Kremlin, the upcoming elections are overshadowed by the political trauma of 2011, when the smoothly functioning system of managed democracy suffered a serious breakdown. The current chief political strategist Vyacheslav Volodin has more or less consistently focused on making sure the failure of five years ago is not repeated. Volodin’s mission is to fix the broken mechanism with political methods, not by force.

It is worth remembering that, for the greater part of the Putin era, parliamentary and presidential elections were parts of a single political cycle, in which the same scenario was played out. The triumphal success of the ruling United Russia party was supposed to precede and ensure the even more resounding success of Vladimir Putin. In December 2011, however, the cycle’s unity backfired against the Kremlin’s plans. The interval between elections enabled the protest movement to maintain its grassroots energy for several months.

The political rationale of Putin’s third term is now aimed not only at technically but also at conceptually disrupting this cycle. Amidst a sharp drop in confidence in the government, the Kremlin decided last summer to move parliamentary elections up from December 2017 to September 2016, and, on the contrary, postpone the presidential election from March 2017 to March 2018. The point of the maneuver is obvious. The presidential and parliamentary elections must now represent not two parts of the same script but two completely different scripts. In the first script, a limited number of parties, which make up the symphony of the Crimean consensus, will criticize the government and each other, thus competing for the sympathies of the dissatisfied populace. In the second script, the natural patriotic instinct of voters should leave no doubt as to the need to support Putin unconditionally.

The new ideological content was embodied by Volodin’s famous statement: “There is no Russia today if there is no Putin.” This personification virtually means that, as a symbolic father, Putin transcends everyday politics. You can be a liberal or a nationalist, a proponent of greater intervention in the economy or a fan of the free market. You can choose not to like the government or government officials. But the nexus Putin-Crimea-Russia is beyond any doubt. Those who fundamentally disagree with it are simply removed from the Russian political spectrum and branded “national traitors.”

In keeping with this rationale, responsibility for the sharp drop in living standards and the consequences of the neoliberal “anti-crisis” measures has been borne by ministers, MPs, and governors, by anyone except the president. Even now, when the propaganda effect of the “reunification” of Crimea has obviously begun to fade, the president’s personal rating remains high. Thus, according to the latest opinion polls, 81% of respondents trust Putin, while 41% do not trust Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and 47% do not trust his government overall.

Within the new-model Crimean consensus, United Russia will no longer play the role of the backbone it played in the noughties. Untethered from the non-partisan figure of the president, it will take on the burden of unpopularity borne by its formal leader, Dmitry Medvedev, and his government. The mixed electoral system will enable candidates from local “parties of power” in single-member districts to dissociate themselves from United Russia, presenting themselves as “non-partisan Putinists” criticizing the soulless federal authorities. Volodin’s scheme involves loosening United Russia’s grip on power and slightly increasing the value of the pseudo-opposition as represented by the Communist Party and A Just Russia.

It is worth noting that the very existence of a bureaucratic mega-party previously played a stabilizing role by dampening intra-elite conflicts. Now they will inevitably come out into the open, including in the shape of inter-party struggles. Of course, the presidential administration counts on being able to effectively ensure compliance with the clear rules of this competition, but there are no guarantees. The managed multi-party system with the “father of the nation” towering over it consummates the new architecture of the Putin regime as a personalistic regime, and becomes more and more vulnerable.

In the new reality of the crisis, Putin’s depoliticization also facilitates a more intensive “natural selection” among bureaucrats at all levels by culling those who have not mastered the art of maintaining the conservative sympathies of the populace while simultaneously implementing what amount to aggressively anti-social policies. The September campaign is supposed to go off without a hitch, culminating in a predictable outcome. Having given a human face to the Central Elections Commission, which was seriously discredited by the previous leadership, Ella Pamfilova is meant to increase this manageability and predictability. It turns out that the upcoming elections are the primary pressure test of the new, post-Bolotnaya Square design of managed democracy. The future of Vyacheslav Volodin and his team, as well as Putin’s willingness to trust them with the extremely important 2018 presidential campaign, probably depends on how smoothly they come off.

From the foregoing it is clear that the objective of reestablishing the rules of managed democracy is directly at odds with the above-mentioned rationale of radicalization, whose standard-bearers are the competing law enforcement agencies. Their individual success in the internal struggle is vouchsafed by the failure of the political scenario, which would give rise to the need for a vigorous intervention by force. After all, the National Guard’s value would be incomparably increased if it put down real riots instead of sham riots, and Bastrykin’s loyalty would all the dearer if, instead of the endless absurdity of the Bolotnaya Square Case, he would uncover real extremists. To scare someone seriously, the ghosts have to take on flesh and blood.

Life is everywhere
Marx said that putrefaction is the laboratory of life. Now we see how Putinist capitalism has embarked on a process of gradual self-destruction. The upcoming elections provide a clear picture of how this has been facilitated by two opposing rationales, the political rationale (Volodin and the presidential administration) and the law enforcement rationale. Thus, the first rationale, in order to generate the necessary momentum and expand the range of opinions, must respond to social discontent by providing United Russia’s managed opponents with greater freedom to criticize. Restoring the internal political balance will inevitably lead to the fact that topics related to the crisis and the government’s anti-social policies will become the centerpiece of the entire election campaign. On the other hand, the security forces will destabilize the situation outside parliament. Together, they will do much more to undermine an already-flawed system than the long-term, deliberate efforts of any western intelligence agency.

Of course, Russian leftists should in no way count on events following an automatic course. But it is absolutely necessary to take into account the conflicts of interest within the elite and understand their decisive influence on the shape of the upcoming elections. These elections have nothing to do with the real struggle for power or traditional parliamentarianism in any shape or form. But they are directly related to the internal decomposition of an authoritarian, anti-labor, and anti-social regime. So our policy vis-à-vis these elections should be flexible and remote from all general conclusions. That means we can and should support certain leftist candidates in single-member districts. We must use all the opportunities provided by the leftist, socialist critique of the Medvedev government’s so-called anti-crisis policies. We must be ready to go to the polls. Or we must be ready to reject them, taking to the streets when the time comes.

Ilya Budraitskis is a writer, researcher, and editor at OpenLeft. Translated by the Russian Reader