Sergey Yermakov: Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

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

Sergey Yermakov
Protest Duckies and the Actionism of Fact

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

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

What happened to the performances due to their actions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergey Yermakov: Revolution or Chernobyl!

Sergey Yermakov
December 19, 2015

Back in her day, we recall, Rosa Luxemberg proposed the slogan “Socialism or barbarism!” While not obvious at first glance, the slogan is profoundly and functionally religious, albeit secularized, since it deals with salvation, with socialism as a project of salvation from the consequences of capitalism. In 1916, in the midst of a monstrous imperialist war, it was a secular take on soteriology, the doctrine of salvation.

The “or” is telltale. Although “barbarism” implies the entire subject matter of nineteenth-century Hegelianism and positivism, the theme of progress, as opposed to barbarism, the subject of progress as Bildung, the slogan is, nevertheless, anti-Hegelian. Nothing vouchsafes the Spirit’s final pleroma; the victory of progress is not obvious. Nor is it obvious that the arrow of history is generally pointed towards an increase of the good, and that a “higher” formation will inevitably come to replace the “lower” formation. But because salvation is not vouchsafed, we must work on its behalf and advocate for it. (Whereas, in the Hegelian universe, Self-Development of the Spirit, Ltd., and Progress, Inc., issue you a guarantee in writing, a futures contract for salvation.)

So, dear missionaries and itinerant preachers, boldly introduce the subject of salvation into your sermonizing. When the laymen groan, as they usually do, that the outcome will be bloody and so forth, you tell them, “Revolution or Chernobyl!” (I am serious.)

A regime incapable of maintaining a functioning technosphere, for which it bears responsibility, legitimates its own overthrow. Revolution does not guarantee the emergence of a new technosphere, of course. Politics and science and technics (and even governance and science) hardly run in parallel lines, just as revolution does not guarantee a regime more capable of governance. As a manifestation of the demos, however, revolution, at least for some time, generates a collectively responsible subject, a subject capable of deliberating on its own collective future, including the technosphere.

By the way, for those who find such things crucial, I do not fully understand the meaning of the term “sovereignty” in 2015, but perhaps only revolution is capable of preserving it, simply by generating the dimension of collective responsibility, the sense that “regular dudes are in charge here.” As it is, one ninth of the earth’s land mass has begun to present an excessive danger, given its unpredictability and irresponsibility, toward the other eight ninths, even taking in account the disasters with oil rigs that happen there and monstrously smoky China. God forbid that external management should be required.

P.S. We have to think over whether Luxemberug’s slogan—and the line of campaigning proposed—suggest that revolution (an apocalyptic event towards which the messianic subject is directed) is the katechon, that which holds back (in this case, a technological disaster), because there is an obvious paradox here: the katechon is anti-apocalyptical figure.


Emergency Shutdown of Second Unit at Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant
December 19, 2015

An emergency shutdown of the second unit at Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant took place on Friday, December 18, at 1:50 p.m. local time. The cause of the shutdown and emergency cooling of the reactor was a sudden influx of radioactive steam from a faulty pipe into one of the rooms in the turbine section.

Both of the turbines servicing the reactor were shut down.

During the cooling down, the steam generated in the reactor was ejected into the environment through a pipe. A south-southeasterly wind blowing at five meters per second (such a wind is atypical for this locale) carried the radioactive steam toward the Gulf of Finland in the direction of Zelenogorsk and Vyborg. Green World recorded a background radiation of 20 mR/h at five p.m. local time in downtown Sosnovy Bor, five kilometers away from the affected unit.

Saint Petersburg, a city of five million people people that is situated forty kilometers to the east of the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, was thus fortunate this time round. According to some sources, the background radiation increased only severalfold in the vicinity of the plant.

In the photo, radioactive steam from the unit drifts towards Vyborg as the unit is cooled down.

The second unit at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant has been operating for forty years, although it has a projected operating life of thirty years. Its operating life was extended without the legally required public hearings and environmental impact assessment.

At present, all four units at the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant are operating beyond their projected lifetimes. The oldest of the Chernobyl series reactors at Sosnovy Bor is scheduled to be shut down only in 2018 after forty-five years in operation.

The eastern part of the Gulf of Finland is entering into a ten-year period of heightened risk of accidents at nuclear sites. On the one hand, during this period (lasting until 2026), the service life of the RMBK-1000 reactors at Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant will be extended and there will be a greater likelihood of accidents. During this same period, the new (VVER-1200-powered) units at Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant II are scheduled to come online, and there will be an increased risk of accidents due to errors by designers, builders, and inexperienced personnel.

So we are faced with a headline-making increase in the probability of accidents at the Sosnovy Bor nuclear cluster.

Translated by the Russian Reader