Russia's Art Revolution Voina Challenges Putin with Imagination

Members of the Russian art collective Voina are supposed to serve as associate curators for the 2012 Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which begins this spring in Germany. Voina's work is drawing attention around the world,  but international arrest warrants have been issued for two of the its leaders.

The message arrives at the last minute via email, and the tone is commanding. Meeting place: McDonald's. The conditions: No mobile phones or recording devices. The meeting time: now.

It's night in St. Petersburg as we approach the Nevsky Prospect and cross the bridge to the northern bank of the Neva River to a McDonald's near the Vasileostrovskaya metro station. Inside the crowded restaurant, young people sit hunched over their hamburgers and french fries. The wanted man, a well-built figure with a goatee, is sitting in the middle of the room.

At first glance Oleg Vorotnikov, born on Aug. 17, 1978, doesn't look like a man on the run, but rather like someone who refuses to believe that the police are actually searching for him -- and not only in Russia . In July, the St. Petersburg Dzerzhinsky District Court issued an international arrest warrant against Vorotnikov on charges of "hooliganism."

Vorotnikov ridicules this decision by the Russian authorities as "one of the highest forms of recognition" of his work and his political cause. He calls it a suitable form of recognition, given that he is not just any tramp or crazy anarchist. "I am one of Russia's most famous artists," says Vorotnikov.

The diners at McDonald's aren't aware of any of this -- or they just don't care. At any rate, they pay more attention to their meals than to Vorotnikov. With not a hint of false modesty, he says that he has brought Russian art into the headlines, quite possibly more than anyone "since Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn."

A Symbol of the Russian Avant Garde

Together with his wife Natalia Sokol, Vorotnikov founded the performance art group Voina, or "War," in 2005. They have attracted attention several times in Moscow and St. Petersburg since then with their carefully planned performance pieces. Their iconography includes upended police cars, a sex orgy in a museum, mangy cats in a fast-food restaurant and three guys dressed as gay men and strung up in a supermarket.

Voina has been a symbol of the Russian avant-garde for some time, and for creative resistance against the system of the country's long-term ruler, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The street protests that followed the parliamentary election on Dec. 4 were merely a visible expression of what is happening in the underground, says Vorotnikov. "Hatred of the ruling class is stronger in Russia today than it was in the Communist era."

At the same time, the Putin system isn't that easy to unsettle. Only a day after the election, an international arrest warrant was issued against Vorotnikov's wife, who was accused of insulting and using violence against government employees. She had allegedly sprayed urine at police officers. Sokol who, according to her attorney, is eight months pregnant, has also officially disappeared.

Nevertheless, what she and other St. Petersburg underground artists are doing has not remained unnoticed. They have formed ties with an international art scene that helps to organize uprisings worldwide, from the Occupy movement to solidarity campaigns for Chinese regime critic Ai Weiwei. During the International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, there were joint appeals to "Free Ai Weiwei!" and "Free Voina!" The Russians, as rebellious as they are PR-savvy, have even been invited to serve as co-curators at next year's Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art.

"Of course, we are now in fashion and, of course, people in the West have no idea what is happening here," says Vorotnikov. But that doesn't bother him, he says. Anyway, he won't be able to attend the Berlin Bienniale, which starts on April 27, because he could get arrested there, his attorney says. "Besides, I won't leave Russia until Putin is gone," adds Vorotnikov.

Help From British Street Artist Banksy

He sat in a Russian prison until this February, after having been charged with "hooliganism." He was released on bail, paid for in part by an £80,000 (€95,600) donation from the renowned British street artist Banksy. "Tell Banksy that he is helping to finance the next Russian revolution," says Vorotnikov.

Such deliberately boastful remarks attract attention, but they are not what has sparked the enthusiasm of the art world. "What Voina is creating in some campaigns is revolutionary art, for which there has been a tradition in this city since (the Russian poet Vladimir) Mayakovsky, (the painter Kazimir) Malevich and (the painter Mikhail) Larionov," says Olesia Turkina, curator of contemporary art at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. "Defining one's own standpoint vis-à-vis the state is an important art form. It can be highly political."

Once, on the anniversary of the October Revolution, members of Voina used laser beams to project a skull onto the White House in Moscow, the official seat of the Russian government. On another occasion Vorotnikov, wearing an Orthodox priest's robe and a police cap on his head, pushed a full shopping cart out of a supermarket without paying -- in protest, as he says, against the fact that priests and police officers in Russia seem to be above the law.

Voina activists have hijacked Metro cars for a wake, and they once staged a group-sex event at the State Biology Museum in Moscow as, among other things, a parody of President Dmitry Medvedev's plans to increase the birth rate. All of their appearances are documented on videos, photos and text files, and are constantly available on the worldwide web -- a diary of civil disobedience in Putin's Russia.

'I Have Built Myself a Monument'

Voina pulled off its biggest stunt to date in the early morning hours of June 14, 2010. Vorotnikov and his fellow activists had prepared for the event for months. Canisters containing 55 liters (14.5 gallons) of white emulsion paint were hidden on the banks of the Neva River. The group knew that they would have only 30 seconds to accomplish their task. This is the amount of time between the last car being allowed to cross the drawbridge on Liteiny Prospekt, shortly before 1:30 a.m., and the nightly opening for ship traffic.

According to the Voina plan, four team members would distract the security forces while five others would do their work with the paint. When the bridge opened at precisely 1:30 a.m., a stylized drawing of a penis would tower over everything in sight, including the building across the street used by the domestic intelligence agency, where Putin once worked as a KGB officer.

The plan worked, and the image circled the globe: a provocation in the form of a phallus, 65 meters (213 feet) tall and 27 meters wide. "The whole thing took us only 23 seconds," says Vorotnikov, "and none of us was arrested."

Now, on this wintry night, the Voina leader who is being sought by police decides to take a ride through St. Petersburg on his bicycle. He says that he didn't feel comfortable at McDonald's, after all. Too many people know what he looks like now, ever since the fuss over the giant penis stunt. "Ya pamyatnik sebye vozdvig," Vorotnikov says with a smile. "In the words of (the Russian poet Alexander) Pushkin: I have built myself a monument."

What Vorotnikov didn't expect was applause from the wrong side. In April 2011, the Russian Ministry of Culture awarded Voina its prize for contemporary art in the "innovation" category -- for the drawing on the Liteiny Bridge, the greatest possible humiliation, both esthetically and politically, that a regime could have experienced. The jury, ignoring objections from government circles, insisted on preserving its independence and awarded the €10,000 prize to Voina.

Was it a hint of a thaw, perhaps even a sign from the very top? Only days earlier, President Dmitry Medvedev had announced: "I make no secret of the fact that I love contemporary art." Or was it merely a clumsy attempt to lure the troublemakers with cash? It was all the same to him, says Vorotnikov, noting that his group turned down the award -- of course. The prize money went to a human rights organization.

Money or, more precisely, doing without it is part of Voina's creed. Vorotnikov and his wife say that not only do they manage to get by without a permanent home and without identification papers, but that they have also survived without money for 13 years. Their prescription for every condition of life, they say, is what they call the "un-whored path." They have no intention to change their way of life, not even after their two-year-old son Kasper, Russia's "youngest political prisoner," as they call him, was separated overnight from his mother when she was in custody. The couple is expecting a second child this winter.

A Bonnie and Clyde for the Art World

Vorotnikov and his wife, who also go by the names "Vor" (thief) and "Koza" (she-goat), are adding a touch of Bonnie-and-Clyde mystique to the classic image of the bohemian. While Sokol watches little Kasper playing with a toy gun, his father, unarmed, shoplifts in supermarkets and smaller stores to feed the family.

"We don't pay for our food. We take it," says Vorotnikov. "Food should be a basic right, not a privilege. Even if we had money, we would spend it on more important things." Only those who don't pay for what they need are truly free to engage in resistance, he adds. "Most people make excuses for doing nothing by saying that they have to survive or feed a family. This justification doesn't apply to us." But arrest warrants make it more difficult to break the law. "The awareness of not being able to make any mistakes is taxing."

With their bikes, backpacks and laptops, the Voina activists travel lightly. Instead of using mobile phones, they communicate via Gmail and Skype, through channels that Russia's domestic intelligence agency can hardly monitor. Voina activists sit in front of their computers in restaurants and bars for hours without ordering anything. In hotel lobbies, they help themselves to bowls of free candy. And after being invited to meals in restaurants, they sometimes collect the leftovers.

As the protests in St. Petersburg and other cities after the election showed, an underground movement that opposes the cosmos of Putin loyalists has taken shape. It includes serious members of the opposition, Spassguerillas  (fun guerrillas), former dissidents and young anarchists, as well as rebellious young people from the clubs. One man who knows the underground scene well is photographer Vladimir Teleginm who, with his black and white photographs, offers x-ray images of the subculture.

A Radical Art Collective's Milieu

Telgin's pictures include vignettes of the life of the underground Voina leader, like an image of Vorotnikov at the beach with his wife and child, or sitting in boxer shorts in his hideout, in front of a bottle of cranberry vodka. He also illuminates the milieu of sympathizers with Vorotnikov's radical art collective: celebrities like the legendary Yuri Shevchuk, lead singer of DDT, a rock band that has been popular since the Soviet era; the actress Liya Akhedzhakova; or the activists of the banned National Bolshevik Party led by Maxim Gromov, who once stood under a monument to Lenin and sewed his mouth shut in protest against the lack of freedom of expression in Putin's realm, and who later spent three years in prison for tossing a portrait of Putin out of a window of the Health Ministry after it had been stormed by protesters.

Telegin's photos also show what life in the resistance movement does to people. Leonid Nikolayev, for example, one of Voina leader Vorotnikov's closest associates and constantly in the sights of investigators, is only 28 but no longer resembles the youthful person he was not too long ago. Nikolayev, trained as an engineer in nanotechnology and long a liberal partisan, has left his old life behind. Today he risks his freedom for what he calls art and conduct. He already spent four months in prison with Vorotnikov for upending police cars in downtown St. Petersburg.

An appearance Nikolayev made in Moscow is legendary among Voina supporters. Videos recorded on May 22, 2010 show Nikolayev, with a blue plastic bucket on his head, running across a busy intersection near the Kremlin wall, jumping onto the roof of a vehicle belonging to the intelligence service and then running away before the furious driver can catch him.

What looks like a Buster Keaton slapstick performance was in fact a carefully choreographed protest against the limousines, equipped with sirens and flashing blue lights, that are used to chauffeur pseudo-celebrities around Moscow and that shut down traffic in the process. This explains the blue plastic bucket on Nikolayev's head, and the decision to literally jump on top of the intelligence officer's vehicle, "on a corner where you supposedly can't take a step without being nabbed by special police," Nikolayev says proudly. "After that, I simply disappeared."

Exposing Hollow Gestures of the Powerful

The Voina principle is the principle used by the child in Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale "The Emperor's New Clothes" -- the child that describes what everyone sees but no one dares to express: "But he isn't wearing any clothes!" Voina cultivates the art of exposing the hollow gestures of the powerful and forcing their subjects to laugh in a way that is meant to be liberating.

What to do against a xenophobic and homophobic mayor? String up three men dressed as immigrant workers and two as homosexuals in the middle of a giant supermarket on the "Day of the City of Moscow" and declare that this piece of performance art is dedicated to the Decembrists, who advocated on behalf of libertarian values and resisted the czar more than 200 years ago.

Is this originality or eclecticism? A calculated "Slap in the Face of Public Taste," as Russia's Futurists dubbed their manifesto in 1912? With a few philosophical borrowings from Russia's anarchists, like Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, thrown in for good measure?

"Oh yeah, anarchism, punk, postmodernism, conceptualism -- these things were important to us in the past," says Vorotnikov, referring to his student days the way a paleontologist talks about a fossil.

In the here and now, sitting in the Tan Zhen Chinese restaurant, Vorotnikov, pouring himself another glass of vodka, says: "Theory, now that's a thing of the past. We have changed Russia's political landscape. Since Voina has come into being, those who considered themselves radical leftists are finding themselves to the right of center, together with the establishment and the philistines."

'We Must Create a Revolution without Blood'

Voina believes that the resistance against the system is in the process of multiplying and shifting. "All kinds of brigades, gangs and militant groups are taking shape in the underground," says Nikolayev. "We are moving away from peaceful protest," says Vorotnikov, "but we must create a revolution without blood."

The St. Petersburg activists sense that it won't be easy to unhinge Putin's "vertical axis of power." But they have not failed to notice that cracks are forming in the columns on which the structure rests. In 2008, says Vorotnikov, all kinds of accusations were being hurled at him. "They wanted to castrate us, shove us in an oven or send us to prison for 12 years. And now? Now they admire us."

He empties his glass of vodka and gets up. He is almost outside before it occurs to him that he has forgotten something: that he hasn't sent a message on this particular evening. He promptly steps up to the slight owner of the Chinese restaurant, bows down in front of him and shouts: "Free Tibet! Free Ai Weiwei!"

The Chinese man looks horrified but says nothing, not even after Vorotnikov has disappeared into the St. Petersburg night.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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