Many contemporary artists marry art and politics in pursuit of a social agenda or to expose a political peculiarity. But in Russia, one group of artists is weaponizing performance art, turning it into a tool to terrorize the state.
Since 2007, Russian activists operating under the name “Voina” — the Russian word for “war” — have been performing anti-state, anti-authoritarian, frequently violent and patently illegal acts as artworks. They hosted a sit-down dinner party on a Moscow subway train, performed public sex acts in a museum, staged a mock execution in a grocery store and have otherwise intimidated the public square — even, and perhaps most notoriously, going so far as to throw cats at McDonald’s employees to celebrate International Workers’ Day.
As an art collective, Voina is testing the boundaries of performance art. As activists, they are testing the patience of Russian authorities.
“Voina is waging a relentless struggle against the current Russian authorities,” Oleg Vorotnikov, who founded Voina with his wife, Natalya Sokol, said in an e-mail. For their part, Russian authorities don’t much care for Vorotnikov and his ilk, either. Vorotnikov, Sokol and Leonid Nikolayev — three of the half-dozen core members of Voina — claim that they were beaten by plainsclothes police in St. Petersburg on March 3, suffering bruises and lacerations.
To be sure, Voina admits to violently harassing security officials. Last Sept. 16, Voina staged “Palace Revolution,” an action in St. Petersburg in which members of the art collective overturned police cars. The group claims that intoxicated police officers were sleeping in those cars when the activists vandalized them. Two months later, officials of the Center for Extremism Prevention, known colloquially as Center E, detained and jailed Vorotnikov and Nikolayev.
That action, or perhaps the subsequent response from authorities, earned Voina the respect of the notorious street artist Banksy, who posted bail for the artists. But in addition to earning the respect of other street-level artists, Voina has also earned honors from Moscow’s cultural elite. For a June 2010 work, executed under the cover of night, members of Voina poured white paint on the surface of the Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg. When the drawbridge rose in the early morning, the adjacent headquarters for the Federal Security Service (the successor of the KGB) was saluted by a 200-foot tall depiction of an erect phallus. Showing good humor, Russia’s Ministry of Culture nominated and even shortlisted Voina’s “Penis Captured by KGB” performance for the state’s prestigious Innovation award for art. Voina rejected the nomination.
Voina disdains any honors from a state they consider to be corrupt — and money from any source whatsoever. Voina member Alexei Plutser-Sarno says Voina spent 2008 living in a non-heated garage on the outskirts of Moscow. The group does not own any property (though network members may). Its ideology is something like freeganism, an anti-consumerist lifestyle marked by alternative living strategies, such as dumpster diving.