Russian art group Voina uses often-illegal means to spread anti-state message

April 2, 2011

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.


The Voina Group (Courtesy Voina Group)

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.

“Voina never sells or buys anything. Never makes any money. Never works with Russian galleries,” Plutser-Sarno e-mailed. Its members “live in squats and confiscate food in large supermarkets.”

Matthew Bown, a Berlin-based art dealer who specializes in Russian art, says the attitude is not entirely uncommon among Russian artists. “It’s partly a political attitude, partly a necessity,” he said in an e-mail. “For example, a couple of months ago I was invited to a lunch party at the flat of a well-known 25-year-old Moscow artist (not a Voina member). Her colleagues, all roughly the same age, were there. All the food on the table was stolen. She stole it all from the supermarket in order to feed her guests.”

Consumerism is a frequent subject in Voina’s works, but even in these, there is usually a national security angle missing from other Western contemporary art about consumerism. For “Feast,” an August 2007 work, Voina members held a banquet to commemorate artist, poet and Soviet-era dissident Dmitri Prigov, who died in July of that year. Some 50 Voina activists entered the Moscow Metro and set up the dinner on a Circle Line train.

Although the Moscow Metro is patrolled by armed police, the 40-minute “Feast” artwork toured the entire line and concluded without incident, according to Voina. During a repeat of the action in Kiev, Ukraine, the group was arrested.

Voina has staged several performances in supermarkets. For a 2008 piece, Vorotnikov dressed in a police hat and an Orthodox priest’s cassock and stole a shopping cart’s worth of goods — without incident. Again in 2008, Voina members carried out a faux lynching in Moscow’s largest supermarket. Five activists representing Kyrgyz and Uzbek migrant workers and Russian and Jewish homosexuals, all of whom were reportedly heavily drugged, voluntarily submitted themselves to hangings. Video of the work appears to show Russian security authorities participating in the performance, which was intended to protest the subjugation of minorities in Moscow.

“The group is absolutely democratic,” says co-founder Natalya Sokol. “There is no compulsion. Activists decide whether they want to participate or not. They can leave the group and afterward come back to it.”

For one extreme performance, staged days before the election of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Voina held a public orgy at the Timiryazev State Biological Museum in Moscow. Five couples met inside the museum’s Hall on Metabolism, Energy, Nutrition and Digestion and copulated. The performance was filmed and posted online.

Voina’s performances have earned them infamy and imitators. A 2011 video showing individuals assaulting female police officers by kissing them without their consent was falsely attributed to Voina. And they weren’t the people who released thousands of cockroaches in a Russian courtroom.

What is the difference between Voina and their non-artist imitators, both of whom break the laws of state and sometimes decency? For one thing, Voina has supporters in the legitimate art world. Esteemed art historian Andrey Kovalev and curator Andrey Erofeev joined officers from Memorial, the Russian human rights organization, for a February 2011 panel to discuss Voina’s work and legal crises.

And though the members are protective of the Voina brand, calling out imposters, they are dismissive about their own political role. They don’t see a way forward with the status quo.

“We don’t have anything to do with any Russian political groups or platforms,” says Vorotnikov. “If you ask us a question about whom would we prefer — Putin or Medvedev — it shows that you don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

Capps is a freelance writer.

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