For the last year Vorotnikov and Nikolaev have been waging a legal battle with Russian authorities for their freedom. While these challenges facing Voina have been well documented on Art Threat, Free Voina, and other alternative media sources, another battle is being fought: against state, art world, and dominant media attempts to contain Voina’s message.
Much of the coverage of Voina is focused on their spectacular, shock art identity. True, in Russia, it is an innovation, and their work offers strong fodder for gossip, revolutionary solidarity, and establishment outrage. In short, there is a risk that Voina’s revolutionary movement is turned into frozen images.
After Nikolaev and Vorotnikov’s arrest Voina was nominated for an Innovation award by the Russian Ministry of Culture. This nomination was accompanied by two different comments by National Center for Contemporary Art heavy-hitters.
First, the Director General, Mikhail Mindlin argued that the work was not nominated based on its political content. He notes: “Political activity and defining any political meaning in their work is not the task or function of the expert’s council and the jury, and they therefore don’t look at that.” This attempt to conventionalize Voina’s work, to bring shock at into what Natalia Sokol has called the “whoring” of the gallery is accomplished by using a language of pure aesthetics, divorced from politics.
Further, in the “Goals and Objectives” page on the Voina website, gallery art is defined as soulless because it is not fully accessible, and that its move towards “glamurny” or glamour is a way to create “visual coherence”: to control the trajectory of the art work, the gamut of its potential reactions, and the responses that viewers could have.
On the other hand, Erofeev, a member of the Innovation Award jury, lauded Voina’s capacity to perform social protest in “accessible street language.” He exclaimed: “This phallus, this sign, is the artists’ answer to the indifference of the authorities and society.” Erofeev’s ecstacy over Voina’s clear language masks how much of Voina’s work is not readily legible. For instance, the “Fuck for Baby Bear” intervention could be read many ways, the event where they threw live cats at McDonalds’ workers likely was not received by the workers with a cry of understanding, and the “Giant Dick” on St. Petersberg bridge would have been read as thoughtless vandalism.
Further, David Riff’s comments about the St. Petersburg bridge painting which criticized it as “Jackass juvenilia than … true politically-committed action,” suggest that in parts of the Russian art world Voina is read as “clownish” not an example of “accessible street language.” In short, the Innovation Award is an attempt to domesticate Voina’s art, and to integrate Voina into the official art world it often works against.
Coverage of Voina in the mass media, in the New York Times in particular, illuminates another afterlife for shock art—that of falling into a cabinet of curiosities as revolutionary kitsch. The New York Times article on Voina focused on Plutser-Sarno and his story of intrigue. The tenor of the Times article brims with excitement — the intrigue of meeting a member of a secret organization who is photographed in a stance reminiscent of the Che Guevara character in “Motorcyle Diaries” promotions: cool, messy, unflappable and authentic. This model of appropriation relies on romanticizing Voina, focusing on general interest that the biographies of the individuals might hold rather than the message of the group, its potential impact, and the real bodily risk members face.
However, the opposite strand of appropriation is to dramatize the group and focus almost solely on bodily vulnerability. A story came out on March 3, 2011, about how three members of Voina were severely beaten by a group of men “shouting” that they were members of the city’s criminal investigation department, and the men confiscated the memory card from a Voina member’s camera.
The article is framed strategically to paint Nikolaev, Vorotnikov and Sokol as martyr figures. While it is true that Voina members do undergo real bodily risk they do so in the service of a broader demand for democracy, creativity and participation, rather than in order to glorify their status as leaders. Further, part of Voina’s efficacy is based on its ability to use virtual networks to send videos and images of their actions across the globe. By focusing only on the bodies of the protesters, and ignoring the important virtual life that Voina has, the article create nostalgia for a form of anti-state protest that occurs only on the physical ground.
This also minimizes the important symbolic elements of Voina’s interventions: the “Space Dick” “fucks” police power, asserting power and dominance over an institution itself rooted in dominance and their cat-tossing intervention where they threw live cats to “entertain” bored McDonalds workers were not geared towards efficacy but rather establishing new and indirect lines of communication. The loose ends of these performances are not tied up but elongated in proliferation of video clips and images through YouTube, Vimeo and the Free Voina website.
The fantasy of “direct attack” and elision of the symbolic elements of Voina’s protest is symptomatic of a tendency to understand politics in limited terms, and to understand as intervening in, rather than being a part of politics. It also assumes that political positions are pre-formed rather than emerging from contexts of struggle. For instance, the evental reading of police brutality elides how Voina is criticizing more systemic structures of repression, operating at multiple levels of society, and how their critique works by making metaphors literal (fucking police power) but also by creating space for further proliferations of aesthetic and political action.
Voina’s radical shock art creates the possibility for a model of politics that is not based on orderly, logical argument, but based on emotion, expression, and noise, reminding all of us that democracy is not orderly, it is messy, anarchic, and sometimes a little rude. Second, Voina reminds us that radical art works not just by creating new ways of seeing reality, but by creating the possibilities of new friendships and forms of solidarity that further sustained social change.
There have already been media, art world, and state attempts to contain Voina’s political message. As art critics, social activists, and members of the political left it is important to pay attention not only to Voina’s radical acts but their ripple effects, and to resist knee-jerk attempts to lump Voina’s message and acts into preset categories.