Punk has always been about the real – real voices, real problems, real lives, real people behind the stories. Something different from what various ‘dream factories’ are about. The real is not always comfortable. It is raw, incomprehensible, and it is scary in its wild power. It is a challenge and the challenge is where the real breaks through the safe narrative of conventional culture. Punk is in constant danger of being absorbed into a marketable commodity. And it regularly is. Does this mean that punk is dead? Not really, it just looks for new ways to break through, not necessarily in music that much, and not necessarily in its historical motherland.
On 29 May 2009, probably the shortest and most radical punk-gig ever was held in Moscow. Its radicalism was expressed by the fact that it was not staged in a club, flat, squat or even on the street. It was held in the hall of the Taganskiy District Court. The concert happened on the day when the court was hearing the case of a Russian artist and cultural promoter Andrei Erofeev accused of insulting the religious feelings of Russian citizens through his ‘Forbidden Art’ exhibition (Sakharov Centre, March 2007). The band managed to play about 30 seconds of a song before they were ejected from the building by the police. The group consisted of the members of the radical Russian art-group ‘Voina’ [in Russian meaning War].
This was one of the first times activists of Voina had a run-in with the police, but certainly not the last. On 15 November 2010 Oleg ‘Vor’ Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev aka Lenya Yobnutyi [Yobnutyi meaning ‘fucked’ in Russian] were detained for three months for alleged ‘premeditated hooliganism committed by a group of people’ which, according to the Russian criminal code could lead to a sentence of up to eight years imprisonment. The arrest followed the action called ‘Palace Coup’ which in Russian – Dvortsovyi Perevorot – literally means ‘Palace Overturn’. On 20 September 2010 a group of about 20 people overturned several police cars in Saint Petersburg patrolling the area around Mikhailovskiy Castle. According to Alexei Plutser-Sarno, who claims to be the ideological leader of the group, this aimed at demonstrating how a ‘real’ reform of Russian police should take place.
It was not a big surprise that such a radical action resulted in their arrest and possible prosecution. What was surprising for many of those who followed the actions of Voina is that it did not happen earlier. The group became known in 2007 when they staged a ‘feast’ in a Moscow underground train in honour of Russian avant-garde poet and artist Dmitriy Prigov.
In March 2008 they came out with another provocative action known as ‘Fuck for the Heir of Little Bear’, staged at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum. The activists demonstrated how making love for the mysterious heir of no lesser mysterious little bear could be done in practice. All this would not have been so controversial if the surname of the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev had not had ‘bear’ as its root [‘medved’ means ‘bear’ in Russian].
However, Voina became really famous for two of their later actions. In 2010, following growing outrage caused by the illegal and dangerous use of flashing lights and sirens by Russian state officials, Lenya the ‘Fucked’ put a blue bucket on his head in imitation of an official’s flashing light and ran across a car of the Federal Security Service right in front of the Kremlin Wall.
And on 14 June, in Saint Petersburg, Voina staged probably one of their most picturesque actions. As you may know, Saint Petersburg is situated on the banks of the river Neva which flows from the Ladoga lake to the Baltic Sea. At night the bridges connecting the city are raised so that the cargo barges can pass through. Right before the raising of the bridges, Voina activists led by Lenya the ‘Fucked’ managed to paint a 65 metre long dick in the space of several minutes. When the bridge was finally up, the masterpiece of speed-painting raised itself straight towards the building of the Saint Petersburg FSB [post-Soviet analogue of the KGB].
In Russia opinions about Voina are split. Some consider them as brainless hooligans who have nothing to do but to provoke and attract attention to themselves. Some are clearly impressed with the courage and sharpness of Voina’s actions as they are seen as expressing what many in the Russian Federation feel about the social and political realities they live in. Abroad, it seems that Voina really appealed to like-minded art-hooligans. The bail for Vor and Lenya the ‘Fucked’ was provided by Banksy, who auctioned several of his portable masterpieces especially for this purpose.
What is interesting about this new Russian actionism is, however, not only the way it teeters on the edge of legality. It also subverts and therefore reveals the boundaries of art and, what is even more scary, reality in our era of digital reproduction.
In the age of digital reproduction […] there is no longer a clear conceptual distinction between original and reproduction in virtually any medium. These two states, one pure and original, the other imitative and impure, are now fictions. (Davis 381–86).
Is this really so? Let us have a look at the roots …
‘Art’ and ‘artificial’ have the same root. Art has always been a practice of creating an image of reality. It has always been, to a greater or lesser degree, about reality yet, at the same time, it has always differed from it. The border between reality and art is what defined the recognisability and readability of an artistic text. The object of reality always entered artistic text but only as artistic objects. They were made part of an artistic text as its integral element.
A painted, sculpted, narrated, photographed, filmed or performed object that exists or may exist in the real world is recognised and read in a work of art as an element of an artistic text of painting, sculpture, photograph, novel, film or theatre performance. This text has clear borders dividing it from real, non-artistic life – the borders of a painting and frame, the beginning and the end of the novel and film, the special limitation of a sculpture, the theatre stage and temporal limitation of stage performance.
The opposition between artistic text and non-artistic reality is vital for the communicability of artistic work. Or rather, it was. Contemporary forms of political art break this rule and throw artistic objects into the flow of real life, radically changing the very nature of artistic work.
For example, it is of course possible to enjoy Banksy from the reproductions of his work. However, such a reading will never be as impressive as the direct observation of his works in their real scale, locations, in their real environment. A Queen’s guard pissing at the corner of a Shoreditch building, painted in 1:1 scale, is ‘pissing’ in a corner where real people piss. The corner stinks and the bottles around are real, they were left there by drunkards the day before. The confusion, which attracts the eye of the audience, is produced by the collision of the artistic object of the painted guard and the real objects of the building, paraphernalia of binge-drinking, smells, sounds and everyday population of the street. Taken out of this context and put, for instance, on canvas in a gallery, the image of the guard would not create such an effect and would not attract as much attention. It would be something totally different from what Banksy’s art is. What is more interesting for us, however, is the way the non-artistic context is involved in expressing the message of Banksy’s work. It remains non-artistic. It is not transformed into an element of artistic text but keeps on functioning as reality. The building still shelters occasional squatters, the piss stinks, the street is loud and full of pedestrians during the day time and dodgy types during the night, and the graffiti itself gets painted over by some other artist of a much lesser talent or gets removed.
The involvement of a real context in the construction of an artistic message, without transforming it into an artistic object or simply an object, destroys the very notion of the border or artistic text. The real never ends in space, and does not have an orchestrated start and finish in time. A work of art is no longer opposed to reality. It does not reproduce or create an image of it. It ‘dissolves’ in reality and engages the real into the interplay of artistic message.
What kind of real gets involved in the work of art? It is the city, its people are the audience looking at graffiti and often becoming elements of the artistic work. It is the administrative building with all the social and political affiliations of a particular institution occupying it. It is the traffic and its reaction to the use of the road. What kind of other reality can enter a work of art as real?
Despite the fact that Banksy prefers to remain incognito, and most of the Voina activists are unknown, their authorship is more real than a gallery artist signing his self-portrait. Both Banksy and the Russian actionists put at risk their real bodies as what they are doing is barely, if not completely, illegal and once caught (like two of the Voina activists) they most definitely face a more than real trial and imprisonment. So not only the context gets involved into a work of art while keeping its non-artistic properties, but also the author starts performing as a ‘material’ human being with all the risks and dangers the human body can experience.
It is pretty obvious that such types of art – art that is engaging rather than portraying reality – will be political according to most theories that regard politics as a sphere or moment of human (inter-)activity rather than simply an institutional arrangement. Here we might ask what kind of politics this art represents? Obviously marginal, a form of protest and to some extent – resistant. But what is it resisting and what can it actually achieve? Well, there is at least a strong claim for the right to refuse, the right to fall out, and the Bakhtinian right not to understand dominant discourse, not to follow the trajectories and values of idyllic middle class existence. Indeed, it is the right to laugh and to take the piss out of such an existence.
Like with any arts the power of its direct impact on society is questionable. But if it is not direct, then what kind of indirect impact does it have? There is certainly an element of bastardasing reality and messing up the symbolic order of dominant discourses, including the one of the art itself. The audience now together with the work of art is increasingly losing the identity it previously formed in difference to the author and the work of art. There are no more ramps. The artist acts like the others, and he is the other himself; they are not playing, in their actions they are themselves. It is a 21st century response to the long-proclaimed death of the author and the end of subjectivity. The story is not quite over yet. Artistic subjectivity and the modernist author may be dead, but something else is coming instead. Amidst the choirs of state orchestras, the engaging melodies of corporate success and inviting jingles of the shopping malls, a small person, like the office clerk-cum-anarcho-punk-art-freak Leonid Nikolaev aka Lenya Yobnutyi (the ‘fucked’), still has his own voice. And this voice is real.
Ivan Gololobov is Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick
Douglas Davis, The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995), Leonardo, Vol. 28, No. 5, Third Annual New York Digital Salon. (1995)
More on Voina
http://plucer.livejournal.com/ [in Russian]