VOINA or The function of art in social and political transformation: can drawing penises in public spaces change the world?

by Liliana Guevara Opinska

Imagine the following scenario: you are in the grocery shop. You turn into the cereal aisle thinking of your favorite box of Froot Loops and… BAM! You walk into a scene straight out of a horror movie. You see bodies hanging from the ceiling with robes tight around their necks. You’re in shock!

What if I told you that the scenario described above was art and that nobody was harmed in the process? How would you feel? Relived? Angry?

In 2008, Voina, a collective of radical artists from Russia, was responsible for hanging people from the ceiling of a supermarket in Moscow. The “performance” took place on September 7th, Moscow City Day. To the innocent grocery shopper, the performance must have appeared gruesome and disturbing but there was more to the scene than to the naked eye. The people hanging were artists, members of Voina and they were not harmed. The action held under the slogan “No one gives a fuck about Pestel!” was meant to commemorate the Decembrists, Russian revolutionaries that in 1825 led an unsuccessful uprising against Tsar Nicolas I. Pavel Pestel, one of the five Decembrists, was a prominent advocate of social and economic reforms in Russia. Pestel advocated for the emancipation of Russian serfs, the creation of public land founds and the elimination of class privileges. The performance was designed as a critique of the current policies implemented by the city’s mayor inciting xenophobia and homophobia. The artists hanged represented homosexuals and Asian migrant workers, who are being discriminated by the current Russian government. The intention behind this specific performance is best explained in Voina’s own words: “We are accused of amorality, but in fact we portray and symbolically execute this amoral society, that approves slave labor and xenophobia!”

The staged hanging is just one example of many other radical actions orchestrated by the group. Some of the louder actions by Voina include turning police cars upside down, having an orgy at the State Museum of Biology and painting a giant, 65 meter-high penis on the Liteyniy drawbridge.

Of course, all of these actions taken out of context sound ridiculous and offensive. However, there is a strong and clear political message behind them. For example the orgy at the State Museum of Biology was organized under the banner “Fuck for the Heir-Medvedev’s little Bear!” and took place 2 days before the staged presidential elections in which Dmitry Medvedev, Vladimir Putin’s puppet, unsurprisingly won. The group commented on this performance: “in Russia everyone fucks each other and the little president looks at it with delight”.

The Liteyniy drawbridge when lifted up points directly to the Federal Security Service headquarters, the former KGB. As such this action represents, quite literally, a direct confrontation and defiance of authorities.

Art can reflect reality but it can also propose new realities, better worlds; it can make us dream. As stated in an interview by one of Voina’s leaders: “There is nothing impossible for art. It’s a symbolic weapon full of satire and laughter, which authorities are afraid of. Our art makes utopia real and destroys old patterns of thinking”. Authorities are afraid of it so much, that they have arrested members of Voina on several occasions and have issued international arrest warrants on two of its leaders.

Change and revolution are reactive and they must be radical. Novelty must be progressive and often it is also shocking. Breaking with old patterns of thinking and of doing things requires innovation. Voina’s obnoxious actions are innovative. Furthermore, they must be obnoxious and uncomfortable because they must reflect the uncomfortable truth about the Russian society. In the words of Voina’s ideological leader, Plutser-Sarno, “The main goal of the revolutionary street art is to clean people’s minds of those injurious clichés of the past by means of art ‘weapons’-to mock the idiocy of today’s system”.

The objections to Voina’s work have been based not so much on their attitude towards the current social system, as on their choice of methods. The direct confrontation of old attitudes turns out to be too harsh for many. People get offended, upset; they do not understand these actions.

Perhaps Voina is ahead of its times. Perhaps people aren’t ready to admit that their society needs to change. Although the adequacy and effectiveness of Voina’s actions are questionable, they sure do spark polemic and debate. Their provocative actions annihilate apathy. The strong reactions are better then no reactions at all.

Furthermore, the oversensitive and hardline attitude the authorities have shown to more traditional forms of civic protest or to more conventional artistic forms of action validate this form of protest. Frustration with the authoritarian policies of the state will, in the future increasingly attract more following for groups like Voina. In the words of philosopher and artist Bertolt Brecht “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”. Art is a better weapon then violence.

To read more on Voina check out: http://plucer.livejournal.com/266853.html