From May 28 to June 10, 2009, several artists in Petersburg organized a plein air session outside the Smolny Institute (Petersburg city hall), where they painted the horror (of Russian reality) from life.
From May 28 to June 10 those artists were on a hunger strike.
It would be best to quote their words first:
The beautiful views of St. Petersburg conceal a grim reality: summonses to prophylactic interviews, intimidation of civic activists, and cops acting with impunity in the streets. It is the duty of artists to reflect reality, no matter how horrific, by exposing its darker aspects. […] The illegal mass detention of the May 1 street demonstration organized by Petersburg artists, along with the arrest of our ‘brother in art’ Artem Loskutov in Novosibirsk on an absurd charge leave us with no doubts, and no choice. We, the artists of St. Petersburg, are forced to declare a hunger strike with the goal of appealing to the authorities to observe their own laws and our constitutional rights, and to cease the repression of artists. There must be an end to the criminalization of contemporary art.
Over the course of fourteen days more and more people join the artists. Some also go on hunger strike, while others show up with their easels. Some bring their poems or guitars, while others just come to be there. Despite the hot days and cold nights, the number of people coming to support the hunger strikers continues to grow. Police officers also show an interest in the civic art initiative. They come every day to copy down the information in the artists’ ID papers and chase the journalists away. On the seventh day, they either have a bright idea or they get an assignment: to detain people. It turns out that permission should have been obtained from the authorities for the hunger strike, which is otherwise unauthorized. On the eighth day, an ambulance has to be called for one of the hunger strikers. He complains of sharp stomach pains and nausea, and he has an occasional high temperature. They diagnose acute gastritis and recommend hospitalization, but he refuses to go until the demands are met. Then, for four days, pouring rain and the international economic forum engulf the city, but there is still no visible reaction to the artists’ demands on the part of the authorities. On June 9, several cities throughout the country observe a day of solidarity in support of Loskutov. On June 10, a court reverses the earlier custody ruling and releases Loskutov on his own recognizance. Another (local) demand of the hunger strikers is also partly met: a working group of the Petersburg Governor’s Human Rights Commission takes up the issue of the illegal dispersal of the May 1 demonstration. The artists announce the end of their hunger strike in order to see through the process of getting their demands met.
While you try to be at the plein air hunger strike as much as possible and bring as many friends and acquaintances there as possible, still you aren’t there all the time. You come to support the guys and be part of their exceptional, anthropological challenge. But community from start to finish exists only among those who have nowhere to return. That is why this experience of joint resistance (an experience that had seemingly “vanished forever with the totalitarian past”), which was a rare combination of total legality (or, more precisely, something peculiar to bare life that cannot be alienated by any law) and efficacy, was not only able to last so long, but also to achieve all of its demands. Of course, like any other such experience in our time, this one had to be transmitted (mediated) to become a message, even though it unfolded right before the eyes of its potential recipients. And it was only thanks to the active dissemination of information about the hunger strike by sympathizers and reporters, i.e., the so-called “media frenzy,” that this heroic deed was able to not simply become a beautiful memory, but to generate some action. Even this seemingly auxiliary activity was one of the concentric circles of solidarity initiated at the hunger strike. The community developed at the epicenter, at the plein air hunger strike, encompassed everyone who spent time there to a greater or lesser degree. During the hunger strike, each person could diagnose their aptitude for coexistence, as well as the quantity and force of circumstances militating against it.
But if it turns out that the plein air hunger strike was a kind of spontaneous expression of solidarity, a special response to the actions of the “special forces,” then after this initial victory it is finally necessary to interpret our common condition as a chronic state of emergency, and social relations as a never-ending war to preserve or alter the balance of power. Here it is worth turning to the subjects who turned out to be most sensitive to “crackdown measures,” that is, to the artists. In contrast to the Street University and the Leftist Seminar, the artists insisted in their deed on precisely the opposite rhetorical effect: “Art is not extremism. The artist can only be free.” (Read: “Free from ideological dogmas, sociopolitical affiliation and anything connected with a ‘position,’” i.e., free, first of all, from the malignant fanaticism that usually characterizes extremism.) It is precisely in art’s ideological spotlessness that artists usually see its essential liberating potential. However, when the artist is forced to send out a call to “paint the horrors of reality itself” and even to become personally involved in this painting [to “paint in blood”], it is somehow a belated gesture to continue to defend the autonomy of art as inoperative negativity or the self-regulation of psychosomatics. When you’re inclined to say “we are just making art” and play the autonomy card, you need to understand, first of all, that any screening off of sacred space is, in the final analysis, reactionary and, second, to remember that the troubled political situation of the twenties and thirties was seen as a situation in which choice, including ideological choice, was required.
During vegetarian times, direct engagement may not be necessary for the artist, but during other periods open political commitment becomes a question of survival and the artist’s creative solvency.