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#special issue: Knowledge in Action

Kirill Medvedev /// The War Group: If You Don’t Do Politics, You’re Just Standing on the Sidelines

To my mind, the War Group is a healthy reaction to the current conjuncture in the Russian and Moscow art scenes. Artists have firmly ensconced themselves in the galleries. They have to have money for their projects; they need the services of professional curators and other support staff. In a word, they need a system that will recognize their privileges as producers of aesthetic commodities. This system has definitely been established. It is an element of Putin’s oil-fuelled “stability” paradigm, which has already put down quite serious ideological roots. (For example, the cries on behalf of “pure art”-free from “politics” and other earthly vanities-have become louder and louder.)

To my mind, the War Group is a healthy reaction to the current conjuncture in the Russian and Moscow art scenes. Artists have firmly ensconced themselves in the galleries. They have to have money for their projects; they need the services of professional curators and other support staff. In a word, they need a system that will recognize their privileges as producers of aesthetic commodities. This system has definitely been established. It is an element of Putin’s oil-fuelled “stability” paradigm, which has already put down quite serious ideological roots. (For example, the cries on behalf of “pure art”-free from “politics” and other earthly vanities-have become louder and louder.)

In this situation, art becomes either a successful instrument of capital investment or a front for money laundering.

War opposes this state of affairs in its own way. Its opposition doesn’t stem from serious principles or a firm political position (which, I think, it hasn’t articulated). Rather, its opposition comes from the fact that it is quite boring to exist in this situation, to play by its rules. It’s a lot more fun and natural to build a bonfire in an exhibition space. It’s a lot more fun to live in art rather than produce it.

All of this is indeed reminiscent of the Moscow actionism of the nineties. Alexander Brener dragged Oleg Kulik around on a leash, and both artists were worried who in the end would emerge as the principal hero of this action. Or they wondered who was doing a better job of using the other-curator Marat Guelman or the artists themselves? This instrumental, depoliticized logic, combined with a quite powerful sense of involvement, spectacle, and intensity, as well as the willingness (quite rare in our day) to really put their bodies on the line, are the qualities of actionism that War is reviving today. They represent a kind of radical collective entrepreneurship in a situation where everyone else has already signed on to one big monopoly. No one grumbles about anything, but at the same time they feel like big-time artists engaged in (minding) their “own business.” I understand people who take a negative view of War, who see only barefaced tactical cynicism in their actions. However, I believe that they have raised a serious challenge that cannot be so easily ignored.

Our work is political. The idiom the group employs is the idiom of politicians, but it’s a particular idiom. This idiom’s principal merit is that it contradicts the customary way of expressing oneself in mainstream politics. Thus, War’s actions are a critique and send-up of the “political” way of speaking; more broadly, they struggle against the current political mainstream, which is undead and monstrously archaic. The other part of our group’s members (the minority) believes that our actions are fully artistic, although they touch on political themes. In one way or another, we’re involved in politics, but we play by our own rules. Of course, our actions-especially the ones we curate ourselves and the ones we help our younger comrades carry out-are filled with civic sentiment.

Politics is an obligatory element of any activity, including artistic work. If you don’t do politics, you’re just standing on the sidelines. Or you’ve gone to seed in the ditch of everyday life; you’ve gotten stuck in an existential dead end. Or you’ve been gunned down and hospitalized in the emergency ward. In short, our way is to stir up rebellion in the cattle pen of politics.

The politics of street protest is an illegal politics that admits the possibility of acts of violence and acts of terrorism. Otherwise, we’re left with senseless (especially here and now) demonstrations and peaceful acts of protest. When the forces of the OMON, dressed up like cosmonauts, break up the out-of-step marches of the opposition, and “the people” are completely indifferent, it is hard not to see that peaceful actions are ineffective here. They peacefully stomp along, the police smack them upside the head and haul them down to the precinct, and the marchers feel like citizens and heroes. The outcome is zero. This is what legal street politics in Russia looks like.

The artist’s task is to develop a new idiom that responds to the times he lives in. If he can’t do this, he’s a failure. And if he isn’t engaged at all in working out his own idiom, then he’s not an artist. This idiom should make it possible to make a whole, universal, unfragmented utterance about today’s reality and the reality of the near future. Otherwise, we end up with individualistic rot and a manneristic “What century is it outside, dear children?” [Pasternak, “About These Poems”]. The artist, after all, is always happy to believe that his creations are a little particle of eternity.

Everywhere we hear a chorus of voices chanting this crap that the practices of street politics are outmoded: the teens, the thirties, the sixties, and other decades are, they say, in the past. It’s pointless to unite dead crowds of folks into a “people” that no longer exists. It’s absurd to run around the streets with rifles or Kalashnikovs and hide in ravines. But no genuinely effective practices have emerged from the so-called virtual world. The bloggers aren’t even capable of forgetting their commentaries for a minute and flooding even a third of the Internet with pure protest information, of making it an ordinary, incontrovertible fact that a third of the Runet [the Russian segment of the Internet] is filled with revolutionary material, of creating a zone that has been colonized and fortified by the opposition. We should jam the whole Runet with phrases about “faithless cops” and other vermin so that cases like the one against Savva Terentiev [a Syktyvkar blogger who has been charged with “inciting hatred against a social group” for a post in his blog that criticized “faithless cops”] would be impossible to fabricate. The numerous members of the Internet community need to declare that they don’t consider this sort of statement a crime. When does the law stop being enforced? When the majority of the population doesn’t consider it the law, neither the tsar’s law nor God’s law. The Internet is a Hulyai Pole [the hometown and base of anarcho-communist leader Nestor Makhno].

We need more actions, all kinds of different actions! It doesn’t matter whether they’re well developed in terms of quality. What matters is to overwhelm them with quantity. Some guys in Moscow deliberately didn’t pay their bill in a budget restaurant. They called this an action. That means they’re addressing the general public: “Do as we do.” The meaning definitely resides in this act of naming: this is an action. War engages in such stuff on a daily basis. It’s a snap to chow down and stiff the restaurant with the bill. This was an elementary tactic of ours, and there wasn’t anything artistic about it. What matters is that the comrades applied in their own way the experience of European anarchists, for whom this kind of thing-something like the local version of Food Not Bombs in terms of frequency-has become automatic: a group of twenty or thirty people bursts into a store, sweeps the products from the shelves, and then hands them out to passersby right there on the street. Or it’s like when a group [of National Bolsheviks] performed an action right inside a supermarket, which they dubbed “Free Food for the People.” These kinds of actions raise the level of wildness and disobedience, which is now very, very low amongst young Russians.

But these are all more or less issues in the capital-to demonstrate oneself using political methods. In the major city of Novosibirsk, local artsy types have reduced the idea of mass civil demonstrations on the street to a tepid joke that you can advertise and document on In Contact [the Russian version of Facebook]. During their so-called Monstrations on May Day, cheeky young people celebrate the arrival of spring by marching with their own handmade placards and banners, which are supposed to be as silly, incoherent, and harmless as possible, with slogans like “Everyone Is Going Sowth” [sic]. This is appropriate for April Fool’s Day, not for May Day. But there is one useful conclusion we can draw from the Novosibirsk marches: a crowd can be presented as an enormous multitude of lone picketers in which each picketer has chosen one and the same place for his picket-the city’s main street. [According to Russian law] you don’t need permission for a lone picket. Everyone has different slogans, but they might only seem to be different. And so this real combined force of seemingly lone picketers is ready to march in the city center.

This is the sense in which we’re engaged in politics. Although it would be better to categorize everything that is now meant by the term politics as socially useful or socially harmful activity.

In their direct actions (e.g., tossing cats inside a McDonald’s in honor of May Day; copulating at the Biological Museum in the run-up to the presidential elections; visiting a police station to congratulate the policemen on the inauguration of President Medvedev; holding a wake for Dmitry Prigov in a Moscow subway car) War elegantly walks the line between political provocation and civic protest, thus criticizing the flabby, uninventive practices of the politicians, on the one hand, and the hegemonic gallery-bound art conformism, on the other. Naturally, this elicits a storm of criticism from the political and artistic establishments. Among other things, War is accused of replacing genuinely political statements and actions (i.e., collective and emancipatory actions, the need for which is really urgent) with the kind of aestheticized protest gesture favored by denizens of the Net and actionist groups touting dubious, incoherent ideologies. War is also accused of discrediting the progressive, critical (not to mention the aesthetic) dimension of contemporary art, which is already considered irritating and useless by our reactionary society.

It is still too early to say how well founded these criticisms are: this will become clear as War’s resistance work and existence as a group evolves. In any case, the actions and declarations of War are essential to the conversation about informal politics and direct action today.

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