Members of the Moscow-based Voina art collective have faced arrest and persecution in Russia following a spectacular performance in September that involved coordinating a team of 31 activists to overturn police cars in St.Petersburg. Dubbed "Palace Revolution," the event was intended as a protest against the Ministry of Home Affairs. Now the Russian artists have found a prominent supporter in street-art superstar Banksy, who has donated $127,000 from an online sale of his "Choose Your Weapon" prints toward a campaign to free the Russian art activists.[content:shareblock]
The police have responded to the September 16 stunt with deadly seriousness. At the end of November they arrested Voina members Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev, who now face serious prison time. Responding to ARTINFO, a representative of the group said that the police had acted without a warrant, and had severely brutalized the two artists. Both men were taken from Moscow to St. Petersburg to await trial.
Another leading member of the collective, Alexei Plutser-Sarno, has fled Russia in fear of his life, and is currently in Estonia. A fourth member, Natalia Sokol, has had her passport confiscated, along with the passport of her toddler. This equals "civil death," according to the Voina spokesperson, meaning Sokol and her son cannot get medical attention, purchase airline tickets, or petition state institutions.
Voina's members have been charged with "hooliganism, carried out on motives of political or ideological hatred or animosity towards a social group." The group insists that the severity of the legal response is unwarranted. "It was just an insignificant damage to state property, not a crime of violence," Voina told ARTINFO. "To pay [a fine] would be enough."
Founded three years ago by a group of philosophy students from Moscow State University, Voina — the name means "War" in Russian — has engaged in a series of boundaries-pushing public art actions, often involving protests against some aspect of Russian government, which they denounce as systematically and irredeemably corrupt. They have staged a live public orgy at the State Biological Museum to mock the election of Dmitry Medvedev; projected a 180-foot-high image of a skull-and-crossbones onto the exterior of Russia's parliament; and painted an enormous phallus on a drawbridge facing a police building in St. Petersburg. In one particularly nihilistic action, staged this August, a female member of the group shoplifted a raw chicken from a supermarket by secreting it within her vagina.
Such antics have a punk vibe, flouting authority and convention with defiant bad taste — but now events have turned deadly serious as the full weight of the law has come down on the collective. With "Palace Revolution," Voina appears to have crossed a line, making itself a serious target for state repression. It remains to be seen whether other members of the international art community besides Banksy will throw their support behind a group known for such radical actions.
So how did Banksy learn about Voina? According to the BBC, he first heard of their plight through a sympathetic report on the artists by the British network's own Lucy Ash. Following the program, Ash was called by the elusive artist's publicist, asking her "How much do you reckon it'll cost to get them out?"
The "Picture on Walls" Web site claims that the sale of the Banksy prints raised "an impressive sounding 4.5 million roubles towards helping the VOINA collective and their families" (that's $147,000). But the more valuable contribution may be the notoriety and credibility granted by the famous artist's intervention. "We're very grateful for his support," Plutser-Sarno told the Guardian. "Banksy's help will attract the attention of the whole world to the personal repression aimed at us, as well as to the greater problem of liquidation of democracy in Russia."