The Russian performance and conceptual art collective Voina have stretched the boundaries of art and politics with their stunts, which have included smuggling a chicken out of a grocery store by stashing it in a member’s vagina, spray painting an enormous phallus on a St. Petersburg bridge, and flipping over police cars. The Russian government, sensitive to political critique, has lashed back — that final project caused the pursuit and arrest of several Voina artists. In their most recent action, called “Cops Auto da Fe” or “Fucking Prometheus,” Voina used Molotov cocktails to light a tank-like police transport vehicle used to relocate prisoners.
Carried out on New Year’s Eve (which is notably when the traditional Russian version of Santa Claus, Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost, comes), the attack was described as “a gift to all political prisoners of Russia” by the group in an absurdist, lyrical fairytale posted on their blog. St. Petersburg police said that the source of the fire was inconclusive and that the damage was fairly minimal, save the interior of the car. However, the video released by Voina shows a figure approaching the van with Molotov cocktails, placing them at its tires, and stepping away as it is quickly engulfed in flames.
Whether the attempted incineration is performance art, activism, or hooliganism depends on whom you ask. Russian intellectual Andrei V. Yerofeyev characterized the attacks as more resembling a mission carried out by a subversive political group than art. However, Berlin Biennale curator Artur Żmijewski (who symbolically named Voina co-curators of the biennale) seems to be pushing back on the idea that such distinctions can even be made. Using the Biennale’s newsletter as a protest bulletin, Żmijewski has organized actions around Berlin for causes such as freeing Belarus’ political prisoners and opposing the recent international arrest warrants issued for Voina’s two founders, husband and wife Oleg Vornikov and Natalia Sokol.
When does avant-garde performance become avant-garde violence? In an email interview with ARTINFO, Voina representative Alexei Plutser-Sarno explained that the police carrier was “a symbol of today’s repressions and human rights and freedoms annihilation, committed by the authorities in Russia” (we have left his text as is). By burning it, he said, the group “stirred up discussion” in the entire country.
Of the reaction to “Cops Auto da Fe,” Plutser-Sarno wrote that “there are sensible people, who understand and support us; who think that our actions are an adequate reaction to all those batteries, tortures and arrests of innocent people, to the situation when thousands of political prisoners are kept in jails all over the country.” In response to Yerofeyev’s accusation that the gesture was not art, he noted that the writer had previously taken part in Voina actions, but “has a lot of masks.”
Asked if Voina had exceeded the boundaries of performance art with its politically-motivated actions, Plutser-Sarno responded, “If an artist follows rules, canons, norms, he is dead. An artist should be walking on the razor's edge between art and non-art, between death and life.” That territory is certainly where Voina is headed, given their multiple daring escapes from arrest and imprisonment (it is worth noting that Plutser-Sarno is currently in hiding abroad).
According to Voina, the difference between performance art and political activism is art’s public nature and the importance of laying claim to your work. “If an activist secretly burns a cop truck at night, it won’t be art. It will be the revenge of an activist,” Plutser-Sarno wrote. “But to burn it openly and proclaim to the entire country: ‘I am an artist. I burned down your prison, symbol of totalitarianism. This autodafe is our art action,’ then it becomes a piece of art. We made people discuss it as an artistic action.”
Art may be by definition political, as Diego Rivera famously argued, but must it be revolutionary? For Voina, the answer is yes.