Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Probes the State of Russian Performance Art

Artem Lokustov, "From the Monstration," Novosibirsk, 2012
(© Artem Lokustov)

Today, Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow launched its very first international conference, titled “Performance Art: Ethics in Action.” In session through Saturday, the event brings together performance art experts and artists from around the globe to converse and do research for a large-scale exhibition on the history of Russian performance, set to debut late next year. On Thursday night Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg was scheduled to give a lecture and launch the Russian translation of her book “Performance Art,” for which she has added a new chapter. Simon Critchley and Elena Petrovskaya will also speak at the conference, and quite a few international artists will be present, including Beijing-based Song Dong; Rio-based Laura Lima; Nástio Mosquito from Luanda; Moscow-based Anatoly Osmolovsky; and  Tanja Ostojic, based in Berlin. ARTINFO spoke with Garage chief curator Kate Fowle on state censorship, what it’s like to curate in Russia, and how social media is changing the way performance artists work.

This is the first conference that Garage is doing. What prompted the decision to do this kind of project?

It’s one step in a four-year research process we started in 2010 that is looking at Russian performance.  One important trigger was creating an archive at Garage through which we have acquired some great and rare materials on the subject. Ultimately we’re building up to a big exhibition that charts the history of Russian performance that will happen at the end of next year. With the conference we want to present a wide range of perspectives on what’s going on and connect it to what’s happening internationally. It’s the first time Garage has ever done a long-term research project and I think its important that its been focused on this subject because if you understand the history of performance in Russia you’re actually focusing on the history of contemporary art there. It’s so intertwined.

So then what are the major milestones that you’re charting out?

The reason the conference made sense right now is because it is the centenary of [Kazimir Malevich’s] “Victory Over the Sun,” [an avant-garde, Cubo-Futurist theater production,] which was first presented in St. Petersburg in December 1913. Historically that’s now understood as the first performance in Russia. It was reportedly despised by most of the audience because it was so avant-garde. Malevich designed the costumes and the stage settings. Apparently, in 1915, it was during [a run of] “Victory Over the Sun” that he made his first black square. Anyway, that’s the logical place to start looking at the history of Russian performance. At the conference we are going to focus more on the ’70s forward. During the ’90s there was a public resurgence of the form, with people like Anatoly Osmolovsky — who is speaking at the conference — doing all these performances that were reflecting the dramatic changes that were happening in the society then.

Tell me more about the theme “Ethics in Action.”

One of the focuses is ethics and that’s for a number of reasons. First, to completely over-simplify Aristotle and put his ideas into one sentence — he described ethics as an independent philosophy that exists between the soul and the state, or in other words between psychology and politics. We know the relationship between those two has changed dramatically since, but we thought bringing ethics in as a central theme was really important because performance is one of the ways that artists can connect to real life most immediately, and audiences can see ways that artists are understanding social, political, cultural issues. It’s a very, very immediate form. Within that, what are the professional ethics? What are the limits? What are the personal ethics? It’s a way of being able to talk across a number of issues. Ethics and aesthetics need to be included together but ethics is the thing that connects it into everyday life. Simon Critchley is giving the keynote speech on the first day, followed by Elena Petrovskaya, who is speaking about Pussy Riot. The whole event that started the focus on Pussy Riot has never really been properly discussed or put into context. She’s thinking about the fact that the consequences of that action were impossible to predict at the outset. That intervention represents a radical shift in a public exposure for performance insofar as it was produced for social media.

Pussy Riot brings up the question: Are certain forms of performance art actually possible in Russia? Recently performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to Red Square.

Which sounded so painful. I was in Moscow at the time and loads of artists were talking about it when it went viral.

He’s facing jail time now too. Will the conference address the policing of artists? Is it possible that a performance staged at the conference could cause an artist to be arrested later?

We’ve talked around these topics at Garage for a while. It’s not only about the arrests and not arrests, or what is perceived as arrestable and what isn’t. There are plenty of performances where protagonists weren’t arrested. When you nail your scrotum to Red Square, the viral aspect was what drew attention to it. The difference between Oleg Kulig, who was known for his performances as a dog in the ’90s, or Alexander Brener, who put on his boxing gloves in Red Square and called for the president to come and fight him, and what’s happening now, is social media. The speed at which artists’ messages get circulated now and how people become aware of actions is completely different.

So will you be addressing censorship issues?

Not just censorship because ethics goes way beyond that. We want to expand the conversation. The artists that are presenting from Brazil, Angola, Serbia and China as well as Russia are all dealing with “art and life,” but each as a result of very different experiences, intentions and approaches.

Are there challenges you face working in Russia? Issues with censorship or homophobia?

Honestly one of the biggest challenges is the prejudices of people who have not spent any time in Russia. It’s driving me mad. In Moscow we are having ongoing conversations about a number of different pressing issues around the development of culture, including the gay legislation. The international media immediately wants to go for the sensational. For example, there’s a magazine called Afisha in Russia that published a whole issue in March featuring a number of people in culture coming out as gay. There are many things like that that aren’t even mentioned in the press. One of my jobs is to try and raise awareness of things that are actually going on. What’s frustrating for a lot of practitioners in Moscow is that they feel like they’re shouting into a vacuum because what gets reported on are the negative things rather than the steps that people are taking to develop culture and society. I worked in Beijing for two years, and there I can tell you about a far more direct censorship. In Russia, we don’t have to give a list of works to the government to decide if they can be shown or not, for example.

The use of language is also interesting and the assumptions we make that we all understand what a word really means to people. Take the word “institution,” which I discovered during a staff retreat at Garage has such strong relations to the soviet era that the new generations do not want to associate with it. They told me Garage is not an institution. It is a platform, which to me seems less important, but for many who I talk to suggests something more flexible. We’ve since had conversations that are changing the use of the word institution in our materials, but as you can imagine, these kind of complexities are the things that make situations much less black and white. It’s really interesting to think through how to actually communicate alongside the new generation that are the people that are going to make the change in the end.