A conversation with Vor (Oleg Vorotnikow), leader of the Russian artist/activist group Voina (War) about art, revolution and life in illegality.
Moscow, March 25th, 2012
How would you describe your concrete situation at the moment? What role does Voina play in the field of activism and art?
The situation is very simple. We gave birth to all of it, and now it is developing and blooming. We revived activism and actionism. We took a forgotten genre – actionism, which, according to the West, doesn’t work anymore. We breathed new life into it and it turned out to be great. Well, in comparison to other artists we are cool. Russia has never had activism before. Well, there were some miserable people like Oleg Kulik. But in general, nothing was happening: All these ribbons, white circles and other shit – it is a result of our activities. All these protesters don’t know what they are doing, they are protesting like monkeys, it’s just a matter of fashion, that’s why they are doing it.
Don´t you think it is important that people show they disagree?
It is important, but first you need the public to get interested. Only if you do outstanding things, they like it and will get hooked on it. Nowadays all young people reckon that they have to protest. But protest itself doesn’t make sense. For example, anarchists. What should anarchists do? Kill the king, policemen, bureaucrats. But no, nowadays they think that they should protest.
But the protest is linked to the political system: If you don’t have freedom of speech and democracy, than a system provokes this form of protest.
We have freedom of speech. We don’t have censorship. I have never encountered censorship. Give me an example?
Perwy Kanal – Channel One of Russian TV.
Channel One is not a case of censorship. Channel One is a channel of propaganda. It belongs to the regime, propagates its ideas. Watch it if you want, don’t watch it if you don´t want. What is the problem? Who among us is watching it? Nobody. Down’s syndrome sufferers. If they watch it, they deserve it. I’m serious, we have only one life, why wasting it on watching Channel One. Go to the factory in the morning, go home in the evening, drink your beer and watch your Channel One. Who the fuck will help you? That is my opinion about the proletariat. I personally like the art of propaganda. It is so lively, interesting, unusual. There are artists who say that art should be free from propaganda, that art is about being. It is all shit. Art should be very flat, concrete, provoking concrete actions that lead to new starting points, a new reality. “Delving into the soul”, galleries full of meaningless installations – what is this? It is not art. It is a form of handicraft industry that produces dull objects, which nobody needs. This is nothing. Absurd. No one is interested in it.
Should art react at all to the political situation?
No. The art is to make politics. To say that art should be reacting to anything means to degrade it to the level of simple comment. For example, September 11th. All artists were weeping, somebody made a fountain out of tears, collected all the photos, hanged them in the toilet and sadly sat there. No. Art is not a reaction to events – this is a reactionary view on art. Art is creating political events.
Russian society seems to change at the moment – demonstrations happen, artists and activists protest. Does this influence your work?
Yes. But not because society has changed – it really has not. But the protests showed that people are powerless, and they were deceived in a very cheap way. This had set me thinking that our actions were too symbolic. Genius, but too symbolic. People went out with their posters, with those mini-dicks on their mini-posters. We didn’t like it at all. If the protests show anything, then the inability of the people to act: One hundred thousand people doing nothing. And the mere fact that this amount of people is doing nothing made me think that I should do more direct actions. I can take on this regime with 550 people. We will be losing popularity, we will be marginalized, because we will do things people won’t like.
Your actions and your work are internationally known. How does that change your situation?
There is no influence. Our popularity exists separately. We often have to live in basements, in places that are not created for living in, we are blocked from the rest of the world. If there are exhibitions somewhere, we don’t get to see them. They are there, and we are here. How could we make use of this popularity? And the situation in Russia is not going to change as long as European consumers are consuming oil. As long as they need this drug form Putin, nothing will change. Banal words. The elections were accompanied by grave violations, everyone congratulated Putin. Why are people doing it? Because they like it, they want it.
What could we do to change the situation?
There are many methods. But people have stopped making big gestures in politics, they all look like agents of a funeral service, not at all like gorgeous Caesars. What would prevent Merkel from inviting Putin to a meeting in Baden-Baden and arrest him there? Politics and art are the same – in that they are about vivid gestures, even erroneous ones. But its not for hypocrites at funerals – as is the case with Europe right now. There are no vivid, honest, naive people. There are only fucking jackets with ties. Sad. Our people are frightened by revolutions. But there is nothing scary in it. Maybe those are the most vivid events that occur in human life. My grandmother had been talking all her life about the hunger during the war. The most striking event for her had taken place 60 years before! But let’s talk about art.
How big is your group?
You can count in different ways. The number of people participating in our actions is quite big.
There is a very interesting review of our case written by the Criminal Investigation Department. It says that there were 3000 people in “Voina Department”, that we had an office in every big city in Russia and contacts with countries as South Africa, Slovakia or Greece. It all depends on how you count. But for the minority of the people participating in actions Voina also is their main occupation.
What is your opinion on the case against Pussy Riot?
We are very sorry that they are locked up for nothing. And of course we demand their freedom. In their case there is no reason for repression, they just did some innocuous shit. That is also the difference to our works. We often commit crimes, there is extremism in our actions. On purpose. Repressions in this case are quite natural. We know this and go for it. We always acted boldly, we never hid our faces during our actions. It may seem stupid but we chose a brute-force approach. And we win in many cases. The type of people who are repressing us is afraid of any direct threat. I was only arrested twice so far. The second difference: We never hide what we are doing, we never try to pass of one thing as something different – as for example a punk-concert for a prayer, which is in fact a remake of our work “Punk concert in a court” from the year 2009, which the girls, who are in prison now, also had participated in. We don’t imitate anything. We reckon that the bolder you act the more you are allowed to do. An expression emerged during the civil war: “Courage conquers the city.” The Bolsheviki just came and said: “This is our city.”
Is there a difference in the media strategy of Pussy Riot and Voina?
The strategy is the same, it is some kind of a media storm. In our case it is more about art and media terrorism, in their case – a big promotion of themselves. In our strategy the performance of an action is obligatory, their strategy can do without an action. We need it because the performance stimulates us, and you think that you can do more and more. We become bolder and more daring. This is good for ourselves. The simulation of an action doesn’t have this effect.
How do you decide whether an action will be done or not?
There are a number of actions that we have in our minds, that are too complicated to carry out from a technical point of view. That´s why we test new ideas during a preparation period. Let’s take a very simple example: the arrest of Putin. At the preparation stage we would select ways how we could do it: invite him to a hotel, give him chocolate and arrest him in the toilet. Brilliant idea! The video would be viewed by many people. But probably he wouldn´t follow the invitation. So we´d filter the variants that don’t work.
Do you know if you are observed by the police? Your face must be well known in the meantime.
I already escaped twice in a row from a planned arrest. I can be proud of that. On April 11th I evaded an interrogation of the investigation committee. I suddenly knew that they would come over the next three minutes to arrest me.
Shoplifting is part of your daily practice. Why?
Food is not a privilege, it’s a right. If you sell goods: Be ready to be robbed. Also, when you go shopping you are humiliated on every corner. By cameras for example. They suspect you of stealing. They tell you: “You are being watched.” So when I enter the store, I’m honest. There is only security, the cameras and me. Let’s play! It is fair. Catch me, you are obliged to. Besides, the mere fact that First World countries feed at the cost of Third World countries – is this not a form of theft? This is real hell. I’m a Saint compared to this hypocrisy. I make everything openly and honestly. I don’t hide my face, you can see it online. Try to find and catch me if you are a professional. I am Robin Hood.
Also I earn my living like that. So I only have to spend 15 minutes for getting food, I save a lot of time. I also don’t lend myself to dishonesty by refering myself to funds. I don’t apply for grants, don’t shake curators’ hands. It is not necessary. Time is necessary. This way I am being payed by society. Only that I take it myself, it is some kind of distribution mode. Of course I could earn my 500, 1500, 5000 dollars – depending on the gallery I would belong to. But it would cost my independence, my critical thinking, I would start to do conceptual art. But as a real artist I have to be a hypercritic of mankind. I need to chase mankind like a dog. Every meeting with an artist should be unpleasant for people on the street. Like facing a homeless dog. It’s the role of an artist, an unpleasant role, because it takes everything from you: nerves, freedom, health, life, your social connections, your peace of mind. As an artist you lose more than you gain.
Interview by Kira Kirsch
The collective Voina (“War”) is infamous for its daring actions at and over the border of legality. They overturn police cars, “flipped off” the Russian Security Service FSB by painting a gigantic phallus on the drawbridge next to agency´s headquarter, staged a sex orgy in a museum – as a protest against the election to president of Dmitry Medvedev – and a punk concert in a court room.
Vor (Oleg Vorotnikow) is Voina´s leader and chief ideologist, has been involved in arts since 1995 and – according to the Voina website (free-voina.org) – “renounced the use of money in 1998”. In 1999 he married artist Kozlenok (Natalia Sokol), with her he started doing street art in 2005 forming the art collective Voina. Vor and Kozlenok’s son Kasper Can’t-Take-Our-Eyes-Off-Him Sokol was born on April 19th, 2009, making him Voina’s youngest member. Oleg has participated in every Voina action to date. In May 2011 he was declared a federally wanted fugitive, in July 2011 Russian police issued an international arrest warrant for Oleg. He is unemployed and homeless.