Dissent and protest art in the 21st century
Last week saw an interesting exchange of opinions on fundamental values of being against or outside the “system”. The event’s protagonists are two artists residing in Prague. They are Oleg Vorotnikov from the art group Voina and Roman Týc from the art group Ztohoven.
Voina (Война, “War”) is a Russian anti-establishment street-art collective. It focuses on street performances and even violence or hooliganism, struggling against cases of state violence, racism or homophobia. The group’s most notorious action was a 65-meter painting of penis on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg, facing a FSB station as the bridge rose up, done in 2010. Oleg Vorotnikov, a prominent member of Voina, often considered the face of the group, had to flee Russia with his wife Natalya Sokol and his children after being prosecuted for hooliganism and incitement of hatred. After being bailed out of detention by the famous British artist Banksy, the family fled Russia to seek refuge in like-minded communities around Europe. With no passport, money, insurance or mobile phones and an Interpol warrant on their heads.
In 2014, Oleg and Natalya faced extradition to Russia from Venice after violent struggle with local anarchists with whom they’ve been squatting. Sokol said that they’ve been attacked by the other squatters, while the other squat dwellers stated that they asked the family to leave already a month ago and that Vorotkinov threatened and provoked them, carrying weapons in front of the building.
Two years later, the family found itself being forced out yet another place in Basel, and decided to move to Prague. They were living in Czechia for some time, when on 18. September, Oleg was arrested by the police for lack of documents and shoplifting. He was released from custody, but the couple still awaits decision of Czech authorities about possible extradition to Russia. So far, Justice minister says he’s not keen on sending them away.
The couple gave interviews about their stance. Oleg said he lives without money since the end of 90s, that he doesn’t know what money looks like. He calls stealing “freeing goods of their value.” He compares his lifestyle to a partisan warfare, as it is “only successful with the support of the people. When they offer us something, we cannot say no to them.” He has changed his view on the Russian president, he says, and he now supports his policies. Liberal intelligentsia, he says, which was protesting in 2012, shouldn’t be allowed into politics, and the regime “so tenderly, so gently” crushed the protests. He stated that he would prefer to return to his homeland, that Czechs are foreign currency prostitutes, dominated by redneck, underdeveloped U.S. culture. Vorotnikov says he’s not interested in being a Putin’s critique for acclaim and riches. He calls the Ztohoven “kids”. Sokol said that she was disappointed by Europe about the lack of freedom. “At first, there are some people there willing to help you. But later, everything goes somehow wrong…”
Roman Týc from the Ztohoven has an idea why it goes “somehow wrong.” On his facebook, he says he feels like an “useful idiot”. According to him, Ztohoven was helping the family with everything, help which the couple took for granted. He says that Vorotnikov broke into his friend’s flat and a studio in Český Krumlov. They refused to help Ztohoven with anything in any way out of ideological reasons. He says that these problems don’t originate from cultural difference, but from arrogance and disrespect. “He says that he doesn’t know that money looks like. That is a lie, as they were receiving thousands of crowns… they did not need to steal from shops. A surprised visitor to their household could find the best quality olive oil and pork.” He says that he feels disillusioned and that his liberal and voluntarist values are incompatible with Vorotnikov’s extreme left-wing ideas and practices.
The Ztohoven (“Out of shit”) group itself is a guerrilla art collective, specialising on highly sophisticated pranks on public space. They became notorious when they hacked the Czech Television broadcast in 2007 and inserted a mushroom-clouded fake nuclear explosion into a morning broadcast. In 2015, members of the group climbed the roof of Prague castle and replaced the presidential flag with a red piece of underwear in reaction to president’s previous statements and actions. Another project of the group is called Parallel Polis. A clear homage to the concept of a Charta 77 member Václav Benda, it is an institute trying to create a “state within a state”. The philosophy involves ideas like free circulation of information, decentralised economy with crypto currencies, and anarchocapitalism. Maintaining the space comes at a cost, though. Many voices especially from the left have criticised the way of financing, as it’s being sponsored by prominent figures from the economic establishment. More radical leftists say that the whole concept is not viable, that Ztohoven are actually just neoliberals. Týc and his colleagues argue that their goal is to be free from the state, and that the big capital they’re depending on isn’t influencing their philosophy or actions.
So how can one contest the current world system? Being a modern nomad, not relying on technology or institutions, but being completely dependent on the good will of others? Or trying to manoeuvre between the state and economic leviathans while maintaining façade of legality? Is it right to support dissidents of regimes we don’t like if we disagree with them in every other conceivable way?
One of maybe surprising but completely legitimate sources which could answer such questions are writings of former Czech president, writer and dissident Václav Havel. In his article for New Perspectives, Jiří Přibáň writes about Havel’s legacy.
In the latest New Perspectives issue, there is a summary of a roundtable from Prague Microfestival 2016 on Modernism, the International and the Possibility of an Avant-garde. Participants include Jan Bělíček from A2larm.cz, Dita Malečková and Louis Armand from Charles University, Gregor Podlogar and Boris Novak, poets from Ljubljana. http://ceenewperspectives.iir.cz/2016/07/28/new-perspectives-issue-12016-out-now/.