Ludmila Bredikhina

                         Performance Instead of Politics

                              CV, or the Pavlensky File

Six actions in four years, eight examinations of his mental health, arrests, investigations, and thick court files—that is the artist’s dizzying career. PetrPetr Pavlensky became famous after his very first action, and a year later was first on the list of the most influential figures in contemporary art according to Moscow’s ArtGuide magazine.

23 June 2012, the performance[1] of Seam. Petr spent an hour and a half as a solitary picket in front of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg with a sign: ‘‘‘The Pussy Riot performance was a replay of the famous action of Jesus Christ (Matthew 21: 12-13)’’’ Solitary pickets are allowed by law in Russia, but they are usually arrested. He was arrested. The picketer’s mouth was sewn shut with coarse thread, which was not noticeable to others right away. The result—his first medical board and the first finding that he was compos mentis. A short video appeared online in which an ascetic man with inscrutable face refused to give his sign to an insistent middle-aged man in civilian clothing. Their silent dance was remembered by many. The critics remarked on the derivative and even ‘‘boring’’ nature of the gesture, but Pavlensky maintains that he was not bothered by the fact that sewing up lips was used before him on artists and prisoners. He was seeking the precise gesture and precise phrase. He found it: ‘‘Sewn lips is what the authorities wanted when they initiated the punitive trial over Pussy Riot. They wanted to intimidate people and order them to shut up.’’

That autumn Pavlensky and Oksana Shalygina began publishing the journal Politicheskaia Propaganda (Political Propaganda). Propaganda became the key concept for him. He declared himself an agent of political art.

3 May 2013—Carcass, an action in front of the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg. His next precise phrase: ‘‘The laws, like barbed wire, keep people in individual paddocks.’’ Short videos online show how confused the police was: they covered the multilayered cocoon of barbed wire with a rug and tried to cut through the wire under it. That is difficult, so they got rid of the rug and sped up. Everything was over in twenty minutes, after which the naked artist was led away in the hunched pose of a recidivist. Yet another quote of Pavlensky’s makes the rounds on the net: ‘‘The goal I set for myself each time is to confound the authorities.’’

On 10 November 2013, with fixation he confounded the authorities and all of us. To materialize naked in November in well-guarded Red Square with your scrotum nailed to the cobblestones—how is that possible? A pose of helplessness, surprise and hidden threats.  A tattoo on his shoulder of some shapeless dark leviathan. And the next phrase: ‘‘This is a metaphor of the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of modern Russian society.’’

Yet, how was this possible technically, medically? I remember that after his ‘‘crucifixion’’ Oleg Mavromati was near death for two weeks and almost lost his hands.[2] This looked much more vulnerable than if he had nails in his wrists—but it was all right … except for the usual psychiatric tests.

The action was timed for Police Day. The clearly flustered policemen quickly covered Petr’s body with a white sheet, but that did not solve the problem.

Criminal charges were filed for hooliganism. But the court refused to hear it because the protocol had not been properly filed. The confusion in the law enforcement agencies continues—the case was reopened. Fierce arguments abound on the Internet, in mass media, the Civic Chamber, and the art community: is it art or not, art or politics, and who is Pavlensky—hero, activist, masochist, or actually an artist?

You would think that after Fixation on Red Square he could stop, as did the Voina group after X … in prison at the FSB and Pussy Riot after singing in Christ the Savior Cathedral. But on 19 October 2014, sitting on the high wall of the Serbsky Institute of Psychiatry, Pavlensky cut off his earlobe with a big knife that looked like a sword. Once again a scenario planned by the artist and executed by the police, the sculptural grace of the pose, the artistically spilled blood. This time the bewildered police asked him to jump down onto mattresses—when he refused to jump, they carried him away in a pose resembling the crucifixion. If this is not performance art, then what is it? The quote appeared on the net: ‘‘Psychiatry for political aims is returning—the police re-establishers the power to determine the threshold between reason and madness.’’

The Segregation action was not devoid of black humour: in order to prove that he is an artist and not a madman, Pavlensky cut off his ear like Van Gogh, who was well-known for being mad. Three tests in a row—and Petr was decreed sane again. Discussions  started once again.

On 23 February 2015 on the Malo-Koniushennyi bridge in St. Petersburg, Pavlensky initiated the group action Freedom, a reconstruction of the Maidan, which naturally ended with arrests and investigations. An ordinary lawyer was expected to figure out value categories like ‘‘freedom,’’ ‘‘independence,’’ and ‘‘contemporary artist.’’ The witness list for the prosecution included a determined artist-restorer and several sex workers who had been on the job that night. It ended in nothing. Neither vandalism nor moral outrage could be proven—the burned tires were easily washed off the bridge.

And thencame Pavlensky’s final action in Russia, Threat. On the evening of 9 November 2015, he set fire to the door of the historic building of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) on Lubyanka. Seemingly tired of the confounded and indecisive authorities, Petr broke the law very blatantly and outrageously.

The charge of ‘‘vandalism out of ideological hatred for a federal organ of the executive branch’’ elicited the understandable condemnation of law-abiding citizens, including many artists and critics, particularly since this historic building is recognized as a national treasure. However, the historic, if not to say genetic, hatred of the KGB also found a great response among law-abiding citizens. It was clear that Pavlensky had damaged the face of the FSB, not the door. The vulnerable ‘‘little man’’ got into the mode of a terminator who no longer recognizes the law and no longer feels fear. Itis impossible to watch calmly how in the darkness in front of the gates to fiery Gahanna he is knocked off his feet by a dark policeman and a black puddle slowly spreads on the asphalt—petrol or blood?

It is not a popular spot, so no viewers were about, but someone with a camera happened to be passing by. Pavlensky’s gesture was a challenge impossible to ignore. It achieved ideal artistic expressiveness, but to my sincere surprise, the argument about whether it was art still continued. It could be compared with the search for art of unheard-of qualities, pure, without the additions of protest, politics, and agitation.

Then came the captivating investigation, when the transcripts of interrogation were made public, lie detector tests were filmed by hidden camera, and one of the investigators renounced his status and, as in the Bible, became a disciple of Peter.  

In parallel with the investigation, documentary films were made and prizes awarded, including the Vaclav Havel financial prize, which Pavlensky instructed to be sent to the lawyers of the ‘‘Primorye partisans,’’ who were arrested for taking vengeance on policemen. - another scandal. The prize was recalled—the human rights group refused to pay for lawyers of murderers. Society was divided and debates continued. There were rumors of a sentence of a minimum of five years. At last, after seven months, Petr was fined a half million rubles (which he publicly and immediately refused to pay) and when he was released, he  was met by a crowd of journalists and admirers.

Some explain this outcome as yet another stumping of the authorities, others as luck comparable only to Putin’s, or a miracle, but let us look at the art history aspect of the story, asking ourselves the old and thorny question about the role of art in society and what is keeping (if it is) Pavlensky’s political and blatantly propaganda gestures from being considered art.

The Art of Performance Yesterday and Today

Compared to the golden age of the 1960s and1970s, performance art has changed cardinally. In those days, when the stunned public was pulled into a single time/space of the event with the artist, viewers definitely felt they were witnesses in an almost criminal sense of the word. They had to spend quite a bit of time watching artists suffer, be shot at, eat pudding of their own blood, sew up their mouths, nail their foreskin to a stool, and masturbate heavily. They had to suffer along with them. Under the spell of this incredible involvement with a work of art, the public tried on various villainous roles—slashing Yoko Ono’s clothes and pointing a loaded pistol at Marina Abramovic. The classic performance of those days established a new   memorandum which described the viewer’s participation in the artist’s existential event and their mutual responsibility for the proceedings.

Today, mainstream performance art is consists of a documentary or museum reenactment. The viewer is offered a photo exhibit in a ‘‘white cube,’’ a video in a ‘‘black box,’’ and more rarely a reconstructed show in real time à la Marina Abramovic.  In these cases, to quote Hal Foster, ‘‘In reenactments we are positioned as incidental witnesses to an event that could as readily occur without us. In fact, some reenactments appear to be more interested in the camera than in the audience; new performances often come image ready as well.’’[3]

In the last fifty years there were so many attempts to interact and ‘‘openly’’ work with viewers that the question had to arise, do the viewers really want to do so much work which they themselves hadn’t initiated? Wouldn’t viewers like once again to simply walk through the rooms of say, the Performing for the Camera exhibit at the Tate Modern? Wouldn't they like to re-instate the comfortable distance of art connoisseur? The questions multiplied.

However, once the viewer ceases to coexist with the performer in a single time-space, the art of performance enters the grey area of not making genre distinctions. The performativity of the genre is in demand in social activism and social networks. Only its memory lives in galleries and museums.

Petr Pavlensky and Moscow Radical Performance of the 1990s

The peak of Russian performance came in the 1990s when artists entered the ruined social space as if it was the open cosmos. Demoralized by the collapse of the political system that had seemed eternal, we were confused and intrigued. New opportunities became inevitable—we just had to survive.

Russian performance of the 1990s is visible evidence of the gradual decay of the collective body. The works Andrey Kovalev collected in Russian Actionism of the 1990s-2000s represent an astonishing number of different associations of artists and group actions which are incredibly motley ideologically and linguistically.

Numerous associations and radical solo heroes which appeared at the time, were mainly interested in finding new language, although many addressed the new regime with determination: Kulik insisted on his candidacy for president from the Animal Party, Brener demanded a boxing match with the current president at the Place of Execution in Red Square. Their boldness was neither primarily existential, as in classic Western performance art, nor was it primarily political. The pulse of the time was appealing to the newly acquired social sphere and new linguistic possibilities.  Petr Pavlensky may seem like one of the solo heroes of the 1990s. Appealing to the social sphere the problems of language were very important to him - he used infiltration of the mass media, which was fully elaborated by the actionists of the 1990s, while the police continually completed his scenarios, as happened more than once in Kulik’s actions. His Freedom, dedicated to the Maidan, is a reconstruction which reminds one of the Barricade, initiated by Avdei Ter-Oganyan and Anatoly Osmolovsky in 1998. But nevertheless, this is a superficial resemblance.

Pavlensky knows, as we all do, that the status of artist is not an alibi or a presumption of innocence. But it is more than that. The first fundamental difference is that his target audience is on the Internet. Hence the selection of methods and the second distinctive element of Pavlensky’s actions—the viewer who is drawn into the single time-space with the artist is simultaneously real and virtual, just like the time-space itself. The collective subject that acts as witness, consumer of information, and producer of new myths is the net community and the most successful cultural artifact is a ‘‘viral’’ video and a short vivid phrase.

The third and most important distinction is public politics, to which Petr Pavlensky (together with us, his witnesses) appealed unsuccessfully for five years, and which has lost its performative power of the 1990s. Public politics in Russia has been absolutely virtual for a long time. And it is completely frozen. The stream of our own photos and Pavlensky’s videos does not form an actual picture of what is happening.

The actionism of the 1990s, using Andrey Kovalev’s words, ‘‘indexed the absurdity of real politics, in which everything was possible.’’[4] Pavlensky’s deliberately propagandistic art demonstrates the absurdity of politics in which nothing is possible, where every protest, trial, investigation, or punishment is virtual ….

This is an important tendency in contemporary visual culture, when ‘‘the performative does not actualize so much as it virtualizes. It seems to offer the presence we desire, but it is a spectral presence, with the result that as viewers we come to feel a little spectral as well,’’.[5] Virtualization is typical not only for contemporary culture but for contemporary politics. Even the number of real corpses unfortunately does not make any difference.

But is it possible to be a political artist in the absence of public politics? Performative gestures of any kind in Russian conditions merely accentuate their virtual nature. While in the 1990s artists acted after long suspence of live public politics, after prevalence of the one and only language of agitation and propaganda and before real politics, in expectation of it, today Petr Pavlensky’s ‘‘political art’’ looks like art instead of politics. When it is painfully frozen even the most apolitical people feel that they are ghostly and vulnerable.

Vulnerability on the March

One of the psychiatric reports on Pavlensky states: ‘‘Have managed to make clear that actionism is a commentary on the era.’’ We must give the psychiatrists their due, Petr Pavlensky’s actions can very well serve as commentary on many influential philosophical texts on the dragged-out era of a wake for the Enlightenment, the erosion of ethics, the end of resultative politics and aesthetics as zones of indistinguishability. Today the debates over freedom and justice, democracy and liberalism, state or individual sovereignty, and the destructiveness of equality promise no results, and the practice of politics and aesthetics remain mere poking around in endless vulnerabilities. Chantal Mouffe’s suggestion to change the image of the enemy to the image of the adversary did not change the situation very much, because accepting a rival’s point of view is not easy. And if the ‘‘sphere of politics in its sense of the word is equivalent to discussion among rational people led by the principle of impartiality,’’[6] then all that is left for us is to become unbiased.

The experience of Petr Pavlensky, a naked man with an absent glaze and a scrotum nailed to the cobblestones, is commentary on that impartiality. His actions provide a‘comment’ on Chantal Mouffe’s old texts on agonistic democracy and on Judith Butler’s relatively recent book, Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance, by asking into what form of human vulnerability can resistance be transformed today. Has it made us victims of the power discourse that we did not choose and which, according to a popular protest motto, ‘‘does not represent us’’? Or, as Butler noted, by reducing resistance to vulnerability, we no longer resist? Neither Pavlensky, nor  Mouffe and Butler have an answer. His political preferences are tied to anarchy, in which he does not believe completely  but which he prefers to the ‘‘bleak liberalism with its pathetic political correctness.’’ Pavlensky says, ‘‘Probably anarchy is the ideal model, but I understand that its ideal lies in its infeasibility,’’ reminding us of the 1990s with their workers’ utopias and other forgotten lessons.

One of them was the lesson from the Stockholm Interpol exhibition (1996), energetically discussed by the art community throughout the world. The project was devoted to the problem of successful communication between West and East in the new geopolitical conditions. Preparations for the show dragged on for over two years of sluggish discussions. As the psychiatrists say, ‘‘it became clear’’ that productive dialogue was impossible in the absence of a firm position, but a firm position could push one to overly decisive actions. In Stockholm, Kulik gave a painful bite to a viewer who had violated the borders of his ‘‘canine’’ territory, while Brener destroyed the work of another artist that he felt impeded the effective communication of others.

‘‘It became clear’’ that effective communication among people with firm positions is fraught with aggression.

Why Art Does Not Need Propaganda and Why It Cannot Ignore Propaganda

Petr Pavlensky, actionist and publisher of Politicheskaia Propaganda, posed an important question: which language should an artist speak with the collective subject of virtual politics if he wants to achieve a result? And can performance serve as a tool of agitation and propaganda?

The opinions of artists differed sharply. The art of performance is ‘‘aesthetic terror,’’ Oleg Kulik continues to believe today, and he is a big admirer of what Pavlensky does. ‘‘Actionism is too much art for politics and too much politics for art,’’ says another fundamentally important actionist of the 1990s, Anatoly Osmolovsky, who does not consider Pavlensky as an artist.

Remembering the paralysis of aesthetics, anti-aesthetics, and paraesthetics,[7] I still want to return to the question of the role of art in society. In order to disagree with Adorno that art is impossible after Auschwitz and to agree with Jacques Rancière, who maintains in Figures of History that only art is capable of depicting Auschwitz and only ‘‘aesthetic acts’’ can create new regimens of perception and stimulate new forms of political subjectivity.In order to understand the meaning of Petr Pavlensky’s attempts to revive the art of propaganda of a new generation, ifWhen one consideres ‘‘aesthetic acts’’ (without going too far into their definition), Pavlensky’s commentary on what performance art is today goes back to the genre’s original performative nature. Performance is the art of propaganda - the political pursuasion in whatever you want to convince yourself and the rest of the world. Neither his comments, nor the recent comment of Fredric Jameson, disillusioned by contemporary leftist discussions: ‘‘From this perspective, what we need is a demagogue who speaks to the demos and explains things. This shouldn’t be a dictatorship of course’’[8], seem renegade or retrograde to me.

But if politics and aesthetics do not offer new effective ways of perception or new forms, why not try the old ones? So the Russian president, just like Jameson’s virtual demagogue, for decades has been trying various ideologies on us, in the range of moderate liberalism to immoderate forceful gestures, readily explaining to the people the necessity of each one. This strategy has worked for more than a decade. Actually, we just believe that it is the right  strategy and  that it is working. … In the world of camouflaged ideologies, the boldness of Pavlensky’s gestures elicits unmitigated respect. From the art historian’s perspective, his project of ‘‘political propaganda’’ appears to be simultaneously a continuation of the classic Western existential performance, the eccentric Moscow radical actionism, and  an inquiry into the future of the genre.

Given the global political state of suspension, when is it not clear whether the paths of East and West, North and South are further diverging or instead trying to intersect at a point of vulnerability of all key concepts, it is hard to reject the desire to change the situation. Although it is impossible to achieve such change in the absence of political discussion,  and even discussion and a firm position do not instill great hope, either.

The painting from Moby-Dick comes to mind, ‘‘sublime’’ but ‘‘boggy, soggy, squitchy.’’ A character in this visionary novel in a monstrously uncomfortable hotel examines the faded painting with a dark leviathan’s body forever suspended over a sharp, strong mastheads of a whaling ship. There are no other characters—the scale of the painting does not allow for tiny humans. The suspense could ‘‘drive a nervous man to complete madness,’’ Melville writes. It feels like only art is capable of introducing human measure into this suspended state.

One last quote from Petr Pavlensky’s propaganda campaign: ‘‘Just staying in place requires effort, but moving the slightest bit requires super-effort.’’


[1] Despite attempts to distinguish the concepts of ’action’ and ’performance’ in Russian, they remain interchangeable, however ‘action’ is more frequently used for gestures with  political coloration.

[2] On 1 April 2000, on Barsenevskaia embankment in Moscow between the Institute of Culturology and St. Nicholas Church, the artist Oleg Mavromati was nailed to a cross (facing the cross) with a bleeding confession on his back ‘I am not the son of God’. After this performance, hiding from the courts and charges of Satanism, the artist fled to Bulgaria.

[3] Foster, Hal. Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, London, New York, 2015, p. 143.

[4] Kovalev, Andrey ‘Zhest vremeni i vremia zhesta’ [The Gesture of Time and the Time of the Gesture], in the catalog Rossiiskii aktsionizm 1990-2000, Moscow, 2007, p. 8.

[5] Op. cit., p. 143.

[6] This is the conclusion of Chantal Mouffe’s text ‘Towards an Agonistic Model of Democracy’

[7] Paraesthetics is a term proposed by David Carroll and used by Rita Felski. See the article ‘Why Feminism Doesn’t Need an Aesthetic (and Why It Can’t Ignore Aesthetics)’ in Felski, R. Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture, New York: NYU Press,, 2000.

[8]Filip Balunovic ‘Fredric Jameson: People are saying “this is a new fascism” and my answer is – not yet!’,