During the mass demonstrations against the 2011 Russian parliamentary election results, one of the leading protest slogans read “Вы нас даже не представляете!” (You cannot even imagine/represent us!). Originally created in 2010 as an exhibition piece for the St. Petersburg architecture festival ARTERIJA by the leftist activist poet Pavel Arsen’ev, the red banner with its play on the double meaning of the Russian verb “представлять” (imagine/represent) went viral during the demonstrations.
The slogan was used by all kinds of activist groups ranging from anti-Putin movements to student protesters and became one of the most important signs of civic protest on social media. However, the artistic ‘roots’ of the slogan as well as the work of the artist who created it are still relatively unknown. Focusing on the protest banner, I will reflect on the understanding of poetic language and the role of art in society in the work of the “Laboratory for Poetic Action” of which Pavel Arsen’ev acted as one of the founding fathers.
Besides Arsen’ev, permanent members of the Laboratory for Poetic Action include the young leftist poet and performance artist Roman Osminkin as well as the poet-cum-graphic artist Dina Gatina. As stated in various manifests, essays and commentaries published on their homepage, the Laboratory strives to transform urban space through poetic language. Describing the city as a text or palimpsest that constantly needs to be ‘re-engraved’, the artists aim to render the written word into a spatial phenomenon by using public poetry performances, installation art and, occasionally, graffiti. By comparing this process to ‘hacktivism’, they underline the subversive nature of their poetic actions, which should lead to critical reflections on language when citizens pass the art works in the street.
When studying the red banner as well as the commentaries on the homepage, it becomes clear that Arsen’ev’s understanding of the role of poetic language in society is in fact highly indebted to performance act practices used by the Moscow conceptualist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Having emerged within the unofficial art scene in the 1970s, Moscow conceptualist art challenged the aesthetics and propagandistic use of language and images of Communism and Social realism. Especially the performance art group Collective Actions, which was founded by conceptualist artists Andrej Monastyrskij, Nikita Alekseev, Georgij Kizeval’ter and Nikolaj Panitkov in 1976, became a driving force of the Soviet alternative art milieu. In 1977, the artists organized the first of what would become a series of “Journeys Out of Town” (Poezdki za gorod). The performance, which was documented with photographs, involved hanging a red banner between two treetops on a snow-covered hill (see second picture above). The inscription in white letters was taken from Andrej Monastyrskij’s book “Nothing happens” and reads: “I DO NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT ANYTHING AND I ALMOST LIKE IT HERE, ALTHOUGH I HAVE NEVER BEEN HERE BEFORE AND KNOW NOTHING ABOUT THIS PLACE.” Devoid of any political use in the isolated snow-covered landscape, the red banner functioned as a critical reminder of the omnipresence of propagandistic slogans in Soviet society and challenged the language of state power with its almost lyrical inscription. However, this interpretation should not distract from the fact that many members of the Collective Actions emphasized that their performances were of an aesthetic rather than a sociopolitical nature.
Arsen’ev’s red banner clearly ‘quotes’ the Collective Actions, as Natalia Fedorova has noticed first.The equivocal inscription can – and was indeed read – as a political statement, but also reflects on language as a representational medium of reality. As the artist points out in his essay “Conceptual Activism” from 2010, the Laboratory for Poetic Action considers the deconstructive approach to language and ideology that characterizes Moscow conceptualist art as the key to making political art in Post-Soviet society. The website makes the following statement: “History is recycling itself in the absurd Kafka-esque Pussy Riot trial that calls for the same methods today as in Soviet times. Frighteningly similar insipid discourse of the official media requires the rigor of conceptualist action.“The Laboratory thereby offers a predominantly political reading of conceptualist art practices. However, Arsen’ev also critically distances himself from the Collective Actions, arguing that today art cannot make any relevant political statements when the artists find themselves working in the periphery of society. Declaring itself as the successor of the Moscow conceptualist movement, the Laboratory for Poetic Action deliberately stages its performances in the city of St. Petersburg. As Arsen’ev and fellow artist Roman Osminkin emphasize in their commentary on the performance “Vremja govorit’/Time to Speak!”: “Net – večnosti i tišiny! Est’ šum istorii! Pora probovat’ golos!” (There exists no eternity and silence! There only exists the noise of history! It is time to speak!)