Friday, October 7, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Is Voina Group Russia´s Ai Weiwei?

Подпольной группы исполнительское искусство активист Российская улица Voina ("война" на русском языке) объявил себя против 4-й Московской биеннале современного искусства, закончившейся 30 октября. Voina призывает Международный бойкот современного искусства справедливыми.

Ai Weiwei´s symbolic self portrait of protest against Chinese government corruption

Underground Russian street performance art activist group "Voina" (“War” in Russian) has declared itself against the 4th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art , ending 30 October. Voina calls for an international boycott of the contemporary art fair.

A doctored image of Putin
V. Putin as L. Brezhnev, (c) Moscow Times 30 Sept. 2011 No credit given, author uknown
ArtTraveler:  How are the organizers and sponsors of the 4th Moscow corrupt? More details the better.
Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Russian Mafioso-like authorities give several millions of dollars for the Biennale and order Russian, corrupted sponsors to do the same.  Afterwards, with the participation of the Ministry of Culture and chief curators, half of this money is plundered.

Such situations are common in Russia.

ArtTraveler: Каким образом коррумпированы организаторов и спонсоров 4-Москва? Более подробное описание тем лучше.

Алексей Plutser-Сарно: российские власти мафиози как дать несколько миллионов долларов для биеннале и порядок Российской, поврежден авторам сделать то же самое. После этого при участии министерства культуры и главных кураторов, половина этих денег разграблен.

Такие ситуации являются распространенными в России.

Voina´s 2010 salute to Russia´s security police, the FSB
In an exclusive interview with ArtTraveler, from their safe house in St. Petersburg, Voina Group spokespersons Yana Sarna and Alex Plutser-Sarno explain why they are waging war against the 4th Moscow Biennale and the Russian art establishment and elite, in general.

The stage that set this interview provides a backdrop of spy vs. spy. 

Two years ago, two Voina members allegedly “ratted” to police. Voina, the group, expelled them.

Then, claims Voina, the pair stole archives and works by Voina and has usurped the group´s name and sullied its reputation by creating a fake Voina video at the 4th Moscow Biennale, what Voina group members describe as a tepid and stupid work showing females kissing female cops on the street.

Alleged “traitors” exiled to Moscow from VoinaPytor Verzilov and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova—are back, this time at the 4th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art as “Voina (Moscow faction).” 

No active Voina members live in Moscow.

Voina demonstrating the art of vaginal chicken liberation

Voina in St. Petersburg cried foul, accusing the pair of theft,  treachery and fraud, insisting that the 4th Moscow curator Peter Weibel pull the false Voina and real Voina works either stolen by police or the pretenders.

Online reports and the official website of Weibel´s show list the group now in hiding as exhibitors, ironically in the art activism festival, which Weibel clearly showcases with at least 34 Russian artists, many from other countries, including the United States.

Voina in September called for artists and others to boycott the 4th Moscow.

What really gets under the collective skin of Voina Group is the two alleged "traitors" trading on their name, which over time, included about 200 activists.

Voina Group insists the video that shows females on the street coming up and kissing female cops just commissioned and in uniform is a total fake.

An online blogger who calls himself ANIMAL, reported Voina´s original outrage at "Smootching the Cops":

“Voina Group has nothing to do with the action of engaging young girls kissing female police officers. We make massive, monumental art.

“Besides, it´s obvious that the Voina Group would never kiss policemen. We prefer to fuck them with our 65-meter Dick!”

“Dick captured by KGB” proved a huge sensation, especially in Mother Russia where there´s a growing market for satire of the current regime.

The group´s 65-meter, white-washed penis became erect as a 40,000-ton drawbridge rising slowly but surely, facing the state security headquarters of the FSB, successors to the infamous KGB of which Vladimir Putin was a Lt. Colonel.

The filmed art prank hit Russian social networking and news sites soaring to No. 1. And it was not ignored elsewhere in the "cloud."

In a strange turn of events earlier this year, the Russian Ministry of Culture’s jury controversially awarded Voina first prize worth about $15,000 USD for the 2011 Russian Innovation Award in Contemporary Art mega-penis that was quickly erased.

In Putin´s Russia, an organ of the state awards art vandals first prize (in political dissent) for giving the finger to the FSB. I would have loved to be a mouse in the corner tuning into the heated discussions of the jury.

In Stalin´s USSR the jury would be executed within 24 hours along with most of the Ministry of Culture.

Socialist realism would have suffered gravely if that had happened.

But as true art revolutionaries, Voina mocked the award, never showed up and directed the Ministry of Culture to use the money to help Russian “political prisoners.”

Soviet Gulag prisoner shortly before his execution

Sunset at one of the USSR´s Gulag camps

They should have taken the money for a rainy day, like making bail.

The whole lot of them could end up as political prisoners. Two of them on the run already served four months in a Moscow jail during pre-trial detention until artist Banksy bailed them out.


Libya had its morality police when I lived there and now in Russia has its special Section E. "E" is for extreme, extreme views and actions causing at most minor property damage could provide fodder for an Ai Weiwei Chinese crackdown?

Voina Group tells me it´s happening now.
The Soviet Gulag
The plot thickens.

It may be OK to bang up cop cars in Hollywood movies but not with the Russian security police.

Despite their alleged overindulgence in vodka, the FSB and friends are capable of reviving memories of trouble making hooligans and achieving more than a mere modicum of revenge.

I´m not sure if Voina members harbor a death wish, a kind of Russian Orthodox-Shia, art-suicide, Fydor Dostevsky kind of cult thing. 

It all seems very Russian to me.

But the cop car action was the tipping point.

Most everyone on the side of authority gets involved, including INTERPOL.

Most of the active Voina are in hiding, in safe houses in St. Petersburg, moving place to place.

Some are wanted by authorities and face, in one instance, up to 20 years in prison for what amounts to ideological crimes.

Flipping over seven cop cars takes us a little closer to “hooliganism,” but does it warrant a seven-year maximum prison term? 

The equivalent of our US Attorney General in Russia demanded at least five years for two of the art pranksters who have already been imprisoned four months.

Voina: A public orgy to denounce Medvedev, concept art

These performance artists or as one United States newspaper suggested, “art terrorists,” are not making friends or influencing most people.

I wrote about the apparent lack of any politically challenging contemporary art at the 4th Moscow this week, which triggered my second round of inquiries, leading to this post.

Of the 34 Russian artists and groups participating in this year´s “Media Impact: International Festival of Activist Art,” there´s nothing politically provocative on show, and as you will learn, the 4th Moscow´s curator Peter Weibel apparently--by his ominous silence--agrees.

Here´s my interview with Voina Group today:

ArtTraveler: Are there Voina Group members still on the run and wanted by authorities? If so, who?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno (Voina Group chief media artist): Russian corrupted cops got an order from the authorities to put us in jail.

The reason is that our art is a protest against the Russian corruption, totalitariansm and authoritarianism. Russian cops started hunting for the group after the action, “Dick Captured by KGB” (, which was staged on 14 June 2010.

As the bridge opened, the dick weighing 4,000 tons menacingly erected opposite the headquarters of the KGB's successors, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

On 15 September 2010, there was another action, “Palace Revolution”.
On the eve of the Biblical Judgment Day, in the center of St. Petersburg, Voina overturned seven police cars with sleeping drunk, dirty cops inside.

It was a demand to reform the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is full of bandits. After this action, Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev were illegally and wrongfully arrested.

Yana Sarna: On 15 November 2010, two members of the art collective Voina, Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev, were arrested in Moscow.

Voina´s "Free Voina" website under The Arrest depicts the moment of alarm

At 7 a.m., 10 plain clothes police agents broke into the apartment where the group was staying.

They didn’t show IDs or an arrest warrant.

The cops laid the artists face down, tied their hands behind their backs and told everyone to stay down as they had the right to use weapons.

Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev--with handcuffs on their hands and plastic bags on their heads--were thrown into a police mini-bus. Afterwards, they were carried from Moscow to St. Petersburg on the iron floor for 10 hours. 

On the way to St. Petersburg dirty cops kicked Oleg, the ideologist of the art group, all over his body, including kidneys and head.

Two weeks later the human rights defenders and the medics, who visited the arrested artists in prison, found hematomas on Oleg’s body in the kidney area and deep handcuff marks. Leonid had serious bruises.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno:  After the action dubbed “Palace Revolution,” Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolayev were charged with the crime of "hooliganism, committed by an organized group on the motive of hate or enmity towards a certain social group”,  namely the police.
They are facing up to seven years in prison. 

I am, as the chief media artist of the group, accused under article 210, which is “organizing and leading a criminal community” — namely, the Voina art group.

This accusation implies a term of imprisonment of between 12 and 20 years.

Police agents from the Center for Extremism Prevention confiscated IDs of Natalia Sokol and her little son Kasper during the arrest. They are not able to leave the country.

Yana Sarna: Oleg and Leonid were bailed out by street-artist Banksy who paid 10.000 USD for each.  He sold his “Choose Your Weapon” and gave £80,000 to the Voina Group . Now that money is used to help Russian political prisoners.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: When they were released, Oleg stopped going for interrogations, because at one of those interrogations cops tried to put him back into a pre-trial ward without any reason.

Oleg managed to get away from them.

And on 20 July 2011, he was put on the international wanted list by the FSB. Now Voina is wanted by INTERPOL.

Natalia Sokol is on federal wanted list and accused of Articles 318 (insulting a policeman), 319 (assaulting an authority figure), which is nonsense.

ArtTraveler: I asked in my blog post if unfettered cultural and artistic freedom that was non-political could, as it appeared to have done in Hungary, especially from 1985 - 1989, become a virus called democracy that eventually eroded and corroded the vertical political control of the communist regime there. Would that play out in Russia? Why or why not?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno:  In Hungary democracy and stuff became real only because local KGB stopped holding power and oppressing liberties there.

ArtTraveler:  The PR of the 4th Moscow show refers to the Moscow "faction" of Voina as being involved. What does that mean?

Yana Sarna:  Peter Verzilov and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova  were expelled from the group two years ago for ratting out other activists to the police.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno:  Those provokers give interviews on behalf of the Voina Group and call themselves a non-existing “Moscow youth branch”.
They did not participate in any of Voina actions of 2010-2011 (“Dick captured by KGB,” “Palace Revolution” and others).

But despite this, they have claimed authorship in a number of interviews.

The Voina Group is boycotting the Moscow Biennale and would never take part in any event sponsored by the corrupted Russian state.
Provokers Verzilov and Tolokonnikova shamelessly used the name of the group and participated in the Biennale with the Voina works, which is obviously illegal and immoral ( 

ArtTraveler: Is your boycott of this show directed at participating artists or the consuming public? Is it having any effect?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno:  By boycotting the corrupted Mafioso-like scumbags we are saving our good name as honest artists and setting an example this way.

ArtTraveler:  What is your objective in the boycott protest?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Our objective is simple – not to sink in this lake of shit they’ve made.

ArtTraveler:  About how many members do you have throughout Russia?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: There are around 20 activists in Russia; all of them are in St. Petersburg now. 
In all, there were a couple of hundred activists who participated in all Voina actions. Some of them come, some of them go. It's always up to them to decide whether they want to participate in a new action or not.

By the way, check out our new action in support of Oleg Vorotnikov, who was put on the international wanted list. Alex and I started it in Vienna in September. Here are the pics - Here are posts on Alex's blog -

ArtTraveler: To what extent have you had to go underground?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno:  We have to keep a very low profile. So we live in safe flats and don’t use cell phones.

ArtTraveler: Has the FSB infiltrated Voina as its predecessor KGB would have done in Soviet times?

Yana Sarna: We unmasked two betrayers and provokers – Peter Verzilov and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. They were expelled from the group in 2009. Right now our group is much more cautious. 

ArtTraveler:  Do you know of any Russian artist showing work at the 4th Moscow whose work challenges the current government or government corruption?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: The authorities wouldn’t let such artists participate. Everything exhibited at the Biennale is a total simulation and an attempt to fool the Western audience – which is the gain of curator Tatyana Volkova, who invited Verzilov and Tolokonnikova.

ArtTraveler:  You started with a network of philosophy students. Are there any trained or educated 2D or 3D artists in Voina? Explain.

Yana Sarna: There is only one professional media artist in the group – Alexei Plutser-Sarno.

ArtTraveler: You claim your art has been stolen or imitated at the 4th Moscow. Please describe what art you think will show up as either yours or imitations?
Yana Sarna: Our old actions (the authors of them are Oleg Vorotnikov, Natalia Sokol and Alex Plutser-Sarno) were exhibited at the Biennale by provokers Peter Verzilov and Nady Tolokonnikova without our permission
Voina sending a wake up call to the cops


ArtTraveler: How are the organizers and sponsors of the 4th Moscow corrupt? More details the better.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno: Russian Mafioso-like authorities give several millions dollar for the biennale and order Russian, corrupted sponsors to do the same.  Afterwards, with the participation of the Ministry of Culture and chief curators, half of this money is plundered.
Such situations are common in Russia.

ArtTraveler:  What is your understanding of the purpose behind the art activism "festival" at the 4th Moscow?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno:  Young artists are simulating a protest. By doing so, they are trying to become famous at any cost.

ArtTraveler:  Do you see any similarities between your difficulties with state authorities and Ai Weiwei´s in China?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno:  Yes, our situations are very much similar. The difference is that we are making real protest art, which scares the authorities. We are stirring young people to action; we are setting an example of public resistance.
Voina: "Fuck for Heir Puppy Bear," referring to their orgy for Medvedev

ArtTraveler:  What´s your opinion of how Peter Weibel is doing his job?

Alexei Plutser-Sarno:  Peter Weibel is a well known expert and curator. He is a professional in his field. Honest Western curators are doing a good and needed job.

Note: More than 40 hours ago (from actual posting), I asked the 4th Moscow´s PR London representative, Darina Gonciarenko for a phone interview with the fair´s curator Peter Weibel. 

Weibel agreed. Gonciarenko e-mailed his phone number. I called twice yesterday. Vodaphone in German and English informed me he was “not available but would be informed by sms.”

I informed Gonciarenko of this and sent her written questions, if that might facilitate the process. Again, she agreed on behalf of the show´s PR team to get answers.

I asked:

1.    Can unfettered expression of non-political contemporary art erode autocratic regimes, eventually liberalizing political as well as artistic freedom?

2.    You list “Voina Group (Moscow fraction) [sic]” as one of the groups showing or performing in your international festival of activist art. Voina claims it never gave you permission and has organized an online protest and boycott of the 4th Moscow Biennale. What is your response?

3.    Are there any Russian artists showing at the 4th Biennale who challenge any state organs in obvious ways that could be considered politically provocative?

4.    Voina accuses you and others who organize and run the 4th Moscow of corruption…”to cover up for each other for profit and a cut of the sponsorship buck.” What´s your response?

5.    Has anyone representing Voina either agreed to exhibit at your show or talked with you or any of the curators?

6.    Any other comments on this subject you wish to make.

For hours, no response. Then I wrote Gonciarenko with a copy of the interview with Voina, asking for response, from Weibel, anyone with authority to make one. Nothing.

Peter Weibel and the PR apparatus of the 4th Moscow, for the record, clearly agreed to provide first a phone interview, then by e-mail, answers to written questions. Weibel and his PR team appear to have gone completely underground, having more than ample time to respond.

After publishing this post, I e-mailed the 4th Moscow PR stating I would immediately amend or edit this story to include any comment(s) the show´s curators and organizers which to make. This is a continuous offer seeking a balanced story and fair coverage.

Islamic art and design at Granada´s Alhambra, photograph by Stefan van Drake (2009)
Rock on and practice peace and love.
Stefan, the ArtTraveler (TM)

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Contact me about arts happenings: or call (34) 951 067 703 or from the UK at BT landline rates, 0844 774 8349.

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