Friday, October 21, 2011

Swedish curator shows stolen Voina works in 'A Complicated Relation, Part II' as 4th Moscow Biennale war wages

"Cries from the Underground" by Stefan van Drake, oil on canvas, 55 x 68 cm. (2008)

“For Voina, art is a way to express dissent; so far, they don´t seem interested in running a business, so art is the weapon they use for their political struggle. The system needs or wants to exploit Voina´s work or reputation, or even worse, wants to create a new, softer, politically correct version of Voina with new people and a new group while the original ones disappear one by one........this science fiction hypothesis would be the next step beyond 'artistic appropriation,' the appropriation of the artist´s identity and its manipulation for political purposes.” --Alessandro Rolandi, concept artist, curator, Beijing-based academic

“It´s a bit too Russian for me, confusing with all the partisans on the stage. So this real-Voina, fake-Voina discussion reminds me of the Menshevik-Bolshevik fighting. And the Bolsheviks won because they were the smaller group. What´s a curator to do here?”

--Peter Fitz, curator, contemporary art expert and director of the Municipal Picture Gallery (Museum Kiscell), Budapest

"Cries from the Underground II" by Stefan van Drake, mixed media on canvas, 55 x 68 cm (2009)

Swedish curator Martin Schibli faced this conundrum when staging a group art activist show, Complicated Relation Part II at the Kalmar Konstmuseum in Kalmar, Sweden, which opened 17 September and closes 20 November.

Meanwhile, Voina wages its own kind of war against the 4th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (23 September - 30 October), evident in earlier posts in this series.

The next to the last artist listed in its online catalogue is “Voina.” The list is not in alphabetical order.

Until I talked to Schibli on 10 October boundaries surrounding Voina remained totally blurred on the Kalmar Konstmuseum website.

There appear no accepted standards, guidelines or rules of conduct for curators and exhibition directors. 

Curating depends, it seems, on your network of peers and other connections and as Schibli says later in this story, on the personality and brazenness of the curator.

We return to the curator as gatekeeper, the maker or breaker of artists, the Merlins of the art world.

Merlins of the art world

Peter Fitz, who curated the Venice Hungarian Pavilion in 2005, catapulted Hungarian contemporary sculptor, performance artist and academic Kicsiny Balazs to international recognition.

I interviewed Balazs in Budapest. He agreed Fitz did precisely that.

But curating can be a risky and complicated business.

Peter Fitz Photograph by Stefan van Drake (2011)

“A Complicated Relation” is living up to its title when it comes to recruiting Voina works.

Schibli´s catalogue described Voina´s works in his show:

“The Feeding Road,” August 2011 DVD (4:33 min.); “Smooch the Cop,” January -  February 2011, DVD, (1:29 min.); “Courtroom Concert of the Cock in the Ass Punk Band” [Voina Group on its Free Voina website,, titles the same action, “Concert in Courtroom], 29 May 2009, DVD (3:57 min.) and, “Decembrists Commemoration”  DVD (8:35 min.)

Voina founders Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol (Kozlenok) plus media artist Alexi Plutser-Sarno authored all Voina works, particularly those disputed in the Kalmar show created in 2008 and 2009.

Voina alleges that Peter (Pytor) Verzilov and his wife Nady Tolokonnikova stole the group´s works and documentation from its secret storage garage in May 2010. Verzilov does not deny this.

Center E police in November 2010 arrested Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev in a St. Petersburg apartment, confiscating laptops, papers, even personal items and those not belonging to them.

Alexi Plutser-Sarno, Voina Group´s chief media artist
Verzilov in a written Q & A interview I published earlier brazenly admitted the theft, only for him, ripping off works and documentation as an anarchist from your former comrades is not theft.

He eagerly confessed.

"The Arrest" depicting November 2010 Voina arrest in St. Petersburg from the Free-Voina website

Center E (anti-extremist) police jailed Nikolaev and Vorotnikov for three-plus months before Bansky bailed them out with his 80,000 quid donation from a work he sold for this purpose.

In April, bail was forfeited for Vorotnikov because, according to Voina, he “evaded an investigation” (not appearing for interrogation).

Earlier this month, Russian authorities, in a surprise move, dropped charges of hooliganism (maximum seven years) against Vorotnikov and Nikolaev growing out of the cop car tipping "Palace Revolution" action.
Voina reports bail was ordered returned to Bansky only as it applies to Nikolaev since Vorotnikov is still wanted because of another investigation against him. (Voina tells me, to clarify this bail issue, that it is unsure if bail can be returned at all once forfeited, even if all charges are dropped.).

Other criminal investigations, however, continue for a March action in which Voina activists sprayed police with urine. 

Police also continue a separate criminal investigation of Sokol that could lead to a maximum 20-year prison term if charged and convicted.

She told ArtTraveler Center E police want to charge her with some extremist crime involving criminal conspiracy and terrorism.
On 18 October, police arrested and detained Sokol and her 2.5-year-old son Kasper at about 1:15 a.m., detaining them for more than four hours in a St. Petersburg police station. Vorotnikov escaped on bicycle.

They had just with met two German journalists.

Police released Sokol at 4:35 a.m. on her promise to return later that evening (7 p.m.) for interrogation.

She did not return, Voina reports.

This is the notoriety along with "Dick Captured by the KGB" that comes with taking significant risks as street art activists and political dissidents. This is political branding.

Verzilov´s appropriation game: Fold into the Russian art establishment, become famous as an Elvis look-alike. 

The Russian government may have other uses for Verzilov. Who knows?

As Fitz said, it's all very Russian.

Verzilov admitted he stole Voina works and documentation (“Certainly!”) but argued as an active Voina member, he owned title to them as much as anyone, regardless who authored them, regardless of documentation.

He also claimed title to the Voina Group name and its goodwill and badwill.

Verzilov and Schibli separately confirmed the former is responsible for these titles and other curatorial information that the Kalmar Konst Museum adopted verbatim in the “A Complicated Relation, Part II” catalogue.

Exhibition director Schibli told me he wrote none of the catalogue. He asked each participating artist to write their part. He pasted it together.

“We were short on help,” he said 10 October in our phone interview.

From left: Leonid Nikolaev, Oleg Vorotnikov and Natalia Sokol

On 10 October at 15:53 PM Swedish time, Kalmar Konst Museum´s webmaster added these words, following "Voina":

"Voina scattered in two factions two years ago, we are showing the Moscow faction." (Emphasis mine.)

Schibli wrote earlier, at 11:47 AM Spanish time (10 October): “Thank you for your call. I just want to inform that we will briefly state in the catalogue that there is [sic] two fractions [sic] of the group. But we do it on a neutral basis.”
Verzilov defines his version of Voina in Schibli´s catalogue (in relevant part):

“We go to war against the corrupt and violent Putinist junta that has been in control of the political scene and life [in] Russia for the past 10 years. We go to war against the police, which regularly detains and brutally tortures civil activists. We go to war against the oil-and-natural gas-sucking elite, who´s [sic] wealth is created in exchange for Russia being kept a socially and politically underdeveloped country.”

Complicated relations among Voina, Volkova & Verzilov

When Schibli initiated contacts with Voina in August to include Voina in his show, relations got complicated, even intriguing.

In a phone and written interviews with Schibli, I learned the Swedish curator knew about the Voina war, the group´s winning Russia´s coveted Innovation Award for Contemporary Art 2011 (“Dick Captured by the KGB”).

114.24 КБ
"Dick Captured by the KGB" by Voina won Russia´s coveted Innovation Award for Contemporary Art 2011
Like his counter-part at the 4th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, Tatiana (Tanya) Volkova, Schibli wanted something by Voina in his show of 20-plus artists, “A Complicated Relation, Part II.”

Schibli´s show features works of 25 artists or groups from Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Moldavia, Slovenia, Russia, the Ukraine, and Aland, according to the exhibit´s official website,

Volkova and Schibli each told me Voina Group could not be ignored and had to be included in their parallel art activism exhibitions.

How did Schibli end up with his museum mired in this Voina-curator controversy?

“It was an open question, ‘Who do I contact in Voina?’” he said.

Based on copies of e-mails Voina Group provided between it and Schibli, he first contacted Voina through the Free Voina website, mid-August.

Voina was quite willing to work with Schibli and his museum, unlike refusing to work with the Russian art establishment. 
Martin Schibli

Schibli ‘s 25 August e-mail to Voina Group:

 “I am preparing an exhibition, a complicated relation part II, at Kalmar Konst Museum that opens on the 17th of September. The exhibition deals with how artists involves the idea of working in the real society for a change, democracy and to develop the society.  I know a little of the work of Voina, and I think it is interesting to present how you work in a Russian context, especially how art and culture could be a part of the process of democracy and development. Also, the – I guess – the problems that as a contemporary artist work in such a context that the institutions of art, is not defined, or even maybe the institutions of society are defined, I believe this also as a paradox, also means that art and culture have a stronger impact.

“It could be some documentation of works in combination of the documentation of Voina.” (Emphasis Mine.)

Schibli then listed artists he planned including.

The same day, Voina responded. A couple short introductory mails were exchanged on 25 August.

On 29 August, Voina’s coordinator of exhibitions known as the “Doctor,” (also on his e-mails to Schibli, the name, “Jerdrej Duda” appears) wrote Schibli:

“Dear Martin,

“Thank you for your interest in our work. I must inform you that we always assemble our expositions on our own. Therefore, for us to participate in an exhibition we would have to send over some of our members. Would it be possible to arrange the presence of our activists during the exhibition?”

Schibli never responded.

"Notes from the Underground" Photograph by Stefan van Drake (2011)

The Schibli-Volkova curatorial circle

Voina Group will not exhibit in Russia but exhibits internationally.

Voina´s Yana Sarna, who handles PR and photography for the group, said:

“The Russian art establishment is absolutely immoral and don´t give a damn with whom to work. What matters to them is how to get money.

“That´s why we don´t work with Russian galleries and institutions. And that´s why Peter Verzilov and his fellow provokers filled those lacunae of the Russian art market by acting on behalf of our group.”

"Wash Your Dirty Money With My Art" by Janos Sugar at the Ludwig Museum, Budapest Photograph by Stefan van Drake (2011)

Schibli knew why Voina didn´t cooperate with the Russian art establishment and actively boycotted and protested against the 4th Moscow Biennale.

Yet, no one, especially the Doctor in Voina Group heard from Schibli or anyone else at the Kalmar Konst Museum after 29 August.

On 10 October, I e-mailed Schibli asking if he attempted to contact Voina Group in St. Petersburg.

He said:

“I had some really brief contacts with a person that said he was representing Voina, but then I asked other persons about him that worked with Voina, [and] they said they never heard of him.”

On 17 September, Voina Group in a detailed e-mail protested to Schibli and demanded he immediately pull Kalmar Kunst Museum´s Voina portion of the show.

Schibli did not answer this or other Voina protests and e-mails. 

He acknowledged these protests but held steadfastly to the factions argument: St. Petersburg vs. Moscow, which I called fiction, not faction.

Sometime between 29 August and 17 September, the opening of “A Complicated Relation, Part II”, Schibli communicated with Volkova and Verzilov arranging Voina’s entry into the Kalmar show. 

A doctored image of Putin
Vladimir Putin as L. Brezhnev (c) Moscow Times 30 Sept. 2011

In the 13 October unpublished written interview by ArtTraveler with Volkova that she stole and published on 14 October in the online, mysterious ZHIR Gallery, Volkova said:

 “Martin wrote to me asking to introduce Russian activist artists to participate in their exhibition. I sent the works of Artem Loskutov, Anton Nikolaev, Victoria Lomasko, who were lately included in their show.

"Martin was also interested in Voina group. I´ve told we don´t work with the St. Petersburg faction, but I can give him Moscow faction contacts, and I´ve sent him Peter´s [Verzilov] e-mail.”

All this was going on while Voina Group was totally outside the new curatorial circle that Schibli and Volkova created in reshaping but more importantly, including pseudo-Voina in their two high profile shows.
The Doctor said:

“I mean, this guy sends a message to and gets a reply from me, signed as a Voina member. Then, some ‘other persons’ tell him they don´t know who I am, and he decides to just drop it?

“What, did he assume Free Voina was a fraudulent website housing Voina impersonators, and tell himself, ‘Fuck it, that´s none of my business’?”

The Doctor emphasized that Vorotnikov and others e-mailed Schibli confirming the Doctor was authorized to handle the group´s international exhibitions.

“Why didn´t he [Schibli] reply then?”  Voina´s international exhibition coordinator asked.

The Doctor added:

“As you can see, I was never even notified of the fact that someone else was going to Kalmar to represent Voina.

“We can only speculate as to why Mr. Schibli chose to handle our communications in the way that he did.

“I´m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Verzilov had somehow convinced him that he [Verzilov] and I were on the same team, and that any further communication with me would be redundant.”

Schibli to curators: Take risks

Schibli and Volkova both argue that any former member of Voina can use the group´s name trading or trampling on its notoriety.

But what about authorship?

Volkova is more cautious.

She insists the 4th Moscow´s festival of activist art she curates includes no works before what she calls the Voina “split” in 2009, only Verzilov´s orchestrated lesbian-like female cop kiss-in DVD he calls, "Smooch the Cop."
That´s the only Voina branded work on show.

Schibli, on the other hand, knowingly includes them, even if they are stolen. He is by his own definition a risk taker.

On 13 October, I asked Schibli if, knowing what he knows now, he would change the way he handled the Voina entries in his show.

His reply was essentially, “Hard to say….” 

I took that as a "No."

The Swedish curator implied he didn´t have all the information, but no, he would change nothing except qualify, as previously promised, the catalogue information on Voina, which he did.

Would Schibli remove the two earlier works of Voina made in 2008 and 2009?

“No,” he answered. “One reason is that just a disputed claim should not be enough to remove a work from an exhibition.”

He intoned that if that were the case because of all the doggy provenance of WW II stolen works, museums would be nearly bare.

What advice would the Swedish director of exhibitions in Kalmar give other curators under similar circumstances?

He said:

“Depends on the person I give the advice to…a person that is afraid to take risks, a discussion and critique combined with a personality with a lot of anxiety, I would say drop it. 

"But curators who are playing safe don´t accomplish anything in the long run.

“One advice would be to check your network and get as much impartial facts as you can. It also depends if it’s a group show or a single show. The last option is more important.”

Schibli´s basic defense:

“In the end, it is problematic when artist groups split.”

“The former colleagues start making different things, changing the history of the collaborated works, and from a group of maybe up to 50 activist members with a name that means ‘war,’ and with links to an anarchist tradition, you might even expect some turbulence.”

Schibli sent copies of our dialogue to Volkova. She wrote me that she agreed “precisely” with the Swedish director of exhibition's explanation and position on Voina.

Alessandro Rolandi

That, however, is not how contemporary artist, curator and Beijing-based academic Alessandro Rolandi sees it.

Rolandi said he first only focused on unethical curatorial practices surrounding the 4th Moscow and the Kalmar Kunst Museum´s use of Voina.

But then Rolandi realized what was happening, he wrote me:

“Voina is a war with the Russian Establishment and the Russian Establishment is at war with Voina. We cannot consider what happened from the normal point of view of curatorial practice because here we are not in that dimension any more.

“The curators are not just curators but the chosen supporters for the voice of the political authorities, and Voina is their enemy.

“Art is the territory where the political struggle is happening and not only in Russia.” (Emphasis mine.)

Leonid Nikolaev: “The only people left floating on the surface are those who aren’t wanted anywhere else.” 

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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