Flashmob – the Divide Between Art and Politics in Belarus (Articles)

These reflections were initially intended as a translation in short form of a text I published in 2006, in a special volume of the journal Topos.(The journal was launched in 2000 and is published by European Humanities University in Vilnius. See the archive of the journal: http://topos.ehu.lt/zine/index.htm.) The entire volume, entitled Choice and Elections, was dedicated to the phenomenon of political (non)participation in contemporary Belarus; or, more precisely, to the paradox of the political indifference of Belarusian citizens in the course of the presidential elections of 2006.

The guiding idea behind that issue of Topos was to confront the hollowness of democratic procedures in the electoral campaigns and the attendant impossibility of democratic change in today’s Belarus, where the political options that appear in society are really just illusions of consumerism, urging us to choose between versions of the same things. In that article, my focus was on the possibilities for alternative forms of cultural politics under conditions in which traditional politics—as the involvement of collective political subjects in the processes of decision making and social organization—seems no longer possible.  This is to say, an age marked by the impossibility of collective identities and effective representation due to the collapse of politics into the realm of culture and aesthetics, which occurred over the latter part of the 20th century.

Within this global context, I contended, Belarus occupies an at once marginal and exemplary position. On the one hand, the country remains under a dictatorial political regime that is strikingly intolerant of political heterodoxy.  On the other hand, that regime, without altering its authoritarian nature, has nonetheless shifted its political practice more and more into the field of cultural representation, and in this sense the difficulty of political action in Belarus is not unlike that in the democratized West, where the illusion of choice is produced less in the political sphere than in the sphere of consumption. As such, I proposed, some reflections on the possibilities for and limits on alternative forms of cultural politics in a country as marginal and marginalized as Belarus. In particular, I thought the then current flash mob movement might be of interest to Western readers dissatisfied with the political possibilities offered in their own democratic countries.

In undertaking to simply translate some of the material from that article into a new language and a new (and much briefer) formal structure, I quickly discovered that the task was all but impossible. It was not simply that what occurred in 2006 could no longer be presented, as I presented it at the time, as “breaking news.” It was also that, even three short years later, one could but view the events surrounding the 2006 elections from the perspective what had not changed as a result of them: the “denim revolution”—thusly named in advance—that many intellectuals and political thinkers expected never materialized. But if from this perspective the flash mobs, as one particular overlap of aesthetics and politics in post-election Belarus, appear far more ambiguous a phenomenon, perhaps it is precisely on the basis of this ambiguity that we might begin to re-think the general relationship between politics and aesthetics, and the real potential contained therein.

It has, perhaps, been too well established already that the shift of politics into the field of cultural representation represents a double-edged sword for the institutions of power that affect and are affected by it. On the one hand, when the symbolic violence quintessential to maintaining power moves into such a realm, traditional and straightforward forms of political resistance can be quickly and easily neutralized.  On the other hand, to whatever extent the space of cultural representation can be seen as properly belonging to no one, it is also a space in which the spectacle of power, and thus power itself, can be subverted and turned against itself, suddenly revealing the very fissures it has been constructedto obscure. In this way, political thinkers such as Guy Debord have argued that once power and politics shift into the space of culture, it thus falls on the artist in particular to assume an active role in revolutionary struggle.

In the democratized West, artists have largely pursued this objective by way of public art. Without going into detailed analysis of the conceptual program of artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko, Hans Haake, the Guerilla Girls, Barbara Kruger, and others who have radically rethought the social functions of art, I will here simply reiterate Wodiczko’s own definition of such art as “aesthetic-critical interruptions, infiltrations and appropriations that question the symbolic, psychopolitical and economic operations of the city.”(Wodiczko Krzysztof. Op.cit., p.42.)

But if nobody notices public art, or speaks of it as such, then it does not and cannot function as aesthetic or artistic production. Therefore, even if its role is to subvert institutions of social and economic power, it nonetheless requires a measure of institutional and financial support in order to develop itself and become visible. Under an authoritarian regime such as Lukashenko’s, Belarus has lacked and continues to lack the institutional and financial support for the arts that is typical in Western capitalisms. Add to this its marginal position in relation to the international art scene and it is clear that Belarus lacks the conditions of possibility for public art. Accordingly, its function has been taken up by other cultural forms, forms which themselves belong to the margins of the artistic: graffiti, internet subculture, and, after the 2006 elections, flash mobs.

For months following Belarus’ 2006 presidential elections, in which Aleksander Lukashenko’s authoritative regime was “re-elected” by an overwhelming majority, flash mobs appeared in Minsk and other Belarusian cities almost every week. These flash mobs grew out of a tradition of playful collective performance that, by most accounts, was born in New York City in 2003, and thereafter flourished in several major cities as a new form of entertainment; one that was deliberately, almost insistently, apolitical, proposing no meaningful intervention into the conditions of everyday life beyond the passing frisson of its actual performance.

Such an apolitical nature was in many ways built into the nature of the performance itself. In their inception, flash mobs were deterritorialized; they were ad hoc events, and thus cannot be associated with any legal address, and constant movement, the shifting from one site to the next, is one of the basic rules of the game. Moreover, they are also decentralized in so far as they are associated with no organizational hierarchy.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, flash mobs are temporary, occupying the very time and space of their own dissolution.

Following the 2006 elections, however, Belarusian flash mobs began to take on unmistakable political inflections. For instance, in one such flash mob, a mass of people gathered in the center of Minsk, simultaneously opened the newspaper Soviet Belarus (the “official” newspaper of the regime), and began tearing it into pieces. During another, dozens of flash mobbers gathered in Minsk’s October Square, blindfolded themselves, and collectively turned away from the enormous television screen installed in the square to broadcast official state news. During another post-election flash mob, participants set afloat on the Svisloch River paper ships bearing the names of opponents of the Lukashenko regime who had been arrested. On another occasion, a group inflated black balloons and then burst them beneath a poster that proclaimed “The Day of unification of the people of Russia and Belarus,” suggesting a symbolic protest against Russia’s decision—one that many critics perceived as lending tacit support to the Lukashenko regime—to deliver gas to Belarus at a reduced price.

Perhaps the most interesting of these post-election flash mobs took place on April 1, 2006 at Dynamo stadium in Minsk. Ironically enough, its major protagonists were not the flash mobbers themselves, but rather the police and the KGB intent on preventing their actions. On the eve of April Fool’s Day, information about a planned flash mob, like all such information, spread over the internet. In quickly circulated messages, mobbers communicated their intent to gather at Dynamo stadium dressed as clowns and mustachioed skiers. Having gotten wind of these plans, police and KGB forces gathered at the stadium at the appointed time, only to discover that they had been tricked, and that there would not be, nor was there ever to have been, any such gathering. Some of those who had helped spread the disinformation hid in the shadows, snapping photographs as documentation of this “unapproved gathering” of law enforcement officials.

It is not so difficult, perhaps, to see why something like the flash mob may have, for at least a moment, offered contemporary Belarus one of the best, if not the only, possibilities for political resistance. On the one hand, the fact that the simplicity of dictatorship has given way to the illusion of democracy demands that resistance, like power itself, operate on the level of the spectacle. On the other hand, the persistence in Belarus of the oppressive machinery of authoritarianism—restrictions on openly political speech, the jailing of oppositional figures—requires methods of resistance that resist identification as such, by neither declaring any political program nor aligning themselves with any clear political position or traceable and classifiable organization.

In this respect, the success of Belarus’s post-election flash mobs can be measured as much in the efforts—and failures—of the police and KGB to interrupt flash mobs, disable their organizers, and punish participants. How, after all, is one to interrupt what has no fixed plan, nor attaches itself to specific time or place? How does one even identify the organizers of that which lacks a centralized, hierarchical structure? And, just as importantly, what basis is there for punishing people who have gathered, albeit without official permission, to do things like inflate balloons, pay bills at the post office, or eat ice cream.

But if its unwillingness to advance any long-term political project, and the ease with which it can be passed off as harmless carnivalesque action, was what enabled the flash mob as a form of political performance in post-elections Belarus in the first place, perhaps these very same characteristics have imposed important and ultimately intractable limits on its efficacy as a form of genuine politics. Perhaps they provide the key to understanding why, as its career as a form of political performance may be coming to an end in Belarus, the flash mobs seem not to have generated any meaningful change in political conditions. Flash mobs, ephemeral and unstable, offer no meaningful representation of any identifiable political position, and though collective in nature, the collective identities to which they give rise are always on the verge of passing away, disappearing in their very appearance.

Nonetheless, looking back at the post-election flash mobs from a moment in which the promised political and social revolutions have clearly not taken place, I find myself something less than entirely cynical, something more than utterly hopeless. Rather, I am struck by the notion that although aesthetic performance, even in the more established forms of public art, may never realize the revolutionary potential we attribute to it, it may nonetheless serve as a way to prepare the ground. In this case, the pertinent question would be less about what actually happened in the wake of the Belarusian flash mobs, as about what might have been done in the physical and psychic spaces they opened.

Edited by Eli Evans.

Please see the long version of this essay: Flashmob – the Divide Between Art and Politics in Belarus (Long version/Articles)

Almira Ousmanova. Image courtesy of the author.Almira Ousmanova is Professor of Media and Director of the MA program in Cultural Studies at the European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania). Her major publications are Umberto Eco: Paradoxes of Interpretation (2000); Gender Histories from Eastern Europe (co-edited with Elena Gapova and Andrea Peto, 2002); Bi-Textuality and Cinema (ed., 2003), Gender and Transgression in Visual Arts (ed., 2006), Visual (as) Violence (ed., 2007), Belarusian Format: Invisible Reality (ed., 2008). Her current book project is Representation and History: The Cinematic Images of “the Soviet”.