KGB, or, the Art of Performance: Action Art or Actions Against Art?

Quite a few people were astonished when a few months ago the portrait of the young “revolutionary” poet Dmitrii Pimenov appeared on Russian televsion. Anchormen and women quoted his revolutionary verses and commented on his performances. Why so? Had another of Mayakovskys’ or Lenin’s grandchildren appeared? Far from it: the cause was the bombing of the underground shopping center on Moscow’s central Manege Square on August 31, 1999, where 41 people were wounded. A German reporter commented that the “President of the Association of Russian Revolutionary Poets” had detonated the bomb in order to express his opinion about Russian consumerism. At the place of the crime a confessor’s note was indeed found, containing quotations from poems and novels by the Moscow poet Dmitrii Pimenov, as well as the address of his internet homepage. Following the logic that the perpetrator always leaves his fingerprints on the scene of the crime, Pimenov became a strong suspect in the case.

A few hours later the report was officially denied. Newspapers commented that “Pimenov is healthy and happy. He is a free man.” Upon hearing about his terrorist connections from television, Pimenov wrote a response which he posted on the internet. Sitting in front of his television, Pimenov had listened to high officers from the FSB (Russian Secret Service) who claimed to have studied his manuscripts “intensely”. They singled out a text entitled “Terrorism” which Pimenov had written together with the artist Anatoly Osmolovsky in 1991. Already in this text, so the FSB officers claimed, they were able to find a hidden hint at possible bombings. Additionally, the Russian Interior Secretary took the opportunity to declare that the poems on the infamous confessor’s note had been written by a feeble-minded person who had been in a mental institution already several times.

This declaration is of great importance because it makes the purpose of the entire FSB operation very obvious. Pimenov, the terrorist (as he described himself on the internet) had, within minutes become Pimenov, the idiot. In the Soviet Union, performance art was always a favorite pastime of the KGB. Artists intending to act in public were sometimes deprived of their scripts and forced instead to become protagonists in an elaborate counter-plot invented by the KGB. Once it is considered within this historical context, the slander of Pimenov has more to do with performances dating from the Soviet era than with glasnost or artistic liberty. During Soviet times, the Russian performance artist had to reckon not only with the possibility that her actions could be banned, but also with the daunting scenario that the KGB might develop a performance script of its own.

Thus it could easily happen that an exhibition would be interrupted because the venue used for the event was badly needed for a “party meeting”. Or, an exhibition opening would be prevented from proceeding because of urgent “sanitation work”. The most popular case, however–one which was later ironically identified as the beginning of performance art in the Soviet Union–occurred on September, 14, 1974. Once again the KGB intended to prevent an exhibition, even though it had been officially licensed. The participating artists had planned to show their pictures not in a gallery, but in an open field outside of Moscow. When the artists entered the field, they had to realize that they were not the first to arrive on the spot; they had been preempted by an entire work crew who was busy planting trees and laying out a public park.

If the creators of this ingenious, KGB-orchestrated “counter-performance” had not decided to crush the artists’ works with bulldozers and have the former arrested, who knows, they might have received a directors’ prize for best script. Yet as it happened, they were instead forced to cover up their involvement in the show by writing an explanatory article in the newspaper Sovietskaya Pravda: “The arrival of the negligently dressed artists and their very strange paintings”, the article said, “interrupted the working rhythm of the voluntary working shift”. The event became known in history as the famous “Bulldozer Exhibition”.

Under which name exactly the Pimenov case will enter history remains to be seen. Who knows, may be it will not enter history at all, since Pimenov has nothing to lose except for his dubious reputation. Nevertheless, one has to ask the question why a politically engaged artist had to become the victim of such a performance. Was it an accident? Perhaps the answer is to be found in the space that separates art from politics.

Making politics through art is not only the credo of some imaginative politicians and secret agents, but for more than a year is has also been the motto of a group of artists who call themselves “Non-Governmental Control Commission”. Together with other young Moscow leftist artists and intellectuals such as Anatoly Osmolovsky, Avdei Ter-Oganyan, Maria Demskaya, Tatyana Hengstler, Dmitrii Model and Oleg Kireev, Pimenov is a member of this group (whose structure is permanently changing). On 23 Mai, 1998 the “Non-Governmental Control Commission” organized its first action, which it called “Barricade on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street”. The “Barricade” was conceived in remembrance of the May demonstrations that took place in Paris 30 years earlier and, additionally, as a hint at Russia’s political future. It also provided an unintended reminder of the “Bulldozer Exhibition” because the “Barricade” was built of pictures by popular Russians painters.

The artists published the following press release: “The ‘Barricade’ is an act of civil disobedience with the aim of testing new practices of political struggle and artistic gestures” (Osmolovsky). It would be an exaggeration to assert that the “Barricade” provoked any revolutionary action. On the contrary, it went largely unnoticed. Only when the artists moved their barricade to a bigger and busier street were they finally confronted by the police. About ten of the organizers (among them Pimenov) were taken into custody and had to pay a fine, but they were released again twenty four hours later. The reason for the arrest was less the traffic jam it caused in the street than the political (anti-) program staged by the artists.

The “Barricade” opened the group’s campaign “Against all Parties”, which was to be continued until the elections last year. For this purpose the “Non-Governmental Control Commission” wrote a program that included somewhat dated borrowings from certain French left philosophers, among them Debord and Deleuze/Guattari. Apart from that, they performed a daring action that was designed to undermine the Russian electoral law from within: Anatoly Osmolovsky tried to convince voters to make the cross on the last square of the voting paper that gives all voters the option to vote “Against all Parties”. If, so Osmolovsky reasoned, more people were to vote “Against all Parties” than “for” the established parties, the election would have to be annulled. (This did not happen). Moreover, it would not only have to be annulled but in addition none of the candidates would be allowed to take part next time. It is obvious that such a result would have led to a complete change of the political landscape. But it is also obvious that it would have been manipulated. In the summer of 1999, Ella Panfilova, the popular Member of the Parliament, was almost won for the program, but than she turned to Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, and started her own campaign entitled “Against all extremism”. In Germany one year ago the stage director Christoph Schlingensief founded the party “Chance 2000”, promising everyone the possibility to “vote yourself”. But in contrast to the Russian group, Schlingensief stressed many times that with his party he was staging political “theater”, performing the gestures of politics. By contrast The Russian “Non-Governmental Control Commission” performed “politics through art” by operating in similar ways as the authorities they confronted. Maybe this is the main reason for the new-found interest in the radical Moscow art-scene, which had long been ignored.

In the wake of a series of bombings during the year 1999, the uncovering of Boris Yeltsin’s business transactions, the war in Chechnya and Dagestan, the national propaganda against persons from the Caucasus (all of which seems to be interrelated), a fresh wind of control is blowing through Russia. This can also be seen in the art scene where many odd things have happened over the last fifteen months: the prevention of an action “against all parties” on Red Square, a break-in at Osmolovsky’s apartment, and a process against another members of the “Non-Governmental Control Commission”, Avdei Ter-Oganyan (see also Kirill Postoutenko’s essay in ARTMargins). In this latter case, the aim of the officials seems to have been the same, even though the “script” for the case was completely different from Pimenov’s. In December l998, Ter-Oganyan was accused of “stirring religious tension” because of a performance at the Manege Gallery in Moscow. (I might point out that the pre-revolutionary law that bans the “stirring of religious tension” did not exist in Soviet law and was reactivated especially to prosecute Ter-Oganyan).

What happened? Avdei Ter-Oganyan had bought some icons in Moscow in order to use them during a performance entitled “Pop-Art” (= “Pop Art” & “Popes’ [priests’] Art” ). He then built a sales stand and made a price list according to which he offered the following services to visitors: 50 rubles for having an icon sweared at by a young atheist; 20 rubles for having oneself sweared at under the supervision of young atheists; 10 rubles for the “insulting consultation” of domestic icons. Ter-Oganyan explained that his performance was designed to parody destructive Moscow performance art à la Brener during the early 1990s. Instead of destroying by brute force, Ter-Oganyan wanted to enact destruction through words. However, one of the spectators, faithful to the very Russian notion that the word is the act, took Ter-Oganyan’s “price list” and promptly handed it over to the authorities.

The District Attorney’s Office is still working on the case. One day after Ter-Oganyan’s arrest his studio was searched. So far, all attempts by his friends to mobilize the international press and art critics (Aleksei Shulgin started such a campaign in the spring of 1999) have not been successful. They did, however, receive “certifications” from well-known Russian art critics who testify that Ter-Oganyan’s performance was indeed an artistic gesture, which, while it can be seen as foolish, tasteless, naive, or boring from an artistic point of view, is nevertheless not unlawful. Ter-Oganyan is still waiting for his trial. (In February of 1999 the same icons inscribed with Russian four-letter-words decorated the walls of the “Volksbühne” theater in Berlin during the international symposia “Mille plateaux” which was dedicated to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Nobody even noticed them, which is not a good sign).

Pimenov went to Prague an ask for political asylum, an act that weakens the position of those who thought that Pimenov only wanted to attract publicity. The FSB has confiscated his computer. Pimenov was right to get out. Especially since everybody in Russia knows that it is best to flee when the KGB wants to stage a play and picks you for main protagonist.

Ter-Oganyan is in Prague, too.

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