Tn Wednesday 15 July, a trial on the action “Freedom” began. The artists claim their initiative belongs in the field of art, whereas the prosecutor’s office believes it to be an act of vandalism. Actionist artist Petr Pavlensky, whose initiatives would often take a stance on social or political issues, has been brought to trial. Pavlensky is a man you may remember for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square, wrapping himself up in barbed wire or cutting off his earlobe. Each of these actions is thought through and well designed, which is not only because the artist and his collaborators run a risk of immediate police intervention, but also because Pavlensky dedicates a lot of attention to his work. Now this is what is most intriguing about his actions. They implicate policing services who either arrest or interrogate him. The trial, which has just begun, also belongs in the field of art.
On 23 February 2014, car tyres started to burn on the Malo-Konyushennyi Bridge in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The action was staged to demonstrate the artist’s solidarity with the protesters on the Maidan, Kyiv, and to oppose Russia’s aggressive handling of Ukraine.
“But why was it on the bridge?” asked the prosecutor. “I have already testified on this subject,” replied the artist. “It’s a metaphor. The bridge is burning, and you reach the point of no return. Now that’s what was happening in Ukraine. A political revolution began. The bridge is a metaphor,” he explained.
To protest against Russia’s aggressive policy, Pavlensky would soon resort to an act of self-injury and cut off his earlobe. The recording of Pavlensky’s action shows both the artist and the police and paramedics who react, or rather, have trouble reacting to his behaviour. Nobody knew how to respond, wouldn’t it be better to wait for the paramedics? But the paramedics were none the wiser. It was obvious that if the police reacted first, Pavlensky would be a criminal, and were it the paramedics, he would be considered a lunatic. The latter option proves more common with artists. And so Pavlensky was referred to psychiatric examination.
“Would you like to obtain an expert opinion? asked the prosecutor with whom Pavlensky spoke after the action. “What opinion? asked Pavlensky. “You know, from a psychiatrist.” “No, I don’t want any of this,” said the artist. “I’ve had three already, which is just enough to prove my sanity.”
Pavlensky keeps recording his actions, an integral part of which is being arrested, examined and interrogated or having his ID checked. One of his most intriguing actions is presented in the upcoming issue of Political Critique (the issue provides a full record of Pavlensky’s discussion with the prosecutor). As he spoke to the prosecutor about the burning tyres, Pavlensky defended his activity as one that belongs in the field of art. The prosecutor was bent on proving it was an act of vandalism designed to damage something. But what was this something? The bridge? “The bridge is covered with granite cobblestones, and granite is inflammable. The bridge is intact, no signs of soot anywhere,” explained the artist lucidly. “If it hadn’t been intact, Pavlensky would be charged under article 167, that is, for terrorism, or an assault on a key transport artery,” explained the prosecutor.
Many people who are interrogated on the subject of political protest actions, which is exactly what Pavlensky is doing, refuse to testify. They do not want to be tricked by the interrogators, or to reveal to much. Petr Pavlensky acts to the contrary He goes on on his art and protest actions. However, he immediately falls silent when asked about the names of his collaborators.
The prosecution will not be given any particulars to supplement the indictment. But they will learn why some actions which are ostensibly wrong may prove right in a given context. “You may just as well say you should never beat children,” said Pavlensky. “But what if your child wants to jump off the window or plug her finger in the
socket? Would you slap her wrist rather then let her plug her finger in the socket and be electrocuted or even die? […] The example may seem banal, but that’s what I’m talking about. About the context.”
“The Penal Code provides for the following circumstances which preclude a criminal offence: self-defence, physical or mental coercion, the execution of a command,” replied the prosecutor. “[…] And so I hit the child and broke her leg to stop her from jumping under the train. I shot her in the foot, it hurts, but she’s alive. And what about the tyres? What are they protecting you against?” asked the prosecutor.
Pavlensky replied: “Against a second Cold War between societies. In this case, between Russian and Ukrainian societies. Societies don’t need another Cold War, they shouldn’t be fighting or hate one another. If the Penal Code says nothing about this, we have every right to amend it,” said the artist.
The court was not easily convinced on Wednesday that Pavlensky, as he set the tyres on fire, did not want to burn the bridge and desecrate the monument. “What is disturbing is the way two societies, Russian and Ukrainian, treat one another,” explained the artist in his conversation with the prosecution prior to the trial. On Wednesday, a historic conservation expert also testified, and although she confirmed the bridge had not suffered any damage, she would also add it was “desecrated”. She cited the Act on the Buildings of National Heritage.
The easiest way out for the court would be to put Pavlensky away for vandalism. Nobody likes vandals. Despite a number of attempts, he would not be easily locked up in a mental hospital. It is easier to persuade the public, for a moment at least, that the artist is mentally unstable and suicidal. In September last year, a news item about Pavlensky’s attempt to strangle himself hit the headlines throughout the world. Obviously, it was utter nonsense. The least convenient option is to lock Pavlensky up for political reasons. Political prisoners always cause the West to pry, and they also provide fuel to the opposition, weak and dispersed as it is, to protest against the government.
When asked about his occupation on Wednesday, Pavlensky replied: “I deal in political propaganda.”
Now this is not just another metaphor. A new project by Pavlensky is called “Political Propaganda” (Политическая Пропаганда).
When I spoke with Petr at the beginning of June, he would not say a word about the trial. He took this as a given. We spoke at length about the situation in Russia, and about what and how to change it. We are hardly optimistic. It is difficult to develop any kind of movement in Russia. Difficulties start to mount if a group expands to a dozen people or more. This is perhaps why Petr resorts to art, which helps to focus the attention on one person, that is, himself. And to protect his friends. He strives to implicate the police, prosecutors and psychiatrists, who all become his unwitting accessories. It seems as if it is the only way to protest in Russia these days.
Another court hearing on the act of vandalism and desecration to the bridge is scheduled for 16 September.
A video from the action “Freedom”
Translated by Bartosz Sowiński.