‘Debates on Division: When Private Becomes Public’ is an ongoing, interactive performance created and directed by Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), curated and produced by Anna Bitkina in collaboration with institutions that hosted the project and many local collaborators. Conducted several times internationally (as a part of Manifesta 10 in St Petersburg (2014), in Amsterdam at SMBA – Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (2016), as a part of Creative Time Summit in Washington DC (2016) and in Oslo (2017) the project formed into a nomadic, discursive and performative platform/network with an algorithmic structure that aims to identify and analyze political order in different geographies and its implications on private lives of individuals.
What begins as a fictional TV talk show with local actors and performers ends with a public demonstration. This way, Gluklya and Anna Bitkina want to create a public forum that spotlights different forms of human fragility and traumas caused by deviation in structures of power. In the center of the performance several stories that evolve around various pieces of clothing. Presented cloths play an intermediary role between private and public, exposing the conflict between the inner world of a person and the political system. The audience is invited to vote whether each presented piece of clothing enters the collection of the Museum of Utopian Clothes – a speculative public institution. To have a sharp articulation of local conditions a group of 5-6 experts that consists of representatives of different professional fields are invited to reflect on each story.
In March 2019 the performance was presented at The Center for Fine Arts BOZAR in Brussels and as a part of Performative Festival. Brussels’s version of ‘Debates on Division’ includes elements of criminal-conspiracy drama and deals with the subject of fear, suspicion, and distrust fueled by social segregation, financial insecurity and xenophobia in the context of growing degeneration of the political system in the EU and across the globe.
Debates on Division Manifesta Biennale 10 St Petersburg, 2014
The first iteration of the performance was commissioned by Manifest 10 for its public program and took place at the New stage of Alexandrinsly Theater and Nevsky prospect. The project idea was a reaction on the annexation of Crimea and the escalation of Russian-Ukrainian conflict in 2014. It was a time of radical turn in the national political agenda that has changed position of Russia on the geopolitical arena and forced a major social division in the Russian society based on opposing political views. It became apparent that a new language is needed to articulate the complexity of current political conflicts, cross border relations and global economical and military interdependency. In the focus of the performance were other internal and urgent socio -political issues of contemporary Russia among which a suppression of minorities, including representatives of LGBTG community and working migrants.
Follow the link to see video documentation:
Review by art critic Valeriy Lednev ‘Non-healing Gap’ on aroundart.org (in Russian)
Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), “Debates on Division: When Private Becomes Public”,Manifesta 10, 2014, New Stage of Alexandrinsky Theater, St Petersburg.
Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), “Debates on Division: When Private Becomes Public”,Manifesta 10, 2014. Documentation of the silent procession along the Nevsky Prospect (part of theperformance), St Petersburg.
Debates on Division SMBA – Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, 2016
At SMBA the performance was adapted to the local context and conducted around three stories by migrants and recent refugees. Currently based in Amsterdam they are struggling by awaiting for an asylum or a permit to be able to continue living and legally working in the country. During the performance questions on current migration policy in The Netherlands and in the EU were in the center of debates. Who decides on the status of current refuges and long term residents without a legal status? Based on what requirements they could stay in the Netherlands? When they have to leave the country and where should they go to?
Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), ‘Debates on Division: When Private Becomes Public’, SMBA, Amsterdam, 2016
Debates on Division Creative Time Summit in Washington DC, Lincoln Theater, 2016
The stories presented within ‘Debates on Division’ performance in Washington DC touched upon personal frustrations of individuals caused by the political crisis in the US. The event took place one month before the last presidential election in the United States in which Donald Trump was elected. The procession took place to the White House the next day of the performance and included participants of the workshop that was a part of the Creative Time Summit program.
Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), ‘Debates on Division: When Private Becomes Public’, Creative Time Summit, Lincoln Theater, Washington DC, 2016
Debates on Division Deichmanske Bibliotek in Grünerløkka, RAM Gallery, Oslo, 2017
In the third edition of the performance project initiators are engaged in a search for a visual and performative language to create a critical discussion around the ‘deviant use of democracy’, the future of Europe, and the position and agency of the younger generation within current post-neoliberal conditions. The project also challenges the idea of a ‘perfect state’ of Norway. Black humor, exaggerated features of the characters, futuristic forms and looks are important artistic methods of the project. The performance evolves around personal stories of young people of 15-20 yo, who live, study and work in Oslo. Young individuals of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds bring into spotlight important issues related to their social and political positions, attitudes towards governmental structures, youth policy in Norway and visions for meaningful future. Important additional component of this edition is an exhibition at RAM Gallery which includes video of recorded stories and costumes designed by Gluklya.
Documentation of the project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MhPhUn1hqY
Gluklya (Natalya Pershina-Yakimanskaya), ‘Debates on Division: When Private BecomesPublic’, Deichmanske Bibliotek in Grünerløkka, Oslo, 2017
Debates on Division The Center for Fine Arts BOZAR as a part of Performatik Festival, Brussels, 2019
Brussels’s version of ‘Debates on Division’ include elements of criminal-conspiracy drama and deals with the subject of fear, suspicion, and distrust fueled by social segregation, financial insecurity and xenophobia in the context of growing degeneration of the political system in the EU and across the globe.
In the focus of the show several stories that are carefully crafted from the parts of interviews and conversations with artists, human rights activists and representatives of LGBTQI communities, businessman, politicians, historians, social workers, sociologists, writers, media specialists and policymakers conducted by Gluklya and Anna Bitkina in Brussels since April 2018. The stories that are narrated by local artists and performers evolve around different elements of clothes. Presented as evidence of forensic investigation, the clothes play an intermediary role between the private and the public, exposing the conflict between the inner world of a person and the political system.
Performance participants, jury members and audience marched to the Parliament covered with blankets which served as a central element for the demonstration and a direct reference to the amount of homeless people in the EU capital that inhabit the premises of the EU headquarters at nights. Walking from BOZAR towards the European Parliament the demonstration manifests for the human and non-human rights and urgency for equal and inclusive politics, locally and globally in the pivotal moment before the European elections in May 2019.
How can participatory projects in the arts lead to the development of new creative methods and approaches to the local issues which at the same time have a global character?
In March of 2014 a new, unusual museum will open its doors in the Southeast of Amsterdam – The Moving Museum of Clothes. An international team of two curators and four artists together with the local citizens, will develop a special kind of (semi)public space where there is place for personal stories and secrets. It will be a museum of unexpected points of views, hopes, memories, disappointments, aspirations and a continuous search for a trustful environment.
Amsterdam Southeast (the Bijlmer) is known for its contradictory past and present. An embodiment of the belief in the coming Utopia, the perfectibility of human nature and the role of architecture as a weapon for social reform, the Bijlmer anno 2013 has to deal with the lack of sense of ownership of its residents in relation to their living environment and the lack of involvement in the life of the area and of the city. This is typical Bijlmer but also a typical suburb elsewhere: from Sao Paolo to Magadan.
Which possibilities can participatory projects in the arts create in order to engage citizens with their neighborhood and with each other? How can citizens of today become a meaningful and exciting part of a story of a contemporary city? The four participating artists work inter- and trans-disciplinary combining various media such as installation, performance, film, photography and text. Each of the artists has his own approach, strategies and tools which they apply in Amsterdam.
Gluklya (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya) (NL/RF) sees clothing as a border between the interior world and the exterior social sphere. She is interested in clothing that performs an act of estrangement—in the sense explored by Brecht and Shklovsky. Through this act participants get a possibility to see things from a new and different perspective. Advocating that «The personal is political» the artist aims to conduct confidential conversation with citizens. Clothing in this situation is a veil that allows to construct a framework for the action; it’s much easier to talk about our clothes than about ourselves.
Olga Jitlina (RF) tries not only to describe or protest the tragic situations in which history, government and people’s own passivity put them but to make attempts to find the ways out with tools like humour, paradoxical interpretations and imagination. In the Bijlmer Jitlina plans to search for the new forms of being and working together which suppose to substitute the old forms which belong to the ‘fordisctic’ society.
The work of Jan Hoek (NL) is often about suppositions: how do people look at black and white, rich and poor, locals and foreigners. In the framework of The Moving Museum Hoek will collaborate with the citizens of the Bijlmer who are not always visible in the city, also not in their direct environment. Both the artist and the citizens will become makers while both parties have (and will continue having) different expectations of the involvement in the artistic process. The documentation of the process is in this case as important as the final result.
Masha Ru (NL/RF) researches various aspects of cultural backgrounds of contemporary citizens. For The Moving Museum Ru will put an emphasis on the interaction between the personal and national identity in relation to the choice of clothes by different participants for different situations in their lives. The stories and experiences of citizens will form a basis for the development of themes en techniques in Ru’s project.
The Moving Museum of Clothes is at this moment actively in development. In March of 2014 it will be possible to speak specifically about the research findings and project results. Which models of participatory practice give citizens a possibility to contribute to the project in a meaningful way? What kind of impact do participatory practices have on the territory of art, social work, politics and others in the neighborhood, in the city, nationally and internationally?
Irina Leifer, curator The Moving Museum of Clothes
Niki Lischow, curator The Moving Museum of Clothes
Irina Leifer is an initiator, researcher, producer, curator and regularly guest lecturer at the Reinwardt Academy (Amsterdam School of the Arts). Leifer conceptualizes, develops and realizes participatory projects in partnerships with cultural organisations such as museums and community centres, and in public space. Irina Leifer works in the Netherlands and internationally: functioning in a broader context she is able to experience and analyse how various participatory strategies work (or don’t work) in different cultural and social environments and to enrich projects in one country with the observations and conclusions made in another one. Examples of Leifer’s recent projects are collaborative Russian-Dutch project ‘Museums in New Towns: identity, image and participatory culture’ (Nakhodka-Zoetermeer) and ‘The Moving Museum of Clothes’ (Amsterdam).
Niki Lischow is an initiator, producer, curator and researcher. She is specialised in initiating and realising contemporary art projects in non-museum environments. The focus of her work is directed towards minority communities, often combined with Middle Eastern artists and audiences. Lischow works both in the Netherlands and internationally, where she uncovers relationships and builds new partnerships. Co-creation plays an important role in all her projects and her practical approach leads to long-lasting relationships with both artists and visitors. Niki Lischow’s projects include ‘Al Quds Underground Festival’(Jerusalem), ‘Live and work in Palestine’ (Berlin Biennale) and ‘The Moving Museum of Clothes’ (Amsterdam).
The material was published on the website Aroundart.ru 27.07.2014
On July 13, Gluklya (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya)’s performance “Debates on Division” was presented as part of the parallel program of the 10th Manifestos on the New Stage of the Alexandrinsky Theater. Art critic Valery Ledenyov was one of the participants in the project, and has decided to share some thoughts and ideas prompted by some of its plot twists.
A description of the assignment Our Zoya? April 18, 2014 Performance by the Chto Delat School of Engaged Art
Directed by Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya (Gluklya) Together with Jonathan Platt we proposed to students of Roza Chto delat school to reflect upon the topic of heroism taking as an example the figure of Russian National Heroine of WWII Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.
Zoya Kosmodemianskaya is a central figure in the pantheon of Russian war heroes. She is remarkable not only as an eighteen-year old school girl who took up arms to defend the Soviet Union at its most vulnerable moment—the Battle for Moscow in 1941—becoming the first female Hero of the Soviet Union of the war. Most important is the nature of her podvig itself, enduring captivity, torture, and the threat of execution, while famously remaining silent (naming herself only “Tanya” after a female combatant in the Russian Civil War and replying to the derisory question of her captors—“And where is Stalin?”—by saying simply, “Stalin is at his post”—just like any other Soviet citizen). After such a terrible night, Zoya abandoned silence for heroic speech, urging the villagers gathered to watch her hanging to resist the invader and avenge her death. This call for vengeance had an intensely powerful motivational effect once it was relayed to rest of the country by Pravda correspondents, Petr Lidov and Sergei Strunnikov, who uncovered the story in early 1942, printing the sketch “Tanya” alongside a photograph of the exhumed body of the mutilated, yet uncannily beautiful young girl.
There is no better pedagogical method than the inclusion of students directly into the performance itself. This is way we decided to open the frame of the project about Zoya Kosmodemianskaya, which I was engaged in at that time with Jon Platt and Sonya Akimova, to the students, allowing them into the circle of our discussions and allowing them to make their own works on the theme of the heroic exploit or podvig in Russian. Along with the students of the school’s first graduating class, we considering the topics of heroism, sacrifice, and the desire to give everything for an idea in the context of the approaching totalitarianism of out motherland.
Our research project, which included trips to the places of Zoya’s birth and death began in the summer of 2013, and the seminar took place in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.
For me this project was not only about Zoya; it began first of all with the American professor, Jon, my friend, who had fallen in love with the photograph of Zoya by Sergei Strunnikov, perhaps anticipating the transgressive intervention of contemporary art. I was interested in this tangle of repressed sexual desire and positive aggression, cloaked in the contingencies of existence and accepted rules and projected onto the image of heroism. It was as if, taking a deep breath, you ended up in the black and white world of pure concepts that quiet the anxiety of constant turmoil: the total clarity of good and evil in their most intense constellation.
The method of “becoming Zoya” became the theme of the collective performance, in which the participants were asked to find in themselves a kernel of unity with regard to the artist’s principal task: overcoming oneself for the sake of some greater, higher idea while starting from a position of weakness or fear.
We told the students about our research and asked each of them to stage their own performance at the monument to Zoya by the sculptor Manizer in St. Petersburg’s Victory Park. Part of the task was to define your own attitude to the possibility or impossibility of speaking about the podvig using the example of this national heroine.
Jonathan Plaat :
My collaboration with Gluklya and Sofia Akimova on the Zoya project began in July 2013, when we made a series of trips to Moscow and Tambov to visit various centers for the preservation of Zoya’s memory (e.g., Osino-Gai, the village where she was born, her school in the Voikovsky region in Moscow, and the site of her execution in the village of Petrishchevo). By April 2014, the original context in which we began the project had drastically changed. Russia was now effectively at war with Ukraine, and its propaganda machine was in overdrive, deploying a stream of symbols from the Second World War to frame the hostilities as a renewal of the struggle with fascism. As a result, our appeal to the Chto Delat students to join our engagement with Zoya’s image came with great ambivalence and risk. If rebel “volunteer” units in the Donbass were only distinguishing their uniforms with the St. George Ribbon, which has become the main symbol of the 1945 victory, and if the Russian media were repeatedly referring to the new Ukrainian government as “Banderovites” (i.e., Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis), there seemed to be little hope that an artistic statement could salvage any of the authentic historical power of the first Soviet generation’s defeat of the Third Reich.
In the discussions that preceded the performance, we addressed the historical issues that inform my scholarly interest in Kosmodemianskaya: the militant socialist tradition and its exhaustion in the exterminatory violence of the Nazi-Soviet war. However, the central focus clearly fell on the urgencies of the present day. Several students were close to rejecting the assignment, calling the theme of heroism reactionary and all patriotic symbols repulsive. Many rejected the notion that Zoya’s podvig displays any fidelity to the revolutionary event of 1917, arguing that she was nothing but a brainwashed fanatic, closer to today’s suicide bombers than nineteenth-century militants like Vera Zasulich, who fought for a universal emancipatory truth. A good part of the latter discussion revolved around the dubiousness of Zoya’s actions, particularly her role in Stalin’s scorched earth policy, burning villages in the occupied territories west of Moscow.
The actual steps you and your students took to fulfill the assignment.
Despite these tense debates, we went forward with the performance. Gluklya asked the students to make dolls of Zoya, which they would then bring—as a kind of offering—to Matvei Manizer’s monument to the diversionist in Victory Park. Although many of the students rejected this idea, the significance of the gesture was clear. Gluklya hoped to shift the public monument towards the more “archaic” spheres of fetishism, voodoo, child’s play, ritual, and theater. In this way, we would soften the statue’s hard phallic authority, introducing flexibility and the potential for directed motion. In typical FFC fashion, the power asymmetry between the statue’s sublimity and our own weakness would be inverted — invoking the very different (more matriarchal, horizontal, and quotidian) authority of sympathetic magic and its interventions into the uncanny.
The assignment also actualized existing tensions in the site. Manizer’s statue depicts Zoya in a heroic pose—clenched fist, striding boot, rifle slung over her shoulder, eyes steely and determined—eschewing her alternative image as the feminine victim of Nazi atrocities (as in the barefoot Petrishchevo statue). This militant figure is somewhat out of place in the park, however. Standing beside a pond, hidden from the bustling Moscow Avenue by tree-lined alleys and playgrounds, the statue is not a meeting place for fiery demonstrations and speeches. Instead, the site is contemplative, suited mostly for individual encounters, even if the size of the statue and the height of its pedestal require one to look up, while Zoya gazes into the sublime distance of her podvig.
It is also significant that Victory Park was built on the site of a brick factory that was converted into as a mass crematorium during the Leningrad Blockade. The monument’s link to funerary sculpture and its traditional function of domesticating death is thus taken to the extreme. In contrast to the soul-wrenching memorial that marks the mass graves at the Piskarevskoe Cemetery, in Victory Park the horrors of the blockade are thoroughly veiled by representations of military glory.
Description of what actually unfolded and the outcomes.
The performance thus revolved around the tension between Manizer’s monument and what it veils and domesticates in the context of Victory Park: the conceptually unwieldy (and, for many of the students, emotionally irredeemable) realities of exterminatory war. The statue marked a place of fixity, order, and consummation in death and memory —but also silence and the shadow cast by power over the living, forcing them into a subaltern position of chaos and precarity. If public monuments transform dead flesh into bronze permanence and then gather the living, ever-renewable attention of the collective around it, alienation from this process endows the monument with a vampiric quality. One of Chto Delat students, Anna Isidis, offered a “doll” that brutally illustrated this effect—a paper cut-out of a zombie Zoya, disemboweled to reveal the Young Pioneer children she has devoured.
Overall, the students presented individuated performative gestures that could not be subsumed into a single utterance. Nonetheless, taken together, these gestures traversed a continuum of possible reactions to Zoya’s statue in the specificity of its spatial and temporal context, elaborating the question at the core of the performance: What does the Soviet militant mean to us today?
At one extreme, there were gestures like Isidis’ that addressed the statue from a position of total alienation. Ilya Yakovenko took the most aggressive posture, facing the statue and shouting at it, associating Manizer’s image with the current patriotic fervor propagated in Russia. By ironically thanking Zoya for Russia’s current “anti-fascist” campaign of imperial expansion, he made it clear that appeals to great-power nostalgia typically run slipshod over history. Leaving a small bundle of notes about Zoya’s “union with the Absolute,” Maria Maraeva described how the bronze militant’s life in the “kingdom of order” is incompatible with the false starts, rough drafts, sketches, and revisions of the artistic process. Viktoria Kalinina was among those who took up the suggestion to make a doll, crafting a faceless, footless image of a female corpse (adorned with a mock crucifix—a screw tied to a noose made by Anna Tereshkina, symbolizing the image of Zoya as a mere “screw” in the totalitarian machine). Kalinina accompanied her doll with a poem, which again questioned the black and white simplicity of historical myths—specifically, the version of Zoya’s story in which she withstands torture, but one of her comrades gives her up to the Nazis to save his own life. This narrative was particularly compelling in the spring of 2014, when Putin was warning of a “fifth column” of “national traitors.” Kalinina ironically sides with such rhetoric in her poem:
Don’t give anyone up, and you are a hero. Climbing up on the scaffold, The anti-fascist battle… Time will have its reckoning!
Time will have its reckoning! Time will show who is one of us. The traitor will be damned. Don’t give anyone up, and you are a hero.
Each of these three performances thus strove to problematize the interpretive matrix that reduces the complexities of war to simple oppositions—conviction and doubt, hero and traitor, friend and foe. Significantly, however, none disturbed the power differential between monument and man. Instead they confirmed it from a position of alienated pessimism.
Another group of gestures formulated an alienated address less as a challenge to the statue and more as a way to reveal problems in the present. As a result, they allowed for the possibility of a rapprochement with the sculptural image—albeit on their own terms. Natalia Tseluba made a rough bed in the grass in front of the monument, resting her head upon a stack of books about Zoya and the war. Responding to the statue’s indifference with her own sleepiness, she thus transformed the asymmetrical relation into a comment on human resilience and spaces of comfort at the edges of power. Olga Kuracheva positioned two “Zoya-believers”—myself and Nikolai Oleynikov—across from one another in front of the statue, each holding a card that undermined our fidelity with ambivalence. On one side, Zoya appears—through the image of her ecstatic corpse—as a relentless militant hero. On the other side—now a fragmentary collage of Zoya as a school-girl before the war—she appears as a tool of Stalinist cruelty, who might have thought twice about fulfilling the order to burn villages, driving Soviet citizens into the cold along with the occupying forces. Kuracheva’s oscillation between the two positions—identifying with each in turn as we rotated the cards—culminated in a silent, tearful gaze up at the statue.
While these two performances appropriated the stasis of the monument (or allowed it to suppress their own potential movement). Liya Gusein-Zade expressed her own ambivalence by bringing movement into dialectical tension with monumental fixity. As she vainly lit match after match in the wind, hoping to feel the hot cinders on her fingers (referring again to Zoya’s mission), a crowd began to gather, not around the statue, but in a disorderly lump in front of it. Abandoning the matches, Gusein-Zade began pushing the inert collective toward the pond behind the monument, as if impelling us to embrace militant self-abnegation. In this way the gesture dramatically realized the metaphorical semantics of the word podvig (etymologically related to the verb “to move”), and the desperate shuffling and strain of this awkward movement provided a stark contrast to the stillness and poise of Manizer’s image.
<< FIG 4: Still from Looking for Zoya >>
A final group of performances abandoned the position of alienation for identification, reducing the tension between motion and fixity until each complemented the other. Natalia Nikulenkova interpellated Zoya’s podvig into a narrative of personal history, telling the story of her great-grandmother’s sacrifice of a beloved shirt—the only possession saved from a burning house—to bind the wounded leg of a soldier during the war. As Natasha laboriously made a rag-doll at the base of the statue from her own shirt, embroidered with the word “Antifa,” she forged a link between Zoya’s militant violence and the life-preserving acts of self-sacrifice performed by so many other participants in the war. Karina Shcherbakova scattered sugar around the pedestal and offered a bag of the commodity—always coveted in wartime—as her doll of Zoya. The white sugar transformed the snow of Zoya’s torments (her barefoot march) into an image of “the sweet life” promised to the victors. Finally, Sofia Akimova marked out the eighty tortured steps Zoya took to the gallows from the peasant’s hut in which she was interrogated. Dropping a piece of black bread—the antipode of Karina’s refined sugar—for each step, Akimova produced an ephemeral, emotional supplement (disappearing as pigeons erased the steps) to the statue’s steely fixity.
Overview of the discussion and reflection/evaluation process.
In the end our seminar turned out to be dangerous. The danger consisted in the fact that the assignment – to find Zoya Kosmodemianskaya inside oneself and express one’s attitude to the themes of heroism and the podvig in the form of a performance – divided the group into two camps. One group of students clearly accepted Zoya, while another either leaned more toward the position of the 1990s with regard to heroism in general, or rejected the figure of the national hero in the context of the barbarous actions of totalitarian Russia, violating international norms.
Jonathan Plaat : Along this continuum from irony and frustration to sympathy and identification, a specific tension recurred again and again. Each performative gesture in its own way sought to oppose or at least soften the authoritative stillness of the statue with figures of motion and temporality, uncertainty and disorderliness. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms the performances punctured the statue’s encirclement (окружение) with the energies of a living horizon (кругозор). As living beings, we act within the limits of a specific horizon—weighing risks, making decisions, anticipating a future of meaning (what our life “will have meant”), all based on the internal directedness of our activity. But the future of meaning can only exist outside our horizon—in the past, as perceived from the perspective of an encircling, consummating gaze. This contradiction can be a source of both freedom and alienation, since the final meaning of my life and actions can and must always be deferred. You cannot tell me who I am and what my life means until all my inner force is exhausted. The meaning of “my” life is never really mine, since it is ultimately only accessible from a position beyond my death.
Zoya’s monument stands encircled, full with meaning. But it also stands in place of the living, now dead, eighteen-year old girl, closing her horizon. The statue does not expect to be challenged by the living people who approach it in the park. Rather, their task is to honor Zoya’s memory, supplementing the statue’s fixity with their living motion, in turn borrowing its meaning as a rhythmic (ideological) supplement to their own risk-fraught life. The statue anchors a homogeneous, collective identity with the great moment it symbolizes. Meanwhile the collective that gathers around the statue endows it with a surrogate horizon—a metaphorical afterlife in collective memory.
The performance as a whole remained faithful to the Chto Delat school’s interpretation of public exposure—the moment of encirclement—not as the consummation of a collective, but as the reaffirmation of its intimacy within an evolving, risk-fraught horizon. The students thus preserved Nancy’s sense of community as the sharing of finitude, rather than its reinvestment by some higher subject—be it the nation, empire, or “socialism in one country.” At the same time, however, only Gusein-Zade addressed the logic of the podvig and its specific relation between horizon and encirclement, which in fact inverts the monumentalist logic of ideological myth. Working at a remove from the statue, Gusein-Zade depicted the collective as the static body and the militant as the one who seeks to introduce motion and risk, insisting on the potential for change and emergent meaning. To actualize this inversion requires a decision, an existential leap of volition, seizing a moment of exceptional danger in which the subject is confronted with an irrevocable, world-defining threat, announcing a time of reckoning here and now. The subject’s living force persists through this moment as if she is paradoxically encircled with meaning and yet still moving through the limited horizon of her life.
This is the model of weak or unlucky heroism that has been so important in the practice of Chto Delat, as in that of FFC before them. One can say that it represents a kind of compromise with the podvig, allowing the artists to resist ideological monuments and preserve the conditions of intimate exposure for a moment of decision to come. In this way it recalls the distinction between what Walter Benjamin calls a “weak Messianic” moment and the authentic revolutionary event—the “strait gate” of radical rupture through which the Messiah enters (Benjamin 1968, 254, 264). The unlucky hero model also reflects Chto Delat’s honest and pragmatic attitude toward the political efficacy of art. Yes, we are already in a moment of danger, a state of emergency, but until the counter-public of resistance finally gathers into a critical mass, there is no subjective decision to be made. So, instead of merely staging the podvig in the hopes of inspiring imitation, as actionism does, the Chto Delat school remains within the transversal zone of art, studying their communist desire.
But our Zoya performance asked the students to consider the paradoxical moment of the podvig more closely. It could not invoke the logic of the unlucky hero, since Zoya was of course “lucky,” in the sense that her podvig did become a triumphant, monumental myth. As a result, the performance consisted primarily of more or less iconoclastic efforts to resist the statue’s encirclement and its asymmetrical relation to the students’ living horizons. At the same time, despite Gluklya’s clear intention to evoke the dialectic of weakness and heroism, her doll assignment led the students into individuated engagements with the statue, breaking up the shared finitude they were developing in the school.
The performance challenged the Chto Delat school’s intimacy in other ways as well. As discussed above, the school runs all the risks that haunt participatory, pedagogical art projects, particularly that of delegated performance. Although their exploration of the dialectic of intimate and public exposure largely exonerates them from such accusations, one can still argue that their methods block the volition that might produce an authentic podvig, positioning the students as victims of an indifferent or hostile public. When the students face the public—especially when they do so as representatives of frustrated, marginalized Russian youth—they have no access to the inversion of horizon and encirclement that defines the podvig and its decision. All their energies are directed toward problematizing encirclement and protecting their shared horizons from premature closure.
This blockage of volition came to the fore in our performance, which could also be seen as involving elements of delegation. Even though the Chto Delat students produced their own individual gestures (whether embracing the doll assignment or not), the awkwardness of this individuation brought into relief their status as “young, politically engaged Russians”—something that was useful both to Gluklya’s film and to my scholarly work. At the same time, it totally defused the dialectic of intimate and public exposure. And this is arguably what was most interesting about our intervention into the school’s practice. By confronting them with the concept of the podvig, we revealed how the school’s emphasis on intimacy not only protects its students from the hostile public but from the political alienation and frustration that besets them as a potential collective subject (or the militant vanguard of that potential subject). In our performance this protection was removed, releasing a range of emotions (rather than carefully crafted conceptual statements). And all partook of the general negative affect of toska—longing for the time of decision. There, beyond death’s encirclement, the uncanny horizon of the podvig opens up, and the exposed singularities of the collective body embrace volition to become a revolutionary subject.
The performance engaged a specific sculptural image (M. Manizer’s monument to Zoya Kosmodemianskaya, 1942/1951) in a specific site (Victory Park, St. Petersburg). The monument depicts Zoya in a heroic pose – clenched fist, striding boot, rifle slung over her shoulder, eyes steely and determined – refusing to present her merely as the feminine victim of Nazi atrocities. Manizer’s Zoya seeks to transcend gender, embracing the universal addressivity of the Soviet militant tradition.
The site of the monument is somewhat less fitting for the image, however. Standing beside a pond, hidden from the bustling Moscow Avenue by treelined alleys and playgrounds, this Zoya is not a meeting place for public dialogue and demonstrations (like her sister in Tambov, for example). Instead, the site is contemplative, suited mostly for individual encounters, even if the size of the statue and the height of its pedestal require one to look up at the diversionist – while she gazes into the sublime distance of her podvig.
Monuments in public parks always have a hint of the tombstone about them, but here the association is direct. Victory Park was built on the site of a brick factory that was converted into a mass crematorium during the Leningrad Blockade. The tombstone’s traditional function of domesticating death and putrescence is thus taken to an extreme. In contrast to the soul-wrenching memorial at the Piskarev Cemetery, the horrors of the war in Victory Park are thoroughly veiled by representations of military glory. One must wander past martial depictions of Zoya, Matrosov, and the Alley of Heroes (complete with a statue of Marshal Zhukov erected in 1995) to reach a few humble markers of the site’s terrible significance in a much less prominent corner of the park (all of which were erected in the 1990s and 2000s).
The temporal context of the performance also contributed to its specificity. Today the symbols and mythic resonance of the Nazi-Soviet war are being deployed to foment unrest in Ukraine by various political actors, still jostling for position in the global disorder that followed the neoliberal revolution and the collapse of state socialism in 1989/91. As a result, the appeal to engage the image of Zoya Kosmodemianskaya came with great risks and ambivalence. Would the performance merely add to the frenzied waving of St. George Ribbons used to ward off the new “Banderovite” threat from the West? Could any of the authentic historical power of the first revolutionary generation’s defeat of the Third Reich be salvaged in such a context?
In the discussions that preceded the performance, the participants interrogated the militant socialist tradition and its relation to (or exhaustion in) the exterminatory violence of the war. Does complicity in such violence undermine the heroic sacrifice of the militant? Can militancy and state terror be disarticulated in the Nazi-Soviet war? Who is subject of militant truth – free, rational individuals or more collective conglomerations? Is the ideological context of Stalinism – with all its abuses and doublethink – incompatible with such truth? If so, can Zoya’s sacrifice be considered a podvig, or was she merely the brainwashed fanatic of an ignoble cause, closer to today’s Islamic terrorists than the those of the People’s Will?
A central element of the performance was Gluklya’s suggestion that the participants make dolls of Zoya to bring to the statue. The significance of this gesture was clear – to move away from the public monument towards the more “archaic” spheres of fetishism, voodoo, child’s play, ritual, and theater. In this way, we would soften the hard phallic authority of the monument, introducing flexibility and the potential for directed motion. The power differential between the sublime statue and the weak, little man would be inverted – invoking the very different (more matriarchal, horizontal, and quotidian) authority of sympathetic magic and its interventions into the uncanny (where the sculptural image can never fully contain the putrescent power of the corpse).
The performance thus revolved around the tension between Manizer’s monument and what it veils and domesticates in the context of Victory Park: the conceptually unweildy (and, for many of us, emotionally irredeemable) realities of exterminatory war. The statue marked a place of fixity, order, and consummation in death and memory – but also silence and the shadow cast by power over the living, forcing them into a subaltern position of chaos and precarity. А natural reaction to such monumentalism is the punctuation of this mortal chaos with attempts to speak back, to introduce possibilities for movement, to position oneself at the threshold of shadow and light. The public monument raises the fleshy body to bronze permanence and then fills its hollow interior with the living, ever-renewable attention of the collective. When alienated from this process, the monument takes on a vampiric quality – as brutally illustrated by Anya’s paper cut-out of a zombie Zoya, disembowled to reveal the pioneer children she has devoured.
We did not come to the monument to be united in this way. We remained unruly and unkempt – presenting a series of individuated performative gestures that could not be subsumed into a single utterance. Yet, taken together, these gestures traversed a continuum of possible reactions to Zoya’s statue in the specificity of its spatial and temporal context, elaborating the question at the core of the performance: What does the Soviet militant mean to us today?
At one extreme, there were gestures that addressed the statue directly from this position of alienation. Ilya took the most aggressive posture, facing the statue and shouting at it, associating Manizer’s image with the patriotic fervor propagated in Russia today. By ironically thanking Zoya for Russia’s current “anti-fascist” campaign of imperial expansion, he highlighted how appeals to great-power nostalgia run slipshod over history. Marina spoke from under the shadow of the monument with a more personal, contemplative intonation, but her remarks to Zoya had a similar ring. The bronze militant’s life in the “kingdom of order” is incompatible with the false starts, rough drafts, sketches, and revisions of the artistic process. Vika was among those who took up the suggestion to make a doll, crafting a faceless, footless image of a female corpse (adorned with Anya T.’s mock crucifix – a “screw in the machine” tied to a noose). Vika’s poetic accompaniment to the doll also made use of irony – presenting the black and white categories of hero and traitor as a grid too reductive for the complexities of war. Finally, Nastya refrained from speech, yet she also positioned her performance between the categories of Zoya’s hero cult. Burning the doll of a horse – commemorating the horses Zoya burned on her scorched-earth mission – Nastya was also addressing the statue, asking it to look more closely into the grey space of its militant indifference.
Another group of gestures formulated their alienated address less as a challenge to the statue and more as a way to expose urgencies in the present. As a result, they allowed for the possibility of a rapprochment with the sculptural image – albeit on their terms. Lilya raised her humble monument to the “vandal-heroes” of today’s street resistance – an empty can of spray paint placed on a stool. Her claim that militant artforms also “walk the line” between ethical absolutes suggested that such an ethics does not apply to the militant at all. Natasha Ts. made a rough bed in the grass in front of the monument, resting her head upon a stack of books about Zoya and the war. By responding to the statue’s indifference with her own sleepiness, she transformed the asymmetrical relation between monument and man into a comment on human resilience and spaces of comfort at the edges of power. Olya positioned two Zoya “believers” (both from the generation that came of age at the end of the Cold War) across from one another in front of the statue, each holding a card that expressed the ambivalence of Zoya’s podvig. On one side, she appears – through the image of her ecstatic corpse – as a relentless militant hero. On the other – now a fragmentary collage of the living girl we know much less about – she appears as a tool of Stalinist cruelty, who might have thought twice about fulfilling the order to burn villages in the occupied territories. Olya’s oscillation between the two positions – identifying with each in turn – culminated in an emotionally fraught, silent gaze up at the statue, clenching her own fist, not in determination to fight, but to preserve humanity when the desire to fight takes hold.
All of the performances from this last group appropriated the stasis of the monument (or allowed it to suppress their own potential movement). Another group forced movement to the surface in dialectical tension with monumental fixity. Zhenya used the doll strategy to replace the hangman’s rope that executed Zoya with the strings of a puppeteer. While the puppet conjured associations with propagandistic manipulation, it also opened Zoya’s image up for a more personal (even affectionate) engagement at the level of play. Liya directed a dramatic realization of the semantics of the word podvig (etymologically related to the verb “to move”). While she vainly lit match after match (in another reference to the scorched earth policy), hoping to feel the hot cinders on her fingers, a crowd began to gather, not around the statue, but in a disorderly lump in front of it. Abandoning the matches, Liya tried to push the inert collective toward militant self-abnegation (in the pond behind the monument). The desperate shuffling and strain of this awkward movement provided a stark contrast to the stillness and poise of Manizer’s image. Finally, Gluklya added her own intervention, using Anya as a shrouded mock-corpse, carried briskly around the site by a team of uncomfortable pall-bearers, who then offered her up to the statue as a kind of unfinished sacrifice. This gesture accentuated the juxtaposition of uncanny bodies and dolls with the perhaps all-too canny statue, which dominated the performance as a whole (forming a mise en abyme of representational doubles).
A final group of performances abandoned the position of alienation for one of greater identification, reducing the tension between motion and fixity until each complemented the other. Two of these interpellated Zoya’s podvig into a narrative of personal history. Natasha N. told the story of her great-grandmother’s sacrifice of a beloved shirt – the only possession saved from a burning house – to bind the wounded leg of a soldier. As Natasha laboriously made a rag-doll at the base of the statue from her own shirt, embroidered with the word “Antifa,” she forged a link between Zoya’s militant violence and the life-preserving acts of heroism, performed by so many other participants in the war. Lyosha paced about the statue, telling the story of his own connection to Manizer, having studied sculpture with the master’s favorite student. Recalling the vulnerability and loneliness of his teacher – symbolized by the flock of parakeets she kept in her apartment – Lyosha spoke of the guilt he felt before the Stalinist generation. These hardened veterans of socialist construction educated his generation, but their values remained radically foreign. This guilt was embodied in a plasticine parakeet he placed atop the pedestal. Another two performances assumed a posture of ritual service before the statue. Karina scattered sugar around the pedestal and placed a bag of the commodity – always coveted in wartime – as her doll of Zoya. The white sugar transformed the snow of Zoya’s torments (marched barefoot through snow by her Nazi captors) into an image of “the sweet life” promised to the victors. Finally, Sonya marked out the eighty tortured steps Zoya took to the gallows from the peasant’s hut in which she was interrogated. Dropping a piece of black bread – the antipode of Karina’s refined sugar – for each step, Sonya produced an ephemeral, emotional supplement (disappearing as pigeons erased the steps) to the statue’s steely fixity.
Along this continuum from irony and frustration to reverence and sympathy, a range of recurring categories appeared. Each performative gesture in its own way called attention to the authoritative stillness of the statue – opposing it, softening it, or supplementing it with figures of motion and temporality, uncertainty and disorderliness. In this way, the ambivalence of the authentic podvig became manifest – positioning the subject at once within the living, ongoing struggle and, through a symbolic, anticipatory image, at the threshold of dissolution, heralding the victory of militant truth. Our performance itself could not seize this paradoxical moment of the podvig, which Zoya may have known when speaking from the scaffold in Petrishchevo in 1941. But its tension did appear through the echo of negation and, in many ways, the toska for a new heroism that could address our own times’ emergency. In this context, it is worth noting how many of the objects produced for the performance muted or bracketed the iconic power of Zoya’s face. This allowed the performers’ own faces to appear, gaze, and speak in the monumental space, again reminding us of the rights of the living and the needs of the present.