Text: Martina Stefanova
A few days ago in Moscow happened something that no one yet knows about. Something that is yet to be understood, and something that will annoy some people or delight others. On the eve of the celebration of the anniversary of the Second World War, one of the biggest holidays in Russia, the activists from the Austrian art label
XXXXi̶s̶m̶ TOSHAIN/ MAKOWSKY/ CEEH stood on the Red square with scandalous slogans for peace. Ten people dressed in civilian clothes with armored vests arranged in a row just a few minutes before being arrested. On the vests with invisible paint, specified later by the organizers as a special military paint used only in the United States, artists from various conflict spots around the world share their messages for peace.
The chosen date is not accidental – May the 9th is the Day of Europe, and for Russia – Day of the Victory. The performance appears to make a parallel between the past and the present, to pay attention to the world now, where military power is increasingly being demonstrated, but about peace we speak less and less.
For what exactly happened there, I was informed by Iv Toshain, one of the brains in the art group. She contacted me after returning from the Russian capital with a request to share with the world what has happened. With her we are talking about not only the recent events, but also about their struggles in the world of art, the old models, the new wave, and why we need to keep out of the ideologies – one of the main themes of XXXXi̶s̶m̶ TMC.
Martina Stefanova: Before we start talking about what happened in Moscow, I would like to go back a little. How did it all begin?
Iv Toshain: We got together with Anna after we realized we have the same views. For example, how do we stand in the artistic world in Austria, like people from Eastern Europe. I am from Bulgaria, Anna – from Russia. We a priori see things differently, and us as well. This is how we formed the art group named firtsly FEMINi̶s̶m̶ TC, with crossed “ism” as a protest against the ideologies. Feminism has become a very hot topic and the have begun inviting us for major events. Lately, we made a project with posters in public space, where famous artists, including Marina Abramovic, quoted points from our manifesto. After that we saw that things were going well and they started putting is into a drawer where nobody cares about what are we actually, and whether we are feminists at all. As well no attention was paid to the crossed “ism” and that we are not standing for the common feminist propaganda.
Martina: What kind is your feminism, what are you fighting for?
Iv: Ii’s not about gender struggle: woman against man, but more all together. That is why we invite men, gay and transgender in our projects. By this time, we became known as the “feminists”, but for us this struggle proved itself as “not modern”, the whole propaganda, the name itself seemed outdated. Then we said “stop”, we are mostly people, activists. Being a woman and doing feminism does not mean that you have to stay this way because it’s easier for the people. Moreover, various institutions have begun to make an image with us and to fill their quotas. Then we felt tight and decided that something needs to be changed.
So, at the end of the popular action with the posters, we made a new manifesto that refered to all other issues: politics, racism, etc., not just feminism. And we put new names for “FEMINi̶s̶m̶” – “ism” strike trough, as SUCKi̶s̶m̶, FUCKi̶s̶m̶, XXXXi̶s̶m̶ and others that change over the theme we focus on. Suddenly we dematerialized what we had created.
Martina: What is your second manifesto referring to?
Iv: One of the points is to criticize the obvious provocation in the art that has already died. Here we are talking about camouflage techniques, like the Trojan horse. Without thinking, you inject your idea in a very hidden way. Not to come up topless or naked, and shout for a change in the world and politics. Everything around us is already provocative and open enough: media, products, people do not pay attention to it anymore. Everyone receives, sees and takes everything, and you need to go underneath it in more hidden way.
We try to spread our messages in any nonmaterial ways. Have created works that can not only be displayed in institutions and galleries, but anywhere, easily portable as posters and magazines. Art can not always be material and tied to production such as insurance and transportation. This is about transferring an idea.
Martina: Ok, here’s Pussy Riot coming out directly against Putin, Trump, fighting for women’s rights, what are you fighting for?
Iv: Our topics are not so specific, but more general. We are defined as a post-socialist, post-activist “perpetuum mobile” that operates on the boundary between micro- and macro-activism in contemporary art through discussions, single or group actions.
We are against any “ism” and any ideology, whatever it is, so this part of our logo is crossed. Here even feminism turns into this, each ideology loses its meaning, the power of the original concept disappears, and somebody has profits from using the ideology.
We also criticize the art world, which is eaten by itself. Everyone is in museums and galleries, something is being quoted, most artists work only to get in there, and everyone relies on a portfolio and someone to notice or expose them to MOMA. Art is much more than this. It’s different to go to the Biennial “guerilla” instead of waiting for someone to invite you through their network or connections. This power of art is missing. Everyone is trying to be somewhere comfortable and is afraid to tell the truth because they will become inconvenient and will not be invited anywhere. This leads to nothing and should be changed.
Martina: I will again mention Pussy Riot’s as using art for expressing certain positions as well as, lately, different artists were painting monuments. Both things are treated as works of art only afterwards. Here you are professional artists who, in addition of expressing a position, are mostly doing art. It’s not an instrument but a base for you.
Iv: That’s right. We can be both: in the art world and outside of it. Our goal is to spread the idea, to give a voice not only for the people of the art world. This is quite selfish. Somehow we deconstruct art, and that is why we are behind the nonmaterial one, although each of us has their own career using different expressions.
Martina: Historically, art has always been elitist, close to the power, as it now faces the question that part of it may be public and accessible to all, speak to them. Like some wave era, if you like.
Iv: The problem is that the publics are educated to perceive art as with a function of decorating and looking good. This is the neoliberal way of thinking in a society where it is turned into an expensive product. The artists live well, but they are still “somebody’s yard or house.” Let’s mention Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst. It is not much different than it once was.
And here the abyss opens, people still can not understand the nonmaterial art. We are speaking about a new way of thinking, about a new way of positioning art, killing the model that exists for centuries and still going on today. You cannot hang it, decorate and aesthetize, but it can make you think. That’s why it takes time.
Martina: Let’s go back with the performance in Moscow. Before it went there, it had been shown several times, including the Venice Biennale. Now, however, outside of the art world, where is the boundary between the political critique and art?
Iv: The project itself comes with the topic of peace in the 100 anniversary of the World War I during 2014, where Anna Ceeh, Matthias Makowski and I, invited 28 artists from different backgrounds, most of them from conflict zones in the world (Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Pakistan). We provoked them with the question if things in their countries were to go hard and their only option would be to say what they were thinking in a slogan about it, what it would be? That’s how we gathered 28 messages, and the first exhibition was in the House of Honor at Burgundy on the Heroes Square
(Heldenplatz), a military memorial, This was one of the reasons why many people refused to participate. We have not received almost any institutional support that we have always had for our projects before. This was not just dedicated to the World War I, but also to the global current political situation.
Among the participants were, for example, the well-known American artist Lawrence Weiner with “HERE TODAY, HERE TOMORROW”, and Olaf Nicolai and his “KEINE HEIMAT (“I have no Homeland”)”. Daring is the slogan of the Afghanistan’s artist Ammanulah Mojadidi, who wrote “GO BOMB YOURSELF,” which when showed in Moscow, meaning changes. Things are as clear as they can be interpreted in any other way.
What we do is not an absolute critique of a system or personality. This is a performance with a message for peace. Although wherever we say it, people look with fear. In Moscow, we had a total refusal for sponsoring in all levels, although Anna Ceeh was an official scholar of the Ministry if Foreign Affairs. They were ready to support each of her projects, but not this one. I was denied a visa, and was refused to transport the requisites there. Basically saying someone that you are doing a performance for peace, they should be happy. Everyone is afraid how things will be interpreted. We all want to be peaceful, not have wars, but no one dares to stand behind this cause.
Martina: What were the other slogans?
Iv: “HE KILLS ME, HE KILLS ME NOT” by Parastou Forouhar from Iran, whose parents were killed by the regime there, as well “FREEDOM HAS NO SCRIPT” by Burak Delier from Turkey. There is also a slogan of Slava Mogutin from Russia, who fights for the rights of the homosexuals and is persecuted by the regime, now living in the United States. His slogan is “LOST BOYS”, which to be shown itself in Moscow is a challenge.
Martina: As an exported performance from art world, will you continue doing it so far at other hot spots?
Iv: Of course. First we made it in Vienna at the train stations when there was this huge wave of refugees, as well in front of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom). The idea is always to have a photo of a symbol of the city, following the idea of a greeting card but with other content.
We do it in different places, both hot spots and where there is peace. This way we want to get people out of their skin. This is poetry, seeing a soldier in front of you with a bulletproof vest, on which is written “BANG”. First, you are afraid, and then you realize that they are people too.
What is interesting, that on the first three places we did everything specially cured and all the performers were uniformed. It was clear that we could not appear in Moscow like this, because they would directly put us in handcuffs. Moreover, the transport of our requisite was denied. That’s why we decided to have the performers civilly dressed, to have the same aesthetics but more wrapped. They had armored vests, and the clothes their wore were from well-known brands on which were inscriptions like “POLIZEI” (“Police Officer”) on a raincoat, “Security” on a hat or a sweater of the European Union, which is little nagging with the system.
Martina: In reality, these are things designed for everyday life over which no one thinks how easy and reversible their function may be. This fashion itself raises questions, why to wear a raincoat inscribed “POLIZEI” (“Police Officer”)? May be to carry it on the Red Square with a protective vest and stay with the police as it has to be.
Iv: Fashion kills art with its slogans, and what we do is bringing it back from the podium to where it should be. There are expensive brands that produce it. The things are taken out of one context are put into another. And we decide, once they have said it, we will now say it in the right context. That was the reason they were dressed the way they were.
The idea became a pure provocation, not against the system, Putin or Moscow, because the same slogans were in Venice, Vienna, Slovenia. This is a message for peace. From now on, this idea can be interpreted in any way.
Martina: Did you expect to be arrested? It is known for Oleg Kulik’s performance in Zurich, “The Beggy Dog,” where the artist comes in this image and does not allow viewers in the gallery. After escalation he was taken to custody. That’s what Kulik was looking for, that end. Somehow, the performance of Pussy Riot in the church, where they knew they would be arrested, too. Was that your goal, the escalation, the arrest?
Iv: Everything was a tough preparation. To us it was clear where we were going and that things were not a kids game. We didn’t think that if someone was arrested, it would