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When Performance Art Is an Anti-War Instrument, Part One

Alexandra Skochilenko is a thirty-year-old artist from St. Petersburg—the city where I lived before Russia attacked Ukraine. She made music and films, drew comics about depression, and worked as a photojournalist. On 11 April 2022, Skochilenko was arrested and placed in a pre-trial detention center, where she is currently still being held. A criminal case was filed against her, with a maximum sentence of fifteen years in prison. She has bipolar disorder and celiac disease (gluten intolerance), so the first days in the detention center she starved because she could not eat local food. In spite of this, she was not even released under house arrest.

Skochilenko must have done something terrible and posed a public danger, right? In fact, she was arrested for changing price tags in a Perekryostok supermarket for sheets of information about the war in Ukraine, specifically information on how many people died when Russian troops bombed the Drama Theatre in Mariupol. Sasha is one of at least seven people arrested for this type of performative protest alone: The day before, fifty-eight-year-old St. Petersburg resident, Vera, was detained. The next day, it was a fifty-nine-year-old reanimator who was putting up anti-war stickers in a Lenta supermarket. But Skochilenko is the only one of them to be criminally charged.

In the four and a half months since the war began, more than 15,000 participants in anti-war protests, individual pickets, and performative actions have been detained in Russia. Criminal cases were initiated against 165 people. Of the approximately 150,000 people who left Russia after the war began, there are thousands of journalists, activists, artists, and people with anti-war stances who no longer feel safe in this country because of the pressure of the security forces. I am one of them.

This is nothing compared to the millions of Ukrainians displaced by the war and the tens of thousands killed—yet it happens. With unprecedented mass detentions at the beginning of March (more than five thousand people were detained across the country on March 6 alone), Russian authorities have stemmed the tide of public protests, but anti-war protests in Russia have not stopped. Rather, they have taken other forms. And one key form is performative protest.

What Can Performance Perform?

In July 1993, Susan Sontag traveled to the bombed-out city of Sarajevo to stage Waiting for Godot in the middle of the Bosnian War. In her text about the experience, she first responds to those who think it is a “pretentious” or “insensitive” gesture to stage such a depressing play in the midst of real human despair. She writes that no matter what horror is being experienced, there will always be those who care to see their reality transformed by art and those who don't need it, even in peacetime.

The question of the relevance of art in wartime has been widely discussed in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries over the past four months. In March 2003, more than 150 theatres in New York City united in an anti-war campaign, Theatres Against War, interrupting ongoing activities to protest the invasion of Iraq. Not a single major theatre in Russia has suspended its work since 24 February of this year. This hits on important questions about art and activism that theorists have discussed for decades: Can art influence what is happening? Can artivism stop war? Does performance lead to social change?

These questions refer to the topic of the usefulness of art—something neoliberal regimes are concerned with; how anything can produce a calculable benefit. Capitalism and patriarchy are structured in such a way that, within them, artistic activity is regarded as something unserious compared to political and economic activity (which are essentially much more virtual but due to the structure of society they can have a larger scale of influence) or military activity. This is why within capitalist ideology, art is constantly in the mode of self-justification to prove its necessity—including to the protest movement.

This question itself seems to me highly unproductive because it ignores how social change actually takes place. In the book Politics of Affect, Brian Massumi—explaining the political dimension of affect—writes that as one goes through the “terrain of life,” one engages in different situations, each filled with certain potentials.How these potentials unfold depends on the workings of affect—people's capacity “to affect and to be affected." Performance and art activism have the capacity to radicalize people to varying degrees, inform their decisions, provoke, and amplify affect, and to provide the very interfaces between people—which, in turn, also produces affect. And in this sense performative protest and art activism are naturally part of the movement toward social change and peacebuilding.

War is not homogeneous. As we see in contemporary Russian politics, the actions (and inactions) of various parties—their own affective field—gradually make war possible. It is a collective effort (plus the helplessness of atomized people in a propaganda-soaked environment). Likewise, anti-war protest is a collective effort of different parties, one of which is artists. The pathetic question of the influence of art on the world is really the question of whether art participates in politics on an equal footing with others.

Unfortunately, in Russia (as in Ukraine and many other countries), this is still an open discussion. In many places mainstream culture still separates itself from politics. This is the sad result of the usurpation of power by narrow groups and the alienation of people from it. This is especially odd in the case of theatre and other living arts—one has to be radically oblivious to its political nature to think that theatre can be apolitical. The history of performance art in the last century begins with the Dadaist movement (whose main driving force was the protest against the absurdity of war) and the Situationists, and owes much to the feminist protest movement.

A guitarist playing in a city while birds walk across the frame.

Photos are from a recent anti-war performance protest in Vilnus, by the Feminist Anti-war Resistance. Photos by Mikhail Ivanovskiy.

Places of War

James Thompson writes about places of war in Performance Affects—a portion of his long project studying applied theatre and performance in war zones, post-conflict zones, and other disaster sites. Referring to the affective turn that has taken place in recent decades across academic disciplines, Thompson writes that so far, researchers and practitioners of performance art, especially applied and community-based art, have been overly focused on the effects of such theatre (defined social consequences, messages, or influences) and are “forgetting the radical potential of the freedom to enjoy beautiful, radiant things.”

Drawing on his practice of applied theatre in Sri Lanka, Thompson points out that the parameters of “theatre for social change” are extremely porous, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate social theatre from aesthetic theatre. At times, the practice of free, joyful dance in a group has a much greater effect than forum theatre. It is not always the speaking out of trauma that leads to healing—and Thompson writes separately about this: that social theatre practically trades in pain, that “trauma storytelling” has become the norm, and it does not always help.

Performance In Place of War, co-authored by Thompson with Jenny Hughes and Michael Balfour, offers a spatial-temporal categorization of the places in which performance can resist war: right at the site of conflict as it unfolds; in places of war-displaced people in emigration and refugee camps; in liminal zones when the intensity of hostilities has subsided but peace has yet to come; in places after war, where performance and theatre contribute to settling the consequences; and in “other places” produced by new, dispersed wars, like war on terror.

Art is thought to be, at most, a commentary on tragedy; its role in preventing, living with, and healing from tragedy is viewed with skepticism. But the variety of projects described in this book show that theatre and performance emerge in bleeding places on the planet, not at all as an optional whim or intellectual effort. The authors describe drama therapy groups, theatre companies and communities, and performance groups operating in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Lebanon (Laughter Under the Bombs), Burundi, Congo (Search for Common Ground (SFCG)), Rwanda (Mashirika Creative and Performing Arts Group), Sri Lanka (Third Eye Local Knowledge and Skill Activists Group), Sudan, Britain (This is Camp X-Ray), Israel, and Palestine—many of them operating literally in the middle of hostilities.

It turns out that a great number of theatrical and performative initiatives at the most critical points of the planet act to prevent, resist, or cope with war. In Performance, Space, Utopia: Cities of War, Cities of Exile, author and researcher Silvija Jestrovic focuses on Belgrade and Sarajevo (both destroyed by the war urbicide) and comes to a similar conclusion: Performance in places where Sontag staged a play during the Bosnian war manifests itself “at its most fundamental level, neither as a commodity nor as an intellectual exercise—but as a bare necessity.”

An old woman holding a red flower and a man in a hood stand in the middle of a square.

Bringing The War Home

Where the war-related performance takes place matters. Today it is very difficult to associate with Russia—but I am from there. I want the people of Russia to realize that their state is waging a real war of aggression which it is trying to make invisible by not reporting the dead, not taking away their bodies, and masking the war with a “special military operation.” And performative protest fulfills this task of informing public when all independent media are blocked, and journalists are threatened with criminal cases or have fled the country.

When the Vietnam War broke out, American performance artist Martha Rosler completely changed the medium of her work and switched to agitational anti-war collages. One of her most famous series is House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, in which she inserted war scenes into the interiors of beautiful bourgeois homes. This piece exemplifies the most important task for performance protest: to show that the war is not “out there,” it's here.

After footage of the murders of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, an activist created Bucha-Moscow, lying in various places in Moscow, Russia with his hands tied behind his back like the residents killed in Bucha. A resident of Krasnodar was detained for the same action. In other capital cities of Georgia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, and Bulgaria, activists did similar demonstrations, metaphorically placing dead war victims in urban spaces.

Artist Tatiana Sukhareva held Shout Without a Voice, in which she repeated “no to war” in sign language near the walls of the Moscow Kremlin. In 2015, three members of the art group Rodina were detained in St. Petersburg for their Bloody Clothes demonstration where they filled basins in the city center with canal water and washed their red-stained military uniforms there. The same art group also organized Walking with Vereshchagin, where they walked around St. Petersburg with reproductions of Vasily Vereshchagin's anti-war paintings around their necks. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, activist Kado Kornet—dressed in the colors of the Russian flag with St. George ribbons on her wrists (which in last ten to fifteen years became the symbol of aggressive pro-government patriotism in Russia) and hands covered in blood—walked through the city center blindfolded and screaming frantically.

One of the most important perfo-protests against the war in Chechnya was by Alexander Brener in the winter of 1995. He consistently addressed cultural figures (by breaking into an exhibition opening and writing the word “CHECHNYA” on the floor), the military (by trying to break into the Ministry of Defense and putting house slippers on the minister), the president (by going to Red Square in boxer shorts and yelling “Yeltsin, come out!” for a half hour, inviting the president to fight), and to God (when he started yelling “Chechnya! Chechnya!” during a service in one of Moscow's churches). Such performances make rifts in public spaces through which the war seeps.

Several people in black shirts organize signs on a park bench.

This mechanism was adopted by the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR), a decentralized community that organizes performative actions against the war and collects and disseminates information in Russia and abroad. They proposed changing the price tags in stores with information about the war and organized Mariupol 5,000, in which residents placed homemade crosses in yards and public spaces with inscriptions of how many people had been killed by Russian troops in Mariupol.

Members and supporters of FAR hung green ribbons around cities, brought flowers to memorial sites, and substituted anti-war elements for the usual elements of urban visual space. Such actions are the legacy of a detournement tactic invented in France in the 1950s that implies cultural jamming: the intervention of artistic elements in urban structures and a kind of breaking into everyday life.

War in the twentieth century has descended from the obvious level to the non-obvious, smeared over everyday life.

Judith Butler in their writings—especially their book Frames of War—illustrates how the division into “there” and “here” ceases to be possible when it comes to military conflicts. With the connectedness of the world only now beginning to be fully understood, war “there” is always war “here.” When federal channels are silent about the war and the media space is being cleared by the state, it is left to go directly into the city to leave messages and provoke stress, shock, and tension where most people can encounter them—supermarkets, advertisement boards, apartment buildings, outdoor squares, and hospitals. Performative actions in support of Ukraine that take place in Europe, Turkey, the United States, and other countries are also a gesture of transferring the war from there to here.

In her latest book That's Not It, the Russian philosopher Oksana Timofeeva writes: “Peaceful territories turn out to be a symptom of a denied war. It's not peaceful territories, it's the rear.” This is a rather poetic retelling of what feminist theorists have long been writing about: The absence of military action does not mean peace, and war is not just about air strikes or attacks by soldiers. The necropolitics of the elderly Chekists in Russia kill visibly in Ukraine and not-so-visibly in Russia. War today is dispersed and pervasive. Capitalism is war. Racism is war. Patriarchy is war.

When Kim Jones, who served a year in Vietnam, walked eighteen miles through Los Angeles covered in mud and branches as Mudman, it was anti-war performance. But it’s important to acknowledge that when ACT UP activists spilled the ashes of people who have died of AIDS on the front lawn of the White House, or when David Wojnarowicz sewed his mouth shut under the slogan “silence = death,” those instances are also anti-war performance.

Today in Russia, there’s a normalization that takes place. People are understandably trying to close their eyes to the war their country is waging. Normalization is one of the main things that helps war keep going. Anti-war performance is one of the main methods to break this normalization when no independent media is widely accessible. It’s in the nature of performance to shake up and disturb reality. In that way, anti-war art is not just a commentary on tragedy, it’s one of the most effective ways for people to stay sensible on what’s happening.

Saving that sensibility is necessary if we want to build “long peace,” and a big part of that sensibility is to start participating. Learn more about how the performative work of others contributes to peaceful dynamics or make that contribution yourself. It's not that hard. War in the twentieth century has descended from the obvious level to the non-obvious, smeared over everyday life. To fight against war today is to fight against the culture of war, the mindset that says it is acceptable to resolve conflicts by violence.

This is part one of a two-part essay. Check out part two here.

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