On January 8th several Belarusian experts gathered at Minsk “Ў” gallery to discuss Denis Limonov’s letter “The Crime of Conscience” to the Prosecutor General of Belarus. In this letter the activist of Mogilev art group “Lime Blossom” claims to be involved in the acts of terrorism and defines his actions as an artistic gesture.
Here you can find video documentaries of the actions of the group “Lime Blossom” (“Carousel,” “The Vandalism Orgy,” “Turmoil in the bus number 23,” “The crime of conscience”), which had been shown before the discussion.
The participants of the discussion:
Ousmanova Almira, a philosopher
Solomatina Irina, an independent manager of art projects, the initiator of the project “Gender Route”
Shabohin Sergei, an artist, the editor in chief of the contemporary art portal artaktivist.org
Sin Ilja, an author, a perfomancist
Gulin Mihail, an artist
Kiryushinko Sergei, an artist
Gornih Andrei, a philosopher
Lunev Aleksei, an artist
Shparaga Olga, a philosopher, the editor of the site n-europe.eu
Kolesnikov Alexander, a journalist, the moderator of the discussion
An artistic act as a form of civil protest
Kolesnikov Alexander: Unfortunately, there are no activists from the group “Lime Blossom” at this round table. Denis Limonov is in Moscow now concerned with his personal safety. Another part of the group is in Belarus, in the underground. They don’t respond to calls and emails. As we know, in one of his recent actions, Denis Limonov has taken the responsibility for the explosion in Minsk metro.
Today I would like to talk exactly about this action – “The crime of conscience”. I’m interested in this form of deviant behavior, whereby the situation with Konovalov and Kovalev (those accused of the explosion in the subway – OS) can become visible. Why in today’s Belarus do you need to make a radical act in order to raise the debate?
Solomatina Irina: It’s quite difficult for me to give an interpretation, but if an artist or art group deliberately wants to be public in such a way, it’s a very interesting phenomenon. It’s a new form for Belarus. It is clear that the cause of the death penalty and the imposed sentence is the political fact, and here the artist’s confrontation with Belarusian legal system is interesting. He doesn’t just make a statement, he goes to the end: he writes an official letter claiming the case to be suspended. But the question arises: why do the other band members remain anonymous? It’s one thing when we see a collective project, in which it’s hard for us to identify someone, but it’s quite another thing when we see the project written on behalf of the group where there’s only one name on the bottom of the page. So we understand that this person will be responsible if the case goes to court.
In this situation, in my opinion, it is important to collect documentation: it is important for artistic expression so that we – the spectators – can see its development. As for other stocks, I’ve seen a documentary chronicling, a home video by Kim Hadeev. This is almost the same thing. But the most important is that “Lime Blossom” is from Mogilev, but not from Minsk, the capital of Belarus. However, for example, I haven’t heard any of the artists have joined the action or have agreed with this statement. It will be very sad if everything ends up with this letter.
Sin Ilja: I’d like to remind you that there was a very interesting individual action of the poet Dima Strozev. He wrote a letter asking the president to shoot him with these guys. This action has impressed me personally much more precisely because of the lack of media factor, which is prominent here. So the similar statements do exist.
Solomatina: Yes, but it’s a completely different type of expression. Aleksievich Svetlana wrote to the president last year. There is a great number of letters written to our president. But it is one thing to write such a letter, and it’s quite another thing to write to the public prosecutor’s office that there are additional facts and we ask to consider them. The judicial system must somehow respond to them.
Gulin Mihail: Now an electronic version of the letter is shown to us. Is there a real letter sent not to the media, but through the mailbox? If so, by this time the answer should already come.
Kolesnikov: Denis Limonov said that he threw the letter in the mailbox on December 19th. Fifteen days which is laid for a response has passed. But Denis is physically unable to get the answer since he is in Moscow.
Ousmanova Almira: It is good that we’re talking about the letter after looking at the other three stocks. It occurred to me that the two key words, two ideas that sounded like a leitmotif and run through all the previous video – it were the ideas of cultural, political war and citizenship. This letter was not the final step, but the logical extension of these two topics. On the one hand, this letter was to appear as an act of personal courage and personal understanding by Limonov Denis what citizenship is. It appeared contrary to the interests of the group, contrary to the opinion of others. On the other hand, it is a declaration of war. Moreover, it’s the declaration of war against rules. I, for example, have thought: what would be the face of the prosecutor while reading this letter? His first impulse may be to send this letter to an expertise of mental sanity, and, perhaps, a literary expertise will be needed since the letter is also a literary gesture.
This letter has appeared in the situation when any other forms of protest whether complaints, signing of collective petitions, going to demonstrations do not work. So it might be the most effective form of protest – from nowhere. While reading and discussing this letter, I was thinking about the prediction, about the message to 2012 from Hardt and Negri. In this message they say that most of the mass protests in 2011 are connected with the massive failure or an attempt to mass protest against neo-liberal values, against neo-liberal principles, beginning from the events in the East and ending with “Occupy Wall Street”. Of course, we can barely say that Hardt and Negri denote the crisis of neoliberal democratic institutions in relation to Belarus, but it seems to me that Denis Limonov`s action is in the same subject field. This is an attempt to find a form of protest in the situation when all the legal, bureaucratic channels of communication with the government don’t work. I think that here we have an artistic act as a form of the civil protest, and, perhaps, it is the only possible form of protest in Belarus.
The effectiveness of Limonov Denis’s strategy
Gulin: I have no complaints about the artistic strategy of Limonov Denis. I have a question about the effectiveness of this strategy in relation to the case of Konovalov and Kovalev. Why art, not politics? After all, you can call it a civil act so that not only one person can sign it. Maybe it would be more effective in this case? Effective – as the strategy to take the guys out, or at least to suspend the process on this case.
Shabohin Sergei: But art activism is characterized precisely by that artists are trying to create a pattern that can be used in any other spheres of life.
Ousmanova: I think there is a very interesting point connected with such a form of taking oneself as a hostage. In fact, anyone who finds the strength can try to take part in this act of self-sacrifice. But at the same time we’ll find ourselves in a position of weakness before the state. We recognize that there was a terrorist attack. Denis Limonov by taking the responsibility, even in a symbolic form, takes himself as a hostage instead of someone else. And the same will happen to those who wish to share this responsibility. He’ll take the role of the weak and play by the rules of the state.
Gornih Anrei: We want to talk about the effectiveness of social actions, but reduce everything to something like “will pass – will not pass,” “will pardon – will not pardon”. Nothing will stop this machine, which has already arranged. Efficiency is the case for the professional politicians, we’re talking about art. Obviously, this letter was not originally designed for a certain effect.
Lunev Aleksei: But the letter says about some new information to the prosecutor. At least we have one more reason to criticize the government since it does nothing for inspection of these new facts. The authorities consider the case solved: here are the guilty, we shall execute them and tell about it in public news. And this letter doesn’t allow them to hush up the case.
Gulin: I think that art activists do not really solve the problems. Here’s the statement, but there are no results. Of course, the figure of Limonov Denis can replace the figure of politician, but it’ll not solve the problem. It turns out a simulation of political actions. While talking about the relationship between a civil action and an artistic act, we are not discussing the letter of Strotsev Dmitry, but Denis Limonov’s letter. I personally think that the recent activism distracts us from solving the problems. Activism becomes self-promotion. I don’t want to blame Denis since it feels that he is an artist. But the problems raised by both Russian and Belarusian activists are not solved by them.
Art in media space
Kolesnikov: I would like to shift the discussion to a slightly different field. To the field of politics. It seems important to me to talk about the political position of artists. The members of the group “Lime Blossom” position themselves as left-wing artists. I think now the political forces, which are hostile to artists, can “lay their hands” on the art group.
Shparaga Olga: This is not the case of Belarus. The political field is so fragmented and cleaned up, that there’s simply no one who can grab it.
Ousmanova: I can give you an example. In 2006 almost all of the Belarusian opposition political parties tried to patronize the participants of the flash mobs. They even tried to create a headquarters that would coordinate flash mob organization. And they couldn’t do this. But such a strategy can be appropriated by them again, and this time successfully.
Shabohin: I’d like to give an example of ligament of left-wing political views and art. Guy Debord spoke of “The Society of the Spectacle” as about the alienation in a capitalist society, leftist artists still use this term. I think it is impossible to treat the “Lime Blossom” beyond situationists’ practices, because a person in a bus playing the role of an urban madman tries to create a new situation. We may consider the action “Turmoil in the bus” the program for the group, so far as it demonstrates our society, its rhythm. The blonde girl with a mobile phone is the representative of late capitalism, a supporter of the alienation in a capitalist society, and the old worker is a supporter of the post-Soviet alienation. But there is much more post-Soviet alienation in Belarusian society.
Sin: I think there is another problem. We’ve just saw an artistic strategy, which is struggling with institutionalism in art. These artists render their shares beyond all the possible art institutions – on the streets, some shared apartments, and so on. But even the format of today’s meeting demonstrates the dependence of such strategies on museums and galleries. Since they get into the attention of art institutions, any actions and gestures of people are considered artifacts, sociocultural phenomena. This is the example of the influence of institutions on the territory where shouldn’t be any institutions.
Kolesnikov: I think it’s important to talk about the security strategy for the group because there isn’t such one. How can we rescue the artists fallen into such a difficult situation?
Gornih: We reduce our discussion to artists’ promotion. We are discussing the person, but not what he did. He wrote a letter to the prosecutor, and we raise the question: what should he do? This issue is related to the promotion of Denis Limonov. We are not even talking about the group, only about him.
Civilian position is a public expression of your opinion on any subject. Here we have guys who are accused of the bombings in the subway. And if someone makes such statements as Denis Limonov, it’s a civil act. Art works with types, it doesn’t react to everyday life. Art is not journalism, it shapes the expression of a whole social class. Art gives us memory in order not to forget about some important case. And this group of artists tries to fit into the momentary media carousel. Let them give us types and forms, then they’ll be artists.
Kirjushenko Sergei: It seems to me that here in Belarus we look at Russia too often, while Russian and Belarusian situations are completely different. Activism in Russia already exists in the artistic frameworks. There’s a great number of it. The fact is that there is politics in Russia. At least some sort of politics. Right now, it has led to great changes in the country. We have the field of politics, which is completely cleaned up. If some politicians remain in sight, no one listens to them: they are old, they become boring. So I think in our situation only artists can sharpen some socio-political aspects. An artist, of course, may use such an image of urban madman. People can consider him, pay attention to him. But I want to say that now it is more effective to act in some local spaces, for example, against our Ministry of Culture, against the Academy of Art.
In my opinion, the minus of the reel “Turmoil in the bus” is that the operator has paid not enough attention to other passengers. Because Denis Limonov’s actions is not yet a serious actionism. He is not a tribune, but a writer. For example, Alexei Navalny has become such a tribune, while Denis Limonov’ statements lack politician energy.
Art in the absence of public sphere
Ousmanova: I want to say that any output of each of us in the public sphere, regardless of what we wanted to say is a form of self-promotion. But I’m not sure that each of us for self-promotion would find oneself in such an uncomfortable situation, as the hero of the reel “Turmoil in the Bus” does. It is very important that we don’t see other passengers. Thanks to this Denis Limonov becomes the central subject of speech and the primary or even the only citizen in the bus. It puts his potential interlocutors in a bad situation. Therefore, it is important to preserve ethical distance when the camera is quite accurately refers to the rest of the passengers since they don’t like that they are photographed. This is an attempt to establish a communication with people in a situation which is extremely uncomfortable for the person because he dared to speak with people of different social categories in a bus. I still wouldn’t consider it self-promotion.
Also it was very interesting for me to see “The Orgy of Vandalism.” There are some moments of funny home video, video art of early 1970s, when the filming technique was quite imperfect. I think we all with interest looked at the mounting inserts that function as cinematic punctuation when the harsh monologue of the hero about the impossibility of culture in contemporary situation is interrupted by shots of folk festivals with dancing women and mass-produced items “made in China”. In this editing inserts a sense of modernity reveals. These editing inserts indicate the hero’s modern vision for me. In this video performance we face a tragic character, who tries to renew his internal communications with the high intellectual vanguard through Akhmatova, through references to Modiliani, through the imitation of Vaslav Nijinsky. But he is rather from the cultural space where Henry Miller, Genet, Shnur are from. He is neither with those people nor with the others. Plus, a monstrous reality – a national celebration of vulgar spectacle society – is added to it. As a result, we’ve got a dramatic form of home video.
Gornih: I’ve already seen the reel “Turmoil in the Bus” on the Internet, and it has impressed me a lot. Among the reels that have been submitted to us precisely in this one I see the hope. In this case art works very effectively with the absence of the public sphere in Belarus. I like this action in the bus because of the passengers’ reaction. This is some kind of a theater of the absurd where they turn into characters of Averchenko`s or Harms` plays right before your eyes. Denis Limonov asks questions impossible to avoid: “Are you a citizen? What does it mean for you?”
Shparaga: I believe that today medialization leads to the fact that every our gesture, which falls into media space, receives a public relations element. In this case it certainly exists, but reducing this action only to self-promotion we eliminate a civic courage, the artist’s ingenuity, his work with the urban space. There are many other elements that allow us to say that this is not just self-promotion. But then what is it? In this case in Germany people use the term “claim”. Denis Limonov claims to be an artist. During the discussion we can decide is he an artist or not, but we can never define where the claim of being art moves into art. I think that today such a claim is more important than art itself. Perhaps today the function of culture is to look for new ways of critique. The former political, legal tools don’t work, and only culture can identify new ways and forms of criticism.
Prepared by Alexander Kolesnikov