An Interview With Petr Pavlensky: Anarchist Artist Nails His Balls to the Red Square, So You Don’t Have To

11.18.13 Marina Galperina

Last week, artist Petr Pavlensky nailed himself to the ground near Kremlin in the Red Square, “by the balls” — technically, the scrotum — and it echoed dramatically in the press.

Though he was initially detained and released without charges, he is now facing a vague “hooliganism” charge and up to five years in jail. I spoke to the artist at length this weekend, over the phone in Russian — about the recent developments in case, about Pussy Riot, about art, forms of resistance and the Russian society’s passive fixations, about physical pain, jail and other phobias.

He says he’s not a performance artist, but an actionist — if you must classify him. He has no political alliances. Ideologically, he’s an Anarchist. This is our interview. Stay tuned.

Has international press attention directly impacted the investigation and resulted in charges now suddenly being filed against you?

To charge me with anything, plaintiffs had to be located. I learned through a link to a forum that a group called “The Society of Resistance Against Russophobia” (or something like that) filed a complaint. How will this unravel? I understand what context I am in, politically; I account for my actions. To me, the consequences – the authority’s reaction, its displeasure – may express itself in several forms. I’m in a dialogue with the authority.

I only learned about the criminal case against me on Friday by reading Interfax. I got an official notice later, but no one arrested or officially issued me with travel restrictions. I am free, technically, so I have an opportunity to flee. This is that dialogue with the authority: They are shaking their finger at me, as if I should flee, but if I did, I would discredit myself. If the authority is actually initiating the legal process of imprisoning me, it will be yet another nail in their coffin — a foolish, major act of discrediting itself. It will win nothing. The authority initiates this demonstrative process so others will fear it. If I go to jail, another will appear; may be one, may be many. This is not to going to end. It is why art exists: To work with the plane of information and create cultural incidents. All people exist within this field; everything is connected.

Petr Pavlensky, Fixation (2013)

I’ve contacted a lawyer, Dmitry Dinze, to help me with the legal aspects, but I’m not running anywhere.

I have no property. They can’t take anything proprietary away from me. They can only continue with their legal processes over my body.

But if they initiate the stages of their beaurocratic prerogative — this machine that I am being included into as a person allegedly breaking the law — they will only make the metaphors of my action explicit. The debauched authority’s apparatus of abuse in its relationship with society — they are translating it into explicit actions towards me. They initiate the process of explication.

So, you were not arrested or charged, initially, so the police can put on airs of being the good guys, as if they haven’t and aren’t persecuting you and there is no debauchery in their system? Is that why needed to find a victim that allegedly suffered from your alleged crime in order to charge you, like they did with Pussy Riot when they found some babushkas who were psychologically damaged by witnessing their intervention – not in person, but on YouTube, or better yet, through Pussy Riot’s extremely exaggerated, antagonizing Kremlin media coverage?

The investigator – or the politician, or the bureaucrat – does not file the complaints. They’re filed by some representative of the population. In the times of the Reich and the Stalinist Era, the NKVD and the Gestapo were omniscient not because of their omnipresence or their numbers, but because they were enabled by the population, by people reporting on one another, etc, etc, etc. The people who corroborate the authority’s agenda will always exist, and they fulfill that function not internally, but through their citizen status.

Caption: “SUICIDE ATTEMPT: Artist Petr Pavlensky hospitalized after loud action.”

I really appreciate the documentation that you present with your work. The Fixation statement was succinct and direct. Curator Marat Guelman and artist Oleg Kulik (who have both faced censorship, legal persecution and even “extremism” charges for their practice) voiced support, but I am disappointed in their commentary. Kulik
 paralleled you to Jesus Christ, though you explicitly stated you are neither influenced by nor referencing Christian mythology. Guelman attributed the action to some forced linage of Viennese Actionists, which seems petty and regressive. But I’m especially disappointed in their daftness to irony: You specifically stated that Fixation was a metaphor of and against the Russian people’s passivity within the corrupt, abuse apparatus of the authority. They read Fixation as a hopeless action of desperation and resignation as an artist in Russia, the opposite of your explicitly voiced intent.  I wonder if they even read it, before they gave those interviews. It is not a good thing to nail yourself to the Kremlin by the balls, obviously. You did not mean “This is the only thing I can do,” you meant “You are doing this, don’t!” Am I right?

Those are different interpretations. That’s normal.

So, Guelman read it as a “Manifesto of Helplessness.” It’s not. I was pointing to the fixation on helplessness, a fixation that the people must overcome. I’m a regular person; I live in the same society they do; I function within the same plane of information; I read the same news; I have the same passions and phobias; I feel the same pains. And I try to use these as resources as much as possible to show that I am not serving any duty. That I am not speaking for anyone. That my actions do not demand any financial support.

In reality, a person can have a dialogue with society and the authority. This is particular one sure, but people speak in languages and forms they understand. I am showing passivity – I’m not calling to people to do what I did, literally, right? I am not asking people to hammer nails through their scrotums. I am taking this radical form to call people to action – their own, in their own chosen form.

Petr Pavlensky the trial of Pussy Riot outside the Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg (2012)

What is your political affiliation? What are you feelings about the opposition movement? 

I am not a member of any party or any political organization. I strongly believe an artist shouldn’t be part of an organization, because they nurture a sort of collectivist sentiment and work toward dogmas. I strive for the Anarchist ideal. Anarchy is a total departure from that totalitarian point where every government is heading.

We are all within that vector; every person is born under a whip, under the authority’s apparatus of abuse which the government relies upon for power; a system directed at pressuring the people.

To not be crushed completely, a person must resist the system. A person must strive toward a point of reversal in order to keep himself above water, I think. If you don’t, you will sink under the planes of disciplinary institutions.

I have no interest in any specific politician. Who is there, realistically? Navalny? Navalny is a Nationalist and Nationalism is a form of Fascism. They’re practically the same thing.

What do you think of president Putin?

Really? [Laughter] What can I even say about Putin? There’s this wonderful photograph of him — black and white, from the ‘80s. A protest near the Kazan Cathedral is being broken up, the protestors are detained or beaten and Putin is presiding over all this in a silly little hat.

“V. Putin presiding over detainment and beating of USSR opposition. Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg (1989)” from Yuly Rybakov’s “My Century”

That is the person he was – a state man who would come and sniff out dissent, and then point his finger at who to arrest.

This is the structure from which he came – the KGB, etc. – and that structure persists in the current government, post-Perestroika, post-transplantation of some American ideology, etc. etc.

Putin hails from a group of siloviks with regulatory thinking and beliefs, trained to behave towards people in a specific manner, to control territories under them. They have been doing this all their lives. This is what they know how to do. What else? Shall I talk about Putin’s stealing? That’s understood. There’s a group; he’s just the face of that team.

I think that photograph speaks better than I do. He’s uniformed, grey and nondescript, in that silly little hat, just pointing his finger.

When you say you’re calling people to an action of their choosing, what do you mean? Do you think there is a specific, concrete course of action the people should take to succeed in their resistance or… to each his own?

Effective resistance can’t spontaneously occur in one location (like the Square), where everything at once is resolved.

Resistance should occur in several locations — for example, in the factories of corporations.

Every person occupies a particular space and sphere of influence — for example, the educational system.

It is a loosing tactic to just show up in the Square. As in, “We’re off work, let’s all grab some beers and then go stand around in the Square.”

This form of protest, dictated to the people, ceases to be a real form of resistance; It’s recreation. Passing time. They stand around, show their number to each other, and then leave. Forms of resistance must vary.

Russian riot police disperse opposition protesters in downtown Moscow on Sunday, May 6, 2012 via SF Gate

As an artist, I’ve been pulled into certain educational channels and took part in actions of resistance, in forced concepts. I did not complete the government accreditation on principle. I left because there occurred this ideological freeze, this standardization of the artist — a transformation of an artist into service personnel, personnel serving federal organizations. I thought it would be a shame to me. What could I possibly say, if I had successfully completed this process?

How long does it take you to conceive, formulate and prepare for your action, mentally and physically?

It comes together gradually through compiled fragments. I observe the circumstances; a provoking incident occurs. In the Square, I saw people walking about, looking around, with the operatives of the government walking through the crowd, keeping watch. I realized, this very place is the site where admiring of the authority takes place. And then everything congealed — a declaration, through a specific visual code, tied to this specific place.

My technical preparations for Fixation took three weeks.

Pavlensky, St. Petersburg (2013)

You’ve said that you consider pain a phobia, but physically, but how do you prepare for something like this?

Pain implies no meaning in my actions. It is not an element of communication in my work. It’s not a factor I emphasize.

My preparation is much more psychological than physical. If any unpredicted physical damage occurs during the action, it’s not a big deal. I’m practical; I am not beating a nail into my forehead or into my eye. I am not nailing my testicles, but the flesh of the scrotal sac.

When I was inside the barbed wire, the spikes were only about 2cm long. They scratch and puncture the flesh, but what is that, really? That heals.

I approach things realistically. I do not have phobic fantasies.

There is also this element in the sensation of pain: The actions take place outside and to realize them, the situation is quite extreme, which causes a flood of adrenaline. Also, typically, it’s cold outside, which also lowers the sensation of pain.

Did you expect the legal wrath?

It did not come as a shock to me. It’s not like I’ve been going about enjoying my life and suddenly, some misfortune has crashed on me. I’m calm.

As I plan, I prepare a course of action to overcome the phobias forced by the government and educational institutions, the fear of jail, shame, and so on. These continuing, demonstrative legal processes against Pussy Riot are there to formulate a fear in the people. If I fall into the same fear, I corroborate the authority’s apparatus of abuse and I join their side.

Since I am speaking to this fear, I myself need to overcome it.