"Creating graffiti involves taking ownership of the streets, just like we did during the uprising," Ganzeer told one reporter. "And so of course it's political, and illegal."4
Similar language might be used to characterize the actions of the Russian art collective Voina. The group claims to rely on no Russian curators or galleries, to cooperate with no state or private institutions and to have no sources of funding whatsoever. Carrying out shockingly provocative, not to mention highly dangerous, activities, Voina thrives on the kind of radical independence that violates most political and artistic conventions, and breaks not a few laws.
Voina, whose name means "war," has throughout its outrageous history both gained and alienated the sympathies of Russia's artists, its youth and many mainstream opponents of the Putin regime. Founded in 2006 and consisting of like-minded artists and philosophy students from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the collective carries out an inventive, performance-based campaign against authoritarianism, political corruption and the Russian government's arbitrary use of power. In February 2008, on the eve of the election of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, five naked couples, including a pregnant woman, staged an orgy inside Moscow's Timirayzev State Museum of Biology. The title of the action: Fuck for the Heir Medvedev's Little Bear! (Medvedev's name is derived from medved, Russian for "bear.")
Other equally incendiary actions followed. In 2009, Voina smuggled guitars, microphones and amplifiers into a federal courtroom to perform a satirical song titled "All Cops Are Bastards" in front of a judge presiding over the case of curator Andrei Yerofeyev, on trial for organizing the 2007 exhibition "Forbidden Art" at the Andrei Sakharov Museum in Moscow. To protest Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's homophobic and racist comments—as well as the city's inaction after a string of sometimes deadly hate crimes against immigrants—the group mock-lynched gay men and immigrant workers inside a busy supermarket.
In the summer of 2010, Voina produced what remains their most popular "installation": they painted a huge phallus on a 200-foot-tall drawbridge in St. Petersburg, in full view of the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (successor to the KGB). As images of the functioning drawbridge hit the news and the web, a Voina spokesman claimed the phallus was aroused by Putin's power.
Despite opposition among some members of a seven-judge panel, the artwork was awarded the Ministry of Culture's prestigious Innovation Prize that year (approximately $14,000). "No one wanted to look like a conformist," declared Yerofeyev, who, ironically, served as a judge.5 He said the panel eventually became convinced that Voina's mockery of state power was already so popular that ignoring it would itself constitute a statement.
Not content to bask in the glow of official honors, Voina upped the ante. On New Year's Eve 2011, in protest of the repeated incarceration and beating of several of its members, the group set fire to a police truck in the courtyard of a St. Petersburg police station. In a prepared statement, the group dedicated this "fire gift" to Russian political prisoners everywhere. As with previous Voina actions, details of the "street performance" were rapidly disseminated online.
Although this act-as well as an earlier campaign of overturning police cars, for which members were prosecuted and, astoundingly, exonerated-might be dismissed by some as mere hooliganism, the collective has gained wide recognition for escalating protests against the Russian state. An international support network of artists, activists and human rights advocates has emerged. Last November saw the group's appointment as associate curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale (on view through July 1). "Free Voina" banners have appeared in places as far away from Moscow as Zurich and Brooklyn. Additionally, in February 2011—in a generous act of solidarity and possibly even artistic deference-Banksy bailed out several of Voina's jailed members to the tune of $10,000 each.
One of Voina's members describes the group's artistic mission this way: "We work on the thin line between activism and art. . . . All our actions have underlying political messages, but we use art language only. We speak in images, symbols, which are mostly visual. In the current socio-political situation in Russia, an honest artist can't be mute and make glamorous ‘masterpieces' for oligarchs, who decorate their ‘brilliant' dachas."6
The similarities between Voina's aims and those of the Mexican artist Teresa Margolles are remarkable, especially if one considers their geographical distance from each other. Having been described as "one of the unchallenged representatives of a new minimal body art,"7
Margolles works with human corpses, underscoring the anonymous effects of global poverty as well as the social and political disenfranchisement of millions of her fellow Mexicans. Since Margolles obtained a diploma in forensic medicine in the 1990s, her métier has been, simply put, the social and political economy of death. When touching on Mexico's runaway narco-violence-one day last September, 35 bodies were dumped in full daylight on a congested avenue in Veracruz-her work turns cathartic and visionary.