The Cossacks are an East Slavic ethnic group who have long retained independence from the Russian territorial zone. They exist in Crimea, Ukraine, South Caucasus, and even China. Brutally persecuted in Soviet Russia, Cossacks have now reassumed their legitimacy in the Russian national identity, building on their previous historical role as paid militia for the Russian Empire. A 2005 law reinstated this role under Putin and it has been ascertained that Cossack paramilitary activities in East Ukraine and Crimea constitute a form of proxy warfare under the implicit blessing of the Russian state.
On the evening of the 29th of June, 2014, however, bathed in cool, pink light, the Cossacks are not at war—they are onstage and singing. Upon the invitation of Lithuanian artist Deimantas Narkevičius (*1964), members of the St. Petersburg Academic Choirs performed a repertoire of traditional Cossack songs for the audience of Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg.
In the case of Sad Songs of War, Narkevičius' invitation is a clever move to push a stereotype around a corner, presenting us with the cultural face of a group internationally associated with parochial values and violence. The clip of Cossack guards whipping Pussy Riot sympathizers at the Sochi Winter Olympics is still fresh in our memories and this particular choir often receives performance requests from nationalist political groups. Here, however, they resist having their cultural tradition co-opted by the rising tide of Russian nationalism. Their performance for Manifesta 10's local and international audience channels a wish to present a peaceful and proud image of their culture to the world.
For me, this allows a quick collapse of one stereotype into another, since I know next to nothing about the Cossacks' rich cultural traditions and cannot understand the words of their songs or the significance of their costumes. I appreciate the bluntness of Narkevičius' gesture; the performance is enjoyable precisely because it is uncomfortable. What is going on here? The smoothness of the experience seems to slip up on a misunderstanding between the art world's fetishization of the authentic, on the one hand, and these Cossacks' desire to correct our assumptions, on the other.
Sad Songs of War points us towards a broader question about the relationship between culture and violence. I find it very difficult to locate this particular performance in relation to the above-described Cossack involvement in Crimea and Ukraine. There's an ambivalence at the heart of this dichotomy that cannot be ignored, an ambivalence that also sits at the heart of Manifesta 10 itself. Does the framework of art turn the viewer away from the local violence playing out nearby, just on the other side of the stage? Since both things exist in the same world, and indeed here uncomfortably overlap, how can we learn to recognize where one wavers into the other, and to be wary of where they cancel one another out?
When it comes to events like Manifesta, the art world can no longer lie to itself about the role it plays in broader geopolitical and economic contexts—this is becoming clear from the calls to boycott this, and other, global art events. In a context where Russian territorialism is causing untold suffering, Manifesta's current presence in St. Petersburg runs the risk of becoming a form of cultural whitewashing for nationalism under Putin. International events such as Manifesta and the Sochi Games become platforms to promote openness to the outside world, while Putin's regime maintains a claustrophobically conservative and territorially expansionary civic space within. As a post-Cold War European institution, Manifesta itself brings the ideological clout of the West, preaching values of openness and dialogue to an increasingly patriotic society where homophobia is legally sanctioned and territorial aggression implicitly supported. Try scanning through Pravda and you will find some fine examples. The Western media is no better, and one rarely addressed side effect of Manifesta's attempt at cultural dialogue is the fact that the West comes out feeling culturally smug. But in reality, Western Europe is still antsy about the situation in Ukraine. Nobody wants to see, for example, a repeat version of the 2006 gas crisis, which led to a four-day cut in European gas supplies in the middle of winter. Had Manifesta withdrawn from St. Petersburg two months ago, after Russia's annexation of Crimea, this move would certainly have contributed further to the political escalation of the situation.
In other words, the absence of Manifesta 10 from St. Petersburg would most certainly have made a difference to both regional and global geopolitical stakes. What of its presence? On the ground, things are always more complex, and of course every artwork that makes use of the highly politicized platform of Manifesta carries the potential to open a deeper awareness. My colleague Manus Groenen has written an article taking a closer look at some of the works in the Hermitage and General Staff Building that attempt to do just this.
Pavel Braila, Another Noon, 2014, Performance; Commissioned by MANIFESTA 10, St. Petersburg; With the support of the Institut fur Auslandbeziehungen e.V. Stuttgatt
Sad Songs of War is a part of Manifesta 10's Public Program, which is curated by Joanna Warsza and intervenes in the public, and sometimes private, spaces of St. Petersburg. For example, a series of week-long exhibitions in a charming artists' apartment on Marata Street give a nod to Leningrad's historic use of domestic space for political resistance; Russian/Estonian Kristina Norman will replicate Euromaidan’s half-finished Christmas tree in the square outside the Winter Palace; and Moldovan artist Pavel Braila has organized the traditional noon cannon shot from Petropavlovsk Fortress to be repeated at 12pm Eastern European time, referring to St. Petersburg's geographical affinity to Eastern Europe, rather than Russia proper. The Public Program thus introduces politically charged complications into existing “public” space, which in Russia is increasingly controlled (although it must be made clear that “civil security” measures such as anti-protest or homophobic legislation are not uniquely Russian). In these and other works, the Public Program openly attempts to engage with both the Soviet legacy and present geopolitical position of Putin's Russia. This engagement stands in contrast to Manifesta 10 more generally.
Upon my own second visit to the main exhibition of Manifesta 10 in the General Staff Building, I encountered an obstacle. The central part of the entrance had been annexed by a corporate display and fancy dinner promoting the yet-to-be-completed St. Petersburg Expo building. Showcased in digital 3D imaging, the streamlined Expo structure will be located next to a wondrous high-tech reconstruction of a historical Orthodox church, all proudly paid for by Gazprom (Russia's state-owned natural gas monopoly recently engaged in deadlocking Ukraine over unpaid bills). Also included in the display was a prominent mention of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
In her 2011 essay Art as Occupation, artist and cultural critic Hito Steyerl writes that “art is part of an uneven global system, one that underdevelops some parts of the world, while overdeveloping others—and the boundaries between both areas interlock and overlap.” She argues that in the last two centuries, artists pushed for autonomy from any form of value production, attempting to separate their work from artificial use-value systems and hierarchical power, collapsing it, instead, into life itself. The Director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, also claims an autonomous (albeit institutional) “territory of art” where works might play out their complexities freed from external economic or political factors. This, however, simply perpetuates a myth of the autonomy of culture that has long since come to an end. Rather than art occupying life, Steyerl asserts, life has become occupied by art, in the sense that creative capital is an integral part of every transaction and exchange. It's no accident that the temporary showcase for St. Petersburg's new Expo building was located inside the EU Biennale. The openness that contemporary art brings with it is also a trump card when luring investors.
Apartment Art as Domestic Resistance, 2014, Curated by Olesya Turkina and Roman Osminkin; Commissioned by MANIFESTA 10, St. Petersburg
It is not that the works on display in Manifesta 10, some of them very fine works indeed, must all directly justify their presence by addressing the political situation on the ground, though it is interesting that there is so much pressure for them to do so. This has a lot to do with the curatorial framing of the Biennial. Vague and contradictory statements about the “complexity” art brings to politics, the need to respect local laws whilst avoiding censorship, or the push for “cultural dialogue” do not go nearly far enough, as Chto Delat, the Russian collective who withdrew their work, pointed out. The onus has moved to the art itself to address the political situation precisely because the curatorial structure of the Biennale lacks a focused, honest, self-critical framework that thoroughly analyzes its own complicity within a highly ambivalent and unstable geopolitical context.
No platform is ever “clean” and the best artists possess a keen sensibility to address such tangled situations. The strangeness of art can and will always open a certain breathing space for some careful thinking, as Narkevičius' performance piece Sad Songs for War has done. But here's the rub: culture can be co-opted at any point in time to present a clean image of the brutality that exists just on the other side of the stage. This is both the potential and the danger for any human: you can pass, so easily, through the thin separation from one side to the other. The division hinges on illusion only, the cardboard walls of the cultural institution. The wonder is that, in such situations, art is still possible; the danger is that it can so easily become a means to render violence opaque. Everything is near.
(Image on top: Deimantas Narkevičius, Sad Songs of War, 2014, Musical performance of Cossack choirs, LenDoc Documentary Film Studio, St. Petersburg, Thursday, 26 June, 2014; Commissioned by MANIFESTA 10, St. Petersburg)