Free Fall Off A Sky Scraper. Every day: Art. Solidarity. Resistance
Artistic Practice (18/18)

Free Fall Off A Sky Scraper. Every day: Art. Solidarity. Resistance

In May 2021, 100 Belarusian artists, activists, and intellectuals dedicated to grassroots, anti-totalitarian resistance joined together in Kyiv, Ukraine to exhibit works of tactical performance art, underground documentary films, and other evidence of popular struggle against President Lukashenko’s autocratic policies.

Over the last few years, a popular joke from the 1995 movie La Haine by Mathieu Kassovitz has come back in style. It goes like this. “Have you heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he keeps saying to reassure himself: ‘so far, so good … so far, so good … so far, so good.’ How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”

For many in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, the full descent into fascism and the inevitable death splatter has not happened yet. But for those in Belarus, fascism’s boot has been pressed firmly on the neck of the country for nearly three decades. Censorship has become de jure, while artists and journalists are routinely imprisoned, often for charges as oblique and ill-defined as “offending the fatherland”. Foreign non-governmental organizations operating in the countrysuch as those supporting women’s or queer rights—are barred from accepting foreign cash donations, leaving very few options for young Belarusians who desire change within the country. Trending toward complete authoritarianism, many in the landlocked Eastern European country have had enough.

In August 2020, tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest an election that United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights, Miklós Haraszti, described as “neither free nor fair”. The protests erupted days after President Alexander Lukashenko was ushered in his 6th term in office. With an estimated 250,000 taking to the streets, and the world watching, the self-described “last dictator of Europe” swiftly and predictably ordered police to violently repress the demonstrators. 

In the ensuing months, Lukashenko made international headlines by forcing a commercial jet flying over Belarusian territory to land so that police could arrest and imprison an opposition journalist. He has ordered the arrests of hundreds more, including Vitold Ashurka, a politician who died while in police custody in May 2021. But with the world transfixed on the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and ongoing security threats from ISIS, it seems that many in the West are overlooking the bleak reality that many Belarusians face on the very doorstep of Europe. 

The events taking place in Belarus today will lay the foundation for the next generation, but for many who remain in the country change in regime could not come any sooner. In addition to gross mismanagement and economic stagnation, the former Soviet republic has tried to play both sides in post-Cold War Europe by offering concessions to the West and the EU without alienating its most important and reliable partner in Russia. During the last year, however, Lukashenko has done plenty to alienate EU and Western partners thanks to his decision to violently quash protests and arbitrarily jail opposition figures, actions which have led to new sanctions against Belarus. 

Ales Pushkin’s re-enactment of the action A Gift to the President for Five Years of Fruitful Work!, originally displayed on June 21, 1999 in Minsk, Belarus to mark President Lukashenko’s final day in office. Pushkin re-created A Gift to the President on March 23, 2021 at Arsenal gallery in Kyiv. [i]

The struggle for visibility within the country’s art and cultural sector is of course very minor compared to some of Belarus’s domestic and geopolitical problems. Nevertheless, if one takes the Breitbart Doctrine at face value––the idea that “politics is downstream from culture”––it follows that some of the country’s leading artists and intellectuals may have some interesting, critical, and perhaps even revolutionary approaches to art.

Ulyana Nevzorova, This Poster Could be the Reason for my Detention happening, Minsk, 2020.

In May 2021, nearly 100 artists, theorists, activists, and grassroots organizations from Belarus and its diaspora came together for an exhibition entitled КОЖНЫ ДЗЕНЬ: МАСТАЦТВА. САЛІДАРНАСЦЬ. СУПРАЦІЎ [Every day: Art. Solidarity. Resistance] at the Mystetskyi Arsenal gallery in Kyiv, Ukraine. The exhibition drew inspiration from tactics of resistance, ranging from street art and graffiti to protest and performance art, and functioned as a collective expression of opposition to Lukashenko’s rule. 

The sprawling exhibition and post-exhibition reader highlighted how oppositional artists in Belarus are operating today. The exhibition glossary and concept was co-curated by Sergey Shabohin, Maxim Tyminko, Antonina Stebur, Marina Naprushkina, Andrei Dureika and Aleksei Borisionok, who were driven by a shared desire to look at the political power of art as a vehicle with which to spur social awareness, political change, and new models that could function in opposition to existing political power structures in Belarus and elsewhere. 

A central element of Alena Davidovich’s work is the popular slogan for the women’s and feminist movement “Fight Like a Girl”. Davidovich has said: “The wall painting was made to draw attention to a new creative approach in non-violent resistance where the game changers were mostly women.”

The common slogan shouted at protests across Belarus is “Everyday”. Similarly, the works displayed at the exhibition “shout” their dissent from the walls. Upon entering the gallery space in Kyiv, the first thing one hears are sounds of protest blaring from the speakers. The exhibition is intentionally bereft of headphones was a curatorial decision, says Borisionok, intended to create a cacophony of protest chants and noises. “We wanted visitors to hear the sounds of protests as they entered the gallery, to feel the sounds as a visceral connection to protest movements in a way visitors could instantly connect with and relate to.” 

With the sounds and video displayed in the gallery, the exhibition effectively employs the documentation of violence to address the mechanisms of state security. In doing so, they position art within its archival function, allowing visitors to see, hear and understand the mechanisms of Lukashenko’s brutal state violence.

Vika Mitrichenko, Amusing Pictures Ceramic tiles, overglaze drawings. 180×300 cm, 2021. [ii]

The notion of protest choreography is one of the exhibition’s key themes. It refers to tactics used by artists and activists with their body as the main medium. This can be solidarity chains or single-person demonstrations, assemblies with thousands of people, walks around residential neighbourhoods, parties, concerts or a combination of these forms. “Unlike the passiveness of political language and monologue,” the organizers write, “an important feature of protest choreography is shared bodily experience.”

One of the crucial phrases underlying and giving voice to this definition is used by activist Nina Baginskaya, who repeatedly says “I’m walking” when stopped on the street by riot police. Or the phrase “I’m going out!” The last text message sent by Raman Bandarenka, the 31-year-old Minsk-based artist and activist who died at the hands of Belarusian authorities during demonstrations against Lukashenko in 2020. The tragic circumstances surrounding Bandarenka’s murder was not lost on those who attended the exhibition, many of whom have come to see him as a martyr for the Belarusian cause.  

Social Marble: The Rise of Civil Society in Belarus. Sergey Shabohin’s archive of a 20-day procedural exhibition. Multimedia installation, 2020. [iii]

Bergamot, one of Belarus’s most iconic performance art groups, Volha Maslouskaya and Raman Tratsiuk installed a video that reverberates through the halls of the Arsenal as a way to directly address the troubling and often terrifying tactics employed by the country’s shadowy security apparatus. In Flight, a three-minute video shot during a residency in a village close to Brest, the group unveils how detentions are often carried out by masked officers in black, with no identification, recorded only via phone cameras. 

Jana Shostak, the Warsaw-based Belarusian artist, initiated interventions using only her voice. Shostak gained fame after her one-minute performance screaming for Belarus was broadcast across Polish TV and popular culture––an action she does in order to draw attention to the blatant misconduct of Belarusian authorities. Shostak employs the scream to comment on the hopelessness and despair many continue to experience in Belarus today, galvanizing communities and the media to stop, pause and reflect for one-minute. The performance has become legendary for the manner in which she infiltrates political, social and media spheres. 

Nadya Sayapina’s multimedia installation Dollhouse depicts the artist and her cellmates’ personal experiences in the Akrescina and Zhodino pre-trial detention centers. It was not only an experience of fear and frustration, but also solidarity, caring, and “quiet” tactics of resistance. Caring for each other, empathy, interpersonal relationships, support systems and sisterhood––forming lines of solidarity where weakness opposes strength and imagination becomes a political tool.

КОЖНЫ ДЗЕНЬ: МАСТАЦТВА. САЛІДАРНАСЦЬ. СУПРАЦІЎ [Every day: Art. Solidarity. Resistance] sheds light on how new tactile forms of resistance are taking shape online. One example is Outsourcing Paradise (2019-2021) by the collective eeefff, which encapsulates how code-based computer algorithms can create networks of resistance that double as art. The project grew out of their research into outsourcing––the hidden labor supporting many platforms and IT companies. eeefff created a fictional space in which labourers can discuss themes like alienation and the possibility of “algorithmic solidarity” among the so-called “digital proletariat.” They take the installation of an office fun zone to blur the boundary between work and play, effectively deaccessioning IT from its capitalistic deployment. 

The exhibition also includes archives and protest imagery from pan-European comrades Dan Perjovschi, Nikita Kadan, Karol Radziszewski, as well as Slavs and Tatars artists. But what makes the exhibition distinctive is that it is tactile provocation of activist struggles in Belarus and an example of how art can function politically.

Olia Sosnovskaya & a.z.h’s The F-Word (2021) refers to the current protests in Belarus, political struggle, and state violence through the discourse of fascism. The topic of fascism and victory over it has for a long time been central to the contemporary state ideology of Belarus. Since the start of the uprising after the 2020 presidential elections, both the state and the protestors accuse each other of fascism. In turn, these positions are criticized by the academic community for historical untruths. The video, part of the “Armed and Dangerous” project, traces this symbolic struggle and the political, social, affective and symbolic effects it produces.

The ability for Belarusian artists to develop creative new ways to resist is one of the other keys emanating from the exhibition. In an installation by Sergey Shabohin, the artist, curator, activist, and founder and chief editor of the portal of contemporary Belarusian art, ArtAktivist.org, reveals layers of paradox and irony installed on the streets of Minsk. Shabohin’s installation consists of an archive of a 20-day procedural exhibition and a multimedia installation that refers to the metaphor of “social marble” — a cheap marble-patterned plastic film that municipal services in Belarus use to cover up graffiti on real marble. The work includes texts, photographs, terms, quotes, documents printed and glued on the wall from dozens of activists who contributed to the Social Marble. What makes the project so unique is its tactile relationship to activist struggles in the country, an example of how artists are utilizing different media to undermine state control over information in public space. 

red and white embroidery of farm collective workers lives and struggle.
The History of Belarusian Vyzhyvanka, cross-stitch embroidery, 45×735 cm, Rufina Bazlova, 2020–21. [iv]

While the basis of direct action may seem palpable to some, especially in response to the Lukashenko regime and the massive protests that have been erupting as a result, other artists in the exhibition take more subtle approaches to intervening in discussions around art and politics. Andrei Dureika’s wall painting displayed in Arsenal, for example, was initially an attempt by the artist to understand the situation in Ukraine. In 2015, he painted the phrase “There are no words…” on a street in St Petersburg in response to Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. The work, now displayed inside a gallery in Kyiv, along with dozens of other Belarusian artists who are now in the midst of a political crisis of their own, seems especially pertinent today. With Belarus and Ukraine both seemingly in free fall, it’s anyone’s guess what the outcome of this may be. 

Returning to the famous joke from La Haine, perhaps the only words left are from the one falling from the skyscraper. “It’s how you land.”


Footnotes

[i] “A Gift for the President” is one of the most famous actions of contemporary Belarusian political art. It was a reaction to events in the country, including the end of Lukashenka’s first term as president on July 20, 1999. The artist went to the square in front of the Presidential Residence, dumped a cart of manure onto the asphalt, put devalued million ruble banknotes, the new constitution and an election poster with Alexander Lukashenko on top, and stuck a pitchfork into the pile with a banner saying “For five years of fruitful labor!” There was also a Belarusian red and green flag on the bottom of the cart. The flag and coat of arms used in the action are symbols of the regime and of Soviet restoration and refer to 1999 & 2021.

Replica of the object used in the action “A Present for the President ‘For Five Years of Fruitful Labor!’” held on June 21, 1999 at 38 Karl Marx Street in Minsk to the dramatic turning point in the modern history of Belarus — the 1995 referendum, after which the national symbols (the whitered-white flag and the Pahonya (“pursuit”) coat of arms) were abolished and Russian became an official language.

Ales Pushkin was detained almost immediately afterwards. The court sentenced him to two years of probation and five years of deprivation of rights. 17 years later, in 2016, after the exhibition “ZBOR. Belarusian Art Movement” at Izolyatsia space in Kyiv, Belarusian customs officials confiscated the photo of the action that was displayed at the exhibition and the work was declared extremist by the court.

[ii] In her work “Amusing Pictures,” Mitrichenko describes her experience in Belarus. This is a picture diary, a report on one day in the life of the artist. But at the same time it is also a record of the emotions felt when experiencing from a distance events that cannot be influenced. According to the artist, “Cultural heritage, the history of art, big social turbulences, global political and cultural shifts, they are just patchworks sewed together from a huge number of small peculiar stories, little insignificant events, family tales and personal anecdotes.” In sewing together this patch-work blanket out of visual quotes from contemporary and classical works, and fastening them with notes from her diaries, the artist turns reflections about censorship in art, professional activity and political crises into fascinating comics.

[iii] In this work, artist and activist Sergey Shabohin refers to the metaphor of “social marble” — the cheap marble-patterned plastic film that municipal services in Belarus use to cover up graffiti on real marble. “In this symbol is the capacious image of the political structure of modern Belarus, where caustic ‘capitalist’ aerosol pigments are so deeply absorbed into ‘Soviet’ marble that they can’t be washed off and all that remains is to cover them up with Chinese-made film.”

The archive documents how civil society in Belarus was born, with key prerequisites and dates; how protest moods emerged and were transformed; and how everything resulted in an organized, peaceful revolution. The documentary materials include a timeline of the rise and development of protests, as well as a glossary of the new civil society.

There are also texts, photographs, terms, quotes, references and dates in the form of documents printed and glued on the wall. Contributors: Vika Biran, Aleksey Bratochkin, Volha Hapeyeva, Mikhail Gulin, Yuliy Ilyuschenko, Andrei Karpeka, Alexei Kuzmich, Marina Naprushkina, Nadya Sayapina, Antonina Stebur, Irina Sukhiy, Nikolai Khalezin, Vladimir Tsesler, Olga Shparaga.

[iv] A vyshyvanka is a traditional Belarusian shirt with decorative embroidery. Artist Rufina Bazlova fills this method of embroidery with political context: she literally embroiders the history of the Belarusian protests, documenting and coding it without using traditional written narrative. Embroidery was always on the periphery in the hierarchy of the arts — the way the women who created the designs were excluded from history and deprived of their vote. For Rufina the use of embroidered is not only a return to a traditional Belarusian craft but also the inclusion of those excluded or deprived of the right to vote. “Weak” groups — women, pensioners, people with (un)limited abilities — play an important role in the Belarusian protests. As it turns out, a majority of the population are excluded from the political sphere. Embroidery was traditionally a collective practice: women gathered together to embroider and share stories. Embroidery is a practice of solidarity, both in terms of execution and from a formal perspective. The red crosses on the fabric are a metaphor of networks, coexistence and coupling. Finally, Rufina uses a play on words in the title of her work. In Belarusian, the words vyshyvats [to embroider] and vyzhyvats [to survive] rhyme and differ by one letter. “The History of Belarusian Vyzhyvanka” underscores the unprecedented level of state aggression against protesters.

[v] The video refers to the current protests in Belarus, political struggle and state violence through the discourse of fascism. The topic of fascism and victory over it has for a long time been central to the contemporary state ideology of Belarus. Since the start of the uprising after the 2020 presidential elections, both the state and the protestors accuse each other of fascism. In turn, these positions are criticized by the academic community for historical untruths. The video traces this symbolic struggle and the political, social, affective and symbolic effects it produces.

Editor’s Note: Every day: Art. Solidarity. Resistance was curated for ArtsEverywhere’s Artistic Practice series by Nikolay Oleynikov.

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