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Analysis & Opinion
22.02.11 Free Voina!
By Rosemary Griffin

Anarchist Russian art collective Voina was celebrating this week when a St. Petersburg court ruled that group members Oleg Vorotnikov and Leonid Nikolaev should be released on bail. The pair still face stiff penalties if found guilty of charges of hooliganism and inciting hatred against the police, however, leading some in the artistic community to see their prosecution as part of a broader trend of repression.

At the first custody extension hearing held on Monday, judge Tarasov ruled that there had been unreasonable delays in Vorotnikov’s case and cited his permanent address, good record with employers and lack of a motive to flee prosecution as reasons why he should be released upon paying 300,000 rubles ($10,000) bail within ten days. At a separate hearing held earlier today judge Tarasov ordered that Nikolaev should also be released on 300,000 ruble
bail.

The two artists are being prosecuted for their involvement in Voina’s “Palace Revolution” – a protest against corruption in the police force, which involved turning police cars upside down, as seen on one member’s blog.
Speaking at a press conference held in Moscow timed to coincide with Vorotnikov’s court hearing, ex state gallery Curator Andrei Erofeev criticized government figures for not doing enough to get the imprisoned artists out of jail. “The Public Chamber, the State Duma – they have not reacted. There are artists that are members of these institutions,” Erofeev said.

A heavy handed response from the authorities and indifference from some of the more powerful members of the artistic community is something Erofeev has experienced himself. He was found guilty of “inciting hatred” for his role in “Forbidden Art 2006,” an exhibition shown at the Sakharov Museum, last year ruled to be offensive to Christians. Erofeev was fined 150,000 rubles ($5,000) as a result.

The BBC Russian Service reported on Tuesday that Nikolaev had filed a case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg against Russia.

But while the Interior Ministry is prosecuting members of Voina, the Ministry of Culture may be on the verge of giving them an award. On February 10, the group was named as one of five nominees in the visual art category for an “Innovation” award, carrying a prize of 250,000 rubles ($8,500.) The prize is organized by the National Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA), a state-owned museum, exhibition and research organization aiming to develop and promote contemporary Russian art.

Director General of the NCCA Mikhail Mindlin told Russia Profile that the decision was not political and nominees are selected solely based on the quality of their work. “Political activity and defining any political meaning in their work is not the task or function of the expert’s council and the jury, and they therefore don’t look at that,” Mindlin said.

Nevertheless members of Voina were not impressed with the nomination and chose to distance themselves from the award, appealing to other nominees and members of the jury to boycott it.

Alexei Plutser-Sarno, one of Voina’s leaders who fled to Estonia following his colleagues’ arrests released a statement saying that Voina has nothing to do with the nomination. “We consider the Innovation award dirty money from the Mafioso-like authorities – by giving artists money, they are testing their conformism and loyalty to the executioners of Russian contemporary art,” reads Plutser-Sarno’s statement on the “Free Voina” Web site.

Voina was nominated for its “Dick captured by KGB,” which involved artists painting an enormous penis on the Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg. When the bridge opened, the image faced the St. Petersburg headquarters of the FSB security services. Photos of the penis were extremely popular on the internet, among political activists and artists, as well as those just looking for a quick laugh online.

Erofeev, a member of the jury for the Innovation awards, praised Voina’s ability to express social protest in accessible street language. “This phallus, this sign, is the artists’ answer to the indifference of the authorities and society,” he said.

The ability to create iconic performances has also proved to be a good base from which to launch the campaign to free Vorotnikov and Nikolaev. The group’s notoriety has garnered them column inches at home and a cult following outside Russia, with fellow artists and activists calling for Vorotnikov and Nikolaev’s release. British artist Banksy pledged royalties from a print sale estimated at $130,000 to the “Free Voina!” campaign in December. Other acts of support have included petitions launched in Poland and a mural produced by several art groups including Artists for Israel in New York, last week depicting Vorotnikov and Nikolaev behind bars.

But whether this week’s rulings, a government award and fame abroad will save Voina from the fate of fellow artists who have angered the wrong people, remains to be seen.

Erofeev is not optimistic and sees their prosecution as part of a wider trend to pressure certain members of the artistic community. “The authorities are actually fighting these artists. It is part of a trend of bullying artists that has been going on for the last ten years,” he said. “I call on responsible people, if they exist, in the Ministry of Culture and the State Duma to speak out and stop this illegal case.”
The source
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