The Innovation state prize in contemporary art was awarded at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture on Thursday evening. The ceremony was controversial long before it was even held as two major political projects were on the short list. The top nominee for “Work of Visual Art” was Penis Held Captive by the FSB. The nomination stems from an event staged by the Voyna (War) art group, which drew an enormous penis on St Petersburg’s Liteyny Drawbridge in 23 seconds in the early hours of 14 June 2010. When the drawbridge rose up, the penis stood there perfectly in front of the Federal Security Service (FSB) building. In the category of “Regional Project”, one of the nominees was Novosibirsk artist Artyom Loskutov and his "Monstration", an annual demonstration held on 1 May in which the people carry signs with the most absurd and ridiculous slogans such as "Yyyt", “Chunga-Changa", “Why are you so nervous?” and “Tanya, don’t cry!”. Several thousand people took part in Monstration 2010 with such demonstrations being held in a dozen or so Russian cities.
At the time, the decision to nominate major street campaigns appeared to be acceptable free-thinking and a desire on the part of the organisers to attract as much attention as possible. Just after Voyna (War) was nominated, people even wanted to remove the group from the list because none of its members had confirmed their nomination. But the public protested and Voyna retained the nomination.
In addition to the political theme of the event, the nominees were also united by both Loskutov and two members of the Voyna group currently being under investigation. Loskutov is accused of insulting police officers (witnesses claim this never occurred), while Voyna is accused of disorderly conduct against police officers (for the “Palace Coup” event in which they overturned police cars).
On Thursday, Loskutov, Leonid Nikolayev (Lyonya F..ked Up) and Oleg Vorotnikov (Vor) learned that they had another thing in common: they had all won the Innovation prize. In addition to the prize itself, an iron plate with the word “Innovation” carved in it, the winners will also receive a cash prize: Voyna will receive 400,000 roubles, while Loskutov’s regional project will receive 200,000 roubles.
Artyom Loskutov was presented with his prize on the Garage stage; He personally came to Moscow to receive the award. Nobody from Voyna showed up. The winners spoke with Novaya Gazeta on the matter.
Voyna Group: The Interior Ministry’s award was better
Novaya Gazeta: How did you feel about winning?
Koza: This prize will help us pull the wool over the cops’ eyes even more and much more profoundly. The cultural centre gave us a protective letter to mess with cops!
Vor: We’ve been given carte blanche to chew them out.
Lyonya: I’m not very concerned with the state prize. Our police state has awarded myself and Vor even better. We’re facing up to seven years in our criminal case. One could say that the Interior Ministry got its act together more quickly than the Culture Ministry. The cops snookered the culture officials again.
NG: Was your nomination unexpected?
Vor: We would have won anyhow. The authorities were well aware of this, so they didn’t agonise over it and surrendered to the mercy of the victors.
NG: Be honest, is it a nice feeling?
Vor: I took no notice. The glitterati are hanging out in Moscow, the government’s involved with this award and a director has even been appointed for the ceremony. Meanwhile, we’re sitting at a secret anarchist hideout and handling the affairs of political prisoners. Many of them are being locked up now.
Koza: A letter just arrived. An activist writes that the cops just raided their squatting place. On 6 April, another one of our activists, Little Beautiful Anarchist, received a call from the Centre for Combating Extremism and they invited her in for a talk. The extremism officials are demanding a written explanation. This doesn’t even count the threats to bring criminal charges against me for escape and allegedly assaulting a cop – supposedly I beat a copy at the 78th district station on 1 April. That’s a lie. They beat me. The cops broke my leg with the door on the jail cell. Vor also has two new charges, although the prosecutor won’t even provide information on the criminal case to the group’s lawyer, Dima Dinza.
NG: Why didn’t you come to receive the award? Because of a signed acknowledgement not to leave the region?
Lyonya: Violating the signed acknowledgement isn’t a problem. I’ve already openly violated it twice when I went to court in Smolensk to see Taisia Osipova on 25 March and when I went to Moscow to talk with my associates. Osipova needs urgent help from all of our society. Her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, is one of the leaders of the Other Russia party, and in order to put pressure on him, the Centre for Combating Extremism carried out a full operation to plant drugs on Taisia with witnesses from [the pro-government organisations] Nashi and the United Russia youth group. Now she’s facing a ten-year prison sentence. We are following her case, paying the lawyers and trying to draw the public’s attention to this. During a recent meeting in Prague, human rights defender Oksana Chelysheva told presidential advisor Mikhail Fedotov about Osipova’s case and gave him my human rights report. Osipova is suffering from diabetes, she had to leave her young daughter on the outside and the government wants to take away her daughter through the board of trustees and the prosecutor. This is what we are really worried about right now.
NG: Is the prize a sufficient appraisal of your creative work?
Vor: The prize hasn’t added anything to our success.
NG: What are you going to spend the money on?
Vor: All the needs of the political prisoners and their defenders. Koza will spend her money on an orphanage.
Artyom Loskutov: It’s a good thing the experts weren’t frightened
To be honest, I didn’t expect or think they would give it to me. But it’s great that they did. This will now be an asset in our standoff with the local authorities. From what we hear, the Novosibirsk authorities weren’t very happy that Monstration and I had even made the short list. We didn’t just make the list, we won. We have to submit a petition in a week to hold the next Monstration and now it’s like the Culture Ministry is on our side. That’s nice.
It’s fantastic that they awarded Voyna. That’s how it should be. I don’t think it’s a matter of how politicised contemporary art is, but, rather, it’s a matter of the experts and jury members who had the courage to award us this prize. The important thing now is that this not be the last such award because of the jury's courage and that the ceremony be held again next year too. I don’t think the fact that both I and the Voyna guys are currently under investigation is such a new cultural trend. No. It’s just that the other nominees, biennales and exhibitions, essentially were not very unique. And what we did was really cool!