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Political protestors hang a sign from a Hamburg clocktower. (Photo: copyright Janine Albrecht für Deutsche Welle)
Image: Voina

Urban interventions

Janine Albrecht / cd
November 8, 2012

Drawing attention to political grievances through public art is an idea that's gaining traction. Art group Voina has been campaigning in Russia. But like punk band Pussy Riot before them, they're now paying the price.


Six large letters stand tall below the photograph: WANTED. The portrait shows a woman with dark bangs covering her forehead. She has sad, tired eyes.

Her name is Taisiya Osipova, a Russian activist who has been in jail there for two years. Her sentence runs to 10. Sokol was charged with drug possession, but to her friends it's clear: the authorities detained her because she is a vocal critic of Russian politics.

"They placed heroin on her but she's never had anything to do with drugs," Yana Sara said. Sara belongs to Voina, a group of artists that Sokol helped co-found in 2005. Since then, Voina has been a vociferous critic of the Russian state apparatus of power through provocative street art.

The members of Viona are now being persecuted as criminals.

Playing the media

The Voina group is currently touring the world, hanging large-format "WANTED" flags along the way. The group recently unfurled a banner on the spire of Hamburg's Church of St. Michaelis. Sokol's face was on it.

A woman looks at the camera through superimposed prison bars with text that reads: Political prisoners. (Photo: copyright Janine Albrecht für Deutsche Welle)
Russian activist Taisiya Osipova is in jail and could remain there for eight more yearsImage: Voina

Through the "Voina Wanted" campaign, the group hopes to raise awareness about Russia's political prisoners around the world. "If we can make these cases public, that'll help those in prison," Sarna said.

The trial of the punk band Pussy Riot was a case in point. "Without the huge attention that the media paid to them the court's sentence would have been much harsher," Sarna said. She sees herself as both an artist and an activist.

Artists like Sarna have increasingly been using public means to draw attention to their causes. "In the past few years, street art has attained huge levels of popular attention," said Anna-Lena Wenzel, a teacher at the University of the Visual Arts in Hamburg.

In her "Urban Interventions" research project, she analyzes the development of this form of expression. She sites the examples of artists' collectives leaving traditional gallery and taking to the streets as a form of political protest.

The motivations behind these movements are highly varied, Wenzel said. As a result, the effect of these interventions cannot be judged in objective or generalized terms, Wenzel said.

'The Internet is our gallery'

"We wanted to encourage other artists to enact their own human rights campaigns and to support political prisoners," Alexey Plutser-Sarno, the initiator of "Voina Wanted" said.

An artistic/political photograph of a Russian man hanging from the wall is inspiration for discussion for artists sitting in the room. (Photo: copyright Janine Albrecht für Deutsche Welle)
International artists discuss the impact of artistic interventions in HamburgImage: Voina

All of the group's campaigns are documented on the Internet via photos and videos. "The Internet is our gallery," he explained. It isn't unusual for his blog to receive a million clicks per month, Plutser-Sarno said.

Thousands of people also comment on the campaigns. "Up to this point, all the comments have been positive and supportive," Plutser-Sarno said. For the artists from Voina, these comments are a clear sign Russian that society is changing.

Yet campaigning remains much tougher in Russia than in Hamburg.As the peaceful protestors unroll their banner across the tower of Hamburg's famous Church of St. Michaelis in broad daylight, no one takes any notice.

A penis is painted onto a drawbridge that is now raised vertically. (Photo: copyright Janine Albrecht für Deutsche Welle)
The temporary view from the Russian state police officeImage: Voina

Fear is power

Voina usually has to carry out its campaigns under darkness, as they did on the night of June 14, 2010.

"We had just 23 seconds to do it," Sarna said. The group had convened on the Liteiny Bridge in St. Petersburg. As the artists began their work, armed with buckets of paint, security personnel were already in hot pursuit.

In the dead of night, they'd managed to emblazon the bridge, which can be seen from the offices of the Russian secret police, with a 200-foot-long penis. "F--- you!" was the unmistakable message.

"One of us was picked up during the campaign, beaten by the police and thrown in jail," Sarna said. Her parents worry about her but also understand what it is she's doing through her work, she explained.

Fear is a central problem in his country, Alexy Plutser-Sarno added. He believes it's where the regime derives its power.

Lasting interventions

In Hamburg, not a single police officer appeared as the group unfurled its banner. For a time at least, it could hang in piece. Wenzel considers it a good sign: "In Germany it's not as important anymore to provoke people through campaigns." Here, she added, it's more important to ask oneself what has actually changed.

"Many campaigns here don't last," Harald Lemke, a philosopher and artist who teaches at Leuphana University near to Hamburg, said. "We're at a different point in this country in terms of societal development."

A man smiles at the camera while gardening in a portable vegetable bed (Photo: copyright Janine Albrecht für Deutsche Welle)
Gardening for everyone is Harald Lemke's missionImage: Keimzelle

In that vein, Lemke is also the co-initiator of a rather less provocative neighborhood project called "Seed Cells - Public Gardens for All." His project provides sections of city-owned green-space in the popular St. Pauli district of Hamburg.

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