Creator of website Looo.ch, banned in Russia, Anatoli Ulyanov speaks on the subject of provocations and why it will never be fully annihilated.
Provocation is one of the key concepts of modern age. I can’t think of any other word which would be as widely used, except for some obscenities. Perhaps only the word “fascism”. Even though nowadays both of those, “fascism” and “provocation”, turned into the casual “fuck” – a universal expression which can describe pretty much everything that has been happening to us.
The protest of African Americans in Ferguson was “provoked by external provocateur”. Those who also bumped heads with each other at Maidan, insulted the worshipers at the Church of Christ the Savior, and nailed their artistic scrotums to the pavement at Red Square. In other words, provocateurs are all around us, which makes them secular counterparts of demons and fiends.
The comparison is not coincidental. Just like the trivial evil spirits, in people’s minds provocateurs play the role of something detrimental. They are troublemakers who manipulate others to do bad things and develop unsuitable feelings. What good can come out of it when as a consequence of provocations the law-abiding citizens turn into a bunch of hysterical xenophobes?
“alt”: “Pavel Pavlenskiy”,
“text”: “Artist from St. Petersburg Pavel Pavlenskiy sewed his lips shut in support of Pussy Riot”
Provocation is a sorcery – a channeled manipulation with the intent of creating a response reaction. For instance, this might be the intent to make a person “loose it” and show the true essence they’ve been hiding under the mask of decency. Some use the provocation mechanism to set people up and initiate wars, others use it to wipe out illusions and establish a dialogue about the problem that requires attention.
This other type of provocateurs is most interesting. There has been a lot of arguing about them lately. When art band “The War” dressed up as priest-policemen in order to take bags of groceries out of a supermarket without any repercussions – is it artistry or is it theft? When artist Pavel Pavlenskiy burnt a tire at Red Square – was it a political statement or a disturbance? Could we classify the infamous punk-prayer as art or as politics? What’s clear is that each of the above cases was a provocation that has been actively discussed within the community and brought its boils to light.
We can argue all we want whether or not the author was a jerk and about his reasons to behave that way, however, if his provocation made people talk, it means that his strategy proved to be effective.
Provocations imposed by contemporary art contain the element of heroic grandeur, – because the provocateur voluntarily becomes a sacrificial lamb to his community and does the deed that he has to face possible criminal punishment and incarceration for. All that for the sake of what? Most believe that he is after fame and money. And the mass mentality considers this motive just as honorable as an office job, unglamorous, but for the equal compensation. Glory is thought of as a questionable cause. Especially in the cultures where one rises to fame in its positive connotation after his death – for example, when a soldier gets killed on a battlefield after swallowing a hand grenade to save his teammates.
“alt”: “Oleg Kulik”,
“text”: “Performance of artist Oleg Kulik: Animalistic, Devine, Human: What Is Faster?”
“All for publicity!” – an average Joe proclaims after yet another artist sets their anus on fire at a church. The blame always falls on publicity. To be fair, artistic provocation wouldn’t make much sense without it, – but it is merely a component, an important one for that, of the provocation mechanism. In order to present the problem that you wish to expose to a large audience, your provocation has to be loud – it has to have the element of surprise, shock, it has to make people talk. Besides, publicity is the only protective layer that keeps the artist safe from the silent yet destructive mold in the basement. There is a bulletproof vest of fame between the provocateurs and the provoked.
Also, nowadays we are swamped by a powerful stream of information to the point that among the persistent noise it’s rather difficult to recognize and acknowledge the truly important nuances. The carriers of those subtleties are forced to seek more intricate ways to draw attention to themselves. After all, what did we know about the problems of Vietnamese Buddhists before Thich Quang Duc sat himself on fire in the middle of a square in Saigon? You can even put it this way – what would we know about the problems of the Buddhists if a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc didn’t inform the journalists before he sat himself on fire at a square in Saigon?
“alt”: “Из серии Life In Prison”,
“text”: “Saigon, 1963. Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation to protest the systemic religious discrimination by the Roman Catholic regime of dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.”
There is a popular opinion out there that a provocation requires going to the extremes, let’s say, if today you decided to cut your nipple off in the name of art, then tomorrow you would have to behead yourself, or you will fail. Not exactly the case. Incitement is the language that can reach its effectiveness depending not just on the amplitude of its volume, but also on the context and content of certain expressions. While having public sex with a dog at some Dutch gallery you might only notice that you’re surrounded by bored faces of educated hipsters casually having a snack, in the same time you might get shot for trying to take a picture of a hijab in a tiny village of Afghanistan. There are things that continue to impress us endlessly: regardless of how many monks set themselves on fire in front of cameras – when a man in the Lotus position is burning up it’s unlikely that we’d walk right past him.
What differentiate provocation from more traditional art forms like a drawing or sculpture, is the fact that provocation doesn’t end with the provoking action per se. The very reaction to this action and the consequences which the artist suffers are the integral parts of the entire piece. The Kafkian jury over Pussy Riot and the notorious “twosome” became more important of a period document than the punk-prayer itself that provoked the above. What’s also important is that the entire story got soured by Madonna’s embrace. And the song itself was rather lousy, too. A skilled provocateur knows his audience and their psychology. He/she will do their best to make their speech “better heard” instead of harsher.
“text”: “From the photo-stream at Looo-ch.tumblr.com”
As a protest against Russia’s homophobic laws I could have posted another massive on my site Loooch which would cleverly explain that we need people of “all sorts and all kinds”. Instead, our team decided to publish “textbooks” on homosexuality “for children”. Just the title alone proved to be sufficient to have people around the world talking about the embarrassing laws, Parliament representative Milonov called me a “retard”, and Putin’s mistress filed a complain to Poskomnadzor that consequentially banned site Loooch in Russia. Despite the fact that all of the above negatively affected our publication, the goal we pursued has been reached reached: people began discussing the laws, as well the authoritarian issue connected to it. While talking about homosexuality as a version of norm, they often became genuinely bewildered with their stone-age superstitions, which in turn yet again illustrates the epidemical spread of the problem therefore proving the importance of finding a solution.
If the crowd of spectators could just stop focusing on the provocateurs’ personas and the nuisances they seem to cause, they would clearly see one of the most romantic and righteous mediums of modern culture; a cause that prompts the society to finally start thinking about something that truly matters.