On Friday, November 15th, Interfax reported that Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky has been charged with hooliganism. According to an unnamed source, Pavlensky may be facing up to five years in prison for his November 11th performance Nail, in which he nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones outside the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square. When I spok to Pavlensky via Skype, he told me that the article was the first he had heard of these charges. “I just found out this morning when I saw it in Interfax,” he said. “Yesterday, I got a call from the Kitay Gorod police headquarters [the district in Moscow where he was arrested] in order to confirm whether or not I was in Moscow. I am not. However, according to the article, I am on recognizance not to leave. I never signed anything like that. Either the police falsified this document, or Interfax mistakenly printed this information.”
“I am not planning on running anywhere,” Pavlensky said. A few hours after we spoke, he posted on his Facebook: “At 3:30 PM, I received an official summons to the Investigative Department in Moscow.”
Pavlensky’s performance, called Fiksatsia (fixation or affixment) or, more simply, Nail, took place on Police Day, a state holiday honoring police officers. In an artist’s statement, Pavlensky said that the performance was “a metaphor for the apathy, political indifference, and fatalism of contemporary Russian society. It’s not the lawlessness of our politicians and bureaucrats that deprives our society of the ability to take action, but the fixation on our defeats and losses that nails us down to the Kremlin pavement, that has turned our people into an army of apathetic idols, patiently awaiting whatever is coming to them.”
Now, he says, he is waiting for the police’s next move. “As far as I can tell, politically motivated trials progress according to erratic laws. We could find out the claims in the article are false. Anything could happen, really. Or maybe they’ve started a case against me and I’ll be condemned.”
The following is an interview with Pavlensky by Anya Aivazyan, from the Russian weekly Bolshoi Gorod, published on November 12th.
How do you feel in the wake of your action?
Today I’m basically fine. Yesterday, I was still recovering.
Did you expect that the court would just release you?
No, of course not. This was what shocked me the most. Before I was released, I even fell asleep in the cold police transport bus. I hadn’t slept the night before. I had started dreaming, when suddenly they woke me up and took me into the courthouse. I thought that it would be the usual: there’d be hearing, fifteen minutes of talking, and then I’d be arrested or fined—that I’d have to go through the whole bureaucratic rigamarole. But it was nothing like that.
Why were you released?
Usually, when they put together police reports, they say that my performances are clear displays of disrespect toward the public. However, the statute on hooliganism states that I need to be attacking someone, screaming things, but I don’t scream anything and don’t attack anyone. On top of that, there’s nothing in it about punishing anyone for being naked. In effect, there were no violations. My public defender Dinar Idrisov and I were able to win the last case against me due to these same circumstances. [In Pavlensky’s previous performance, Carcass, he’d been naked, rolled up in a “cocoon” of barbed wire in front of the Legislative Assembly of the City of St. Petersburg. —Trans.]
This time, everything happened faster. The judge didn’t even call a hearing and said that my actions did not constitute a crime. If they wanted a trial, they would have needed to fabricate a case against me, and there would have been another scandal. This way, it’s all over much faster—no trial, and less noise.
Why didn’t they want to give me some harsh punishment? It would have been easy enough, but really, I don’t know. The statute on hooliganism that they used on the Greenpeace activists and Pussy Riot is very convenient: it can be applied to basically anything. Although I always act alone, which presents its own set of difficulties for them. When it’s several people, there’s an organized group and they’re easier to railroad. The powers that be make the decision that seems the most advantageous to them at that particular moment. They weigh the decision of whether they need to open another punitive case against someone or not.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are still in prison, Tolokonnikova is still missing, and the “Bolotnaya prisoner” Mikhail Kosenko has been sentenced to forced psychiatric treatment. Don’t these things frighten you?
The “Bolotnaya Case” and Pussy Riot trials are show trials. Their purpose and function is to scare people. If you fall prey to this fear, you become complicit in it and in the overall punitive machine. You become a politically indifferent subject, full of fear. Of course, there’s regular human fear, no one wants to go to prison. But when you start taking it apart, you start to relate to it differently—it’s no longer fear in general, but a factor in life that needs to be overcome.
How did you come up with the idea for Nail?
I got the idea when I was in Moscow and went for a walk on the Red Square. In general, I am interested in places with close ties to power. I saw that there were a lot of FSB agents and police dogs around, watching everyone. These nondescript, poorly dressed people, all walking around on their own. For me, this became the symbol of the police state, a never-ending Police Day, where you’re face-to-face with the stronghold of authority and everything is permeated with FSB agents, security cameras, people surveilling one another. For the current administration, this would be the perfect state.
Varlam Shalamov wrote that there’s a prison camp custom of prisoners nailing their scrotums to their bunks. Did you know about this?
I didn’t know that it was a custom. When they put me in jail after Carcass, there was a guy in my cell who told me about it. According to him, it happens when the prison colony “goes red,” and the administration goes on a rampage. At that time, it didn’t occur to me to base an action on this. But it’s important. In our country, the line between what happens in the prisons and in everyday life is disappearing. It’s been going on since Stalinist times, when these processes were set in motion. The entire country is slowly transforming into one huge prison. The only difference is that for now, we have the right to leave. Although for me, I don’t see that as an option. Jump ship? I don’t think so.
There was a strong negative reaction to this piece. Are you disappointed by this?
There’s nothing wrong with a negative reaction. If I wanted to do things in order to get a positive reaction, that would be like populism. Even when people have a negative reaction, it still involves reflection, something comes out of them. It’s worse when there’s no thought behind a negative reaction. I am addressing people, I just need to do things in order to start a discussion.
Whom exactly do you have in mind as your intended audience? Those who understand performance art and are capable of something of the kind, or a more general public?
I am addressing everyone who exists in the same informational sphere as I do. If someone is completely not plugged into it, they’ll simply not understand. I am not talking about the people who understand art, I am talking about people who understand the political context.
You wanted to draw attention to the specific problem of the police state. However, all anyone is talking about is your scrotum. Essentially, the materials of the piece have overshadowed its intent.
You can explain everything after the fact, in interviews, artist statements. I don’t believe that everyone is exclusively fixated on my scrotum. Of course, they perceive a certain visual code: a scrotum pierced with a nail. But then they read the statements anyway, as well as the positive and negative reviews. They start to question why this performance took place on Police Day.
Do you have no fear of pain?
When a woman gives birth, she experiences true pain. Let’s use giving birth as a measuring stick. After all, people do it all the time. Compared to giving birth, the pain I experienced during my performance is more like a very unpleasant sensation. Pain is just another fear that must be overcome.
How do the people around you react during your performances? What do passersby, or policemen say?
It’s very interesting. I heard an elderly person’s voice behind me say, “That man is insane.” The police couldn’t understand what had happened. They immediately started trying to figure out what to do and how to get it cleaned up as quickly as possible. The first thing a senior officer said to a subordinate was “Get him out of here.” The subordinate replied, “I can’t, he’s nailed down.” They tried to neutralize the action in various ways: they covered me in a white rag, chased away onlookers, cordoned off the area, and then started trying to clear the Square so that no one would see me.
Were you at all concerned that children might see your performance and be traumatized by it?
Children are citizens, too. Everything else that happens around them is a lot more traumatic. There are a lot worse things, which was part of the point of the performance. I believe that it’s the responsibility of an older person to explain my performance to a child who asks what is going on. Of course, they could just tell the child I’m crazy, or they could explain everything.
—Translated by Bela Shayevich