Why Cultural Boycott?

In late February, on the eve of the opening of the 59th Venice Biennale, the artists of the Russian pavilion, Kirill Savchenkov and Alexandra Sukhareva, announced their refusal to participate in the exhibition as a protest against the war. In his interview for Posle Kirill talks about the circumstances surrounding this decision

On February 27, three days after the Russian invasion, you, together with another artist Alexandra Sukhareva, made a statement on your withdrawal from the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. How did you make this decision? Did you take the time to think it through? What effects did you expect to see and were your expectations met?

— There was a feeling that the conflict with Ukraine would escalate to war, and it was palpable already in December in the context of Russia’s negotiations with NATO. From February 22, three escalation scenarios of where we might all end up became clear to Sasha [Alexandra Sukhareva] and me. One of them came true, the most irrational one; the first news came from our friend in Mariupol who called us in the morning on February 24. We spent the following three days communicating and coordinating with the project team and the Biennale, because, as an institution, the Russian pavilion was basically people we worked with. The situation was catastrophic, and this was obvious, which meant that there was only one decision left, and there was only one way to put it. The consequences were also quite obvious, yet we could see them all too quickly, since the whole situation developed at such a pace. We did everything we could to safeguard those who took part in the project from these consequences. Also, it seemed inappropriate to say anything beyond what was already said in the statement, so, despite all the requests for interviews and commentaries on the situation, we chose to keep our media voices silent. 

Almost immediately after the war broke out, we heard calls to boycott Russian culture in Europe. Putin’s propaganda used these calls as evidence of Western “Russophobia”. How do you feel about the idea of cultural boycott? Is it possible to see what you did [your statement of withdrawal] as a part of it?

— Many people found themselves in extraordinary conditions and it is difficult to compare them. Military aggression of our state, which resulted in the deaths of Ukrainian civilians, undermines my ability to comment on this situation in any way. The cultural boycott is a common activist practice responding to the Israeli-Palestinian war. In terms of tactics, this form of response obviously looks like the only means left after the invasion, but for the Russian state, contemporary culture is both a “suitcase without a handle”, and, quite often, its own enemy. Those representing the information autocracy now turning into crypto-dictatorship see cultural boycott as an instrument to be mended according to their objectives — indeed, the boycott can be serving autocracy’s purposes and strengthen its resentment. This is not a problem of the boycott as such, though; it is the product of the current political regime in Russia. In this context, the cultural boycott is a certain way to express one’s stance, the form accessible to cultural workers when the pressure on their country from abroad has its limits because this country has nuclear weapons. Yet, the effect of the cultural boycott is rather limited.  

Your statement was made amidst the first wave of collective letters by academics who condemned the war, and soon some of their signatories lost their jobs, or had to leave the country threatened with persecution. At the same time, there were only a few individual statements and acts of protest from artists, and yours was certainly one of the most visible. Does this show that the artistic community is depoliticized and conformist, or that their anti-war attitudes are manifested in other ways?

— We should note that between February 24 and 25 Russian cultural workers, in fact, wrote an open protest letter. Having signed it the art community (the majority of it) expressed their position, and Nekhta, the telegram channel, reported about this letter and its signatories afterwards. Therefore, I cannot really speak of depoliticization and conformism, even though there are obviously members of the art scene who supported the invasion of Ukraine or remained neutral towards “the ambiguous”, as they say put it, “events”. Some did not go beyond ambivalent statements which can be read in exactly opposite ways, depending on the reader’s perspective. Antiwar attitudes are most vividly manifested in feminist resistance, media activism, and volunteering, in which a large number of community members is engaged.  At the same time, some cultural institutions and residual international connections help us express solidarity in other forms, which our anti-war sentiment may take.

How could the role of critical art in Russia change during the war? What could be its strategies under total censorship?

— It’s a difficult question. There is much to say, but I will touch on things which seem most obvious to me. First, the war is still going on, and this sets a range of different tasks for cultural workers who do not support it: volunteer activities, for example, seem to be an appropriate strategy. Second, as for artistic practice, the extraordinary conditions of this war have extraordinary consequences, which makes us face a different question: what will be the tasks of art when the war is over? As a Russian-born artist, I find it impossible to capture the experience of war by artistic means: this is not my experience, not my houses are being bombed, not my relatives are dying or being wounded. Yet, it is still my responsibility, because this is a cultural problem in the country which is a nuclear-armed aggressor, in the country which does all these horrible things. In its scope and depth, we deal with something on par with climate change — a planetary catastrophe which could be characterized by the arrhythmia of its devastating consequences and a slowly unfolding outcome. Nothing can be done about such a catastrophe here and now, because there is a nuclear arsenal in the hands of a man, whose mind is gripped by resentment. The only thing left is to locally overcome the consequences and nudge the trajectory of what is happening — as far as it is at all possible.

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