Goethe-Institut Nowosibirsk Dialogs from the Darkroom

The interrogation protocols of performance artist Petr Pavlensky as a shadow play
The interrogation protocols of performance artist Petr Pavlensky as a shadow play | Photo: Alexej Ziller

On the sixth floor of a luxury department store in Novosibirsk, the Mobile Academy of Berlin and the Gopethe-Institut Nowosibirsk set up a “darkroom.” They invited experts and an audience there to take part in “kitchen gossip” about totalitarianism and the Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky. Susanne Burkhardt was there.

To enter the “darkroom” you must pass through a luxury department store. You head to the sixth floor, past apparel that normal wage earners in Novosibirsk cannot afford. The sixth floor is empty. Recently, however, on the invitation of the Goethe-Institut, the Berlin dramaturge Hannah Hurtzig and the Mobile Academy transformed the huge floor into a darkroom. Spaces were covered in black fabric, a kitchen was installed, screens set up and chairs were grouped around the individual sites. A dim, slightly stuffy atmosphere, through which 300 people walk or sit listening – all with headphones. Right at the entrance stands Olga.

Olga Olga | Photo: Alexej Ziller Offstage, Olga is Anton. Her job is to greet guests and at the same time confuse them. In makeup, high heels and wig, the young man is unrecognizable. A drag queen in a theatre performance? It is not a common sight in Russia’s homophobic atmosphere. When I ask whether it is a problem for Anton, he says, “I’m booked so often that I hardly notice that there are such tendencies. But of course it is a pity that you cannot be as free and open here as in Europe.”

Rendering invisible and visible

A young woman on a screen behind Olga explains what the “darkroom” is about: about rendering things invisible and making them visible again – like when developing photos. It’s a process that is largely forgotten in the digital age. A lot of stories are told this evening for four hours at different stations. The starting point of this tour of thought is Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls. According to Hannah Hurtzig, this novel suits the city perfectly, and she explains, “The Chichikov, the main character in Gogol, is actually a prototype for Novosibirsk. This is a commercial city and Chichikov is actually a credit banker type, an entrepreneur, an ice-cold man who sells everything and understands that you can sell anything, even if it has no value.”

How would one write the second part of the novel today? Gogol burned it in an act of self-censorship. We therefore approach the lost story by talking about the themes of the book, talking about the banking system, travel, and about death as an asset. Groups of four spectators meet with a wide variety of experts. They sit in pairs at a table while around them the audience decides who they would like to listen to by switching between different audio channels, always for 45 minutes. Highly focused attention when a totalitarianism researcher analyses the financial crisis, when a cultural scholar discusses the relationship between zombies and the fear of refugees or when death and dying are negotiated from the perspective of a crematorium director, a heart surgeon and a philosopher.

Big run on the sixth floor Big run on the sixth floor | Photo: Alexej Ziller Petr Pavlensky between art and politics

Next door, a shadow play is performed on a screen and filmed by a camera. Two actors read from the 2014 interrogation protocols of performance artist Petr Pavlensky. The artist on the borderline between politics and art is the second theme of the evening. It is hard to believe that these are not imaginary dialogues. “At first glance, it is a conversation between two aliens who come from two different planets. Then however, during questioning the official changes his relationship towards Petr Pavlensky and towards this process. Later, he will even become a defender of his ideas,” says Vladimir Lemeshonok, an actor at the Novosibirsk theatre Red Torch, of the interrogation records. He plays the official who gradually understands what the cleverly argumentative artist is really getting at and who gets into a dialogue about art and politics. “It’s only at first glance that Petr seems mad – but if you delve into the subject, and into his world views, you understand that he is a wonderful person: One who reacts keenly and fearlessly to what is happening in the world.”

Lemeshonok is presently performing at the Red Torch with Lavrenty Sorokin in a play staged by the young director Timothy Kuljabin – the very director who scandalized Novosibirsk last year with his Tannhäuser. His fellow actor recalls that actions like those of Pavlensky have a long tradition in Russia. “When the Orthodox Church broke up, the old believers committed horrific acts – burned themselves, did inhumane things to themselves to protest against the state and the new church.”

For 21-year-old Philipp Krikunov, Pavlensky is a lone fighter against the state. Admiration is in his voice when the operator of the only gallery for modern contemporary art in Novosibirsk speaks about the artist. “My favourite action by him is when he had his mouth sewn shut to protest the arrest of Pussy Riot. I perceive him as a silent artist. Therefore, it doesn’t feel quite right for me to talk about a silent artist. If he is silent, we should also be silent.”

Hannah Hurtzig sees it differently. In her viewpoint, talking about Pavlensky’s actions is ultimately part of the artistic act. She explains, “The moment in which the reactions become visible, the production of debate, particularly of gossip, is what he understands as the act of art.”

Gossip in the rumour mill

Some of this act of art arises next door in a replicated Russian kitchen, the birthplace of rumours, the place where you can express what cannot be discussed in public in a totalitarian system.

Gossip in the kitchen Gossip in the kitchen | Photo: Alexej Ziller Over vodka and dinner, in ever newly composed rounds, the latest news from the trial are shared. For example, the philosopher Oxana Timofeeva, who was just talking about Gogol and zombies, passionately debates with her colleague Igor Chubarov and the media theorist Vladimir Velminski whether Pavlensky wouldn’t have been more successful than Pussy Riot in the West if he would grapple with feminism. Velminski adds that there are two criteria for successful modern art in Russia: a court order or recognition in the West.

In a tiny chamber you can consult a psychoanalyst on issues of self-censorship. In the conversation between two people, one quickly forgets that this is not an intimate space, but that everyone can listen. What is meant to be private becomes public.

But nothing is forced upon anyone, everyone decides what they wish to hear or see and thus take part in discussions that are conducted with an openness that people in Novosibirsk seemingly never experience, an openness that most of them visibly take pleasure in. Hurtzig calls it the “theatre of communication and knowledge transfer.”