A Rally and Its “Naked Life”

On September 28 the central VDNKh pavilion became a site of protest rally made up of two opposing groups. However, this action was by no means an intervention into the Biennale space. It was an art work envisioned by the official program and produced by Anna Ermolaeva. Marina Simakova shares her impressions.

Anna Ermolaeva’s work addresses a familiar story which frequently appears in both the official and opposition media. It is a situation of a faked, framed up political protest or manifestation of support, or simply speaking participation in a public demonstration, which has been bought and paid for. The social portrait of such rally’s participants mainly consists of the unemployed and retired people, those who are engaged in hard labour and who work in shifts, people from various marginalised groups. They are usually recruited in the easiest and quickest way — via websites and virtual communities, used to advertise and search for short-term jobs. The only disadvantage of this tool is its public character that makes it impossible to stop information leakage and, as a result, impossible to cover up the traces and hide the evidence.

One of the most popular websites used for such purposes, massovki.ru, is full of adverts recruiting non-professional actors for small film episodes, audience for TV shows, potential respondents for social and market research studies. Anna Ermolaeva used this website to recruit people, half of which were supposed to express their protest against contemporary art and the Biennale, while the other half — to actively support it. Like it is usually done for a regular demonstration, the artist made special posters with slogans. Their sarcastic character was obvious because of the most banal expressions and clichés used — from “God save Biennale” to “This exhibition may offend your religious beliefs.” Holding posters high above their heads, these pseudoantogonists were walking in circles in the pavilion, imitating a protest march and making visiting flaneurs wonder what is going on. It is quite indicative that the marching participants were interested in neither the Biennale content, nor the feedback to their actions.

With this in mind the task of finding an appropriate term to describe these people in context becomes exceptionally difficult. Who are they? False activists? Disguised citizens? Professional liars? Performance artists? Unwitting Biennale visitors who have been against their will included in political and art discourse? All these definitions fail because none of them describes the key point — the absence of any kind of interest, apart from financial one; loss of all those meanings that inevitably appear in the very process of human action, while a person is playing, telling a lie or making a certain statement. A short-term sale of one’s body is a process of taking off one’s civil cover, a situation that engenders “naked life.” “Naked life” is a condition that was described by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben as depoliticised, extreme physicality that is subject to control and external power. At the same time, “naked life” is not a mere animality as it bears the reminders and traces of political coating. There is a clear trajectory: displacement to the periphery (and the majority of people participating in rallies for money are forced to do so by the very real financial need and the feeling of alienation) is a movement to the zone of political invisibility, to the territories where “naked life” can possibly originate.

But what is the pragmatic meaning of this action? What is the purpose of this shameless exploitation of one’s body and political voice and playing with political rights of others?

Anna’s action illustrates a popular art strategy that is called subversive affirmation. Such a complicated notion basically means an affirmative statement that subverts its object. Reproducing a trick commonly used by dishonest political strategists in their political games, the artist reveals this trick and makes it public. She is not just stating the problem, pointing out the process of buying the rally participants, she also shows how this process is organised: after the rally the participants from both groups get in a queue for their money, just like they are used to. But this time nobody is trying to hide the paycheck moment, on the contrary, it is being carefully filmed. Now we clearly see how such actions work and how they are organised internally. Thanks to Ermolaeva we are able to observe how an affirmation she makes is constructed, while the demonstration of its seamy side subverts it. And thus, with a help of an artistic gesture, the fake manifestations that discredit any political engagement, also acquire their new, “naked" life.