15. December 2016

In the last DOUBLE FEATURE of the year Russian artist Anna Jermolaewa uses her film to show that political protest can most certainly be mercenary.

By Daniel Urban

In December 2006 around 200 demonstrators gathered in front of Berlin’s Reichstag, where they fluttered approximately 4,500 white coats in the wind. The image that was supposed to be conveyed to onlookers was symbolic of those doctors who, in the eyes of Germany’s National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, would have to quit their jobs as a result of the planned health reform. In spite of this striking image, however, only a short time later it became known that it wasn’t the doctors themselves who had taken to the streets for their cause, but instead students and homeless people who had been hired ad hoc for 30 euros an hour to perform on their behalf.

Anna Jermolaewa, Political Extras, 2015, Filmstill, Copyright the artist

The combination of politics and service is not entirely new – as demonstrated, for example, by a tobacco corporation which staged a promotional protest march back in 1929 attacking the taboo surrounding women smoking – yet the number of these taking place in recent years nevertheless undoubtedly points to a new quality. Hence the largest Russian protest rallies in recent times, and they took place in response to the suspected electoral fraud of 2011, were followed a short time later by various pro-Putin demonstrations, with considerable doubt surrounding the spontaneous and voluntary coming together of various sides, whereby President Putin himself commenting laconically: “So many people cannot possibly all have been forced into it”. But what might this say about the individuals who sell their political autonomy and thus almost prostitute themselves? To use the same metaphor: Are they in a kind of crisis or pressure situation that means they have no choice, or do they take part willingly and voluntarily?

For or against contemporary art: It’s immaterial

In “Political Extras” (2015), Russian-born artist Anna Jermolaewa shows us precisely such demonstrators. For the Moscow Biennale 2015 she used the website www.massovki.ru to recruit a good 120 demonstrators, who were meant to protest in two different groups both for and against the artistic event – the same website had already been used as an advertising platform for pro-Putin demonstrations back in 2012. Each participant was free to decide whether he or she wanted to join either the “for” or the “against” group, and whether to chant slogans for or against contemporary art. At the end each was paid 500 rubles – a simple transaction for a simple service, you might say. Thus we see the demonstrators in “Political Extras”, which documents the action and was shown, for example, as part of the “Political Populism” installation at Vienna’s Kunsthalle, walking and protesting on the festival site of the Biennale, eating in the canteen and then openly receiving their payment.

Anna Jermolaewa, Political Extras, 2015, Filmstill, Copyright the artist

In the accompanying report for “Political Populism”, Jermolaewa recounts that most of the hired participants were entirely uninterested in the kind of demonstration they were being hired for; only three of the 120 sought information in advance about the actual theme of the demonstration. The hired protestors were primarily older women who needed to supplement their meagre pensions. They were entirely satisfied with their involvement: Several of them asked the artist to get in touch with them if she needed protestors again – without really understanding that this was actually an artistic action and not a real demonstration at all.

In the labor camp in Siberia

Anna Jermolaewa was born in 1970 in St. Petersburg but fled Russia aged 18 due to her involvement as a co-founder of the “Democratic Opposition” paper, and in 1989 she was given political asylum in Austria. Her works are marked by a strong focus on the influence of political systems on the individual. In previous works she has sometimes included an investigative element: Hence as part of her work “Methods of Social Resistance on Russian Examples”, for example, she found out the previously unknown location of one imprisoned member of Pussy Riot: A labor camp in Siberia.

Anna Jermolaewa, Political Extras, 2015, Filmstill, Copyright the artist
Anna Jermolaewa, Political Extras, 2015, Filmstill, Copyright the artist

“Me and Others” (1971), which will be shown during the second part of the evening, is a film by the Ukrainian-Soviet director Felix Sobolev, which examines psychological studies relating to the theme of social expectations and their impact on the individual. Hence we see recordings of a university lecture for which subjects take part in various psychological tests that testify to the strong influence of majority opinion on the individual. Surprisingly, the film was not censored in the Soviet Union, which is perhaps down to its ending, in which there is nothing less than an astonishing dramatic twist: As part of an experiment, school children go against the perceived majority pressure and choose the good of the collective. A socialist lesson in the common good par excellence!

The responsibility of the individual

In light of the sobering results of the psychological studies in “Me and Others”, critical contemporaries may find it hard to continue to believe in the autonomy of the individual as the Enlightenment would see it – however: The emergence from one’s self-imposed immaturity was always simply the goal, not the precondition. The fact that now, in the apparently thoroughly informed and networked world, we have still not come particularly far perhaps becomes clear from circumstances in which citizens will sell (or feel themselves compelled to sell) their “political bodies”. The eternal and, as before, not irrelevant question of the responsibility of each individual for his or her own actions clearly arises here. In her film Jermolaewa is by no means aiming to expose or ridicule the hired protestors, since – as is sadly so often the case – there are no straightforward answers.

Anna Jermolaewa, Political Extras, 2015, Filmstill, Copyright the artist