Monstration in Russia in the Face of Resistance
Monstration is an annual mass happening in the form of a May Day demonstration, where participants use slogans and banners to communicate specific messages to the public and each other: an artistic technique used to articulate self-expression intended to conceptualize one’s surroundings. In 2004, the Contemporary Art Terrorism group — better known as CAT — launched Monstration in Novosibirsk. About 80 people joined a separate column in the May Day demonstration organized by the Communist Party. For 12 years now it has become a city tradition, congregating up to 5000 participants. Since its beginnings, artist Artem Loskutov has organized the event.
“God forgive us”
The content of the banners appears, misleadingly so, extremely absurdist and apolitical. However, in conjunction with the context, these slogans acquire multiple meanings. The street parties have always been well attended, thus underscoring the need of many young Russians to reclaim the streets free zone from the ideological wreckage of the past and consumerist populism of the present.
Each Monstration incorporates a main slogan, which is not disclosed until the last day such as “Don’t teach us how to live, or otherwise we’ll teach you!” (2008); “If everyone starts walking like this, probably some form of anarchy will take place” (2010); “There isn’t much we can talk with you about anyway” (2011); “Forward to the dark past” (2013); “Hell is ours” (2014); “God forgive us” (2015); and “You are not in Moscow anymore” (2016). These slogans are designed and produced by the event’s organizers and placed at the front of the procession. Additional slogans and banners are homemade manufactured by ordinary citizens who come dressed in weird clothes and have a lot of fun during the event.
Despite the apolitical content of Monstration slogans, the organizers are regularly detained and fined in the state’s effort to impede future events. In 2009, Loskutov was arrested in his native Novisibirsk and charged with possession of a narcotic substance (marijuana) by the local branch of the Interior Ministry’s notorious Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”). Loskutov and his supporters claim that the police planted the marijuana in his bag in order to incriminate him. The case inspired a solidarity campaign: series of picket lines, protests, and art actions by artists, activists, students, and ordinary concerned citizens across Russia. Finally, Loskutov was released under the condition he pled guilty for marijuana possession and pay a fine of 20 thousand rubles . The evening of May 1, 2015, after another Monstration event had occurred, the “E” Center once again detained and fined Loskutov for carrying out unauthorized marches. On May 1, 2016, the march was not sanctioned, as expected. As a result, Monstration was held at the end of the communist columns of the May Day demonstrations. Although there were no provocations or disturbances, a few hours later Loskutov was arrested by the police and was fined by two different courts for carrying out unauthorized activities.
“Monstration is a distinct protest against the lack of public policy in the country”
In spite of all this, the “Monstration” project received the award for “Best Regional contemporary art project” during the “Innovation” State Awards in 2010.
The relevance of Monstration is not only reflected by its growing number of participants, but also by the emergence of analogous events in other russian cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Petrozavodsk, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk, Khabarovsk, Yaroslavl, Volgograd, Odessa and even abroad.
As expressed by Serfey Samoilenka in his text justifying Monstration’s award at “Innovation”: “Monstration as a form of public art is located in the space between artistic practice, social activity and political gesture. Questioning ‘serious’ political demonstrations, Monstration is a distinct protest against the lack of public policy in the country, it does not just mark the boundaries of civil liberties, but also pushes these boundaries, becoming a school of solidarity, creativity and civil liberties.”
All images courtesy the artists.