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"Alternative Russia already exists". An interview with the producer of the anti-war meta-universe


Lenin has been buried, Pussy Riot are singing in Red Square and anti-war artworks are hung all around. Can this be imagined? Yes, and it's easy - if that Red Square is in a meta-universe.

After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the Post Tribe production studio and producer and hip-hop artist Mikhail Oger moved Red Square into a digital space and organized an exhibition of Russian protest art there. Anna Roche talked to Mikhail about the Russian counterculture, alternative Russia, and the digital future.

- How did you come up with the idea of doing a protest exhibition in the meta universe?

- I have been a producer and curator of street culture and street theatre projects for the last 15 years. I've done major festivals, hip-hop performances, hardcore countercultural rap battles, exhibitions, and street art projects.

After February 24th, many of my colleagues and I left. I have been in Istanbul since March the 3rd, which is also where my friend David Bintsene, filmmaker and musician, was. He has a cool production studio that does all sorts of special effects, they are geared up to create meta-movies. They work with cool American rappers - ASAP Rocky, Nas; they make music videos for Monetochka, Noise.

One day David said to me: "Look, we've made our own Red Square in the meta-universe, and we've hung some digital artists' work there. Why don't you, as a curator, take this case and come up with something more global". I really liked the idea.

«Matushka», Oleg Navalny

- Why Red Square?

- Red Square Actionism has a long history. We pay tribute to those who were there before us.

For example, we have a work by Ariadne Arendt, which draws upon all the actions that happened on Red Square - from Mathias Rust's plane flying in from Berlin to Pavlensky nailing his balls to the paving stone. We also have Pussy Riot singing, of course.

Red Square has always beckoned me. The year before that, some friends and I did an NFT project called "Flying Over the Mausoleum." It is a work dedicated to Lenin's funeral. One of the co-authors is Anton Mercurov: grandson of the sculptor who made Lenin's death mask. Anton has a 3D scan of that mask - we turned it into an NFT. This NFT in our current project hangs over the Mausoleum.

This time it was quickly filled with new meanings. Various artist friends of mine gave me their digital works. There's the Yav group with their "7 Deadly Sins" nesting dolls, and Oleg Navalny with his prison tattoos, and road signs from Slava PTRK.

«7 Deadly Sins», Yav group

Alexander Morozov gave us a 3D sketch of his airship "Station Dystopia" - an airship with retractable drawers of Gulag archive cases. This work was exhibited at the Manezh in St Petersburg and was part of a large exhibition of Kandinsky Prize nominees. Her 3D avatar is floating in the sky there.

There are many more iconic works in our exhibition. All of them are charged with an anti-war or anti-systemic message.

- It's hard to imagine that an exhibition like this will be possible on a real Red Square in the near future. What does the future hold for alternative culture in Russia?

- In the 2000s and 2010s I still received state grants for festivals and other cultural projects. I studied at the "School of Theatre Leadership" at the Meyerhold Centre. Kirill Serebrennikov, Chulpan Khamatova and other great directors and producers came to see us. It was all about contemporary culture, about reforms in the theatrical environment.

I was actively involved in the development of street art in various Russian cities. In the early 2000s I did big hip-hop and street art festivals in Perm, together with Marat Gelman. This was a few years of super movement: a lot of musicians and artists came to Perm, street theatres, and we even had a concert by Manu Chao. Everything was painted over, Perm was buzzing.

Later, I worked in Moscow with Sabina Chagina, who brought hundreds of world-class street artists to the street art biennale. They decorated a bunch of facades at taxpayers' expense. During the two years of the festival, two hundred facades with the works of stars of the world appeared in Moscow. And then some of them were painted over and replaced with Aeroflot advertisements. Then the 'Crimean spring' happened and all kinds of dreadful works appeared, with advertisements for Victory Day like 'We can do it again,' and huge mural prints that said 'Crimea is ours'.

In the noughties, the state did not really get involved in culture, but then everything changed. Around the time of Pussy Riot's formation, the harsh harassment of artists started. That was also when the first wave of emigration occurred. A lot of my friends left, for instance the PG protest art group.

Everything that happened in Moscow from 2015 onwards came down to maintaining a small pockets of freedom and a very disturbing observation of the theatrical business. What was going on was very scary: Kirill Serebrennikov, Alexei Malobrodsky (who was really in jail).

Pussy Riot's "concert raid" against another six years under Vladimir Putin's rule, 2012

I also did protest rap battles together with Detzl. We tried to dive into the socio-political boils of this society. Nowadays, the guys who took part are worried that some of the recordings were left on YouTube and they might just be put in jail for it. But back then, rap seemed to be a haven of freedom. We're not being shut down, Noize MC is doing great concerts, Detzl released a protest album... But he died six months after that album and all the conspiracy theories about him being poisoned in Izhevsk are really scary. He and I were close friends, which is why it all came through for me so much.

In 2019, we hosted a huge festival at VDNH called Rhythm of My City. I was the head curator there. 30 days of non-stop festival on the main square of VDNH, right under Lenin.

They let us in there, in the holy of holies. There was Illyich standing in front of us, looking into the distance, and we covered that whole main square with art-objects.

There was a hip-hop theme show every week, and we also managed to sneak in some pretty hardcore protest kids. Noize MC performed at the opening. The censors didn't let his track "Put up the Destroy" through, but they did let his track "Jordan" through, which also had tough lyrics. Ligalayz and the Ukrainian band Kachevniki also played hard-hitting tracks.

The censorship was largely internal: the festival's director proofread the lyrics just in case.

This was all happening in parallel with the hot summer of protests about the Moscow City Duma elections, which had been taken away from us.

At the same time, I happened to curate a large museum exhibition of Oleg Navalny, who, after serving 3.5 years simply for being the younger brother of the country's main opposition figure, became an artist. Against the backdrop of thickening clouds over Russia, the combination of the two works was in itself very invigorating.

Nowadays it is impossible to imagine such a thing. The fiasco of liberal cultural life happened before our eyes. All the values we had been drowning in have been crossed out. Everyone who wanted to and could say something - some have left, some have gone to prison, some have simply stopped talking loudly and are waiting it out.

Mathias Rust's plane in front of St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow, 1987

- How are you experiencing your departure from Russia?

I have a strange situation: in all my life in Russia, I never became a Russian citizen. I am a citizen of Moldova and Israel. I was born in Chisinau, grew up in Moscow, and as a teenager studied in Israel. I left under Yeltsin, and returned under Putin - still thinking he was normal.

It was cool in the early 2000s. I studied political science at the High School of Economics. Then everything began to collapse before our eyes. The political science department became catering to interests rather than asking questions. In Israel, we used to discuss everything, including Israeli politics. In Russia in 2003-2005, this was still possible, but not any more.

Bolotnaya was the last chance to prove something to everyone. Although in my case I couldn't go to rallies because they could have deported me. Now I understand that in a sense, I was spared of this red passport by fate.

But at the same time I am completely in the sphere of Russian culture. I left my dream job. For the last few months, I have been opening a public art museum in Moscow's ARTPLAY centre. It is really a very cool space. The work has now been handed over to a colleague of mine, and I have distanced myself and become a freelance curator. This is, on the one hand, very sad. On the other hand, there was a lot of interest and I contributed a lot to the development of Russian culture and counterculture.

«Flying Over the Mausoleum», Anton Merkurov, Michael Oger, George Arzamasov, CRAZY ASTRONAUT

- What is a meta-universe, how does it differ from an ordinary site?

- A meta-universe is a digital virtual space. Different people can be there; they have their own avatars. Anyone can create such a platform.

Roughly speaking, to make a site where people can come in, create their avatars, and find themselves in a space of common communication. There are all the resources for that now.

The emergence of the meta-universe in this form is related to the pandemic. People realized that they can remotely be a full participant in life. For example, there was a huge Travis Scott concert in the meta-universe. It turned out that it was possible to experience the same emotions together as offline. Everything stored digitally, though, is part of the metaconsciousness. In fact, when you log into your social network, you're already there. It's just that avatars are not yet animated everywhere.

БЕЗНОГNМ, Rozalinda Kiselkina

In general, the idea is that there is some kind of digital space. You fill it with meanings and in that way it starts to dominate reality. This has been going on for a long time. Worlds have been made up and even replaced real worlds in some ways. For example, this is how ideology works.

- So it's an opportunity to escape from reality?

- Yes, like in the cartoon Wall-E. When we see these huge people in virtual reality glasses, hanging out in armchairs and drinking cocktails. And that's how their whole life goes on. There's actually a very exciting movement going on in their heads and they feel fulfilled. I guess it's an illusion in a way. On the other hand, reality is largely generated by our minds. It's what we all believe. Probably, people will end up being more secluded physically, but together virtually.

- So it is possible to create a beautiful Russia of the Future in the meta-universe and live in it?

- Alternative Russia already exists there. Navalny's channel, Khodorkovsky's channel, some big blogs... This is huge traffic. There are normal people, and there are a lot of us.

We can see it in views and likes. We're scattered around the world now, but it's in our power to create a single alternative to tyranny. I would like it to be a space of freedom, tolerance and equality of rights and opportunities.

Works by Yulia Prokhorova and Anna Gavrilenok

- Who are you addressing with your project?

- Everyone. We're taking back the space that was taken away from us. When the Navalny investigation came out, I had the idea of making a huge street art complex out of Putin's palace. Now, against the backdrop of what's going on in the world, we won't bother with this palace. We need to take over the whole country.

We are creating a space of creative freedom in the most intimate totalitarian place. We bury Lenin and use the mausoleum as an exhibition space. It is the same with the cemetery of tyrants near the Kremlin wall.

At the moment our exhibition is mainly anti-war art, because there is a war going on. When the war is over there will be other themes. Although this exhibition should become a museum. Because it is not only the place, but also the time of this statement that is important. All these artists have decided to take a public step. For example, the artist Siniy Karandash (Blue Pencil) from Nizhny Novgorod made a huge tag on the Kremlin wall: "They sell death here". This is quite a brave move for someone who stays in Russia.

Road signs from Slava PTRK and tag from Siniy Karandash on the wall

This project is for all of us - to record and not to forget.

That said, the main platform for promoting our project is TVOR (The Voice of Russia). Their ideology is very close to my heart. They bring together Russian anti-war projects. Their site is in English, which means that it appeals primarily to Western society. Here we are very much in sync. It is important for us to communicate outside of Russia that not all Russians want war.

Of course, in order to do this, it's important that the world has a demand for a Russian anti-war discourse. It is not yet clear to me whether the world will shut up Russia. Judging from what is happening, people who oppose Putin are still accepted as equals by the West. But this is very shaky. We need to be more proactive. We probably don't do enough of everything. Nothing is helping. The war is not stopping, Putin is not going away.

- What are your plans for the development of the project?

- Right now, the project is hosted on the Spatial app, a kind of Instagram for the meta-universe. But not everything works there as we would like it to. We are going to launch the project on our own platform, and that will be epic.

Right now we have a street display purely on Red Square. Next, we want to take over GUM, the Revolutionary Museum and the Palace of Congresses. We want to do big installations in each of them by serious artists who have something to say.

The next exhibition will be at the Revolutionary Museum. It will be a solo exhibition by Vlad Zorin. He is a media artist who explores tenderness and masculinity. He has very powerful works in which effeminate guys play with tanks and experience a pre-orgasmic state. It's understandable why this kind of art is important for Russia, especially now, after the mobilisation has been announced. It's all so anti-war.

Work by Vlad Zorin from the author's Instagram

We also have a big stage. There are music videos of artists who are against the war. Noize MC, Oxxymiron, Kasta, Monetochka, Manizha... We plan to do big live concerts there.

We've recently made a video with foreign agents. Their avatars are walking in our Red Square to Oxymiron's track. Then these avatars can shout in the front row at our concerts.

There are many levels and meanings in this game of virtuality. It will help us in some way in the end, that's for sure. It's something that erases boundaries, an alternative to the whole structure of the world, the financial institutions imposed on us by states.

Blockchain and the meta-universe are all about complete decentralisation. Anyone with a gadget can be there as equals.

- Aren't you afraid that you have missed the moment because people are getting "war fatigue" and are becoming more and more alienated from the subject?

- No, we are not doing this for hype. The moment is not missed. The feeling is that it is getting worse and the crisis will continue to be linked to energy and food. Our space will live and develop, it is not going anywhere, no one is getting old there. All the most interesting things are just waiting for us. And all the worst is also, alas, still to come.

Fragment of the IC3PEAK 'Dead but pretty' video clip

I organised a hip-hop camp for teenagers in Montenegro in the summer. There were kids from Ukraine. Some sat in the basement for a month, some for three, some had their house bombed and their parents carried them out in the fields. Such traumas will take a long time to be dealt with. And art is one of the tools.

When I have a huge canvas with the inscription "Hug" painted together by teenagers from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, it's very cool. Then they hug their parents around this canvas they created together.

It's therapeutic. I think what we're doing in Red Square is in the same direction. But it can become even more global.

Interview by: Anna Rosch

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