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Piotr Armianovski: ‘If art provides answers, how can it be distinguished from propaganda?’

Piotr Armianovski has been documenting the opinions and reactions of people from eastern Ukraine for more than a decade. Thanks to his documentaries, you can understand what life was like in Donetsk, Kramatorsk, Avdiivka and Mariupol in 2010. Until January 7, as part of the solo exhibition ‘History of Relations’ at the PinchukArtCentre, you can view his works covering the years before the Revolution of Dignity, russia’s occupation of some of the Ukrainian territories from 2014 and the period of the full-scale invasion. These works are an opportunity to go back nine years and recall the events that shaped Ukraine’s future — and not through TV footage, but through a man who was a direct participant in them. (Piotr, for example, was a member of the election commission in Donetsk when its work was disrupted by separatists and militants of the so-called DPR).

Armianovski also devotes himself to theater and performative art. He took off his clothes in front of special police force on Hrushevsky Street during the Revolution of Dignity, shouted in Donetsk to learn more about the limits of human freedom, and carved the ukrainian symbol tryzub on his stomach in protest against the closing of ‘The ‘Ukrainian Body’ exhibition in Kyiv.

We met with him at the PinchukArtCentre and talked about stereotypes about the residents of Donetsk, what he did at the russian rally in 2011 and what crazy reactions he received to his performances. And also about the questions and answers that Ukrainian and world art should address today.

‘No, you can’t be from Donetsk. You’re wearing red pants. People from Donetsk don’t wear red pants’

— Your exhibition ‘History of Relations’ explores the connections between people in Ukrainian society. What conclusions did you come to when studying the interaction between different times and states of society?

— I guess it was still 2017. I came to work in the library, and they were just celebrating the anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity. A woman was telling schoolchildren about this revolution and the intonation was as if she was talking about the Cossacks, as if it was in ancient times when our ancestors went out and did something. But after all, this is fresh history. And those who participated in the events directly or through the screen will be able to remember the solidarity that reigned on Maidan.

Relationships are something that lasts and continues. It is the need of Ukrainians to be together and appreciate each other, despite the contradictions that exist between us. In order to avoid situations such as those that happened a hundred years ago with Hrushevsky, Skoropadskyi and the UPR. Of course, as Ukrainians, we are ready to respond to external threats, but there are problems with our internal consolidation. I am very worried about what will happen to us in 5–10 years.

— Can history repeat itself?

— These repetitive situations occur in a spiral and affect something. Discussing this exhibition, we have already raised such a question. Young colleagues say that if things are bad in our country, there is bound to be protest and revolution. Of course, we are afraid of what will happen next, but if there is a revolution, we will survive it somehow.

For example, I have this metaphor: a person wants to quit smoking and he/she develops a craving: he/she decides to quit smoking every month. For three days he/she succeeds, and the next month he/she quits smoking again. It is good that there is a desire and willpower, but why does it not become permanent? Where are the roots of bad habits coming from? I don’t know. It seems to me that we should look for answers to this question together. In this sense, art cannot influence what is happening today and will happen tomorrow. But it can influence the future.

— ‘History of Relations’ is mostly made up of your video projects created before the full-scale invasion. There is only one that was filmed in 2022 — ‘The Balance of Sadness and Joy’. To what extent has the full-scale invasion actualized your older works?

— For me, the most painful project was ‘The Elections That Didn’t Happen’. I asked people on the streets of Donetsk whether elections were necessary. And one old lady said: ‘Elections are absolutely necessary, otherwise there will be a concentration camp here’. Unfortunately, that is what happened.

The resonance about what millions of Ukrainians are experiencing today saddens me the most. Creating these films, I certainly did not think that they would be shown at the Pinchukartcentre. Was I afraid to re-watch them in the future? No, I wasn’t afraid. But I am more interested in looking at what is happening now or using previous experiences to influence and understand reality.

‘Mariupol and I’ (2017) in PinchukArtCentre

— In several of the films, we can hear the locals in Kramatorsk and Donetsk speaking Ukrainian. But it is such a common stereotype that the east of Ukraine is russian-speaking. What stereotype have you most often encountered over the years of your work?

— I remember the story of 2014, when the Donetsk Regional State Administration was seized. It is not clear what was happening there, but I thought something strange was going on. So I took my camera and started asking them why they were standing there and what they wanted. There were several hundred people there, making bonfires, removing paving stones and giving speeches. These people believed the russian propaganda, but I wanted to get through the clichés and hear specifics. But the majority, unfortunately, spoke using slogans, and when I tried to dig deeper, people refused to communicate at all.

One woman told me: ’You are a Banderite. What do you want here?’ and I answered: ’I am from Donetsk. I was born here. This is my city. You came to the regional state administration in my city, so I am asking you, because you are doing unusual things’. I was wearing red pants at the time and this woman said: ’You can’t be from Donetsk’, and I offered to show my passport if she would show me hers and thus prove that she was from Donetsk. We showed each other our passports, but after looking at mine she said: ’No, you can’t be from Donetsk. You’re wearing red pants. People from Donetsk don’t wear red pants’.

In Kyiv and Lviv I was told that I was some kind of atypical resident of Donetsk.

— Maybe it is precisely because of the stereotype about the Ukrainian language?

— It’s a stereotype, yes. I studied in Donetsk in a Ukrainian group. At the university, half of the teachers taught in Ukrainian. There were also people in the activist community who spoke Ukrainian everywhere on principle.

— But it is noticeable that in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian is spoken more in villages than in big cities.

— Yaroslav Hrytsak tells about it in an interesting way. The Soviet Union after World War II actively used propaganda, making Ukrainian a language spoken only in villages. And in the city it was necessary to speak russian. In my experience, that is exactly what happened. But in Donetsk region there are also Greek villages where Greek was spoken. However, Ukrainian is also spoken in and around the villages. Lemkos lived in the west of Ukraine; they were evicted after World War II as part of the struggle against the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) — some of them were sent to Siberia or Donetsk region. In the 90s there was even an official union of Banderites miners.

— The exhibition offers a space for solitude, where you can shout, cry or be silent. Why is such a space needed today, and what kind of reaction would you have if you were there?

— This idea was born back in 2015. When you’re overwhelmed with heavy feelings, you can go to boxing to vent your emotions and pains. But if you’re not into boxing, screaming is one way to ease your emotional state. But it has to be stigmatized screaming. You don’t need to scream in the street: it’s stressful for people and generally it’s not normal. So you have to go somewhere far away — to the forest, for example, although there may be mushroom pickers there.

This understandable reaction is possible when you’re drunk late at night and you’re having some kind of grief. But when the grief is constant and you don’t get drunk to let it out, there is no place for you to let yourself yell. And the events that are happening contribute to that yelling. Of course, you can dig a hole and shout into it, but where will you dig a hole in Kyiv? In Shevchenko Park?

Another question is where you can have some quiet time. This is also an important need. Oleksandra Pohrebniak, the curator of the exhibition, is pregnant, and we say that the womb gives a sense of security. That is why one of the metaphors for that room is the womb.

When I went in there for the first time after the construction, I realized that it was impossible to create perfect silence. Inwardly, I was prepared for the fact that it would not be perfect. At first I was a little upset, then I laid down on the carpet. Outside the room the sound is quite active, but inside it’s still quiet. And this distancing from the sound somehow helps you feel like you’re in a cozy and safe space where you can lie down and relax.

‘The Balance of Sadness and Joy’ (2022) in PinchukArtCentre

— Do visitors become part of this art space when they enter this room?

— At first, we thought we’d put some kind of sound-reflecting screen up there. So that when people shouted, it would sound as if they were in the mountains. But we came to the conclusion that such an object would turn the room into an artistic space.

This room is an act of caring for visitors. It is a space to relax in a museum filled with art. We did not set artistic goals inside the room.

I hope no one is going to break the walls here. I think this room is in keeping with a space where you can do things that are unacceptable in everyday life. And you can do it safely for yourself and others.

— In the recent film Superpower, Sean Penn describes Ukrainian society with the title of the film. And how would you describe Ukrainian society?

I’m reminded of an anecdote that is hopefully outdated by now. There’s a tour of hell. People stop near one of the vats into which demons are incessantly pushing people who are trying to get out of there. A smaller number of demons are pushing people into the second vat. And there are no demons near the third vat. One of the people asks what’s the matter. And the guide answers: ‘Britons are in the first vat. There are a lot of them, so you have to keep pushing them back in. Americans are in the second vat. They climb one by one, so they need fewer guards there. And Ukrainians are in the third vat. They push each other down, so there is no need for guards’.

For the second year, on the contrary, we have been trying to help each other, to support strangers, but someone, frankly speaking, is already starting to pull us down. I remember a phrase that was said in 2013 by a German friend of mine who worked on document automation in Lviv. I asked him a similar question, and he replied that Ukrainians are too nice.

This kindness supersedes laws and rules. If I am kind to my cousins, why not give them a job? Why not take a bribe from a driver? As in ‘Pamfir’, the main antagonist Morda is also very kind to the children, but this shadow is destructive and gets in the way of building.

‘It seems easier to turn a museum into a concentration camp than to turn a concentration camp into a museum afterward’.

— I found your comment from twelve years ago in the Zen Buddhism Calendar video: ‘One of the tasks of contemporary art is to reveal the essence of things and relationships: what is authentic and what is not’. Has your opinion changed since then?

— No. If you look from the current perspective, the challenge is the same — to understand and discover.

Zen Buddhist calendar

— Did the mission of art change during the war?

— This is more vividly seen in the example of theaters: after the full-scale invasion began, they became shelters and logistical hubs that could give advice, provide the necessary things, and coordinate where to go next. It went on like that for a few months, but gradually the theaters began to return to performances and core work. And I think that artists still do volunteer work on a personal level, but at the beginning of the full-scale invasion there was an urgent need for direct and quick action.

When a person’s wounds are bleeding, he/she will not be able to perceive the performance. First, you have to stop the blood, feed the person, and then he/she will realize what happened and where we are now. After all, the desire to look in the mirror is also a need, but it arises later. In our exhibition ‘History of Relations’ people ask themselves why there is a war. How to stop it? What to do afterward? People can catch the pulse of the echo of these questions.

— In his intro to the exhibition on the second floor of the PinchukArtCentre JR says that art should ask questions, not give answers. Do you agree?

— There is a risk here: if art gives an answer, how can it be distinguished from propaganda? In my works, I don’t think it’s necessary to give answers. I have to show things based on my own experience — in the way that I was able to capture them, in a way that can surprise people. For example, that people in Donetsk speak Ukrainian. But this is also not an answer, but an impulse for people to ask themselves the question: ‘So, maybe everything I thought before is not exactly how I imagined it. Maybe I still need to make an effort to learn more.

If art gives an answer, it becomes propaganda or therapy. Although good therapy probably doesn’t give an answer either. If you’re working not with Spartak Subbota, but with a professional, it’s going to help you sort yourself out. These people won’t tell you what to do with your life.

I was able to connect with the people in my videos because I didn’t come up to them and say: ‘Oh, you live in such an amazing and weird place. Tell me how you live here’. No one would answer me after that. I told them that it pained me, that I was from Donetsk, that I had been to Mariupol several times and I was interested in what they thought about their city. I want to understand the interlocutor better, so openness inspires openness.

My team and I talked about doing an exhibition at the Pinchukartcentre, but we realized that we had to be prepared for complaints about why we were showing it. And there may be claims against me that it’s a manifestation of my own vulnerability, but I think that’s the way to start the conversation.

— If we have already touched on the topic of risk, does there have to be some degree of provocation in art?

I think so. For example, people have stereotypes about when the Revolution of Dignity ended. I asked this question out of curiosity and people didn’t know. Was it February? But no. Or for some people it is still not over. And someone didn’t notice how it ended. And that is why it is very important for me to show the turning point in the Revolution of Dignity, the point after which there was no more revolution. But if Klitschko comes to see the exhibition, he will definitely say that it is a discredit and provocation ordered by his political opponents.

Because anything can be a provocation. A vase is standing, a person has long or short hair — this can also be a provocation.

— In the film ‘On the East’ you ask what the people in the frame miss. And what do you miss?

— When I made this movie, I was trying to deal with that. Because it’s quite difficult to express it. What I’m about to say doesn’t describe my thoughts at the time. But now it’s apricots when you’ve had enough of them. I miss the streets and the festivals we did. The meetings and the interaction between people. I miss ‘Izolyatsia’, where we brought cool works, where people came from all over the world and which has now become a concentration camp. It seems easier to turn a museum into a concentration camp than to turn a concentration camp into a museum afterward. What kind of museum could it be if not a museum about a concentration camp?

— I noticed the video ‘Protests in Moscow on March 5’ on your YouTube channel. And there we can hear a lot of prophetic words about the war before 2014, about the occupation, and about Putin’s weakness. What are the differences between the protests in russia at that time and ours, and how different is the history of their society from ours?

— I haven’t seen them in a while. At that time I went to Marina Abramović’s workshop. It seemed to me that she would not be able to get into Ukraine. Fortunately, I was wrong. Now looking through the depth of those years and universes it comes to mind that we had more drive and fun. Ukrainian protests are more fun.

Moscow protest March 5

I paraphrase Ukrainian journalist Oles Donii, who said about our protests: ‘When Ukrainians do protests, they put up a stage, order music and make sandwiches. It’s almost a carnival or a camp. We take up space’. And what about russian protests — well, people get together, attack something and afterwards the police shoot them. That’s all.

It’s less fun and more threatening. When OMON (Special Purposes Mobile Unit) comes, people go somewhere else. It was interesting for me to watch these protests, because I thought I had no right to actively participate in them, because this is a different state. I was also put in a prisoner transport vehicle, where I found an anti-Putin sticker, and was driven around Moscow with other protesters. It was an unforgettable experience.

Toward morning, they started to let us out one by one, and at the gate of the police station, which was located in the outskirts of Moscow, there were several dozen people who met us, greeted us, asked us where we needed to go, and offered us tea. This surprised me, because we also had this when protesters went to Lukianivska Prison and police stations — this is caring for strangers. It was in russia, but to a much lesser extent.

— Do you see a difference between documentaries and video art?

— Documentaries have a clearer dramaturgy and structure. In video art, there may not be a hero. In documentaries, there can be many heroes. For example, in Sergei Loznitsa’s ‘Maidan’ there are many people who look like natural elements, and in video art there is a reference to Peter Greenaway who plays with form and shoots vertical lines in a limited space. This is a concept.

I, for example, did not send to Docudays UA one of the recent videos, ‘How Will We Remember’, that was on display at the Ukrainian House. It seems to me that it would function better in the exhibition space.

‘After victory and the end of the war, the issues of limitations and body perception will be relevant to us’.

— Let’s talk about performance art. Where does it begin and where does it end for you?

— For me, the beginning and end of a performance must be clearly defined. For example, in performance art there are works where a candle is lit and the performance continues until it burns out. So the performer, as with a performance, has to understand when the end will be. Also the stage has clear spatial boundaries. If you play a character both at home and in the theater, then it is psychologically unsafe. If there is a line, you cross it and you play the role, and if you cross it back, you become yourself again. In performance art, boundaries are also important to me.

If the cops had shut my mouth in ‘How long could you scream?’ it would have been over immediately. They did not shut my mouth, so the end came when I physically could no longer scream.

How long could you scream? 

— How do you figure out if a performance has met its goals or not?

— I don’t think in those terms. I would like to ask for whom these goals were met and how? A British artist, Roddy Hunter, once said at the School of Performance in Lviv that performance is a kind of conscious dysfunction in which you face a limit. It can be a bodily, social or physical limit.

Performance is when I am not experiencing someone else’s boundaries, but when I become a researcher and an object of research.

Only once I failed to realize what I wanted on Maidan, when I approached the special police force naked. I had a feeling that I did not manage to achieve what I had envisioned.

Piotr Armyanovsky’s session with students of the 4th year of the ILA

— What was the strangest reaction you observed during the performance?

— The performance called ‘Ukrainian Body’ was a series of three acts. The first act was about space, the second act was about time, and the third act was about the body. In 2011, I undressed in front of the Donetsk Art Museum and carved the coat of arms of Ukraine with a blade in solidarity against the closure of the Ukrainian Body exhibition in Kyiv.

Of course, I was scared. I thought that as soon as I undressed, they would take me away. But a miracle happened. Everything happened the other way around, people disappeared. Passers-by who saw what was happening tried to avoid me. But one woman came up to me, looked at me and said: ‘Oh, it’s a performance’. And then she walked away. For the last few years we have been calling it performance, but in 2011 in Donetsk, I think few people knew the meaning of this word. In this case, the woman understood everything and reacted normally.

And the next day I was surprised again when the journalist and I discussed this performance, Marina Abramović and other artists. It should have been an interesting conversation about performance art. The journalist sent the text to the editorial office, but there it was reduced to two paragraphs with the headline ‘A naked man carved the coat of arms of Ukraine near the office of the Donetsk governor’.

Road (documentation of a performance)

— What was your set of mind when you undressed on Hrushevsky Street during the performance? You told me that you were very embarrassed before you carved the Ukrainian symbol tryzub on your stomach during the performance ‘Ukrainian Body’.

— It’s like jumping into an ice hole. You walk up to the ice hole and part of you says maybe you shouldn’t do that. In ‘How long could you scream?’ I must have spent about 30 minutes thinking about how to start it. But in this case, the birds were singing, people were walking, and I was standing there remembering why I decided to do it. But coming up with an idea, coming to a place and not doing it is much worse than not starting at all. And when you start, you’re already in the water.

— And do you envision possible endings when you prepare a performance?

In my heart, I am always prepared for the worst case scenario. For example, in ‘How long could you scream?’ I consulted with lawyers I knew about how it could be qualified from a legal point of view, and found out that it could be punishable by two weeks in a pre-trial detention center or a fine. I was aware of this and was prepared for it.

There was a dynamic and fast-moving structure on Maidan, so I asked people to film me, but I didn’t plan anything ahead, because there is a certain amount of curiosity: how would they react? I was prepared that they would take me away. But I knew that if there were people around, I could escape. If there weren’t, okay. But I had a feeling that the protesters were on my side.

— How do you see the future of performance art?

— For me, performance art is an exploration of the limitations I face as an individual and a member of society, but since 2014, the context of war has emerged. Well, it’s not exactly a limitation. We are sitting on the sixth floor and looking at Kyiv. What limitations can we have compared to the guys participating in the counter-offensive? None.

When I’ve been invited to Europe several times, I’ve had thoughts about the mediatization and gamification of the European people’s view of our events. Like the war is something on a screen. I was working with that perception at the time.

In 2019 in Lviv I was offered to do a performance, and I realized that time is a limitation. For two days I was in a small space: there was one window that I looked through and tried to see what was there, not Donetsk or something familiar that was in my head. This is not a new thing in performance art, when time becomes the matter with which the artist works. But I don’t have any new ideas, and the performances I saw didn’t fascinate me.

After victory and the end of the war, the issues of limitations and body perception will be relevant to us. I was surprised and saddened to read a discussion that people were laughing at Masi Nayyem, who was badly wounded and lost an eye at the front. This is a shock to me. What kind of people can act like this?

Bodily wounds and inconvenience to the remaining uninjured civilians are some of the topics that need to be disclosed. Hiding your eyes or expressing displeasure at the sight of a wounded person, or ignoring a military member who has been injured protecting us, is wrong. Something needs to be done about it. And performance art can help overcome the stereotypes and limitations of how we perceive the human body.

Design partner —
Development — Mixis