When performing an act of protest, many goals are at play. Public displays of dissent seek to voice their opposition to a powerful authority, or sometimes to simply alleviate a collective frustration and sorrow.
But public protest also seeks to inform the uninformed – to disrupt the daily humdrum of lives by injecting knowledge of some injustice. This is what Russian performance artist and activist Katrin Nenasheva has been doing since she quit her job as a journalist, after Russia’s war against Ukraine broke out in 2014 and she had her first brush with Russian censorship, being made to write propagandist articles about the conflict.
From her first major protest performance in 2015 on the streets of Putin’s Russia, Nenasheva has been detained several times for her art. Her 2015 performance was titled Ne Boysia, meaning Don’t Be Afraid, and involved Nenasheva living, working, studying, commuting and spending time in public spaces while wearing a prison robe. It lasted a month.
“The final day of the action was on the Red Square, where my comrade Anna Bokler shaved my head and I ripped the robe off,” recounted Nenasheva in one interview. “After that, we were arrested and put on trial.”
Despite numerous detentions under a state that is notorious for suppressing dissent, Nenasheva carries on undeterred. One of her many anti-war performances features her and two other women collecting water in plastic basins, and proceeding to wash “blood” off the military clothing they are wearing in a public street. They go on to hang the clothing out to dry, and are seen reasoning with police officers who eventually detained them.
In a 2017 column for Open Democracy, Nenasheva wrote, “Today, any person who looks kind of different attracts the attention of the police. So it’s just like the Soviet times, everyone in Russia lives by the principle ‘don’t stand out.’”
Another cause that features as the subject of many of Nenasheva’s performances is the recurring use of punitive psychiatry by the Russian government, particularly for dissidents. Nenasheva’s performance Between Here and There (images below) was a solo one, where she wore a Virtual Reality headset that immersed her in visuals of Russia’s psychiatry wards where many are kept as punishment.
The artist moved through public spaces, sometimes alone, sometimes surrounded, sometimes asked by onlookers if they could try on the headset. Upon being approached by police and refusing to remove the headset, Nenasheva was detained. Ironically enough, she was taken to a psychiatric ward. However, the doctor present refused to admit her, saying she did not require hospitalisation.
It is not only dissidents that face Soviet-era psychiatric punishments, warns Nenasheva, but the method is also used widely by Russian orphanages, among several other human rights violations. In what is perhaps her most popular performance so far, Nenasheva chained herself to a metal hospital bed and roamed about Moscow for 21 days, hoping to raise awareness about child abuse within Russian orphanages.
“Children in orphanages in rural Russia are sent to psychiatric facilities as a form of punishment for misbehaving,” Nenasheva stated in a Facebook post about the performance. “In some institutions this is a practice that has existed for a long time, in its roots it’s dating back to the punitive psychiatry in the Soviet Union.”
Nenasheva’s performance, Punishment, included not only the metal bed, but also various actions that illustrated the plight of those being punished in psychiatric wards. One such action was pricking the soles of her feet with needles, imitating a method used to prevent children from moving around freely in the orphanages.
“For 21 day[s] I will be undergoing a course of outpatient treatment – try[ing] on myself methods of prevention, [with] which the system ‘raises’ children,” said Nenasheva. “Having tied myself to a hospital bed for the whole time, I will try to go through some of the punishment[s] that have become common for orphans.”
Also as part of the same performance, Nenasheva changed the bandages of a man named Dmitry Zhdanov at Moscow’s Alexander Garden. Zhdanov had been disabled waist-down, after jumping from the fifth floor of a building out of despair and breaking his back. His legs and back suffer from continued lesions and infections because of a lack of care.
Epistemologists have long highlighted a distinction between “knowledge that” and “knowledge how”. While the basis of this distinction remains a matter of debate among scholars, one of the simplest ways to detail it is the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge. “Knowledge that” may tell one the facts of a matter, or illustrate how a bike is ridden. However, “knowledge how” will immerse one in the matter, and would mandate some kind of practical experience (one must actually ride the bike).
Perhaps performance as protest, when conceptualised as personally and immersively as Nenashev’s, fulfils the same purpose. Particularly for the artist themselves, but also for those viewing the performance. Viewers may have previous knowledge “that” children in Russian orphanages are regularly subject to physical and mental abuse. But what a performance like Nenashev’s might bring to the public is a transference of “knowledge how,” one that she was privy to in her time working with NGOs in these orphanages.
Explaining the principles that inform her method, Nenasheva said, “I must find and explore the material: the problem, the situation, the heroes, the details. It is extremely important because one of my intentions is to translate the voices of people who are invisible. I must make an archive of the stories, quotations, etc – it’s a great deal of work.”
Nenasheva’s performance art, then, constitutes a transformation and immersion not only for the artist, but also for the viewer, who is thrown into a reality they may never have seen up close, never been able to poke, prod or be a part of.
Another principle that Nenasheva holds dear is “communicativeness”. “For me, it is very important to talk with people in the underground, in shops, on the street – as an occasion to inform and discuss an uncomfortable topic,” she has been quoted as saying.
When an individual (quite literally) comes face to face with an uncomfortable truth, or rather, the embodiment of a truth they previously believed they had knowledge of, the impact is of a different kind, a “knowledge how,” that conventional or information-based protest perhaps cannot quite capture. Empathy, for many, is based primarily on one’s own lived experience, and performance art allows for just that: a moment of shared experience and relatability, even if it is shocking.
Read all the articles in the Art of Resistance series here.