Urban Art in Russia, Part 4: Profanity and expropriation by commercial and governmental structures (2013—2015)

We continue serie of articles about Urban art in Russia. In 4 articles we try to describe story from Avant-garde, Moscow actionism to graffiti/street Art and socially engaged Urban Art with analyse today situation of expropriation by commercial and governmental structures.

This is the final part about today situation with profanity and expropriation by commercial and governmental structures.

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One cannot say that in today's Russia there is any particular enthusiasm in street art or any certain preconditions for its development. Certainly, the decrees of avant-gardists of the beginning of the 20th century, the Soviet social realism in the spirit of muralism, and actionism of the 1990s are significant manifestations of urban art, but not in the context of today's mainstream street art.

With absolute certainty we can say that over the last couple of years interest to this phenomenon has repeatedly raised. On the one hand, this is due to the political agenda of some street works. But on the other hand, recently appeared trend on "europeanisation" [1] of Moscow has launched a number of programmes on the development of public art that in an accelerated tempo literally "bombed" the city with dozens of objects and paintings. This, in turn, has launched active commercialization processes of this kind of art: the city has become aware of its potential in placing advertising objects and decorations in a new format, and political forces have seen this as an opportunity to promote themselves.

Nowadays the range of Russian "projects" taking advantage of street art is vast, and interest in this phenomenon, on the part of both the city and the brands, is increasing every day. As a result, during the past couple of years not only numerous street art festivals, but also a museum of street art, a street art award, a forum, a biennale and an auction have emerged. Such a range of serious institutional and informal formats for the culture could not be found in any other country in the world.

For example, in 2013, with the participation of businessman Ivan Panteleev and Street Kit [2] store owner Sabina Chagina and with support from Moscow Department of culture, large-scale festival "The Best City in the World" occurred, in the context of which 149 (see map) various urban surfaces were painted in just one season.



Public art program of the festival "The Best City in the World" became a breakthrough. It was attended by street artists from around the world; but subsequent processes initiated by the organizers marked the moment of the commercialization’s beginning and the profanation of counterculture.


MOST forum 2013

MOST forum 2013

Apart from a vivid invasion of art in the city, the year 2013 could be considered the starting point for the formation of a new market environment, which largely opened thanks to the loyal cultural policy of the city. In fall 2013 the team of Ivan Panteleev organized a forum on trends of street art, which could be reduced to guidance on how to cooperate with authorities and corporations. Many statements on the subject of opening up new prospects and market formation could be heard, which gave the impression that the artist was not wanted at the event, and the audience was only mercantile. None of the speeches at the forum were carefully thought out; all of them were shrouded in an aura of opening prospects.

The forum ended with a symbolic procession incentive – a street art award, which was supposed to become an annual event and to designate the most active and important Russian personalities and projects.

Consequently, by using such powerful words and formats as "forum" and "award", festival "MOST", Ivan Panteleev in particular tried to go to a new level, thus trying to not only legitimize their activities, but also to monopolize it in the new market of goods and services.

Sabina Chagina had a similar strategy and intentions. Having done really large-scale work for the festival "The Best City in the World", she introduced her own alternatives to the forum and the award – a biennale and an auction. In terms of legitimacy these formats were comparable – one formed a community, another encouraged it, but in comparison with Mr. Panteleev her strategy and approach were more successful and profitable.

However, in the course of discussion of market relations one issue should not be forgotten – in both cases the organizers were trying not only to integrate into an existing community, but also to establish a monopoly on it by redefining the notion of what might have been labeled "street". For instance, having neither the curators nor any expert assessment in the choice of works, organizers of street-art biennale showed only a particular cross-section of images that were most easy to perceive in the spirit of comics and abstract painting. A stand of a famous whiskey brand [3] erected in the middle of the hall complemented the scene of commercially oriented works. An auction where the same works were being sold finished the story.


Auction for 'supporting' of Russian Street Art. Moscow, 2015

Naturally, in such a context, it was not possible to include any socially or politically engaged works, because in case of "forum" and "award", as well as with "biennale" and "auction", whatever was abstract and colorful was safe and sold better or placed in a portfolio for future collaborations with brands.

Parallel processes occurred in St. Petersburg, with a smaller scale in the context of the city, but not with less response in the street art community. In 2013 street art Museum opened in the premises of an existing laminated plastics factory began its active work. If you recall that the various avant-garde practices, including those of the street, have always tried to resist – and sometimes even destroy – a museum, the mere existence of such an institution is not only controversial, but also absurd in principle. Nevertheless, the "museum" is only nominal – it is not involved in the formation of the collection, but only carries out educational activities through the extensive lecture programme that invites personalities closely associated with street art. A big advantage of the museum’s activity was the exhibition "Casus Pacis" held in 2014, in the framework of the 10-th Manifesta and with the supervision of Anna Nistratova, Vova Vorotnev, and Mikhail Astakhov.



Although the exhibition was not particularly interesting for its exposition line, it absorbed a huge number of socially-engaged street artists and became, on the one hand, a catalyst for more intense activity of the "museum", and, on the other hand, an excellent alternative to Moscow events of decorative nature. The theme chosen for the exhibition was centered around the topic of relations between Russia and Ukraine that breathed into the street art community some long lost protest and social spirit; and the exhibition presented in the former workshops of the factory was not perceived as a commercial one. For the purpose of exposing street art such a format of an exhibition space and chosen themes seems most advantageous.


Crimea and Russia together forever — first patriotic mural in central of Moscow. Photo by Varlamov, 2014

In Moscow the tide turned. Already in 2014 the first propaganda and patriotic painting in the city center dedicated to the annexation of the Crimea appeared. On the scale of hundreds, city walls were painted with bright spots where patriotic and campaigning meaning was lost, kind of merging with a common abstract city scenography and claiming the status of street art.

Nowadays, the propaganda machine of a monumental painting has launched and operates actively enough. For example, patriotically framed youth organization "#Set’” (“network” in Russian) undertook a more ambitious and mosaic design concept in the context of the country. Their project “SPASIBO/СПАСИБО [4]” consists of 7 facades, painted in 7 Russian cities: Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Vladivostok, Kaliningrad, Sevastopol, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. One letter is placed on each of the facades; they eventually gather in one word of gratitude to Vladimir Putin.


Many in liberal circles, including street art community and some media, oppose these two phenomena of urban culture: the first has a pole as "good" and bright street art of decorative character, and another – agitation and propaganda.

However, this seeming opposition is relative as both have exclusively opportunist and mercantile goals. Both poles of this new "street art" environment, starting with street art festivals, awards and biennales and ending with patriotic agitprop campaigns, are equal; their interests intersect only in a competitive field of the street-art market formed by them, which is actively supported by authorities through grants of the Department of culture.

If public space is considered a room for dialogue, conflict, and the overlapping of various interests, the patriotic "graffiti/street art" has much more potential.

If public space is considered a room for dialogue, conflict, and the overlapping of various interests, the patriotic "graffiti" has much more potential. For example, decorative and design projects do not cause any emotions, they are more likely to mask defects in the city or simply divert the attention of residents from problems. These works complement the picture of a consumer society, or, as Guy Debord named it, "society of the spectacle". They do not initiate any questions in the viewer; they only cause lackadaisical feelings of sweet hopelessness. Rapidly acting, patriotic muralism operates differently – not only does it irritate a liberal layer of society, but also raises doubts in conservative-minded population. As a matter of fact, it is these paintings that initiate discussions around the current situation in the country; they question the format of cooperation of various kinds of street artists with anyone.

For street artists in Russia and in the post-Soviet territory the question of what art and the city represent and mean for them should be put point-blank. Do they want to continue participating in the processes of gentrification, being puppets of political campaigns or cogs in the machine of consumerism, unconsciously coming out into public space, or it is about time they finally became radical and dare to provoke, criticize, and protest.


[1] The era of active transformation of public spaces in Moscow and the "cultural revolution" started in 2011 and continues today, with the active participation of the Mayor Mr. Sobyanin and Head of the Department of culture of Mr. Kapkov.
[2] "A gallery uniting street art artists from around the world and supporting them in creating interesting projects that set the mood and change the appearance of the city" (quote from the official web-site). As a matter of fact, Street Kit has never been a gallery but a souvenir and apparel store where products with the design of some street artists are sold.
[3] Within the framework of the project “Hennessy very special”, the brand orders design by famous street artists. In 2012 the label design was made by Futura2000, in 2013 by Os Gemeos and in 2014 by Shepard Fairey.
[4] “SPASIBO/СПАСИБО” – “Thanks” in Russian. Serie of murals is a gift for birthday of Mr. Putin
Translation by Fania Balabanova.