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Woods, Snow And Emptiness: Birth Of Performance Art In Russia

“Kollektivnye Deystviya” (“Collective Actions”) is a group formed by the most prominent non-conformist artists from Moscow. It was initiated by Andrey Monastirskiy in 1976, at the time when conceptual art thrived in the underground creative scene. Artists of this group such as N.Panitkov, A.Abramov, N.Alekseev, I.Makarevich, E.Elagina, G.Kizevalter stood at the beginning of performance and happening practices in Russia, that weren’t known in the country before.

This group is known mostly for their so-called “actions”. It was a series of activities that served to encourage it’s audience to let their minds analyse and reflect on certain triggers and events that unfurled before their eyes. Basically, their goal was to make people explore their own relationship with art and their perception of it. All spectators were their close friends and other famous non-conformist artists and writers of the time like I. Kabakov, D. Prigov, A. Kuzkin, O. Kroytor, V. Sorokin. These actions usually took place on the outskirts of Moscow, in the woods, fields and groves. All the participants and spectators gathered on train platform to ride together into the quiet of Moscow suburbs.

First action prepared by Collective Actions was coated in the air of secrecy. Every spectator received a personal invitation from the members of the group. No one had any idea why and where in particular they are going, could not phantom what’s going to happen when they reach the final destination. Several hours later, they arrived at an empty field covered in snow. Viewers waited. And then waited some more, huddling closer to warm up. When the confused crowd started doubting that anything will happen at all, two figures appeared from the forest. They came up to the viewers and gave each a piece of paper, a document of a sort. It stated that this certificate verifies their attendance of “The Appearance”. Nothing else happened after and everybody made their way home, no less bewildered than they were in the beginning.

This performance was the first in the long list of actions staged in Moscow and it’s precincts. They concerned various subjects such as death, emptiness, technological progress, artist and his art. All of them were carefully catalogued by the members of the group and later composed in 10 volumes of “Journeys Out of Town”. The publication also included photos, texts and diagrams from their performances.

Kievogorskoye field became their usual place of gathering. One can see this spacious area outside of the busy city as metaphor for a field of one’s own mind. A clean space where nothing will cloud the perception of the artistic idea, a space that gives viewers a perfect landscape to process their thoughts. The actual event that took place wasn’t really the main part of the performance, the feelings and considerations it triggered were.

Another one of their actions, “Slogan”, wasn’t even much of an event to begin with. It was simply a banner, hung up between the trees for an unsuspecting person to come across. On a bright red cloth was a white sign that translates as “I do not complain about anything and I almost like it here, although I have never been here before and know nothing about this place”. The banner contrasted with the white snow and thin black trees, the words written on it puzzled and mystified the audience. Overall, it had a very striking effect.

In the 1990’s they were pushed out of Kievogorskoye field and had to change location. Since then, several of their actions happened in public spaces, for example “Library”. During this performance artists burned a bunch of ideological books. All of them have been published in the years when Collective Actions were performing on Kievogorskoye. This particular action was their way of commemorating the past.

Collective Action is notable for creating a method of exploration of one’s self that was never known in Russian creative circles before. It encompassed not only art itself but also psychology and philosophy. Their experiments strived to expand human conscious and dive deeper into one’s subconscious. Through performances and happenings they made people reflect on art and process their contrasting, unusual feelings about it.

The last action of theirs took pace several years ago, but up to this day their influence can be found in many works of young conceptual artists. This group of non-conformists stood at the very beginning of the development of Russian performance scene and played a vital role in it’s formation.

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