In 2004, about eighty people in Novosibirsk marched on the 1st of May carrying posters with absurd slogans. This public performance was coined Monstration as opposed to demonstration, which suggests something negative: negation, elimination, degradation. It was initially designed as pronouncedly nonpolitical, never supportive of the government, free of corporate backing and any kind of control over the content. Some of the slogans parodied those of the communist May Day demonstration, which traditionally took place in the Soviet Union (‘Gas, Oil, May’ or ‘Down with dope! Up with milk!’), others – just nonsensical (‘A fly is a helicopter too’,
‘I dig up worms and set them free’ or ‘Don’t fall down from the bridge, you will get ill’), puns and spoonerisms (no way to render wordplays properly).
Monstration was created by the art group Contemporary Art Terrorism and was initially hugely supported by different artists. Artyom Loskutov, an artist and one of the authors of Monstration, insists it is a happening rather than a performance (we will keep calling it ‘performance’ referring to ‘public performance’) because there is no set agenda or scenario except for a date and place: everything happens extempore.
Over time, Monstration gained some popularity among ordinary people for being a ‘funny’ alternative to the boring May Day demonstration. Its participants went in the tail of the parade before 2010, sort of travestying the fossil of a festivity. Later after getting bigger, they worked up their independence. Two thousand people went to Monstration in 2010. According to eyewitness reports, this was three times as many people as at the communist party May Day demonstration. Since then, it has been held in many cities throughout the country. In the following years, Monstration in Novosibirsk attracted about four thousand people each timeit took place. The posters were displayed in an exhibition space for public viewing after the performances.
Public political activities in Novosibirsk in the early 2000s, says Loskutov, consisted of such flabby protests as against the war in Iraq (that was not related to the domestic policy and therefore ‘safe’) or protests against pension reforms, which were drummed up by seniors exclusively. Some radical movements, for example the National Bolshevik Party, went to protest and gathered a few dozen determined activists. But that was all, political life was generally dull and insipid, and Monstration appealed to mostly energetic young people who had never felt they had a voice before. Monstration was a sort of outlet for them. It may be considered a catalyst, along with plenty of changes that have engulfed society over the last decade, of the high political activity the youths have been showing consistently since the protests in 2011.
In Russia, there is never a guarantee that a movement, even claimed to be a nonpolitical one, will be allowed to exist freely without drawing attention from the government. The conditions in which Monstration is placed are traditionally politicized and thus the government seeks control over it. People gathering is a sore subject with officials. Every utterance must be approved if it is made public. As a result, Monstration was not approved by officials for various reasons in some cities. Somewhere a policeman would check a poster before letting it be put up at the event. Sometimes organizers would be detained before or after the performance.
In the case of Monstration, the absurd is in the place where the politically approved statement usually dwells. Of course, Monstration is not innocent of political charge, but this is apparently a catch. The legal reasons for banning Monstration have always been lame. The officials find themselves in a pickle. They come to detain organizers, to hinder proceeding. Not knowing what they should do, they change their strategy over and over again. As a result it has always come with agitation and turmoil. Monstration is a threat to them since they ought to behold a rehearsal of the political statement. It is as if the youths have declared: ‘We are not doing it right now, but we will get around to it.’
Another remarkable turn of events took place earlier this year. The Young Guard, the pro-government youth wing of the United Russia party (the ruling party with the majority in the Russian parliament since it was founded), announced an event like Monstration. They even called it the same, only it was scheduled on the 8th of March. Then another event was announced in Crimea timed to the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Artyom Loskutov expressed his resentment at the appropriation of the original name and the principles altogether, calling the occasion ‘bleak Komsomol’, whereas ‘true Monstration’ does not support the government, is not commercial, slogans are not imposed, and it is held on the 1st of May. It seems to be a big deal for the officials to guarantee that the public utterances do not go uncontrolled, which they fear the most.
Monstration is not one of a kind. Akin public performances took place in Novosibirsk in 1995, in Barnaul on 1st April 1997, in Poland in the 80s, let alone its precursors in the so-called Day of Fools, described in detail by the Russian philosopher M. Bakhtin. According to Bakhtin, four categories constitute the nature of such a festivity: familiar and free interaction between people, eccentric behaviour, carnivalistic mésalliances and profanation. The medieval Day of Fools predominantly made all folk take off their social roles and play goofy and cheerful games. Because it tended to embrace so much of society, it relieved tension rather than the opposite. In contrast with its ancestor, Monstration uses the nonsense and foolishness as a weapon against, and within,
a firm structure to loosen its grip.
There are also some connections to street parties. There were several in Prague, arranged by mostly left-wing young people belonging to a number of different movements, from the anarchists and anti-globalists to the greens. They provided music and food and tried to deliver a particular message, but above all, they attempted to liberate city space. At this moment we are getting back to Bakhtin’s Carnival. Monstration likewise aims to revitalize public gatherings and restore it in its rights by means of innocuity, friendliness and cheerfulness in its pure form.
Georgiy Stebunov is a columnist focused on art and literature.