MOSCOW (Reuters) - Carrying bags of stolen groceries, Oleg Vorotnikov takes out the batteries of his mobile phone before entering the secret headquarters of his underground art collective on the outskirts of Moscow.
“This is to prevent the cops from listening in,” said Vorotnikov, a 29-year-old art graduate, who with other politically conscious artists co-founded the Voina, or War, collective in 2007.
“Once a drunk artist introduced us to bystanders as ‘Russia’s main radical group’ -- that’s when I understood that we have to do something together,” Vorotnikov said.
In a country where traditional opposition to the government has been dulled by public apathy and a diet of pro-Kremlin television news, these artists take a different approach: they poke fun at the establishment, and the more absurd the better.
They hunch over laptops in their headquarters -- a garage -- editing video of their latest piece of guerrilla street theater: an impromptu tea party in a police station.
For the lack of chairs they sit on chests of drawers and a TV set. Cameras, camcorders and books of poetry are scattered over the floor.
“We always do things that violate rules. We combine art and politics to achieve something new,” said Kotyonok, a slightly built young woman who teaches physics at a Moscow university and who only gave her nickname, which means kitten.
“People watch us and are simply shocked.”
Voina became a household name in the Russian blogger scene with a stunt intended as a wry commentary on the handover of power -- decried by opponents as undemocratic -- from former President Vladimir Putin to his successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
A day before the presidential election that Medvedev won by a landslide, five couples, including one heavily pregnant woman who gave birth four days later, secretly undressed in Moscow’s Biological Museum.
With video cameras rolling, they had sex in front of a banner calling for copulation in support of “the bear cub-successor” - a pun on Medvedev’s family name, which is derived from the Russian word for bear.
Blogs carrying photos and videos of the event shot to number one in Russian Internet rankings within 24 hours.
Some users called the participants “freaks,” “sh--eaters” or “animals.” One blogger suggested they should be shot. When the mother of the pregnant woman saw her having sex on television, she threw her out of home.
Voina said they had to leave their old headquarters under pressure from the authorities but few members have yet to face the full weight of the law for their activities.
The group is most vulnerable to the catch-all “hooliganism” charge that could lead to a short prison term, but only one member is currently facing prosecution for throwing cats during one performance.
Voina’s actionist art draws on Moscow Conceptualism, a movement that started in the 1970 with performances subverting socialist ideology. Given the repressive nature of the Soviet state, these happenings had to take place secretly.
Only when state control over the arts receded during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms in the 1980s could artists take their events into the public sphere.
In April 1991 members of a group around Anatoly Osmolovsky, a Russian artist, art theorist and curator, lay down on Red Square forming the word “khui,” Russian for cock, with their naked bodies.
Voina members describe the happening as inspiring but add that it would be impossible today in an “authoritarian Russia” where, nevertheless, they have earned the respect of some in the mainstream art scene.
“In the ‘90s art fell under the influence of a society that was becoming more and more bourgeois: artists happily turned into conformists,” said Andrei Yerofeyev, who until last month was head of modern art procurement at the state-run Tretyakov Gallery.
“Only in the last year a strain of protest art reappeared, one that takes a critical line, reflects, takes a step back and sometimes cynically, sometimes comically, describes what is going on in our society.”
Back in the Voina headquarters the activists scramble around a laptop computer trying to improve the sound of their latest video to make it fit for Internet publication.
Shaky images, filmed with a hidden camera the day before Medvedev’s inauguration, show the artists dishing out cream cakes and tea in a police station.
Watched by a stunned officer, they pin Medvedev’s portrait to a wall. “We invite you to celebrate with us the inauguration of the new president,” one activist can be heard saying.
Attempting to remove the intruders, the officer resorts to verbal abuse. “We have to fix the sound, you can’t hear anything,” said Kotyonok, twitching the dials on the video- editing software.
In another piece of performance art, the group rigged up a table in a metro carriage, brought out food and vodka and held a wake for absurdist poet Dmitry Prigov.
They also marked international workers’ day by going in to a McDonald’s restaurant and throwing live cats at the counter staff. The idea, they said, was to help snap the workers out of the dull routine of menial labor.
Behind the bizarre stunts, the artists who make up Voina have a serious political agenda.
“If the authorities say ‘we are building a strong state,’ an artist should show that this is not the case. If they say ‘we are improving the lives of the people,’ an artist should show that this is a lie,” said Vorotnikov over dinner, tearing off a hunk of the chicken he earlier stole from a supermarket.
But they say their work is also a journey of self-discovery, to see how far they can push their own boundaries as artists and radicals.
“We hate cops but if we just attacked them like that, they would jail us immediately. So we hide our hatred behind art so they can’t get us and we achieve our aim quicker,” said Kotyonok.
The authorities have dealt harshly with overtly political opposition but to date there has been no sign of a crackdown on Voina. Acting under the aegis of art protects them to a large extent, she said.
“We’ve had sex in public and are no longer scared of it. We’ve invaded a police station and are no longer scared of it. What else is there to scare us?,” asked Kotyonok.
“Death we will deal with in the future. Soon we will be completely fearless.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith and Jon Boyle