‘Argue with me’: the Russian artist taking to the streets to break cycles of violence

21 July 2020

Last May, Katrin Nenasheva spent much of her time in St Petersburg’s residential courtyards wearing a wedding dress. After setting up a few chairs around a collapsable table, she placed a sign with the phrase “Argue With Me” on top, in front of a flower in a vase. Then she sat down and waited for visitors to stop by.

Argue With Me (2020) was both Nenasheva’s latest performance and an opportunity to talk about violence. When someone asked what she was doing, she invited them to sit and, if they had the time and desire, talk about the kind of conflicts they often found themselves in, especially at home. If participants were willing, she handed them materials ranging from communicative scripts to conflict resolution techniques, creating a space where they could grapple with how conflict and violence played out in their lives.

A performance of "Argue with Me". Image: Yevgeniy Zvezdoruk

“One of the more memorable chats I had during the performance,” she said, “was with a man who was in the army during the war in Chechnya. He spoke about the violence he himself committed, both at home and as a soldier.”

Complex moments like these, where different groups such as feminists and former soldiers, are brought into a shared space, are key to her work. After making sure matters of personal safety are taken care of, Nenasheva likes to push her art into places that ask hard questions about stigmatisation, complicity, victimisation and the limits of empathy.

Her work comes down to making hidden acts of abuse and discrimination visible, as well as making the roots of that violence visible. For Nenasheva, that can mean making contact even with abusers, exploring (and perhaps intervening in) the closed loops that prompt victims to themselves become aggressors.

A performance of "Argue with Me". Image: Yevgeniy Zvezdoruk

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Visibility has been part of Nenasheva’s practice from the very beginning. When she moved from the southern Russian city of Krasnodar to Moscow, she had ideas of using journalism to draw attention to the nation’s marginalised groups. But she quickly became disillusioned with the media and started working instead with NGOs, one of which brought her to a women’s prison. The inmates there weren’t allowed to possess photographs of themselves, something which inspired her first performance, Don’t Be Scared (2015). She created a collection of photos where the artist and other women donned prison uniforms to draw attention to bodies that are systematically rendered invisible. Punishment (2016) and Between Here and There (2017) addressed different populations living within social institutions (children and neurodiverse adults, respectively). The latter involved Nenasheva walking around Moscow in a VR headset that peered into underfunded rooms where the patients of Russia’s closed mental institutions spend their lives. She was arrested and detained in a psychological clinic after wandering onto Moscow’s Red Square.

A performance of "Between Here and There". Image: Natalia Budantseva

“I’m an artist first,” she says, “but each project combines art, research, activism and community building.” Her performances operate as a kind of laboratory, where Nenasheva and her collaborators explore what it means to be marginalized and made invisible. This experience then provides fuel for exhibitions, solidarity campaigns, community development and attempts to get activist and human rights groups the grants and other necessary funding sources they need.

Most of her early work focused on providing support to victims and survivors of both physical and institutional violence, but in 2018 her focus went through a radical shift.

A performance of "Argue with Me". Image: Yevgeniy Zvezdoruk

Nenasheva has relatives from Donbas, a part of eastern Ukraine currently experiencing turmoil as a result of Russian-backed separatist activity that began in 2014. Looking to see what happened to her grandfather’s property, she entered the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and was detained by men connected to the security services. They brought her and her companion to a closed facility where they were beaten in an attempt to produce a confession that she, a liberal artist, was in Donbas to create a provocation.

“The whole process was deeply traumatic,” she recounted. “But the turning point came when I asked my attacker if I could do anything for him. I asked him if he needed anything.” This was enough of a shock that he started talking about the broken promises soldiers experience: Russian passports that never materialise, mental health issues or substance abuse. While he wasn’t familiar with the term PTSD, Nenasheva had worked with social issues long enough to identify signs of the condition.

A performance of "Cargo 300". Image: Elena Gracheva

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After she was released, and after she spent time recovering from the experience, she started wondering about what kind of performance could bring visibility to the kinds of marginalised experiences that tend to reproduce violence. She thought of the dehumanising military incidents described by Belarusian Nobel-prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s book Boys in Zinc. She thought about life in a patriarchy that encourages women to oppress other women, or that requires men to render their pain invisible in order to maintain masks of emotional invulnerability.

She originally envisioned a project focused around Russian soldiers’ experience of PTSD, but there wasn’t enough cooperation from veterans’ organisations for it to materialise. When she posted her ideas on social media, a number of people unfriended her due to her desire to work with “the other side.” All this, along with the process of working through her own experience of detainment, led her to shelve the idea for the time being.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit Russia, however, she saw an altogether different opportunity to explore the ways that unexamined histories of violence lead to more violence. With Argue With Me, Nenasheva prepared a performance that would distribute resources to survivors while providing space for abusers and aggressors to reflect about their experiences and coping mechanisms.

“Violence doesn’t appear out of nowhere,” she said. “If we want to break the cycle, we need to discover the reasons why people choose violence over other kinds of behaviour.”

Nenasheva hopes that, by basing creative interventions on radical acts of listening, empathy and visibility, Russia’s younger generations will be better equipped to process the hidden acts of violence in society. All in hopes that, perhaps, it will be possible to build an altogether different future.

But this is new, unfamiliar territory – a trail that has to be blazed, so to speak. And that is precisely what Katrin Nenasheva and her collaborators plan to do.

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