12 hours of freedom: the story behind Russia’s first queer biennale

6 October 2020
Top image: Mios Alba

Last autumn, Boris Konakov walked through the St Petersburg apartment he’d repurposed as an art space and greeted the crowds as they arrived. Entering the building involved climbing through grimy stairwells littered with paintings and multimedia installations: collages blurring the line between limbs and plants, impressionist lips baring fangs, spins on vintage erotica, a row of butterflies made of sex work adverts. Once inside, visitors were greeted by self-proclaimed “crip theory propaganda” and a one-day hair salon called Mud.

Each work made up a fragment in Russia’s first Queer Biennale, organised by Konakov in November 2019. In addition to the visual work, there was a lineup of lectures, performances, DJ sets, and even a round or two of queer ballet, finishing, of course, with a rave.

The event was pulled together over a period of two months, with Konakov using his connections in the city’s queer, artist, and activist scenes to produce a multifaceted response to a single question: what does it mean to be queer in Russia?

“I didn’t want to work from a script,” Konnakov says. “We wanted to think about how to express queerness, non-binariness. We wanted theoretical lectures, yes, but also a big party. We have queer festivals, but they’re mostly about human rights, exchanging skills, about protection and discrimination. I wanted something that was primarily about creative expression.”

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There is little in the way of a set narrative for queer art in Russia, and that left room for experimentation. For Konakov, it was important that artists were able to carve out space for their work inside a country often hostile to their community.

Queer, in the context of the biennale, is not just about sexual orientation, but also about breaking hierarchies, resisting binaries. It’s meant to be a celebration, but also a deconstruction of normativity, and a challenge to update how we understand different categories. The implication is that queerness is less something you’re born with or grow into, but a system of values and views.

Following that line of thought, even terms like artist or curator became prime targets for deconstruction, resistance or reclamation — often because they can be seen as being bestowed by institutions or a cultural elite.

“How many of us ask whether we are artists or not” Konakov says. “Can anyone call themselves an artist? It’s a similar question to whether or not a person can call themselves queer.”

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The word queer, however, can be fraught in a cultural context such as Russia’s, for better or for worse. As a Western import, it isn’t as widely used as terms like gay, lesbian, or LGBT. But it allows for events like the Biennale to slip under the radar. The word simply hasn’t been around long enough for the police or other hostile parties to understand what a queer event really means.

“But it’s also a word that can be appropriated in problematic ways,” says Konakov. “In today’s Russia, the word queer is often stripped of its political significance to become trendy. We have to remember that any term is a social construct inseparable from political reality. That’s why it’s not appropriate when organisers of gay parties rename them as queer gatherings: this broad and inclusive term gets narrowed down and co-opted by middle-class cis gay men from big cities”.

The Queer Biennale was designed with the opposite in mind: to find the fringes and give them a stage, without compromise. Ultimately, organisers were surprised by the response: there was a line of people waiting when the venue opened up at 4pm. For artists and activists like Konakov, it was a sign — one that Russians are hungry for spaces and events that cater to diverse expressions of identity, particularly those that aren’t afraid to embrace intersectionality and get niche.

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Konakov’s own work delves into these themes and ideas too. Originally from Tyumen, a city straddling the border between Siberia and the Ural mountains, he arrived in St Petersburg and worked for several years as a journalist. He succeeded in building a small platform, which he eventually used to come out as HIV-positive in 2016. His work consciously operates out of his identity as HIV-positive, queer, and activist, and has fought to create public spaces to express experiences like his.

Performance is one such method, and Konakov has dreamt up a number of actions and artworks meant to confront passersby with the reality of marginalised lives. In many cases, he has controversially worked with the medium of human blood.

His performances have found him walking Nevsky Prospect, the city’s main avenue, dragged by a blood-red rope and accompanied by a Game-of-Thrones-style crier ringing a bell and shouting “shame!” Other actions have involved drinking shots made of blood and vodka, bruderschaft-style, with fellow performers in large parks. He locked himself in a closet to mark World Aids Day, livestreaming the event on Facebook with discussions on medication, harm reduction, testing, and helpful NGOs. His latest action in late 2019 found him and some colleagues organising a day-rave outside of the city’s AIDS centre, a building that, although located downtown, is tucked away from view.

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“We make people uncomfortable,” he says. “Queer people. Transgender people. People living with HIV. It’s not our job to make other people feel safe, but there’s a lot of people in the community who feel that way.” Countering this desire to defang or standardise queer people, activists like Konakov prefer an in-your-face approach that hides nothing and asks onlookers to choose for themselves how they want to react.

The same philosophy is embodied in the Biennale: there were no restrictions with regard to theme, explicitness, or niche interest; the only requirement was to avoid hate or intolerance. Reactions have been immensely positive, leading to the obvious question of what could be next. Konakov has indicated his interest in making the Biennale a regular occurrence, one that highlights the nation’s talent otherwise stuffed into unobtrusive corners.

Artists on Konakov’s wish-list include Misha Plesen, a visual artist from Vladivostok who takes inspiration from street art pioneers like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Then there’s Zhenya Ostov, a photographer based in St Petersburg, and Zhanna Gladko, a Moscow-based queer artist originally from Minsk. A large priority, of course, is to discover new talent in the country’s scattered regions.

A follow-up could appear as soon as late 2020, should health restrictions allow. The first event was organised in a mere two months: starting planning sessions ahead of time will give more room to rethink the format and find new ways to include, express, and celebrate queer culture in Russia.

When asked why the event is called a Biennale if there are plans for a yearly exhibition, he laughs. “To be queer is to play with definitions. Sure, a biennale happens once every two years, but a queer biennale can be every year, every month!”

“Honestly,” he adds, somewhat impishly, “why should a queer biennale ever have to end?”

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