A full-scale war with Ukraine has been waged since February 24, 2022, and it is still unclear when this conflict will end. However, even though the war began with land warfare on February 24, it marks the physical onset of a long-standing struggle against authoritarian dictators, not limited to Ukraine. Such wars have been waged within countries for a considerable time. In Russia, since 2018 (when the conflict escalated due to the presidential elections), people have employed many possible means to counteract the prevailing authoritarian regime and police brutality. They engage in pickets and protests. However, just like any country under an authoritarian regime, Russia has effectively banned freedom of speech and expression through numerous changes in legislation, curtailing the rights of its own citizens (Pomerantsev, 2020).
Consequently, people have resorted to opposing the government through the means available to them, including art. Paintings and graffiti now adorn cities, and oppositionists organize various "artistic" pickets, using participatory art as a form of defiance. One notable project in this regard is The Little Picketers of Russia. This article aims to explore the utilization of participatory art as a means of political confrontation and analyze the case study of The Little Picketers of Russia project during the Ukraine war, in order to answer the question: How has participatory art been employed as a form of protest or resistance?
The Little Picketers of Russia project
In April 2022, in Moscow, on the bank of the river on the opposite side of the Kremlin, a plasticine man appeared, holding a poster with a peace sign. It was the first time the police, who had responded to a call about the "outrageous" symbols of Ukraine, were left bewildered, unsure of whom they should arrest. Similar figures began to emerge on fences, pipes, tree branches, railings, balconies of the Bolshoi Theater, and in the crevices of statues. Some of them stood with empty posters, while others displayed messages written on the placards. These messages included phrases like "don't be silent" in Russian, and "no war" in English, as well as various euphemisms, such as eight stars symbolizing the censorship of the phrase "no war" (Figure 1). Occasionally, the figurines would disappear, only to reappear in another location, in case they had been noticed by law enforcement agencies (The Nation, 2022).
The Instagram account Malenkiy_piket, or Little Picket, currently has approximately 8,100 followers (malenkiy_piket, n.d.). The rules are simple: create a small figure out of clay with a banner, place it in a public location, and upload a photo with the relevant hashtag or send it to the account owner. Numerous submissions have been received from Moscow and St. Petersburg, but some also come from more remote regions (Times, 2023). Certain participants in the project regularly place figurines in their local grocery stores. As most of the Kremlin's outspoken opponents, such as Alexei Navalny and Lilia Chanysheva, are now imprisoned or in exile, expressing dissent with the regime in this unconventional manner has become a way for some Russians to voice their disagreement. However, according to OVD-info, individuals nationwide are arrested and charged even for the slightest displays of anti-war sentiment (OVD-Info, n.d.).
How is this participatory art?
Firstly, to categorize The Little Picketers of Russia project as a participatory art project, we must determine the principles we can attribute to this category. To do so, we can refer to Bishop's concept of participatory culture, which emphasizes active engagement from viewers, shifting them from passive spectators to active contributors (Bishop, 2006). In our case study, the project invites individuals to create and disseminate art as a political confrontation actively. Participants can express their disapproval of the authority and engage in a "dialogue" with the government because they develop the artworks rather than simply viewing them.
Another argument to consider within the context of this project is the idea that artists should not only create aesthetic objects but also address the socio-political conditions of their time (Benjamin et al., 1996). The Little Picketers of Russia project inherently supports this idea by encouraging participants to resist the authoritarian regime through active engagement in art creation. By enabling individuals to become authors and producers of artworks, the project promotes a collective approach to political resistance.
Additionally, a relevant perspective for this project is Henry Jenkins' definition of participatory culture, wherein he describes it as a culture that strongly supports the creation and sharing of individuals' creations, along with informal mentoring where experienced knowledge is passed on to others (Jenkins, 2016). In our case study, we can observe a form of mentoring described by Jenkins. The project originated from one person, the author of an Instagram account, who created the first plasticine figure and then passed the initiative to others. Last but not least, participatory culture is one where participants believe their contributions matter and feel a sense of social responsibility and connection with each other (in our case, through photos and an Instagram page) (Jenkins, 2016). The Little Picketers of Russia project illustrates the characteristics of participatory culture by encouraging people to unite, share their artistic expression, and collectively voice their disagreement.
How participatory art has been used as a form of protest or resistance
Peter Bürger's notion of denying the autonomy of art aids in our deeper comprehension of this project, which employs participatory art as a form of resistance. Bürger posited that participatory art challenges the traditional conception of art as a detached, isolated sphere, separate from everyday life (Bürger, 1984). By engaging people in artistic activities and political protests, the project endeavors to dismantle the boundaries between art and activism, thus subverting the autonomy traditionally attributed to art. Therefore, The Little Picketers of Russia project underscores the merger of art and political resistance, probing the commonly accepted boundaries of artistic practice.
The Little Picketers of Russia project actively involves individuals in the creation of art, enabling them to voice their dissent and engage in substantive dialogue. The situation unveils a distinct "social dimension of participation" since the individuals crafting these small figures nationwide are unified not only by the innovative idea of art but also by specific political beliefs, leading us to a point where art is inextricably entwined with politics (Bishop, 2006). The project also accentuates the increasingly blurred lines between art and political activism in contemporary society (Bürger, 2002). This project disproves the notion that art should remain isolated from societal and political issues. Instead, The Little Picketers of Russia marries art with political resistance, using artistic expressions to address the Ukraine war. By doing this, the project blurs the line between art and politics, making artistic actions more powerful and expanding the possibilities for expressing disagreement and opposition.
What strengthens this project is its inherently participatory nature. United collectively by a motive, we are driven by the desire to feel connected with strangers through a small clay figure. This is a benefit offered by the internet, as it's unlikely that such a creation would be feasible without the capability to disseminate any desired information at any time (Pomerantsev, 2020). The participants in this project are more than just producers – they are collaborators. Creating a small clay figure and positioning it within a certain street space may seem insignificant, but the sense of belonging to something unified, the "struggle", and affiliation with the "oppositional society" infuses this participatory artwork with power. This is triggered by a perceived societal crisis and the necessity for collective responsibility, helping the Russian people to feel like a cohesive society and that their "idea" has robust supporters (Bishop, 2006).
Furthermore, this project enables the participants to contest the premise that art should remain detached from societal issues and retain autonomy (Benjamin et al., 1996). Participating in this project bolsters the notion that artists should not be estranged from the socio-political conditions of their era. By providing individuals the chance to participate in the creative process, the project allows them to contribute to a larger protest movement against the authoritarian regime and its actions in Ukraine.
First of all, we are currently facing an entirely new era for political activism: The success of participatory art during demonstrations might change how politics is advocated. It has shown how influential art can be in promoting togetherness, expressing opposition, and bringing people together. As a result, we might anticipate seeing participatory art play an even more significant role in global protests in the future. Another thing is that the idea of the "audience as co-creator," as seen in participatory art, may gain more popularity. This lowers the barrier between the general public from professional artists, promoting a more inclusive and democratic method of producing art. The general public may gradually move beyond just consumers to artists themselves.
Participatory art in protests could contribute to a stronger sense of global solidarity. As seen in the Ukraine war, it can connect people from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, fostering a sense of shared struggle and purpose. This could lead to a more globally connected protest culture. Moreover, Participatory art may be essential in bringing regional problems to the world's attention. It can bring attention to particular conflicts and battles on a global scale, as the war in Ukraine has demonstrated. As a result, it might become a crucial tool for regional communities trying to draw attention to their suffering. Participatory art is becoming more popular in protests, which may impact art policies and institutions. It might cause people to reevaluate the function of public art and how it interacts with politics and society, which might result in more benevolent legislation and increased institutional support for participatory art.
Last but not least, participatory art may connect with a worldwide audience in the Internet and social media era. Digital channels can facilitate broad participation and the transmission of protest art, as was seen in Ukraine. Due to the digital revolution, future protests' use of interactive art may change in scope and effect.
Art and activism
In conclusion, this article has shown how art and activism are blurred in the project through its participatory nature. The influence of artistic interventions and the range of options for dissent and resistance have benefited from this union of art and political struggle. The collaborative nature of The Little Picketers of Russia project has also contributed significantly to its accomplishment. Participants have been brought together by a shared idea and a shared struggle through the act of creating and putting miniature clay figures in public places. This sense of togetherness and shared accountability, made possible by the internet's ability to democratize access to information, has strengthened the initiative and helped fuel a broader protest movement. Participatory art has enormous potential for reshaping political activism, upending preconceived views of what constitutes art, and promoting a participative resistance culture. Participatory art will continue to be a significant element of protests and resistance movements worldwide as we look to the future.
Beyond its political implications, the true distinguishing factor of participatory art is the profound human connection it promotes. In the case of The Little Picketers of Russia, each tiny clay figure embodies a different aspect of the artist's spirit, including their aspirations, anxieties, and defiance. When positioned in public areas, these small protesters speak loudly about a shared desire for justice, peace, and change. They stand for the inherent resilience and resourcefulness of the human spirit when faced with adversity. Each figure simultaneously expresses displeasure while reminding us of our common humanity, empathy capacity, and unwavering belief in a better tomorrow.
With every little clay figure appearing on the streets of Russia, people have more hope that this war will come to a positive end.
Benjamin, W. W., Benjamin, W., Eiland, H., & Smith, G. (1996). Selected Writings: 1927-1934. Harvard University Press.
Bishop, C. (2006). Participation (Documents of Contemporary Art). The MIT Press.
Bürger, P. (1984). Theory of the Avant-Garde (M. Shaw, Trans.). University of Minnesota Press.
Jenkins, H. (2016). Defining participatory culture. Participatory culture in a networked era: a conversation on youth, learning, commerce, and politics (pp. 1–31). Polity Press.
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Pomerantsev, P. (2020). This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. Faber & Faber.
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