Art Project ‘#onvacation’ Is a Middle Finger to Russia's Occupation of Ukraine

This geopolitically-aimed performance piece has ruffled international feathers at the Venice Biennale and beyond.

by Bibi Deitz
Jun 26 2015, 6:15pm

A participant in '#onvacation' at the Venice Biennale

Don't worry about the people detained in a sprawling art complex in Donetsk, Ukraine: Their captors aren't the military, just a bunch of folks on holiday. Or so the Russian government would have the public believe. Over the past year of pro-Russian separatist occupation of Ukraine, Kremlin mouthpieces have claimed that Russian soldiers were merely "on vacation" in Ukraine or there "by accident."

However, this isn't the case. At the complex in Donetsk, previously home to the arts foundation Izolyatsia, captives are being detained on flimsy grounds, and artworks are being blown up. According to Izolyatsia spokesperson Maureen Sullivan, "People are held for any and all reasons, from breaking curfew to graffiti." "There is not even a procedure of court trial, so there is no procedure of acquittal," said writer Dmytro Potehin, who was imprisoned at the space and witnessed several hundred prisoners over the course of his 48 days there. "The prisoners are men, women, young, old, working men, businessmen—very different."

Izolyatsia was where New York City-based artist Clemens Poole was headed one year ago to consult with the organization on their printmaking facilities. But the day after he arrived in Ukraine, the space was seized by mercenaries of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic." (See a video here of DPR special committee head Leonid Baranov displaying "pornographic" art found at Izolyatsia.) Poole was diverted to the organization's temporary base in Kiev, where he had the idea to take to the streets—or, more specifically, the pavilions and paths of the Venice Biennale—in a four-week-long "occupation" of the international art show, handing out lightweight camo jackets and totes emblazoned with the phrase "#onvacation."

So you had the police called the first day, and you had the security run-in on almost the last day, but that was the extent of your admonishment?

Maybe the powers that be were secretly enjoying it?
I can't speak for whether people enjoyed it or if that influenced how they addressed us. This problem was a consideration when we were structuring the project, and that's why the occupations weren't intended to be flash mobs. It was about giving it to the public. Even though the sellable press image of the project is everybody in the Russian pavilion wearing the uniforms, in my mind, the project really functions on the website, with all of the Instagram selfies. That's the most powerful thing: The fact that Israel can kick us out continuously, but they couldn't guarantee that people wouldn't go there and take pictures. The thing that I find most compelling about the project is the engagement of the public, rather than the creation of a spectacle in an organized way.

You encouraged people to take selfies in pavilions of any countries that had occupied other countries.
Exactly. But we also encouraged people to interpret it loosely. I really wanted people to use it for anything they wanted. I was really interested in the politics of different pavilions, in their representations of artists from the country. The Kenyan pavilion got a lot of press for having all these Chinese artists. And the Syrian pavilion, which had a bunch of artists that weren't from there. The idea of occupation can be extended to a lot of different things. It can be geopolitical, but it can also be cultural, and it was important to me that people were free to interpret it in other contexts.

A participant in '#onvacation' at the Venice Biennale

What was it like to be in Ukraine during all of this? Did you feel like you could wind up in the Izolyatsia prison yourself? What was the climate like there?
It's been changing the whole time I've been working with Izolyatsia. I've met quite a few journalists in Kiev, and I know a number of guys who go to Donetsk regularly. I talked at one point with a journalist about going there. I would be interested to see what's happening, and I think, posing as a foreign journalist, you wouldn't have a lot of problems. But this fluctuates. We talked about it last November, and now I heard it's a whole different pass system, it's a whole different way that they do it. It's chaotic. You never know when you're going to hit a checkpoint.

In the end, was this something that raised media awareness? Have there been results?
This is a valid question, but it's also such a tricky question. How can I say that an artwork has results? You can see the press that we got, and you can also see that most of the press reports on it in the standard "look, this thing happened" way. Maybe that doesn't get us that far, but I think there was a substantial amount of reporting that tried to look at what it was, and approached it with a certain respect for it as an action, but also as something that was dealing with questions that were not as pat as other similar actions.

There's no way that we can say, "Oh, yeah, we did this and now the separatists who occupy Izolyatsia are in talks with us." It's not just improbable—it's also misunderstanding the entire conflict to think that way. It's much more complicated. It's tricky to even understand what's going on. That's why we wanted it to be open-ended. I don't know what's right. I know certain things happened there, and I have a very close ear to this conflict, because all the people I work with are from Donetsk. I hear stories. They go back to visit their families. And one day you hear a story that someone's mom is listening to too much Russian radio, and she's getting worried again that they'll be forced to speak Ukrainian when the Ukrainian army takes over again. And then the next day, you hear about the Ukrainian army blowing up some car because it tried to pass a roadblock without being extorted by the guards. It's really a strange situation, and for me, #onvacation is about not knowing this stuff more than it is about knowing this stuff.

Find more information on #onvacation here.

Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Marie Claire, Bustle, Bookforum, the Rumpus, and BOMB. She is on Twitter.

Performance Art
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Clemens Poole
on vacation is no vacation