VASYA RUN: hip-hop in the Soviet Palace of Culture

Fetchish interviewed VASYA RUN, an anonymous Russian art collective consisting of young men aged 18 to 26; their practice exists on the bounds of theatre, music, and contemporary art. Name of the group was inspired by Vasya, a Russian graffiti artist, who got arrested and charged for vandalism in Paris.

The Moscow-based performance project embodies street subcultures and rituals of spiritual emancipation alongside with the criticism of the fashion industry's exploitation of youth and Russian exoticism images.

F: What is the mission of your project?

V: There are multiple components: firstly, it is a creation of a group, a community in a safe environment. It is also about physical and spiritual self-exploration. But in general, it is the study of masculinity, alongside the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding "maleness”. It is essential to highlight that we are, of course, first of all a performance project. We put on performances and theatrical actions while interacting with certain institutional processes.

F: How many people are in the collective? And how do you find new members?

V: We always have a minimum of six participants. Some participants end up leaving the project, which leads us to gaining new ones. New members join us through casting. We usually look for 18 to 26 year olds, someone with an athletic build and at least 180cm tall. It’s essential that they have an affinity with street culture.

F: Does anonymity create a sense of safety? Do you have a tight-knit community?

V: Anonymity is a lot about security, as we’ve mentioned at the very beginning of our project and our mission. It is an opportunity to speak out openly, work honestly. It is an opportunity to be with oneself, share experiences, and continue searching. Many of the participants end up as close friends despite being initially unfamiliar with each other. It is natural that similar experiences bring people closer together, leading participants to continue communicating with each other outside of the collective.

F: Did you feel that Gurdjieff's philosophy, whom you mentioned in the previous interviews, and the call for control over the body reproduces the (post)Soviet discourse of teaching collectives (pioneer groups or schools). Or is this a structural mimesis which creates ideological support?

V: Gurdjieff's philosophy does not talk at all about control over the body. It expands the notion of return to oneself ‘into the present,’ which is possible only after the realisation of your autonomy. This discourse of the ‘school’ is quite close to us in terms of discipline, for it is an important element of group work. The level of immersion depends on the attention span and mental state of each participant. Of course, it is a difficult process, it is not always possible to distract yourself from everyday problems and intrusive thoughts. Context and conditions are key.

George Gurdjieff (1866-1949); a Russian philosopher, mystic, and composer of Armenian and Greek descent. One of the parts of his teaching is that most humans do not possess a unified consciousness and thus live their lives in a state of hypnotic ‘waking sleep.’

F: Well, we know that in your case the artist has been replaced with a collective body. But who is your audience?

V: The viewer is an essential element of our work. How else do we ensure there is life or movement in a performance? If we try to define the viewer, we won't get very far. Ideally, the viewer should not be a set ‘persona’.

F: What performances do you remember best? Were there situations when the audience unexpectedly realised their participatory potential or, on the contrary, were dissatisfied with the effect?

V: Each participant remembers different performances, sometimes the participant does not engage, for example, or does not develop themselves enough... Everyone has their own experience of each event. It’s hard to say.

In terms of interaction and relational aesthetics, there was a performance at the Museum of Moscow ‘A017UM77’ in 2017 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiiRZMaBa68).

We performed in a very traditional hall - the Soviet Palace of Culture - with two sections of wooden chairs and a stage. This placed certain restrictions on us (we try to perform in halls with free seating). We created a narrative where we would randomly approach a viewer with a gun and unload it in front of their face. Quite a shocking moment. The hero, as it were, was addressing the crowd as an abstract figure with the phrase "What price do words have today?". Anyway, there were a few members of the audience who were very shocked by this. But it was cool. It may sound strange, but this is exactly the kind of interaction the audience expects at our performances.

The audience rarely initiates participation. However, at the Praktika Theater, during a 24/7 performance, someone started dancing among us, but this was quite expected, as the audience could move around the space freely. We actually didn’t notice this, as we were immersed in our own inner tasks. We only found out about this later.

F: Have you been criticised for the performativity, infantilism or strategic exoticism of Russian culture?

V: Of course, we had some criticism. However, not for infantilism. Here you need to understand that the urban vernacular is not an image, but a reality. We are just as against the exploitation of these so-called images. Our project is also a criticism of the fashion industry's flirtation with these images. Our participants are exactly who they are. We are not playing with subculture. This is how we live. There is nothing specifically "Russian" here, except for the language, of course. London boys also participated in our performances and we did not see the difference between us at all. It is an important step for us to work with local guys.

F: What alternatives to offline performances are you considering? Or is it just a matter of distributing video documentation at the moment?

V: We had the idea of starting a blog on YouTube as an attempt to develop sincere conversations. But we did have to ask ourselves whether a man is ready to speak so publicly about such personal things. In Russia, there is so much stigma that it is more acceptable for a woman to "whine", rather than for a man. We already made a couple of videos with a curator and some graphic artists. It’s a work in progress but please do subscribe!

We are an example of how rap, athletics and meditation exist in the new normality. Here we can return to Gurdjieff’s ideas on the ‘Fourth Way’, where you no longer have to go to the mountains, or on a pilgrimage to become a hermit in order to discover yourself. We continue the legacy of all movements, rap, hardcore, whatever, bringing awareness to our being with a full attention span. But it is still a long path of discovery.

Edited by Anna Mladentseva