“Can antimilitarist feminists lobby for air defense? What is antifascist architecture? Why does pacifism kill? What’s wrong with the “New East”? Homonationalism or Queer liberation? Should we cancel Russian culture?” Questions like these have recently become the focus of PPV – Perverting the Power Vertical, a platform and seminar series concerned with the post-Soviet and post-socialist world. They were formulated by two Ukrainian cultural creators: Daša Anosova and Vlad(a) Vazheyevskyy have taken over – or in their words: occupied – the platform. They sharply and polemically draw attention to a discourse of decolonization, which has already been touched upon on V/A in the context of previous contributions. Therefore, we asked the two activists to further outline their thoughts in a conversation about their practice.
The following conversation between the two of us reflects on six months of collaborative work in the arts, culture, and academia in London. Apart from publishing, studying, speaking at events, fundraising for the Ukrainian volunteers and army, curating shows, and performing, our primary practice has been ‘occupying’ an event and seminar series. PPV: Perverting the Power Vertical (Politics and Aesthetics in the Global East) is based at the FRINGE Centre for Social and Cultural Complexity at University College London. PPV was co-convened in 2018 by Maria Mileeva, Michał Murawski and Denis Maksimov and attracted our attention by its wild, psychotic imagery, cut-up cucumber emojis, and, obviously, its events, which range from seminars on Feminist Antifascism to Drillminister announcing his candidacy for London mayor. The series platformed speakers discussing art and politics from the “global East,” and its organizers explored how scholars could collaborate with artists from across “the region.” We engaged with it but were always critical of its focus on Russia. We were kind of squeamish about PPV (unintentionally?) recentering the East on Moscow once again, platforming famous Russian intellectuals, collaborating with infamous Russian organizations. And, well, in 2022, after everything, we became obsessed with Russo-centrism in academia and culture. So, we thought to ourselves: “Ok, why don’t we just take over this platform and run it?” And that’s exactly what we did.
Over three terms we programmed, organized, and moderated events where, among other topics, we sought ways of problematizing peaceful movements; reframing architecture as an antifascist weapon; exploring the radical potential of gardening; addressing the issues around curating art from the East of Europe; and discussing the politics of representing suffering in feminist practice. We had some framing in mind, attempting to decenter East European studies; addressing common misconceptions, misinterpretations, and stereotypes; inviting Ukrainians to speak for themselves; offering a platform to those we hold dear, but who, for various reasons, haven’t expressed their ideas in the context of academic interdisciplinary studies. During this time we had the privilege to work with Kateryna Iakovlenko, Stasik (Anastasia Shevchenko), Anna Kvit, Anna Ziablikova, Oksana Potapova, Linda Gusia, Laya Hooshyari, Andrew Santa Lucia, Daniel Jonas-Roche, Anela Dumonjić, Maja and Reuben Fowkes, Darya Tsymbaliuk, Dana Olărescu, Raluca Voinea, Adomas Narkevičius, Natalia Sielewicz, and Rachel Warriner. And we received the advice, support, trust, and voluntary work of many others. Some even came to London in spite of the fact that their flight was cancelled. Maria and Michał have always been there without interferences with our chaotic work even though we usurped their position and appropriated their project.
The key thing for us was working immediately with the current agenda since long-term planning feels out of reach at this moment. We both are low-key fans of Fred Moten and his notion of the undercommons and the idea of fugitive planning – and we agree with his stance that ‘one can’t be satisfied with the recognition generated by the very system that denies its own oppressive structure,’ so we refuse to seek recognition. We attempted to practice productive and progressive forms of speculation, to seize power, to think radically and not just on paper – and probably tried to be a little bit subversive as well.
“The subversive intellectual,” in Moten’s words, is unprofessional, uncollegial, passionate, and disloyal.
Vlad(a) & Daša
DASA ANOSOVA How did you end up in London? What did you want to do here?
VLAD(A) VAZHEYEVSKY I came over from Kyiv back in October of 2021 to start the second year of my degree at Goldsmiths. Having worked on a play in Lviv that summer, I partly wanted to stay back home and work in theater and pedagogy in Ukraine. The people I met and worked with in the process have radically changed my views. I wanted to stay within that creative environment and develop work influenced by our month of exploring democracy within the theater. However, I was very aware that I would not get a second chance at such an education, so I ended up going over here to finish my degree in order to then return home again. Sharing the resources that I’d gain from my stay in London was always the goal, but for reasons that we’re all aware of, that’s on hold for now.
DA You co-organized the ‘Decolonizing Russia’s War on Ukraine’ symposium back in March 2022, which was held under (not yet occupied) PPV auspices. What do you think about the event when you look back on it?
VV I never thought I’d go into organizing symposiums or talks, nor have I ever wanted to. It happened in a way that many things have happened to me in the past year, through online networks of solidarity. I think many folks will relate: being in a ‘Western’ academic setting as a Ukrainian ever since Russia’s full-scale invasion has become that much more hostile for members of our community. In the first two weeks, amidst urgent attempts to fundraise for those who chose the most immediate way of fighting off an aggressor – weapon in hand – I tried to share what’s going on back home in all the ways I could. Writing on the walls of my institution, calling for support on picket lines, and within activist circles in my area I came across a lot of bullshit takes and hostile interactions. They caused me to look for ways to tackle the disinformation present within my immediate activist circles, and I thought the best way for that was to establish links of solidarity with the network of decolonial academics and activists. This led to me reaching out to PPV-cofounder Michał Murawski on Instagram, which turned into an hour-long rant and the beginning of the process of urgently setting up a symposium. Michał then invited Anna Engelhardt and Sasha Shestakova, two researchers that have been working on exposing Russia’s colonial practices since 2014, and we began conceptualizing the event.
Immediacy is tricky. Looking back at the process now, I see many things that I wish I could have taken my time with, but then I guess it would not have been that immediate after all, would it? It was March of last year; we platformed scholars and activists from Ukrainian decolonial circles, fundraised while doing so, and started a conversation that was long overdue within the academic environment in the UK. That is something I am happy about. The methods of doing so could have been different… How was your return to London?
DA I came back to London in September 2022 for the “Reconstruction of Ukraine” symposium and to start a PhD at the UCL SSEES to research the role of art communities and self-organization within the context of a protracted war in Ukraine. Since the full-scale invasion many people in the field of culture transformed their activities into activism and volunteer work, and many of those who never thought of engaging with culture production now feel the urgency of doing so. I find this decentralized scheme of mutual aid and support not only fascinating but also critical and urgent to study. Cultural institutions and art collectives employ truly innovative modes of operation when displaced; I’m interested in how we can sustain that, especially for the period of post-war reconstruction. These are the topics I am stewing in daily, so it wasn’t a surprise that when I met you in September at the pub, we decided to occupy PPV and lead the seminars together. The process of occupying the platform employs such modes of operation and themes that require a closer look (which puts me in a tricky situation regarding positionality, methods, and the field of my academic study – in other words, it makes it quite schizophrenic). Most importantly, I wanted to work with you on something since I had been a fan of your work for quite a while!
VV Tell me more about what drives your research and what you’re aiming to do with your PhD.
DA The level of Russophilia in academic and cultural institutions (especially in those focusing on Eastern Europe, the post-soviet, and all that) is staggering. Some academics, even today in 2023, are trying to re-center East European Area Studies by focusing on Russia. This makes me cringe real hard. Many intellectuals seem to continue living with the myth of the “great” Russian culture – a myth that has been fueled by Russian capital. London plays a central role in laying the foundation for the whole “New East” bullshit that fetishizes post-Soviet aesthetics, divorcing them from any political realities. It’s not hard to notice the Blavatnik building of the Tate Modern; and Blavatnik was the reason so many Russian artists had big retrospectives. Yet, much has been done by Ukrainian (and) decolonial scholars. Many highlight the urgent need to decenter the focus on Russia in the East – to actually look at the “rest” of the so-called post-Soviet space and to discover marginal, underground, anti-imperialist cultures, and indigenous forms of resistance. I am interested in engaging with them intellectually and practically. Since I’m researching political self-organization I’m interested in what Ukrainian artists and cultural workers are doing, as well as in how we can build on the knowledge we already have from past responses to war and oppression. I have a genuine interest in what everyone is up to since my community is dispersed around the globe now, which is also a big motivation.
VV Do you feel part of a Ukrainian diaspora?
DA I guess? Being displaced doesn’t mean you become part of a diaspora though. I’ve met activists who’ve adopted notions of Ukrainian exceptionalism and Zelenskyi fetishization. I tend to distance myself from such circles. By occupying PPV we want to promote horizontal connections that mobilize anti-fascist and feminist movements as well as anti-racist and anti-communist resistance in the struggle against the Russian aggressor. It does not always work due to the complex internal dynamics. Still, I think it’s key to build solidarity with those who struggle for universal human dignity, equality, and justice on an international level, for instance, by supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israel’s occupation. “Imperialism is multiple, so should be our solidarities,” you know? This brings me to a question about solidarity – do you manage to find it in the queer scene in London?
VV Well, yes and no. Within my immediate circles, absolutely. The amount of love I’ve received from my beautiful trans siblings is quite crazy to say the least. On a larger scale, however, there have been a couple of issues. Folks who’ve reached out are either close to Ukrainian queers affected by the war or have experienced war and conflict themselves. The community at large here extends their aid and solidarity to those they deem marginal enough to need it. At least from my observations, Ukrainian queer subjects do not generally fall on this spectrum.
DA Why do you think that is?
VV The roots of the problem are manifold. Some see us as not being queer enough; not being able to simply ‘opt out’ of the here and now and transgress notions of belonging, nationality, family ties, and other specificities of queerness in our region. To explain why such claims are fucking ridiculous I will quote Andrea Smith’s Queer Theory and Native Studies when we edit this later.
Many folks are oblivious to the fact that queerness looks different outside of their geopolitics. Queerness is not homogenous, and neither is the Ukrainian queer community. This, alongside the lack of understanding of the conditions of being queer during wartime or in a post-colonial environment are the main reasons for the lack of solidarity with our struggle.
DA Yeah, and this is whole another story. Let’s move on to occupying PPV. What does it mean to you?
VV To occupy PPV is to actually do what the platform has been claiming to do all this time: to pervert the power vertical. Since its inception, as you’ve pointed out, it’s been a hub for ‘flashy’ events mostly platforming Russian ‘alternative’ culture while hiding under the umbrella of the ‘Global East” (whatever this means). This doesn’t pervert shit in my opinion, but rather platforms the alternative culture of non-Western imperialism, namely that of Russia. To occupy PPV is to pervert the power vertical of PPV, which, in turn, is a decolonial practice. Even though we’re not inherently doing decolonial events, by shifting away from highlighting the dominant culture in our region and attending to the culture of the oppressed we’re decolonizing the academic ecology of which PPV is a part of.
I guess for us it’s also about clowning though, isn’t it? Sort of an attempt at de-academizing academia? It might be a futile task, as many within our circles think, but maybe there is value in intervening into the inherently hierarchical and exclusive academic structure and shaking it up? What do you think?
DA By being integrated in the system we do reproduce it one way or another. Yes, we took over the site, created the Instagram and tried to involve everyone we could on no more than two days’ notice and zero budget: this puts a tremendous pressure on already over-stressed people living under precarious conditions. By posting everything on Instagram, we become content-makers for an algorithm-based capitalist mega-platform that sells ads for attention, and by being in academia we reproduce (among others) class-based inequalities. “This doesn’t pervert shit in my opinion” 🙂 That’s why it feels like imaginative clowning rather than “real” action; yet, I believe in imagination and I trust this will grow into something. For now what we do is fictitious perverting.
The other day I went to the “Speculation” book launch, the most recent publication of the Documents of Contemporary Art series, which includes a collective text by the PPV original co-convenors. One thing that all panelists (seemed) to agree on was the meaning of speculation: its commitment to the imaginary. To be speculative is to be radical, and to be radical is to be a fool. So…
Bonus question: An ideal PPV event: when, where, who, how?
DA A dream event: an engaging speaker with fresh ideas who doesn’t regurgitate propaganda, doesn’t read from paper, is imaginative, helps us conceptualize the event, hasn’t come here for career building, ISN’T BORING AS HELL, does not fall into self-victimization, is interested in the unexpected. I can go on forever. We need more allies with the vibes and brains of Anela Dumonjić and Natalia Sielewicz… if it sounds like you, please reach out!
VV You know what I would say if I wasn’t self-censoring right now, but for the sake of the task I will modify my answer 🙂 I would sit down all of the tankies, gaslighters, and enjoyers of all things Russian in a theater and not let them leave until they’d hear every single person who has something to say to them out in full 🙂 People could scream at them, perform in front of them, run lectures and educate them on whatever they want. A mass exocytosis of anger directed at those privileged (mostly Western) folks who have no idea of what it’s like to live through wartime.
DA …and us hosting everything in full-blown costumes from Federico Fellini’s 1970s film The Clowns.