Manifesta under pressure to abandon St Petersburg in the name of LGBT rights

Russia’s ramping up of “draconian” anti-gay legislation means Manifesta 10 must junk St Petersburg in protest, says an online petition.

A petition calling for organisers of Manifesta 10, slated for 2014, to relocate from St Petersburg has garnered over 1000 signatories since 16 August 2013. Citing the rise in Russian “antigay sentiment” and the “legitimizing of hatemongering in legislation”, the petition asks that the contemporary art biennial take a stand.

A petition calling for Manifesta to relocate from St Petersburg cites rising Russian homophobia as the reason.

A petition calling for Manifesta to relocate from St Petersburg cites rising Russian homophobia as the reason.

Artist and curator Noel Kelly, based in Ireland, set up the petition on change.org following recent Russian legislation broadly, such as a ban on the adoption of Russian children by gay couples, the classification of “homosexual” propaganda as pornography and the signing of a bill permitting the arrest of tourists suspected of being gay or pro-gay. Such contravention of basic rights must, argues the petition, force the art world to act.

It is important that we send a message to the Russian government that such draconian measures will not be tolerated. In particular, the art world community must act now and request that Manifesta is either awarded to a different city, postponed until human rights are restored, or cancelled as a sign of support for the LBGT community.

Kelly sent the petition directly to Manifesta director Hedwig Fijen soon after it reached 1000 supporters. Although no public comment has yet been made by organisers of the contemporary art biennial, Fijen acknowledged Kelly’s sharing of the petition, which Kelly shared online.

Hedwig Fijen's intitial response to the petition, as posted on change.org by Noel Kelly.

Hedwig Fijen’s initial response to the petition, as posted on change.org by Noel Kelly.

According to the event website, Manifesta selected St Petersburg for the 2014 iteration owing to the city’s “critical intellectual and historical relationship with East and West Europe: a uniting principle that is also central to Manifesta, as the single roving European biennial of contemporary art.” The 2014 event will mark the twentieth anniversary of Manifesta and as such will reflect upon the changes of the last two decades, which wrought a “new world order” since the end of the Cold War.

Considering Manifesta’s politicised roots and the political nature of much of contemporary art writes Anna Kats in BLOUIN ARTINFO, holding the biennial in St Petersburg “could be a valuable opportunity to curate not only art but also public discourse on gay rights in Russia.” However, as Kats states, such critical discourse would only be possible if the Russian government tolerated dissent from party policy; “unfortunately, it does not.”

Street Art Group Voina, ‘Dick Captured by the KGB’, 65 m graffiti on the bridge.

Voina’s ‘Dick Captured by the KGB’ is just one work that has earned disapproval from the Russian government for its critical stance.

Prominent LGBT activist Peter Tatchell makes the hypothetical case for sticking with St Petersburg. “I would support holding Manifesta in St Petersburg, providing it includes spoken and visual challenges to the new anti-gay law and to other human rights abuses by the Putin regime, such the jailing of Pussy Riot and the arrest of opposition activists,” Tatchell told Art Radar. “This would be more effective than transferring Manifesta to a different city. It would ensure that world attention continues to be focused on Russia’s anti-gay law.”

However, Tatchell points out that neither the rights nor safety of LGBT rights protesters, nor Manifesta participants in general could be safeguarded in St Petersburg. “The new anti-gay law has no exceptions for cultural events or foreigners. There would be a risk of arrest, closure of Manifesta and deportation of the organisers. If this happened it would highlight, in a very graphic way, the draconian nature of the Putin regime.”

Russian photographer Slava Mogutin, resident in New York since he was granted political asylum almost twenty years ago, told Advocate Magazine that the ramping up of homophobic rhetoric was politically expedient for Putin:

Putin wants to cement his reputation as a strong man and “the father of the nation” among conservative, Orthodox Russians, and gay people happen to be the perfect scapegoat — “corruptors of public morals” and “wreckers of Christian civilization.” In some ways, it’s a direction similar to the hateful, homophobic teachings of the Vatican. Also, it’s a perfect way for Putin to distract attention from other big issues.

Cassandra Naji

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Related Topics: Events in Russia, biennales, art and politics 

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