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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Ideas about Sex at the Illegal Festival “Gender Paths 2”

An article written by my friend Vlasta, which I translated from Russian for Abolishing the Borders from Below #28.

“Gender Paths,” occurring once a year, is an attempt to bring together all people interested in gender—primarily from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraina—in one place; this time in the city of Minsk, from 8-10 December, 2006.  I would name its distinguishing features as illegality, a full schedule, the diversity of visitors and participants, and the absence of censorship on the part of the organizers.  Here it felt wonderfully like studying with artists, as well as punks, anarchists, and other subcultural elements.  The organizers made sure to balance the discussions and artistic parts of the festival.  The illegality of the festival becomes clear with the political situation in Belarus: dictatorship, no free press, certainly no gender festivals, where alternative politics must live underground.

So it is that the brightest occurrence in the post-Soviet expanse in the field of gender in 2006 occurred under the sign “Private Party” in one of the youth clubs in Minsk.  It was basement accommodations with long corridors, a few small rooms, a huge bar, wardrobe, huge double halls, and finally, technological accoutrements.  One of the big halls had a few rows of soft, comfy couches that served as the starting point of the conference.  In the second hall, the photo exhibit “Femininity” was stationed, and in the evening concerts were held there.  The photo exhibit “Taina” was located in the small room to the left.  Hanging on the wall of the corridor a little closer to the entrance were some impressive photos of feminist stencils.

For me, as one of the participants, the festival began early in the morning, with the setting up of my photo exhibit under the name “Femininity”—a consciously scandalous project.  The goal—in a subject which in official culture would be dripping with brutality, was to give the understanding, to those who still don’t have it, that the physical can never surely reflect a person’s identity.

The idea for an exhibit under the name “Femininity” arose in the summer of 2006, like a quest… Just what is femininity?  For me, as a subject to whom this quality is assigned regardless of my wishes, determining me in various moments of my life to be either feminine or unfeminine, and marginalizing my existence on every level (physical, economical, political, emotional, sexual), such an order arouses visions and aspirations of finding myself, not attaching any meaning to hegemonic patriarchal concepts of living.  I never believed and hardly ever agreed that I was less strong or less smart than a man, but I can say with certainty that for her personal development a woman has much fewer choices, inasmuch as the state makes her weak, dooming her to the function of domestic servant and childbearing unit.  The outcome that flows from this, like menstruation, is a bloody answer to the question, “what is femininity?”  With masculinity as with femininity—it’s an illness.  A social, unconscious illness.  And it has already hurt women for many centuries, and maybe for more to come.

From more than sixty photographs I took thirty, in three working categories—body-image, menstrual, and fecal.  People entered the hall to look around at what I had prepared for them… it seemed to me that they were in shock.  They hardly spoke, maybe they couldn’t find the words?  But I suppose it opened new horizons in the minds of those who were held back from similar self-expressions and quests.  The exhibit produced such reactions as I’d expected—shock, amazement, and with some photos even disgust…  But all those people who asked me to give them a picture for their personal collection can’t but make one glad.

But enough about me, let’s return to the festival. For convenience, it was divided into two parts—conversational and artistic.  The discussions began at 13:00 and the art showings opened at 17:00 and lasted until 21:00.  This year the discussion segment took up such questions as: the creation and distribution of tactical media; gender marketing; “A Different Femininity” (the styles of homosexual youths); deliberate parenthood; gender studies in architecture; women’s bodies and postcolonialism; erotica in Soviet film from the 1930s to ‘50s; reproductive politics in modern Russia.

The artistic segment this year consisted of a series of performances, photo exhibits, concerts, and two shows by the underground and very classy “Free Theater” of Minsk.  People also awaited Mariolla Brilovskaya, who delighted crowds last year with colorful cartoons and porno-karaoke, as well as the Polish group “Maskotki,” but for various reasons they could not come.

And now, for the best parts, in detail.  I wish the lecture on tactical media would have been a workshop on this theme, because I already realize the necessity of such things—it is the practical knowledge I lack.  Marketing research into gender is always interesting, since unfortunately we live in an age of consumerism and collide with advertising regularly, even when we consciously limit our contact with it.  And that means it has influence over us.  Therefore, it is very important to perceive the hidden message that it carries.

Arrogant specialization seems to be the distinctive feature of some researchers from Ukraina, on account of their excessive academism.  But, ignoring this, the lecture on “A Different Femininity,” in the course of which they showed photographs of young women from the homosexual subculture in the city of Kiev, aroused interest and a lively discussion.  The most emotional discussion turned out to be the one about deliberate parenthood, in which, aside from parents, a two-year-old child also participated… One of the funny things about Soviet ideology was the denial of sex, which was reflected in the culture and most immediately in cinema.  A very funny lecture was dedicated to this subject, illustrated by Soviet films from the ‘30s-‘50s, which put all those present in a good mood that lasted to the end of the day.

The presentation about the reproductive situation in modern Russia brought us all back to reality.  The prohibition of abortion without the written permission of the husband; the prohibition against marrying foreigners (this concerns only Russian women, the men are free in their choice of partners), which is also a goal of the fascists by the way: the preservation of the Russian genepool; the official discussion on the possibility of polygamy—it’s understood this would only apply to men.  Themes similar to these are openly discussed on TV and utilized in advertising. Fascism is not just one of the possibilities for Russia, it’s already a reality today.  Various other post-Soviet countries are also taking this path.  It’s a huge problem and we shouldn’t passively think that it will fix itself.  Nothing will happen if we don’t make it happen.

People who study art are like a thermometer for the illness of the world.  Thanks to them, we can provide a diagnosis, and with that, begin the treatment.  For that reason, the Free Theater’s show “Psychosis 4:48” amazed me.  The production was based around a monologue of a woman with a split personality.  You can apply this metaphor to today’s world, to the oppressed position of women, and not be mistaken: the politics are discernible.  The double standard applied to women permeates everything in the world today.  This dichotomy has reached its critical point.  It is time to throw down these enslaving forces, individually and globally.  In the last scene, amidst all the spectators attracted to this show, both actresses bared their bodies.

No less interesting to me was the second show of this same theater, under the name “Technology Breathing in a Vacuum.”  And what emotion did that play bring?  For some reason—nostalgia, although unlike the frightening “Psychosis,” the second play was funny.  If you’re ever in Minsk, definitely find and watch some of those plays.  This is no easy task, but you won’t regret it.

I loved the monologue “Domestic Hedgehog,” as told by V. Sinkareva, with elements of street and puppet theater.  A performing artist, using Soviet styles of street theater, portrays the whole world in two meters of space.  A hospital, the fate of an artist, love intrigues, a warm fireplace, a train on the way to the city, Soviet chernukha [perestroika-era film noire], alcoholism.  But it was all just puppets: the hedgehog, cat, dog and ferret, they weren’t real!  No, they weren’t real, but I cried anyway.  And also the puppets were homemade, DIY, which in and of itself is very valuable.

Over the course of three days, in the artistic segment about six performances took place, and at the conclusion of the festival the group Serebrenaya Svad’ba—Silver Wedding—appeared in colorful costumes.  We danced and smiled.  And afterwards I packed up “Femininity” and left.

In the future I would like the festival to take the form of a camp, or if possible, to happen twice a year—in the winter in festival format, without changes, and in the summer in the form of a camp, somewhere outside a city, with workshops and large discussions of a general or specific character.

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