Piotr Pavlensky: Dangerous Art

I’m thrilled to say that my New York Times Magazine profile of the Russian artist Piotr Pavlensky has just gone live. (Link below.)

 It’s been a long time in the making, because the NYT had to wait till Piotr got sprung from prison, so their photographer could take a picture of him—this is a man who spends a lot of his life in jail for his art!

 My first encounter with Piotr’s work was electrifying.

In 2015, I was conducting a talk with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center.

Nadya opened with a slide-show of recent Russian art. Suddenly the well-heeled Hamptons audience erupted into gasps, shrieks, groans of “Oh my God!”

On the screen, an image of a naked man sitting on the middle of Red Square. Up close, you saw that his scrotum had been nailed to the paving stone by a large crucifixion-style nail. The artist was Piotr Pavlensky. His action, he said in an accompanying text, symbolized the “the political passivity of the Russian people.”

A few months later, I read that this same artist had been imprisoned for setting ablaze the doors of the Lubyanka, the HQ of Russia’s secret police. As witnesses to the defence, Pavlensky—who was asking to be charged with terrorism--called on three Moscow sex-workers who said they found his action deplorable: artists should draw pictures of daisies, not cause a public nuisance!  

 I knew this was someone I needed to write about.

 By the time I met Piotr and his then-partner Oksana Shalygina and their two children, they were living in France, where they’d been granted political asylum.

I was able to spend some magical days hanging out with them in Paris, before Piotr was once again was arrested—this time for an art-action that involved setting a French bank on fire.

And when he got released after almost a year in Fleury-Merogis prison, I was there waiting at the gates with Oksana, and a couple of other friends.

I find Pavlensky’s work deeply stirring, both for the purity of his gestures and for his insistence that art’s purpose is to help others free themselves from what he calls “the prison of daily life.”

Looking at the weirdly beautiful images of this lone figure meshed in a swirling helix of barbed wire outside St. Petersburg Parliament, or haloed by a blaze of fire before the Banque de France on Paris’ Place de la Bastille, I’ve found myself forced to think about different forms of resistance and self-mastery, and about the long history of individuals whose seemingly masochistic, paradoxical, or death-seeking acts have encouraged others to stand up to power.

I am not finished with Pavlensky. I am currently writing a book called “I Bite My Friends (To Cure Them)”—a book about how philosophers, saints, revolutionaries, and contemporary artists have used their bodies as a field of political action, and Pavlensky will be one of its heroes. (My essay on another hero, my late friend, performance artist Stephen Varble, recently appeared in “Granta” and “Lit Hub.”)

What do you do with an artist who believes that art’s purpose is nothing less than emancipatory rupture?





Saint-Jacques: the Barricades

Last night my old friend Pierre called me up in a state of high excitement. He’d been driving across Northern Brittany, listening to the radio station France Inter, when suddenly he’d heard a familiar jangle of roosters crowing, hoarse-voiced women laughing and cursing, guitars hammering a rhythm that was not-quite-flamenco. Sounds from the South, from the raucous forlorn borderlands of French Catalonia where I used to live.

It was a radio program about Saint-Jacques, the Gypsy neighborhood of Perpignan, a neighbourhood I’d first shown him in the late 90s. I was writing Little Money Street, a book about my friendship with a family of Saint-Jacques Gypsy musicians. (People understandably bristle nowadays at the word “Gypsy,” but “gitan” is how this community refers to itself and its language, music, culture, so I’ve tended to prefer it to the more generic term “Rom.”)  

Once again, the Gypsies of Saint-Jacques—a population the radio reporter describes as being “one of the poorest in France”—are in the news. This time, it’s for something positive, something quintessentially French, quintessentially of our time. A protest movement.

Three years ago, the mayor of Perpignan began demolishing large sections of Saint Jacques. It’s a medieval neighborhood that was originally the Jewish ghetto. Some of the houses lining Saint Jacques’ narrow hilly streets and fountained squares date back to the 15th, 16th, 17th century. They are inhabited by the same families who’ve been living there since the 1940s, when the Jews were deported and the Vichy regime forced Gypsies to settle in their place. Unlike many other historic neighborhoods in French cities, Saint Jacques is hopping, with old ladies in black sitting on chairs in the street, storefront Evangelical churches, children playing soccer. It’s a quartier populaire, the radio program reminds us—run-down, garbage strewn, reeking of cat piss and 90% youth unemployment—but it’s also a model of neighborly solidarity. And an architectural “jewel.”

The former mayor of Perpignan--between him and his father, they ruled the city for 49 years--was often accused of winning elections by buying the Gypsy vote. (He threatened to sue me when I repeated these claims in the French edition of Little Money Street.) The current mayor, Jean-Marc Pujol, has no need of Gypsy support. He’s center right; like a large part of Perpignan’s population, he was born in Algeria when it was still part of France. His deputy tells a New York Times reporter that Gypsies “don’t live like us, they have a different notion of public space.” Olivier Amiel, the official in charge of renovating Saint Jacques, says there’s no time to waste on “aesthetic decisions.” The houses have to come down because they’re unsafe.

Previous architectural studies of the area have painstakingly identified which of the mediaeval buildings need bolstering, which are sound, which ones are indeed past saving. The city has gone ahead and razed entire streets, leaving a “desert of asphalt.” 100 million euros have been slated for Saint-Jacques’ rehabilitation, but so far nothing has been built in their place.

A local woman says, “They promised us we would be resettled, but where? Even if they offered me a villa with a swimming pool, I’d rather stay here!”  

In 2009, the TGV came to Perpignan, providing high-speed links to Barcelona and Paris. Last November, the University of Perpignan opened a new law faculty in the heart of Saint Jacques. Perpignan’s an undervalued city, an hour and a half from Pyrenean ski-resorts, ten minutes from long sandy Mediterranean beaches and flamingo-haunted lagoons.

Many people suspect that “safety” is just an excuse to dislodge an inconvenient population from what’s become prime real estate.


Although their families have been in France since the 1400s, the Gypsies of Saint-Jacques don’t consider themselves French. “Francais” is their polite term for a non-Gypsy. Not many are high school graduates. They don’t have the habit of political mobilization; they are more accustomed to settling grievances one on one.

But this time, they’ve formed a pressure group. French people interested in historic preservation have joined the coalition, along with Maghrebins—not always an easy mix with Saint-Jacques Gypsies. On Tuesdays, they demonstrate in front of the Prefecture. It’s Occupy Saint Jacques.

I listen to the radio program on France Inter. There are two stars of it, two unlikely comrades-in-arms. One is a crackly-voiced elder called “Nounours” (Teddy Bear) Jiminez, a self-styled “patriarch” of Saint Jacques.

“Oh, you know Nounours,” says my friend Diane. “He’s the father of Cowboy. You wouldn’t want to cross him.” The other is a man called Stephane Bern, a TV personality famous for his interviews with European royalty, whom President Macron has just named as Heritage Czar. And Bern’s new cause, it seems, is preserving the mediaeval quarter of Saint Jacques. “I’m a royalist and a revolutionary,” he laughs. “Go figure!”

“Nounours,” the old-style neighbourhood capo, is equally bemused by his own emergence as political activist. Since Gypsies began marching on Town Hall last June, the demolition of Saint-Jacques’s been halted. Now there are demonstrations every Tuesday, just to keep up the pressure on the mayor. “Here I am, I can’t read or right,” Nounours says laughing. “But I managed to stop an excavator!”

Last summer, when the wrecking balls were still swinging, I went back to stay with Diane. She took me on a tour of Saint Jacques. We strolled along graffiti-stained alleys, greeting the young women in long black skirts and house slippers who were standing in their doorways. They chatted in rapid-fire gitan--Catalan with bits of kalo thrown in--then switched to French for my benefit. Fernande, you remember Sabrina. Fernande, you remember Miriam. And Nellie. And Sephora. Everybody was a niece of Diane’s, an aunt, a petite cousine. Sephora was Tony’s wife. When I first met Tony, he was playing with his Pokemon cards on Place Puig; now he’s been baptized into the Pentecostalist church and has a wife and two kids.

When we get back home, Diane’s family asks me what I think, and Diane imitates my shock at seeing the gleaming space-ship complex of the new University of Perpignan law school, as much a sign of colonial occupation as the armored gendarmerie on Place Cassanyes.

She mimicks my outrage, Where’s my Saint Jacques, where’s my Saint Jacques, I’m wailing, and then she shows my relief when, standing in the middle of the rubble, I see a sight I recognize. A little boy, hugely fat, maybe nine, ten years old, and in his mouth, not one but two cigarettes. Ah ca va, alors, I say—or Diane’s imitation of me says--That’s my Saint Jacques, so long as there’s a ten-year-old smoking two cigarettes on the street corner, on est chez nous.

In fact, I’ve always had a slightly different hope for Saint Jacques, a more mealy-mouthed Middle Way of modern Gypsydom, where kids go to college and find work they like, while still managing to retain their home-language and culture. But maybe this option is like the architect’s plan of cherry-picking which houses are rotten, which are sound—let’s get rid of the Coca-Cola in the baby bottles, the machismo, the domestic violence, but hang on to the music and the warm family loyalty. Maybe “Gypsy modernity” is always bound to end in total assimilation, “a desert of asphalt,” a generation of Francais who will barely know that their grandmother’s maiden name was Cargol or Reyes, that she was the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher who worked the markets from Figueras to Barcares.

Listening to the radio program, I feel a glimmer of optimism. Gypsies, French North Africans, architectural historians and culture officials like Stephane Bern are all coming together to save the neighborhood. Saint-Jacques is suddenly being referred to as a ZAD, a zone-to-be-defended, like Notre Dame des Landes, where anarchists, hippies, and farmers succeeded, after a ten-year fight, in making the government abandon its plans to turn fragile moorlands into an airport.

This afternoon I get Diane on the phone. She’s anguished by the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, the Florida pipe bomber, but about Saint-Jacques she has no worries. “You’ll see. It’s our quartier, Gypsies don’t let anybody push them around, we will never move.”