NOM and the Art of the Absurd
Local arts collaborative takes the grotesque to extremes on a new album that is released this week.
Published: May 8, 2013 (Issue # 1758)
NOM are politically engaged but pursue their activism through art.
NOM, the St. Petersburg arts collaborative active in music, visual arts and film, continues to explore human nature, the particularities of the Russian character and the current state of the country in its trademark grotesque way on its new album, “In the Animal World” (V Mire Zhivotnykh), to be premiered in Moscow and St. Petersburg this week.
While the collaborative maintains they are not political activists, its 26–year history is nevertheless marked by consistent challenges to the powers-that-be, through its multi-genre, politically engaged work.
Art and Politics, in the Studio and on the Streets
NOM started out in Leningrad during perestroika in 1987, when Soviet society began to open and censorship was becoming less strict, but now finds itself in disagreement with the increasingly stifling atmosphere of Putin’s Russia.
Kagadeyev and other members of NOM took part in the most important protest marches against electoral fraud and the re-installment of Putin last year.
“Kopeikin and I even made arty placards, and the march was really massive, [even though temperatures were] below minus 30 degrees centigrade,” he said, “The crowd stretched from Oktyabrsky Concert Hall to Mikhailovsky Palace.”
Although massive protests were followed by political repression, Kagadeyev suggests that NOM’s work is helping to change things, even if the result is not immediately apparent.
“What we do somehow influences people’s minds, perhaps the young ones, but it will have its effect at some time in the future,” he said.
“So far [pro-Kremlin pop band] Lyube and a tear on the cheek of our beloved re-elected president are today’s realities, unfortunately.”
The Kremlin’s attacks on freedom of speech and dissent conceal the total corruption going on behind closed doors, according to Kagadeyev.
“As [Viktor] Pelevin wrote rightly in his last book, the objective of our state’s activities is to make the life of its citizens as unbearable as possible,” he said.
“And the main thing is that everybody understands that concrete deals are made behind the scenes, [by people who are] all practical and industrious, but essentially thieves. But we’re supposed to accept the façade.
“There’s Vladimir Vladimirovich sitting and answering questions [during the annual televised QA session last month]. Some old women call him and ask why their rent was 1,500 rubles a month ($48.25) before and is 1,800 now ($57.90). [Putin replies] ‘I will look into it.’ It’s shameful and sick. In reality, they steal in the billions.”
According to Kagadeyev, the scale of the state’s decrepitude is better seen in the distant provinces, in places such as Kansk, where NOM spent a month last year during a video festival sponsored by oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov. Chosen only for sounding similar (in Russian) to Cannes, Kansk is an average Russian town – depressed, decaying and semi-forgotten – in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Siberia, about 4,500 kilometers east of Moscow.
“They’re a regular nightmare, our Siberian provinces — how people live there, how they are motivated, how they make their living,” Kagadeyev said.
“Nothing has changed; it’s still 1971 there. They covered a hole in front of the railroad station with a concrete panel under Brezhnev in the 1970s, but when it fell through the huge hole filled with water and is still there. There’s a highway passing through the city that leads across Siberia to Vladivostok, but it’s not a highway, it’s a collection of pits, again.
“But you can see some locals riding in SUVs worth $100,000, even if nothing is produced there. From this, I conclude that all the money is stolen lock, stock and barrel as soon as it enters the city budget. This is the chief economic model by which our entire country lives.”
“[Russian officials] are not planning to stay in this country and invest in education and so on. But we are the ones who’ll have to live under this system, which is not what we wanted. We imagined a ‘wind of change’ and hoped for changes for the better.
“But we’re not political activists. We’re more interested in creative work as long as they don’t prevent us from doing anything [we want to do]. We film what we want and show it, and the same with the paintings. The other thing is that we don’t quite fit in. Of course we would like to show our film at a larger number of film theaters, but as we were an independent collective in the beginning, we remain such to this day.”
New Projects Examine Russia’s Past, Present — and Future
“In the Animal Word” is the band’s 16th studio album and the first since “Above All” (Prevyshe Vsego), released in late 2009. It features material written during the past three years.
Released on the Moscow-based Soyuz label, the album has been preceded by a political controversy around the video for the song “Beast” (Skotina), written by NOM’s visual artist and occasional vocalist, Nikolai Kopeikin, and featured on the new CD.
Directed by artist Andrei Zakirzyanov and based on Kopeikin’s paintings, the animated video spoofs the show of popular support orchestrated by the Kremlin during massive protests against electoral fraud and the re-election of Vladimir Putin. The video was released on the eve of the contested presidential elections in March 2012.
With Putin represented as an animated creature with crab claws (“Crab” being one of his derogatory nicknames), the YouTube video became a battlefield of comments, some apparently coming from Kremlin-backed bloggers.
“When we come up with something political or related to the national problem, there’s always a fight. Some people are a bit silly and react in the wrong way,” NOM’s bassist and vocalist Andrei Kagadeyev said.
“[The song] was written by Kopeikin and we simply arranged it and made it a NOM song. Its message is simple: ‘He who was born a beast will die a beast,’ but due to Zakirzyanov’s video, it became politically tinged, because it’s clear that the main character is an animated freak resembling Putin. It’s a blend of cultural references.
“I remember Kopeikin did a painting called ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich Sauron,’ which was based on ‘Lord of the Rings’ and had an oil derrick and a one-eyed head also resembling Putin. [The video and the painting] have something in common.”
The eight-track album also features a three-part oratorio based on “It’s Me, Eddie” a semi-autobiographical novel by Eduard Limonov, a dissident writer and the chair of The Other Russia party, launched after the National Bolshevik Party that he co-founded was banned under Putin’s 2005 law on extremism.
Limonov wrote “It’s Me, Eddie” in 1976 in New York, where he lived on welfare after having emigrated from the Soviet Union, and the novel is filled with anger and disillusionment. Called “I Am Eduard!”, the track was originally recorded for the compilation “Limonoff,” a double-CD music tribute to the author released in 2012.
“F***ing shit! I’m being patient, world, very patient, but some day I’ll get fed up,” the piece opens, sung by NOM’s Geneva-based vocalist Alexander Liver in his trademark bass. “If there’s no place for me, and for many others, then who the f*** needs a civilization like this?”
Just as in the book, the piece ends with the protagonist’s curse to the world: “F*** you, c***sucking bastards! You can all go straight to hell!”
The oratorio was premiered — in the presence of Limonov — at the Moscow club Pipl on July 20, 2012.
“What we have here [on the new album] are my extracts from ‘It’s Me, Eddie,’ Kagadeyev said. I just leafed through [the novel] once again, took some notes and then we made three parts. Gusev took his textbook from his musical studies about how to write suites, cantatas and so on, and made a three-part oratorio according to every canon. Limonov said that it was probably the best track [on his tribute album].”
Apart from Kagadeyev, the nine-member band on the album features his brother Sergei Kagadeyev, who sings on a couple of tracks, Gusev on keyboards, Varvara Zverkova on vocals, Kopeikin on vocals, Vitaly Lapin on guitar and computer, Liver on piano and vocals, Ivan Turist on vocals and Vadim Latyshev on drums and percussion.
“This is perhaps NOM’s largest lineup in many years,” Kagadeyev said.
“We frequently went into the studio as a trio, with some participation from Liver, in the early 2000s, but now it’s all the surviving members of NOM, and what’s also important is that it’s the first NOM album with live drums since 1997.
“We used to work with digital drums, but we found, and have been working with for about two years, a good drummer from [local alt-rock/hip-hop band] Kirphichi. It provides a human element; it’s interesting for us to be together, hence the good result.”
Zverkova, who sang with NOM on a couple of tracks on the album “More Powerful” (Boleye Moshchny) in 2005, when she was 12, made her debut as a full-fledged member of the band on “In the Animal World.” Her lead vocals can be heard on “Iron Pinocchio” (Zhelezny Buratino), a track written by Gusev, well-known for his part in the 1980s bands Stranniye Igry and AVIA.
“It can be said that we raised her in the band. She’s a daughter of Sasha Zverkov, who I was at university with, and I happen to have known her since she was born,” Kagadeyev said.
Vocalist Liver, who sings bass in the choir of Grand Theatre de Geneve, flies to Russia for NOM’s most important concerts and is due to perform in Moscow and St. Petersburg this week.
Despite a hiatus between albums, NOM were active in film as NOM Film Studios and in the visual arts as Kolkhui Art Sect. This year saw the band’s new sci-fi film, “Star Worms” (“Zvyozdny Vors,” an apparent reference to “Star Wars”), which was released in cinemas in January.
Featuring an all-star lineup — from Leningrad’s Sergei Shnurov to Lyapis Trubetskoi’s Sergei Mikhalok as well as political opposition figure Boris Nemtsov as the president — the retro-futurist film is set in Russia in 2221 and tells about a scientific expedition to locate outer space beneath the earth’s crust.
“It’s like everything that we do,” Kagadeyev said.
“It’s tough, sometimes vicious satire in some ways, but on the other hand the sci-fi genre turned out to be exciting and interesting for us to work with. Of course, we refer to our past, but as our experience shows, nothing changes much.
“That’s why when we picture 23rd-century society, where we may have robots walking around and spaceships flying through the skies, there are the same marketplaces and checkered carrier bags remaining as something permanent and inescapable, because man does not change much, for sure.”
The film, which can still be caught at the Rodina cinema, is due to be released on DVD in the autumn.
The Integrity of Art, Above All
Although Kadadeyev said the band mostly manages to work without interference from the state, Kolkhui’s exhibition at Moscow’s House of Artists dedicated to relations between the sexes, “Libido,” was shut down after just two days in 2010.
Later, the group failed to find a proper gallery in which to exhibit the show in St. Petersburg, and a downsized version ended up in a small apartment gallery belonging to Mitki Art Group.
“From the point of view of the state and all kinds of officials, art should be at their service and express something of use to them,” Kagadeyev said.
“But we profess a different concept as expressed by Limonov, who said somewhere that art is like wormwood, a weed that simply grows and that’s it. The rest is not art, it’s propaganda and ideology. The artist is the chief censor of his work, the rest depends on his talent, and then it’s for the viewer and time to test it.”
NOM will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at Zal Ozhidaniya, located at 118 Naberezhnaya Obvodnogo Kanala. M: Baltiiskaya. Tel. 333 1069.