Artist duo yav from St. Petersburg

Art against state power - from the street to augmented reality

The artists' group yav from St. Petersburg take a stand against the political situation in Russia. To counter the ephemeral nature of their street art, they have developed an app that permanently preserves street art and creates new possibilities for art in the (virtual) public space.

by Felix Brosius, October 04, 2021

When Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny returned to Russia from Germany on 18 January 2021 after several months of treatment following a poison attack, he was arrested immediately after landing in Moscow. Four days later, in Liteyniy Avenue 37-39 in St. Petersburg, the picture "Терпение" (Patience) could be seen on the back wall of a transformer station. It shows an almost empty loading bar, which is meant to express that patience in parts of the Russian population will soon be at an end in a country that for years has been marked by corruption, political persecution, poor economic development and an ever-expanding prohibition system.

Patience by yav
Street art painting "Терпение" (patience) by the Russian artist duo yav

Russia: A society under permanent stress

Behind the image is the artist duo yav, who have been using street art to address aspects of democracy, feminism and science since 2015. Right from the outset, the political message was the main focus; street art merely seemed to be the right medium for them to convey their thoughts and ideas. At the time, they did not see themselves in a particular artistic tradition. They were not familiar with the street art scene and had not even heard of the artist Banksy. They simply looked for surfaces in public spaces where they could convey their messages and found them on bare walls of industrial and functional buildings, but also sometimes on the ice surface of a frozen river as well as in the virtual space. From the start, they avoided the walls of architecturally appealing as well as historical buildings - their aim is to enrich the cityscape with their street art, not damage it.

»There are a huge number of outrageous laws being passed in Russia restricting freedom of speech, freedom of expression.«

They find plenty of reasons for their messages. For example, they attest to the continuous general strain the Russian population is under, triggered by daily news about the arrest of opposition members, intimidating flat searches and the exodus of intellectuals. There is a whole series of outrageous laws restricting freedom of opinion and speech, and new arbitrary rules and bans are being imposed all the time. One of numerous examples is the official examination of a ban on the harmless but very popular children's toy Pop It, which is intended to occupy and calm, but above all to reduce stress in children. For the two yav artists, this is the ideal symbol to draw attention to the permanent stress to which the Russian population is exposed - and so, on 6 June 2021, an image of this toy can be seen on a wall in St. Petersburg; each line is inscribed with the word »stress«.

Stress by yav
yav uses the Pop It children's toy as street art, the word »stress« is on every line

A duo combining law and tattoo art

The two people behind yav are Anastasia Vladychkina and Alexander Voronin. It is fair to say that Vladychkina is the political mastermind behind the messages that Voronin translates artistically. Vladychkina studied law and worked as a lawyer for several years. During this time, she was repeatedly confronted with the direct impact of politics on the everyday lives of people in Russia and got to know both the perspective of the opposition and that of pro-government organisations. She has since refrained from earlier thoughts of becoming a politician herself and instead started the street art project yav while still working as a lawyer. Today she sees herself as a political person without any ambitions for political roles.

Artist Duo yav
Photo: Собака.ру magazine
Anastasia Vladychkina and Alexander Voronin form the artist duo yav

It’s hard to deny there is a certain fearlessness about the artist duo, even if the two artists pretend that they have nothing to fear, because after all they are not doing anything wrong and have received encouragement from the public. Perhaps you acquire such fearlessness when life begins as dramatically as it did for Vladychkina, who was declared clinically dead soon after her birth. She does not want to let the second life that she has been given go to waste; those who have already been dead once have nothing to fear. In Voronin, she has found a congenial partner who, as a designer and tattoo artist, translates the political messages into artistic work and designs the street art motifs. Together, they transport their ideas and concepts into the real, physical world - in keeping with their name yav, which goes back to a mythical creature that was born in the imagination and eventually appeared in the flesh.

»We are not afraid of the police as we are not doing anything wrong, and we are supported by the audience.«

Continuation of street art in virtual reality

But part of the reality of street art is that it is ephemeral. It is never designed to last and is often painted over after a short time, in the case of yav's works often after just 24 hours. The "Patience” image, for example, which was yav’s reaction to Nawalny's arrest, was on display for just nine hours. Nevertheless, anybody passing by 37 Liteyniy Avenue in St. Petersburg can still see the artwork on the wall of the transformer station. All you need is the AR Hunter mobile phone app developed by yav. If you open this app and point your mobile phone camera at the now bare wall of the house, you will see the live environment on your display, enhanced by the image of the almost empty loading bar projected onto the wall.

And it’s not just this picture that can be brought to light again with the app, numerous other works by yav and other street artists are also permanently preserved on it. The art can thus only be painted over in real space; in augmented reality, it remains permanently preserved. This is also the case for the series "Fairy Tale”, for example, in which yav addresses the current situation in Belarus - Belarus is portrayed as a prisoner of the immortal villain Koshchei, a fairy tale character widely known in Russia, a country threatened by the military after trying to free itself, while in Part II of the series Russia is faced with the choice of jumping off a cliff or eating a poisoned apple and falling into a deep sleep.

Fairy Tale I by yav in AR Hunter
Part I of the street art series "Fairy Tale" projected onto the wall, where it has been painted over, using the AR Hunter app

Preserving their own art is just one of the app's many applications. Other street artists are also invited to preserve their work using AR Hunter, but the app can also be used to create purely virtual location-based art that never existed in the real world. In the process, not only images but also objects can be brought into the real space and thus extensive interventions can be made in the virtually expanded public space.

So far, the app, which is currently only available in Russian, contains numerous entries from St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod, but it already enables the creation of augmented realities worldwide and will soon be made available by yav in English, German and French. An exciting playing field for artists, not only to permanently conserve street art, but also to try out new forms of expression, not least in those countries where political or socially critical art in real public space carries too high a risk for the artists.Art.Salon

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