Esse I

Underground visual rap


People take electric train from the Moscow region to work. Behind the window, in the predawn dark, there are lengthy concrete fences, garages, and industrial areas painted with graffiti. Someplace, a wall writing flickers: “Christ cometh”.

A brand-new highway junction still covered in scaffolding, piles of rubbish, cast blocks – passing them by, passing by writings saying “I’m Ruski” and “For the Motherland”, passing by shabby apartment blocks whose days are either counted or countless – every day people ride cars and buses along the same routes.


A yard. A bus stop. An underpass. A garage and a convenience store. Each of them, located in suburbs, has wall writings. They are not graffiti, not works made by artists on behalf of local authorities, but appeals. It is regular handwriting, one can’t even say if it belongs to a man or a woman. It is large and sprawling, wide in the beginning and getting smaller towards the end of the line so as to fit everything, with each word and each letter bearing significance. The reason is that it’s not about graphics and beauty (regardless of the aesthetics the author was inclined towards), not about composition, but about meaning. “What is the power? ¬– The truth.” These texts are simple, earthly, like the ancient birchbark manuscripts. They are ordinary, as if haven grown from within, from the very essences of the areas, the industrial ones, the ones surrounding the highways, the suburbs. They are brisk, like flashes of light in the night, three dots – three dashes – three dots. Not being aware, one would not give an eye, would not notice. Skip it, than come to senses – was there something? How does this short thing become part of one’s visual experience? Unshapely letters, texts of one or two words, sometimes a rhymed chant, like rap – written and shout out in the streets, in the yards of apartment blocks, on the internet, by the smart and the witless, but yearning for something. It’s like poetry, but about life. Therefore it is rap.

The texts on the walls are endlessly painted over by municipal workers. Like ants directed by bureaus for railroads, highways, utilities, housing, and other kinds, they hurry to once again brush over the texts and restore the beauty, which is, to their understanding, in cleanness. And still the words show through, as if ancient layers of a palimpsest. They spoil the view. They disturb the quest for ubiquitous smoothness and evenness. Even when it’s not there. They say that the simplicity of these words might get you busted. According to the Article 282 of the Criminal Code*. For Rus’.

That is how, after the 282th Article, the project by Moscow-based photographer Andrey Ivanov is called**. The name explains the concept of the project to those who are not in the know. It is a name that requires comments for those distant and maybe even foreign. But this dedication narrows down the meaning of Andrey’s work, so I would suggest looking at it not from the perspective of street rallies and blocked websites, the reality of our time, but from the photography viewpoint, so as to leverage its focus to explore the phenomenon behind these short texts in urban environment.

Starting 1950s, both in USA and in Europe but separately, a photography trend emerged, aiming to capture the footprint the humanity leaves in the world. Not the human shape, not a hand or a face, but the things left behind: monuments of modern architecture, gas pumps and convenience stores, amusement parks and apartment blocks. This mission to retain the entire world built by human hands did not take over from the positivist aspirations of FSA*** photographers, rather embodying the apocalyptic foreboding fueled by the Cold War. Photography assumed the function of today’s archaeology, for the sake of future archaeologists and in order to capture the wholesome ensemble of all the changes humans brought to the world.

Apart from the term photographic archaeology, a range of names was used for this movement in various countries over the years, including postindustrial landscape photography, human-altered landscape photography, conceptual capture of living environment, and post-humanistic photography. Was it present in Russia? Yes and no. Archives of photography agencies contain urban landscapes, streets with newly-built apartment blocks, factories – but those shootings implemented the optimistic appeal to capture the building of communism by reflecting the changes of the environment marking the advent of the future. That had nothing to do with retaining the human impact. There are no exposures where the old would stand beside the new to stress their equal significance. We won’t find any real photographs of daily living, while official photos depict it in a mythological way. Without question, it is best to look for them in the archives of amateurs or, rather, unofficial photographers who took pictures not to implement the concept, but for the sake of mood, light and composition.

That which might have become the photographical Annales School**** of the USSR, did not come to life. One can reconstruct that living environment, with all its lovely irregularities and harsh demolitions of the old for the sake of the new, by putting together movie snapshots (something flickered across the background while the camera was passing through) and separate exposures marked not intended for publication. Contemporary photography in Russia saw the living environment archaeology appear as an independent project, with no demand neither from society, nor from media and state institutions. Being a marginalized project, this photography is yet to be reflected upon. Large projects, e.g. photo shoots of Russia’s small towns funded from time to time over the years***** , featured well-known photographers and produced postcards of various landscapes, by definition capturing the individual images of the places rather than the reality of the environment. Scarce independent projects remain either manifestations of their authors' creative approaches, which shadow the archaeology, or even rarer examples of harmony between the subject and the viewpoint. The latter are hardly ever seen these days, since the archaeology of the contemporary requires the viewer to reflect in response, an approach that has been withering in our country. With no conversation about the meaning of the image, in absence of a discussion around it, it is interpreted as blank, cold and formal, not significant enough for being published.


What is the method Andrey Ivanov uses in his work “282”? He imagines how the environment thinks, envisioning the processes of consciousness stirring up the heavy mass, as if it was hot magma. On the surface, scarred signs are left behind, denoting the traces left by the unspoken (in terms of media coverage) reflection process.

Ivanov captures the signs on the landscape where human consciousness happens to be, to exist, to carry out the thinking process.


The photographer reveals these signs, the words either bleeding as stigmas or as scars that healed and were smoothed over. The marks he finds on all sorts of buildings, even on road posts, are sometimes so small and hard to make out that in order to spot them the image would have to be printed by Andreas Gursky. The photographer didn’t make a mistake, he rather managed to find a scale that explains how visible these signs are in the world. They are small, hard to notice, like wasp stings. They trouble the eye like selective pierces. By reading the prohibited texts, the viewer becomes watchful, able to feel their presence looking at photos where they have been redacted. The viewer now investigates placid, hopeless urban landscape in the entirety of the exposure. Yielding to the project concept, similar to transcending a movie with its soundtrack, the viewer feels tension and suspense when looking at a mere landscape as well.


The signs revealed by the photographer are an evidence of collective unconscious. The issues of national self-identification forced out by communist internationalism, appearing like flashes here and there, in the chaos of Brownian motion (or is there a supreme order unknown to a mere spectator?), the mottos and the questions – they mark a twilight zone where the extremes are brought closer. Personal doing (“Be sober!”, “Stand up!”, “Get up!”, “Keep healthy!”, “Prayer and fasting”) here accompanies political self-identification (“I am Ruski, therefore I am not fascist”), religious invocations and claims.

The 282 project is not about the author refusing to assume a position. Andrey picks what to shoot among an abundance of writings. Besides playing the parts of a researcher, an archaeologist and a photographer, Andrey assumes the role of an advocate. In public view, the 282th Article makes any claim of a national identity (of the Russian one, particularly) destructive, despite the fact that it might be a meaningful statement. This is precisely what interests the author.

On the other hand, it is probably the first visual research of this phenomenon and its spread. The phenomenon is spontaneous national self-identification of urban dwellers, which refers to mixture of ancient Slavic religions and symbols, orthodox Christianity, philosophic concepts of XIX century, and historical connotations of the XX century.


It is hard to explain the phenomenon using positive statements, so it is best to eliminate that which it is not, and reveal the connections with other phenomena of mass consciousness.

According to the 282 project, such quasi-historical perceptions have been created before. For example, a statuary art piece at Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow includes an ancient Russian hero standing beside a Napoleon era soldier, and a WWII marine.

The new phenomenon is not another denomination of official Orthodox Church, and it allows criticism towards the church’s decisions. It is not necessarily linked to nationalism or Nazism, rather criticizing these ideologies. It might be a statement of contemporary art (or, rather, contemporary art copies the statement, confirming its influence and excitement). The new phenomenon is not related to the graffiti subculture. While it uses the same platforms for self-expression, it ignores the format of graffiti and the authorship. Contrary to a graffiti artist who strives for self-expression within their subculture, the author of this new phenomenon is pointedly anonymous.


Environment in a megapolis, especially one like Moscow, is unfriendly for a human, a permanent inhabitant. Today’s megapolis is a structure of post-class society epoch, polarized in terms of affluence rather than criteria like education or occupation. For now I, as a viewer, have trouble recreating the wall writings’ author’s profile for Andrey Ivanov’s project. On the one hand, this invisible man is a dweller of suburbs, where Old Muscovites (third or fourth generation, not rich and evicted from the centre) lived beside those who came to Moscow in ‘60s to ‘80s to be scornfully called limita****** by old-timers. Secondly, this is a person whose worldview is wider than the education provided by schools and universities (since neither Slavic symbols nor nationalist concepts of the last two centuries are included into the official curriculum). Thirdly, this person is searching and eager to act, a neophyte striving for change and calling for others to pitch in. Who is he? There are many anonymous authors who are different but have similar principles. This collective author might be the one who expresses the vox populi of the silent majority.

Looking at the landscapes at Andrey’s photos, I can’t help thinking that they are an offshoot of steampunk, with its inflamed pessimistic imagination and cold cynical misanthropy. But photography is not made-up imagery, it is the reality that came into effect and was spotted by an artist. Writings on fences, with this landscape as a backdrop, are shouts of loner idealists from a post-apocalyptic novel. It is a sort of a return to the ancient tribal ways on the ruins of a proud technocratic empire.


Ivanov uses traditional media: wide format, film, meticulous procession and fastidious printing, paying attention to both light and color. This choice highlights his certainty that the part of urban archaeologist (or a chronographer?) comes with the responsibility to be objective. In photography, light is like a flare, an insight that paints the routine in the colors of the truth. If composition and light fail, the picture becomes ordinary and ceases engaging the viewer into itself to show new dimensions of meaning inside. There, deep inside and far from the frame borders, it keeps small signs, questions, exclamations and appeals to us. And all-around, a familiar and well-lit prop is hurting the eyes with sharp flecks.



* Article 282. Incitement of National, Racial, or Religious Enmity
1. Actions aimed at the incitement of national, racial, or religious enmity, abasement of human dignity, and also propaganda of the exceptionality, superiority, or inferiority of individuals by reason of their attitude to religion, national, or racial affiliation, if these acts have been committed in public or with the use of mass media, shall be punishable by a fine in the amount of 500 to 800 minimum wages, or in the amount of the wage or salary, or any other income of the convicted person for a period of five to eight months, or by restraint of liberty for a term of up to three years, or by deprivation of liberty for a term of two to four years.
2. The same acts committed:
a) with the use of violence or with the threat of its use;
b) by a person through his official position;
c) by an organized group,
shall be punishable by deprivation of liberty for a term of three to five years.

**Working title of Andrey Ivanov’s project “Identity index”

***Initially created as the Resettlement Administration (RA) in 1935 as part of the New Deal in the United States, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was an effort during the Depression to combat American rural poverty. The FSA is famous for its highly influential photography program, 1935–44, that portrayed the challenges of rural poverty.

****The Annales School is a group of historians associated with a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century to stress long-term social history. It is named after its scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source of scholarship, along with many books and monographs.[1] The school has been highly influential in setting the agenda for historiography in France and numerous other countries, especially regarding the use of social scientific methods by historians, emphasizing social rather than political or diplomatic themes.

*****E.g. from 1998 to 2008 Moscow House of Photography carried out a project “…Through lenses of Russian and foreign photographers”.

******A derogatory word in Russian, meaning a temporary guest worker.


Irina Chmyreva, PhD,
Member of International Association of Art Critics,
Artistic Director, International Festival of Photography PhotoVisa