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Capturing Resilience Amidst Destruction - A Conversation with Multidisciplinary Artist Camp 2.22

In a poignant exploration of human endurance amidst devastation, artist Camp 2.22 ventured into the heart of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in 2022, documenting the aftermath of conflict in the war-torn city of Mariupol. Through their independent journey, the artist collected raw video material that forms the basis of a profound film project. This interview delves into Camp 2.22's immersive approach to storytelling, offering a glimpse into the lives of those who experienced the horrors of war firsthand. With a portfolio spanning performance art, installations, and graphics, their work delves deep into society's undercurrents, giving voice to the marginalized and reflecting the power of art to shape narratives.

2023-08-29

Joana Alarcão

Can you begin by delving deeper into your artistic practice and background?

I received an academic art education and then studied at two contemporary art institutions. Until February 24, 2022, I was involved in socially oriented, participatory projects. I viewed art as a platform for highlighting and addressing pressing social issues, and I shared this opportunity with those who needed it. I preferred art that went beyond the conventional white cube, integrating works into everyday life, allowing viewers to interact with them randomly on the street or in other public places, and provoking dialogue. Some projects were based on the stories of certain individuals, such as a project involving a criminal authority who wanted to sell his tattooed skin. His personal story raised questions about the alliance of crime and power in post-Soviet Russia.


I have experience in initiating and curating projects. It was important to me to involve people in collaborative practices and engage those who had no prior direct relationship with art or even access to it. Therefore, some projects were intentionally implemented outside the Russian capitals – Moscow and St. Petersburg, in small regional towns, where there were no cultural venues or galleries, and the population didn't have an opportunity to see art. It was important to me to reach out and initiate a dialogue with such an audience. Sometimes, I collaborated with other artists. Some projects were devoted to environmental issues, more precisely, to how oligarchic structures in Russia committed environmental crimes, how the same structures financed the art industry, and how, as a result, the art community tried to iron out the kinks and sidestep facts.


What initially motivated you to use your art as a platform to amplify the voices of marginalized and vulnerable communities?

I would like my artistic activity to benefit society. I realized that I could use my resources as an artist to make visible those persons or groups who are in a vulnerable position or are facing injustice. Let me give an example of a project that told the story of a girl who returned from Thailand to Russia during the active phase of COVID-19. According to the law, she was supposed to spend 14 days in isolation. The sanitary and epidemiological authorities placed her in an observation facility. After 14 days, she was not released and remained locked from the outside by the facility staff. The tests showed that she was healthy. As it turned out later, there were six more people in the same facility who were unlawfully detained and not given any explanation. It was essential to me to give voice to this story, so I used art as a platform to speak out in public about the particular problem, the violation of the law. Through artistic means, this story became visible and manifested itself. I have always been concerned and paid attention to the injustices happening around me. So when I saw something like that, I could not just pass by.


Could you elaborate on the specific mediums you work with, and how they contribute to the overall impact of your artistic vision?

I have worked with mediums such as performance art, action art, situation art, installation, video, and graphics. The concept determines the medium – I seek the form in which the idea will have a sharper impact. I try to eliminate everything unnecessary and retain only the conceptually essential so that the statement is concise and precise. Often, my working method involves interventions, which can be both unsanctioned and sanctioned, as in the case of a project involving taxis, where I coordinated with taxi drivers to place works of art in a passenger compartment. Before the war, I made performances or delegated performances. Currently in Russia, I focus more on street art, videos, and photography, specifically documentary photography, or I carry out actions that are documented through photography and video.


Could you talk about your artistic practices after the outbreak of the war?

After the start of Russia's full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, for some time, I didn't know what to do at all. How could I speak now and with whom? What should I do as a professional artist? My country invaded foreign territory, destroying cities, killing Ukrainians, and using its own citizens as cannon fodder. What could I do? I decided to do what I knew. I started creating anti-war expressions using visual language. Now I work under the pseudonym Camp 2.22. From time to time I visit Russia, continuing to create work within the country, which is of great value to me. The first works I made when the war started were drawings from life during protests in St. Petersburg. I drew people who didn't support the war and peacefully took to the streets, and policemen who brutally beat them with batons and electrified sticks, twisted their arms and legs, and dragged them into police vans. I had very little time for each drawing, and I had to keep moving all the time. So, for about a week, I went out to draw these scenes.


2022, paper, pencil, pen by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

Then there was an activity on May 9, 2022, when Victory Day is celebrated in Russia. My colleague and I pretended to be an average family couple and walked around the city with a baby stroller. We took photos with army men, as it's a tradition in Russia. Inside the stroller, we had pieces of meat. May 9th in Russia is a holiday that propagates the militaristic might of Russia. With slogans like "we can do it again," it fosters a sense of "patriotism" among the Russians. The country was celebrating, the propaganda romanticized and glorified military actions. And to Rostov-on-Don, they brought thousands of soldiers' bodies or only remaining body parts in black bags that were impossible to identify. Then, after a trip to the occupied territories, I made another work: I replaced the Russian registration plates on my car with Ukrainian ones purchased on Avito (a Russian classified ads website). I made holes and dents in them as if they had been hit by shelling. At the wheel of the car with Ukrainian plates, I drove along the central street of St. Petersburg – Nevsky Prospect, up to the Winter Palace. The work was integrated into everyday life and reminded the Russians of the daily shelling, killings, and evil happening in Ukraine.



2023, St. Petersburg by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

Simultaneously, I worked in the studio and created a graphic series featuring officials involved in destruction and killing. These are characters dressed in classic suits with ties. Instead of heads, they have balaclavas, symbolizing aggression, and war, and skulls, symbolizing death. Some graphics were made outside the studio, in the streets; I drew on bus stops and billboards. Graphics from this series were used in an action in Belgrade against Russian propaganda. 



2023, bed linen by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.


2022, paper, ink, pencil, eraser by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

Formally, this series contributed to the creation of the "Gallery of Criminal Portraits of Russia." In the village of Saperny near St. Petersburg, I found a building that resembled a structure destroyed due to military actions, rocket and bomb hits. Both outside and inside the building, I hung the portraits of so-called top figures of Russia who were the instigators of this war and who continue to give orders to kill people defending their homes, and the portraits of the main propagandists of the war, depicted on the tricolor flag with faces hidden under balaclavas, but names signed. Of course, these are only a few of those committing bloody crimes; the gallery is open for new pictures. And the Russian authorities label as criminals those who attempt to resist the state machinery in all this madness, sacrificing themselves. In Russia, having anti-war images on your phone, taking to the streets even with a blank piece of paper, or posting on social media things that contradict the official line can result in anything from short-term arrests and fines to lengthy prison terms.



2023, Gallery of Criminal Portraits of Russia, Saperny, Leningrad region by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

2023, Gallery of Criminal Portraits of Russia, Saperny, Leningrad region by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

Your journey to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) seems incredibly profound and potentially perilous. What drove you to undertake this venture and collect video material for your film?

The trip to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic was self-organized and carried certain risks. At that time, the fierce battles had just recently ended. Most of the time, we were in Mariupol and also in Volnovakha, a city that suffered greatly, it was one of the first to be bombed on February 24th, and people there were completely unprepared. We visited major cities like Luhansk and Donetsk, at that time the front line was only 14 km away from the city. Mariupol had been turned into ruins, with burnt and destroyed houses. It was dangerous to move around as unexploded ordnances lay in the streets.

Meeting DPR or Russian soldiers was also potentially dangerous. It was unclear how they would react to our visit. "Liberated" streets and lawlessness could lead to anything. The first trip was in June 2022, followed by another in August, which was a humanitarian one. We brought local residents essential items, food, and medicines —things that were in high demand for their basic needs. Providing humanitarian aid also had its risks, as the authorities appointed in the occupied territories hindered those attempting to help the remaining population.



June 2022, Mariupol by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.


June 2022, Mariupol by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

June 2022, Mariupol by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

When I traveled to the occupied territories, I didn't have the goal of making a film. I took along the equipment I had: a photographic camera and a video camera. During the trip, I realized what I could and wanted to do as an independent artist. On my Instagram account, I posted stories so that my audience could see the state of the cities after the Russian army invasion. Many of my followers know me personally, and I believe they have reasons to trust me. As soon as we entered Mariupol, I immediately felt that it was hard to breathe; the air was filled with smoke. Almost the entire city had been destroyed, either by shelling or fire. Bomb craters were everywhere, projectile fragments protruded from the asphalt, and the streets were littered with cartridges, shells, ammunition boxes, personal belongings, family albums, and toys. There were many graves in the courtyards. A local woman told me that a corpse had been lying in their courtyard for 2.5 months. In front of the houses with perforated walls lay piles of building rubbish and garbage. People sat on benches near the entrances because their apartments that could still be used for sleeping (the ceiling and floor hadn't collapsed) were too dark and covered in soot. Mostly adults remained in the city, they had absolutely no opportunity to leave.


There was no electricity, no heating, no light, and no water. Some of the apartments were turned into firing points. People didn't bathe for 3.5 months. Water was brought, but it was technical water, as they said: not drinkable, with sediment. Some would stand in line starting from 4 in the morning, and some waited for three days. Residents organized makeshift kitchens by the entrances, cooking over a fire. Firewood was also scarce in the city; locals collected wooden items or twigs to cook food over the fire. The appointed authorities of Mariupol introduced a punishment of 30 days of corrective labour for cutting down greenery. As for work, the same authorities offered locals to clear the rubble, that could hide mines or corpses, and paid a penny for this. 


June 2022, Mariupol Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

Looting thrived in the city, so locals closed the entrance door around 7-8 in the evening if it was technically possible. For an overnight stay in Mariupol, a local woman let us into the neighbouring apartment she was looking after. We were lucky, there was still a sofa there because most apartments had only black concrete walls and construction debris.

Her son, who lived with her, warned that marauders were prowling through apartments at night and gave me a piece of wood with the words, "just in case." I talked a lot with locals; they were open to conversation. They shared stories of how DNR soldiers evicted them from their own apartments — a "special operation, after all." And then the soldiers took everything valuable, loaded up their cars, and left. The film I shot in Mariupol consists of several parts, in which the characters share their experiences and major problems, and show the city, and places where they hid from shelling. One of the scenes shows a place organized by the new Mariupol authorities. It's a small square near the church where locals can charge their devices under a canopy. Nearby, there is a military truck with a large screen on the bed, broadcasting Russian television talking about the successes of the Russian army in the "special military operation" (that's what they call it) and the "patriots" of Russia who participate in it. 


I didn't prepare any questions before filming, I wanted to avoid the interview format. The locals told me what they really wanted to tell, and that's very valuable to me. The film turned out naturally monotonous; I had no intention of making it dynamic or spectacular. I tried to maintain the rhythm that corresponded to the "life" of Mariupol. It was important to me to personally document what had happened, to listen to those who managed to survive this bloody horror, and to see what the residents were left with after the "liberation." As one of the characters in the movie says, "We used to have everything, and we didn't need anything... They decided to liberate us from something, but we ourselves don't understand from what. They liberated us from gas, electricity, water, everything... from comfort, from healthcare..."



A still from the movie We live here by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

One of your submitted projects is a photography documentation project called Messages: St. Petersburg. Can you elaborate on the motivations behind this series of photographs?

During the hostilities, Mariupol was systematically cleared, everything was destroyed, and the lives of civilians had no value. Month after month, local residents hid from bombs and shelling in dark damp basements, where the temperature dropped to -12°C, and they spent weeks without being able to even boil water. Everyone crowded together in basements: women, men, children, the elderly, animals. To mark their presence in these shelters, they left messages on building walls, such as "WE LIVE HERE," "PEOPLE CHILDREN ELDERLY ANIMALS," "WE ARE ALIVE," and others. All messages were in Russian and addressed to the occupiers. So Mariupol residents wanted to make it clear to the occupiers that there were people in basements, they were alive, they existed. And they hoped they would be heard. 



June 2022, Mariupol by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

My aim was to forward these messages further, into the very heart of Russia. And I wrote the same messages on the buildings in St. Petersburg so that they wouldn't remain only in the occupied territories. Ideally, I wanted to convey them to those Russians who believed the blatant lies of our politicians and who could go off to war against Ukraine.


These messages are evidence of the madness that unfolded in Mariupol. They are evidence of full-scale war, shelling of apartment buildings and houses, evidence that death stared people in the face, that at any moment a bomb could hit a building, burying civilians under the rubble. Propaganda in Russia works meanly and foolishly, but it has been working for a long time. Therefore, many Russians support the war, and some are willing to participate in it. 


This work also makes the so-called "patriots" imagine that their city, their home, and their children are bombed, and together with surviving relatives, they are forced to hide in basements – and all this stuff is called "liberation." Such "patriots" should be aware of where they're willing to go, realizing that these are developed cities with civilian populations.

One of Mariupol's residents quoted DNR soldiers who said, "We didn't know there were people here." I consider the deliberate hushing up of violence, killings, and the hell that the residents of the occupied territories are experiencing to be an ethical crime. Speaking up is necessary. I speak through visual means, appealing to the heart.



2022, Messages, St. Petersburg by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

The impact of witnessing the consequences of war and hearing the personal stories of the local population must have been profound. How did this experience shape your artistic perspective and influence your future work?

During my trip to the occupied territories, I saw with my own eyes the extent of the evil being committed in Ukraine. My statements are getting less encoded now and more straightforward. This allows the work to be interpreted exactly in the way the author intended, which is crucial today. In general, it's important to me to avoid leaving room for free interpretation. Viewpoints in Russia vary; those who believe the Russian TV propaganda, which often distorts reality, may turn the statements upside down – I take this into account.


I don't care about artistic aspects and don't consider my actions within the context of artistic tradition. It's not the right time now for such strategies. The works must be somehow effective in the "anti-war" cause. There are different ways to act: one can convey a message, cover events, document, create an alternative backdrop to official propaganda, and so on. Most artists in Russia remain silent, realizing the level of danger associated with such public actions. But I know that there are many in Russia who do not support the war.


Can you tell me about your last work? 

Well, here is a short introduction. In St. Petersburg, I discovered a horrifying place – Lenin Square. There's a clinic there for wounded soldiers. As far as I know, there are two such clinics in Russia, one in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg. High-ranking military personnel are sent to Moscow, while ordinary soldiers are taken to St. Petersburg. They arrive without limbs, often missing legs, and many have lost their arms. Surgeries are performed, and some receive prosthetics. Some move around on crutches, others in wheelchairs, and some are accompanied by relatives or friends. Lenin Square has turned into a square of cripples, an oppressive atmosphere.



2023, Rusia, St. Petersburg by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.


2023, Rusia, St. Petersburg by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

One of my recent works, made in three districts of St. Petersburg, is street art on advertising billboards. All over the city billboards are used for promoting war and persuading citizens to join contract military service. To continue this insane war, the authorities have to agitate for it, they need to feed the front lines with new cannon fodder, sending their own citizens to slaughter. I decided to neutralize the advertisements, depriving them of their primary function – the feedback. Using a stencil, I painted images of hands with severed fingers so that they covered the contacts on the advertising banner that urged people to sign up for contract service and go to kill other people in Ukraine, and if they're fortunate, return without limbs, as practice shows.


2023, St. Petersburg by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

As viewers engage with your practice, what message or understanding do you hope they will take away from it?

All over Russia patriotic concerts are being held, there are all kinds of festivities, and cities are decorated. Propaganda portrays war as a natural way of life. An illusion of normality is created, and it truly permeates cities. The reaction of a sensible person to the bloody and senseless carnage is dulled. This is your reality – a celebration with militaristic undertones; and severed legs, arms, wrecked lives, ruins, at least, shouldn't bother you. 

To justify atrocity crimes, they distort and glorify them. 


In my artworks, I address war as grief, violence, destruction, disability, and waste of human lives, all of which are unfolding in Ukraine now. Our everyday life should not allow us to become indifferent to murders and tragedies. I hope that my works can awaken human emotions in those whose feelings have been deliberately numbed by the Russian authorities for many years. After all, the fewer people support the war, the harder it becomes for its instigators to draw resources for its continuation from the masses.


Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers?

As your audience is international, I want to emphasize, or rather repeat, that among Russians, there is a significant number of people who have never supported Putin, especially the horrors he has caused in Ukraine. The war will eventually come to an end, and those who supported it, issued orders, or aligned with Z-patriots, will be punished for their actions. Goodness and justice will prevail over heinous crimes.


Know more about the artist here.


Cover Image:

2023, Gallery of Criminal Portraits of Russia, Saperny, Leningrad region by Camp 2.22. Image courtesy of Camp 2.22.

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Camp 2.22 is a multidisciplinary artist, driven by a desire to examine and portray the diverse facets of society and culture through a unique and thought-provoking lens. His artistic practice encompasses a wide range of themes and approaches – from social ambiguities, re-thinking of everyday living to community engagement regarding environmental issues. He embraces the notion that art serves as a powerful platform for amplifying the voices of vulnerable and marginalized segments of society.


Primary mediums: immersive situations, performance art, videos, installations, and graphics.

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