If freedom of expression is a necessary component for public debates to occur and for a public sphere to function, how does the public sphere operate in societies with restricted freedom of speech? As of 2016, Kazakhstan held the 160th position in the Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters without Borders. The country is marked by legislative restrictions, censorship, and a lack of strong independent media outlets (1). Governmental control prevents Kazakh traditional mass media from functioning as a public sphere, which Jurgen Habermas described as a space that can bring individuals together as the public to generate debate about the relations between the governing and the governed and the exercise of power (2). However, restricted societies function through different mechanisms. In this paper, I will examine how contemporary and street art launch public debate and engage various publics in discussions, as well as explore what allows art to function as a cultural public sphere or a public forum.
The evident dysfunction of Kazakh traditional media as a public sphere triggers the formation of online and offline counterpublic spheres. Critical voices are becoming subordinate counterpublics that seek new channels of communication and the production of alternative narratives. In such a situation, contemporary and street art becomes an important arena for free artistic expression. It creates a possibility for dialogue and debates by intervening in urban public space and engaging people in discussion around works of art and art actions on online platforms and social networks.
Urban Public Space
According to Habermas, a model public sphere allows society to hold the state accountable via publicity and public debates between private individuals. In nonliberal nondemocratic societies, the public sphere is limited as an accountability mechanism. However, subaltern groups challenge dominant state civil groups and intellectuals create alternative arenas for expression and critique. Public street art does not always directly address political issues. At the same time, subaltern groups that do not criticize the government directly or are not involved in politics constitute and construct the arena of the counterpublic sphere. They increase the number of critical voices and challenge the status quo.
The most provocative and interesting street artist in Kazakhstan is 22-year-old Pasha Cas. He has begun to use public urban space for artistic interventions, raising social issues and problems through street art and interaction with the city. He uses the concept of an urban public forum, a central place in a city where people can meet up and dialogue or debate. Pasha Cas is already widely known in Kazakhstan and neighboring Russia.
One of Cas’ first works was an installation with a mannequin, which was directed against the high level of suicides among teenagers. The installation, called “Vsem Pokh” or “Nobody Gives a Fuck,” was placed on an advertising hoarding at a busy intersection in the center of Almaty in 2013. The artist used filthy language to draw attention to a tremendous social problem that appeared to have been marginalized in discussions in the public sphere. “I was shocked by the statistics of teenagers’ suicide, and numbers are increasing, but nobody cares, neither the government nor the public. Why don’t we ask what is happening, what pushes people to that decision,” wrote Pasha on his website. He added that he chose the busy city center as the site of his work because he wanted to attract attention to the problem. The artist separates himself from both the government and the public, criticizing and blaming these two actors.
The city administration removed Cas’ installation from the hoarding and announced that his action could be subject to a penalty. As a result, the work was visible at its urban location only for about one day. However, the art action was covered by local mass media and images of it widely circulated on social networks.
Last year, Pasha Cas produced another important street work of art, “Dancing!” It was a breakthrough work in many ways. In a contemporary allusion to Henri Matisse’s famous painting “The Dance,” the artist depicted white-collar people dancing around a smokestack in a metallurgical factory.
Cas painted his mural on the wall of an apartment building in Temirtau, a small metallurgical town in Kazakhstan. Like Temirtau, single-industry towns across Kazakhstan are organized around one big factory or production site. These towns depend heavily on their core companies, which are central to many different aspects of life.
Cas’ installation has both a direct and metaphorical meaning. It points out the ecological problems that the metallurgical site brings to town; Cas wrote that his team tested soil content on five children’s playgrounds and found that the level of lead was five points higher than regulations allowed. At the same time, he refers to a bigger picture and to a wider context. He shows the dominant position that big corporations are gaining in Kazakhstan as the country transitions from socialism to capitalism. His work of art symbolizes the ritualistic dance around new sacred values and symbols in a capitalist society.
Through his artwork, he gives a sense of space and a sense of time. The sense of time is indicated by his reference to the Matisse painting produced almost a century ago: time has passed—represented by people moving and dancing—but at the same time, nothing has changed. There are ritualistic movements, but no changes; the situation is static. Kazakh society is undergoing social and political transition, but remains fundamentally unchanged in many aspects: it retains the social problems and ecological problems of the Soviet system, and is reproducing the closed political system of the previous regime. Movement without changes become the repetitive dance of a society.
The police tracked down the artist and opened a criminal case against him. (The case was later closed, as the police found no evidence of Cas having engaged in criminal activity.)
The official reaction to the work of art was straightforward. The police tracked down the artist and opened a criminal case against him. (The case was later closed, as the police found no evidence of Cas having engaged in criminal activity.)
“Dancing” is a new form of interaction with urban space. Cas chose another type of urban space—not a busy intersection of city roads, but an apartment building in a small town that rarely appears in the mass media or features in public discussions on online platforms and social networks. Through his action, Cas not only introduced a social issue to an established public forum, but also brought a public forum to a remote area. He included a small town in a notion of the public. It is an act of inclusion, giving different publics a sense of belonging to a larger community that faces the same problems in time and space. The public becomes acquainted with the territory it collectively occupies and receives images of it, images that look both familiar and different from many participants’ urban environment. Space is important in this work, as pictures of the work disseminated online show the urban landscape of Temirtau and real factory smokestacks in the background. The artist shows the public the space it occupies and gives it a sense of belonging.
After “Dancing,” Cas released another work of art, which he actively used the digital public sphere to disseminate. “This is silence” reproduces Edward Munch’s “The Scream” on a building—the Semipalatinsk Polygon—that is part of a defunct, Soviet-era nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan.
The medium of his work is a manifesto-type video that combines images of the artwork on the Polygon with narration by the artist. The artist addresses the negative consequences of nuclear tests for the environment and human health in the areas around these sites, pointing the finger at the Soviet and current governments. “This is silence” highlights one of the main points that the artist seeks to stress: the absence of public discussion about important issues.
The medium of his work is a manifesto-type video that combines images of the artwork on the Polygon with narration by the artist
The location of this artwork is not urban space but an abandoned site that cannot be reached by the general public. It emphasizes the importance of an artwork’s medium and its dissemination online. The initial installation cannot be presented to people; the work of art is not just an object, but the whole process of its creation. The difficulties and dangers faced by the creative team are incorporated into the final work, moving it from the realm of street art into the realm of performance or event recorded on video. It is an art protest where art is not an object, but a radical act. A spectator cannot interact with the artwork in physical space, but the recorded “scream” generates discussion and public reaction on online platforms and social networks. The artist documented the whole process of creating the work, and Timur Nusimbekov, one of the team members working on the project, published entries about the expedition to Semipalatinsk on online media outlet Vlast.kz. The strategy of engaging an online audience in the discussion and expanding the vision of public space becomes clearer and more organized in this work. “This is silence” does not interact with urban public space, as it is located on abandoned territory. Yet it provides online discussions with a sense of physical space filled with pain and damage. All this pain, sorrow and damage—both to people and environment—are invisible in the public sphere, but the artist makes them present and material.
Free Artistic Expression in Restricted Society
Artistic interventions into urban public and abandoned places and online dissemination of the works of art produced by these interventions constitute an alternative public sphere. It is one that is open to criticism of the government and can generate public debates and discussions. Artistic ideas visualize and vocalize social and ecological issues, shed light on themes fading from public consciousness, and transform painful problems into solid aesthetic representations. Through intervention in urban places, artists transcend the boundaries of curated and organized exhibitions and shows, the restraints of galleries and white walls, and by these very actions show the liberating substance of their artistic gestures. The act of transcending constraints and barriers is important for challenging a closed regime, as it creates areas of free expression and free thought and generates public debates and discussions, thus preventing the state from monopolizing and monumentalizing the public sphere.
Groys, Boris. Art Power. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Texts 25/26 (1990): 56-80.
Jonson, Lena. Art and Protest in Putin’s Russia. London: Routledge, 2015.
Habermas, Jurgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.
North, Michael. “The Public as Sculpture: From Heavenly City to Mass Ornament.” Critical Inquiry 16, no. 4 (1990): 860-76.
“2016 World Press Freedom Index.” Reporters without Borders. 2016. https://rsf.org/en/2016-world-press-freedom-index-leaders-paranoid-about-journalists.
 “Matom i poveshennym manekenom privlek vnimanie obshchestva almatinets,” Pasha Cas (blog), October 2013, http://pashacas.ru/2013/10/matom-i-poveshennym-manekenom-privlek-vnimanie-obshhestva-almatinec/.