No Limits to the Jester’s Privilege? From War Criminal to Artist and Back Again

This is not an art museum! International Criminal Court Headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. Image license: Public Domain
This is not an art museum! International Criminal Court Headquarters in The Hague. Image license: Public Domain

Imagine a website that glorifies Blackwater as a group of artists – a notorious private military company, mind you, that is responsible for numerous war crimes, not least the Nisour Square massacre, and that has been pardoned by Donald Trump despite being convicted by law. Wouldn’t you immediately think that radical right-wing circles are responsible for such an act? Wouldn’t there be an immediate debate about banning this website? These questions arise in the face of an “art” website dedicated to the Kremlin-funded Wagner Group. In her critical commentary, Karyna Lazaruk denies this website the jester’s privilege that art likes to claim for itself and appeals to our ethical compass.


As a child, I was horrified by my grandparents’ stories about the Second World War: houses shelled, my great-grandfather’s death in captivity, evacuation and the post-war period. Later, when I learned about the concentration camps, I couldn’t understand how people could live calmly knowing what was happening. I was told that no one knew what was going on, that it was all done in secret. But that explanation didn’t comfort me.

So I started to get interested in propaganda and ideologies. For the past four years, I have been working in the mass media sphere, covering information warfare and disinformation. Recently, my attention was caught by an artwork by Liz Haas and Luzius Bernhard dealing with the Kremlin-funded private military company (PMC) Wagner Group, which was exhibited in one of the most influential contemporary art institutions: KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

Connect your reality to ours…”

Liz Haas (aka lizvlx) and Luzius Bernhard are media artists who began their career in 1995 as the duo ubermorgen. Today they hold the professorship for digital art at the University of Applied Arts Vienna. In October 2022, ubermorgen launched a website dedicated to the Wagner Group. This work was commissioned by curator Nadim Samman, currently curator at KW and supported by the Volkswagen Group.

Under the large logo resembling the Wagner Group’s sign, a DIY-style corporate website appears, where the Wagner Group’s mercenaries appear as artists: “PMC Wagner Art”. The main page greets visitors with the motto “Connect your reality to ours and in just a few minutes you can own almost any reality asset.” This is followed by a description of the site as a “unique blend of a cutting-edge business report and futuristic artwork,” which visitors can perceive as a “well-curated, non-linear, carefully curated digital space.”

The site was built with the simple corporate logic of corporate presentation: general information and philosophy, letter to the board, team, budgets. Here’s how Liz Haas and Luzius Bernhard represent the so-called PMC Wagner philosophy under the epigraph “Death is a beautiful thing”: “Welcome to a new era where art and private enterprise seamlessly blend and evolve, creating a captivating natural spectacle. PMC Wagner Arts (PWA) is an innovator with a unique talent for reimagining violence, warfare, and extreme capitalism as elements of futurism and art. We don’t just operate as a corporation; we are an artistic endeavor from top to bottom. Our meticulous approach infuses contemporary artistic principles into every facet of our corporate structure, ensuring that our activities are safeguarded under the banners of artistic expression, freedom of the press, and the unrestricted freedom to imagine, create, and distribute diverse cultural expressions. This legal framework protects us from governmental censorship and political interference.”

Proximity to Nazi ideology

Let’s take a step back and remember who the Wagner Group is. Officially known as PMC Wagner, the “group” is a Kremlin-sponsored military enterprise formerly controlled by Evgeniy Prigozhyn and Dmitriy Utkin. Utkin, who is also remembered on the ubermorgen website in the “Letter to Shareholders” section, was an open neo-Nazi with SS chevrons tattooed on his neck. A manifestation of their proximity to Nazi ideology is the company name itself: “Wagner” was obviously chosen as a name because of the anti-Semitic views of composer Richard Wagner (e.g. the composer expressed his views in the text “Das Judenthum in der Musik,” under the pseudonym K. Freisinker) and the popularity of his music during the Nazi era – a connex famously criticized by Theodor Adorno in his essay “Versuch über Wagner.”

I think it’s very important when talking about ubermorgen’s website to always keep in mind who the Wagner Group actually is and what crimes they commit, because what this work creates is a cover-up of real war crimes and crimes against humanity, ultimately presenting atrocities like art. In “Independent Auditor’s Report as filtered by the Audit Committe,” ubermorgen’s manifesto “Happy Dystopia” interweaves with the Wagner Group’s military assessments: “Projects in regions like Syria, the Central African Republic, Mali, and others all employed a fusion of mercenary action and experimental media manipulation that we had developed. (…) Our work in Ukraine in 2022 was a powerful and intense reaction to the perceived futility of subversive efforts. It was never conceived as an art project but rather embodied a form of impulsive actionism that seemed destined to fail from the outset. Nevertheless, it proved to be remarkably enlightening, even if it courted scandal and controversy.”

Aestheticization of war, neo-fascism, and violence

On the ubermorgen website there is a part dedicated to board of directors listed: Eugeniy Prigozhyn, Jan Marzalek, Sebastian Kurz, Peter Thiel, Jia Chuwang, and Julia Stoshek. I asked Liz Haas about those people listed in their work and how they implicated to Wagner Group. Her answer was very much about secret austrian services, and that all are connected somehow and that circle is very tight. However, even though she presented this as part of an investigation, there is no evidence to support these claims, and thus they appear to be speculation, if not outright conspiracy theory.

To put it in a nutshell: Each part of this work appears as an aestheticization of war, neo-fascism, and violence. For example, in the 2023 financial report section, they consider the Wagner Group’s performance to be outstanding and “look forward to continued success in the coming years.” There is no disclaimer that this is satire. There is no additional narration with moral judgment. There are only sick, dark texts that distort reality and create a smokescreen between the audience and the criminals. Meanwhile, the mercenaries of the Wagner Group, who officially act as private entrepreneurs and thus commit war crimes that are supposedly not attributable to the state that finances them, not only go unpunished for particularly brutal massacres, rapes, castrations, and tortures, but also freely continue to plan and commit crimes in many countries.

In their work, Liz Haas and Luzius Bernhard identify the atrocities of the Wagner Group with the “means to preserve humanity,” which is why this perverse experiment literally makes me anxious and sick.

200 comments and four times as many likes

ubermorgen’s project is presented within the exhibition “Poetics of Encryption” in KW’s online and physical environments. This work is presented without a single curatorial statement or explanation: there is no clear text or tab that provides the necessary context for reading this work, describing the methodology or tools, as well as the sources of information used by the artists. All the texts provided by “PMC Wagner Arts” were written by the artists themselves in the same vague and unclear manner as the piece. Visitors are literally left to fend for themselves with massive, eerie texts and graphics.

I would probably never know about this piece, but KW made a post promoting “PMC Wagner Arts” on Instagram. This publication and the artwork have been widely accused by the public of promoting violence and justifying terrorism. People demanded clarification of the artists’ goal in using this highly sensitive issue and expressed their outrage. There were about 200 comments and four times as many likes. The only response from KW was posted in the comments, stating that “artists proposed to imagine the (almost) unthinkable” and presenting this piece as “institutional critique” and “uncomfortable satire.” Two days later, the publication was taken down by Meta because many people had reported “promotion of violence or dangerous organizations.”

Since then, KW has been silent, the curator Nadim Samman posted on his Instagram account positive reviews of his exhibition from the local press, while the computer on which the work was displayed began to malfunction. According to his words, there were two reasons for this, one of which, according to him, was that they couldn’t create a script to prevent people from leaving the site and visiting other dark areas of the internet: “We want to keep visitors engaged with these pages and prevent access to inappropriate content such as pornography.” It also seemed that some visitors were actively trying to disrupt the computers by shutting them down. “It seems that some visitors prefer them not to work”, the curator says. Interesting why?

Artistic atrocity”

The ubermorgen project, and the publicity it generated, had a great resonance among cultural workers in Ukraine and the diaspora, because the Wagner Group had been actively involved in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since 2014. The journalist Maya Baklanova was the first to bring it to public attention. She created several stories on her Instagram account, giving some background and directly demanding responsibility in the form of an apology from the KW side, but soon her tags were deleted by KW and she was blacklisted on the personal account of the exhibition curator Nadim Samman.

Oleksiy Radynski, filmmaker and winner of the Grand Prix at the 2023 Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, takes a global view of the issue. He emphasizes the political contexts in which this “artistic atrocity” was created and exhibited. He points out that Austria, which proclaims its neutrality, remains one of the largest direct sponsors of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, contributing 7 billion euros to the Kreml’s war machine in the form of gas payments alone (as of summer 2023), which is more than twice as much as Austria’s support for Ukraine (3.25 billion euros as of September 2023). In his opinion, it is not surprising that artists in Austria avoid talking about their country’s complicity in Russia’s war, preferring to turn the whole thing into a joke.

The artist, cultural anthropologist and participant in the 60th Venice Biennale, National Pavilion of Ukraine, Lia Dostileva, who works on collective trauma and the visibility of vulnerable groups, believes that ubermorgen’s play lacks discursiveness and artistic gesture. In her opinion, this is not only very insensitive to the groups that suffered from the Wagner Group’s crimes (often unprivileged and lower class), but also very arrogant from the position of a completely secure, privileged person.

Art researcher and curator of the Culturescapes Biennial (Basel), Kateryna Botanova, considers this work a violation of ethical norms; she says that in a world where great violence occurs, it’s impossible to laugh satirically at the power that creates, perpetuates, and spreads this violence throughout the world. An even bigger problem, she says, is that such works are made for the money of influential institutions like KW. Where on the one hand they raise questions of decolonization and power, and on the other hand they quietly continue to build those power structures at the expense of those who have experienced firsthand what the Wagner Group is really about.

Anna Khvyl, composer and sound artist, who graduated from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague at the Institute of Sonology with her thesis “Composing for Spaces of Remembrance: Sound and Decolonial Resistance in War Commemoration,” insists on the violation of basic human rights in ubermorgen’s work. She emphasizes that no artist has the right to trample on respect for human life and then claim to be a victim of “censorship.” “Once you start questioning whether killing is wrong, it’s already messed up. The value of human life should never be compromised, and no art can justify that,” says Anna.

What is the thing that hurts the most?”

Luzius Bernhard says that his motivation to realize this project was the idea that the freedom of art could represent the crimes of the Wagner Group before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He also explains that viewers must accept the fact that ubermorgen doesn’t use messages, statements, or have a goal. “Okay, what is the thing that hurts the most? What is the most messed up thing that you could do or that is happening?” he asks in a panel discussion among his students and his colleagues, including activists, artists, and cultural workers. “We’re producing for future audiences, and that frees me because I don’t give a shit what you think.”

The OSCE Resolution “On the Terrorist Nature and Actions of the Wagner Group” states: As an entity “fully financed” by the Russian state, it is engaged in predatory and terrorist activities in numerous states, including Ukraine, Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, the Syrian Arab Republic, Mozambique, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The Wagner Group’s credible allegations include, but are not limited to, heinous acts of violence and human rights abuses against civilians, such as mass atrocities, summary executions, mutilations, sexual violence, destruction of homes, kidnapping, torture, human trafficking, and the murder of journalists.

Perhaps the artists’ creative process does not involve morality, but that does not mean that morality does not exist or that they operate outside the realm of moral judgment. Why should artists be allowed to use the suffering of others for their own ends? History teaches that when ideas are prioritized over human life and dignity, the consequences are tragic. Human dignity is inviolable.

This article is dedicated to Olena Piekh – art critic from Ukraine, who has been in captivity in Russia for five years, under rapes and tortures.

One comment on “No Limits to the Jester’s Privilege? From War Criminal to Artist and Back Again

  1. In the 90s and 2000s, while the neoliberal hegemony was at its height, a lot of artists like the Yes Men used the the technique of overidentification to denounce the ideologies of the corporate state by laying them bare through the exaggeration of characteristic statements and traits. This was an effective aesthetic, made possible by the fact that one can take on any identity, including that of a corporation or a state, using just a sharp mind and a cheap website. However, it was also effective because under the soft and hypocritical liberal consensus, one could assume that the audience would be shocked and horrified by the raw presentation of ideological reality. Now that the veil has fallen, there are many who are not shocked and horrified – instead they are willing to publicly embrace the worst ideologies. Overidentification now becomes dangerously ambiguous. It is no longer possible to just laugh from the comfort zone. Times change, and critical strategies have to evolve. I am surprised ubermorgen hasn’t realized this. It’s time to be clear about what you support and what you’re against.

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