Thursday, August 16th, 2012
10

At Least Pussy Riot Won the West

What with Chloe Sevigny reading from the Pussy Riot closing statements tonight and a demonstration in New York's Times Square this afternoon, maybe it’s no big deal that several dozen people assembled outside the Russian Embassy for a Free Pussy Riot rally in Washington, D.C. the other day. Congress is on recess and it was an August Friday afternoon: perfect conditions for checking out of the office to check out an Amnesty International event. Glover Park is far from everything, but between Russian diplomats and fussy residents, someone in the neighborhood was bound to take umbrage with so many signs reading “pussy.” What could go wrong? Maybe something!

The rally had a festival air to it, given all the D.C. and Baltimore punk bands wearing brightly colored sun dresses and balaclavas in solidarity with Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich. These are the women who were arrested in March for donning the same costumes and playing an impromptu punk show in Moscow’s imperious Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The rally in Washington was at least large enough to draw a few food trucks.

Despite healthy press attendance and even demonstrations in Moscow, Pussy Riot’s best defense has been taking shape off-stage, on the U.S. eastern seaboard, far away from the Moscow courtroom where they will receive a sentence tomorrow morning, our time. If the courtroom diary of Tolokonnikova’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov, is to be believed, the sentence is almost a certainty. The sympathetic punk rallies, growing trial coverage, and shout-outs from Jarvis Cocker and the Pet Shop Boys to Björk and Madonna (bozhe moi!) have turned Pussy Riot into a human-rights cause. Free Pussy Riot: It’s an outcome that at least one member of the group has worked toward her whole adult life.

International support, meanwhile, has evaded Voina, a performance-art troupe whose name means “war” and whose tactics often amount to performance-art as battle. To mark International Workers’ Day, members of the group threw cats at Russian McDonalds workers. Tolokonnikova, the putative leader of Pussy Riot and its most visible figure at trial, was a member of Voina when it staged one of its more famous actions. That performance went unnoticed in the moment: In the days before the 2008 election of Dmitry Medvedev, Voina members staged an orgy in a biology museum.

A protest orgy, just like that, and no one might have noticed—except that Voina has coupled its masculine 70s-era performance strategies with 00s-era media management, building a following for their performances through LiveJournal (it’s still a thing over there, since it was bought by a Russian Company in 2007), Flickr and streaming video. Voina uses its blogs for documentation purposes, never to advertise events or build audience, and also to post notice when their members are in trouble. And they frequently are: Leonid Nikolayev and Oleg Vorotnikov were arrested in 2010 for turning over an empty police car (as part of a performance). They and Natalya Sokol, another member, say that they were savaged by anti-extremism police following the men’s release from detention. Banksy posted their bail.

At one time, Voina counted among its own ranks many members of Pussy Riot, including the three women on trial. (Taking a nod from the Guerrilla Girls, Pussy Riot’s members are anonymous.) Voina activist and spokesperson Yana Sarna—because art-terrorist groups have spokespersons—says that Voina broke with the women after “our moral, ethic and aesthetic views became incompatible with theirs.”

In fact, Voina called for a boycott of the 4th Moscow Biennale last year because it featured a video by Tolokonnikova and Verzilov (and volunteers) exhibited under the name Voina. The piece, called “Kiss the Cops,” is an assault-y film in which the ex-Voina activists rush up to women police officers and try to smooch on them without consent (or warning). More damning, Voina further says that a video recorded and published by Verzilov of leftist and anarchist activities led to arrests among the groups. The beef with Verzilov has not led Voina to totally disavow Pussy Riot. Members of Voina have been outspoken in their demands that the women be released. Perhaps because they know what awaits them.

Meanwhile, Voina have taken on a curatorial role in the 7th Berlin Biennale. Their announcement included this bit of insidery anarchic positioning:

This doesn’t mean that as Biennale curators we are going to occupy ourselves with exhibition management, which in our opinion is rather useless: exhibitions harm contemporary art. All artists ever think about nowadays is what they can exhibit and where. Therefore the fewer art pieces the Biennale will have, the better.

For a group that has denounced exhibitions, Voina is adamant about attribution. Sarna is quick to credit Voina for the concept animating Pussy Riot’s performance itself, saying that the girls participated in a similar impromptu punk concert that Voina conducted in a courtroom in 2009. “All Pussy Riot performances are repeated remakes of this action, in which they took part as group’s followers.” He discusses Pussy Riot in tones that are in equal part critical and reverential:

Pussy Riot activists have to be freed. It can be said that the trial against them is a part of their action. By their provocation they managed to reveal the real ugly essence of the Russian Orthodox Church officials and state authorities. They tore the mask off them. In this sense Pussy Riot’s provocation was successful: they didn’t do anything illegal, but the authorities rushed at them as horrible monsters.

In this sense it was massively successful. The evolution of Pussy Riot—into a performance arena that is more feminist, less conceptual, more conversant with Western art, and more tentative with regard to the law—has not earned them proper credit with everyone. The prominent liberal reformist and Democratic Union chair Valeriya Novodvorskaya still condemns Pussy Riot and Voina with the same stroke, for example. If the world was ever ready for a reverse Sister Souljah moment, it is now.

Pussy Riot’s distinctive palette—so much more coherent to the West than Voina's closed-loop agitprop—has earned them plaudits, even to a silly extent. “Pussy Riot’s communally conceived fashion attack is clearly visible in the YouTube video of the group’s performance on the altar of the church,” New York Times T magazine blogger Vivien Goldman wrote. “All the elements are there: gaudy, ripped-to-fit minis and shifts in contrasting solid colors with bright tights, boots and those haunting balaclavas.”

All the elements are there, no question: Pussy Riot have managed to connect the thread between the Russian conceptual art tradition and the Western punk tradition. And even though their protest speaks specifically to the relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill I, they’ve arrived at a message that speaks to the victims of a global war on women. And beyond: Tolokonnikova has appeared for court wearing a “¡No pasarán!” t-shirt (“They shall not pass!”)—a simple gesture that puts Pussy Riot in common cause with French resistance, Spanish communists, and Gandalf the Grey.

By sealing them in a glass cage at trial, in the bizarre courtroom with barking attack dogs, Russian authorities have done their part to cement the image as well. To put them on display but then permit Tolokonnikova to say, in her closing statements, that the trial isn’t about them?

Essentially, it is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial here. If that were the case, what’s happening would be totally insignificant. It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation which is on trial and which, unfortunately for itself, thoroughly enjoys quoting its cruelty towards human beings, its indifference to their honour and dignity, the very worst that has happened in Russian history to date.

This is to create martyrs. Martyrs easily recognizable from downtown Manhattan and Glover Park and beyond, especially in such "haunting" balaclavas.



Kriston Capps is a senior editor at Architect magazine.

10 Comments / Post A Comment

Moff (#28)

It's very hard for me not to see the whole Pussy Riot story as largely horseshit: a fight with merit transformed into spectacle, co-opted by thousands of people upon whom it has little direct bearing, who will register it as a "meaningful" moment in history as they go about their day-to-day lives unchanged and uninterested in serious reorganization of the system. Because if you have time to follow the trial and tribulations of an art collective in another country, the system is probably doing OK by you.

At best, I think, maybe this gets some kid interested in the larger issues and maybe connects or serves to eventually connect them with some other interested people, and some worthwhile movement or body of intellectual work comes out of it. But I tend to agree with this and more generally feel like people who care about real change (myself included) need to start by getting off the internet.

hershmire (#233,671)

@Moff But Stephen Fry tweeted about it. TWEETED. We're moments away from the entire Soviet-era police state edifice from collapsing.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Moff There aren't enough campus anarchist groups for all those people

flossy (#1,402)

@Moff And any true radical would be mortified to have Chloe Sevigny voice her support from the lobby of the Ace Hotel.

deepomega (#1,720)

Haha. Pussy.

jimz7 (#233,546)

We are all Pussy Riot? No, we are most definitely not ALL Pussy Riot.

P.J. Morse (#232,627)

Well, it might not be a meaningful moment for us/the U.S./whatever, but I'm pretty sure it is a meaningful moment for Russia.

Moff (#28)

@P.J. Morse: No, agreed. The fight/issue/whatever has merit. But I suspect it's trivialized when it becomes A Moment for a bunch of people on the other side of the world, who have the illusory sense that they're participating in something, when actually it's far more akin to entertainment than activism, because of the distance and the intermediation by electronic technology.

Douglas (#237,078)

"Tolokonnikova has appeared for court wearing a “¡No pasarán!” t-shirt (“They shall not pass!”)—a simple gesture that puts Pussy Riot in common cause with French resistance, Spanish communists, and Gandalf the Grey."

-Gandalf the Grey-? Are you intentionally cheapening her statement with crassly insulting generalities?

The "simple" ¡No pasarán! T-shirt is a reference to the kleptocratic subversion of the Russian state, Putin's behavior is aptly compared to Stalin's behavior during the Spanish Civil War: ¡No pasarán! was the doomed battle cry of the Spanish people resisting fascist onslaught at The Battle of Madrid.

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