Shock and awe

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Pussy Riot, a col­lec­tive of Rus­sian artist-ac­tivists, stands up to gov­ern­ment and re­li­gious op­pres­sion via punk-rock per­for­mance videos that have gained an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence. They of­ten wear bal­a­clava masks to pro­tect their iden­ti­ties be­cause their ac­tions are con­sid­ered an il­le­gal af­front to the Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church and the Krem­lin. On Sun­day, Nov. 13, the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter and Meow Wolf present “A Con­ver­sa­tion With Pussy Riot,” fea­tur­ing two mem­bers, Maria Alyokhina and Alexan­dra Bogino, speak­ing about hu­man-rights in­jus­tices in Rus­sia, the U.S., and else­where. On the cover is a photo of three Pussy Riot mem­bers.

he Rus­sian punk per­for­mance artists col­lec­tively known as Pussy Riot worked hard to pre­vent Don­ald Trump from be­com­ing pres­i­dent of the United States. In late Oc­to­ber, they re­leased two videos di­rected at Trump and the Amer­i­can elec­toral process. The first song, “Straight Outta Vag­ina,” leaves their punk-rock mu­si­cal stylings be­hind for a poprap sound, but the video, made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with TV on the Ra­dio’s Dave Sitek, re­tains Pussy Riot’s in­fa­mous re­bel­lious thrust and mixes it with a grimy art-school aes­thetic. Women in slips stand at uri­nals; a lit­tle girl raps; hand­some men wear fire-en­gine red high heels — all of them in­ter­mit­tently masked in bal­a­clavas, which Pussy Riot has in the past used to con­ceal the mem­bers’ iden­ti­ties — as they lip-synch to the cho­rus: “Don’t play stupid, don’t play dumb, vag­ina’s where you’re re­ally from.” It is a ral­ly­ing cry against the in­her­ent fear many men seem to have of women who seek power — and it is a sub­ver­sive ear­worm for any­one who might be made un­com­fort­able by the sen­ti­ment.

In 2012, two mem­bers of Pussy Riot were im­pris­oned for per­form­ing an anti-Putin “punk prayer” at the Cathe­dral of Christ the Sav­ior, a Rus­sian Ortho­dox church in Moscow, be­cause it was deemed “hooli­gan­ism mo­ti­vated by re­li­gious ha­tred.” One of them, Nadezhda Tolokon­nikova — known as Nadya — stars in the sec­ond re­cently re­leased Pussy Riot video, “Make Amer­ica Great Again,” ap­pear­ing both as her­self and as sev­eral po­lice and au­thor­ity fig­ures. The song takes the same sur­real ap­proach to Amer­i­can hip-hop as “Straight Outta Vag­ina,” but this tune serves as a sound­track for a short film that en­vi­sions a dystopic Trump pres­i­dency in which po­lice, jour­nal­ists, and oth­ers will be made to style their hair just like Trump. The video presents a bru­tal vi­sion of the fu­ture for any­one who is not white, con­ser­va­tive, het­ero­sex­ual, and will­ing to fall in line with the new regime. In this world, women are killed for get­ting abor­tions, while live-stream­ing the sex­ual as­sault of pris­on­ers via a “Trump-cam” has be­come stan­dard pro­to­col.

On Sun­day, Nov. 13, the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter and Meow Wolf present “A Con­ver­sa­tion with Pussy Riot,” fea­tur­ing two mem­bers, Alexan­dra (Sasha) Bogino and Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, the lat­ter of whom was im­pris­oned for 21 months for the ac­tion at the church. The mod­er­ated event ad­dresses the group’s protest against hu­man rights in­jus­tices in Rus­sia and else­where, and the women will take ques­tions from the au­di­ence. Af­ter their re­lease from prison in De­cem­ber 2013, Alyokhina and Tolokon­nikova co-founded the hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion Zona Prava and the al­ter­na­tive me­dia group Me­di­aZona. Alyokhina’s re­cent artis­tic en­deav­ors out­side of Pussy Riot in­clude work­ing with the Be­larus Free Theatre on a play called Burn­ing Doors, which looks at the ex­pe­ri­ences of per­se­cuted artists liv­ing


un­der dic­ta­tor­ships. Bogino is a jour­nal­ist with Me­di­aZona, for which she writes ar­ti­cles and re­ports about the Rus­sian protest move­ment, vi­o­lence in Rus­sian law en­force­ment, pris­ons, the mil­i­tary, and prison abo­li­tion, among other top­ics.

Pussy Riot has been writ­ten about by jour­nal­ists and aca­demics around the world, their form of protest em­braced and de­fended by such ven­er­ated mu­si­cians as Sting and Madonna. Their le­gal case was adopted by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and other hu­man rights groups. Still, it is ques­tion­able how well Western au­di­ences, with our as­sump­tion that free­dom of per­sonal ex­pres­sion is one of the main points of mak­ing art, re­ally un­der­stand what Pussy Riot is fight­ing for. Mu­si­cal vir­tu­os­ity is not their main agenda, though get­ting the at­ten­tion of in­ter­na­tional me­dia is an ob­vi­ous pri­or­ity. That the mu­sic is a bit silly or even ac­tively bad only helps the cause be­cause it is in­vari­ably provoca­tive. Ac­cord­ing to Tolokon­nikova in an Oct. 31 in­ter­view in The New York Times, the col­lec­tive was in­spired to name it­self Pussy Riot be­cause of the band Bikini Kill, whose lead singer Kath­leen Hanna’s Riot Gr­rrl move­ment of the 1990s helped usher in third-wave Amer­i­can fem­i­nism. “Pussy Riot is just kind of a cos­play ver­sion of Riot Gr­rrl,” Tolokon­nikova said, which can be taken as an ad­mis­sion that Pussy Riot is not a punk rock band but in­stead rein­ter­prets an es­tab­lished idea for their own ends.

While back­lash against fem­i­nism in the United States some­times in­cludes re­li­gious po­si­tions, if Amer­i­can women broke into a church to sing about gender op­pres­sion, they would be un­likely to face jail time. The risk Pussy Riot takes in ex­press­ing their opin­ions in such a way cur­rently has no equiv­a­lence in our le­gal sys­tem. Though they now travel and speak in­ter­na­tion­ally about their ac­tiv­i­ties, they are not beloved celebri­ties in Rus­sia but women who must fear for their safety when they are rec­og­nized in pub­lic. In a 2012 es­say for Sight­ings, a pub­li­ca­tion of the Univer­sity of Chicago Divin­ity School, the­olo­gian Larisa Reznik ex­plains that though it is not il­le­gal to be a fem­i­nist in Rus­sia, equal­ity be­tween the sexes is not rec­og­nized by the Ortho­dox Church, which is deeply en­twined with the gov­ern­ment. The judge hear­ing the case against Pussy Riot es­tab­lished “a uni­form ‘Ortho­dox Chris­tian­ity,’ whose con­sti­tu­tive fea­ture is an op­po­si­tion to equal­ity be­tween men and women, so much so that any chal­lenge to this inequal­ity con­sti­tutes an act of ha­tred.”

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