Shock and awe
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
THE “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” 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.
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.”