Culture | February 21, 2017 at 9:46 pm

Pussy Riot Grabs Back: The Art of Transatlantic Rebellion

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800px-Pussy_Riot_at_Lobnoye_Mesto_on_Red_Square_in_Moscow_-_Denis_Bochkarev

Founded in Russia in 2011 as an anonymous feminist guerrilla punk collective of roughly 10 members, Pussy Riot is now represented in the public eye by only two women, Masha “Maria” Alyokhina and Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova, who declared in 2013 that they were no longer members of the group. The videos that these two women have released over the last few years—still using the name “Pussy Riot”—have largely abandoned the harshness of punk-rock for the universality of pop, the protection of invisibility for the glitz of celebrity. Nowadays, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova spend much of their time outside of Russia, speaking on panels and meeting with Western politicians instead of playing music.

Yet, when Alyokhina spoke at Harvard’s IvyQ Conference last November in a panel moderated by Professor Caroline Light, she insisted that her fundamental goals had not changed. “Our art is our activism,” she told the audience. “There was no ‘before’.”

Indeed, the legacy of Pussy Riot as a symbol of free speech and artistic activism remains alive and well on the world stage. This February marks the five-year anniversary of Pussy Riot’s infamous performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, criticizing the stringent marriage between church and state under Russian President Vladimir Putin. Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova and fellow member Yekaterina Samutsevich were subsequently sentenced to two years in prison on charges of “hooliganism,” drawing outcries of anger and support from celebrities like Madonna, the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. New York-based advocacy group The Voice Project stepped in to manage Pussy Riot’s international support fund, which lasted the entirety of their sentence.

Upon their release from prison in late December 2013, however, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova announced their official departure from Pussy Riot, ushering in a fundamentally different strategy for their activism—one that preferred to operate in the Western mainstream, rather than underground. Ahead of their appearance at Amnesty International’s “Bringing Human Rights Home” Concert in February 2014, other anonymous members of Pussy Riot wrote an open letter justifying Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s departure, outlining clear ideological differences. “We charge no fees for viewing our art-work … the spectators to our performances are always spontaneous passers by, and we never sell tickets to our ‘shows’,” reads the letter. “We are anonymous, because we act against any personality cult, against hierarchies implied by appearance, age and other visible social attributes.”

Yet, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have found a surprising sanctuary on American soil, leveraging more public-facing platforms like YouTube and Spotify to tackle some of the most overwhelming forces in U.S. politics: the media, the Internet and President Donald Trump. They may no longer be “Pussy Riot” on paper, but they are striving to adapt their dissident roots for a distinctly American agenda.

Weathered by travel, fame and legal troubles, Alyokhina defended this pivot in front of the IvyQ audience, pointing to the support she has received abroad. “The government will change … presidents, they change,” she said. “So the most important thing is your community. That doesn’t change. People by your side, to love and protect you. If you have a community to support you, you can do anything.”

From Music to Journalism

Protest music around the world develops under what music critic Dorian Lynskey calls a carrot-and-stick framework. The “stick” is a political situation, such as a war or a divisive leader, that inspires artists and citizens to speak out; the “carrot” is an outspoken, transformative artist who takes the first step, making the otherwise daunting endeavor of political music more exciting and approachable for the rest of the artist community.

While Pussy Riot’s “stick” is rooted in Putin’s restrictive regime, the collective found its “carrot” of inspiration abroad, co-opting an American musico-political movement for its own purposes. In an interview with the New York Times, Tolokonnikova called Pussy Riot a “cosplay version” of riot grrrl, an underground feminist punk-rock movement founded in Washington state in the early 1990s. Aside from its outspoken stance on female sexuality and its role in establishing third-wave feminism, riot grrrl’s manifesto was also rooted in ownership over its distribution and communication. Several members published their own magazines to communicate with each other, while others called for a total media blackout, refusing interviews with journalists in protest of their ideological misrepresentation in the mainstream press.

This manifesto of independence and self-sufficiency has come to pervade the art activism scene in Russia as well. “There’s a constant tension between a clear critique of the system and this concept of fragility and evanescence, of passing into oblivion under capitalism and consumerism,” says Natalia Gluklya Pershina, founder of the Russian art collective Factory of Found Clothes, in an interview with the HPR.

In this vein, aiming to take control of their own voice amidst their rising fame, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova realized that their work had to expand beyond wreaking musical havoc in the streets. As the latter told Reuters in May 2016, “the real punk is to build institutions.”

Hence, upon their release from prison, the two women sought out to do just that, from the lens of nonprofit work. Inspired by their own case, they first founded Zona Prava, a nonprofit that provides legal aid and informational support to Russian prisoners and criminal defendants. Months later, they expanded into journalism and founded MediaZona, an independent news organization focusing on the Russian criminal justice system. While its website is only in Russian, MediaZona attracts an average of 2.2 million visitors a month and has partnered with English-language publications like The Guardian and VICE for one-off investigative projects.

While it is uncommon for musicians to invest directly in journalism, Pussy Riot’s ventures make creative as well as political sense. From a creative standpoint, “journalism is an art form,” Mike Lerner, director of the 2013 documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, told the HPR. “It’s creative writing. It may be fact-based, but it’s only good when it’s creative and captures people’s imagination. It’s also not simply the reporting of facts, but also the communication of ideas, understanding and context.”

Politically, the state dominance of mass media in Russia has silenced much of the Kremlin opposition, strengthening the country’s media isolationism and turning conservative officials into arbiters of taste. In response to the Pussy Riot incident in Moscow, the Russian government approved a new law in 2013 allowing jail sentences of up to three years for “offending religious feelings”; this was followed by a 2014 law promising to restrict foreign ownership stakes in Russian media assets to 20 percent by this year. Nonpartisan think tank Freedom House gave Russia a “press freedom score” of 83 out of 100 (100 being the least free), with more severely negative rankings for the country’s legal, political and economic media environments.

Russia’s exacting political situation presents a unique financial obstacle for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova that incentivizes their heightened activity abroad. MediaZona and Zona Prava are funded largely by donations and speaking fees, with public options like crowdfunding out of the question due to political pressures. As a result, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova are now
a prolific presence on the American conference circuit, speaking at events like Miami Art Basel and SXSW and meeting with prominent female political figures like Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power. In addition to IvyQ, Alyokhina also appeared alongside Tolokonnikova in 2014 at the Institute of Politics, when the duo spoke about their musical and journalistic work in conversation with former CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty

In recent years, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova have been wielding American popular culture more aggressively—not just as a status symbol, but also as a tool for promoting freedom of speech. In February 2015, they appeared on an episode of House of Cards, speaking out against the Putin-esque rival of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood. That same month, the two women released their first-ever English-language song “I Can’t Breathe,” a dark urban ballad inspired by the controversial death of Eric Garner. Days before the presidential election in November 2016, Tolokonnikova’s musical criticism of Trump, “Make America Great Again,” topped the Spotify Viral 50 chart—an unprecedented feat for a Russian artist.

A Difficult Environment

It is a mere, perhaps fortunate, coincidence that “Pussy Riot” sounds like the name of a protest group fighting explicitly against Trump, referencing the leaked tape from 2005 containing his lewd remarks toward women. Indeed, 2016 was a banner year for otherwise neutral artists taking a clear political stance. Musicians from Rihanna and Jay-Z to Miley Cyrus and Garth Brooks criticized the president’s racist, sexist rhetoric and refused to perform at his inauguration. The Prophets of Rage, an anti-Republican rap-rock protest supergroup formed by Rage Against The Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill, is currently in the middle of an international tour spanning the United States, Europe and Latin America.

In light of the new administration, however, looking to the American journalism landscape for inspiration and support may not be any easier for Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova. Trump’s post-election meeting with top news anchors last November (which nearly coincided with Alyokhina’s IvyQ appearance) may have signaled his plans to secure a tighter hold on the American media’s reins, à la Putin.

“The publications today that talk about fake news coming from Russia should realize that the fake news is also right here, that the call is coming from inside the house, so to speak,“ says Hunter Heaney, executive director of the art advocacy nonprofit The Voice Project, in an interview with the HPR. “Some of President Lincoln’s yellow journalism tactics were outrageous. And look at how [William Randolph] Hearst used his New York Journal to foment the Spanish American War. Our 2016 election is not as much of an outlier as many would have us believe.”

Unfortunately, the flashiness of public speaking engagements and loud music videos has only highlighted Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova’s surface image, instead of encouraging deeper, more targeted structural change. Their public perception, and in turn their rhetoric, tends to rely too heavily on the original Pussy Riot’s early days in Russia, rather than on the moniker’s current status as an intangible guiding mindset. The world must come to understand that these two women are not Pussy Riot any longer, but rather standalone activists who are eager to use their oppositionist expertise to contribute to American and international causes. As they are swept further into the American celebrity machine, however, stardom may hurt, rather than help, their quest.

Image Credit: Denis Bochkarev/Wikimedia Commons

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