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Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
Feminist punk group Pussy Riot members, from left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit in a glass cage at a court room in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

culture

The canonization of Pussy Riot Add to ...

The performance lasted for 51 seconds, three days, two weeks, and five months. On Feb. 21, 2012, four members of the all-female, feminist punk group Pussy Riot performed an anti-Putin ritual at a Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. They wore their tell-tale bright balaclavas and chanted, punching the air, for less than a minute. Then they fled, unfollowed. When the video reached YouTube, it racked up hundreds of thousands of views in days.

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On March 3, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, were arrested on charges of hooliganism. On March 16, Yekaterina Samutsevitch, 29, joined them in jail. They would be detained for six months pre-trial, without bail. They were, said Amnesty International, “prisoners of conscience.”

The trial of Pussy Riot began on July 30, 2012. By then, all watching knew that Vladimir Putin, re-inaugurated president this spring, had effectively swapped government funding for the support of the Russian Orthodox Church. Who knows how many only knew from googling “Pussy Riot?” I’m one. Maybe Patti Smith is another, maybe Madonna or Bjork: three of the icon-artists who’ve stood up in support of the world’s most legitimate punks. Members of U.K. and German parliaments, among others, petitioned against the trial. Putin said he hoped the sentence would be lenient, which means the opposite seems likeliest to occur. The trial went on.

It went on with nightmarish surrealism: howling dogs appeared in the courtroom; witnesses went missing; Hare Krishnas played tambourines at the door. Alyokhina, Tolokonnikova, and Samutsevitch stood in a glass cage, as though in some art-house torture porn.

Many have said that the trial would not be half such a circus were the women not young and attractive. But were they not young, attractive women rebelling against their scripted roles, they would not be in a glass cage in the first place.

And if the trial is a show trial, meant to make an example out of these photogenic transgressors, Pussy Riot is also putting on a show. Persecuted by the church, they invert make-believe charges by appearing as martyriffic – as three Joans of Arc. It is difficult to believe they know not what they do.

Granted, a spokesperson for the support group Free Pussy Riot, Rob Lieber, told me the women neither expected nor prepared for their arrest, the severity of their trial, for its tribulations. Yet they’ve borne foodless days and sleepless nights with Marina Abramovic-level beatitude, smiling until, sometimes, they faint. This trial does for art what art could not do for itself. It has shocked us.

We’re right to think that a Pussy Riot wouldn’t go down–or up in flames–in North America. We’re wrong, I think, if we don’t wish for it a little. In Russia, the patriarchy is so literal as to be funded by the actual Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. Perhaps that just makes it, along with Putin’s church-supported authority, less insidious. Imagine Pussy Riot in the U.K., or North America. They’d be like the masked, art-punking Guerrilla Girls of the ‘80s and ‘90s: chased, but never caught. Their fate would be easier on their bodies, worse for their politics. They would be ignored. Or they’d be commodified. You could buy Pussy Riot postcards at the MoMA; you would see them play as Josie and the Pussy Riot at a Marc Jacobs show.

But they are not here, they’re “there.”

“There” is the problem. Much of the West clings to a Second World War dichotomy that imagines authoritarian strongholds – like ex-Red Russia and still-Red China – to be the antitheses of our liberal democracy. This lets us cheer Pussy Riot on one screen while watching Olympics on the other, feeling safely as if whatever happens in Russia could, by mutual ideological exclusion, not happen here.

Because “here,” in North America, abuses of power aren’t as opprobrious as they are “there,” and because it’s easy to befriend the political enemies of Russia or China or Iran or Younameistan, we cheer on the rebel-artists elsewhere that we’d mostly sneer at, or revere, here. Sneering is dismissive, but reverence sterilizes. When you hang protest in a museum, you leave it to die. When, for example, British artist Mark Wallinger reconstructed David Haw’s 2007 protest against the Iraq invasion, it was exhibited at the Tate Britain, a block from where cops had busted Haw. “But Wallinger’s art work, though indiscernible from Haw’s protest, was not dismantled by the police,” wrote Sinead Murphy at hardcore philosophy site The New Inquiry. “Haw’s protest, become art, had ceased to make itself heard.”

Or, we’d ceased to listen to noise made too close. It’s far more comfortable to sit in a movie theatre, feeling educated and free, seeing Never Sorry, the stunning doc on dissident Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. We made an art star of Weiwei during his three-month imprisonment; we’ll do the same during Alyokhina, Samutsvitch, and Tolokonnikova’s three-year labour camp internment, if the persecution gets its way. On Aug. 17, the verdict comes down. By then Pussy Riot will be on the cover of a $28 Swedish cult magazine. I’ll buy it. What else would I do?

Days before the March arrests, pseudonymous members told Vice they carry their balaclavas everywhere, because you always have to be ready, “like Batman.” We smile at this in recognition, then go watch the new Batman and see – or maybe it’s too obvious and too familiar to see – that it’s 165 minutes of pro-Wall Street, pro-state, pro-cop, anti-anarchy, anti-human propaganda.

Like, Christopher Nolan told reporters that, while re-reading A Tale of Two Cities, he found total-monarchy France to be a “relatable, recognizable civilization?” And then we say it’s “just a movie.”

We don’t say, of Pussy Riot’s 51-second “punk prayer,” that it’s “just a performance.” Its politics have spawned long New Yorker and TIME pieces about what this injudicious witch hunt means for Putin’s state, the church, and a conjoined tyranny. Yet few observers are willing to translate these fears.

“The biggest problem is that nobody listens to us,” Nadia said in testimony last week, after trying once again to explain what “punk” means, what “pussy” signifies. “It is as if everybody speaks a different language.”

But from where I watch, we’re too eager to listen to protest in a foreign language, while ignoring it in ours. There was a message for Putin in that “punk prayer.” But in the continuing performativity of Pussy Riot, as Nadia, Katia, and Masha calmly refuse to accept their circumstances, there is a louder and less heard refrain: that of revolt.

 

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