Pussy Riot, ‘tactical frivolity’, and other responses to authority

I’ve been getting pretty annoyed with the simplistic coverage of Pussy Riot – they shouldn’t be in jail, but they’re not exactly good guys, either. Most of the art they’ve been persecuted for are just regular ol’ crimes as well. Essentially, it’s complicated, but interesting. So I wrote the following article for Das Superpaper:

In response to authority

“How can you treat a police officer seriously when he is asking you: Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of gnomes?

In 1982, in Soviet-occupied Poland, Waldemar Fydrych began painting orange-hatted gnomes wherever he saw fresh paint spots on the streets – wherever the authorities had painted over anti-regime graffiti. This was the first happening of his newly-formed collective, the Orange Alternative, whose stated agenda was the use of ‘tactical frivolity’ to destabilise the authority of their oppressors.

Meanwhile in Prague, a forbidding IS-34 tank loomed on a five-metre high pedestal as a monument to Soviet tank crews. One night in 1991, artist David Černý crept up to it and painted it pink. To vandalise or destroy it would have been to acknowledge it as a legitimate opponent, to fight it as an equal. By painting it pink he made it frivolous.

Authority is not power, it is the perceived right to power, and it only exists as long as the populace chooses to believe in it. By committing ridiculous protests, the Orange Alternative forced the Soviet authorities to become ridiculous themselves in their response. This is the beautiful effect of absurd art. (In Australia, the controversy over the Skywhale resulted in some poor Hansard clerk having to make the term ‘Hindenboob’ a matter of parliamentary record.) The Orange Alternative’s comedic happenings cheered up their fellow citizens (which is far from valueless) and also attracted media attention. In Fydrich’s words, “the Western World will find out much more about the situation in Poland from hearing that I was sent to jail for handing out sanitary pads to women, than from reading books and articles”.

This is the tradition to which Pussy Riot belongs.

It has been said that the imprisonment of Pussy Riot – or rather, of 2 of its 11 members – is a telling moment for Vladimir Putin, one which reveals his unreconstructed KGB heart. And yet the sentence, two years in a penal colony, is relatively light for an alleged political persecution, and even that Putin didn’t support, remarking “I don’t think that they should be judged so harshly for this.” It’s also difficult to view it as a simple witch-hunt, given one of Pussy Riot’s previous illegal artworks, a 65-metre long penis painted on the Foundry Bridge, was awarded the Ministry of Culture’s ‘Innovation Prize’ of 400,000 rubles (approx AU$13,000). The performance in question, A Punk Prayer – Mother of God Chase Putin Away­ appears almost embarrassingly adolescent and unskilled and furthermore would have been illegal in most Western countries, albeit only as a minor public disorder offence.

So why did it become such a cause celebré with the West? Why did Madonna perform in Moscow with ‘Pussy Riot’ scrawled across her back, and not, say, the names of the 98 journalists who have been murdered since Putin came to power? (Madonna’s support for Pussy Riot, incidentally, earned her the title of ‘moralising slut’ from Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, which I’m pretty sure is a compliment. He also told her to “either take off the cross or put on underpants”.)

As art, Punk Prayer feels a bit simplistic: straight-up blasphemy with nothing meta going on. But maybe that’s the art Russia needs right now. And maybe it’s the art the West needs right now, since it garnered so much more attention outside the country than within it. In fact, the furore around A Punk Prayer tells us far more about the West than it does about Russia. And what it does say about Russia we haven’t been much interested in hearing.

The first thing to note is that the women were charged on religious, not political, grounds. While some Russians felt that the verdict was excessive, many were outraged at the desecration of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a symbol of both the Russian state and the Orthodox Church (of which 46% of Russians are members). Non-religious Russians also endorsed the right to peaceful worship. One commentator said “if these women wanted to protest against the authorities, they should have gone to Red Square, not the cathedral.” Russian authorities say the prosecution had no political aspect at all.

Meanwhile, Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova claims that their performance was solely political, that it was in no way intended to be disrespectful to the Church, although she must have been aware that occupying one of the most sacred places in the country and shouting “shit of God” would offend believers. I suspect both sides are being disingenuous.

Punk Prayer is fairly typical among the works of Pussy Riot (or their parent group Voina), in that it’s a simple, blatant message, expressed theatrically, with a cruel edge. Operation: Kiss Garbage consisted of kissing female police officers without warning or consent. For Fucking Prometheus they broke into a police station and set a paddy wagon on fire. In Mordovian Hour they threw live cats over the counter of a Moscow McDonalds, to “break up the drudgery of the worker’s day.” It’s all very Tyler Durden.

One of the Voina performances I find least problematic is their most infamous, brought up by the prosecution at Pussy Riot’s trial specifically to smear their characters. In How to Snatch a Chicken, an artist walked into a supermarket, took a whole chicken out of the refrigerated section, inserted it into her vagina and walked out without paying for it. This is an act with a feminism-to-ick ratio of precisely 1:1. That is, if you stand by the idea that a woman ought to have control over her own vagina, then that extends to the right to do things you find distasteful with it. Homophobes are disgusted by women putting their vaginas near other vaginas, right-to-lifers are disgusted by women having abortions through their vaginas  (or perhaps simply by women using their vaginas for non-reproductive sex), and I am disgusted by women putting whole raw chickens in their vaginas: we can all shut the hell up, as it’s none of our business. If your belief in bodily autonomy only covers things that don’t make you uncomfortable then it’s a weak principle, and some of us haven’t had ours tested in a while.

But for a self-proclaimed feminist group, some of their actions don’t hold up. The allegedly pro-lesbian work Operation: Kiss Garbage is literally indecent assault. Their 400,000-ruble winning giant bridge-cock might be funny, but it also uses the image of a penis as a symbolic violation. (I’m aware that most people who draw a penis on their passed-out friend’s face aren’t thinking “I’m symbolically violating you” but in a world where being female or gay wasn’t considered ‘lesser’ I don’t think a penis would be the sharpie-wielder’s go-to image.)

I asked earlier why Punk Prayer had captured the West’s attention when neither the other works of Pussy Riot nor the other crimes of Putin had. I think part of the reason is that so many of our current problems – the economy, immigration, climate change – seem very complicated. We want to fight for what’s right, but there’s no fight available, just letter-writing, door-knocking, enrolling to vote. No political party seems worthy of our allegiance; the bad guys are woven through every public institution and might even be ourselves. But feminist punks vs. humourless tyrant? That’s easy. There are no shades of grey, and the victory conditions are clear and tangible: the release of these young women. Much more viscerally satisfying than, say, a re-wording of the carbon tax legislation.

And, of course, ‘Pussy Riot’ looks good on a t-shirt.

Does that sound cynical? Remember that in a world where government-sponsored murder is a very real possibility, media attention can save a dissident’s life. Looking good on a t-shirt is a form of self-defence. I strongly suspect Edward Snowden, the man behind the recent NSA leaks, embarked on his string of very public interviews as a calculated strategy to make it harder for the US to disappear him. Attention-seeking instincts are survival instincts, and tactical frivolity may offer better protection than sobriety. Remember those 98 journalists.

There’s another interpretation of Pussy Riot’s actions: maybe the performances weren’t the artworks – maybe the trial was. It was certainly theatrical, with bomb threats, tearful monologues and a security dog that barked people to order when they started shouting too loudly. (The defence lawyer had the dog ejected on the fourth day of the trial.) The Orange Alternative viewed arrests as a piece of performance art on the part of the State. On one occasion they provoked the police into arresting 77 Santa Clauses. On another, they staged a sarcastic pro-Communist rally in which everyone wore red – the police not only arrested everyone wearing red, but also everyone eating pizza with red ketchup on it and the street vendor who sold it to them. When the police responded to Mordovian Hour, they arrested the participants, but they also took two cats as evidence. Maybe Pussy Riot are provocateurs in the true sense, not so much artists themselves as an incitement to art in others.

Waldemar Fydrych of the Orange Alternative said “every policeman is a piece of art.” Certainly the visual aspects of a State’s instruments do not come about by chance, whether its architecture (from Grecian columns that echo the birthplace of democracy to Soviet Brutalism), the design of its police uniforms (and how distinguishable they are from the military’s) or the names of government departments (for example, the Howard government’s change of the Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship). They are carefully designed to create a desired emotional response: awe, pride, intimidation, fear, etc. If the people with power are using art as a tactic, people resisting them would be foolish not to.

It’s been argued that tactical frivolity is ineffective in democratic regimes, where guerrilla marketing by ‘edgy’ brands has made the public distrustful of such acts and difficult to surprise. But I think anywhere where the authorities are humourless and have an inflated sense of their own dignity and importance, it’s likely to have some power. Try it on a ticket inspector and let me know the results.

This article was originally published in Das Superpaper in July 2013.

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