Photographers' Blog

Pussy Riot’s activist beginnings

September 3, 2012

By Tom Peter

When the Khamovnichesky court announces on Friday the verdict in the case against the punk band Pussy Riot that is accused of hooliganism in Moscow’s main church, the world will witness how the Russian authorities respond to an artist’s smack in the face.

Many admire the braveness of Yekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Maria Alyokhina, others object to the form and the choice of location for their shock performance. But make no mistake; the impact of the “Punk Prayer” on public opinion was not the chance result of a post-adolescent prank. At least two of the three defendants have emerged from a scene of young conceptual artists that have been engaged in political activism for years. They knew exactly where to hit so that it hurt most.

SLIDESHOW: THE EARLY YEARS OF PUSSY RIOT

I met Nadezhda and her husband Pyotr Verzilov in 2007 after they co-founded the art group Voina that gained international fame with a number of spectacular stunts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Yekaterina joined the group a little later. I never met Maria Alyokhina during my time in Russia.

Voina emerged from a loose collective of young artists at a time when pre-financial crisis Russia was preoccupied with the little prosperity that the country’s booming natural resources sector bestowed on its growing middle class. Born into more or less privileged families, these young people shunned the career opportunities their university education could have afforded them in order to devote themselves to the artistic exposure of issues that their fellow countrymen preferred to leave hidden in plain sight.

In Russia’s predominantly conservative society homophobia is a common form of defending all things “natural”, corruption accepted as a given of daily life and feminism has to many, men and women alike, the appeal of bad breath.

These artists made it their mission to disturb the urban population’s self-centered identity and, most importantly, challenge the authority of state and church, the two main pillars of modern Russia that they accused of capitalizing on popular prejudices for the sake of self-enrichment.

“We want to fly into space,” Voina’s Natalia Sokol told me in an interview in 2008, echoing Ilya Kabakov’s 1984 installation “The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment” that tells the story of a man who built a contraption of bed springs and rubber bands to catapult himself out of his mundane existence in a Soviet communal apartment room in order to join the earth’s orbital stream of energy. The performances of the conceptual artists working in Putin’s Russia were designed to create just that: a boost in velocity that would eject their fellow citizen from their comfort zones. It has been all about shock from the start. “A good performance is a performance that expresses something you can’t say in words,” Verzilov said in the interview.

Many of this scene’s protagonists lived in poverty, often without a permanent home. They cultivated fashion that could be compared to South Africa’s Zef counter-culture movement: their clothes came straight from the bin or friend’s wardrobes, always in loud colors and sometimes vaguely reminiscent of bygone urban styles. This didn’t only put them at odds with the wider population, at the time it also underlined their maverick status among their trendy peers. Interestingly, today, some five years later, Pussy Riot’s colorful balaclavas have managed to elevate trash fashion and political activism into the realm of pop, garnering wide support at home and in the West.

The artists I met during my research shunned the promise of commerce. Money was seen as the lubricant of a system they despised. They flatly rejected its use and made the lifting of food and drink from supermarkets, guess what: a form of art.

When I started working on my story about this scene, the artists surrounding Voina were developing a piece in collaboration with the former Soviet dissident poet and conceptual artist Dmitry Prigov. In an interview with Philip Metres, Prigov described the deconstruction of man’s inclination to totalitarianism as the main motivation of his work. This made him a soul-mate of Russia’s newest breed of conceptual artists.

Unexpectedly, Prigov died a few days before the performance. Shocked but far from despondent, the artists decided to stage a wake in style with the famous poet’s work. They set up a full buffet with plenty of food and vodka inside a carriage of the Moscow metro circle line to celebrate Prigov together with his disciples. When they finished with the feast they left all traces of the party behind so that they would “circle underground for all eternity”, Voina member Oleg Vorotnikov said. Naturally, all this happened illegally.

Everything these artists did was designed to work on multiple levels of meaning, be it a long rehearsed unsanctioned event or a mundane everyday task. This made hanging out with them a challenging and at times extremely irritating endeavour. You never quite knew if you had already crossed the line that divides “normal” life and art and often when you did wonder, you had long left safe territory, making you liable to be hauled away by police.

Once, after an intoxicating party in a Moscow gallery that had gone far beyond the boundaries of reason, I found myself waking up in a corner below abstract paintings, incapacitated by a cracking headache and oblivious as to how I got there. Vorotnikov had already rid the place of all traces of the previous night’s debauchery and, posing as a gallery guide, was leading a group of visitors to the corner where I was laying. “And here we have our most recent installation”, he said. “It is called ‘The Prostration of the German Journalist’.”

The devising and rehearsing of new, ever more daring stunts became a full-time job for the artists. They soon began to live together in various flats and in an unheated car shed, constantly developing their work, reading poetry, arguing about big ideas and minor details and giving birth to children, or as they called it, producing future activists. In 2009, band members Nadezhda and her husband Pyotr left Voina in an ugly divorce. When Pussy Riot was founded in 2011 I had already left Russia. Its political views may not fully coincide with those of its predecessors, but the closing statements of the three band members show that their determination to expose hypocrisy has by no means faded.

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