Progression of Art

2011

Release the Cobblestones

In November 2011, Pussy Riot blasted out their stylised punk-poetry to the Russian public for the first time. Standing on scaffolding over the Moscow subway, they performed their anarchic track Release the Cobblestones, on electric guitars and vocals. Members of the group also ripped open pillows, sending feathers scattering into the air around them and onto the train tracks below. Along with their performance intervention, which echoes the Situationist movement, Pussy Riot recorded the performance and edited into a music video for the song, which they later released onto YouTube.

Pussy Riot deliberately chose November to perform their track as the anniversary of 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The political situation around them had also turned sour following what appeared to be a rigged election won by the Kremlin's United Russia Party, reinstating Putin to the position of President once again. Widespread street protests and demonstrations were staged across Russia, and Pussy Riot's angry punk protest reflected the growing frustrations of the large swathes of the Russian people.

Sampled from the Angelic Upstarts track Police Oppression, Pussy Riot's track, Release the Cobblestones calls for Russian people to protest the election by throwing cobblestones during street protests because, as they say in the song, "ballots will be used as toilet paper." In the most famous line of the song, they make reference to the uprising in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak that took place as part of the "Arab Spring" in 2011. Pussy Riot hoped to ignite a similar situation in Russia, singing "Egyptian air is healthy for your lungs/Turn red square into Tahrir." There is also an important feminist dimension to this performance, through the assertive female voices used in an oppressive context. As they argued in a public statement, "after the Arab spring Russia lacks political and sexual liberation, boldness, a feminist whip and a woman president."

The colourful balaclavas worn by Pussy Riot were inspired by the third-wave feminist artist group the Guerrilla Girls, who similarly made anonymous protests against a patriarchal system through humorous and satirical interventions in public space. But as writer Evelyn McDonnell points out, dissident artistic voices can also be traced back much further, from the 1960s and artists such as Yoko Ono to Karen Finley in the 1980s and 90s. She writes, "The torch, blazing more strongly than ever, may be passed back to where it was first lighted."

Performance

2012

Putin Zassal

Putin Zassal, or "Putin has wet himself," was the provocative title of this performance by Pussy Riot, also released as a track in 2012. Eight members of the group gathered together and performed the anarchic song against a backdrop of smoke bombs in Russia's Red Square whilst wearing their trademark bright clothes and balaclavas. Like many of their performances this live action was also made into a YouTube video to spread their message to a wider audience.

The lyrics of the song are aimed directly at both Putin and the Orthodox church, who they saw as deeply oppressive towards women and LGBT groups. One of their most provocative lyrics simply states that "The Orthodox religion is a hardened penis / coercing its subjects to accept conformity."

Drawing from the history of female punk and art protest groups, including the Guerrilla Girls and the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, Pussy Riot became a powerful and outspoken voice for oppressed women in Russia, and, by extension, across the world. They argued in an interview, "We somehow developed what they did in the 1990s, although in an absolutely different context and with an exaggerated political stance." There is also a distinctly ironic humour that underpins their actions, mocking the supposed conventions of well-behaved, compliant female sexuality by turning it completely on its head through lyrics, performance style and the theatricality of their clothing. One Pussy Riot member even claimed her balaclava made her feel like a superhero. Writer Valerie Sperling argues, "their series of songs, published as video clips on the web, endorsed mass protest against the Putin regime, criticised state sponsored homophobia, and praised feminism as a possible curative for Russia's many ills."

Performance

2012

Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away

On February 21, 2012 five members of Pussy Riot entered Moscow's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, smuggling in amps and guitars. Dropping their dark winter coats, they put on bright balaclavas and jumped over the gold security rail, standing in an area in front of the altar usually reserved for men. Once there they jumped around, screaming and shouting for less than a minute before security guards seized them. The short video clip of the public intervention was edited together with footage taken in another church by the members of the group, also adding on a recorded version of the punk song, which featured provocative lyrics calling out "Punk-Prayer - mother of God, Chase Putin away!" Other lyrics attacked the church, likening it to the KGB and criticising those who subserviently accept its doctrine without question, before asking the Virgin Mary to drive out Putin and his corrupt church affiliates.

The group posted the video online on the same day, and it quickly became a viral sensation. The internet was instrumental in amplifying their message to a wide audience, and, unlike their previous interventions, which had receded into relative obscurity, as a result of the video news of their protest reached church patriarch Kirill, who informed Putin. After a brief period in hiding, three members of Pussy Riot were found and arrested - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. Charged without bail, for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," their three-month trial period sparked international debate and a media frenzy.

Political arguments ensued about the nature of their supposed crimes, and the unfairness of their convictions, but Pussy Riot had also opened up questions of the role the Orthodox Church played in modern Russia, as well as women and LGBT groups' severely limited rights under Putin's rule. In his public response, Putin essentially ignored the content of their message, instead staging Pussy Riot as terrorists who threatened the security of the church, rather than political activists. Two of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were charged and sent to a brutal labor camp, while the third, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was given a suspended sentence as she had young children. But the international, feminist message broadcast by Pussy Riot continued to rage on around the world, serially embarrassing the Russian Government and provoking many statements of support. The legacy of the performance endures, with writer Ione Gamble arguing that, "Their fluoro balaclavas and part-art performance, part-activist ideology inspired a generation of Tumblr-raised feminists to take their activism offline." Time Magazine counted Pussy Riot among the most influential women of the century, writing, "Pussy Riot's message of defiance still inspires young women in Russia and far beyond."

Performance

2014

Putin Will Teach you How to Love the Motherland

In a rebellious act of public dissent, five members of Pussy Riot, including Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina planned to perform their song, "Putin Will Teach You To Love the Motherland," at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi on the 18th of February. They were intercepted and arrested before the planned event could take place, however. Following their release from the police station, five women donned balaclavas and sang their song on the streets of Adler to passers-by instead.

A day later, the group reconvened to film a performance of the song near the Sochi Seaport building, but they were pounced upon by uniformed Cossacks from the Olympics security team and so badly beaten that they had to be treated in hospital. A video of the performance before the beating was posted on YouTube by other Pussy Riot members later the same day.

This happening was in response to several issues, including what Pussy Riot called "corrupt Olympic officials" and the arrest and imprisonment of the environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko. Having just recently been released from prison in December, 3 months earlier than expected, Pussy Riot members Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina also believed their early release was to stop them from upstaging the Russian Olympic Games in February, so this performance was, in part, a means of proving that they were women who would not be easily silenced. But disrupting such a huge, international event was also a way of exposing the insidious violence and oppression behind Russia's idealised façade to as large and widespread an audience as possible. It also highlighted the complicity of an international community that, whilst recognising the repression of dissidents within Russia, still continued to reward the regime with the opportunity to host major sporting and cultural events. Curator Tamsyn Challenger, who organised the exhibition Free the Pussy! at Summerhall in Edinburgh in 2018 likens their work to various international artists who also questioned the status quo with shocking political art, including Yoko Ono and Judy Chicago. Challenger writes, "I suppose the story is one of a woman's voice. The power that is contained in that. Women need to keep striving for fearlessness in the face of global gaslighting!"

Performance

2015

Refugees In

In 2015, Pussy Riot staged the performance Refugees In, at British graffiti artist Banksy's Dismaland, at Weston-Super-Mare in Somerset, England. Dismaland was an alternative and rather bleak take on an amusement park, which Banksy cheekily referred to as a "bemusement park." Along with a live music performance, Pussy Riot also staged a mock riot, in which police pretended to engage violently with a team of protestors. A film of the performance was edited into a separate piece of video art with the assistance of film director Ralf Schmerberg and the music producers BretonLABS and Ten Ven.

Lyrics featured in the music made reference to the European refugee crisis, with phrases including "Refugees in, Nazis out," and "F-ck the police, like we are in Greece." Criticising the European handling of the migrant crisis throughout their performance, Pussy Riot likened their own struggles against figures of authority to the ones faced by the marginalised people seeking safety, expressing great empathy for their plight. They released a public statement calling for the fairer treatment of refugees in which the group wrote that "[r]egardless of one's political views, we have a moral duty to offer refuge to people fleeing war and persecution ... this is more than a political challenge - it is a humanitarian crisis..."

All of the construction materials from Banksy's fake amusement park were pulled apart and sent to 'The Jungle', a refugee camp in Calais, to help build shelters for new migrants. Pussy Riot members continued their involvement with both Banksy and the plight of refugees attempting to enter Europe by helping construct these shelters alongside architecture students from Cambridge University. Curator Svetlana Ringold pointed out how Pussy Riot's voice lived on with even greater courage since their incarceration, arguing, "The fact that they are still expressing their opinions in a direct and even blunt way... elicits support and respect for their courage."

Performance

2018

Policeman Enters the Game

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, members of Pussy Riot stormed the football pitch dressed as Russian police during a match between France and Croatia. Wearing white shirts, black ties and red striped trousers, they ran on to the field, where, in a now iconic moment from the internvention, French teen football star Kylian Mbappe hi-fived one of the protestors. The activists Nika Nikulshina, Olga Pakhtusova and Pyotr Verzilov (the husband of Pussy Riot's most outspoken member, Nadya Tolokonnikova) were arrested, and sentenced to 15 days in jail for disruption of the event.

Aware that the world cup would be watched by 1.1 billion viewers, Pussy Riot's bid to grab international attention certainly worked. In an accompanying statement, Pussy Riot called their disruption of the game a protest which aligned with their demands, which include "Free political prisoners, do not put people in jail for social media "likes," and "do not fabricate criminal cases and detain people for no reason."

Like many of their previous interventions, this crashing of a national event in Russia was aimed at bursting the bubble of perfection projected by the Russian government to the wider world, raising awareness of the violence, oppression and unjust incarceration lurking beneath its exterior. In their public statement Pussy Riot also stated their support for the Ukrainian journalist and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was then on hunger strike in an Arctic prison camp, sentenced for a charge Amnesty International had deemed "unfair." As writer Aliide Naylor points out, "Pussy Riot storming the World Cup pitch reminded us that this happy, welcoming spectacle has a far darker side."

Performance


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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church

"Pussy Riot Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Lewis Church
Available from:
First published on 02 Jul 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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