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Pussy Riot's Act of Faith | The Nation

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Pussy Riot's Act of Faith

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In the past couple of weeks, NYU hosted two events related to the Pussy Riot case—the first at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, the second at the Law School. I participated as a panelist at the first event and a questioner at the second, in which the principal speakers were the group’s legal defense team. I’m hardly an “advanced” student of Russian dissident art, but I accepted the first invitation because the organizers wanted someone to draw connections to the larger history of feminist punk rock and performance art. Also, I told the folks from the Jordan Center I thought I might have a little extra insight, having recently recorded an English-language ukulele cover of the group’s most infamous song, “Punk Prayer.” I was kind of joking about the uke cover, but not really. It’s a song that’s worth listening to.

About the Author

Barbara Browning
 A cultural critic and novelist, Barbara Browning is a professor of performance studies at New York University.

“HOLY SHIT! THE SHIT OF THE LORD!” Pussy Riot has a way with words. That’s a radical understatement, as will be evident to anybody who read their remarkable closing statements from the trial. Take, for example, Yekaterina Samutsevich’s trenchant answer to her own rhetorical question: How did Christ the Savior Cathedral become the stage for a political performance? As she noted, it didn’t happen the day Pussy Riot approached the altar. When Putin’s close associate Kirill Gundyayev took the reins of the Russian Orthodox Church, “Christ the Savior Cathedral,” to quote Samutsevich, “began to be openly used as a flashy backdrop for the politics of the security forces, which are the main source of political power in Russia.” She went on to ask how Putin succeeded in mounting a theater of politics in a house of worship, given that Russia is a secular state.

The blurred boundaries between political, religious and theatrical spectacle are nothing new, and artists and activists have, in other contexts, brought this to our attention. When I saw Pussy Riot’s performance in Christ the Savior Cathedral, I was immediately reminded of perhaps the most controversial political action by ACT UP. On December 10, 1989, 4,500 members of ACT UP and WHAM (the Women’s Health Action Mobilization) appeared around and within St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to protest then Cardinal John O’Connor’s public pronouncements condemning homosexuality, contraception and the distribution and use of condoms for either contraception or the prevention of HIV transmission. No one in the organization took this action lightly. There’s ample documentation of agonizing strategy sessions in which members argued the pros and cons of staging a protest in a house of worship. But ultimately, many impassioned members felt that making both a highly spectacular and also ritual statement in that space would be the only way of clarifying how it had already been made a political stage. Some accounts of the action call it a desecration, but one of the protesters, Christopher Hennelly, a former seminarian who was among those arrested inside the Cathedral, said, “The strongest prayer I’ve ever made in my life was on the floor of St. Patrick’s.”

It was also a very strong performance. When Hennelly refers to the floor, he’s referencing the form the protest took. While some activists shouted, most lay down to die. The primary performative element of the “Stop the Church” action was a die-in. What was so extraordinary about it was that it was simultaneously mimetic and real—that is, in a ritual context, surrounded by images of the spectacle of Christ’s slow and painful death, a number of those laying on the floor of St. Patrick’s were actually in the process of their own slow and painful deaths.

Aristotle’s principles of Greek Tragedy held that certain things were just too much to spectacularize—death itself had to take place off stage (offstage—ob [away from] the skene [scene]—which is the etymology of the word “obscenity”). But there are moments when obscenity has to take the stage in order to bring to light a political obscenity.

The Stop the Church action resulted in about 150 arrests and a great deal of conflict and controversy. Pussy Riot’s action was much more carnivalesque, and seemingly more joyous, but it’s had tremendous fallout. And the arrested members have similarly expressed their experience as the opposite of a desecration, despite the state’s attempts to paint them as anti-religious. In their closing statements, they unironically quoted the Gospels and reminded the court that Christ was similarly derided as “mad” and “blasphemous” because of an intractable political imagination, leading Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to conclude that it was, in fact, “the prosecution [that was] trampling on religion.”

I wasn’t the only one to note the similarities between the ACT UP and Pussy Riot actions. I wrote my friend Debra Levine, who’s written extensively on ACT UP, about this, and she immediately alerted me to former mayor Ed Koch’s outlandish reaction to Pussy Riot’s trial: he said he was “delighted” to see Putin stand up to “religious hatred.” One can only imagine that such a response to the Pussy Riot trial is inflected by his desire to defend his own trampling of the 1989 action.

Audience members at that panel at the Jordan Center seemed to be sympathetic to Pussy Riot’s political action, but they expressed two points of concern: while they could acknowledge the act of protest, they wondered how anybody could characterize it as “art”? Perhaps more pressingly, wasn’t it “disrespectful” and “inappropriate” to carry out such an action in a house of worship? Well, here’s where that uke cover came in handy. I was actually able to rebut that first point pretty handily, having had to contend with the hymnal harmonies of the opening, central and closing sections (derived from Rachmaninov’s Vespers), transformed into an anti-fascist, feminist oratory (genius), as well as the searing punk screeds. I also noted the performative power of the last documented moments of the action, when one member prostrated herself in front of the altar before being dragged off. Actually, these were the very qualities of both the song and the performance that led me feel that despite the carnivalesque aspects of the action, there was genuine belief being expressed—precisely the kind of “strong prayer” that took place in the Stop the Church action.

Once again, at the panel at the NYU Law School, the question of “offending religious sensibilities” was raised. I found this a little irksome, and asked the defense team what the legal implications would be of acknowledging that a feminist prayer might be an act of faith. The team was, perhaps understandably, primarily interested in exposing the political motivations behind the harsh sentencing of Pussy Riot, and they focused on the group’s critique of Putin and his suspect ties to the patriarch. They seemed less interested in pursuing questions of feminism, acts of faith, or art. (Lawyer Mark Feygin even expressed his own distaste for the choreography. The point, he said, was protest, not performance). Well, speaking as a dance scholar, I have to say, I found the choreography pretty effective—particularly that moment of prostration. But I can’t really separate the power of the performance from my own sense of an act of faith.

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