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Friday, August 24, 2012

The Sweet Spot: S.F. Pussy Riot Organizer Speaks Out

Posted By on Fri, Aug 24, 2012 at 12:33 PM

click to enlarge ZARINA ZABRISKY
  • Zarina Zabrisky

On February 21, five women wearing masks and bright colors stormed the priests-only section of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior and staged a punk prayer protest. Among candles and gilded altars, they danced, genuflected and called out to the Virgin Mary. Were they praying for husbands, health, a record deal? No. They were the members of Pussy Riot, an art-collective branch of the larger art-collective Voina ("war" in Russian) founded in 2006 to protest the existing Russian government and President Vladimir Putin through art. Voina has performed dozens of provocative and politically charged conceptual art performances. More than a dozen criminal cases have been brought against the group.

click to enlarge ZARINA ZABRISKY
  • Zarina Zabrisky

On August 17, Pussy Riot perfomers Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samucevich were charged with public hooliganism and sentenced to two years in prison. 

Pussy Riot is not shutting up, and adding to their voices are people from all over the world, including ex-chess champion Garry Kasparov. That same day there was a rally here in San Francisco organized by Zarina Zabrisky. I spoke with her about the rally, art, and what Pussy Riot is fighting for. 

Why was organizing a protest important to you? 

The Pussy Riot trial is an insult to me as a writer, a woman, and a human being. I have been apolitical all my life. Most Russians know that protest in Russia is absurd. It is meaningless and dangerous. Pussy Riot members know it. Russians protesting on August 17 with me know it. There is a line, though, where one is so outraged that feelings grow into actions and words, and sometimes actions and words out of the ordinary. 

You know "Scream" by Munch? The classic expressionist painting depicts a human -- the face is a mere mask, the mouth is torn in a silent scream. The tragedy of the scream is in its fatal futility. Our protest against Putin is as pointless as a painted scream. But here it is. We can't take it anymore.

Thousand of people protested in over forty cities around the world. Nothing will change in Russia as the result of these protests. I'm very well aware of this. However, a few brave and free-thinking people in Russia will know that they are not alone and that their silent scream was heard. 

Why the name Pussy Riot?

Rebelling pussy -- a woman of fertile age -- is dangerous for the powers that be. Note the location for the protest -- the altar. In the Russian Orthodox Church, women are banned from the altar. Men rule the state and the church. Russian women are traditionally reduced to sex function and objectified. The artists of Voina and Pussy Riot drive this role to absurdity. If women are nothing but sex machines, then expressing their sexuality is a way to fight this.

Why a punk prayer?

The Punk Prayer had a feel of parody to it. The joke element was especially unacceptable to the Russian Orthodox officials. Shock and laughter shake the observer from his or her comfort zone. Shock and laughter may lead to questions, provoke thinking by shifting the habitual routines. Punk Prayer is not comfortable to watch or listen to for a reason. The protest artists want to shock their audience out of a political and religious stupor. Sometimes, the shock can be only achieved by extremes. 

Why the masks?

click to enlarge Zarina Zabrisky speaking at the SF rally - PHOTO BY STEVEN GRAY
  • Photo by Steven Gray
  • Zarina Zabrisky speaking at the SF rally

When society turns into a travesty show, the one way to show it is to wear masks. The golden epaulettes and the military uniform? How are bright geometric dresses different from that? The dresses and masks are also signs. The protest artists create their own semiotic sign system of carnival. In this respect, the art actions and projects belong to the same world tradition as Mediaeval street fairs and folklore. 

According to Bakhtin, a Russian anthropologist and philosopher, "Folk humor culture comprised comic spectacles in the marketplace, oral and written parodies, and abusive and blasphemous language and behavior." The street art of Voina and Pussy Riot, with its rude humor and obscenities, opposes the power in a more effective way than marches and demonstrations.
___ 

 Having attended many a demonstration and receiving little other inspiration than a contact high, I have to agree with Zabrisky. The video of the church protest (lasting a mere two minutes) has received over a million views. It is interesting to note that the church itself has exonerated the performers but that will have no bearing on their potential release. The rest of the members of Pussy Riot remain at large. Keep your ears open for them. 

 The Sweet Spot is a blog column about alternative sexuality by Ginger Murray who is also the editor of Whore! magazine. Check back next week for more.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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Ginger Murray

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