Live Review: PUSSY RIOT @ Motion

My skin is tingling to the siren like pull of a saxophone and the bass. I feel things revolving inside me. Awe. Anger. The stirring of a deeply embedded certainty that things need to change. We knew this evening was going to be emphatic but we hadn’t realised to what extent the Russian intersectional feminist* and activist group, Pussy Riot, would alter our perceptions.

Pussy Riot is a collective of twenty or so Russian musicians, artists and videographers based in Moscow. In March 2012, three members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria (Masha) Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested and charged with hooliganism after a provocative performance in a Moscow church. Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina served 22 months in prison where they were subjected to enforced gynaecological examinations and other forms of abuse. Alyokhina is now performing with her newly published book Riot Days, which follows her arrest, imprisonment and release, with other members of Pussy Riot.

Inside it’s strange at first, like a hall of eerily lit zombies. We weave to the front to better see the sweat. We were expecting a punk mess with mosh pits and writhing bodies. But when I stop to take in the performance I realise the crowd aren’t zombies or emotionless; they are entranced. Flashes of Putin’s looming, impassive face and video footage of Pussy Riot’s illegal church performances and their arrest are relentlessly and chaotically projected behind them, tied down with English subtitles.

Guard: So, you are happy to spread your legs in a church but you won’t do it in here?

It’s unsettling to listen to such a visceral performance in an unfamiliar language. We’ve come in late, missed Pink Kink’s opening performance and now have to play catch up with the narrative which lurches forward at a disturbing pace.

Words are thrown between the performers in an onslaught of shouting that mimics the unpredictable nature of an unfair trial and life in prison. I can feel my body being pulled and pushed in all directions while they circle each other. The discomfort is intentional. Bottles of cold water are flung over us, hitting my face and in my mouth. The cold is a relief until I remember waterboarding, a torture technique commonly used in prisons, and my stomach knots.  

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Photograph: Evgeniya Zubchenko

By the end of the performance the four are standing warrior like, legs parted, masks and excess clothing lying on the floor. They’ve been released from prison and the guard says “You are free now”. Alyokhina stares at us with penetrative gaze and lets the words “are you?” hang in the air behind her like shackles.

But are you? Are we really free? What is the cost of the freedom we experience here? Centuries of activism, suffragettes, black empowerment protesters and the pain of people without freedom. These are necessary and haunting questions in the light of recent elections, the rise of conservatism and the flood of voices calling out sexual abuse in a myriad of areas to reveal how pervasive the abuse of power is. She leaves us with her message echoing in our ears.

“FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY ARE ONLY REAL IF YOU FIGHT FOR THEM!”

*intersectional feminism: the belief that oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are linked, support each other and cannot be studied in isolation. - geekfeminism.wikia.com

Emma Margaret Walton

Cover Photography: Mitya Aleshkovsky