Aug 20, 2012

Free Pussy Riot? Only After We’ve Stopped Kony.

image

What do we like about Pussy Riot? Performing a collection of gestures that would be well-rehearsed, ‘stylised routine’ outside of Russia, the group are cartoonishly over-sized in their image and politics - the probable outcome of a ‘dozen underground comic artists’. And yet they’re entirely mundane, the embodiment of a younger generation unrestrained by national and cultural borders when it comes to picking social distinctions; they are of the generation that can live in Moscow, Damascus or Tripoli and still consume the same music, films and theory as kids in Deptford, Bed-Stuy and Friedrichshain. They are distorted reflections of us. Radical funhouse mirrors offering us flattering glimpses of 1968, 1977 and 1992.

This free-wheeling historical and geographical cosmopolitanism doesn’t serve them well at home, where Russia is still much more than a grab-bag of pop cultural signifiers, and the tradition they’re poised against - the Orthodox Church, Putin’s strong-man neo-Stalinism, an array of homophobic and patriarchal antipathies - is well supported. A series of Levada Center polls reveals only 6% have sympathy for the incarceration of these comic-book superhero millennials.

But the more they’re hated at home, the more we love them. And this is no mistake. From the very start, the group’s identity has been tailored for the West to love them because Russia can’t. Consider the band’s name, not only sensibility provoking but rendered in Latin text rather than Cyrillic.

But while there’s little doubt that the blueprint was laid down by the band themselves, watching social media explode and broadsheet papers fawn over them, it feels like the effect has gotten away from them; been distorted and misunderstood by the fans (it seems necessary to call them that) they’ve courted over here.

Consumed in the West and practiced in a country whose Soviet past gives it a Western feel that’s uncanny at best, Pussy Riot’s politics and aesthetics produce a strange disconnect. Their look and gestures are that of our yesteryear radicalism, yet they are genuinely provocative, samizdat. Somehow it’s easy to forget but they are actually going to jail. Russia is white, economically advanced, ostensibly a democracy. To watch Pussy Riot’s dissent from afar in this setting is almost like catching a time machine to 1968 or waking from a coma in 1917

Back over here in 2012 that look - punk rock, ‘three chords and the truth!’, clenched fists, Situationist pranks – would be met with weary sighs and eye rolls if the group got any attention at all. Played out in the UK, this is the innocuous shit that happens every week on campus grounds - keffiyeh’d anthropology students huddled around GAZA: STOP THE SIEGE placards; 2nd year Lib Dem voters from the KCL occupation unfurling a banner from the third floor of the humanities building announcing solidarity with the comrades at the occupation at UCL - or something like the well-intended but clumsy UK Uncut. While Pussy Riot’s politics– a genuinely provocative radicalism – would, by definition, be niche and disregarded anywhere.

The synthesis is a safe, recreational radicalism for us to consume (consider your honest response if a ragtag group of young, self-declared anarchists railed against the cosy presumptions of your culture). We tweet ‘#freepussyriot! Fuck Russia!’ and it’s sugar-free dissent that feels provocative because they are what we were. It’s 2012 and we’re sat in front of the PC waiting for Will Self to really stick it to this #condem government on Question Time but we can recognise a faint echo of the good old days when the music was better and houses were cheap and you could be thrown in jails for today’s moderate liberalism. An anonymous New Yorker quoted in the New York Times summed up the aspiration by neatly by admitting their support for the band was in part about feeling like they could be ‘thrown in jail for doing absolutely nothing’. Which is the dream, really. After all, joining a black bloc and smashing up Mayfair, or educating your co-workers on the benefits of Full Communism and automation while quoting Deleuze and Negri runs the risks of being on the wrong side of history, losing your job, or worse yet, being thought of as a prick.

The political arm of Simon Reynolds Retromania hypothesis, radicalism becomes not a way of thinking but re-enactment; about reclaiming long recuperated brands, parroting yesterday’s dissidence. Topped off with a neon pink balaclava, cultural conservatism dressed as subversion will be autumn’s hot look. Exemplifying the inert lameness of such a politics are well-meaning parliamentarians like Labour MP Tom Watson tweeting ‘Punk’s not dead. #freepussyriot’. Reading that, you could almost seem him sticking on his vinyl of London’s Calling, rolling up a cigarette and really vibing-out on how punk changed everything, how The Specials totally stuck it to Thatcher.

And so Free Pussy Riot turns out to be Kony 2012 for the university-educated. Made up of Russian women, the collective doesn’t fall into Kony’s White Man’s Burden trap – they are representing themselves with sophistication and wit - nor is democratic checks and balances and treating women as equals an end that requires military interventions and other tricky geo-political maneuvers — necessarily. But both, Kony in intent, Pussy Riot in translation, are striking examples of internet slacktivism that treat complex political issues as things that can be solved through ‘apolitical’ means, as if mere effort, pluck, awareness and charm were all our big problems need to be solved. We can (correctly) feel we’re right and that this is wrong so keenly that maybe if we just tell Putin he’s A Bad Man, or failing that hilariously insinuate he’s a coward for fearing women, this will sort itself out. Pussy Riot will be released. Patriarchy will explode. Russia will liberalise. The Orthodox Church will fold. Madonna supports them, after all.

Kony 2012 targeted children and teenagers with its strong idealism and simplification of a tricky problem. History would suggest that Pussy Riot’s - Russia’s - problem is less intractable (well, I don’t know. We’re trying with that equality thing over here), but the sell, works in much of the same sanded-down and self-defeating way. Tolokonnikova - ‘The Hot One’ - demands our attention and is duly described as ‘sassy’ or ‘a babe’ in the tabloids (but never as a mother), eliciting other retrograde passions based around the image of the Hot, Political Feminist so liberated they might spend the weekend with you having liberated sex, smoking cigarettes and discussing Maoism. Perhaps you’ve never heard of her earlier work with ‘art anarchists’ Voina because their means were too continental - both in their radicalism (they set fire to a police car) and their lack of a commodifiable sexuality adhering to the standards of the male gaze and media sensibilites (they had a protest ‘orgy’ in Moscow’s Biological Museum). With Pussy Riot there’s a focus on the punk rock - perhaps because we really know from our vantage point in the future it’s completely impotent - and the importance not of them achieving their ends but being free to pursue the means. A palatable impasse for western statesmen who stand against all but the most peaceful and ineffective protest at home, and whose idea of democracy begins and ends with the ballot box.

Sure, like Kony, the mix of PR radicalism, internet slacktivism, adherence to the media spectacle and worthy petition-signing might have some effect. And unlike those car-fucking white dudes, Pussy Riot are an inspiring, well-intentioned bunch; it’s hard not to hope thousands follow their lead and humiliate Putin, start smashing shit up. But in courting and being misunderstood by international opinion that’s a good deal more conservative than themselves, Pussy Riot run the risk of denying a space for any meaningful, sincere radical politics that doesn’t mimic the forms of our own history of radicalism - and look how that turned out.

 

About
Writer, I guess. Subscribe via RSS.