Russian punk rock dissidents Pussy Riot raise their voice in Santa Monica

Story by Joe Piasecki | Photos by Ted Soqui

The time for talk was over. Nadya Tolokonnikova, founding member of the Moscow activist art collective Pussy Riot, who suffered forced labor and prisoner abuse for a punk rock performance critical of the local orthodox church and its support for terrifying Russian despot Vladimir Putin, emerged onto the darkened platform of The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, ready to rock.

Earlier Monday evening, during a panel discussion on the aesthetics of resistance that also featured American arts luminaries Shepard Fairey, Catherine Opie and Tavares Strachan, 29-year-old Tolokonnikova cut a figure of sophisticated punk rock individualism in a white uniform-style top accented by patches in Cyrillic and a bright red scarf, a jet-black skirt, black leggings and shiny black boots with mismatched pink and white laces.

Taking the stage as frontwoman of Pussy Riot, she became virtually unrecognizable, shrouded in a black hoodie and rendered anonymous by a ghostly white ski mask. For a bewildering, uncomfortable and enthralling hour, Tolokonnikova sang, rapped, shouted and shrieked — primarily in Russian — underneath a rapid-fire onslaught of projected images and mostly English-language text.

Hip-hop lyrics devolved into screams against projected surgical footage and the text “Vomit on Your Bulletproof Vest” — an indictment of police violence, or the invasion of Crimea? Strobe lights shined directly into the 500-seat audience as a figure in a satanic-looking red robe manned electronic music controls.

Pussy Riot founding member Nadya Tolokonnikova led an energetic, enthralling and at times startling multimedia concert performance
at The Broad Stage after a panel discussion linking protest art and punk rock

Such horror-show imagery quickly gave way to more subtly haunting juxtapositions. Tolokonnikova ditched the hoodie to shift into Death Metal K-Pop mode, leading backup dancers in girlish leg kicks and bubblegum pop choreography as the words “TORTURE” “ME” “WHY” flashed on screen. It might have been a song about the emotional pain of unrequited love, but a dozen silent ski-masked figures standing deadly still in the background called to mind Abu Ghraib torture victims staring back at a guilty-by-association crowd. In the next song, the masked figures stumbled like zombies
and collapsed to the floor – a textual clue of “1937” possibly a reference to Stalin’s Great Purge.

Images of desolate, snowy landscapes spoke to themes of environmental degradation and prisoner isolation, while the English lyrics “too big to fail, but I will make you share” announced a more optimistic spirit of resistance against indomitable forces.

At one point, scrolling English text and what looked like computer code announced in English that Pussy Riot believes the Russian government to be corrupt, that Russian people want change, and that these statements alone could very well land them in prison, or worse.

But, “When you read the news and are left crying for three days — this douche-bag will be president again! — you feel you have to do something,” Tolokonnikova had explained during the panel. “I know I will never succeed, but I will never forgive myself if I don’t try.”

Following her release from a Siberian penal colony in 2013, Tolokonnikova became outraged by Russian government obfuscation about its military invasion of Ukraine and decided to continue the provocative activism that had gotten her in trouble, she said.

“When your government starts behaving like a fool, like an idiot — I think it’s happening with you now,” she said to an eruption of applause, “… we give you the truth for free.”

Shepard Fairey and Nadya Tolokonnikova
at The Broad Stage

The intersection of artistic aesthetics, political activism and ideas about the representation of truth threaded an intellectually elevated discussion exploring the influences of punk rock rebelliousness on the panelists’ visual and performance art. Like an art history professor asking the Sex Pistols to explain “Anarchy in the U.K” to an audience of British Museum donors, moderator Jonathan T.D. Neil, director of the Sotheby’s Institute of Art – Los Angeles, challenged panelists to talk about their work through the lens of fine art.

The most natural fit for this discussion was street artist Fairey, who parlayed his “Andre the Giant has a Posse” OBEY GIANT sticker campaign into the iconic 2008 “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama, now enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum’s National Portrait Gallery.

What imbues the punk rock aesthetic with personal agency and artistic license, said Fairey, is that it puts “passion over virtuosity,” the notion that “what you say needs to be said … the gatekeepers don’t matter.”

Fairey traced that realization back to his days as an art student in the 1980s, listening to the Dead Kennedys on a bus while seeing Robbie Conal’s “CONTRA” and “DICTION” posters plastered on buildings throughout downtown Los Angeles, clearly without express permission.

“That work stood out to me as punk rock manifested in art,” he said. “It’s an act of defiance in its application.”

Opie, a celebrated conceptual and landscape photographer whose work confronts marginalization of communities outside the cultural mainstream, spoke of her work as ultimately seeking justice or social change, and a growing sense of alarm that social media — a tool for enabling individual expression — is being twisted into a platform for “a rising intolerance of human beings toward one another.”

Strachan, a native of the Bahamas, observed that speaking English is itself an institutionalized inheritance of impression. Famous for launching a satellite into space to honor Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African-American tapped to be an astronaut, and for shipping a four-ton block of ice from the Arctic Circle to his childhood school (titled “The Distance Between What We Have and What We Want”), described art as a balance of “tradition versus transgression,” and noted cultivation of skepticism as an essential ingredient to activist art.

Tolokonnikova, who studied philosophy at Moscow State University, cautioned that getting too hung up on artistic concepts can interfere with more visceral calls to take action, to stand up and resist. “Fuck abstract ideas,” she said.

Fairey, who in October interviewed Tolokonnikova at Skylight Books, observed after the panel one important distinction setting Tolokonnikova apart from her American contemporaries: She’s not only taking artistic risks, she’s risking her freedom and her life.

“I know what she’s been through and the risks that she takes, which is one of the reasons I admire her so much. Nadya’s one of the most courageous people I know. She’s an excellent example of why one should be making statements against oppression and injustice before it gets to the point you might suffer the kind of consequences she’s suffered. A re-read of ‘1984’ might be wise,” Fairey said. “When you’re a bit spoiled, it can make you apathetic. To maintain the things we are fortunately able to take for granted, it requires some vigilance.”