Participation Now

The democratic potential of activist performance

One could hardly imagine a better illustration than Putin’s regime for the idea that the Presidency is itself a performative performance, ritualized but only too brutally effective, in contrast with the impotence of the demos.

Samir Dayal
10 March 2014

On February 21, 2012, the Russian feminist punk-art collective Pussy Riot staged a 40-second “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, protesting against Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Putin administration arrested five members of the group including Nadezhda (“Nadya”) Tolokonnikova, Maria (“Masha”) Alyokhina and Yekaterina (“Kat”) Samutsevich, tried and sentenced them in short order, provoking worldwide outrage, even accusations of human rights infractions.

The arrest itself constitutes implicit acknowledgement that the performances constituted a significant intervention in the public sphere, and a reminder that performance art, often seen as epiphenomenal or even “unserious,” is a powerful example of participatory public engagement. Whatever one thinks of such performances’ claim to art, there is plenty of evidence that it was perceived as a substantive and therefore effective political intervention.  The government has felt pressured enough by these protests (and by bad publicity for logistical problems as Russia prepared to host the Sochi Olympics) to release Nadya and Masha, after nearly two years behind bars, in December 2013.

The group have since achieved international visibility, though Nadya and Masha have been ousted.  In February 2014, Madonna introduced Nadya and Masha at an Amnesty International concert in New York and a documentary on the case, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, was screened on Valentine’s Day.  Recently, Russian-born Masha Gessen published Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, discussing how the arrest and subsequent events played out on the global stage.[i] Gessen’s book has been criticized as an example of how the media have been a vehicle for sensationalism, spectacle, even heroine-worship.

Carole Cadwalladr wrote in The Observer that Pussy Riot are the “coolest revolutionaries you're ever likely to meet. They're also the nicest.” She also affirmed that “[n]o politician, nor journalist, nor opposition figure, nor public personality has created quite this much fuss. Nor sparked such potentially significant debate.” In a later review of Gessen’s book in The Guardian, Cadwalladr expressed frustration at Gessen’s “undisciplined” account, focused only on the three most visible members, ignoring others (there are over ten, including “Squirrel” or “Sparrow”), sensationalizing and romanticizing the three celebrated performers as media stars.  The criticism is accurate enough, but it does raise the issue of whether Pussy Riot’s “playing to” and with the media compromises their motives and political significance.

Formed on the very day Medvedev turned the reins of power back to Putin, Pussy Riot proudly describe themselves as a collective of anonymous political dissidents, open to all women; they wear neon balaclavas and stage easily replicable public performances featuring simple non-musical music; they embody a DIY punk aesthetic modeled on a “riot grrrl” act, “in the vein of Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney,” as Gessen puts it, highlighting hypocrisy, sexism, and cronyism in Russian government and society.

The video Documentary, Pussy Riot : A Punk Prayer” provides a revealing window on their activism.  It is prefaced by an appropriately activist quotation from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Andrey, Nadya’s father, appears early in the film to acknowledge Pussy Riot’s strategy of “shock the public,” but he insists there is “a sociopolitical message behind it all.”  Members of the group proclaim: “As artists, our goal is to change humanity, to transform consciousness a little bit. . . . To be the voice of the voiceless.” Brave talk. But can such activist performance transform consciousness?  Perhaps the inverse question is even more important:  Can the mediation of art augment activism?

I want to suggest that their activist performance is explicitly intended to move beyond the spectacular dimension of performance to provoke a re-thinking of received doxa.  Although the group is “radical,” a “guerilla” collective, it is also traditional, in that it belongs to an established tradition of activist performance. Their appeal to and reliance on media and mass mediation may be the true source of Pussy Riot’s success, and need not discredit their activist performances.

The documentary, like Gessen’s book, gives much attention to the trial.  During her closing statement Masha invokes Guy Debord, characterizing Pussy Riot’s Cathedral performance as a “small and somewhat absurd act that snowballed into an enormous catastrophe.” Masha affirms that her search is for an inner freedom, shared by all who feel “a piece of themselves on trial.  As in the works of Franz Kafka and Guy Debord.” Debord critiques the “society of the spectacle,” describing the spectacle as an assemblage of social relations organized by images of class hegemony; all material relations are sublated into the order of representation.[ii]  

To this courtroom performance, the trial judge objected that the courtroom “was not a theatre.”  Yet arguably the state’s prosecution highlights the telling suppression of what cannot be excluded from the courtroom, for the court is a theatre where performance is as important as the facts of the case. The order of representation may constitute a displacement of direct politics. But Pussy Riot’s activist performance is an important instantiation of participatory public engagement.

The group is critically self-reflexive about its reliance on mediation—not only their dependence on performance art, but their use of “the media.” Kat for example insisted that Pussy Riot is “a form of oppositional art. Political action that utilizes artistic forms.  It is a form of civic action against a corporate political system that uses its power against basic human rights.”

Behind the notion that activist performance is unserious is a sense that performances are epiphenomenal: they have no direct impact beyond “shock value,” make no meaningful change, perform only symbolic action rather than engaging in the rational agon of deliberative democracy that even liberals tend to expect and respect. 

But in her closing statement, Nadya insisted, “we do not make a direct statement.  We merely utilize the form of a direct statement.  We use it as an art form.”[iii]

The “spectacular” (in both senses) aspects of performance art may be critical performative elements of political activism—constitutive-and-deconstructive of democratic agency itself, to adapt a notion emphasized by Judith Butler.[iv] This squares with Pussy Riot’s own “deconstruction” of subjectivity: their masquerade of anonymity requires performing in neon balaclava masks, cartoonishly simple dresses performing calculatedly dissonant music--a punk DIY aesthetic--precisely in order to constitute themselves as non-individualist agents, enacting a democratic ethos not premised on a pre-existing, sovereign subjectivity.  

Performance activism might owe its effectivity to a logic of faute de mieux: there are few other viable avenues for dissent in Putin’s Russia. As Sheldon Wolin puts it, the President is “the cruelest symbol of the impotence of the demos and, fittingly, the highest office of constitutional democracy.  The demos has no effective voice in what the President does, yet once the election is over their mythical act is carefully preserved as ritual and invoked whenever a President feels the need of courting support.”[v]   One could hardly imagine a better illustration than Putin’s regime for the idea that the Presidency is itself a performative performance, ritualized but only too brutally effective, in contrast with the impotence of the demos.

The ritualism of spectacle is certainly not lost on the technicians charged with the public broadcast of all representations of the Sochi Olympics. When the very first display of the five Olympic rings malfunctioned during the opening ceremony, images and video of the display went “viral,” as they say, over social media; but in Russia viewers limited to state-owned TV saw a highly managed spectacle.  The broadcaster Russiya 1 edited out the live feed and spliced in pre-recorded rehearsal footage. They told the Associated Press that the decision preserved the integrity of Olympic tradition.

The state’s recognition of the importance of managing its mediated representation suggests that it is important to recognize a performative reciprocity in Pussy Riot’s targeting Putin through symbolic means—and to recognize the political potential of activist performance.  

Nadya and Masha urged politicians attending the Winter Olympics to call out Russia’s abuses of human rights, including the denigration of homosexuals, yet these direct exhortations may be less compelling than their punk performances, heavily reliant on mediation. At an Amnesy International concert hosted by Madonna, Masha and Nadya said that Putin “can be influenced by foreign political pressure,” but only when the Klieg lights are on, when there is media attention: the world needs “to see Russia beyond the images of Olympics objects and buildings.”  They made a similar appeal to Dutch royals in Amsterdam, to look beyond the mediated promotions of Sochi.   

In short, Pussy Riot’s intuition is that only mediated performances can be effective in a mass-mediated and yet repressively closed context such as Russia’s; their performances enact a mediated performative intervention in democratic politics.

This was presumably the rationale for Nadya’s and Masha’s invitation to meet with former Harvard professor Samantha Power, acknowledged for her own human rights activism before joining President Obama’s first administration. According to Power's deputy spokesman Kurtis Cooper, they discussed "the disturbing trend in (Russia) of legislation, prosecutions and government actions aimed at suppressing dissent and pressuring groups that advocate for fundamental human rights and basic government accountability."

It is perhaps an ironic sign that they recognize the democratic potential of mediated activist performance that Nadya and Masha are now contemplating entering politics not just through performance art but “for real”!

[i] Masha Gessen, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. New York: Riverhead Penguin Books, 2014. Print.

[ii] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle. Zone Books, 1995.  Print.

[iii] Gessen 214.

[iv] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4. (Dec., 1988), pp. 519-531, esp. 519.  Print.

[v] Sheldon S. Wolin, “Fugitive Democracy,” in Seyla Benhabib, Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996): 31-45, esp. 34.  Print.


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