Pussy Riot’s new art project will give brave audiences the Russian prison treatment

Pussy Riot’s new art project will give brave audiences the Russian prison treatment
Pussy Riot has always hewed closely to performance art, and their latest project will push this boundary even further. Jim Ross/AP
Pussy Riot has always hewed closely to performance art, and their latest project will push this boundary even further. Jim Ross/AP

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova wants her next audience to know exactly what it’s like to be in a Russian prison: down to the color of the walls, the temperature of the rooms; even what it’s like to work on the the dated, Soviet-era sewing machines that Tolokonnikova once used to make police uniforms. Those are all things she experienced herself while serving a prison sentence for “hooliganism” charges, after she and two of her bandmates staged a 2012 performance-protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

To bring her vision to life, Tolokonnikova is attempting to raise just under $80,000 through Kickstarter to produce an immersive theatrical performance that will attempt to recreate the circumstances of Pussy Riot’s trial and incarceration. (As of time of writing, the Kickstarter has raised close to $66,000 of its stated goal of $78,831, with two weeks to go in the campaign.)

Pussy Riot — which largely consists of anonymous members but is now chiefly anchored by Tolokonnikova — first gained international attention because of that demonstration inside the Russian cathedral. The performance criticized Orthodox Church leaders for supporting Vladimir Putin, and ended up getting the three participants — Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich — arrested.

They all faced up to seven years in prison, and were ultimately sentenced to two. Samutsevich was freed in 2012 on a suspended sentence after a court appeal, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina ended up serving almost the entirety of their two-year terms. They were released roughly two months early — a move they characterized as a PR play, a way for Russia to score some positive press ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

A Pussy Riot action in Moscow
A Pussy Riot action in Moscow Denis Sinyakov/Pussy Riot

Should the Kickstarter secure its funding, audiences in London will see what Pussy Riot went through come November. In a recent Skype interview, Tolokonnikova said the project — which is being done in partnership with the Les Enfants Terribles theater company — is designed to involve extensive audience participation. Crowds will create and stage a piece of protest-art, endure a faux-arrest, and then face a judge.

“It is an activist story which is based on the story of Pussy Riot,” Tolokonnikova said. “You will participate in a political action, then you will be arrested, then you will be brought to court, then you will get your sentence ... and then you will end up in jail.”

All of this effort isn’t just in the name of creating a spectacle, though; Tolokonnikova said she hopes to bring more awareness to the issue of prison reform.

“We really need to have prison reform happen,” she said. “I want people to feel more sympathy and empathy with political prisoners and prisoners in general because no body really deserves to be in conditions like that.”

Though ambitious, it’s a natural step for a band that’s perhaps always been better characterized as performance artists, rather than musicians. Pussy Riot has long been chiefly concerned, Tolokonnikova said, with breaking the fourth wall and blurring the line between performer and audience.

Pussy Riot’s latest project will recreate their trial and subsequent incarceration.
Pussy Riot’s latest project will recreate their trial and subsequent incarceration. Denis Sinyakov/Pussy Riot

“We ended up in jail for two years because we created one performance that basically destroyed the fourth wall,” she said. “We want our audience to feel really deeply a connection with what’s going on [on the] stage ... You can’t put a wall between you and the world or between you and the political situation.”

In Tolokonnikova’s eyes, the “political situation” is inextricably linked to the issue of prison reform. And by staging this performance-art piece outside of Russia, she wants to highlight this cause for a more international audience. She’s active on behalf of prison reform in other ways as well — she helped found a non-profit called “Justice Zone,” which employs 15 attorneys to defend clients and manage paperwork in Russia’s labyrinthine criminal justice system.

Tolokonnikova said she also hopes that being vocal about improving Russia’s justice system and prison conditions will help shift the wider perception of her native country at a particularly fraught time when headlines around the world are dominated by news of Russian hacks and spies.

“We want to bring good traditions ... as opposed to the malicious activities of intelligence services and hacking attacks,” she said. “We want to be a counterforce to bad Russian things.”

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