Pussy Riot to give 'Punk Prayer' lecture at Michigan Theater

Erik Lohr / The Voice Project
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By Gillian Jakab, Community & Culture Editor
Published September 16, 2014

Patriarch Gundyay believes in Putin / Would be better, the bastard, if he believed in God! / The Virgin’s belt won’t replace political gatherings / The eternal Virgin Mary is with us in our protests!

Pussy Riot/Zona Prava:
Punk Prayer


Penny W. Stamps Speaker Series
Thursday September 18, 5:10 p.m.
Michigan Theater
Free


These are some of the lyrics from Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer,” performed by five masked faces in Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in March 2012. They criticize, among other things, the lack of separation between the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s increasingly totalitarian government. The Pussy Riot members brought their message of rights for Russia’s marginalized — women, LGBTQ, youth — up from Moscow’s underground scene and into view of the world. But they did so at a price.

Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alyokhina, two of Pussy Riot’s members, were among those arrested for the performance and were sentenced to two years of prison on charges of “hooliganism” and disrupting public order with a religious hate crime. Amnesty International and many other human rights organizations decried the prosecution as suppression of free speech and politically motivated. The women’s trial and imprisonment under harsh conditions gained international attention and an outpouring of sympathy from artists around the world.

Vigilance and pressure from the international community may have contributed to the Pussy Riot members’ early release in December 2013, though some said it was because the expiration of their terms would have coincided with the Winter Olympics in Russia. Having endured the horrors of Russia’s prisons and legal system, Masha and Nadya have founded Zona Prava (Justice Zone), a prisoner’s rights NGO that offers advocacy and aid to prisoners, and MediaZona, a media forum that reports on issues of prisons and legal systems worldwide.

The rockers-turned-revolutionaries are publicizing their experiences and aims in a world tour that includes a stop in Ann Arbor. This Thursday evening in the Michigan Theater, University organizations The Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series and the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies are co-presenting the Pussy Riot/Zona Prava members’ lecture “Punk Prayer.”

In curating the Stamps series, Chrisstina Hamilton — director of visitor’s programs at the Penny Stamps School of Art and Design — tries to choose speakers that reflect the issues of concerns and interest on campus and in the classroom. The lineup is created via nominations from throughout the University, but the particular invitation to Pussy Riot and Zona Prava members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, was a whim of Hamilton’s own.

Hamilton was in New York this past spring when the two Pussy Riot members gave a public interview on Randall’s Island organized by London’s Frieze Festival. The interview was conducted in a room that allowed only 100 seats and left many disgruntled feminist punk enthusiasts on the outs.

“When I was there, I said to the organizers: please put me in touch with them because I actually have a 1,700 seat theater,” Hamilton said. “Obviously they want to speak to people about what they’re doing; I can give them a much more public voice and venue in order to do that.”

The Michigan Theater is an icon in a city steeped in the history of political activism and influential artist communities. Though the scale and methods of protest at the University have shifted since the 1960s, students today grapple with issues of identity through publications such as The Michigan Daily’s “Michigan in Color” series and “What the F,” and voice their passions for social, economic and political justice locally and globally. Pussy Riot’s words, their credibility rooted in deeds, will find a warm reception here.

“Russia’s in the news constantly right now,” Hamilton said. “The fact that these young women were able to stand up to Putin, be in prison, and … have garnered this international attention, gives them a lot of power.”

Masha and Nadya are harnessing this power to shed light on the oppression of feminist and LGBTQ* communities in Russia, the consequences of dissent, and the brutal Russian penal system.

“A lot of the people who are going to come obviously know something of the story of what’s happened to them up to this point, but I think it will be very excited to hear about what their plans are now that they’ve captured the world stage, what are they going to do with it?”

Though they are rock stars on the metaphorical stage of world politics and media, they will not be performing in the musical sense on the stage of the Michigan Theater. Right before coming to Ann Arbor, Pussy Riot joined many punk bands at Riot Fest Chicago, not on the lineup to play a concert, but to give a panel discussion.

“They won’t actually be performing,” Hamilton said. “I asked them about it when we were discussing the whole thing and their response was: they don’t perform … they’re activists. They would perform if there were a reason to, as they have done.”

“I’m looking at it more as the context of the moment that they’re performing in, which in some ways makes it more punk rock than any punk rock,” she added.

In the field of performance studies, some scholars would disagree with this distinction and tend to define performance as a public practice, analyzing “performances” spanning the spectrum from religious rituals to Shakespeare on a proscenium stage. Though Pussy Riot did not achieve its fame by merit of its music and performance art, the group’s genre of conceptual art amplifies and articulates its political message.

In their interview on the Colbert Report, Nadya and Masha say they’ve come to America to “look at American prisons, to talk to human rights activists, and to learn from their experience.” They explain that it presents a middle ground between the inhumane prison system in Russia and the mostly pleasant conditions of the prisons they visited in the Netherlands. On campus, Nadya and Masha will get to learn more about the American prison system when they meet with Lisa Greco, the Prison Creative Arts (PCAP) events coordinator and Washtenaw County Youth Center Director, as well as Carol Morris, a local artist who works with women in prison and youth in detention and treatment. They will tour the facility and discuss the work of Youth Arts Alliance! and PCAP.

“Performing” or not, the only way to experience the power of Pussy Riot is live, and this Thursday’s Penny Stamps lecture is one of a select few opportunities in the U.S. to do so.