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A public discussion art, activism, and social justice at the new Pussy Riot book’s NYC launch / by Paula Mejia

It's a sweltering Sunday evening. July 14. A malignant humidity has loomed over New York for the past month. But the lingering thickness in the air right now feels abrasive, like sandpaper against my skin. Walking towards the Lower East Side, towards the volunteer-run bookstore and activist center Bluestockings, I hear the people have gathered. They’ve marched past Union Square seeking for Trayvon Martin's lost justice. Somewhere. 2013 and 1963 aren't too far removed, it seems.

At Bluestockings, we are celebrating the launch of Let’s Start a Pussy Riot!, a collection of “supporter responses” curated by Emely Neu, edited by French and published last month by Rough Trade Records. The editors describe the book as “a creative response” comprising “culture and creativity to form our activism and inform our minds … writing, painting, singing our opinions in order to distil them further in the minds of others.” The book was published in collaboration with Pussy Riot.

"Open all the doors, tear off your epaulettes. Come, taste freedom with us." The last line of Nadeza Tolokonmikva's closing statement in court wraps up the sentiment of Pussy Riot's fervor for justice, one that caused their imprisonment. It also fittingly embodies the spirit of French's book. Let's Start a Pussy Riot! is an invitation to participate in an ongoing discourse that extends far beyond the confines of print.

The book's first chapter illustrates the now infamous tale of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock bards imprisoned for their fearless stand against injustice. It features the three girls' riveting court statements, and lyrics to the songs that caused their imprisonment – particularly the jagged brilliance of "Putin Got Scared" and the Pussy Riot manifesto.

The crux of the book, though, is composed of beautiful reactions to Pussy Riot's bravery including writing and visual art pieces from Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, CSS, CocoRosie, Robyn, Kim Gordon, Lucky Dragons and many others. The most heart-wrenching piece is a fold-out, featuring an abstract painted contribution from the imprisoned Nadya Tolokonmikva's young daughter.

You could count Pussy Riot's performances on one hand, but they knew exactly which buttons to push in order to rally a massive body of listeners out of their apathetic states. Pussy Riot's first "tour" traversed escalators and trolleybuses. Their second performance was reflected on display windows as they occupied the roof of an "it" bar during a fashion show. Later they would occupy a prison roof, right before their subsequent arrest for their performance of "Putin Got Scared" in Moscow's Red Square. Pussy Riot donned brightly tinted balaclavas and dresses while wielding guitars and violet smoke. The forty-second performance earned them incarceration, but it become the click moment for an entire generation – particularly in western countries – who finally saw a group of fearless women triumph in their demand for basic rights.

French welcomes the evening’s speakers as they walk in: renowned punk professor Vivian Goldman, a veteran of punk rock's first wave; performance artist Kembra Pfahler and Girls Against God curator Anna Zobnina.

"It was a shock of recognition," explains Goldman. "These were girls like us!" For Goldman, Pussy Riot signifies a resurgence of the unsettlement that brewed punk in the first place as she knew it -- The Clash, The Slits and Sex Pistols among the groups she worked with. Pussy Riot, she explains, is uniting generations along the way to demanding justice. "These girls risked so much more than us. It's galvanizing. They picked up the flame," Goldman continues. "They were asteroids across the no-female activism sky...they lit all of us on fire."

Kembra Pfahler, echoing her statement, comments: "The girls were willing to sacrifice nothing to change the world. My worry is that art may soon see a class divide where only the wealthy can produce it, enhanced by rent prices driving artists out of their homes. There's a veil of freedom here in New York." Pfahler herself describes the day-to-day battle to remain in the city as a performance and visual artist.

The event soon becomes about much more than a gorgeous book illustrating Pussy Riot's story. There is no division between the audience and the five ladies speaking. It quickly becomes an open platform to discuss activism and social change at the core, catalyzed by Pussy Riot’s beginnings.

Participants speak about witnessing the Trayvon Martin rally. They share personal responses to the hate crimes against queer communities, which have been occurring in the city with an alarming frequency in the past few months.

"All of us are feeling the bite of oppression," says Goldman while shaking her head. "Maybe we're on the verge of activism."

That night, protesters would shut down a portion of Interstate 10 in Los Angeles. A dozen would be arrested in New York during the Justice for Trayvon march.

After an hour and a half of discussion, French begins to wrap up the event. To close out, Vivian Goldman performs a titillating spoken word piece. "The first punky sisterhood of mismatched purity!" she exclaims animatedly. It was the group's own punk rock mantra, a statement of unity and an establishment of trust.

Next, visual artist and warbly guitarist Jeffrey Lewis performs his "low budget films," which consist of Lewis standing on a chair with a beautifully illustrated set of drawings revolving around historic events. He performs a "documentary film" about the French Revolution in honor of Bastille Day, as well as the fall of the Soviet Union, in order to add context to Pussy Riot’s landscape in Russia.

Amidst the thunderous claps culminating the event, I reach for the book once again, and flip through it once more with a heightened perspective. I open it to see where it falls, and it does, to an especially compelling part -- an interview with Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. The piece focuses on Antony's stunning 'Future Feminism' conceptual spoken word piece, which circles around gender equality, spirituality and ecology. But one quote in particular tied a knot in my chest:

"Aritsts are like coral; they are the first ones to bleach when the water is too hot or acidic. They are the first ones to wither when a society is spiritually sick," comments Johnson to the interviewer. "They are the pioneers, exploring frontiers of dreams and intuitively approaching things that scientists and businessmen defend as their exclusive right to address. In the future, emotional and intuitive systems of human thought will be considered as viable as rational systems."

Antony's statement strikes at the core of the Pussy Riot problem: art as activism generally isn't taken as seriously as, say, a politicians' verbal endorsement for a cause. Yet he, like the inspiring women before me now, and Pussy Riot before them, encourages performance art as activism, stating that it can "inspire dialogue and discourse, invigorate people to live to their fullest potential and participate in this story."

Soon I leave the Bluestockings sanctuary and new friends, allowing the city to swallow me once again. The thickness of this heat hangs over me. It feels like the weight of a million heavy hearts, suspended by a string. But as I think of Pussy Riot and their inspiring story, I also think of the rallies occurring around the city and the world tonight, demanding an end to racism and a more just future. Walking towards my apartment, a certain surge guides me home. It may be hope.

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