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The tension between radical feminist art and
mainstream culture / by Frankie Mastrangelo

When Pussy Riot started to make headlines in 2012, their performance art decrying Vladimir Putin's conservative policies positioned the group as a recognizable symbol of radical, anti-authoritarian feminist art. American media spun Pussy Riot's activism into a sensationalized event, designating Pussy Riot as admirable freedom fighters resisting a fascist regime. In an interview with The Media earlier this year, Russian feminist punks Fanny Kaplan discussed how Russian media did everything they could to distort Pussy Riot's cause and present the activists as "stupid, amoral, and mean" following Pussy Riot's action in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour: a key symbol of Russian orthodoxy. In contrast to the extended media circus the activist group stirred up in America, Russian media managed to successfully trivialize and cast aside Pussy Riot's cause within three or four months after the church action. "This [few month period] is the time that it took for the propaganda machine to understand that in order to destroy this story they needed to distort the ideological background of both the action and the group in the eyes of the citizens," said Fanny Kaplan members. While widespread discussion about Pussy Riot fizzled after a few short months in Russia, support for Pussy Riot in America took both DIY and more institutionalized forms in the two years following their cathedral action and subsequent imprisonment. Campaigns calling for the release of Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina -- the two formerly imprisoned members of the Russian feminist protest art group -- took the form of "Free Pussy Riot" posters, benefit shows, and petitions. While various DIY communities organized shows and other benefit events in support of Pussy Riot, big-name nonprofits like Amnesty International also initiated their own Free Pussy Riot campaigns.

Yet, what set Amnesty's campaigns apart from DIY-centric efforts to support Pussy Riot was the nonprofit's use of both celebrity endorsement and commodity trends to garner mainstream attention for Pussy Riot's cause. The nonprofit organized concerts featuring the likes of Paul McCartney and Sting, elevating Pussy Riot's imprisonment to a trendy and widely-publicized cause. Amnesty then capitalized on this campaign momentum by running a social media initiative featuring Amnesty supporters in Pussy Riot's signature neon balaclavas, turning Pussy Riot's emblem of resistance into a commodity. As the balaclava functioned to maintain Pussy Riot members' anonymity, turning the facial covering into a fashionable consumer product feels representative of the group's exposure to, and subsequent entrance into, Western mainstream culture. The group gained a certain hype through celebrity endorsement and the commodification of their image. By pushing the imprisoned members into the limelight, mainstream media positioned Nadya and Masha as the newly-exposed face of Pussy Riot.

Now, three years since Pussy Riot became a household name, I'm sifting through various examples of Nadya and Masha's immersion into Western popular culture over the last few years -- appearances on the television show House of Cards, photo shoots for Vanity Fair, and concert appearances alongside Madonna are just a few instances of Pussy Riot's engagement with mainstream media. What are the implications of Nadya and Masha's assimilation into pop culture? As Nadya and Masha's presence in mainstream media brought them a particular celebrity status, pop culture began to use and manipulate aspects of Pussy Riot's image in ways that seemed to cheapen the group's work. The movie Spring Breakers featured a character donning a neon balaclava, bikini, and holding a gun, pointing to the trademark Pussy Riot accessory being appropriated as a symbol of "sexy" rebellion. Celebrities like Madonna introduced Nadya and Masha at Amnesty's "Bringing Human Rights Home" concert by applauding them for making "pussy a 'sayable' word in her home."

As Nadya and Masha's celebrity grew, Pussy Riot's treatment in mainstream media gradually reduced the group to a brand. Pussy Riot's use of performance art to offer a nuanced critique of conservative establishments and inequitable systems of power became simplified to a fashion accessory, an edgy name, and sexualized "badass" persona. If you continuously reduce someone's art to a commodified aesthetic or a soundbite, it's going to start to feel like a gimmick. Yet, in a profit-driven culture, it feels impossible for radical work or messaging to escape a certain level of trivialization; anything that can be turned into a commodity or marketable idea will be changed accordingly. Creativity is constantly shaped and packaged for a mass audience in ways designed to not upset that audience's worldview too drastically -- you can't shake the status quo with too much force.

In spite of how mainstream culture has repurposed the Pussy Riot cause for mass consumption, Nadya and Masha continue to engage in political work. The two started a nonprofit called Zona Prava (zone of truth / media zone) which "provides information, legal representation, safety monitoring, advocacy and oversight to those who may be deprived of liberty in camps and prisons." Nadya and Masha's creation of a nonprofit raises further questions regarding the effectiveness of radical work outside institutionalized settings vs. mainstream nonprofit channels. Navigating prisoner justice work through Zona Prava holds the potential to grapple with similar issues seen through Amnesty's work on behalf of Pussy Riot; creating a successful campaign in the nonprofit world requires one to deal with the possible corruption of ideals, commodification, and imperative to market social justice that is par for the course in a consumer culture.

While Nadya and Masha represent Pussy Riot in the spotlight, the rest of Pussy Riot maintains anonymity outside of the public eye. Although Nadya and Masha are regarded in mainstream media as being the most prominent members of Pussy Riot, anonymous spokespersons for the rest of the group have released public statements disassociating themselves from Nadya and Masha. In an open letter published last year, Pussy Riot members wrote,

"We are anonymous, because we act against any personality cult, against hierarchies implied by appearance, age and other visible social attributes. We cover our heads, because we oppose the very idea of using female face as a trademark for promoting any sort of goods or services. The mixing of the rebel feminist punk image with the image of institutionalised defenders of prisoners' rights, is harmful for us as collective, as well as it is harmful for the new role that Nadia and Masha have taken on."

When talking with The Media, Fanny Kaplan also critiqued Nadya and Masha's distortion of Pussy Riot's identity and noted how the celebrity Pussy Riot members' actions have caused "many in the [Russian] punk scene and in the feminist movement to turn away from them." Fanny Kaplan added, "Masha and Nadia, while still calling themselves Pussy Riot, are collecting various awards (which were addressed to everyone in the group), giving concerts with Madonna (who exists as a symbol of capitalism in music) and collect massive sums of money for personal gain, and their statements negate the feminist actions of their past."

The anonymous members of Pussy Riot and Fanny Kaplan bring up a key concern at stake here: do the losses that result from bringing radical work into a mainstream landscape outweigh the potential good that might come from exposing pop culture to a feminist punk ethos? Nadya and Masha's immersion in mainstream culture clearly demonstrates how the spirit of Pussy Riot was manipulated and repackaged for mass audiences. Yet, should Nadya and Masha's work on behalf of prisoners through Zona Prava be completely devalued because it requires them to engage with a culture centered on branding everything -- particularly in ways that conflict with a feminist punk ethos? There are no easy answers to these questions, but asking them can help us identify ethical ways of navigating these points of tension between mainstream and radical forces. In 2015, exploring points of conflict between institutions and personal ideals feels like an unavoidable part of seeking to produce independent media in a culture that's not designed to accommodate alternatives.

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