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Live: Pussy Riot's Cause Is Celebrated At The Ace Hotel

Live: Pussy Riot's Cause Is Celebrated At The Ace Hotel
Debbie Allen

The dungeon-black walls of the hip Ace Hotel's underground room, appropriately called Liberty Hall, are relieved by vintage speakers stacked floor-to-ceiling like a rock wall. The decorative recycling of defunct gear, lit with candles like a sanctuary, made a righteous backdrop for a reading of letters and depositions from Moscow's anti-consumerist, feminist, punk provocateuses Pussy Riot.

Feeling ran high in the room, which was crammed with (mostly) white females dressed similarly as the members or sporting androgynous looks suggesting hard-won sexual freedoms that people come to New York to enjoy. The expectant crowd were aware it was the eve of a verdict that could see Pussy Riot's members—Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova—jailed for as long as seven years on charges of hooliganism. (This morning, the three members of Pussy Riot were convicted of hooliganism; each was sentenced to two years in jail, with the five months they have already served going toward the time.)

During the 40-second performance of their anti-Putin punk prayer outside a Moscow cathedral, Pussy Riot wore brightly colored balaclavas that kept their identities secret. Perhaps that's why none of last night's readers were introduced by name. They form a strong spectrum of contemporary feminist cultural activism: artist K8 Hardy, who read the lyrics to "Putin Pissed Himself" and "Kropotkin Vodka" with somber emphasis; confrontational performance artist Karen Finley; poet Eileen Myles; Johanna Fateman of Le Tigre; conscious actress Chloe Sevigny; and journalist Masha Gessen, fresh from the Moscow courtroom. Gender (if not racial) diversity was represented by Justin Vivian Bond, coolly channeling Grace Kelly. Yoko Ono sent an encouraging letter.

The event was speedily assembled by freepussyriot.org's Robert Lieber and J.D. Samsos of Le Tigre and Men. "I thought it was important to hear their own words," Samson said. "I couldn't have written as well as Pussy Riot to relay what they're experiencing. My job is like theirs—making inciting art with a contemporary concept. I just knew that they would do the same for me."

The night made it clear that the deeply felt wo/manifestoes of Pussy Riot may take their place in the canon of prison letters alongside Nichiren Daishonin's "Letter from Sado" and George Jackson's missives from Soledad. The members' writings were marked by their thoughtful, pleading, assertive and above all optimistic voices.

As read with relish by Karen Finley, Nadia Tolokonnikova invoked the ancestors, describing the sentencing to death (revoked) of Dostoyevsky, and summoning Gogol, George Sand, the Situationist Guy Debord, poet Ivan Brodsky and paranoia bard Franz Kafka. She also fought fire with fire, combing the Bible to justify her case.

"Jesus Christ was accused of blasphemy. If Article 213 had existed two thousand years ago, Christ would have been charged under it... 'But beware of men: for they will deliver you over to the courts"—Christ warned' (Matthew 10:17). .... Two thousand years later, Pussy Riot, with its much more modest challenges, do not seek to establish a church. We merely suggested scrutinizing some aspects of the earthly representatives of the Christian church."

That line got a big laugh, which quickly hushed. Despite their belief and razor-edge bravado, what the members of Pussy Riot face is no laughing matter. What were the three women feeling just then, in the wee small hours of a Moscow morning—were they sleeping in their cell or tossing restlessly, wondering how the next few hours would change their lives?

Hearing the cumulative readings, they become a carefully planned maze of philosophical and political assertions of liberty, peppered with counter-arguments designed to confound any possible accuser. Most affecting is their stubborn positivity and determination to use art as magical thinking to transform Russian repression.

The hard-line thinking they face in and out of jail was astonishingly transmitted by visiting Russian journalist Marsha Gessen, who read from the court transcript of witnesses for the prosecution. The audience were gasping. "I have been unable to work for two months!" lamented one traumatized church-goer who'd witnessed Pussy Riot in action on the altar. Another witness discussed the speed with which the Pussy Rioters performed the sign of the cross, sniping, "She crossed herself rapidly, not the sort of crossing motion a real Christian should use."

 

Karen Finley reads at the Ace Hotel.
Karen Finley reads at the Ace Hotel.
Mark Kendall

Reading a letter that Maria managed to smuggle out of prison before being transferred to a cell with less privacy, Chloe Sevigny hit a sincere, human note on some of the night's most poignant narrtives. Describing Maria's cellmates: "Nina keeps saying that it won't get any worse. She's 55. She got detained for burglary. A drunken policeman took all her stuff and forced her to sign the report incriminating her, she never got to read what she signed. Now she's a thief in a mask. She's one of Pussy Riot too.

"Nina told me her cell-mate before me was Vika. She got handcuffed and raped in a police station, despite being pregnant. She was only brought to the doctor a day after. The doctor did not diagnose either miscarriage or rape. Vika is incriminated withburglary of an unidentified person, that's what the report says. She's also a thief in a mask. And yes, she's one of Pussy Riot too."

Justin Vivian Bond brought subtle irony and tragicomic control to his readings of Nadzheda Tolokonnikova's Letter of March 29 and Maria Alyekhina's closing statement. V skillfully worked great lines like "Our small, somewhat absurd act became a catastrophe that would not have happened in a healthy society," and "Prison is just Russia in miniature."

The thoughtful intensity of Eileen Myles injected practical mystery into Nadia's transcendent, William Blake-ian evocation of the wise child—"Our search for truth led us to the Cathedral... we were unbelievably childlike, naïve in our truth, but we do not despair."

As the night ended, writer Daphne Carr led the room through the schedule for the next day's pro-Pussy Riot protests, from the Russian embassy to Times Square. The audience fell easily into the call-and-response tactic used by the now-familiar "human microphone," used to spread information in Zuccotti Square without raising the decibels and freaking the neighbors. The current waves of global protest, some with liberties more directly threatened than others, merged for a moment in a candlelit club.

Prison will not be easy; the Pussy Riot members may just as likely be targets as leaders. This morning, as news of the verdict spread online, Finley sent an email to the Voice: "I was very moved by the passion and articulation of Pussy Riot's art and principles. My own struggles with church and state and with freedom of expression resulted in a case to the Supreme Court. Although I had many challenges and acts of censorship, I was never jailed for my art."

If they seem like they're facing jail time with a smile, it's partly because they understand their role as activist artists and the risks they ran. Tolokonnikova asserts a belief that will surely help keep them all level, whatever may await:

"We are not messiahs. But who knows, maybe Pussy Riot is a sign of the new times in the spiritual history of mankind—the century of Liberty, as prophesied by Russian religious philosophers?... Katya, Masha and I may be in prison, but I do not consider us defeated. Just as the dissidents were not defeated; although they disappeared into mental institutions and prisons, they pronounced their verdict upon the regime. The art of creating the image of an epoch does not know winners or losers."

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