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Pussy Riot and the Legacy of Punk

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'And another lot of young people will appear, and consider us completely outdated, and they will write ballads to express their loathing of us, and there is no reason why this should ever end.' Alfred Jarry

I don't think that it is that funny to say that Pussy Riot is in response to Putin being a total dick, staging a pussy vs. dick dichotomy. Putin isn't just a dick, he is a complete douchebag. Say it using Eric Cartman from South Park's voice perhaps. Doesn't help if you try to bring the riff from the Team America movie on pussies, dicks and assholes into the equation. This is serious, and being flippant or attempting to blog some stuff about this situation feels petty. But here goes:

No doubt Putin has to over-react, as he has massaged the relationship between church and state in Russia for years and years and years. This situation reminds me of what the members of the band Crass had to go through, following their amazing culture-jamming in 1982, distributing the notorious faked phone conversation between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the middle of the Falklands War. It reminds me of what Living Theatre had to go through as they toured Frankenstein and Paradise Now during the mid-late 1960's. It reminds me of the Diggers. It reminds me of the Ranters, the Levellers, of the people I read about in Christopher Hill's 'The World Turned Upside Down', or the people Greil Marcus wrote about in 'Lipstick Traces'.

Of punks; punks throughout history that talked the talk and walked the walk, of activists that are active.

Pussy Riot has their roots in the amazing Russian art-prank collective Voina, who you might remember got in trouble for painting a gigantic dick on a drawbridge next to the Russian Secret Service. They also flipped over empty cop cars and released thousands of cockroaches - all good stuff.

So why am I blogging about this. Blogging isn't doing something, it is consuming ideas.

Well. (sigh) I don't know. I hope you and me and everybody will send Pussy Riot's defense fund some money. They need our help. They are alchemists: They took germinating western punk rock ideas and are realizing their potency in real time, in meat-space.

The riot girls taught us that young women inside a counter-culture movement don't necessarily get heard until they grab the microphone. Occupy Wall Street, before they collapsed like a poorly assembled soufflé - intentional bourgeois analogy - the moment they started consuming their own ideology as a self-referential anti-establishment ceremony, showed us that youth can still be activated, notwithstanding issues around attention span. Pussy Riot has grabbed medial attention, and is spearheading change in a place where youth doesn't get as easily distracted as in the west. Or where grassroots activism doesn't get as easily defused by the distraction this society of spectacle provides, as the stakes for Pussy Riot are ever so much higher.

Brecht pointed out that the spectacle certainly has the ability when poison is spat in its face to immediately turn the poison into a delicious condiment. Considering how punk legacy reverberates this does not necessarily have to be the case: We all sighed over the photo a few months ago of a bunch of young Burmese punks, looked up by the authorities for exploring the rudimentary of adolescent rebellion, utilizing visual signifiers that to us in the west were no more than cultural clichés. But we have to stop right there: If dying your hair purple, shaving it into a Mohawk and wearing a leather jacket stenciled with a Crass symbol will have the elders of your society throw you in jail, then that indicates the fear prevalent in society where rocking the boat is unacceptable, as the sense is that things are too bumpy and stormy already for the powers that be.

Cue Russia, Putin, Pussy Riot: My first thought when I heard of the arrest back in March was to reflect how the Riot Grrl movement, which inspired Pussy Riot, certainly did amazing things to empower young women, and provide them with the impulse to get up and get on with it. That the ripples of Riot Grrl ended up in Russia, and is now inspiring hoards of young people to rally against a totalitarian regime is wonderful, but also incomprehensible for privileged westerners such as myself. It also leads to thoughts about how baffling it is that the anti-Iraq War movement was so flaccid. Putin certainly understands how fickle the relationship between church and state is in Russia. He is forced to react harshly when Russian youth stages an act with such immense symbolic potency.

Punk taught Pussy Riot, and should still teach us all to create situations, and the Situationists taught that to the punks, taught that to the students in Paris in 1968, and is certainly teaching the Occupy Wallstreet crowd that digital media defuses activism as it provides the spectacle of participation, notwithstanding that which is served up is the technology of isolation.

Hey westerners: Send Pussy Riot some money.

For further background viewing, Johan Kugelberg's exhibition on punk graphic design, Some Day All the Adults Will Die! Punk Graphics 1971-1984, co-curated with Jon Savage, is at London's Hayward Gallery from 14 September - 4 November. Free admission. He also has a new book, Punk: An Aesthetic, co-authored with Jon Savage and published by Rizzoli.

Johan Kugelberg, William Gibson, Linder Sterling, Gee Vaucher, Tony Drayton and John Holmstrom talk punk at 7pm on Thursday 13 September in the Purcell Room as part of the exhibition.

'Everywhere, youth (as it calls itself) discovers a few blunted knives, a few defused bombs, under 30 years of dust and debris; shaking in its shoes, youth hurls them upon the consenting rabble, which salutes it with its oily laugh.' Guy Debord, Potlatch 1954