Genuine Fake Misery – My Experiences with Pussy Riot

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By Julian Gilmour

I am a fake art critic, but I have had the pleasure and privilege of working briefly with Nadya Tolokonnikova and the Pussy Riot collective, so I guess I am at least partially qualified to comment on my experiences with genuine fake misery, both at Dismaland in 2015 and the recent Inside Pussy Riot installation at the Saatchi Gallery. The latter was an interactive theatre experience in the vein of Punch Drunk performances which aimed to convey the story of how Pussy Riot first gained international notoriety, staging a guerrilla gig inside a Moscow Cathedral in 2012 and what happened next.

In August 2015, street artist Banksy opened Dismaland. The art installation, or ‘Bemusement Park’ as it was tagged, was a sinister twist on Mickey Mouse’s corporate dreamland situated in a disused lido in Weston-super-Mare, where the artist spent time as a boy… or indeed girl. The old-fashioned fairground symbolism was given a Banksy-style twist, you had the chance to win money by knocking over an anvil with a ping pong ball and the Disney castle centrepiece featured a vehicle crash where a Princess Diana-style Cinderella was snapped ferociously by paparazzi as she hung from the wreckage of a giant pumpkin carriage. Immigration was a major political theme looming large on the political landscape then, as it does now, and within the walls of Dismaland I found one of the most evocative pastimes to be the remote control boats. They were the kind of thing many young kids like to play with at fairgrounds, except at Dismaland they were overloaded with skeletal refugees hanging off them like the people-traffickers’ boats in the southern Mediterranean.

The theme of authority versus anarchy loomed large with a miniature mock-up of a police state environment with nothing but military and emergency services, but no actual civilians at all. A life sized police van had been abandoned in the small lake in the middle and the staff wore Mickey Mouse ears with bandannas covering their faces like street artists. Every single one of the staff were very rude and this, combined with the dark tone of much of the artwork, the genuine fake misery of the place really struck a chord despite encouraging a wry smile. No one could see my smile though, as I wore sunglasses and a black riot police balaclava. It was the closing night so Banksy was in attendance – allegedly – so even the visitors were expected to wear masks. What is maybe less well known about Dismaland is that during the month that it was open, it also held gigs. Among others, Run The Jewels, Savages and Sleaford Mods played, and on the closing night, Pussy Riot were scheduled to perform. They were to sing their upcoming single Refugees In and as part of their set they wanted to put on an actual riot, complete with anti-establishment protesters and riot police. That’s where I come in.

Art dealers The Connor Brothers (who have now come clean and are not in fact religious cult escapees living in Brooklyn) have been Pussy Riot’s UK ‘fixers’ since the latter requested a real tank and an AK47 for their set at Glastonbury. The Connor Brothers came through, so when Nadya wanted to stage a riot at Dismaland, she went to the Connor Brothers for protesters and riot police.

I am a martial artist and a fellow black belt of mine is the brother of James Golding, one of the Connor Brothers. Thus the 4D Combat Team (fighting under Guro Bob Breen) were asked to do the stunt work along with a few ‘proper’ actors. We spent a few days in an East London studio filming with Pussy Riot, both to choreograph the riot at Dismaland and for video footage for Refugees In. I felt pretty awkward when I first met Nadya Tolokonnikova, unsure how to greet a world-famous anarchist feminist ex-con Russian punk nymph. I didn’t know whether she would consider me a collaborator, an acquaintance, a stuntman, or simply staff. Adding to the grey area, within thirty minutes I was dressed in Riot Police gear and getting into character which you’d think might be off-putting for someone who has suffered so much at the hands of the authorities. She says that despite everything, she likes a man in uniform. Women too.

Going for drinks with Nadya, her husband Pyotr and another member of the collective one night after rehearsing, we all sat round discussing global civil disturbances like the violent demonstrations in Greece over austerity measures, Putin’s hold on Russia and her experiences in prison there. For Nadya, performing a punk prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012 led to a sentence of two years for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’. Putin let her out three months early but she considers the fake clemency a self-serving empty gesture. Outwardly appearing so obviously beautiful and undamaged, one thing that us rough-and-tumble-kickboxer-types all agreed upon later, was how genuinely tough she really was on the inside. Already an activist for women’s rights, equality and personal freedom, she talked of the cruelty and degradation behind bars with such a matter-of-fact stoicism, like the rest of us might talk about a particularly wet Glastonbury. For Nadya, two years in a penal colony (which included some time on hunger strike) just seemed a necessary rite of passage in order to get her message across.

A few days later we all traveled to Dismaland on the coach together and I got a further insight into Nadya as she was interviewed for a German magazine while sitting right behind me. When asked ‘So what do you see yourself as predominantly? A musician? An activist? An artist? A feminist?’ She answered: ‘I see myself as a conceptual artist and so all of these areas are just brushes that I use to paint the world.’  

A few hours later we were inside, walking to the stage dressed so convincingly as riot police that the crowd gave us quite a lot of stick, falling for the charade. Safe in the knowledge that I was there for the right reason, I found it quite easy to get into character behind the balaclava, visor and Perspex riot shield, raising my baton and shouting ‘No photos!’ Mercifully, the planned police vs protesters action went really well thanks to fight choreography by Eddie Gold, and as fans of Banksy, we were over the moon to discover later that he was a fan of ours. Later on, watching the De La Soul set I found myself dancing in between Keith Allen and a bloke who I thought looked like Damon Albarn in a Zorro mask. Then De La Soul burst into Feel Good Inc by Gorillaz and he jumped on stage to sing his own song with them. Later at the bar I was asked: ‘Are you an actor?’ I said ‘No, I’m a martial artist.’ ‘So what are you doing here?’ ‘I was one of the riot police during the Pussy Riot set’ ‘So you ARE an actor. My God, nothing is what it seems here!’ Even I had unwittingly become part of the blurred lines of power and anarchy, visitor and performer, and… genuine fake misery.     

Five years later Nadya chose to hold her interactive theatre experience at the Saatchi Gallery in SW3, for which she has received some criticism. Yes, maybe the message could be better suited to a more left field, less established venue, but one might also argue the story doesn’t need telling to the audience such a venue might attract. Equally, the Saatchi exhibition attracted funding from a foundation of a billionaire Russian banker, but who knows the investor’s true motive? The message was unsurprisingly anti-Putin, and photos of naked people cavorting while wearing masks of the Russian Premier along with Kim Jong Un, Theresa May and Trump were highly successful satire in my view. The works were definitely challenging at times: there was a room displaying some visceral work by artist Petr Pavlensky who once nailed his scrotum to Red Square as a protest piece. At the start of the interactive part of Inside Pussy Riot (created by Les Enfants Terribles) we were given instructions: no photography was allowed and we were not to acknowledge that the events were staged. Moments later our group was ushered through a door and told to sit down. There was a box full of coloured balaclavas and some banners with various political slogans. We were to choose which one mattered to us most. I chose ‘WE MUST PROTECT THE ENVIRONMENT’ and my partner chose ‘WOMEN MUST HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS TO MEN’. Slogans about the gap between the rich and the poor, free movement of people and uniting against racism were also featured.

Having chosen the cause that we would be keenest to defend, we were then moved to a reconstruction of a church where we were encouraged to put on our balaclavas and parade around chanting the slogans on our banners. Around us were murals of religious images of Putin and other world leaders, but the mock police turned up very quickly (the original gig in Moscow was raided in 40 seconds) and demanded that we drop to our knees with hands behind our heads before receiving a fake tongue lashing. We were placed under arrest and moved to the police station. Everything had a bit of a cardboard feel to it, much like the fake metal detectors and cameras at the entrance of Dismaland, but the tone changed when one of the visitors was then told to sit down and strip down to her underwear in front of everyone. Visibly upset, once she had done that she was ordered to take the rest of her clothes off. She refused and standing right in front of her, I didn’t know where to look as the police shouted at her, insisting that she get naked. She remonstrated and the tension was palpable as both sides of the argument raised their voices. Mercifully, she then explained that she was an actress, but it was a successful reminder at how personal boundaries might be challenged in Mother Russia.

Then we found ourselves derided in a cartoonish court reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Wall where a big-haired judge and robotic dog veered a little too close to circus until we were finally sentenced for voicing our political views. The next room had us arrive at prison where our balaclavas were removed and we were given prison boiler suits and prisoner numbers and told not to use our names. My genuine fake derision was met with: ‘Don’t look me in the eye!’

Then came the hard labour. My first work station consisted of a pile of coins, an empty target area and a toothbrush, so I spent a few minutes polishing coins until being moved to a sewing machine that didn’t work. Throughout we were told to work harder and faster and generally insulted, but after three sessions of fake hard labour, we were moved to the most disturbing room in the experience. The whole group was locked together in a small tiled bathroom with mutterings from the speakers and prison inmates’ experiences scrawled on the walls. They told of everything from people getting their heads pushed down filthy toilets to explicit rape references

After that we were separated and left to stew, alone in a claustrophobic cell listening to Nadya describe her experiences on ear phones. She explained that each of us has a voice and each of us can effect change. Acting together, we have the power to challenge the status quo, overcome the minority in power and bring about the changes that we as individuals want. As we left, our political banners were returned so we left the exhibition, once again chanting about our chosen political causes, undeterred by our punishment. The misery of my short incarceration was genuinely fake, but Nadya explained in the recording that within a month of living in the Russian prison system, even someone as strong as her was ‘destroyed and obedient’.

Today, unbroken by her experiences, Nadya continues to raise awareness for issues like prison reform, internet freedom, human rights, and free movement of people, continually rallying against all that is right wing authoritarianism. As she sneers in the video at Dismaland: ‘Refugees in, Nazis out!’ She claims in the exhibition program that ‘We are all Pussy Riot’ but while she is genuine, I’m just a fake.

 

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