Pussy Riot Concert Brings the Riot to Swarthmore

On Thursday, Sept. 26, the wooden floor of Upper Tarble shook so much that it seemed about to collapse at any moment. In the back of Upper Tarble, bright red, and black-and-white strobe lights shone onto a stage with two of Pussy Riot’s performers — Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria J Baez. They wore costumes that combined the aesthetics of police uniforms, goth attire, and what one might expect to find in a hazardous waste processing facility. A screen hung behind the stage, and on it rapidly flashed a video repeatedly showing the words, “Vomit on your bulletproof vest.” 

Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist punk performance art group, literally rocked Swarthmore as the latest installment of the Cooper Series. Two backup dancers sporting Pussy Riot’s iconic balaclavas and feminine police-like uniforms, Sophie Gray-Gaillard ’20 and Julia Zimmerman ’20, exacerbated this post-apocalyptic ambiance. Their message, visually unsettling and auditorily jarring, was clear — that such gruesome and frankly repulsive imagery could not have existed without police states. This early message adeptly created the “fuck the police state” motif that would continue throughout the rest of Pussy Riot’s set.

The collective, which consists of a variable number of members, gained prominence — and glorious notoriety — in 2012, when they conducted one of their characteristic guerilla performances in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. After the performance in the cathedral, several members of Pussy Riot were arrested, including Tolokonnikova. Tolokonnikova opened the show in Upper Tarble by saying, “I see we are performing in the church again,” referencing both the now-infamous performance and Clothier’s resemblance to a church.

The members’ arrests caused international outcry, and they were released after two years in prison. Their incarceration stayed in the audience’s minds throughout the show because of various references and allusions to Tolokonnikova’s time in prison, including songs about forced prison exercises, an animated depiction of the arrest in the style of a video game, and stories from Tolokonnikova about the arrest and her incarceration between songs.

Pussy Riot concert with Nadya Tolokonnikova in Upper Tarble on the campus of Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (Photo by Emma Ricci-De Lucca ’21).

Despite the somber and serious anti-sexism, anti-police-state theme of the show, Pussy Riot successfully managed to maintain a delicate balance between conveying exhilaration, pessimism, and uplifting optimism to the audience. Songs such as “Black Snow” and “1937” — which discuss environmental destruction and unjust political imprisonment, respectively — were separated with optimistic, fun songs. These included “Bad Apples,” a surprisingly catchy and empowering song about the necessity of destroying corrupt police forces and governments that support violence, and “Pimples,” a song about body positivity accompanied with a video featuring Sanrio characters. The appropriation of Sanrio characters was very on-brand for the collective, especially considering Pussy Riot’s appropriation of Hello Kitty for their branding.

Another unique aspect of the performance was the use of multimedia, such as the videos that accompanied nearly every song. These videos all displayed radically different images, ranging from a woman’s hand crushing rotten apples to nostalgic pastel pixel imagery. English translations of Pussy Riot’s Russian lyrics usually accompanied the videos. These displays, bright and sometimes rapidly flashing, were overwhelming, but added to the value of the show. They not only allowed far-away audience members to participate in the visual aspect of the show, but also made it impossible to look away or to think about anything other than Pussy Riot’s messaging.

In addition to the multimedia immersion of the show, Tolokonnikova commanded the audience with remarkable adeptness, and transitioned between drastically different songs in a way that felt like a natural progression of the performance. By interspersing her personal stories into these transitions, she also connected the messages of the show and made the intersections of feminism, protests for equality, and police brutality starkly evident. While on the surface these issues may have seemed separate, she never allowed the audience to forget that in reality they are all deeply interconnected in a way that is evidenced by her personal testimony. She never allowed the audience to forget that her words and lyrics were Pussy Riot members’ lived experience, and that she knew exactly what she was talking about.

Pussy Riot closed their performance with “Straight Outta Vagina,” one of their most-recognized songs. The exuberance and repetitive nature of the song, along with the lyrics displayed on the screen, had audience members, including those who had not been at all familiar with Pussy Riot before, singing and along to the chorus — “Don’t play stupid, don’t play dumb, vagina’s where you’re really from.” It is important to consider, however, that the song effectively contradicted Pussy Riot’s anti-gender-essentialist stance by essentially equating people with vaginas with women, but given Pussy Riot’s name, it was a fitting song to close off a magical and deeply empowering show.

Pussy Riot’s performance was not a mere exhibition of music and messages, but a visual essay that led the audience through a narrative of systemic oppression, brutalization, and miraculously, self-love and hope for future radical reforms. The encore, a banging 200-BPM track, featured a video-game-style depiction of Pussy Riot’s cathedral arrest and depictions of balaclava-clad women destroying Putin’s influence and control over Russia. And having followed after them on the journey of this concert, the audience, as it thrashed along to the absurdly fast music, knew that such revolution was not mere fantasy.  

Ash Shukla

A. Shukla is is a freshman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who plans to major in linguistics and economics, and is, furthermore, of the opinion that Carthage must be destroyed.

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