Speaking With Others: an interview with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
Punk Prayer was my first introduction to Pussy Riot. It was a political art and activist site intervention by the founding members of the group in 2012. Four young women with faces covered in colourful ski masks were rocking out to a song in the middle of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. In the short video footage that I recall seeing from a news channel in Kampala, I saw faces of dismayed nuns and photographers snapping away at this performance.
In 2017, I got to meet Nadezhda Tolokonnikova during the Revolt event organised by ArtEZ Studium Generale. This encounter was specifically in relation to the initiative, School of Missing Men—a platform that was being formed at that moment to address the problematic lack of female representation in the art world, a phenomenon which is not reflected by the fact that eighty percent of the candidates and alumni of art institutions in the Netherlands are female. Anik Fournier, Fenna in t’Veld, Hannah van der Schaaf, and I engaged in a brief conversation with Tolokonnikova after attending the presentation about her work and book How to Start a Revolution. We were interested in navigating how her experiences in Russia could intersect with the issues we were concerned with—namely, self-empowerment and the potential for intersectional feminism discourse at ArtEZ.
What reverberated with me during our conversation was the complex issue of speaking for, or on behalf of, others. We started off by talking about feminism and whether Tolokonnikova identified with this term. Similar to other members of Pussy Riot, she preferred not to define what they do as feminist, while still acknowledging the historical work feminism has done to pave the way for her rights and voice. To further elaborate on this stance, Tolokonnikova argued that identifying with an umbrella ideology results in essentialism, which is something she prefers to avoid. The writing of Judith Butler on socially constructed notions of women and the challenge of reshaping these constructs was the preferred positioning of her work. I could relate this thinking to how the second wave of feminism ended up excluding the experiences of other women who were not middle class and white while attempting to pool women together in the struggle for equal rights. Due to this reductive way of seeing all women’s experiences as monolithic, feminism has now shifted to a more intersectional realm of discourse.
The question of who gets to speak for what group of people made me wonder about Tolokonnikova’s shift from a precariously guerrilla-based method of protest to a commercialized method of artistry. Upon release from Russian state prison in 2013 (she was convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”), Tolokonnikova and Maria Aljochina expanded their work to social media platforms where they go by We are Pussy Riot. It is on their YouTube channel that I got to see music videos such as: ‘Chaika’, ‘Make America Great Again’, and ‘I Can’t Breathe’. As opposed to the guerrilla style of working exemplified by Punk Prayer, these three videos focus on Tolokonnikova’s body – stylized in full representation mode of infamous political figures: Yuri Chaika, Donald Trump, and police brutality victim Eric Garner, respectively. In ‘I Can’t Breathe’, Tolokonnikova wears a Russian police uniform, singing while being buried alive—an ode to Eric Garner, a young black American man whose murder spurred the Black Lives Matter movement to (inter)national recognition. The problem in this work is the reductive way she places her body to stand in for other black bodies. By symbolically grouping together lived and hypothesized experiences of police brutality victims in Russia, the United States of America, and the rest of world, this work presumes an inclusion that was absent in Punk Prayer—in which her body was indexical with issues women face in Russia. When asked about this shift, Tolokonnikova attributed them to the necessity that her practice evolve, coupled with the difficulty of finding public places to stage protests as they had previously done. She told us how ‘I Can’t Breathe’’= came about:
“We were working on one thing in New York and we got out of the Whole Foods store and found ourselves in the middle of a demonstration dedicated to Eric Garner. So, the next thing we knew… we found ourselves in a studio recording the song. It was just an emotional spontaneous reaction. So maybe I will have an emotional spontaneous reaction somewhere else. But that’s the difference between people who study art and the people who do art, we don’t have good concepts about what we are doing. We are just doing it.’’
The courage and energy to react due to close proximities with or being moved by political-social urgencies resonate strongly with me on a personal level and also within my practice. However, Tolokonnikova’s refusal to define her practice leaves room to escape from being responsible for what exactly it is that they do. Under the cloak of emotional spontaneity, who you can speak for or about—in this case, Eric Garner (‘I Can’t Breathe’)—occurs without being accountable to the groups of people living these realities daily. By denying ideologies as an anti-essentialist position, some of the works by Pussy Riot nevertheless run the risk of clumping very different realities together in the name of artistic merit or activism. In Linda Alcoff’s Essay ‘The Problem of Speaking for Others’, she articulates that:
‘’ The problem of speaking for others is a social one, the options available to us are socially constructed, and the practices we engage in cannot be understood as simply the results of autonomous individual choice. Yet to replace both ‘’I’ and ’We’ with a passive voice that erases agency results in erasure of responsibility and accountability for one’s speech…’’ (1991-1992, p.6)
In this stream of thought, I recalled encounters with people of colour, Black and Asian, who, during the time I lived in Nizhny Novgorod, were not visible to the majority white population of Russia as economic and naturalized citizens. My right to safety was not protected by Russian political power structures. Who then was responsible for bringing these conversations to the public?
The possibility of living in a world where intersections cross beyond professions and urgencies were concisely captured by Tolokonnikova’s statement in her belief that you can be a performance artist and a nuclear scientist just as you can be a nuclear scientist and political activist. What I enjoyed the most from this encounter with Tolokonnikova was her openness and how we were speaking with each other on these shared matters of concern.
Alcoff, L. (1991). The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique, (20), 5-
 The interview was at ArtEZ School of Music, 19 October 2017, Enschede, as part of the Studium Generale programme REVOLT.
Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40(4), 519-531. doi:10.2307/3207893
 https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQYcCfKYfYMcuCsem8z5CyQ and https://www.instagram.com/wearepussyriot/?hl=en (accessed 23 April 2019)