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Live the Pussy Riot Experience

Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova is planning to take you to prison.

by Patrick Heardman
11 August 2017, 1:33pm

All photos by Denis Sinyakov

Following a series of projected artworks earlier this summer, Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova is back with another art project. This time, she's putting horrifying prison conditions throughout the world under the microscope.

Back in 2012, as you probably remember, Nadya and her bandmate Maria Alyokhina spent 21 months in a Russian prison after performing their anti-Orthodox church number "Punk Prayer" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Now, Nadya wants to expose the horrors of her experience in an effort to promote prison reform. To achieve this, she's creating an immersive theatre experience in London which will lead audience members through Pussy Riot's infamous church performance, their court trial and subsequent time in prison.

I gave Nadya a call to chat about the project.

VICE: Hi Nadya. Why have you decided to go down the immersive theatre route with this latest piece?
Nadya Tolokonnikova: Why? Because I think it's always an important question for political artists to look into ways to break the fourth wall between the audience and the artist. There are a lot of ways to do this – sometimes you can go and do your action on the street, but another way is to create immersive theatre where you've actually involved members of the audience.

How do you plan on taking them through the prison cell part?
I guess I'm just using all possible means that I have in my hands to attract people to prison reform. I don't have a really complicated or sophisticated answer here. I mean, I went through it; I know it's pure horror and nobody deserves to be in these conditions. Even if they committed a crime. I mean, maybe they stole something because they had nothing to eat, and now they're dying, without any medication. People with HIV, they don't have access to medication and they have rotten legs and rotten hands and nobody can help them with that.

Do you worry that people will be against the idea of empathising with prisoners?
Well, we do not live in a perfect world. There are some mistakes in court and, in certain countries, courts are corrupt and law enforcement is corrupt, so you can always find yourself behind bars, and I think it's better to just push for prison reform now and protect us from being in such places. I guess that's what I'm trying to say.

What kind of reform would you like to see?
I'd like to see changes in conditions. Of course, it's different from country to country. There are several prisons in European countries – especially in Scandinavia – where they've achieved a lot. In the Netherlands, for example, and in Estonia I've seen how they are moving from an old model to a new European one. These [prisoners] can choose what they want to do. They can't leave prison, but they can read Dostoyevsky – they can read the Bible if they want.

What's the biggest problem for prisoners today, do you think?
I think it's labour. It shifted the whole idea of prisons. They're kind of saying that they put people in prisons in order to make them better or re-socialise them, but in fact they put people in there to get some profit from it, and it can never lead to good results. You can't treat human beings as your slaves. We thought we'd got over that as humankind about 200 years ago, but it's not true. We still have slavery and modern slavery. I've been in prisons in Russia where prisoners labour for profit.

How do we go about changing this?
I've seen that it's possible to change. If you take a look at the Scandinavian countries. And to those who say, "Come on, it can't be changed, it's impossible" – I mean, we're sending human beings to the cosmos and we can't make prison reform happen? I mean, come on!

Where do the Connor Brothers come into this?
They're really great artists, and it's not that common a thing to find political artists – which is weird, because we're living in such a politicised world. We've kind of known each other for a long time. We have our own network, called Political Artists All Around the World, and the Connor Brothers have a special place in this network. Our production is just beginning, but they're helping a great deal.

Can you explain how the piece will work?
We're currently having conversations with different venues, so it will depend on where we manage to secure. We want to make it quite realistic, possibly with some metaphorical, symbolic elements. It's in the process. When you start to work on something it can change along the journey.

Why did you decide to do this now? Why not sooner?
One answer is that we were really busy with creating our organisations that helped prisoners in Russia, so we didn't really have time, but now we have more time to spend on art activity. That's one answer, and another answer is I believe this story is going to get people more politically active, and understand that citizenship is more than a word. For me, to be a citizen means to be politically involved. And we want people to share our belief in engaging citizenship.

Is that the defining message you'd like to convey with the piece?
Yes, but my point here is very easy and simple, and that's that when you are alone, or there are just a few of you who are trying to be politically active and speak up, it's easier for the government to just shut you up or lock you up. But if you have numerous people on the street there's little they can do, so it's just a mater of how many of us want to raise our voices.

When do you hope to launch this?
It should hopefully be around November, perhaps a little later. It all depends on how much time it takes to develop. We have one week left on our fundraiser, and hopefully we'll raise our money. We want it to be as soon as possible, but we want it to be as good as it can be.

Donate via Kickstarter to help fund the production costs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

@patrickbenjam