Art activists rattle elites in age of YouTube

13th December 2012, Comments 0 comments

Within the space of less than a year a group of young Russian women in 2012 went from being almost unknown provocateurs to global superstars and a symbol of change in their country.

The Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot have only a half dozen songs to their name, no recording contract, have never held a conventional concert let alone sold an album.

Yet now they are garlanded worldwide as symbols of a battle for liberty and freedom of speech under Vladimir Putin, praised by personalities ranging from Madonna to Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi.

Their extraordinary rise would have been unimaginable in an age before social media and video-sharing, which helped turn fringe anarchists into celebrities whose trademark multi-coloured balaclavas are now instantly recognisable.

Internet media has allowed artists to try and break censorship at home and spread their message far beyond frontiers, be it Pussy Riot or the equally prominent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The most detailed examination of the Russian protest movement to emerge so far is not a book or a traditional documentary but a sequence of dozens of short Internet films called Srok (The Term) posted on YouTube and elsewhere.

The scrutiny of the protest leaders is by no means always sympathetic but the project was sufficiently explosive for investigators to last week raid the home of its director, the filmmaker Pavel Kostomarov who has now suspended the project.

--- Putin got scared? --

Pussy Riot first emerged in the autumn of 2011, initially an offshoot of the Russian street art group Voina (War) which had already won a name with subversive stunts.

Members of Pussy Riot had been involved in some of Voinas most notorious actions that have included the mock hanging of immigrants in a supermarket and a group sex session in a Moscow zoological museum.

In their first major stunt in October 2011 they showered Moscow metro passengers with pillow feathers as they sang for an equivalent of Egypt's Tahrir Square in Russia.

They took to the roof of a prison building to serenade detainees arrested in an anti-Putin protest and then in January 2012 managed to perform on Red Square singing Rebellion in Russia, Putins Got Scared and letting off pink flares.

Only a handful of people saw the protests live but the group astutely mixed footage of the performances with studio-recorded sound to create a compulsive Internet video.

Even then the combination of aggressive rap-style lyrics in Russian to a base track of thrash rock was hardly to everybody's taste.

But what happened on February 21, 2012 made them impossible to ignore.

Four members of the group, kitted out in coloured balaclavas, tights and vests managed to perform a punk prayer in the altar area of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow imploring the Virgin Mary to rid us of Putin.

The action itself was chaotic and the girls were rapidly apprehended by security. But all was recorded, the performance was edited that night with a new soundtrack and that video has now been viewed 2.5 million times on YouTube.

In a trial denounced as a throwback to Soviet show trials, three of the girls were condemned to two years in a prison camp for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.

Images of them peering through the defendants cage in court created yet another indelible image while the trio were nominated for the EU's Sakharov prize.

One was freed on appeal but two remain in prison camps - celebrated throughout the world and a painful thorn under Putin's skin.

-- Gangnam Chinese-Style ---

A few years back, the chances of a contemporary Chinese artist becoming a global freedom icon would have been about the same as Russian punk anarchists with a taste for thrash metal.

But as global perceptions of Putins Russia have been shaped by Pussy Riot, many ideas about China are now seen through the prism of its most internationally prominent cultural figure Ai Weiwei.

Ais exuberant parody of the video Gangnam Style by South Korean rapper PSY - the most viewed YouTube video of all time - on the surface appears charming but was deemed provocative enough for it to be blocked by the Chinese authorities.

The video shows the bearded artist in a bright pink T-shirt imitating PSYs famous horse dance along with a cohort of assistants.

But in a symbol of Beijings efforts to silence him he pulls out a pair of handcuffs which are then used to dance a strange pas-de-deux with a fellow activist.

Ai, 55, has worked in numerous artistic media, including photography, sculpture, painting and architecture, but has become famous for a brand of performance art linked to political activism.

It has included a campaign to identify the children killed in school collapses during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which cast a broad light on poorly constructed buildings and used video of officials and police trying to silence him.

Ai disappeared into police custody for 81 days last year as activists were rounded up amid online calls for Arab Spring-style protests in China and was then fined $2.4 million in a tax evasion case.

-- Full Circle --

At a time of uprising in the Middle East and economic crisis across much of the world, art and politics mixed more uneasily than ever as artists emerged as champions of rights causes.

At the end of Iranian director Jafar Panahis 2000 film "The Circle" about the daily lives of women in Iran, a prison door slams shut on a cell containing all the main female protagonists of the movie.

The Venice Golden Lion and Berlin Silver Bear-winning filmmaker was feted across the world as one of the most original voices of the Iranian new wave.

But he was given a six-year prison term and 20-year ban on making films for "making propaganda" against Irans Islamic regime. He is now under house arrest, awaiting the final verdict in his case.

Along with jailed rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh who is serving an 11-year sentence, Panahi was the co-winner of the EUs Sakharov prize this year in what the organisers said was a message of solidarity and recognition.

Panahi nonetheless still managed to make a picture -subversively entitled This is Not a Film -- about his daily secluded live which was smuggled out of the country on nothing more than a USB stick.


© 2012 AFP

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