On Pussy Riot and William Shatner
by Jonathan Penton

Pussy Riot is a ten-woman anonymous Russian performance art group with feminist philosophies and punk aesthetics. They are known primarily for their sudden, highly public performances of profane and political songs, dressed in bright-colored dresses and homemade balaclavas, some of which are tragically pastel.

On February 21st, five members of Pussy Riot gave a guerrilla performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Dressed in their clashing costumes and “singing” and playing in punk fashion, they criticized the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the church’s privileged, strangely medieval relationship with President Putin, whose rule it calls a “miracle of God.” The performance was aggressive and sexually charged. They performed for about a minute before being ejected by security. Moscow Police arrived, and declared that no crime had been committed. The dramatic editing of the performance went viral immediately.


Within a few days, the Russian Orthodox Church initiated a criminal case against Pussy Riot, charging them with “hooliganism.” On March 4th, two members of Pussy Riot were identified and arrested, and a third was arrested on March 15th. Since then, the Russian media has been dominated by propaganda demanding that the three artists receive harsh prison sentences (initially, the prosecution was requesting seven years; they now seek three). Both State and Church have been hysterical in their condemnations—Church spokesperson Vsevolod Chaplin said, “God condemns what they’ve done. I’m convinced that this sin will be punished in this life and the next, God revealed this to me just like he revealed the gospels to the church. ” Which I think is pretty intolerant—does Chaplin mean to imply that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John made up some dumbass bullshit for political gain and called it the Word of God? Sounds way more blasphemous than the Pussy Riot act.

From March through August, the artists were held in “pre-trial detention” in defiance of Russian laws regarding the accused. They were deprived of sleep while asked to face the charges against them. Their defense attorneys were denied normal case-building opportunities, and judge Marina Syrova employed dirty little trick after trick to ensure their attorneys could not properly present.
The rapid trial concluded on August 9th, on which day the accused gave blistering closing statements, reminding the judge that the world was watching, that in fact Russia’s justice system, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian Orthodox Church were truly on trial in the court of world public opinion. Heinleineque, they spoke of their own “inner freedom” and the pathetic helplessness of those who would prosecute them, who lacked the power to speak against the State. They all but dared Syrova to sentence them, resulting in wild applause from the press box. Syrova, enraged, informed the room that her court was “not a theatre.” Sentencing is scheduled for August 17th.

If you haven’t already, please go to Amnesty International’s web site and sign in support of the release of the three imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. (For many readers, http://www.amnestyusa.org/pussyriot or http://www.amnesty.org.uk/pussyriot is the place to go.) The petition has wide media and celebrity support, and if you will accept Google into your browser, you can surely learn a great deal more about Pussy Riot than I can tell you.

I am a poet, publisher, and literary critic. I am a Dixie boy, currently living in rural Louisiana. I do not speak Russian, and cannot share with you the facts of Pussy Riot’s incarceration beyond what I’ve read in the English-language press. Nonetheless, I can safely identify and condemn one inaccuracy in the vast majority of articles about Pussy Riot.

Pussy Riot is NOT a punk band. They are a performance art group that sometimes performs punk songs.

Perhaps, dear reader, you do not know or care about the difference. That is understandable. Please forgive my snooty liberalcare Obamalitism: you don’t like it when journalists misrepresent what you do, either, even if the misrepresentations seem small to me. Allow me to link to a few illustrations.

This is a not safe for work punk-influenced music video called “Smack My Bitch Up,” by the band Prodigy. It is about a person who smacks their bitch up.

At the end of the video, we see that the bitch-smacker is female. This is a pretty obvious commentary on gender roles and assumptions.

What follows is a not safe for work video by the Russian performance art troupe, Voina, with which Pussy Riot has close ties. It is called “How to Snatch a Chicken: A Tale of How One Cunt fed the Whole of the Group Voina.”


In this video, we watch a woman go into a grocery store and shove a chicken into her shaved cunt, then release it. It also has social commentary. A few hours after first watching it (and without having obtained a translation), I have some opinions on what it’s about, but every time I think about typing them out and sharing them with you my mind just fills with images of that raw chicken sliding out of that woman’s shaved cunt.

That was a bit extreme, huh? Let me go with a more familiar example. What follows is a piece of music, a song, by musicians:

Now here’s that same song, as performance art, by a performance artist:

That latter recording, from William Shatner’s 1967 album The Transformed Man, is widely described as one of the most unintentionally hilarious recordings of the 20th Century. Anyone is free to dislike it, but to call it “unintentionally hilarious” demonstrates that one has missed the point: it is not music, and should never have been billed that way. If you go into performance art expecting to get music, you’re going to be disappointed, and it’s not really the artist’s fault.

In one of the very few good articles about Pussy Riot, Carole Cadwalladr interviews Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of one of the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, himself a member of the art collective Voina. (Do you remember, earlier, I mentioned Voina? I know, there’s a lot of detail and foreign names here. Let me try to remind you with a video of a woman shoving a chicken into her cunt.)


Cadwalladr and Verzilov don’t talk about music. They talk about art. They talk about art criticism, the role of art in society, and the role of art in politics. They talk about how Russia is discussing things that it’s never discussed before—feminism, paternalism. And one must observe that the English-language press is doing something similar. Not only is it talking about recent Russian history and culture in a way that it generally doesn’t, but the mainstream English-language press talking about the role of biting, unpleasant art in society—something that the West has in abundance, but largely ignores. That ignorance is understandable. If I show you a video of an American woman doing that thing with the chicken and the cunt, I can’t necessarily expect you to agree that it has profound social relevance.

Ah, but in Russia… performance art is all about context, and that context, my friend, is something else entirely.

On June 27, William Shatner went on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He describes a flight from Los Angeles International Airport to South Africa, before which he was subjected to an excessively physical search by a TSA agent. Despite being 81 years old and one of the world’s most recognizable faces, he was struck repeatedly, causing his pants to fall down. Since he was preparing for a 22-hour flight, he was not wearing underwear.

If elements of this essay are starting to sound like stoner associations to you: congratulations! You’re very quick.

William Shatner is of course best known for his role as Captain James Kirk in Star Trek. In that role, televised from 1966 through 1969, he explored a scientific and secular humanism, anti-racist ideology, and blasphemy (albeit in a very proscribed manner). He worked with Majel Barrett, the wife of creator Gene Roddenberry and a strong first-wave feminist, and the final product of Star Trek is a bizarre mixture of first-wave feminism, blatant sexism, and a plethora of beautiful bodies of both genders that could not have happened previously and will almost certainly never happen again.

Younger consumers might know Shatner best for his publicity stunts, most of which involve his ambivalence toward being best known for Star Trek—an ambivalence which, unlike co-star Leonard Nimoy, he has always played for laughs. Although he’s got some perfectly respectable TV and film credits to his name, the B-movies he starred in during the ‘70s have turned him into a bit of a joke, a public comedian and celebrity, more than an “actor.”

Have you seen that Pussy Riot video? It’s hilarious.

Shatner has released seven albums of performances in which he speaks the lyrics to popular and lesser-known pop songs. His “musical” career—that is, his audio recordings of performance art—are viewed in the shadow of Captain Kirk, and are mostly designed to be viewed that way. His 2011 album, Seeking Major Tom, is basically a collection of twenty famous songs having something to do with space. It’s clear that he intends for these recordings to be funny, but some might miss the intelligence behind the humor, best demonstrated in his 2004 album, Has Been, particularly his cover of Pulp’s “Common People.” With this track, which explores the inability of a very wealthy young woman to experience economically “common” life by fucking the people who lead it, we see him take a pop song and transform it into something that is not only a different art form than the original piece of music, but unambiguously more interesting. His weird, ranty voice, filled with the social implications of that’s William Shatner, takes the song some place it could not go as a piece of music (and by employing vocals by Joe Jackson, he makes the contrast between performance art and music all the more relevant and fascinating).

Now, here’s the thing. Pussy Riot’s acts deserve to be translated into English. That’s happening. No need to sweat it. Pussy Riot deserves to be thoroughly discussed as fine art by the critics of the West. This is going to happen. I promise.

Pussy Riot also deserves to have their messages about art brought to Westerners, common Westerners who, like the Russians who involuntarily experience Pussy Riot’s performances, don’t read magazines of art criticism and shouldn’t have to. Furthermore, such Westerners deserve to hear their message. Westerners should have the opportunity to consider the relationship of art, even art that appears in the guise of punk-flavored stunts, to society. Westerners deserve a chance to consider what musical performance can mean to society, not because it is music, but because it is performance. They deserve to have these opportunities brought to them—not by a shelf full of art magazines by which they already feel rejected, but by someone that they know, and trust. Not a critic, but a member of the “common people.”

They deserve to hear covers of Pussy Riot songs performed by William Shatner, and I therefore urge you to sign my petition requesting he record an album of those songs.

I ask you to look into your hearts, look into your television screens, and do the right thing. I know that, ultimately, only Shatner can make this decision, and I do not presume to be worthy to influence his actions. But I know that we can try, and because we can, we must.

I thank you for your time today, and leave you with one final video. Please, give it five minutes. It will change your life.

Jonathan Penton is, among other things, the Editor-in-Chief of Unlikely Stories: Episode IV, formerly Unlikely 2.0, formerly Unlikely Stories, at http://www.unlikelystories.org. You can read more about him here.

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Filed in News, Stories on August 9, 2012