Pussy Riot’s New Immersive Theater Project Will Show You What Russian Prison Is Really Like

The staunch artivists want viewers to get an authentic taste of Russian-style captivity.

Original Pussy Riot print by Jonas Akerlund, © Pussy Riot.

Pussy Riot wants you to know how it feels to be locked in a Russian prison, and they’re turning to the theater to make it happen. Russia’s best-known feminist punk band and art collective is embarking on a six-week immersive theater experience called Inside Pussy Riot at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

After spending almost two years inside of a Russian prison for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” over a performance in Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Pussy Riot member and conceptual artist Nadya Tolokonnikova turned her attention to the intersections of art, social justice, and prison reform.

“We’ve done illegal actions,” she told artnet News, “and we’ll do more, but we’ve decided to explore another way to involve the audience.” The new theater production, created with the London-based company Les Enfants Terribles, expands on her 2016 speech at Art Basel in Miami in which she encouraged viewers to “find or create alternatives” to conventional modes of art interaction.

While protest-led activism is Pussy Riot’s raison d’être, Tolokonnikova was involved in conceptual artwork before joining the anti-Putinist punk collective. In 2007, she joined the Voina art collective—a student street-art group from the Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and other Russian universities that blended spontaneous art pranks with guerrilla-style graffiti.

Speaking about Inside Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova said that the idea for the show came to her after seeing the Les Enfants Terrible production of Alice’s Adventures Underground in London. “I wondered, what if we combined the aesthetic effect of the immersive theater with our activist approach?” she said. “Could it actually enhance our political agenda?”

To answer that question, she began a three-month period of planning Inside Pussy Riot with the goal of involving the audience beyond a passive viewing experience. According to Tolokonnikova, the production pays homage to conceptual artists like Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, who brought ersatz Soviet communal living conditions to Western audiences; and, to Ai Wei Wei and his 2013 recreation of his time in captivity. She also cited Sleep No More, the fourth-wall-breaking participatory theater production in New York, as a major inspiration. For Inside Pussy Riot, audiences will be split into small groups and subsequently treated like Russian political dissidents—arrested and led from trial to solitary prison cells—with Tolokonnikova’s personal experience serving as the guiding premise.

To fund the production, Tolokonnikova is appealing to the public through a Kickstarter campaign that launched on Monday. In addition to encouraging citizens to be patrons of artivism, the crowdfunding platform will help Tolokonnikova create as realistic an environment as possible. Donors can earn Pussy Riot swag in exchange for a contribution, including t-shirts, stickers, and limited-edition prints for those who pledge £200 ($260) or more.

The campaign will be live through August 4, and for those intrepid fans who are looking forward to the authentic Pussy Riot-experience, Tolokonnikova assured, “spoiler: you will be released.”


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