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The Esper Machine: The Collaborative Filmmaking Team of Pussy Riot, Patriarch Kirill, and Vladimir Putin

The Esper Machine: The Filmmaking Team of Pussy Riot, Patriarch Kirill, and Vladimir Putin

Information has a way of escaping. It bounces and refracts
like light. It pools and flows as water does. It moves in different directions,
leaking out of images, out of language, out of the expressions on human faces.
No matter how carefully it’s diverted or how willfully it’s contained, it
proliferates in a way that can never be fully controlled.

There’s a scene in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner where Harrison Ford’s Dekard is looking for replicants
who have escaped from an off-world mining colony to earth. He inspects a
photograph with an Esper machine, a Photoshop-like device that harnesses a
latent psychic power in the viewer to zoom into a photograph and shift
perspective within it to view areas not included in the original image. He
finds a convex mirror reminiscent of the one in Jan Van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife and
enters its reflected image to find the evidence he needs. The scene is an allegory
for the proliferation of information in human documentation, and the way our
powers of attention can unearth its hidden conduits and make it into meaning.

Another photograph, this one not featured in a science
fiction film but released several years ago by the press service of the Russian
Orthodox Church, also turned out to contain more information than what first
met the eye. It shows the head of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill, seated
at a wooden table, talking with Russian justice minister Alexander Konovalov.
There is no watch on Kirill’s wrist, but a closer scrutiny of the scene reveals
a luxury Breguet timepiece in the reflection of the table’s glossy wood
surface. The watch had been photoshopped out by the church’s press service, but
they had neglected to erase its reflection. The press service may have had the
sense that this status symbol, worth several times the average annual salary of
a Russian worker, might seem extravagant for a man who has taken a vow of
poverty.

The story of the erased watch was picked up by news services
internationally after its discovery. In manipulating the image for their own
ends, but also inadvertently leaving in this sliver of reflected truth, the
Russian Orthodox Church drew attention to the very thing they were attempting
to conceal. The patriarch at first denied that he owned such a watch and rather
ironically called the photo evidence “a collage.” Later he was forced
to admit the watch belonged to him, blaming his press service for the slip-up.
The entire event was a collaborative political multimedia art piece. The
elements included the release of a digitally altered photograph with a clue
carelessly left in, the subsequent text and photographic comparisons produced
by the journalists covering the story, the performance of an ironically
counterfactual refutation and then admission by the church authorities, and the
final prose and images summarizing the story in the Western press. All these
bits of language and image writhed together chaotically in the murky digital
networks that connect, intersect and provide collision points for collaborating
and competing groups of people across the world. Looked at from a certain
angle, everyone involved in the event looked like a member of the same
political arts collective working together to manifest it. Like movements of
information, collaboration may extend itself beyond the particular wills and
goals of individual actors involved in it. The internet has sped up this
process exponentially.

Patriarch Kirill is best known in the West not for his
luxury watch collection or his unintentionally ironic political photo collage,
but for being the central figure in the prosecution of Pussy Riot, the feminist
performance art collective that has produced online videos of guerrilla punk
rock performances in public spaces in Russia. Pussy Riot is the most famous
group of performance artists that has ever existed, thanks in no small part to active
collaboration with Kirill and, ultimately, Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s gradual de-democratizing of Russia, increasingly autocratic
rule, election fraud, and creation of a new political alliance with the
Orthodox Church form the context in which Pussy Riot emerged as pro-democracy
activists. They had their roots in an earlier political performance art
collective, Voina. Both Voina and Pussy Riot are closer to Occupy Wall
Street-style direct action protestors than they are to typical American
political punk rock bands or performance artists. Both art groups have focused
on video documentation of outrageous, unsanctioned, impromptu public
performances. Their method is to use shock value to draw attention to power
imbalances in their society. Both groups are activists, but in their methods of
manifestation they are  primarily
filmmakers, reaching the world though the internet and relying on their
opponents’ overreaction to reach their audiences. Putin and Kirill were
eventually to become the executive producers of Pussy Riot’s film production
efforts.

Pussy Riot was formed in 2011, during the anti-Kremlin
protests against parliamentary election fraud by Putin’s United Russia party
and the crackdown on dissent that followed it. Tens of thousands of Russians
gathered in central Moscow, a temporary coalition of liberals, nationalists and
communists. The fact that Putin claimed that Hillary Clinton was responsible
for inspiring the protests demonstrates the degree to which he portrayed
criticism of the government as the result of malicious outside influences bent
on destroying the country, a classic rhetorical maneuver not unheard of in the
United States. The fact that he could pronounce such a patently absurd claim
with such confidence indicates the level of control he wields over Russian
state television. His absurd pronouncements in news releases are proof of his
skill as a film producer, a director and an actor.

It is in this context of protest and the subsequent return
of Putin to the presidency that Pussy Riot emerged as an art collective making
creative interventions with a Russia moving incrementally towards autocracy.
Despite being educated, middle class Muscovites, they have been violently
uninterested in institutional ensconcement, money, or critical acceptance. They
have never released any music commercially. Their approach as filmmakers has
been to focus single-mindedly on changing their society while sticking
rigorously to their own style. Their earnestness, commitment to ideas, naiveté,
and self-possession made them the central writers and actors working in an
ensemble cast, with a plot in which antagonists collaborated in a multimedia
performance event with a massive scale of production and a global audience.
They reinvented the rock video for the information age.

The unofficial Pussy Riot production team of Putin and
Kirill had been developing for several years, as the Orthodox church grew in
power while developing stronger ties to the Kremlin. Just before President Putin’s
controversial election to a third term, Kirill pronounced Putin’s twelve-year
rule a “miracle of God,” stated that it was “unchristian”
to join protest rallies, and asserted that it was part of one’s religious duty
to vote for Putin. He recommended that the faithful instead pray silently in
the privacy of their homes. As the church has increasingly became a propaganda
wing for the Kremlin, Moscow has put restrictions on other churches and
“foreign” faiths. Putin has used public tax monies toward restoring
Orthodox churches, and church officials have reciprocated by openly campaigning
for Putin and his party.

The documentary film producer Mike Lerner had already begun
his film about Pussy Riot before their performance of “Punk Prayer —
Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the
Savior. His co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin was his connection in Moscow. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is built
around footage, procured by Pozdorovkin, that was filmed with the consent of
the government through the Russian version of Reuters. It was originally meant
to be streamed, but the government shut down the stream after the first few
days of the trial, sensing it might not be flattering. The
footage leaked though. Most of it had never been seen before. The three
defendants in the trial, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mariya Alyokhina, and
Ekaterina Samutsevich, known as Nadia, Masha, and Katia, had requested that the
proceedings be filmed, and this was agreed upon with the court. The heart of
the film, then, is an elaborated work of appropriated footage originally
produced by the Kremlin. It is a court procedural of a blasphemy trial, with
contextualizing background material on the three defendants, their parents, as
well as information about the Church and the prosecutors. Though slow-moving
and somewhat incomplete as a documentary, it an extremely important piece of
political appropriation art, and is at the center of the massive interconnected
networks of footage and texts that comprise the overall collaboration of
Putin’s church/state complex and Pussy Riot’s feminist performance art
collective. The film shows the three women transforming the trial from a
pro-forma pseudo-legalistic suppression of dissent to an exposure of the
draconian conditions of Russia’s court system and a forum for them to explain
their art, their values, and their ideas.

Pussy Riot is a group of activist-artists, but these
activists are also purveyors of a formula. The idea: put on spontaneous hit and
run punk rock music performances with a political message, done in symbolic
public areas. The performers are anonymous women wearing balaclavas and dresses
arranged with wildly clashing Fauvist color schemes. The tone is angry,the
message focused, but all is done with humor and an intentional note of
silliness. “Anybody can take on this image, masks, dresses, instrument and
lyrics. It’s not hard. Write a song. Think of a place to perform,” says
Nadia. Pussy Riot is a guerrilla performance art formula meant for others to
take up.

Nadia, Masha, and Katia took this formula to the stage at
Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior as a protest against the partnership of
Putin and the Orthodox Church in stealing the elections. The performance took
place in an area preserved for priests on the soleas, where woman are
forbidden. The song “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!”
features an angry punk riff reminiscent of the early British punk band Cockney
Rejects, alternating with a prayer to the Virgin Mary, beseeching her to drive
Putin out of office. The lyrics include the lines:

Virgin Mary, Mother of
God, put Putin away,

Put Putin away, put
Putin away.

Shit, shit, the Lord’s
shit!

The Church’s praise of
rotten dictators.

The cross-bearer
procession of black limousines.
A teacher-preacher
will meet you at school.

Go to class – bring
him money!

Virgin Mary, Mother of
God, become a feminist.

The song lasted less than a minute before security at the
church had the performers removed. The police arrived at the scene, but they
never bothered to opened a case. Shortly afterward, a video was uploaded to
Pussy Riot’s Live Journal page and quickly appeared on YouTube. It was only
then that the three members of Pussy Riot were subsequently arrested by the
Russian authorities and charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious
hatred.” Someone high up had seen the video and made a call.

Pussy Riot, a Punk
Prayer
begins with an image of Masha entering a room in medias res. The
door swings open suddenly and she rushes in, looks around suspiciously at the
green institutional space, hastily takes off her jacket and sits down with an
odd half-smile on her face. There is something strange about the rushed pacing
of the scene, as though it were shot backwards or sped up, and the tone of it
leads into the sporadic feeling of alternate reality the court footage will
take on. It is like a scene out of a Buñuel film. Masha’s burst through this
door is analogous to the speed with which Pussy Riot turned from obscure
activists into a global cause célèbre.

The film shows the trial taking place in an impossibly
small, overcrowded courtroom; only the defendant’s families and the press could
attend. The room seems to shrink as the film progresses. It was intentionally
chosen by the government to reduce the amount of people who could witness the
trial in person, perhaps anticipating the level of absurdity that would be
required to make the women appear to have been motivated by religious hatred. After
all, anyone beseeching the Virgin Mary to join their cause has accepted her
authority to some extent. Their lyrics include, “Mother of God, rid us of
Putin.” Objections to the anti-Putin message of the song fueled the engine
that set these events in motion. In order to prove their case of
“Hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” the prosecutors were
forced to frame the proceedings as a blasphemy trial, assuming that offended
conservatives would accept this framework, forgetting that they ostensibly lived
in a secular constitutional democracy. This approach worked marvelously. Russia
is a highly conservative country, and Pussy Riot is mostly unpopular,
especially in the heartland, where news comes primarily from Putin-controlled
state television, where the women are portrayed as agents of foreign
governments who themselves are controlled “by Satan.” The
majority of Russians identify as Russian Orthodox, even though most don’t
believe in god, and the trial gave the government the chance to portray its
political opponents as threatening, disrespectful troublemakers and to solidify
Putin’s state/church partnership.

The case against Pussy Riot was so flimsy and the trial so
obviously rigged that no one really believed they were guilty of a hate crime.
They were on trial for opposing Putin and Kirill and the trial was justified by
highlighting the offence taken by the faithful. The language of the prosecution
leaned heavily on the crimes of offending “God” and “the entire
Christian world.”  The need to
demonstrate that “moral harm” was done to the handful of churchgoers
who were present in the almost empty cathedral at the time of the performance
led to testimonies like that of one candle seller who stated, “They spit
into my soul and into the soul of my God.” Other injured parties spoke
about being profoundly offended by the colors of the women’s dresses and their
exposed shoulders. The spectacle of criminal proceedings focusing on the
offended emotions of believers is closer to Muslim fundamentalist culture, an
Orthodox Christian jihad.

The three women stood accused of doing the “Devil’s
work,” and they were convicted for it, serving two years in Russian labor
camps. The judge, Marina Syrova, who had declined to hear nearly all defense
witnesses, pronounced that the women posed a danger to society and stated that
they had committed “grave crimes” of “insult and humiliation of
the Christian faith.” She indicated that defendants had psychological
disorders, and she excoriated them for embracing feminism, a “mortal sin.”
Their mental problems included “a proactive approach to life, a drive for
self-fulfillment, stubbornly defending their opinion, and propensity for
protest reactions.” Amnesty International declared them Prisoners of
Conscience.

The claustrophobic interiors shots of the courtroom in
Lerner’s film create a feeling of contained otherworldliness, where the rules
of normal modern judicial logic disappear and a Kafkaesque tone prevails. There
is an alteration of the nature of reality within the confined space of the
courtroom, reminiscent of Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, with its dinner guests at a party inexplicably
unable to leave. Pussy Riot, a Punk
Prayer
captures a setting in which multiple stages of history exist
simultaneously. The prosecution draws on medieval Orthodox Christian liturgical
texts as evidence and the defendants give articulate speeches that quote from
western critical theory and modern Russian conceptual poetry. This situation of
simultaneous stages of historical development existing on the same stage
reflects the state of current Russia, with it’s mixtures of undrinkable tap
water and modern shopping centers.

The light that dies off at the rectangular edges of the
movie screen does not mark the essential framing of this film. There is a frame
within a frame that draws our attention to the movie’s arbitrary edges, even as
it replaces them as the central device defining the subjects: The women are
shot almost entirely through a glass box they were confined to in the
courtroom. At the time it was nicknamed “the aquarium.” It is as
though another reality containment field appeared within Buñuel’s mad dinner
party, this one encapsulating modernity and sanity in its airless chamber
within the larger madness enclosed around it. The glass box evokes an aquarium,
a wardrobe, and a partition in a cell in a zoo by turns. It separates the
accused from the space of the courtroom and suggests that those inside the box
exist in a alternate judicial reality that is being witnessed though a kind of
window. It implies that the defendants are dangerous, and that they are so
hated that they need to be protected from attack even within the confines of
the court. Its wood and glass work their magic gradually and almost invisibly; the
box suggests that the rules for those on the inside of the box are not the same
for those on the outside. This is how ideology works, by framing, by allowing the
visibility of the frame to inexplicably erode in importance from one’s cognitive
field of vision.

But information has a way of escaping. As we look at the
women, we also see the reflections of the court officials, family members and
security guards. We can see how small the room is on its opposite side, just as
we saw Kirill’s watch reflected in the high gloss of his desk’s wooden surface.
There are bright strobe flashes, the dark distorted silhouettes of
photographers and murky shapes that shift and loom with a blurred menace. These
ambiguous images in the glass suggest alternate possible fates for these
women,  alternate possible futures of
Russia. They form and change into different possibilities of manifestation,
different histories. The reflections of the reality outside the box and the
images of the women inside, laughing at the absurd comedy of the draconian
proceedings, fuse together mutually enclosed spaces of the trial in an uncanny
collage, a kind of film within a film. The glass box is the state’s framing
device, but it is also an Esper Machine.  
After Macha’s final statement, the judge makes a spectacularly
counterfactual statement that epitomizes the dark comedy of the trial:
“Let me remind you this is not a theater.” The preordained trial was
primarily designed to be a theater, to set an example for any manifestation of
opposition.

The massive film art collaboration of Pussy Riot, Kirill and
Putin has two different audiences and two different meanings that go along with
them. The Russian audience saw an insult to their faith and to state power
rightfully punished by a strong authority. This opportunity to pander to
chauvinism and to make the population feel threatened increased Putin’s
popularity and solidified this partnership with the Orthodox church, who in
turn demonstrated they can easily whip up a vengeful moral outrage when it’s
politically useful. Learner’s film has been banned, and Putin has signed a bill
imposing jail terms and fines for insulting people’s religious feelings: the
“Pussy Riot” law. The Russian protest movement has been defeated for
the time being.

In the West, the sprawling Pussy Riot phenomenon read as a
primarily as freedom of expression issue. It generated worldwide criticism of
constraints on political speech in Russia and garnered widespread support
from American pop musicians. Pussy Riot,
a Punk Prayer
has been short listed for an Oscar nomination. The western
framing of Pussy Riot as being essentially about individual freedom of
expression is somewhat ironic, considering the group was explicitly formed to
proliferate in a way that included collective direct action and total
anonymity. Western supporters may be surprised to find that the group is
staunchly anti-capitalist. “We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist
system, at concerts where they sell tickets.” The western response to Pussy
Riot has also included a fair share of sexist dismissals, both through claims that
the women are seeking fame and only get attention because they are attractive,
and in supporting them as glamorous celebrities while largely ignoring their
ideas. The chances that Pussy Riot-style actions could flourish in the West are
questionable. In New York, there is a 150-year-old law that makes it illegal to
congregate in public with two or more people while wearing a mask or any face
covering that disguises your identity. The law has been used several times
against Occupy Wall Street protestors and was implemented during a Pussy Riot
support rally, in which several people were arrested for wearing balaclavas.
Russia is not the only country using archaic laws for the purpose of harassing
civil society.

Masha and Nadia were released two months short of their
sentences in an amnesty measure designed to make Russia appear to be a modern
country with a rule of law,leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, another
large-scale theatrical event. In the tradition of Russian dissidents, these
women have committed the crime of refusing to publicly accept their own
powerlessness, and they paid for it. They now have plans to form a new human
rights group focusing on prisoners’ rights, something they are now well-qualified
to work on. 

It remains to be seen what the production team of Putin and
Kirill will come up with next.  Putin is
himself a skilled appropriation artist. He produced a highly conceptual
master’s thesis, plagiarizing large sections of text verbatim from the work of two
University of Pittsburgh academics. His creative skills and knowledge of his
audience are considerable. It’s likely that Masha and Nadia may be working on
some kind of sequel with him in the future.

Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum
Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York
City.

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Comments

Jason @ FilmmakingStuff.com

This is a great story and one that totally needs to be seen.

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