15.02.19 – 30.04.19
In November 2018, three members of Pussy Riot, an open-membership collective whose methodology centres on pre-planned public actions, visited Cape Town at the invitation of Italian artist Marinella Senatore. Well known in Europe for her participatory performances and parades, one of which involved 20,000 participants, Senatore viewed the invitation as a gift. Ever since five members of Pussy Riot staged a protest against the re-election of Vladimir Putin in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012, this agitprop group has used the “persistence” of their bodies, to quote American philosopher Judith Butler, to draw global attention to social conditions in contemporary Russia.
The conviviality of Pussy Riot’s direct-action methodology was evidence again when, in July 2018, they invaded the pitch during the finals of World Cup tournament in Moscow. Dressed as policemen, Olga Kurachyova, Veronika Nikulshina, Olga Pakhtusova and Pyotr Verzilov ran onto the pitch during the lacklustre final between Croatia and France. While Nikulshina’s high-fiving of footballer Kylian Mbappe became a defining image of the action, far less acknowledged was the conceptual justification for the action. Pussy Riot dedicated their action to artist and poet Dmitri Prigov (1940-2007), who wrote about the pervasive figure of the Russian policeman during the Soviet era.
All four Pussy Riot members were subsequently detained for 15 days. Two months later Verzilov was admitted to hospital on suspicion of poisoning. “I find the censorship of Russian artists very cruel,” says Senatore. “I wanted to expose the Pussy Riot activists to a relaxing time in Cape Town, as well as place them in a completely different context to what they are usualy exposed to.” Three of the four Pussy Riot members who participated in the World Cup action accepted Senatore’s invitation to visit Cape Town – Verzilov was too ill to travel from Israel, where he was convalescing.
During their two-week visit, Kurachyova, Nikulshina and Pakhtusova met with various artists and activists. But home, and all its complications, remained unavoidable, a haunting spectre that they invited South Africans to consider. “There are many things in common between Russia and South Africa, but the one thing we don’t have in common: here in South Africa there is really working freedom of speech, working NGOs, and so on,” said Kurachyova during a press briefing. “In Russia we don’t have such things.”
Towards the end of their stay, on 29 November, Pussy Riot released a statement through its official Instagram channel expressing solidarity with Russian musicians being targeted by the Federal Security Service (FSB). “Artists in Russia are being banned like in Soviet times, many concerts are cancelled,” read the post. It went to detail how musicians IC3PEAK, Husky, FrendZona and Allj had all recently experienced state harassment. A day after the post was published Kurachyova, Nikulshina and Pakhtusova staged an unannounced action in Cape Town.
During the bustle and heave of a Friday night at EVOL, an underground nightclub on Hope Street that has long been a safe space for Cape Town’s LGBTI community, the DJ crossfaded to a song by electronic duo IC3PEAK. Wearing their signature knitted masks, the Pussy Riot activists climbed onto the stage and danced. Photographic documentation of this ephemeral action appears on Senatore’s debut solo exhibition in South Africa, Bodies in Alliance / Politics of the Street.*
Senatore’s exhibition presents work in diverse media – drawings, paintings, photographs, light sculptures and audio-visual installations – and offers a broad overview of her artistic strategies and material interests. It also gives insight into the artist’s personal avatars. The title of the exhibition directly references a 2011 lecture in Italy by Judith Butler. Titled “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” the lecture was a response to the tumultuous presentness of the occupy movement and Arab Spring (more formally, it was also an intellectual argument with Hannah Arendt).
“For politics to take place, the body must appear,” argued Butler. “I appear to others, and they appear to me, which means that some space between us allows each to appear.” Much of Senatore’s practice since 2006, when she began exploring participatory practices involving social activists and non-artists – pretty much anyone with a sense of fun and appreciation for the necessity and immediacy of the commons – bears out Butler’s assertion that action is “invariably bodily”.
Writing in her 2015 book Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly, Butler argues that collaborative action can be “an embodied form of calling into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political”. Pussy Riot’s action at EVOL, which the group allowed Senatore to document, and also to situate within the larger archive of her own socially engaged practice, offers a practical elaboration of Butler’s theoretical arguments. Bodies perform, bodies resist.
As is evident from her collaboration with Pussy Riot, Senatore is not a prescriptive collaborator. If anything, she views herself as a trigger. “I want to activate things, not control things,” she says. “I am interested in the public meaning of performative action, the meaning of assembly, and the emancipation of people.” Consequnetially, participants in her work are not constellations or infrastructures; they are vital and unavoidable bodies. Tangibility, that haptic opposite of virtuality, also matters to Senatore. “My projects cannot exist without real experience.”
Senatore’s thinking is greatly influenced by Butler, who is an intellectual lodestar for the artist – who initially trained as a classical violinist before embarking on her art career. Senatore’s exhibition includes a copy of Butler’s Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly in the audio-visual installation How People Became Army (2018). A convivial space of pause and intellectual replenishment, the installation recalls the precarious spaces fashioned by activists at Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square, well-known people’s assemblies that included improvised libraries and spaces for reflection.
Senatore’s library exhibits her preference for contemporary aesthetics and social theory – she is, after all, a doctoral student at University of Castile-La Mancha in Spain. Alongside Butler’s book there are texts by, among others, Nicolas Bourriaud, Jacques Rancière and Nadya Tolokonnikova, a Pussy Riot member jailed in 2012 for “hooliganism” after the church performance. How People Became Army also includes an audio component that explores resistance across multiple geographies and temporalities. The selection includes Sicilian folk icon Rosa Balistreri (“I’m not a singer, I’m an activist who makes speeches on the guitar,” she once said) and Jennifer Reid’s renditions of 19th-century English worker ballads.
The installation also includes an interview with Carlos Aponte of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist organisation founded in Chicago in 1959. Senatore linked up with the Young Lords during a 2017 survey of her practice at the Queens Museum, New York. “Research is the biggest part of my work,” she says. First-hand encounters, she insists, are pivotal to her rhizomatic and horizontal way of networking and collaborating. Senatore, who first visited Cape Town in 2018, is using the occasion of her SMAC exhibition to further her research on South Africa for a planned show at the Iziko South African National Gallery in late 2019.
Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor based in Cape Town
*Pussy Riot’s intervention was a collaboration with the collective, Death of Glitter, an interdisciplinary art underground based in Cape Town.