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Art, Protest and Apathy
Pussy Riot and other artists on freedom of expression
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In February 2012, as Vladimir Putin was gearing up to steal the Russian presidential ‘election’ that year, the performance art group Pussy Riot staged an audacious and provocative work inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Dressed in colourful outfits and balaclavas, several members of the group burst into the church flashmob-style, dancing in front of the altar and singing expletive-filled ‘punk prayers’ in protest against Putin. Three women from the group were subsequently arrested and later sentenced to two years in prison on the charge of ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’. They had, the judge said, ‘plotted to undermine civil order’.
In a moving interview with the historian Simon Schama in December last year one of those young women, the artist and activist Nadya Tolokonnikova, talked about what happened to her during her time in prison. After being transferred to the notorious gulag IK-14 in the remote region of Mordovia, Tolokonnikova was forced to work in slave-labour conditions for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, sewing police and military uniforms. She described the effect this kind of punishment has on people’s sense of self: within a short time it stripped her of her identity and made her lose any hope, agency or motivation. Her life became meaningless. It’s an experience she has not fully recovered from more than ten years later. Of course Tolokonnikova’s real crime was to express her thoughts publicly about Putin’s corruption, mocking him in the process.
Our right to political protest is something we take for granted here in the UK. Amusing protest placard expression is like a national sport. But these rights are not set in stone and citizens of democratic countries must always be vigilant for their slow erosion - witness, for example, the current regressive laws on women’s reproductive rights in the USA at the moment.
Last week the British government passed the Public Order Act 2023 into law which gives huge powers of discretion to the police to stop and search individuals even if they have no reasonable grounds to do so, and to impose injunctions on people they deem likely to carry out protests that could cause serious disruption. Leading human rights groups argue that the Act aligns the UK’s anti-protest laws with those in Russia and Belarus.
This legislation has been brought in quickly in response to the recent protests from environmental activists who have caused widespread disruption in cities and on motorways by blocking roads and locking themselves to gantries. The laws include a new offence that criminalises the protest tactic of ‘locking on’, where people attach themselves to one another or an immovable object. Custodial sentences have also been significantly increased. Before this new legislation was passed there were already powers to deal with these peaceful but inconvenient kinds of protests by use of laws on obstruction of highways and causing a public nuisance. So one might reasonably ask why the new legislation is necessary?
Some have argued that the Public Order Act effectively gives new powers to the authorities to remove those whose voices and opinions are inconvenient. And if that sounds alarmist, it looks very much like that’s exactly what happened within days of the new laws being passed. On Saturday, a few hours before the coronation of King Charles III, anti-monarchy protestors from the respected campaign group Republic, including its Chief Executive Graham Smith, were arrested whilst on their way to central London. They were detained all day, long enough for the royal ceremonies to pass. And this despite months of close co-operation with police in the lead up to the event. Organisers had explained exactly what they were going to do, where they were going to be, how many placards they would have, what they would be saying, that they would have flags and amplification equipment with them. The police have now ‘expressed regret’ about the arrests and have informed the protestors that they will face no charges.
There are a couple of worrying things here. Firstly the police have just shown us exactly how their new powers can be used to silence people and to remove them from public spaces when it suits them. And secondly the threat of arrest willy-nilly has the power to intimidate members of the public, and will undoubtedly deter some from participating in peaceful, lawful protest in the future. Even if you have no sympathy for republicanism, you might want to protest against that proposed housing estate or that fracking facility being constructed in your local area. Nimbyists be warned though: if you cycle to that protest make sure you don’t take a bike lock with you because it might be seen as a lock-on tool the possession of which could land you in jail for 12 months.
The subject of public protest, free speech and intimidation from the authorities is an issue that the Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera has addressed very powerfully in her work over the years. Back in 2008 she staged Tatlin’s Whisper #5 at Tate Modern in London, in which two policemen on horseback walked through the Turbine Hall directing bystanders to move around the space. The artwork was about social behaviour and the way in which people respond to police authority; the power the police have to make people conform and to unquestioningly do as they say. It speaks to the way police power operates in our public spaces and it’s especially eye-opening and noticeable when you see it happening out of its usual context on the street. The performance was captured on video:
Bruguera grew up in communist Cuba during Fidel Castro’s leadership. She has described the deadening effect of the Cuban system on ideas, creativity and personal expression, the fictions and lies of the government, and the policing of thought even within families. Her own father reported her to the secret police, such is the widespread fear and the grip the authorities hold in society.
Back in 2014 Bruguera staged #6 in the Tatlin’s Whisper series in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza, a work which directly addressed the lack of freedom of speech in Cuba. She provided a platform and a microphone and invited members of the audience to take the stage to speak their minds uncensored for one minute, after which time they were escorted away by two actors in military uniforms. The police arrested Bruguera along with 86 other people who dared to participate.
Bruguera wants to rouse people from political apathy through her art and to try and engage people in becoming active citizens. That’s not easy when most people are too busy trying to figure out how to survive to pay much attention to politics. This is a subject the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei also addresses in his gripping 2020 film Cockroach. Ai Weiwei is one of the most influential artists in the world, and uses his art to raise awareness of human rights abuses and the restrictions of political freedoms around the world.
Cockroach documents the large-scale protests in Hong Kong in 2019 as mainland China began its power grab of the region. The opening scene is heartbreakingly hard to watch as a young protestor falls to his death from a building whilst trying to escape police arrest. The film doesn’t get any easier to watch after that, but it’s a lesson in courage as well as a powerful statement about the value of truth and the dangers of political apathy.
In justifying the new legislation, the British Home Secretary Suella Braverman has made a fear-mongering ‘we should all be very alarmed’ video, calling the current variety of activism ‘a threat to our way of life’. I have to disagree with her on that. Protest has a long and important history in Britain, and I owe most of the fundamental rights I have today to activists who fought for them in the past. That includes one of the most important activist campaigns for democratic rights in British history: the early 20th century battle for female suffrage, in which women employed many of the tactics that Just Stop Oil and other environmental protest groups are using today.
Many people question whether art can make change happen. Maybe not directly. But as the artist Marina Abramovic once said, ‘Art is about planting ideas and allowing those ideas to grow into trees. Trees create forests and those forests give oxygen, which supports an entire ecosystem.’ Which is why artists, musicians and writers are so important right now: they can connect with audiences emotionally, and they can persuade us with messages that we feel inside us are true.
Over the weekend as I was listening to one of my Spotify playlists on shuffle, a tune came on by the Irish singer Sinead O’Connor. It was the beautiful song Black Boys on Mopeds from her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. She sings these words:
These are dangerous days | To say what you feel is to dig your own grave | Remember what I told you | If they hated me they will hate you
It was one of those moments when art seems to connect the dots and makes total sense. We need to protect everyone’s right to freedom of speech, even if it is inconvenient or might spoil the royal party. Because whose voices will be silenced next?
As always I’d love to know your thoughts on any of the ideas and art I’ve talked about here. Click on the comment button below to leave a message.