Pussy Riot – ‘I Can’t Breathe’ – Review

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Following their release from prison, a tour around the world and a book of letters between Slavoj Zizek and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Pussy Riot has released their first English-language song and music video, ‘I Can’t Breathe’, a work of performance art and protest.

This video marks a change from the wildness of ‘Mother of God, Drive Putin Away’ aka ‘Punk Prayer’, the protest song which made Pussy Riot a household name in the West and the darling cause of the left wing enfant terribles during their trial for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’. Decried as an example of the suppression of free speech under Putin, their arrest and trial also pointed to problems in the way that we in the West view free speech – as several commentators have said, there are plenty of places in the UK and (especially) the United States that this performance of a blasphemous, anti-government song would have gone over poorly as well.

In 2012, five members of the Pussy Riot collective entered a cathedral wearing bright balaclavas and proceeded to stage an impromptu performance of their song, which includes lines which translate to ‘Holy Shit, Shit, Lord’s shit!’, ‘St. Maria, Virgin, Drive away Putin’ and ‘St. Maria, Virgin, become a feminist’. The performance – which was later edited with other footage and put on YouTube – lasted less than two minutes. Three of the women were arrested and tried. They were sentenced to two years in prison and were released after their sentences were cut short in 2013.

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By comparison to their previous actions at the Cathedral and at the Sochi Olympics, the imagery in this video seems to be intentionally understated so that the messenger does not overshadow the message.

Two members of Pussy Riot (Nadya and Masha) are buried alive while the song plays on the soundtrack. The camera moves over their bodies and lingers on their faces as they react to the dirt covering their faces with involuntary jerks. The comparison of Russian police uniforms and the American subject matter serves to provoke a discussion about the way in which police force is used around the world. Each shovelful of dirt covering their bodies is a cry to the memory of those who have died at the hands of police violence. Questions are being raised about the way police use violence to protect or destroy.

In the last minute of the video, the performance artist Richard Hell reads Eric Garner’s last words, a direct, chilling reminder of the way in which Garner met his untimely end at the hand of two New York police officers who choked him to death in July 2014. Police had stopped him on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. Garner’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ were repeated all over the internet, raising the event’s profile until #icantbreathe became a symbol for a movement in the post-Trayvon Martin United States.

In a statement reported in the New York Times, the women of Pussy Riot described the visual design of the video as ‘a bit of wish-fulfilment for some people out there’ – a reference to the many death threats that they have received. The video and the song both act as provocations to a conversation which desperately need to happen across cultural lines. With ‘I Can’t Breathe’, Pussy Riot is maintaining their place as a key figure in the struggle for political prisoners and suppressed dissenters.

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