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nadya from pussy riot on why her friend marina abramović is a witch

And why that’s a really really good thing.

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May 25 2018, 8:00am

As part of her new i-D column on activism , Russian punk activist Nadya Tolokonnikova draws parallels between the work of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović and her own political life.

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Marina told me that a bunch of people were giving her shit online because they believe she's a witch. Well, Marina is a witch. And maybe if I work hard enough and get really lucky, I’ll get to be a witch like her.

When I think about Marina, I think about clarity of thinking, being a warrior, dedication to concepts that she has developed, extra-terrestrial ability to stick to her own decisions and plans, stubbornness, supernatural endurance of pain, highly developed empathy and fine-tuned art of transmitting unconditional love to everything alive.

Before we stepped on stage to have a public conversation for The New York Times' Times Talks, I was complaining to Marina that sometimes I forget English words and get stuck in the middle of a talk. I get angry at myself and find it hard to get out of that miserable, self-conscious and self-pitying state. “If I knew how to read minds telepathically and could read what are you trying to say,” Marina replied, “I'd suggest the right word for you." She was being coy, because she actually can read minds -- she surely reads mine -- and helped when I needed it.

When Marina and [her former romantic and creative partner] Ulay roamed across Australian deserts for 6 months, they learned a) how to concentrate ("not to move, not to eat, not to speak," writes Marina in Walk Through Walls: A Memoir) and b) how to understand what a human being in front of you wants to tell you without saying or hearing a single word. When they left the desert, they created the work Gold Found by the Artists (1981), during which they sat still, without moving in the slightest as they stared into each other’s eyes for 8 hours a day, 16 days in a row. Afterwards, Marina and Ulay renamed the performance Nightsea Crossing. The name was about crossing the subconscious, and the performance was repeated ninety times over the next five years.

They would later walk The Great Wall of China; Marina starting at one end, Ulay from another, meeting in the middle after three months of walking every day across the rocks, hills, mountains, fields.

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When asked about the boundaries between performance and life, Marina makes it clear that there has to be a separation between performance and life. Many artists who're doing crazy, frenzied, revealing performances are so dramatically different in their everyday life. They may be afraid of pain, shy, socially awkward or indecisive. But when you have a concept and the concept is good, you commit yourself to fulfilling it, and then the commitment makes you unstoppable. "You have to overcome fear. Otherwise you'll never do anything," advises Marina.

I had a glimpse of myself trying to explain to my prison mates and wardens in 2012 -- 2013 how it was possible that I had mustered the guts to make art that criticised policies of both Putin and the Russian Orthodox church, jumping and screaming hardcore lyrics in the church -- yet was sometimes not able to get my prison food due to politely waiting for everybody else to have their portions first, only to find that when I was just about to get mine, the lunchtime was over and we’d have to get back to the factories.

My wardens interpreted this as me being a foolish little girl who was hired by some smart grown-up men to take action. After spending some time with me, my prison mates knew that the punk prayer was genuine, but my inability to scream at someone or fight still didn’t make sense to them. The only possible explanation here is the difference between performance and life. I don't naturally enjoy being loud in public spaces, but when I need to behave for the sake of concept, I do it.

I'm mesmerised by Marina's contemplations on pain and fear: we've all heard that courage is good, but it inspires you the most when you have a chance to see the courage right in front of you. Experiencing painful things is sometimes the only way we can reach a new level of art, of understanding, of thinking, of achieving a new level of activism and political change. ‘Don't give up easily’, I remind myself when I look at Marina's work: find in yourself a courage to act when you're the most afraid. Develop willpower. When the stakes are high you may have to experience displeasure/pain to get to the place where you want to be.

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What does it actually mean to be a citizen? Living amongst other people is a commitment -- one which you may want to use Marina's lessons on willpower and dedication when dealing with. Being a citizen is a commitment to keep the powerful accountable for their actions, and find new ways of pushing them to do what you want, not what they want, every day. We're spoiled by consumer culture in a way; we believe that there should be a button that we push and everything becomes great again, that there is a magical leader who'll change everything. We live in times when the financial inequality is grotesque, and the division between ultra-rich and poor is ridiculous; could you really expect that those who have power and money will give up it up? You can never fully wash the blood off the bones, Marina must’ve have thought while, quite literally, washing bones and remembering the Balkan wars in her work, Balkan Baroque. “I’m only interested in an art which can change the ideology of society,” she said in her acceptance speech after winning the Golden Lion for it at the Venice Biennial in 1997. “Art which is only committed to aesthetic values is incomplete.”

At the end of our conversation in New York, Marina suggested that everybody in the room take part in an exercise from the Abramovic method: put your hand on your neighbor's shoulder, and close your eyes, and think about the power of community. For one minute. Marina told us that, while being a warrior, the most important and the most difficult thing is to keep on being tender and vulnerable. Like a witch.

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