Pussy Riot, Political Action and the Future of DAOs

Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founder of the protest collective, has been using censorship-resistant tools enabled by crypto to advance its messaging for social change.

AccessTimeIconJun 14, 2022 at 5:38 p.m. UTCUpdated Jun 21, 2022 at 4:01 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconJun 14, 2022 at 5:38 p.m. UTCUpdated Jun 21, 2022 at 4:01 p.m. UTCLayer 2

Daniel Kuhn is a features reporter and assistant opinion editor for CoinDesk's Layer 2. He owns BTC and ETH.

Growing up, Nadya Tolokonnikova, one of the founders of protest collective Pussy Riot, wanted to be a feminist. That’s what the 32-year-old artist and punk rocker told CoinDesk at Consensus 2022 in Austin, Texas.

Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova explained while sitting on the floor of the Austin Convention Center, is often mistakenly thought of as just a punk-rock outfit – one that first made headlines in 2012 for their anti-Putin anthems. But the group, which operates like an off-chain decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), is so much more.

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“Anyone can join Pussy Riot,” Tolokonnikova said on the Big Ideas stage on Saturday. “We're open source, we write our own code … We’re decentralized, we’re autonomous, and we’re an organization.”

The artistic, political collective – which counts over 100 members, of which a punk band is just a small part – is working toward a more equal world. Over the past decade, Pussy Riot has founded media companies, published books and staged protests on and offline to further their “global feminist protest art movement.”

Lately, the group has been using the censorship-resistant tools enabled by crypto. Tolokonnikova was a co-founder of women and LGBTQ+ activist group Unicorn DAO. She also helped found Ukraine DAO, which auctioned an image of the Ukrainian flag in March for 2,258 ETH (approximately $6.75 million at the time) to support people affected by the Russian invasion.

“My goal is for future generations that are going to be onboarding into Web 3 … will have gender equality,” Tolokonnikova said. “This is how I see my role in crypto.”

Last week, as the Consensus event was unfolding a few blocks to the south, members of Pussy Riot, UnicornDAO and the Lakota Indigenous group Ikiya Collective charged into the Texas State Capitol building to stage a protest.

They unfurled a 45-foot banner reading “MATRIARCHY NOW!” from the third floor and then rushed out of the building. The moment of “domination” was minted as a non-fungible token (NFT) using auction platform Party Bid. To date, the group has raised 2.38980764 ETH – worth just shy of $3,000 – from 23 contributors to fund reproductive rights.

John Caldwell, a founder of Unicorn, said the group was “surprised” by how little attention and support this protest action has received. Texas, a U.S. state known for supporting the ideals of autonomy, personal freedom and limited state intervention, has been at the forefront of the conservative-led charge to roll back abortion rights, he said.

“I didn’t come here for the conference, I came here to protest,” Tolokonnikova said, adding that the crowdfunding model allows anyone who’s so inclined to contribute dollars or cents to their cause. Decrypt reported “mixed reactions,” with some Capitol building visitors snapping pictures and others hurrying out of the way.

Though she’s similarly taken aback by how little buzz the Capitol publicity stunt generated, Tolokonnikova said crypto is full of energy. “A lot of people here are visionaries. They want to build a better world,” she said.

Perhaps no one knows better than Tolokonnikova how much work goes on behind the scenes at activist causes. She said she splits her time doing logistical work for the DAO – answering emails, participating in her Discord channels, speaking to artists and auction houses – and planning showstopping events.

As co-founder of independent media outlet Mediazona, she has spoken before the U.S. Congress, British Parliament, European Parliament and performed at Banksy's Dismaland exhibition.

At an earlier Consensus event on the Big Ideas stage, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) professor and head of the Australian university’s Blockchain Innovation Hub, Ellie Rennie, said that DAOs are a new type of organization that will require a new mix of interpersonal and technological skills to get right.

She noted that we should also not vilify DAOs that experiment and fail. “To be transient is OK,” she said. “We need to find what makes communities resilient.”

Perhaps the hardest task for DAO managers, faced with a tool that adds elements of financialization and speculation to social causes, is creating ways to “align” everyone’s needs. Economic incentives may encourage participation, but perhaps not commitment.

Others come to crypto precisely because it is apolitical – a space that seems insulated from the dramas, inconsistencies and superficialities of modern-day politics. Crypto, by creating tools that anyone can use, has a plausible case for being “credibly neutral.”

Of course, some would disagree. Perhaps crypto will only rebound from the unfolding bear market if it finds a way to meaningfully engage with the world. In politics, perhaps that means crypto becoming an effective tool for change.

“Being apolitical there is no such thing,” Tolokonnikova said. “Apolitical just means supporting players that are already in power.”


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Daniel Kuhn is a features reporter and assistant opinion editor for CoinDesk's Layer 2. He owns BTC and ETH.

Daniel Kuhn is a features reporter and assistant opinion editor for CoinDesk's Layer 2. He owns BTC and ETH.