The V&A is generally recognised as an institution of empire, the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, an amassing since its founding in 1852 of the creative heritage of industrial civilisation. So it’s quite extraordinary to encounter in its midst, like a snake coiled inside a Harrods’ picnic hamper, an exhibition celebrating the objects deployed during more than four decades of international protest and political activism, the “art and design from below” never usually accorded gallery space.
But is this yet another co-opting of the counter-culture by the establishment? As I arrived, my scepticism was challenged by two panels of ceramic collage flanking the museum’s entrance. Commissioned from the West London artist, Carrie Reichardt, they each depict a protestor holding up a shield decorated to look like a book cover against the baton-wielding figures of riot police with fifty pound notes collaged in their visors. The book-shields bear the slogans ‘History is a Weapon’, ‘Nothing is inevitable, Everything is Possible’ and ‘Power to the People’, ‘Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, Rather it is a hammer to shape it’, and seemed to announce that disobedience was not only possible, but also desirable.
Inside the museum another striking portal – inscribed with the history of barricades, from the original use of shipping barrels (‘barriques’), to bricks, tyres, bicycles and tripods – took me into the Porter Gallery’s display. The exhibition design makes good use of a small space, with steel poles that evoke scaffolding on a construction site drawing the eye towards banners hanging from the ceiling, and a video projected on the far wall. Showing footage of protests from around the world, including Palestinian resistance to the Israeli army and Barcelona’s ‘Shut down Bankia Party’ in 2012, at times there is an intense soundtrack with drumming, shouts and cries, and pumping electronic music, evoking the atmosphere of a street protest within the gallery space, although this is interspersed with quieter moments to hear insights on political protest from a range of journalists, activists and historians.
The first part of the exhibition is divided into sections, which reflect elements of social change – speaking out, solidarity, direct action and making worlds. The latter picks up the idea of construction, with practical and utopian objects prefiguring new ways of organising and living: an insulated pallet for occupying outdoor public spaces, which can be put under a tent in cold or wet weather, and the inflatable ‘general assembly structure’ devised by 123Occupy to offer a dry space for people to engage in direct democracy. A quote from the International Workers of the World constitution from 1905 itself seems to foreshadow this very current idea: “We are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”
Some ‘disobedient objects’ indicate great craft and ingenuity by their makers, whilst others are simply re-appropriated everyday items. My attention was caught by a saucepan lid (‘cacerola’) so beaten and bent by its use in Argentinian street protests against the government in 2001, that it resembles a metal breast, the hole where its handle would have been like an inverted nipple. Nearby a tableau of black-clad giant puppets made by the US Bread and Puppet Theatre Company during protests against the first Gulf War depict an Iraqi mother carrying the corpse of her child, while a bowtie-wearing businessman lurks in the background.
Censorship and misrepresentation are issues that artists and activists face to differing degrees around the world, and empowering people with the courage and means to speak out is key to successful social movements. The slogan ‘SILENCE = DEATH’ was used during the 1980s by queer communities in the US to question the state and church responses to the AIDS epidemic; it features on a poster with an inverted pink triangle on a black background, and an exhortation to speak out: “Gays and lesbians are not expendable… Use your power… Vote… Boycott… Defend yourselves… Turn anger, fear, grief into action.”
Inevitably placards and banners are a strong feature of the exhibition, with Coral Stokes’ hand-painted slogan ‘I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies’ a humorous address to the British government during student protests against the tripling of university tuition fees during 2011. The ‘CAPITALISM IS CRISIS’ banner made for the 2009 Climate Camp in London also features prominently, along with a note about the debate that it provoked when it later appeared at the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s, where people deliberated whether the ‘IS’ should be changed to a less radical ‘IN’. Defacing one of the very instruments of the capitalist state, its currency, is another more subtle means for spreading messages, and the exhibition features a pound coin from Northern Ireland in 2004 stamped with ‘R IRA’ (Real IRA), while in the US the ‘Occupy George’ project by Ivan Cash and Dao aimed to bring greater awareness about the economic disparity between the rich and the poor by stamping dollar bills in circulation with ‘Richest 400, bottom 150,000,000’.
As well as empowering communities to speak out, social movements often engage in forms of ‘direct action’, which rejects waiting often indefinitely for government representatives to act on our behalf. Conceptualised and practised by anarchists at the beginning of the twentieth century, the history of direct action is of course much older, although, like the barricades, its tactics and objects reflect the times we live in. A specially commissioned video describes ‘lock-ons’, where protestors’ bodies are instrumental in forming a blockade through the use of arm-tubes or bicycle D-locks.
The journalist Laurie Penny comments: “Change happens when you present a threat to property or power”, but as a precursor to change the state will usually attempt to protect its vested interests, and protestors often require various means for self-defence from police or military repression. DIY tear-gas masks made from water bottles and ‘bust cards’ to support people in case of arrest are featured, along with examples of the book shields similar to those depicted in Carrie Reichardt’s ceramic murals. These ‘book blocs’ were first developed by Italian students protesting in 2011 against budget cuts to education and simultaneously create a spectacle where the authorities are seen to symbolically attack learning itself.
‘Bike blocs’ are another contemporary feature of protests, with discarded bikes welded together into ‘machines of creative resistance’. A pair of bikes placed in parallel with a platform between them can house a PA and sound-system, which can be an important element in a protest for amplifying voices and offering music to accompany or co-ordinate protestors’ chants. Multiple modes of resistance also reflect a multitude of intersecting struggles, a theme which the exhibition highlights with a quote from Audre Lorde, the great American poet, feminist and activist: “There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not lead single issue lives; our struggles are particular, but we are not alone.”
Her insight comes from a speech delivered in 1982 entitled ‘Learning from the 60s’ (collected in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches), while another exhibit challenges the notion that the 1960s was a ‘golden age of protest’. John Bieler’s video installation ‘Every protest in the world since 1979’ shows a world map with pin pricks of light that indicate a protest. As time elapses towards 2013, the year the video was created, the number of lights steadily increases, so that by the end it displays a rash of activity challenging numerous forms of injustice around the globe.
Slipping into my bag a handout on how to create a makeshift tear-gas mask, I left the exhibition alongside a couple of expensively dressed women. One turned to the other and said with great indignation: “It’s unbelievably subversive!” At this I found myself considering the potential impact of this free exhibition filled with people on a weekday afternoon. Is ‘Disobedient Objects’ a nod by the cultural elite towards free speech and expression, and yet another example of a sop to the masses from an outwardly liberal state to dissuade us from more serious uprisings? Or is this exhibition a reflection of the growing climate of unrest around the world, a culture of resistance that perhaps many more people will engage with now that it’s won the stamp of respectability endowed by museum status? My feeling is that both elements are true.
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