A major new exhibition at the V&A in London seeks to chronicle the invention and creativity of protesters around the globe. It's impressive – up to a point.
V&A Museum’s new exhibtion showcases pieces of resistance
It is not governments but ordinary people who make political change happen – and they never do it empty-handed. This is the concept behind Disobedient Objects, a major exhibition of “art and design from below” at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Its timing is not a surprise, following a few years of remarkable upheaval across the world, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement to the mass protest movements in Ukraine, Brazil and, this very week, around the world in solidarity with Palestine. What is incongruous is that such a prestigious museum’s prime exhibition space has been devoted to the world’s rabble-rousers, discontents and refuseniks – bizarrely, last week’s launch party was featured in the high society magazine Tatler.
The V&A has been keen to make the space feel appropriately disobedient. Throughout, there is a very deliberate DIY feel: from the scratchy, cobbled-together wooden display cases to the colourful hand-stitched banners hanging from the ceiling, there is a sense that the homemade can triumph over the polished, corporate power of the state. It is a fallacy to think people power – and the objects they use – can triumph because they are more authentic or organic; it is not this quality that makes revolutions happen, but rather that grassroots power is more elastic, more flexible, more spontaneous. Big ships have bigger cannons, but they also take longer to turn around.
This dynamism of spirit begets an inspiring popular creativity, which is the driving force of the exhibition, from the humble simplicity of a witty badge or placard (“I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies” – from 2010’s student protests in London) to the sophistication of the “Bike Bloc”, a series of bicycles modified to incorporate sound systems, food or even compost toilets as part of a mass mobilisation of environmentalists outside the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit.
There is a point where creativity can feel like a rather self-indulgent end in itself. It might suggest a rather curmudgeonly spirit, but I bristled when I saw, for example, circus skills like juggling going on at London’s Occupy St Paul’s, the protest camp inspired by Occupy Wall Street. I appreciate the value of the carnivalesque in principle, but contemporary western protesters need to think about the tactical efficacy and symbolism of throwing coloured balls in the air as a route to radically reforming international finance or indeed overthrowing global capitalism.
Even the more light-hearted disobedient objects at the V&A have a political rationale ascribed to them: the appearance in the 1990s of giant homemade puppets, in New York and San Francisco protests against the first Gulf War, are explained via the notion of “culture as a staple of life”. The right to culture is a universal human right, just like the right to food, or shelter, or the right not to be bombed, goes the thinking. And sure, that sounds fair in principle. It’s just hard to look at a giant papier mâché puppet and compute how it might connect to, let alone help, the Iraqi people.
Elsewhere, context gives an entirely different aspect to similarly playful objects. Finger puppets from the ongoing Syrian opposition to Bashar Al Assad, used by anonymous, masked protesters in a viral video series mocking Assad, carry a great weight of poignancy (and real, present danger for its puppet masters), rather than decadence. Likewise, a Palestinian slingshot made from the tongue and shoelaces of a child’s shoe: it is dated to the second intifada, and accompanied by a picture of slingshots being used by Palestinian minors against Israeli military jeeps. The tragedy of that asymmetry lives in the slingshot’s rough-hewn, home-made ineffectuality; the history of a brutalised people’s homemade resistance to tanks and air strikes, all the more tragic because it informs not just recent history, but global news headlines this very week.
The guiding principle of contemporary disobedient objects, techniques and ideas is their dazzling new ability to spread, via the technological conduits of the networked era. One pamphlet, distributed in Tahrir Square in 2011, on How to Protest Intelligently (and avoid being hurt or arrested), cropped up in Kiev, in translation, during the EuroMaidan protests last year.
These ultra-modern disobedient objects gain more power through the interconnectedness, or solidarity, of the digital age. What about the Madison, Wisconsin, trade union protests of spring 2011 – thousands of people from all walks of life occupied the state capitol building, for several days, in protest against cuts and new laws on collective bargaining; the protesters needed food, and so locals and eventually people elsewhere in the United States called Madison-area pizza restaurants and ordered pizza to be delivered to the building. As word spread, one such pizza order was made to Ian’s on State Street, Madison, from protesters in Cairo, in recognition of their common struggle for freedom. That pizza was perhaps not a disobedient object, per se, but it came as close to capturing the late modern political zeitgeist as a thin disc of dough, tomato and melted cheese can.
While the pamphlets and placards are entertaining and important in their own ways, if the transformative powers of the disobedient object are the main criterion, there is one that could justifiably sit alone in this exhibition, on a pedestal in the middle of an otherwise empty room: the smartphone. Its ability to connect like-minded souls is fairly obvious to anyone who has used one (22 per cent of the world has one, according to Business Insider; there are six billion mobile subscriptions globally, in a world population of seven billion). Some of its more pioneering dissenting uses are little-known. There was Sukey, the smartphone app created by British university student protesters in 2011, after a winter of “kettling” by riot police – containment, outdoors, for hours, without charge or release. It used GPS and crowd-sourced observations, tweets and texts during demonstrations to keep tabs on police movements, map them in real time and ensure protesters’ freedom of movement.
In the exhibition another undisputable invention de nos jours uses the smartphone to terrific effect: the “Flone” is a (relatively) simple, homemade H-frame, fitted with four propellers, that turns a phone into a “people’s drone”, an unmanned airborne camera to film and photograph the movement of police. Instructions for making the Flone have been spread far and wide online – I first heard of it when someone pointed me to YouTube footage taken by a Polish protest group’s drone, flying over the heads of police lines – and while the open-sourcing of drone technology does not exactly dispel concerns about privacy, this does at least seem like it is being harnessed as a small surveillance “counter-power” to that already held by police, state or private power. In the spirit of open-sourcing the tools of global disobedients, the V&A exhibition has provided elegantly rendered take-home A4 guides showing visitors how to make their own Flone, or a makeshift gas mask.
Even with the instructions, it seems unlikely the museum’s genteel visitors will be making their own “bucket pamphlet bomb” any time soon, and the exhibition’s place in London’s illustrious “Museum Street”, in a museum named after the United Kingdom’s 19th-century queen and her husband, does strike a slightly incongruous note. But they are to be congratulated for this exhibition nonetheless; in a sense, perhaps the incongruity makes its message, that when the world is changed from below, it is often changed for the better, more striking. Either way, it is impossible to consider these objects without also considering the way the culture industry responds to them.
A telling quotation from US trade unionist Nicholas Klein is displayed next to the entrance to the exhibition. It contains an essential reminder to the disempowered to persevere, but also a warning about remaining sceptical in victory: “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.” Monuments, or exhibitions.
As the protesters who sought freedom in Egypt in 2011 have discovered, the stage where people build monuments to you, or honour your courage around the world, or compose academic theories about you, or put your objects in an art and design museum in west London, is not necessarily a glorious one. The monument is nothing without the freedom you originally sought.
“Don’t fall in love with yourselves,” Slavoj Zizek memorably warned the denizens of Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street – and exhibitions like this are in danger of encouraging exactly this tendency, the narcissism of the righteous. The curators of Disobedient Objects are clearly mindful of the potential for “museumification”: “It’s not a canon, it’s a starting point,” they explained at the launch event. They are to be congratulated for one small but vital decision: all the objects displayed will be allowed to break free from their display cases and be returned to the activist groups who created them, for all their future struggles. Only then can the objects rediscover their disobedience.
Disobedient Objects is at the V&A in London until February 1. Visit www.vam.ac.uk for more information.
Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.