OPINION

Disobedient Objects at the V&A

London

29 July 2014

Many of us are lucky to live in countries with political systems and societies that are to one degree or another pliable. They have give and flex, and with pressure applied over extended periods of time can change their shape in response, accommodating the demands and needs of new forces pushing for the transformation of accepted norms.

The Trade Unions movements, Universal Suffrage, Gay rights, Feminism. These movements and others like them are constantly forcing our nation states to adapt themselves to the contemporary world. Such moves towards change are almost always complex, drawn-out and highly conflicted processes, particularly where the demands of certain minorities are in direct conflict with the preferences of either the majority, or of the status quo and the vested interests of the powers-that-be. From the Suffragettes and their direct actions, to the Stonewall Riots and Occupy, citizens have often taken it upon themselves to group together and force the amelioration of their legally, economically or socially marginalised status.

Disobedient Objects, a new exhibition at the V&A deals with the way in which objects are almost always an integral part of how these counter-movements fashion an identity around which to rally. They serve as functional implements to achieve the movements' ends and items of propaganda aimed at gathering sympathy and support from a broader range of people. This is rich territory, and very different from the kind of institutional critique that you might expect from professional artists or designers commenting on issues through their work. The exhibition is a compendium of very functional items that are all means to one political end or another. They are not objects of reflection or critique, they are tools of action that are testaments to human joy and ingenuity when facing improbable odds, scarce resources, and the prospect of official rancour rather than recognition.

This is the first show to deal with the implements of these counter movements in such comprehensive fashion, and the curators have gone for a broad, inclusive reach, showing a large selection of objects from around the world. The somewhat messy diversity is overwhelming upon entering the show – particularly because there is no aesthetic continuity whatsoever between any of the exhibits – but this kaleidoscope of randomness slowly begins to reveal itself as highly coherent when you navigate through the space. It is as if a challenge has been laid down to us by the curators to see through the appearance of things, and to uncover the much more interesting secret life of grass-roots democratic action bubbling just below the surface.

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Bone china with transfers printed in green, bearing the emblem of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)

As you enter the exhibition there are two examples which frame the two broad categories into which the objects of the show can be roughly divided. The first is a teacup and saucer subversively emblazoned with the logo of the Women's Social and Political Union. These objects embody the strategy of symbolic re-appropriation – the combination of existing techniques, signs and traditions with radical messages, thereby uniting convention with change. Such objects work on multiple levels. They are on the one hand useful implements, on the other eloquent units of communication. For instance, the hand-painted mimetic Book-Bloc-shields (shields painted as well known and beloved books; first used in Rome 2008 and later to spread to student protests around the globe) simultaneously offered protection from the police baton, as well as serving as rhetorical tools in which images of protesters being attacked by riot police were transformed into icons – the state literally beating the crap out of culture and knowledge. Similarly, a selection of richly coloured Arpilleras – three-dimensional textile pictures – illustrate the transformation of traditional knitting into a powerfully cathartic tool of resistance and self-expression for women in Pinochet-era Chile. The “Richest 400, Bottom 150,000,000” stamped US one-dollar banknote, designed by protest group Occupy George, highlights the absurdity of capital’s accumulation and lack of fluidity through the base unit of its own supposed free circulation.

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Andy Dao and Ivan Cash's Occupy George overprinted dollar bill

The second category is represented by the almost unrecognisable lid of a casserole pot. The pot has been beaten out of shape through its use as a noise-making instrument during the Cacerolazo protests in Buenos Aires, a series of demonstrations that followed that nation’s huge debt default and ensuing financial collapse in 2001. This lid – which together with hundreds of thousands of others contributed to the resignation of three presidents in two years – is about as eloquent a representation of functional re-appropriation as you could expect to find.

Throughout the exhibition we are shown how people around the globe make new tools like the tin-pots to aid with a specific task, re-using existing implements in ways for which they were not originally intended, or constructing entirely new things from a Blue-Peter-like recombination of everyday stuff. Lock-Ons, the simple but highly effective welding together of two metal tubes in which protesters handcuff themselves, thereby allowing them to attach themselves to anything immobile in a given location, have become a ubiquitous and much improved-upon tool of protest since their invention in Australia in the 1980s. There are trolleys as multi-functional anti-oppression vehicles. Anti tear-gas masks fashioned from plastic water bottles and common workshop masks that were developed by protesters in Istanbul, but which have since been codified and can now be made by anyone, anywhere in need of fast protection. This tradition runs all the way back to the very first barricades in Paris, in which the accoutrements of domesticity and of functioning everyday life in the city were transformed through reorganisation into walls of resistance. It is similar to how in the Occupy movement whole communities emerged with rich and complex architectures made from standard objects and materials. These were re-combined in endlessly inventive ways to form alternative cities of ingenuity and empowerment; smaller communities within the wider cities that many felt had become deeply exclusive and enervating.

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L J Roberts's Gaybashers, Come and Get It protest placard

There is no unifying aesthetic principle to any of this in Disobedient Objects but, as the curators point out, everything in the show is deeply connected both by the fact that they are means to one political end or another, and because they share a structural bias towards reproducibility. The objects on display are all meme-like in some way, either in their method of production or in the way in which their image is intended to be disseminated. The monolithic banners of old have atomised into the very individual placards of today, where pithy and pointed statements are primed to be spread across Social media, accruing endless commentaries and elaborations as they proliferate. There are explicit instruction manuals/advice cards for what to do and what your rights are as an arrested homosexual but, as pointed out by the Ikea-like how-to diagrams accompanying some of the displays, almost every exhibit could be read an instruction manual for how to accomplish the same thing with similar means, whether it be as simple as the badges of anti-apartheid campaigners, or as sophisticated as the pamphlet bomb devices used to circumvent the ban on distributing written material of the same movement.

Possibly the most seductive, and most ambiguous, item on show is the Eclectic Electric Collective’s Inflatable Cobblestone. Used in Barcelona during street protests in 2012, it is a ludicrous device, so out of the ordinary that the police are comically incapable of dealing with it, with their attacks on its soft form simply resulting in it puffing back out, thereby rendering their aggression futile. Similar inflatable protests have now been enacted elsewhere in the world utilising various symbolic forms. These forms of protest have proven to be highly successful at capturing the popular imagination through their reproduction in online video footage – they are pure youtube meme material - generating interest and support for protests through cleverly comic live-actions that serve as a welcome alternative to images of police brutality.

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Occupy London Stock Exchange, the Capitalism is Crisis banner

All the movements represented in the exhibition are groups of people who stood up for beliefs that were considered at various moments to be just-beyond-the-pale, leaving their advocates in a twilight zone where they were forced to go beyond the traditional method of making their voices heard through voting or lobbying. The methods they instead resorted to are often funny, always clever and sometimes deeply beautiful. Yet these campaigns frequently happened in countries where dissent was violently repressed. While non-violence is an eminently virtuous stance to take, movements sometimes tip over into force when their very existence is at stake.

This fine line is an important one and it is recognised by the curators through the inclusion of a Palestinian boy’s slingshot used in the Second Intifada (a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that took place between 2000 and 2005). It is an object that in almost every way fits with the others on show. It is cobbled together from existing everyday objects; is eminently reproducible; does its job extremely well despite the paucity of resources from which it was constructed; and its use is often photogenic. Yet it is an item of violent resistance. Its aim is to cause harm because its creator believed that there was no other way he or she could garner a reaction of any kind. It has crossed a line that we in other nations are privileged to have no need to cross. There is a whole world of objects that could go with the ones on display in Disobedient Objects that would be just as ingenious and aesthetically interesting, but which ambiguously zig-zag over this threshold.

At its core Disobedient Objects is about the popularly unrecognised creativity of those who have – and still do – regularly sacrifice whole portions of their lives to keeping our nation-states changing, in flux, and adaptive. It is because of them, and their efficacious use of all means at their disposal, not least of all objects like those in the show, that our societies don’t become frozen in inequitable stasis. And long may the disobedience of brave outsiders and their objects continue to enrich our world, humble us and keep us from the complacency of accepted norms.