Fight the power: Coral Stoakes's placard used in the London protests of 2011
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The things they carried: the ingenious props of modern protest

A new exhibition at the V&A celebrates the hardware of protest movements, ranging from Solidarity to the Guerrilla Girls by way of Greenham Common and the anti-apartheid campaign.

Disobedient Objects
Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

 

Stepping into “Disobedient Objects” at the Victoria and Albert Museum is like entering a counterculture craft fair. Instead of handmade knick-knacks – all bent-wire jewellery, turned-wood bowls and wobbly pottery – here are gas masks made from plastic drinks bottles, a slingshot fashioned from bits of an old shoe and placards painted in back bedrooms. It is a display of the props of agitprop, the hardware of protest movements ranging from Solidarity to the Guerrilla Girls by way of Greenham Common and the anti-apartheid campaign.

The show bills itself as an exhibition of “art and design from below” but there is little here that is recognisable as either art or design in a gallery sense. Aesthetic considerations are barely evident: the objects show ingenuity rather than artistry. The raw materials used are all cheap, almost none of the items was made to have a life beyond a particular protest and many of them are repurposed – if not swords turned into ploughshares, then anti-riot police shields decorated as book jackets. Collectively the objects represent an ad hoc creativity, in which the materials of protest are made on the hoof and often under conditions of duress. The result is a charity-shop response to the couture weapons of the state.

Apart from a delicate cup and saucer espousing votes for women, the exhibits date from the 1970s onwards and stand in for the long history of societal and trade union protest that preceded them. The objects do not, however, need the provenance of the French Revolution, the événements of 1968, the Chartists or the Jarrow marchers, because each has an evocative backstory of its own. The first item on display, for example, is a cooking pot lid battered out of shape during the street protests that took place in Buenos Aires in 2001, when the Argentinian government froze the bank accounts of 18 million of its citizens. The protesters’ slogan – “All of them must go!” – proved both prescient and potent. Four presidents were forced out of office in the space of three weeks. Though an object with no intrinsic merit whatsoever, this simple cooking utensil helped to change history.

If noise is one of the established weapons of protest, another method is stone-throwing. While the Palestinian shoe slingshot was made to inflict physical damage, the marchers of the 2012 May Day events in Berlin and Barcelona hurled cobblestones – historically the demonstrators’ projectile of choice – to humorous effect. Rather than prise real cobbles out of the streets, they lobbed giant, inflatable versions at the police. It was both a surreal subversion of the staples of violent protest – kettling, a hail of missiles, the percussion of truncheons on riot shields – and an inventively effective way of getting across the protesters’ message that “We come in peace”, if not in jest.

The power of humour was utilised, too, by Coral Stoakes (almost all of the other items here are anonymous), who painted a placard wielded during the 2011 demonstrations in London against spending cuts. She dreamed up its slogan – “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies” – in part for self-preservation in case things turned violent: “I thought it would be difficult to hit me with a baton if they were laughing.” Her placard is on its way to becoming the Che Guevara poster of our time.

A darker humour is evident in the Phone Story app, a game that guides players through the production process behind the device they are playing it on. To win, you must force children to mine coltan in Congo, dispose of the toxic waste in Pakistan, and so on. It is almost a surprise that this subtle response to indifferent capitalism managed to last four days on Apple’s App Store before it was removed. Meanwhile, the designers of the “Regime Change Begins at Home” playing cards turned the gag against the set issued to US soldiers in Iraq in 2003, replacing Saddam and his cronies with Messrs Bush and Blair and assorted industrialists: from Ba’athists to the military-industrial complex in one fell swoop.

Many of the other objects – defaced banknotes, “bust cards” listing your rights in case of arrest and mechanisms for safely bolting yourself to a perimeter fence – are more earnest but no less inventive. But the main feeling provoked by this show of disaffected folk art is one of nostalgia for protests past. The Occupy movement may be fresh in the memory and the Gaza march in London was only weeks ago, but they aren’t congealed in the emotional aspic that swaddles the old battles of Wapping, Orgreave colliery or Rock Against Racism. Even protests, it seems, have a golden age. l

Runs until 1 February 2015

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times