Fight the power: Coral Stoakes's placard used in the London protests of 2011
Show Hide image

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

Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis