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22 August 2014

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.

By Michael Prodger

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.

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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