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Disobedient Objects - you must go

Disobedient Objects is not a UK exhibition of well-designed protest materials. Disobedient Objects is a protest.

Julian Sayarer
1 September 2014
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“Not an Alternative” is written, and capitalised just so, as an annotation on a normal-looking sign accompanying ephemera from Occupy Sandy – the movement that filled the void in state provision when Hurricane Sandy decimated many of New York’s poorest communities in November 2012. The three words, which reference nothing but themselves, and appear as only a statement from the curators, are found towards the front of the Disobedient Objects exhibition and—if spotted—are one of the first things visitors will notice after arriving from the main entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum. They are a first indication that things inside are not entirely as they should be, or as would be expected.

Disobedient Objects is an exhibition of well-designed materials gathered from protest movements around the world and through the last century. That, at least, is what they tell you, and is—one suspects—what curators Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood must have told their supervisors when the exhibition was first getting the green light from the V&A. Disobedient Objects is not an exhibition of well-designed protest materials. Disobedient Objects is a protest. Just as the movements documented will so often playfully bend laws, rules and reality to subvert the power structures that set them, so too have the V&A; behind their technical mandate to showcase art and design they have wound-up playing host to an incandescent articulation of the human spirit and its inexhaustible need to resist injustice. The objective takes multiple, brilliant forms: whether the banner “Gaybashers… come and get it!”, six-foot inflatable cobblestones rolled towards the German police in 2012, or the blaring Black Power instruction over the speakers, “There is no in-between, you are either Free or you are a Slave

That though is only a beginning, and the very idea, “resist injustice”, cuts to the heart of an issue of negativity that Disobedient Objects sidesteps entirely. Protests are too often and easily depicted in terms of negatives, the prevail of malcontents, of the dissatisfied and unhappy, those who are ‘against’ where everyone else is ‘for’; those who are unable to be grateful for what they’ve got, and who level their energies against injustice while others count blessings for that justice which they still perceive. Grindon and Flood have forged a chronicle of protest with a ruthless, relentless positivity that makes unmistakably clear just what these movements are ‘for’: the better world that exists on the streets and in the meetings where people come together to demand more than the second-best that everyone else seems willing to settle for, the silent majority content to take pride in their obedience rather than to demand liberty.

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For the very same, unequivocal tone, Disobedient Objects is an incomplete catalogue of protest movements. In it we see only those protests aligned genuinely against the forces of power, and for ideals of coexistence understood in terms of communities, sexuality, land rights, disarmament and the fair distribution of capital. We are not troubled by the malcontents of Fathers for Justice, farmers protesting hunting bans, and nor do America’s Tea Party or Britain’s English Defence League put in appearances. Similarly, we are shown the finger puppets of the Syrian resistance, with no mention of the hell those protests unleashed; Disobedient Objects lionises the energy of a certain type of protest, but refrains from a dissection of consequence.

If some barriers are not broken down, notably those between the traditional left and right of politics, the irrelevance of others is made apparent, in particular through the obvious similarity of protest styles and techniques. Visitors are greeted to the exhibition by the South Yorkshire community banner declaring “Still the Enemy Within”, reclaiming the slur that Margaret Thatcher once put upon coal miners during strikes of the 1980s. Similarly, we see the “çapulcu library” from Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests, with çapulcu (marauder) the word with which Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan had once dismissed the protesters. Footage from Tokyo –  a city ordinarily depicted in terms of its futurism and orderliness, rather than the energy of its dissent –  shows a protester with a megaphone as he bellows “it’s a fucking attack on the poor!”

The exhibition’s timeliness, with militarised police on the streets of Missouri and Gaza razed to the ground, could not be more apparent. It is significant that the Palestinian struggle is given the political context that it deserves, rather than the narrative of Terrorism it is so often afforded by the media. Archive footage screens apartheid-era protests from South Africa, in the days when Mandela was Terrorist rather than Hero. We read a Turkish protester at Gezi Park, attesting to the importance of creating a collective memory “when the government is trying to forget everything.” In the same month that Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, condemned Russian culpability in arming Ukrainian separatists, but resisted the same logic when called to suspend UK arms sales to Israel, the sentiment could not be more precious.

The future too is alluded to; above one part of the exhibition hangs a DIY drone, beside it an Apple Mac computer, placed on it a sticker that reads “this machine kills fascists”, just as half a century earlier would have read the sticker on Bob Dylan’s acoustic guitar, and on Woody Guthrie’s guitar some twenty years before that. On one wall is a blank box, left empty for “future disobedient objects”; a reminder that culture of this variety should not only be consumed and forgotten, and that it is incumbent upon us to do more with it.

Everywhere from wall-to-wall of Disobedient Objects you are in the presence of such a noble, generous history, a chronicle of the inextinguishable good that is in us when we come together. In a far corner rests an Argentine saucepan lid: humble, beaten tin, once hit by protesters against the neoliberal banking reforms that wiped out the savings of the middle classes. The 2003 movement in Argentina for a 6-hour working day under the slogan “Less work so we can all work” now rings true with Financial Times editorials and the counsel of world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, thus presenting the existential crisis of protest movements; what do they do once the system they opposed comes to agree with them.

Outside the museum, as part of the exhibition, one of two small murals carries the lines “nothing is inevitable, everything is possible”, sentiments eerily similar to the “impossible is nothing” slogans Adidas have spread across the city in an enormous ad campaign using London’s buses. What Disobedient Objects is doing with aplomb is speaking to the human, and to the utopian bent of humankind, in a fashion absent from modern politics and much discussion of it; where others have grown cowed, it is genuinely daring to believe. On show is an aspirational spirit that contemporary politics has been content to abandon to the world of consumer brands and pop culture. What has been assembled is an enormous, bulging spectre of art intersecting politics and humanity, complete in moments that politicians, and society at large will be all the poorer if they are allowed to forget.

You leave the museum filled with the energy of fight, only to stand back out on the street struck by an awareness that you are not sure just who you were supposed to be fighting against. That is the greatest triumph of Disobedient Objects; it invites everyone to join the protest, encourages all of us to demand better. You must go.


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