‘Disobedient Objects’ for a ‘Multitude of Struggles’

Amy Gilligan reviews ‘Disobedient Objects’, on until 1 Feb, and ‘A World to Win: Posters of Protest and Revolution’ on until 2nd Nov, exhibitions at the V&A Museum, London . Both are free to visit.

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Disobedient Objects is a new exhibition at the V&A which showcases a large number of items from grassroots social movements, from 1979 to today. The curators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon are trying to present art and design from below – objects that have actually been used on the streets – the kind of pieces that rarely, if ever, end up in museums. The curators consider there has been a new phase of social movements since 1979, in particular against neoliberalism and globalisation, where new technologies have created new possibilities for the objects that can be employed in struggle.

The range and variety of the ‘disobedient objects’ in the exhibition is impressive, particularly the global spread of the movements drawn from. There are items and footage from protests and movements I’d never come across before, as well as things from movements I’d taken part in.

Syrian graffiti

Syrian graffiti

Half of the exhibition space is used to represent the “Multitude of Struggles”, and the way that techniques used in one struggle can inspire others. These include stencil graffiti from Syria, floodnet – an early website hacking tool from around the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, Chilean folk art textiles that managed to pass through the censors during the dictatorship, and a slingshot made from a child’s shoe from the Second Intifada. Hanging from the ceiling and walls are banners – some intricately painted like the Unite South Yorkshire Community banner; others, like a Russian anti-government banner, made of masking tape stuck on material.

“Making worlds”, “Speak out”, “Direct action” and “Solidarity” are the themes which make up the rest of the exhibition. The curators see these as representing different strategies for movements. In some ways they feel like quite arbitrary distinctions: many of the objects in one section could easily be in another.

A number of the items, including a tear gas mask from the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and book-block shields from the student protests in the UK and Italy in 2010/11, have how-to guides available for visitors to take home and try for themselves. This is encouraging as it suggests people should be taking part in movements themselves; although it sometimes feels abstracted from the contexts and objectives of the movements themselves.

Tear gas mask similar to the ones used in Gezi Park

Tear gas mask similar to the ones used in Gezi Park

Although exciting, it feels strange to see objects that you’ve seen used in protests, like lock-on tubes, trade union banners, book block shields, red Quebec student solidarity squares, separated from the struggles that they form a part of, and in a museum. I think the experience of the exhibition is probably quite different if you’ve participated in movements, and have direct understanding of how these objects fit in with wider aims and experiences of protest.

Additional captions written by the people who made the objects and a large video screen showing footage from protests do, however, help to situate the objects in context: you can see why people might need shields of some sort when riot police are hitting them with batons. There is also commentary from Laurie Penny, Paul Mason, Zita Holbourne, among others.

For me, there are some striking gaps in the Disobedient Objects exhibition. The trade union movements are not well represented, aside from a banner from the Grunwick strike and the Unite banner. There is little on display from the global movement opposing the war in Iraq. The kind of objects shown tend, although not exclusively, to be produced by individuals or collectives rather than the ‘organised left’. Partly I think this is because the curators are trying to present a very wide range of material, but it also seems to partly emphasise the sections of the movement, and forms of struggle that the media have decided to focus on in recent years.

Banners hanging from the ceiling

Banners hanging from the ceiling

While visiting the Disobedient Objects exhibition, it is also well worth going to the other side of the V&A to see the World to Win exhibition of posters of “protest and revolution”. This exhibition, on until 2 November, is a good complement to the disobedient objects exhibition. Extending back to the early 20th century, posters are presented thematically. Posters on one wall contrast with those on the opposite: posters using imagery of ‘smashing’ face ones invoking a ‘new dawn’; socialist realist designs face surreal designs from movements against oppression in the 60s and 70s.

Interestingly the organised left is much better represented here – maybe poster design is where all our creative disobedience goes.

There are 2 comments

  1. Noel Douglas (@SignsOfRevolt)

    “For me, there are some striking gaps in the Disobedient Objects exhibition. The trade union movements are not well represented, aside from a banner from the Grunwick strike and the Unite banner. There is little on display from the global movement opposing the war in Iraq. The kind of objects shown tend, although not exclusively, to be produced by individuals or collectives rather than the ‘organised left’. Partly I think this is because the curators are trying to present a very wide range of material, but it also seems to partly emphasise the sections of the movement, and forms of struggle that the media have decided to focus on in recent years.”

    As one of the people who helped out on the show and has work in it about the Iraq War (from Bookmarks i.e. the organised Left), I don’t agree your perceived lack of Unions and ‘the Left’ in the exhibition is down to what’s trendy in the Media, it’s because Unions have not, in general, come up with any new, innovative, objects that have been used in struggles. Nor for that matter have much of the organised Left. The exhibition isn’t an exhibition of trade union and Left objects, but objects in general and has a very good spread of such work.

    There is a wider point that could be made about how post-68 the artistic end of movements became detached from the organised Left and vice versa, meaning much of the creativity in this area has come mainly from dissident artists/designers and the more Autonomist wings of the movement while the organised Left (in the West) has become tired and mired in pointless routine (to hugely generalise), a split we’ve only seen addressed to some extent in the new movements since the Zapitista call for an Anti-Capitalism movement after ’96.

  2. Owen

    Isn’t there a more fundamental problem in the very title of the exhibition which could perhaps have been addressed more fully in the review? Vulgar materialism is one thing, but surely no one in or around rs21 actually thinks that objects can be, or have the capacity to be, disobedient. This provocative title, surely, serves to occlude the very human political agency at work in any given protest movement, which perhaps contributed towards some of the anxieties about de-contextualisation. Having not seen the exhibition myself, I suspect that the curators have been somewhat influenced by the trendy post-humanism of someone like Bruno Latour, whose object-oriented ontology is currently quite fashionable in sections of the bourgeois academy. I realise that ontology is likely to be a censored word round these parts, but, unless these issues are addressed, all that one can really take from this review is that there weren’t many trade union banners on display, which seems a bit niche.

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