These are things that have been used; the marks are part of their history,” says the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Catherine Flood of the objects she has curated for a new exhibition of art and design made by protestors, activists and movements for social change. “They’re objects that challenge our very traditional ideas of what’s successful in art and design; something knocked together quickly from cardboard [is now] in a museum that has some of the most incredible examples of fine craft in the world. So you do have to look at these objects slightly differently: it’s not just about their form or aesthetics, it’s about ingenious design ‘thinking’. These things are poor in means but rich in ends, made by people who don’t have massive resources in terms of time and materials or money. But with that kind of brilliant thinking, you can still do something incredibly powerful.”
Disobedient Objects is a very different kind of show for the V&A, in terms of its intention, content and attitude. Even its title subtly puts the exhibits themselves at odds with the various ‘obedient’ ones that fill the rest of the museum: objects that display finely-honed craft, have high aesthetic considerations, or are, at the very least, things that do what they are supposed to do. Obedience is directly related to behaviour and so ‘misbehaving’ in such an altogether refined space is a challenge to the status quo. Materially, the work that features in Disobedient Objects ranges from cardboard placards, fabric banners and textile art, to plastic devices, puppets and metal structures; things which are often crudely made and, as Flood says, clearly show signs of both purpose and engagement.
The show has been installed in the V&A’s Porter Gallery, just off the museum’s main concourse, and makes clever use of the large black doors which separate the space from the rest of the ground floor. By the time it opens later this month, the doors will be covered in a huge vinyl graphic of a barricade, or rather, a hybrid of several barricades reflecting the various kinds of materials commonly available to protestors: bricks, wood, metal fencing, cars and so on.
Appropriately enough, the first essay in the book that accompanies the exhibition is entitled ‘Barricades as Material and Social Constructions’. In a way, putting up a graphic rendering of a barrier in the middle of the V&A is, at the same time, an act of breaking down barriers, too.
The exhibition places 99 objects into the space (a 100th will be sourced during the course of the show), and each one is representative of a story, or more accurately, a struggle. While posters, banners and placards might be the more familiar visual signifiers of protest, what Disobedient Objects does well to suggest is the ‘reactive’ nature of design in this context; how design helps people respond to individual needs – erecting a ‘tripod’ structure or creating a ‘lock-on’ device for an extended sit-in; making a gasmask or a covert graffiti stencil from the bottom of a paper bag. Design here is an integral part of protest itself: on the one hand enabling people to instigate and maintain their actions, on the other, employing it as part of the protest itself. In the case of the various trade union banners and anti-Apartheid badges, for example, it’s a means with which to provide a distinct visual element for a particular cause.
“The thing that underpins this project is that it’s the first show to rigorously address the objects produced by social movements,” says Flood. “There isn’t a body of existing work, the objects aren’t in other museums, and we were also aware that social movements are often misrepresented.” Understandably, a lot of effort has been taken to create trust with those lending objects for this show, Flood says, and many of the activists and makers have been involved in helping to shape the exhibition from the outset. (The curators even organised a round table with members of Occupy New York as the project was being put together, while in the exhibition space each of the objects is put into context by a ‘maker’s statement’.)
The seeds of the exhibition come partly from Flood’s work within the V&A’s prints, posters and graphics collection. Specialising in political graphics, Flood had observed how posters were really the only way in which dissent and protest ever entered into the museum. “The reason is that right from the beginning posters have always been considered art objects,” she explains. “They’re a very public and often political form of design, but they have always been collected by galleries and museums. Famously, Atelier Populaire [the ‘Popular Workshop’ established by students and staff at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in May 1968] said that posters only make sense in the context of ‘the struggle’, and we shouldn’t see them in institutions. Yet, 40 years later, people are much more willing to have that story told and preserved. In a practical sense, people can keep a stack of posters under their beds, but with things like the giant papier maché protest puppets, they’re perhaps not as likely to survive over time.”
And despite the ephemeral nature of much of the work, the sheer range of it included in Disobedient Objects is impressive. There are signs and banners, but also handmade dolls, textile pieces, doctored banknotes, and even a fully decorated car. “A museum like this has tended to focus on objects of elite production and consumption – it’s about fine making, what wealthy patrons could have in their homes, historically,” says Flood. “Also, there’s the idea that museums can be a mausoleum, so how do you preserve the life within the objects? Here, we have one historical object [from the V&A collection], which is a ‘suffragette tea cup’; and one of the points that makes is that it’s a very easy object to look at, in a way – no-one questions that women should be able to vote in this country anymore, everyone knows what they were fighting for and what happened. Yet a lot of the objects in the exhibition are from on-going struggles, where there’s a lot of rawness, so it’s about how you handle those sensitivities.”
Flood and her co-curator Gavin Grindon, an academic specialising in activist objects, have been tracking down examples from all over the world and decided early on to begin their survey with the 1970s. “It’s a recognition that there was a new cycle of social struggles around countering the rise of neo-liberalism,” Flood expains. “One of the first objects on show are some textiles made by women in Chile under the Pinochet regime. Then there’s a banner from the Grunwick strike in this country [which saw trade unionists involved in an two-year dispute at the film processing plant in London from 1976-78].”
It goes without saying that many of the targets of forty years ago – reaction to “the rise of globalisation and anti-capitalism”, offers Flood – connect with concerns that have emerged internationally in recent years. “Yes, there’s a trajectory that starts in the 1970s,” she says. “But also there’s both the emergence of new technologies and changes in society – most of us don’t work in production in factories anymore, we’re cultural producers ourselves. And so when people do protest there tends to be a much more creative, more playful aspect to the way we go about that now.”
And that’s perhaps one of the most surprising things about many of the objects in the exhibition – they have a sense of humour; or, they use forms of humour, from satire to surrealism, to get their point across. There’s the inflatable cobblestone which protestors can throw at police lines; captured on film, the toing-and-froing with the ranks of officers diffuses the atmosphere as much as it sends up the role of the authorities. Many of the placards display biting commentary in equally pithy copy.
That isn’t to negate the seriousness of the causes, however: Disobedient Objects is an emotionally-charged show which will no doubt move many visitors if not call them to action. It’s humbling to see the objects which represent whole movements; the products of what Flood calls “collective moments of political activism rather than individual artists and designers who are making things that are a ‘comment’ on what they’re seeing. They’re also valid – but they’re different.”
Asked whether the various objects can be thought of in terms of how successful they have been, Flood rightly questions that the length of time something takes to change is integral to this. Change can happen instantly, or of course take years, even decades. “We’ve tried to pick objects that represent moments when art and design were really important within a social movement,” she says. “Sometimes there’s a very obvious rapid success; we look at the history of ‘lock-ons’ and ‘tripods’ and you can say, well, that forest in New Zealand was preserved, or that road in the UK didn’t get built. There’s an immediate victory. But sometimes it’s much longer, it’s about changing people’s perceptions over a long time. The Act Up [AIDS advocacy] movement, or the [feminist group] Guerrilla Girls are still reiterating the same ideas, but they’ve had an affect on how we think.”
There are also those objects which protest more quietly – objects which act as the basis for a support network for the people doing the making, for example, which then becomes a social movement. “The ‘arpilleras’ we are showing from Chile, these are textiles made by women whose sons and husbands had been taken away by the military police,” she says. “They would gather together in workshops and stitch their stories. And that was a way of organising support: if you have your eyes fixed down on a piece of sewing, you suddenly feel you don’t have to make eye contact, you feel safe enough to actually talk about what’s happening. These women would then get money for them, which would help support them economically. The government thought the textiles were just folk art and didn’t know that they were reaching the outside world.”
There’s a mix of hidden and overt messages reaching out in Disobedient Objects, and in each case creativity is at the centre of furthering the cause. Shown collectively, these objects feel like a chorus of different voices coming together in unison. Flood recognises something of this in the activists themselves. “Sometimes,” she adds, “protesters say it’s just knowing that you’ve got up and said it that gives them strength.”
Disobedient Objects is at the V&A in London from July 26 until February 1 2015. See vam.ac.uk for more details. How-to guides designed by Barnbrook studio can also be downloaded from the exhibition website. An accompanying book published by the V&A is also available (£19.99)