The exhibition Disobedient Objects, at the Victoria and Albert Museum through Feb. 1, 2015, foregrounds the objects and environments inspired by the outrage at inequality and injustice that motivates contemporary social protest movements. These objects, created from cheap, readily available everyday materials, challenge a hierarchical social system that is dependent on the consumption of expensive luxury items to mark class divisions.
In the aftermath of the global depression/recession that began in 2008, a number of related social action movements mushroomed in disparate locations across the globe. However, they were connected by shared concerns for an increase in democratic process, a leveling of economic inequality, and a fostering of accountability in systems of justice. As it turns out, almost every contemporary society includes a range of these problems.
For instance, the Occupy Wall Street movement created protest camps that were inspired by those of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, centered in Tahrir Square, and the Spanish 15M movement, which protested economic inequality and lack of opportunity, especially for younger workers, at protest camps in Spain’s major cities. The practical designs of these movements were based upon the knowledge and skills of their participants, from cooking to architecture to graphic communication.
One insight afforded by the exhibition is that ground-up protests are frequent and widespread in modern life; another is that fairly simple interventions can make a big difference. For instance, in the Indian state of Karnataka, an organization of 15 million members has joined arms to fight off globalization, patriarchy, caste, and economic injustice. As early as 1982 the organization created simple signs, posted on the outskirts of rural villages, to warn off government and bank officers who had been entering farmer’s houses, beating the women there, and illegally seizing personal property. The painted metal signs proved effective and are still used today to give voice to village residents.
More recently, an object from the front lines of the 2013 Gezi Park protest in Turkey combines a simple plastic bottle, a surgical mask, and rubber bands to create a makeshift gas mask. These were necessary because the government used voluminous amounts of tear gas to combat the protestors, who, through peaceful assembly, were voicing their opposition to the development of an urban greenspace. The government reaction to the protests belied their authoritarian heavy handedness and signified the need for an increase of democratic process in Turkey. The gas masks symbolized the power of grassroots resistance and cropped up as a subject in urban graffiti in Istanbul.
Disobedient Objects makes it clear that some strategies have been used in more than one time and location. For instance, pamphleteering is a tried and true method of social action, with origins going back to the protest movements of the sixteenth century. A memorable example is London Greenpeace’s pamphlet “What’s Wrong With McDonalds?” of 1986.
More than three million copies of the pamphlet were distributed and it was translated into 26 languages. The cover features an image of a fat, evil cowboy-businessman holding a Ronald McDonald mask to cover half of his face. McDonalds sued Greenpeace for libel and the ensuing trial became the longest in English history, further amplifying the effects of the pamphlet.English courts returned a mixed verdict on the pamphlet, finding some statements libelous an others truthful. However, the controversy that accompanied the trial brought much more attention to McDonalds—attention the company did not desire—than the original pamphlet campaign.
A more recent strategy is the ‘book bloc’. These are cardboard placards representing book covers that are worn by protestors during their social actions. Italian students, protesting budget cuts for education in 2011, fashioned large, cardboard images of book covers to both represent their cause and to shield their bodies in the event of conflict. This strategy is especially effective in protesting cuts to universities and libraries and has been used globally.
The adoption of a form developed elsewhere is not uncommon. For instance, Deborah Stockdale, an American textile artist in Ireland, adopted the strategy and technique of Chilean arpilleras to document the activities of a group monitoring the use of the Shannon airport by the American military.
Today arpilleras are patchwork images that depict daily life, but they became common in Chile during the days of repressive military rule in the 1970s. The small appliqué works were made by women in order to provide income when their husbands were imprisoned by the regime. In addition they served as a form of emotional release and political commentary for women whose lives had been marked by personal loss and social upheaval.
Another American practice, the continued use of the death penalty, is called into question by a spectacular work included in the show, the Tiki Love Truck. The entire intact truck is included in the exhibition. Mounted on the truck is a death mask, cast from the head of John Joe “Ash” Amador, an executed Texas prisoner. The work by the British artist Nick Reynolds constitutes both an homage to Amador and a powerful indictment of the continued use of the death penalty in some US states.
The Guerilla Girls, a group of anonymous American artists who questioned art world inequality during the 1980s by donning gorilla masks as part of their protest interventions, are also included here. Thus, both gender and economic inequality issues are addressed by the socially activist artists and designers included in Disobedient Objects.
“We are a bunch of feminist artists who have developed a strategy of twisting issues around in outrageous, unforgettable ways that make people laugh, think and then just maybe change their minds. Our anonymity keeps the focus on our work, not on any of us individually. Besides, you won’t believe what comes out of your mouth when you’re wearing a gorilla mask!” – Guerilla Girls
By bringing together objects and images from many countries produced over several decades, Disobedient Objects demonstrates that social resistance is a key function of design, even if that function is often overlooked in contrast to more consumerist approaches. One has the impression after visiting the exhibit that his is a small sampling of the examples from this ‘genre’ of design that could have been selected. Perhaps other museums will follow the V & A’s cue and mount an even more inclusive treatment of this neglected aspect of design.
” ‘Work Buy Consume Die’ is the slogan of the imaginary ‘Pho-Ku Corporation’ invented by Designers Republic, a Sheffield, England based graphic design agency. Disenchanted with corporate-driven consumerism in the 1990s, but also acknowledging their role in this process, Designers Republic devised an anti-corporate identity to counter the force of global branding.” Victoria and Albert Museum
The curator of Disobedient Objects is Catherine Flood, Curator of Prints, Posters, and Graphics, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. In another gallery of the Victoria and Albert, you can view posters that have political content similar to the socially activist designs seen in the special exhibition. In an interview with Jane Scarth, Flood states, “There was an explosion of grassroots poster making in the late 1960s, inspired among other things by the Atelier Populaire in Paris, and all the anti-Vietnam demonstrations in America. It was a real moment when the new left was growing and poster making became quite an important tool for communication and being active, the actual act of producing a poster was a political act. Screen printing is extremely important because it had been revived through pop art. It was being taught in the art schools, and so there were a lot of activists and protesters coming out of art school who had been taught screen printing, so it was quite an obvious thing for them to set up and do.” This related gallery in the museum presents examples of poster design that dovetail perfectly with the Disobedient Objects exhibition.