Approaching this particular post has proven to be a lot more difficult than previous entries, for a number of reasons. The first, arguably, is that a show such as this with its highly loaded subject matter is bound to draw a wide range of impassioned responses from many different quarters. There are just too many political and ideological speaking points which arise for there not to be a groundswell of debate and consideration which I feel a degree of hesitancy in adding to. The second reason might be that there is an underlying tension between the exhibition and its subject matter which feels completely inescapable, regardless of what kind of interpretation you might try to put on it, with the result that any commentary feels both obvious and problematic at the same time.
The exhibition in question is the newly opened collection entitled Disobedient Objects, which is now showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until February 15 next year. Framed by curators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon as representing, at least in part, ‘design from below,’ the collection includes items like posters, banners, badges and other ephemera along with video and sound pulled together from various protests and activist struggles dating back as far as the 1960s and 70s up until the present day. Alongside these smaller items feature other unique objects like Carrie Reichardt’s Tiki Love Truck (2007) protesting the death penalty, giant silver inflatable cobblestones first utilised during demonstrations in 2012 and Paper Mache puppets that protest the Iraq War.
The scope of the items definitely works in the curators’ favour, covering not only recent protests in Western Europe and parts of the Middle East, but also struggles in South America, Asia and Africa alongside broader issues like worker’s rights, LGBTQIA issues and the financial crisis. The exhibition also manages to draw a line between the use of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as others such as Youtube, combined with older forms of activism like picketing, occupying and culture jamming satire. Certain objects act as physical placeholders for these digital networks, like the inflatable cobblestones which were initially used in Barcelona, but were later deployed in other cities like Berlin, or the painting of ad-hoc riot shields with the covers of famous books as a protest against austerity and different countries cuts to education spending and curriculums.
On the back wall of the exhibition plays a film featuring activists and historians offering their insights into the importance of activism and the changing role it has played. Of the various commentaries which range from the personal to the somewhat idealistic and nostalgic, historian George Katsiaficas offers perhaps one of the most interesting comments on the dynamic which modern activism plays. His description of ‘residue,’ and the way in which many protests are later incorporated into the establishment, paints a picture of these struggles being consumed, altered and often irrevocably compromised while still leaving important residual legacies. The French Revolution, with its emphasis on egalitarian democracy (at least in word if not always in deed) is a useful example to illustrate his point, combining both the political legacy of the revolution with the reality of France at that time and beyond.
This point in particular feels important, because it imbues the objects on display with a historical and contextual weight as physical manifestations of changing social, economic and political climates in different parts of the world, and hints at the interconnectedness they share. The Arab Spring protests which began in Tunisia, but then spread across the region are most prominently represented here by graffiti stencils from the Syrian Civil War, which is of course ongoing, and seems to be getting much less impassioned coverage than the war in Gaza which had just erupted at the time of writing this. These politically and social charged objects are both tools by which to change and influence but also markers and symbols of conflicts and struggles which have at their root theoretical and ideological struggles, but also undeniable and sometimes heartbreaking realpolitik dimensions.
In spite of these moments however, it’s difficult to shake the nagging feeling that the entire premise of the exhibition and its execution is somewhat flawed. Chief among the concerns, perhaps predictably, is how taking these objects and artefacts of protest and civil disobedience out of their respective fields of engagement and putting them into the massive, decorative opulence of a museum affects the viewer’s appreciation and understanding of the objects and their origin. There is certainly something disarming about walking past rows of vases and busts which speak to Britain’s former colonial exploits and acquisitions, as well as the massive gift shop with its four points of sale, to reach an exhibition featuring a host of banners and other items protesting the crisis of capitalism and independence struggles amongst other things.
This discomfort stems not only from the surroundings of the museum itself however, but also the way the items are displayed. The large, single room space with its massive high ceilings feels strangely divided up by the long metal bars which snake through much of it. This is at least in part meant to represent the way these structures are used to try and combat protestors, but it has the unnerving affect of seemingly trying to recreate a sense of tension in an environment which simply can’t sustain this conceit. The curators have stressed that the exhibition was created via several workshops held in New York and London with people who were directly responsible for some of the items in show, and thus stress an appropriately public means of organising the way the works appear here. That being said, one wonders what workshops in some of the more remote regions in question (or possibly with some of the more extreme elements represented in the different banners and objects) might have done for the final result.
Perhaps anticipating some of the criticisms mentioned above, much of the text surrounding the show has seemingly been directed at trying to point out the merits of bringing these objects into a new setting. This includes discussing the objects as man-made works which speak to the broadest of audiences, using a mix of mediums and approaches to engage people directly into action in contrast to what one might expect to see in the museum. There is also a lot to be said for providing people with the space in which to contemplate not only these objects but their purpose, and scope. The difficulty with this is that for all the efforts to create a different way to access these narratives, the space itself simply isn’t neutral in the way it would need to be for this to work. The museum is too loaded with signs that clash with the materials, and the added layer of manipulation that seems to have gone into the arrangement of the show itself with The Porter Gallery space of the museum suggests a degree of insincerity on the part of the organisers. Certainly the intension may be honourable, but there is too much of a sense of the exhibition as An Exhibition; an attraction at a popular tourist museum designed to draw in punters during the school holidays.
Perhaps the most telling sign in the entire exhibition is the one just to the left of the main entrance. On the wall in neat text is written a polite note thanking the government department which helped provide the insurance and support for the show and the assistance to hold it in the space. It sits right next to the small notice about graphic content and the recommendation of parental guidance for younger viewers. One can’t help but think of the conflicts in places like Gaza and Syria, and in particular the huge loss of life amongst children, and feel a little uneasy about wondering round the large museum hall peering at the signs of struggles without wondering how much difference any of this really makes to the people most affected, or to anything else at all.
By Will Gresson