Dissent By Design

Cassie Packard reviews Disobedient Objects, an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum devoted to examining “the powerful role of objects in movements for social change”:

The disobedient objects in the exhibition range from the more tactically frivolous, like the [inflatable] cobblestones [from a 2012 May Day demonstration in Berlin-Kreuzberg], to the blindingly necessary, like DIY tear gas masks. They are largely the products of various left-wing grassroots social movements, though a few objects made in service of paramilitaries — but questionably dressed in the show’s glamorizing rhetoric of left-wing activism — make it into the mix. On the whole, the exhibition is right on trend, combining a growing public interest in design activism with a recent popularization of “object”-centered museum exhibitions and publications. …

In one section of the exhibition is a collection of handmade “book blocs,” a functional riff on the riot shield in which Plexiglas and cardboard are made to resemble oversized book covers. Wielded by groups protesting tuition hikes and budget cuts to education programs, these blocs put police in the bizarre position of physically assaulting oversize books when they attack protestors. It’s a memorable image, and one that certainly drums up attention for its causes as it’s disseminated on the web. Another standout is the Spanish-born “flone” [see above video], an economical marriage of laser-cut plywood and open-source software. “Reinventing airspace as public space” in an age of insidious drone warfare, the flone allows the user to fly his or her smartphone for the purpose of filming police and demonstrations. Of all the items on display, it is the flone whose revolutionary potential feel the most formidable.

In an earlier review, Alice Bell also praised the exhibit:

Entering the gallery, you are greeted with rows of metal poles holding up the displays. An allusion to the bars of prison walls, they also offer the basis for one of the best exhibits: a history of the “lock-on” technique used by activists to attach themselves to each other and/or objects. … [A] history of lock-ons and the Capitalism is Crisis banner [made for the 2009 Blackheath Climate Camp] are as much part of modernity as a gallery of wedding dresses. Their arguments are part of the hard tissue of our world, even if we don’t always recognise it. As are the history of the pink triangle, a collection of anti-apartheid badges and a simple poster-paint-and-cardboard banner that declares “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies”, all also displayed in the gallery. It’s not complete – there are many protest movements missing – but it’s diverse and engaging.

In another earlier review, Victoria Sadler noted that she “found this a very emotive exhibition, one that drives up a lot of anger and frustration”:

Supporting the exhibits is a number of video clips, including footage from protests such as Tiananmen, the Middle East, Seoul and Japan. The level of violent resistance from the state in almost all instances is incredibly depressing. And the disproportionate use of that violence can be harrowing to watch.

Watching again the tanks of the Chinese Army toppling over the 30ft Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square was quite distressing, as it was to see the footage from Palestine of kids throwing stones with their slingshots, only for their pebbles to be met with gunfire. The V&A has managed to obtain one of these slingshots, a makeshift item created from the tongue of a child’s trainer, and alongside this VT this really had an impact. Included in the video clips is commentary and observation from those that have been active in protest movements, or who have studied them.

It’s eye-opening to listen to how these movements do bring in the egalitarian principles and community consciousness they want to see in the world, but how they also struggle with gender and class structures within their own ranks. But it was easy to agree with these commentators that change has only come about from direct action, from challenges to property and power, rather than negotiation and dialogue.

The exhibition runs through February 1st.