The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has recently opened an exhibition that "examines the powerful role of objects in movements for social change." It is called Disobedient Objects. That's the kind of title that chic and cheerful designers would use to describe how their work is 'subversive' but, thankfully, this is probably the most un-designy show the V&A has ever organised (except for the whole communication and setting which was orchestrated by the studio of Jonathan Barnbrook.) Disobedient Objects is not one of those fashionable activist art exhibitions either. This is a show about activism with a capital A, a show inhabited by artefacts that had never graced the venerable rooms of a museum or art gallery until now.
Many of the items exhibited are often mundane objects that were either given a new purpose or modified in haste in answer to an emergency situation. As modest as they might seem, these artifacts show the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people. They testify of their courage as well. Confronted with the sophisticated (except maybe in London where our good Mayor favours cut-price water cannons that are being phased out in Germany amid concerns about their safety) and potentially harmful equipment used by security forces, these artefacts look almost pitiful. But that doesn't make them less efficient.
Disobedient Objects focuses on the period from the late 1970s to now, a time that has brought new technologies and political challenges. The items displayed range from the very rudimentary to the sophisticated, from a slingshot made from a Palestinian child's shoe to mobile phone-powered drones for filming demonstrations or the police, from textiles sewn by women to communicate the atrocities they have experienced under the Pinochet regime in Chile, in particular the 'disappearance of their children to a robot that spray paint slogans on the pavement.
I entered the show ready to sneer at V&A's grand attempts to glamourize popular protests and turn evidences of genuine and at times violent dissent into food for cool hunters. My fighting mood quickly vanished. Disobedient Objects is a show that invites visitors to get out and raise their heads, to be inspired and fight for their rights. And that's what matters to me.
As the curators wrote: "Peaceful disobedience only works when protesters have cultural visibility and the government acknowledges their right to protest. Without this, struggles for freedom can sometimes take other forms."
Here's a very small overview of the stories you can discover in this ridiculously crammed with visitors but invigorating exhibition:
As usual, I bow (me saco el sombrero?) to Spanish wittiness. No one does protests as eloquently and astutely as they do these days. TAF! and Enmedio worked with Plataforma de Artefactos por la Hipoteca (a platform for mortgage debt victims) against dehumanizing media representations of people affected by Spain's mortgage crisis. The group pasted portraits of evicted homeowners on the facades of banks responsible, showing evicted people, not statistics.
The inflatable cobblestones were rolled across the streets in Berlin and Barcelona to confuse police and generate sympathetic media attention.
When many people run the program FloodNet (1998) together, they can target and overload websites. The Java applet was created in response to the massacre of 45 peaceful supporters of the Zapatistas in Mexico. Ten thousand protestors disturbed the website of the Mexican presidency and the Pentagon. FloodNet has since been adopted by many groups and movements.
The first Bike Bloc was part of the mass civil disobedience organised during the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen. Moving in swarms, bikes helped protesters breach the summit's security cordon and hold an alternative People's Assembly. The leading bike carried a sound system and pirate radio antennae. It broadcasted via other bikes around it with independent speakers, each on a separate channel. The sound could jump between bikes inside the crowd, and change in tone to respond to different situations.
The banner was made for the 2009 Climate Camp at Blackheath, London. It identified capitalism as the source of climate chaos and as an ongoing crisis of inequality and injustice.
One of the banners hanging over the exhibition space was designed and hand-stitched by Ed Hall (whose name appears in almost every single post i've written about Jeremy Deller's work.) Hall has been making banners used by union groups for over 30 years. This one was used in a protest march in support of the NHS in Manchester in 2013. It features the Thatcher quote 'Still the enemy within', which is surrounded by iconography referencing the miners' strike, poll tax rebellion and welfare cuts.
Andy Dao and Ivan Cash circulated dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics that communicate the widening economic disparity in the U.S.A. The designs were also released on the Internet enabling anyone to participate.
The artists/advertising experts were commissioned by the museum to design stamps about the UK's wealth disparity on the £5 note: in 2011, 1% of the UK population earned £922,433 while 90% earned £12,933. Any visitor can use the stamp to make their money a bit more riotous.
There is a long, long tradition of bank notes used for protest. The show also reminded that in 1990, a Burmese currency designer very subtly painted the face of Aung San Suu Kyi onto a new note after she had been democratically elected then placed under house arrest by the military junta. The designer softened the features of Gen. Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) so that his face resembles the one of his daughter. People could thus hold up their bank notes to the light and see a hidden portrait of the opposition leader.
In 2013, the Turkish government used record amounts of tear gas against people protesting against the redevelopment of the Gezi Park in Istanbul. Protesters devised their own makeshift gas mask using plastic bottle, surgical face mask, foam and rubber bands.
Greek protesters adopted an equally cunning strategy. People resisting government austerity discovered that a solution of antacid and water sprayed onto the face offered relief from the burn of tear gas. However, it left a white residue that market protesters out.
The protest shields painted to look like books were first made in Italy, in November 2010. Students were protesting against the drastic cuts to the public university system. The oversize books were held up at the front of demonstrations so that when the police hit the students with sticks, it looked as if they were attacking literature.
Students in London produced their own book shields after they saw videos of the actions online. The tactic quickly spread to other parts of the world.
A couple of artworks did sneak into the exhibition. I guess that the Graffiti Writer doesn't need any introduction....
The gallery also featured Molleindustria's Phone Story, a free game app that players win by forcing children to mine coltan in the Congo, preventing worker protest-suicide in China, managing rabid consumers in the West and disposing of electronic waste unsafely in Pakistan. The game was banned from Apple's iTunes store four days after its release.
The Guerrilla Girls was formed in 1985 to protest against the ridiculously low number of works by female artists in the most prestigious galleries and museums of New York. Their fight is as relevant as ever today (and not just in NYc obviously.)
More images from the show:
The museum has PDF guides to DIY some of the objects exhibited.
Disobedient Objects was curated by Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood. The show is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, until 1 February 2015.
There's nothing remarkable about a can of tuna, an empty packet of candies, a plastic toy bird, or a battered video tape of a Queen concert. But stories and issues that affect us all can hide behind the most mundane objects.
These items and many others are part of A People's Archive of Sinking and Melting, a growing collection of objects "from places that may disappear owing to the combined physical, political, and economic impacts of climate change." Each time the project is exhibited in a new city, artist Amy Balkin calls for local people to contribute to the archive and donate items which constitute an evidence of rising sea level, coastal erosion, desertification and extreme weather getting more extreme. Each object is then catalogued and archived as if it were a rare historical artifact, because one day it may well be.
The materials in the archive mark the asymmetry of present or anticipated loss, standing in as proxies for the contributors' recognition of the geopolitical production (or spatial politics) of precarity and slow-onset dispossession. Together, the contributions form one material record among many; a collection of community-gathered evidence, a public record, a midden.
So far, the collection includes objects from the antarctic, items rescued from the floods caused by Superstorm Sandy, water from Venice, etc. And i'm looking forward to seeing what Dubliners will contribute to the project as the archive is now on view (and open for submissions) at the Science Gallery. In the meantime, i've contacted
Hi Amy! The items collected come from places that may disappear owing to the impact of climate change. So how does Dublin fits into this? Are the effects of climate change already visible in the city and more generally in the country?
I hope your questions will be answered by people living in Dublin and across Ireland and its outlying islands, whose contributions to the archive, whether related to predicted increases in coastal flooding events along the East Coast, or other experienced or forecast climate impacts, will form a new Ireland Collection.
What kind of items have people in Dublin added to the archive so far?
None yet-the exhibition opened recently-the call for contributions is at https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/strangeweather/peoplesarchive
What were the most unexpected items that have been contributed to the archive so far?
It's hard to say, as each contribution is complicated by the circumstances and context of it's submission. Your readers can view the entire archive at sinkingandmelting.tumblr.com and decide for themselves.
And which ones would you say are the the most representative of the climate change crisis?
Items contributed from places where people's ability to remain is difficult or becoming untenable, such those in the Kivalina (Alaska, USA) Collection.
The description of the project says that "Through common but differentiated collections, contributed materials form an archive of the future anterior; what will have been." Could you elaborate on this? Explain in more details what the 'future anterior' means?
The phrase "common but differentiated" is taken from Article 3 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which states "The Parties [which have ratified the convention] should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.
In A People's Archive of Sinking and Melting, all contributions together form a 'common' archive, a coalition of items from radically varied situations. These are 'differentiated' based on the UNFCCC Party status/commitment category of the country each was contributed from, which is included on the museum label (Annex I, II, B, Non-Annex, No Status) for each item in the archive .
In the context of the archive the language of "common but differentiated" is taken to situate the archive against the inequity of present climate politics, including the UNFCCC treaty process, which as it politically constructs the atmosphere, influences the habitability of locations represented by objects in the archive, influencing the meaning of the archive, the individual items within it, and the lives of the archive's contributors.
The future anterior, which describes "what will have been," is a position the archive asks its contributors, audience, and users to take. I understand this as a political task demanding insight and the willingness to confront uncertainty and loss.
I think what strikes me the most about A People's Archives is how tangible it makes the issue of climate change feel. When i discovered the project at the Science Gallery, i suddenly visualized how much part of daily life it has become, even if we don't necessarily realize it yet. The fact that you left the archive in the hands of everyone played a big role in this feeling. But do you 'curate' the collection? Or do you accept anything people give?
One framing idea of the archive is that it is not 'curated,' and is always presented in its entirety, whether all the contributions are exhibited, as they are in Dublin, or available as a research tool in archived collections, as it was at the Prelinger Library earlier this year.
As of August 2014 the archive contains roughly 100 items, none of which weighs more than 1kg, so presenting all the contributions hasn't created any logistical problems. If the archive gets much larger, there may be a need to do things differently.
Everything contributed to date has been accepted, other than two items offered that misunderstood the parameters of the archive. More complicated is the question of including items contributed after specific weather events, such as materials sent from Germany after the 2013 European Floods or from New York and Cuba after Superstorm Sandy, or materials offered from places that are at risk but will have significant adaptation infrastructure built, like Venice, Italy, which is getting a $7 billion flood-protection system.
Where will the objects go after the Dublin show? Because the project has been exhibited in several countries so far so i suspect that the collection is getting quite voluminous by now.
The archive will go to New York next for the exhibition Lenin: Icebreaker, which opens at the Austrian Cultural Forum in December. I'm currently working with Olga Kopenkina to solicit contribution from across Russia, with particular attention to the northern autonomous okrugs (administrative divisions) and Murmansk Oblast.
If your readers want to contribute to A People's Archive of Sinking and Melting, from Ireland, Russia, or anywhere else, how to submit is www.sinkingandmelting.org
Strange Weather: Forecasts from the future was curated by artists Zack Denfeld, Cat Kramer from CoClimate and meteorologist Gerald Fleming. The show is open at the Science Gallery in Dublin until 5 October 2014.
In the early 19th century, textile artisans started to break into factories at night to destroy the new labour-saving machines that their employers had bought. They saw the stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms as a threat that would make their skills obsolete and lead to lower wages.
The movement began in Nottingham on 11 March 1811 and spread throughout England over the following two years. The artisans who opposed the newly introduced machinery were called the Luddites. The origin of the name is uncertain but over time, the term "Luddite" came to describe people opposed to any form of technological progress. In the late 21st century, the neo-luddites emerged. They protest(ed) against the negative impact that technology has on individuals, their communities and the environment and aspire to a return to a 'simple lifestyle'.
Newspapers suggest that society is now facing the rise of a new type of neo-luddites. They don't fear for their jobs or for any damage to the ecology, they fear the loss of privacy brought about by drones and google glasses. In any case, the smartest form of luddism or neo-luddism is not one that commends violence, it's one that calls for a better understanding of new technologies and demands that people (all of them not just the ones who can afford to buy these technologies) have a voice in how they are to be distributed and used.
Speculative designer Lisa Ma, however, is pushing the discussion further. Over the past few month, she has been looking for the relevance of Luddism in the modern era by shifting focus from digital and communications technologies to the innovations of biotechnology industries. These biotechnologies which have started to pervade the food, health and ecological systems will undoubtedly attract their own forms of luddism. So who are the BioLuddites? Where are the group and individuals who ask for a demystification of biotechnologies and who are calling for a public debate about GMOs, systems ecology, hormone replacement, etc?
"Biotechnology, its beaucrocies, peripheries and implementation affect our everyday lives. There is a lot of work on the public engagement of emerging technologies, but there are gaps between where we believe science should cover and what is not yet covered. The recent ebola outbreak is an example of where the epidemic is actually one of fear, as society comes face to face with and area not yet solved by biotechnology or policy.
In digital technologies, we've seen an emergence of e-etiquettes and social manuals etc. of digital behaviour. These are what we refer to when society reaches the inner and outer limits of digital technology. Similarly, we also need guidances to reform our social relationships with biotechnology. Bioluddites is filling a necessary role in guiding the social and not just the ethical critiques of biotechnologies."
As part of her residency at Near Now, a programme which works closely with artists and designers to produce projects that explore the place and impact of technology in everyday life, Lisa Ma organised a panel titled Where are the Luddites - An Open Call for BioLuddites. The event took place on 4th June 2014, in Nottingham, birth place of the Luddite movement.
John O'Shea gave a compelling talk about his very funny adventures in proposing the implementation of a Meat Licence, and in bio-engineering a Pigs Bladder Football. Both are projects that catches the imagination of the public but the artist also discussed the legal, ethical and cultural questions that arose during the development of the works.
David King, who has a PhD in molecular biology, is the founder and Director of Human Genetics Alert, the founder of Luddite 200, and of the Breaking the Frame conference. He is also a frequent contributor to media debates on genetics and it is clear from his contribution to the panel that he has some strong and thought-provoking opinions about synthetic biology, three-parent babies, the need to engage in a dialogue with the powerful systems that control biotechnological innovations, etc.
Ben Vickers is a curator, writer, technologist and self-proclaimed Luddite. He talked about the functioning of unMonastery, a space that aims to develop a new kind of social space, akin to co-living and co-working spaces, drawing influence from both Monasteries and HackerSpaces, with a focus on the process of co-creation and co-learning between the community and unMonasterians. He is also a NearNow fellow.
An Open Call for BioLuddites was a great event and i can't recommend enough to watch the video of the panel:
Image on the homepage via BBC news.
A few months ago, Ben White gave a wonderfully eloquent lecture at Amnesty International in London. The event celebrated the new edition of the journalist's book, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide (published by Pluto and available on amazon USA and UK.)
The lecture was in March and the reason why i blog about it today is that while children (125 so far) and other innocent civilians are being terrorized and murdered right now in Gaza, people are still accused of anti-semitism simply because they believe that the basic human rights of the Palestinians should be respected. I fear there is still a lot of disinformation and misunderstanding about what is happening in Israel/Palestine. I would certainly never claim that i understand precisely the situation but i do think that Ben White's book and his talks are well documented, engaging and worth a few minutes of your time.
Sadly, there is no video of the evening but some of Ben White's videos are on youtube. Here's one of them:
White starts his lecture by explaining the relevance of the word 'apartheid' in the Israeli context. Apartheid does not apply solely to South Africa. Nowadays, apartheid is outlawed and defined in international law independently of the country where it takes place. In 2012, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination itself has used the term to condemn Israeli policies. Numerous international, Israeli NGOs, Palestinian NOGs and human rights observers have done the same.
The author goes on by giving a series of examples of ethnocratic Israeli policies that have been affecting Palestinians for over 6 decades, both inside what people call "Israel proper" and in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
White also exposes clearly that the main problem for Palestinians is not just the occupation but the issue of their forced expulsion in 1948. One day after the date Israel has chosen to celebrate its independence is Nakba Day for Palestinians, the day they were expelled from their home, the day their land was confiscated, the day they were forbidden to come back home.
I'm going to close this post with a photo by Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. The image is part of a series that depicts forests planted by the Israeli to cover and erase the very existence of former Palestinian villages that were evacuated and destroyed at various times since 1948. Each razed village has since been planted with stands of pine trees that gradually colonize the reclaimed lands and obscure their histories of devastation.
Forensic Oceanography is a research project started in 2011 by Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller to investigate the militarised border regime in the Mediterranean Sea, and document the violence perpetrated against migrants attempting to cross the liquid border.
The sea, and in particular the Mediterranean, is a space of escape for thousands of people who leave the African continent in hope of a safer life in Europe. It is also a space of control and thus a political space. Much of what happens on the surface of that liquid political space takes place far away from the public gaze and often remains unaccounted for. However, the sea is closely surveilled, information about what happens and what sails through it is being generated, analyzed and recorded.
Forensic Oceanography looks at the sea as a witness to interrogate and cross-examine, re-purposing data and technologies initially produced as evidence of illegal migration and turning it into evidence of a crime of non assistance.
Lorenzo Pezzani was at The Lighthouse in Brighton a few weeks ago to talk about Forensic Oceanography and more particularly about the case of 72 migrants who had been left to die while they were attempting to flee Libya and reach the Italian shores during the Libyan conflict of 2011.
The Mediterranean is a fairly crowded sea and Western military forces were made aware of the refugees' distress shortly after the dinghy's departure when the captain lost control of the boat and called for help. The Italian coast guards received the appeal and relayed it, along with the position of the boat, to the NATO coordination centre and to military vessels present in the area. The distress calls were repeated every 4 hours for 10 days. But no-one came to their assistance. The dinghy was seen by an airplane, military helicopters, two fishing vessels and a large military vessel, which ignored their distress signals. After 15 days adrift, the boat washed up on the Libyan coast with only 11 survivors on board, two of whom died shortly afterwards. FO call the case, the 'left-to-die boat'.
Here's Liquid Traces, a short film which sums up the case.
And the video of Pezzani's presentation at The Lighthouse. It was a great evening. He talked about how a journey at sea is fast for goods and for privileged passengers but excruciatingly slow for the unwanted, about the dilemma of producing evidence to account for violence while trying not to be complicit with governments, about FO new project to make and distribute to migrants leaflets containing legal information about their rights, etc.
Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture, by Justin McGuirk.
Publisher Verso Books writes: What makes the city of the future? How do you heal a divided city?
In Radical Cities, Justin McGuirk travels across Latin America in search of the activist architects, maverick politicians and alternative communities already answering these questions. From Brazil to Venezuela, and from Mexico to Argentina, McGuirk discovers the people and ideas shaping the way cities are evolving.
Ever since the mid twentieth century, when the dream of modernist utopia went to Latin America to die, the continent has been a testing ground for exciting new conceptions of the city. An architect in Chile has designed a form of social housing where only half of the house is built, allowing the owners to adapt the rest; Medellín, formerly the world's murder capital, has been transformed with innovative public architecture; squatters in Caracas have taken over the forty-five-storey Torre David skyscraper; and Rio is on a mission to incorporate its favelas into the rest of the city.
Here, in the most urbanised continent on the planet, extreme cities have bred extreme conditions, from vast housing estates to sprawling slums. But after decades of social and political failure, a new generation has revitalised architecture and urban design in order to address persistent poverty and inequality. Together, these activists, pragmatists and social idealists are performing bold experiments that the rest of the world may learn from.
It's mid July and this might already be my favourite book of the year 2014 (unless Jo Nesbo publishes a new one before December.) It is lively, daring, insightful and it might actually be one of the very few books about future cities that make sense to me.
While we (in Europe) are still proudly exhibiting in biennials 3D printed visions of what the city of tomorrow might look like, cities in South and Central America are already experiencing elements of our future urban conditions. Countries in Latin America have not only gone through mass urbanization long before China and Africa, they've also given rise to a new generation of architects who believe that architecture can be used as a tool for social change. These men (who are not only architects but also in some cases squatters and politicians) have had to respond to housing crisis, traffic congestion, segregation, lack of political participation and other effects of rapid unplanned urbanization.
The urban experiments described in Radical Cities should teach European and North American urban planners and architects valuable lessons about conceiving and managing the mega cities of the future. Such as what happens when you value adaptability over perfect order, acknowledge the informal city as a vital part of the urban ecosystem, include the citizen into collective efforts of imagination and construction or embrace and work with the dynamic force that is precariousness.
Among the cases explored:
Alejandro Aravena created social housing for a poor community living in the north of Chile. He simply provided families with half a house and they built the rest, within a defined structural framework. The project was self-initiated and the final dwellers of the houses were involved in the design process.
In Colombia, it's a new radicalized political class that took the initiative of improving the quality of life of all urban dwellers. The movement started in the 1990s when Antanas Mockus, the mayor of Bogotá used tactics of performance artists to tackle violence and instil a new civic culture. He reduced road accidents by hiring mime artists to mock bad behaviour on the road and to direct traffic, he set up a scheme allowing people to exchange their guns for toys and he dressed as Superciudadano (SuperCitizen) to urge his fellow citizen to take care of their urban environment. The results of his unorthodox social experiments included homicide rate dropping by 70% and traffic fatalities by more than 50%.
Torre David which the author calls 'a pirate utopia' is the third tallest skyscraper in Caracas. Built in the business district to host luxury offices, the building had stood empty for 13 years until 2007 when squatters moved in. Some 3000 people now live in "the tallest squat in the world.' Inhabitants managed to organize a legitimate electricity distribution, they enjoy spectacular views over the city and live in apartments that range from the barely inhabitable to well furnished flats with all commodities. The building has developed its own community rules and even houses convenience stores and bodegas every two floors. On the other hand, there is no elevator so going to the top floor with the grocery can quickly turn into a fitness challenge. There are open facades and holes in the floor and accidents happen if you don't stay away from the edge.