Disobedients objects

Through 99 exhibits, a new show at the Victoria and Albert Museum focuses on the material culture of social movements from the 1970s to the present, spanning from an elegant British teacup from 1910 to a bashed up Argentine metal saucepan lid from 2001.

An elegant British teacup from 1910 and a bashed up Argentine metal saucepan lid from 2001. Divided by nearly a hundred years and thousands of miles, these two objects aren’t just united by their domestic function.
Both have been vehicles for social change; the former part of the British campaign for women’s suffrage, the latter the improvised protest tools of the Argentine citizens who ousted four presidents in three weeks. They are also the first two of ninety-nine exhibits in “Disobedient Objects”, a new show at the V&A that focuses on the material culture of social movements from the 1970s to the present.
Opening: Guerrilla Girls. Above: view of the exhibition “Disobedient Objects” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Curated by Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, “Disobedient Objects” could seem out of place in the rarefied context of the V&A, whose current other exhibitions spotlight wedding dresses and Italian couture. With the exception of the teacup, by far the oldest object in the show, none of the objects belong to the Museum and hardly any exist in any other collections. These are not the precious, preserved works of skilled artisans or market-based designers but anonymous or amateur-authored artefacts borrowed from activists groups the world over. In reality, “Disobedient Objects” sits alongside another recent V&A venture, its Rapid Response Collecting strategy, dedicated to speedy collecting of objects in response to social issues – from Cody Wilson’s 3D printed gun to unethically produced false eyelashes. Taken together, these two innovations suggest a welcome institutional shouldering of social responsibility in an irresponsible world.
Dolls of the Zapatista Revolution, The Zapatista, Mexico. Photo © Victoria and Albert Musem, London
Free to enter, “Disobedient Objects” is permeated by an air of social inclusiveness.  Designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, the display system is an appropriately ad hoc mix of vertical steel scaffolding tubes and chipboard shelving. Barnbrook also designed all the graphics, including the two sets of colour-coded labels – grey for the curators’ word and yellow for the makers’ perspective.  Together these help downplay the inevitable sterilisation in this transfer of objects from their ‘live’ street context to the sanitised gallery space.
View of the exhibition “Disobedient Objects” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Following on from the small introductory section, the remainder of the exhibition is divided into five sections. The first four represent different types of strategies for social change. Making Worlds emphasises the importance of the pragmatic and the visionary: it displays an array of human ingenuity from all over the world; from gas masks made out of plastic bottles at Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013, to the wayfinding signs of Occupy Sandy, the New York relief effort that appeared in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy in the absence of sufficient state support. Speaking Out similarly juxtaposes grassroots action with governmental failure. It includes handmade rainbow LGBT placards from 2012 that declared “We Won’t Give it to Putin a Third Time”.
Vista della mostra “Disobedient Objects” al Victoria and Albert Museum, Londra
View of the exhibition “Disobedient Objects” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Themes of subversive humour also appear in Direct Action’ such as Tools for Action’s inflatable cobblestones, which force the police into a playful relationship with protestors. Solidarity emphasises this theme of community through focusing on the objects used to cement and communicate causes, such as the red squares worn by those protesting against rises in university fees in Canada in 2012, a campaign spread further by an astute use of social media.
Inflatable cobblestone, action of Eclectic Electric Collective in co-operation with Enmedio collective during the General Strike in Barcelona, 2012. Photo © Oriana Eliçabe/Enmedio.info
The final section, A Multitude of Struggle, showcases a variety of activist groups and protest movements from all over the world. Here, as throughout the exhibition, there is a notable emphasis on craft; from arpilleras first created under Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile to a Tiki Love Truck by British craftivist Carrie Reichardt in protest against the Texan death penalty in 2007. There are some examples of digital protest, such as Phone Story, a free game app created by Italian group Molleindustria in 2011, which exposed the player to the unethical production of the phone in their hand, and which was banned just four days after it was released on iTunes. Phone Story is however the exception in this largely hand-made show and more emphasis on the digital, as well as a greater articulation of the impact of social media and other new technologies would have been welcome here.
The Bread and Puppet Theatre, Tableau of three puppets. Photo © Jonathan Slaff
The absence of an identifiable chronology and sense of historical change are amongst the few criticisms I have for “Disobedient Objects”. While the thematic structure and lack of set route are clearly in the show’s democratic and pluralist spirit, it would have been useful to see more explicitly how the approaches, communities and issues that social movements address have changed over time, both since the 1970s and before.  There was also much crossover between the strategies presented, which contributed to the exhibition’s chaotic feel.  Nevertheless, the curators have created a moving and memorable exhibition well-worth seeing, and their work is not over yet: “Disobedient Objects” has space to include a hundredth exhibit, an artefact from a future protest that is as yet unknown, but inevitable, in our troubled times.
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Graffiti Writer (Robot for writing street graffiti), Institute for Applied Autonomy, USA

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