The art of protest

Gavin Grindon looks at convergences of the political and the aesthetic

September 27, 2010 · 12 min read

What are the aesthetics of protest? Quick, name the first images that come to mind. You might think of posters and placards with bold declarative slogans, perhaps of proudly carried and intricately woven union banners, perhaps of a samba band dressed in pink, shuffling its way along the street. Whatever you first thought of, such images inevitably colour your imagination of what political action is, and can be. They probably also say a lot about your own history of social engagement. Each wave of social struggle develops its own specific repertoire of styles in art and performance, from colliery marching bands to reclaim-the-streets parties.

These aesthetics aren’t just incidental or window dressing for the real matter of serious politics. They’re intimately bound up with the forms of struggle and political organisation they are a part of. For one thing, protests and actions are highly emotional events, and the styles of social movements go a long way to shaping how those emotions are articulated as ideas, and in what ways they enable people to interact, organise and identify themselves, both internally as a group or movement and in relation to power structures of media and government. Being moved is an important factor in any social movement.

Since at least the 1990s there has been a particular, self-conscious focus in the global North on the art of social movements, and there are good reasons for this. This shift is a product of the increasingly central place of culture as one of the leading sectors of western economies – not just in the form of a ‘leisure’ society in which our time is spent consuming a cultural ‘spectacle’ in galleries, movies and online, but in the fact that work itself increasingly has a central cultural aspect. Cultural production has become an integral part of our everyday working lives.

For activists, as well as paying particular attention to the visual, cultural aspects of what they do, there has also been a dramatic increase in practices that take culture, feeling and the aesthetic as their primary field of struggle.

Yo Mango – ‘I steal’

This new cultural activism can be far removed from traditional forms of political campaigning. In Barcelona, for example, the group Yo Mango (‘I steal’) has offered free fashion consultations and makeovers to passers by outside the Mango clothes store. After measuring up their volunteers, they dash into the store and collect a set of clothes for them, and then send them happily on their way down the street with new wardrobes.

On 20 December 2002, on the anniversary of Argentina’s popular rebellion, the group announced a ‘Yo Mango Tango’. Smartly dressed couples began to dance the tango around a branch of the Carrefour chain of stores in the midst of the Christmas shopping rush. With each stylised dip, they would grab a bottle of champagne and whisk it out of the store. Media activists filmed and projected the scene live onto the wall outside, as a crowd gathered to watch. The next day, the champagne was taken along to a branch of one of the banks responsible for the Argentinean crisis for an impromptu champagne breakfast that resulted in the temporary closure of the branch.

In Hamburg, on 28 April 2006, a motley collection of costumed superheroes, with names inspired by critiques of precarious labour conditions, such as Supermum, Multiflex and Operaistorix, swept into the gourmet supermarket FrischeParadies, and made off with trolleys full of luxury goods, including Serrano hams and Valrhona chocolate. The Guardian recorded the shop owner’s dismay: ‘They took a whole slab of Australian Wagyu Kobe beef. It cost EUR108 . . . The cows had been specially massaged. We also have some very fine cheese here from Philippe Olivier. He’s a very tough and famous cheesemaker. They took that too.’

Handing a flower to the cashier, they posed for photos with the loot and then disappeared into the streets. A helicopter and 14 police cars appeared on the scene ten minutes later, but after an extended search found only an empty plastic bag. This was one in a series of actions carried out by a group called Umsonst (‘For Free’) who then distributed the goods to the city’s interns, assistants, temps and care workers who – of course – have to be superheroes to survive the precarious labour conditions imposed upon them. Besides their canny and sophisticated use of the mass media to tell their stories, the actions of such groups trade economic value for aesthetic values.

Politicised theatre of the absurd

Other groups have approached the intimate, affective encounter between individual police and activists as a tactical aesthetic terrain. The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA) appeared in the UK in 2005 to meet the G8 summit there, confronting the discipline of the police with playful behaviour, laughter and vulnerability. Taking on the role of the fool or the clown in a nonviolent direct action situation, they present themselves as vulnerable and ridiculous subjects.

The act of policing them soon itself appears ridiculous, and draws the police into CIRCA’s politicised theatre of the absurd, attempting to undermine the disciplinary role of the police, as well as CIRCA’s own fixed and potentially alienated role as ‘activists’. In doing so, the clown army opens possibilities for effective action and changed social relationships that a focus on militancy and grand victories often closes off.

At the same time as breaching the psychological barriers that the police attempt to maintain between themselves and ‘activists,’ the clowns use their role as the fool to undo attempts to fix and discipline the activist body. When pushed by the police, some clowns began spinning on the spot, looking like spinning tops. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to order a crowd about if you can’t keep a straight face, no cop wants his co-workers to see him repeatedly arresting a clown.

Darker context

Coming from a darker context, since around 1997 in Argentina, the Grupo de Arte Callejero (street art group) has been active among the movement made up of the children of dissident figures who were kidnapped, tortured and disappeared by members of the country’s former military dictatorship. In the face of political silence and inaction following the official end of the dictatorship, they drew on tactics more commonly associated with conceptual art. These included manufacturing their own street and traffic-style signs and maps, which they pasted on walls, giving distances and directions to the homes of those members of the dictatorship who now lived unpunished in often affluent anonymity, or which signified the location of former detention and torture centres.

Another group involved in this movement was Et Cetera, which held its own football match during the 1998 world cup, Argentina v Argentina, outside the ex-dictator General Galtieri’s house. The action recalled that he was in power during the 1978 world cup in Argentina, when, despite all the attention of the world’s media, the killing went on in the background. The match ended, and the general protest began, with a penalty kick in which a ball filled with red paint was booted into the general’s house.

Et Cetera also formed an ‘Errorist International’, who found themselves on the beach, holding cardboard guns and flags that read ‘BANG!’, while surrounded by a squad of worried and then confused police, during George Bush’s 2005 visit to Argentina midway through his ‘erroristic’ campaign against terrorism.

Tanks and pirates

More recently, in London in 2007, outside the Excel arms trade fair that is held each year in the Docklands, a group called the Space Hijackers decided that rather than be harassed by the police and marginalised with the other protesters, they’d get in on the action. So they bought a tank, and called a press conference to announce they intended to drive it to the arms fair and auction it to the highest bidder. If their buyer decided to drive it through the police lines and into the building, it wasn’t their responsibility; they were just conducting legitimate business like the gentlemen in expensive suits and sunglasses inside.

Unfortunately, announcing that your anarchist group has a tank and intends to use it attracts rather a lot of police attention. The action became difficult to see through to fruition as the group came under heavy police surveillance, its phone calls were monitored and the tank was stopped miles from the venue.

At this point one of the crew climbed on top of the tank with a loudhailer and, after berating the police restriction of legitimate protest, announced that there were free bikes for everyone, and that they should use them to cycle to the arms fair, where their secret second tank was now just arriving. Sadly, no one captured the expression on the police’s faces for posterity, but a comedic Keystone Kops-style chase to the exhibition ensued between a crowd on bikes and rather a lot of police cars. An ‘auction’ then proceeded for the second tank, accompanied by its new sound system and a troupe of male and female burlesque dancers who emerged to show off the charms of its turrets and cannons to best effect.

Similar art-political forms of organisation appeared when the third of the UK’s climate camp protests took place at the Kingsnorth power station in Kent in 2008. On the day of mass action, while many marched overland towards the station, other groups had announced plans to take the site by air and sea. The top secret air attack met the panicked police mobilisation with a series of kites, while the sea group handed treasure maps to about 30 pirate affinity groups, who hid out overnight in woods and fields and then launched onto the River Medway early the next morning with inflatable boats, home-made rafts and a lot of eye patches. This rebel raft regatta proved difficult for the police boats to deal with more than one at a time, and after something like an anarchist game of Takeshi’s Castle, the coal intake jetty was reached and the station’s operations disrupted. You also couldn’t find a shop with a single bottle of rum left in it anywhere near the camp.

As well as gaining their direct political effectiveness from the blurring of art and activism, the playful and symbolically accessible nature of such actions also functions in ideological terms as a tactical engagement with the mass media, confounding exclusionary representations of ‘protesters’ as well as outmanoeuvring the standard police media strategy of isolating social movements by emphasising a threat of violence. Following the Kingsnorth climate camp, the Guardian ran the headline: ‘Those Kingsnorth police injuries in full: six insect bites and a toothache. £5.9 million police operation “a colossal waste of money”.’

Autonomous creativity

Inspiring as they might be, isolating these stories from the movements that they were a part of can reify them and make them seem like stunts divorced from wider political engagements. But if we look at them historically, as a tendency within the wider movement against capital, we might see such aestheticised approaches as simply one end of a spectrum of liberated labour-power.

This labour-power rejects ‘work’ – that is, the capitalist appropriation and enclosure of our creativity – in order to pursue the autonomous, everyday creation of other values: life-activity for other ends. ‘Art’ has been the term western societies have used historically for such autonomous creativity: like a festival, it has been the small space in which creativity and affectivity can let off steam in ways not normally allowed. So it is little wonder that among more autonomous social movements, we find the language of artistic experiments has served as a political language for the freeing of people’s labour power from the directives of capital.

In fact, these practices have a long, subaltern history, stretching back to groups within libertarian and autonomist tendencies since at least the mid-1960s in Europe and the US, perhaps simply because such historical movements provided a new space for political experiment. In the 1960s, groups such as the Provos, Diggers and Yippies merged the practice of protest and direct action with the art-form of the ‘happening’ or ‘situation’, using play and fluidity and political tools.

The Yippies carried out a protest at Macy’s department store: people flooded the store and began to move goods around like shop assistants, break them, or pass them about. According to one account, dogs and cats were set loose in the food hall and a hysterical buzzard wrecked the crockery department. Meanwhile, protesters with flags stood in solidarity with ordinary shoppers, who were then arrested.

In 1970s Italy, the ‘Metropolitan Indians’ joined labour demonstrations with rubber tomahawks and painted faces, marching in arrow formation. They also practised collective ‘autoreduction’ of food, travel, rent and utilities as part of a direct reclamation of both necessities and cultural life from which people were excluded by rising prices and falling wages, often in combination with communities and workers who kept the power on. In the US in the 1980s, LGBT and Aids activist groups such as Act Up developed innovative political poster styles that drew on the tactics of conceptual art and new performance practices of kiss-ins and ‘zaps’, raucous direct action protests often designed to embarrass public figures.

These practices have gone mostly unsupported in the increasingly privatised and commercial institutions of the art world, although their aesthetics and rhetoric have nonetheless had a large influence on them. Instead they find their continued purpose and home among social movements, where their experiments, playful, ridiculous and joyful as they are, have become an important part of our creative repertoires of ways to both reimagine and remake the world. n

Gavin Grindon is a research fellow in visual and material culture at Kingston University London, where he is writing a history of avant-garde art and activism in the 20th century

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