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<nettime> Disobedient Objects: Folk Politics: Diabolical Math
d.garcia on Sun, 3 Aug 2014 23:30:27 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Disobedient Objects: Folk Politics: Diabolical Math

Disobedient Objects: Folk Politics: Diabolical Math

One of the few shows to address the highly contentious relationship between 
art and activism, in a way that takes us into new and more generative 
territory, is the exhibition -Disobedient Objects- currently to be seen at 
London?s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Disobedient Objects is a history of late 20th and 21st century protest 
movements told through ?objects?, the tools of direct action, communication 
and resistance. In the words of the curators it opens up the question of 
material culture the previously under examined area of the art and design of 
object making within social movements.

In the introduction of the show?s excellent catalogue, the two curators 
(Catherine Flood and Gavin  ) use the term Movement Cultures rather than 
activist art, leaving deliberately ambiguous the status of the objects 
presented in the show. Indeed the conceptual integrity of the exhibition is 
critically dependant in maintaining a wide gulf between itself and the 
current industry of politically engaged art, whilst simultaneously drawing 
on the rhetorical tropes and subterranean energies that have been released 
by the engagement of art with social movements. The show manages to hover 
tantalizingly on the threshold separating these two domains, describing 
disobedient objects as the zero-point of political art.. to be alternatively 
ignored or problematically recuperated by art and design institutions.

The contradiction of exhibiting such work in a place called Victoria & 
Albert Museum did not escaped the attention of the curators and their texts 
show they were aware of the risk of a Faustian Pact into which they had 
entered and how they could not themselves escape being problematically 
recuperated. But they clearly decided it was a risk worth taking. And they 
were right! Against all the odds, they have managed to pull off an unlikely 
success, a popular success, as it is crowded with visitors whilst also 
garnering near universal critical acclaim and thoughtful commentary. The 
show has also been successful in the less obvious terms. The V&A is not a 
primarily a Fine Art museum (its emphasis is on the decorative and applied 
arts) so the curators could, to a degree, avoid the well rehearsed art games 
of legitimization required to transform objects into the appropriate forms 
of conceptual commodities. Another less visible layer of achievement has 
been the organizer?s willingness to engage in complex deliberations with 
activist participants and to make these discussions (in part) available for 
scrutiny in the catalogue. Making this effort allows us to reflect on the 
fault-line dividing militant activist desire and the communicative and the 
institutional imperatives of a major public museum.

The Only Failing

The only clear failure to my mind is the price of the catalogue/reader which 
at ?20 (or even more annoyingly ?19.99) is far too pricey and likely to 
exclude those who have the most at stake in a show like this. Its not a 
question of bad faith on the part of the organizers. The publication is 
beautifully made and must have been costly to produce. Its just too 

This fault not withstanding, the publication is really is a great piece of 
work, achieving everything an exhibition catalogue of this sort should. It 
illuminates the conceptual and design logic helping the visitor navigate a 
complex and crowded show. It is unusual in revealing some of the contentious 
discussions with different constituencies leading up to the show. And its 
full of sharply written, well illustrated, there are essays by highly 
respected scholar/activists who are not afraid to journey into weirdly 
idiosyncratic lines of inquiry. One of my favorites being to pose the 
question ?why do cops hate giant puppets??.

A Raucous Jamboree

The overarching design of the show remains true to the ad hoc spirit of 
protest and civil disobedience, making no concessions to expectations that 
museum spaces should be for quiet reflection, it is a defiantly raucous 
jamboree in which the objects jostle alongside one another against the noisy 
backdrop of a video montaged history of protest and campaigns from the early 
20th century until today. Most of the objects on display are disobedient in 
the obvious sense of having been forged in the expectation or actual heat of 
violent confrontation and civil disobedience and so carry visible traces of 
a rough-hewn character. What could have been a chaotic and disorientating 
experience mitigated by a guiding structure shaping the space into four 
sections reflecting four different strategies for social change: Direct 
Action, Speaking Out, Making Words and Solidarity. These categories do not 
come across as prescriptive but as act as anchors around which the objects 
gravitate, guiding encouraging visitors to make their own connections.

The overwhelming aesthetic is one of ad hoc improvisation visible through 
devices such as the plastic water bottles transformed into gas-masks or the 
lock-on devices, the devices in which chains and metal tubes enable people 
attach themselves to each other. Making an appearance opposite the paper 
mache puppets are the famous Book Block shields originating in the Italian 
student uprisings of 2010 and adopted around the world as a form of 
protection in which are enlarged images of book covers cover of books Oscar 
Wilde's The Happy Prince, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man obliging riot police 
are to attack Literature and Knowledge with truncheons.

Intimate Media

Particularly striking is the Tiki Love Truck (the largest artifact in the 
show) a vehicle, covered in mustard yellow and orange ceramic tiles, on 
which sits, the death mask taken (illegally) of John Joe ?Ash? Amador, who 
was executed in 2007, by his friend the campaigner Carrie Reichardt and her 
accomplice Nick Reynolds. The love truck has become a familiar presence 
around the world at parades and at festivals such as Glastonbury where it is 
deployed as an instrument in their campaign against the death penalty. In an 
interview for Prospect magazine Carrie Reichardt explains how she uses the 
appearance of vehicle to engage people in discussion; establish a rapport, 
get them interested, then bring out the harder, scarier stuff. This work and 
the way in which it is used exemplifies the -deliberative turn- in the art 
of campaigning.

Diabolical Math

Acknowledged or not contemporary art contributed to a turning away from 
crude agitprop towards a more intimate dialogical approach, a deliberative 
turn- whereby image or image and text combine to become invitations to 

This development is particularly visible in the AIDS activist movements of 
the 80s as epidemic cut across all classes, including many in elite art and 
design community politicizing many for the first time and propelling a new 
dimension of media savvy professionalism onto the streets. It also reflected 
the critical post-modern art of the time borrowing from the likes of Barbara 
Kruger, Martha Rosler and Jenny Holzer, and deployed contemporary art?s 
capacity for a degree of abstraction which allows for information to be 
tactically withheld, creating new spaces for participation and dialogue.

A key example in the exhibition art Tee shirts sporting the famous icon in 
which a bright pink triangle against a black background above SILENCE=DEATH 
in an ominous Gill Sans Bold Extra Condensed, anchoring the composition in a 
diabolical math- that became global logo of AIDS activism. I am probably 
exhibiting the worst kind of connoisseurship in confessing the frisson of 
excitement I felt at seeing in the show the original sketches leading up to 
the final version of this masterpiece, from Avram Finkelstein?s (one of the 
original members of the artist?s collective Gran Fury) personal archive.  In 
a discussion with writer Jesse Green in 2003 Finkelstein, who now runs an 
online T-shirt company still felt the need to justify his professionalism, 
saying - If you have an art training or make art, - you can't escape the way 
you communicate. Everything is aesthetisized -.

In the context of the exhibition as a whole this particular piece of work 
stands out as an exception to the overwhelming DIY (and post-digital) ethos 
which Williams and Srnicek, authors of the Accelerationist Manifesto refer 
to (disparagingly) as the folk politics of localism, direct action and 
relentless horizontalism- which they contrast to an ?accelerationist 
politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality and 
technology. If one were to imagine a next stage in the program of action and 
inquiry that this important exhibition has initiated, it would be aimed at 
rendering the accelerationist dichotomy redundant.

An illustrated version of this text can be found at: 


d a v i d  g a r c i a 


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