As the exhibition 'Disobedient Objects' opens at the V&A, London, Hettie Judah reflects on what it means to exhibit protest objects in one of the world's grandest museums

By Hettie Judah

Dolls of the Zapatista Revolution, the Zapatista, Mexico. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London Carrie Reichardt and the Treatment Rooms Collective, Tiki Love Truck (detail), 2007. Courtesy the artists Coral Stoakes, I Wish My Boyfriend Was As Dirty As Your Policies, 2011. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London You Don't Even Represent Us / You Cannot Even Imagine Us, banner, St Petersburg, December 2011. Courtesy Pavel Arsenev Inflatable cobblestone, action of Eclectic Electric Collective in cooperation with Enmedio collective during the General Strike in Barcelona, 2012. Photo: © Oriana Eliçabe/Enmedio.info

Debate surrounding political art in the last few years has yielded a number of imperatives – concerned with aspects ranging from solidarity, to sites of display, to relationships with the art industry – aimed, it would seem, at weeding out hipsterish political dilettantes looking for an easy veneer of real-world credibility. Tania Bruguera has called for political art that ‘works on the consequences of its existence’ rather than simply regurgitating images and acts already in the public domain. Thomas Hirschhorn has written about working for a ‘non-exclusive public’ and the difference between ‘making political art’ (bad) and ‘making art politically’ (good). Art historian and critic Barbara Rose has railed in The Brooklyn Rail against ‘superficial agitprop’ and made strong distinctions between ‘facile sloganeering’ and the work of artists profoundly invested in their political subject matter.

Such nice distinctions are unlikely to trouble members of activist movements as they design and construct objects to use in the field of protest. Whether we are contemplating modified concrete pipes for locking protesters onto barricades, riot shields painted as book covers or Syrian graffiti stencils, by definition these are politically motivated ‘works’ created with strong consequences in mind, for the widest possible audience and often with the knowledge that the maker(s) would be put in harm’s way as a result of their deployment. What such objects are emphatically not intended as are units of quiet, static display, offered for isolated contemplation. They may succeed in being impeccably political creations, but few are conceived as art or even design objects. When such pieces are exhibited in one of the world’s grandest museums of art and design – as they will be in Disobedient Objects at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – how does this change the objects, and indeed, how does it change the museum?

Two years ago, Catherine Flood, the V&A’s curator of posters and graphics, was struck by how subversive material had been embraced by museums via collections of political posters, but seemed unrepresented in other departments. Further thoughts about what the subversive, political activist collections of other departments might have looked like eventually led to collaboration with activist art historian Gavin Grindon. Disobedient Objects is the result, an exhibition intended to represent ‘design from below’; objects that operate outside of the commercial process, and a system of making that is often poor in means but rich in ends. From simple button badges to giant puppets, the wideranging display gathers items from international protest movements over the last 35 years and aims to show them in their own terms rather than as gallery pieces or socio-political ephemera.

‘These objects don’t need a museum to legitimate what they’re doing or how they work,’ Flood explains. ‘But that doesn’t mean that they don’t gain something from being here; they’re afforded a different form of contemplation by being put into a wider history. Yes, there’s a strong idea that these objects should only exist in the moment of their use, and don’t have any value outside of that, but if they’re not collected, that creates a gap – it means that only one story is ever told.’

Not only the subject matter but the curatorial process behind Disobedient Objects reflects an episode of broad institutional soulsearching by the V&A, which among other things has led to an updating of the museum’s nineteenth-century object-categorisation structure

Not only the subject matter but the curatorial process behind Disobedient Objects reflects an episode of broad institutional soulsearching by the V&A, which among other things has led to an updating of the museum’s nineteenth-century object-categorisation structure (to include, for example, contemporary architecture, digital and product design) and a new rapid-response strategy to collecting that has led to the acquisition of Katy Perry-branded false eyelashes and Primark jeans (both as commentaries on dubious labour practices).

To build up the untold story from unarchived objects, not represented in the museum’s collection, Flood and Grindon had to work directly with the political social movements that made and used them, making cooperative decisions about which objects should be displayed, and how. Many of the exhibits are still partway through their working life – pulsating with unfinished business rather than stuck dead and lepidopterised in a glass museum case – and will return to active duty after the show.

‘One of the things we wanted to acknowledge was that the experts in this area weren’t curators or academics but the people who are making these objects,’ explains Grindon. ‘They often don’t have a great deal of representation in the artworld or academia, so the design of the exhibition was worked out in a series of workshops, with these people getting their say on what the show should look like, what its message should be and how it should be structured. So there was a publicness to the curating of it.’ The workshops took place in New York and London, but the scope of the exhibition is much wider, taking in Chilean arpilleras – hand-sewn textile pictures documenting the harsh economic conditions, disappearances and torture during the military dictatorship of 1973–90 – and anti-Putin protest banners.

One revelation is how physical objects of protest continue to be relevant in an era in which so much activism seems to take place invisibly online. The two modes have evolved in concert, with the quickclick image culture of Instagram and Facebook supercharging the potency of well-orchestrated images of protest, and Twitter (which was purportedly inspired by txtMob, an activist media project by the Institute for Applied Autonomy to connect demonstrators launched during the 2004 Republican National Convention) now providing a pithy training ground for attention-grabbing placard slogans.

The anticonsumerist (and often antiauthorial) ethos behind many protest and activist objects gives rise to a creative ideal of infinite reproducibility and appropriation

The anticonsumerist (and often antiauthorial) ethos behind many protest and activist objects gives rise to a creative ideal of infinite reproducibility and appropriation – designs that can be recreated by others within or beyond a group using readily available materials, and ideas that can be picked up for use in multiple sites and multiple scenarios. (One such idea was the ‘Book Bloc’ – groups carrying protest shields painted to resemble book covers as they pushed through police lines; originating in 2010 at a student demonstration in Rome, these were rapidly adopted by groups in the UK, US, Spain and Canada). While one associates the aesthetics of such communitarian skill-sharing with the radical independent presses of the 1960s and 70s, here again the superconnectedness of post-Internet culture has played a key role in the rapid dissemination of instructions and ideas.

Formally acquired skill also plays a role – craftivist Carrie Reichardt uses the superficial ‘polite’ beauty of ceramics or the dynamism of her anti-death-penalty protest vehicle the Tiki Love Truck (2007) to attract attention. Young architects have become involved in the proliferating protest-camp culture of recent years in sites from Kiev to Tahrir Square to Gezi Park and the global Occupy movements.

During a roundtable discussion transcribed at the back of the exhibition catalogue, the question arises of what ‘obedient’ objects might be. Suggestions range from active tools of oppression, to quiescent decorative art, to fine art that participates in the market system. Activist scholar T.V. Reed notes the continuing relevance of Walter Benjamin’s line ‘When politics becomes aestheticized, art must become politicized’ and returns to the question of site vs intent, noting, ‘“Art” objects and protest signs may not be that far apart. Art objects that were once aimed at the heart of capitalism now adorn the walls of multinational corporations… There is no resolution to this situation, but only an ongoing dialectic.’ Whatever potency the disobedient objects have outside of their functional context, then, seems in danger of inevitable diminution as the objects become ‘museumised’ – that their territory within the museum collection is confined to the poster department is perhaps something to be thankful for.

Disobedient Objects is on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, from 26 July 2014 to 1 February 2015