If you’ve been to the V&A recently, chances are you’ve encountered this curious (and free) little exhibition, and if you haven’t then you’ve got until the 1st of February to catch it. The first of its kind in many ways, ‘Disobedient Objects’ showcases the art that arises out of times of protest and all-around civic disobedience and, as the museum’s publicity professes, ‘demonstrates how political activism drives a wealth of design ingenuity and collective creativity that defy standard definitions of art and design.’
Perhaps ‘art’ is a misleading term. The word ‘objects’, as included in the exhibition’s title, is certainly more appropriate in terms of representing the spectrum of pieces that have been gathered together; though certainly artistic, many serve too as functional tools, created in response to a need. One example of such is the need to educate activists about their legal rights, and pieces developed accordingly include a collection of small, wallet-sized cards detailing every UK citizen’s rights under stop and search conditions, distributed in an effort to prevent unlawful abuse by Her Majesty’s forces of the powers afforded them. Others serve as protection to those unfortunate protesters who find themselves at the receiving end of some of the more forceful crowd-dispersing, protest-crushing methods used by authorities the world over; instructions on how to produce make shift masks and breathing apparatus in the event of tear gassing number among them.
Of course, as we have all seen from the recent Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, objects used in demonstrations can function as powerful tools for the communication of a message to the wider public. In the mass-media culture of the modern world, the effect of these symbols is stronger than ever before.
One of the more ingenious combinations of artistic aestheticism and pragmatic practicality represented by any object in the 99-piece-strong collection (the 100th spot is left blank to represent future disobedience) may well be the book blocs, relics from numerous protests against the rising cost and inaccessibility of education in many, supposedly first-world, nations. If you’re not familiar, book blocs consist of a very clever yet simple idea whereby makeshift shields are fashioned so as to resemble a large book; protesters pick a favourite book, or one that has had a profound impact on them in some manner. A particularly evocative statement is then created by any subsequent attempts by law enforcers to disperse the resisting activists, as, through any physical action, police must also unconsciously act symbolically, striking down the reproductions of the tools of education, and thus reinforcing the activist’s protest against the unjust withholding of the right to an education for all.
Throughout its collection of objects, the biggest impact is the simplicity and cost-minimisation of each design. This exhibition is about creative solutions under duress, with exceptionally limited financial resources, and each piece therefore represents some impressively innovative design work and demonstrates what can be achieved by creative collaboration within an army of like-minded people. It’s important to remember, and as the exhibition reminds us, that our world would not be the place it is today, flawed as it undeniably still may be, if it weren’t for the struggles of activists the world over. ‘Disobedient Objects’ pays homage to the enduring human spirit in the face of legal, practical and financial adversity. Ultimately, to look at the mechanisms whereby human beings undertake protest against injustice is to look at the wheels of democracy itself in motion.