Isa (my partner in love, work and crime) and I have been in Budapest for 10 days, co-running a workshop with art activists from Spanish collective
The rituals of protest that they see around them are feeling increasingly inefficient, and faced with the urgency of the social and ecological catastrophe, they can see that the key is not only to create forms of resistance that are irresistibly beautiful, but more importantly, radically effective in halting the business as usual model of the growth economy and its addiction to fossil fuels.
The New World Anthroposphere: Cities, roads, railways, transmissions lines and underwater cables. Image: courtesy of Globaia.org
Over the last decade it has become scientific consensus that this model of society is leading us to a planet whose atmosphere would resemble something in between mars and venus, a place with temperatures similar to hell. The resulting global collapse would make every historical local collapse of civilisation pale into tragic insignificance. Ultimately we are talking about the possibility of the human species becoming extinct over the next few generations.
We have entered an epoch unlike any in human history – the Anthropocene. An Epoch is a geological time period. Named in 2000 by earth system scientists and an atmospheric chemist, the Anthropocene marks an age where humanity has itself become a collective geophysical force of nature. Of course it is not all of humanity that is responsible for ushering in the age of the Anthropocene, the average Bangladeshi consumes 26 times less energy than a Belgian, some of us are more much more responsible than others.
The Anthropocene is an epoch where there are more trees growing in farms than in the wild, where more rock and soil is moved by bulldozers and mining than all ‘natural’ processes combined and where the climate is tipping out of control due to the burning of oil, gas and coal. Industrial capitalism is irreversibly altering the natural cycles of the biosphere, nature is now a product of culture. It is not longer just asteroid impacts and volcanic eruptions that herald mass extinctions, it is us, the 20% of the world that is consuming 80% of it’s resources.
In the age of the Anthropocene the ancient distinction between natural history and human history, between culture and nature collapses. We are woven together, entwined in each others fates. Historian of science Christophe Bonneil describes it as a moment of “all powerful vulnerability.” It is a crisis with consequences whose scale are unimaginable and what this generation is living through is the final confrontation between capitalism’s need for infinite growth and the finite resources of the planet, no amount of financial speculation or high tech invention will buy the system its way out of the inevitable crash. The future is not what it used to be.
“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself.” wrote Walter Benjamin in his seminal 1936 essay: The work of art in the Age of Mechanical reproduction. “Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art..” In the wake of the advent of film and photography a major change in the structures of perception would arise, suggested Benjamin. In the age of the Anthropocene, many of us are sensing as Ivan Illich called it, “the shadows our future throws,” these shadows are profoundly shifting our perceptions and yet many of our behaviours seems little changed. These notes are a reflection on the role of art and activism at a time when neither seem like powerful enough tools to transform the world anymore and yet transform it we must. They are an attempt to find the shape of hope in the shadows.
The first time I sensed the power of art I was seven. My mother took me to a Rene Magritte retrospective. I remember the strange sweet smell of the museum, the peaceful silence and the clouds, lots of them, painted white, fluffy and dream like. But most of all I remember the sense that the images conveyed: the world could be more than just this world.
13 years later I was sitting in university seminar and I had that gut feeling again. I was an art history student and our eccentric bow tie wearing lecturer was reading out the futurist manifesto, gesticulating wildly. At the time I had no idea of the fascist implications of the futurists ideas, but I remember the radicality of their words, the way they cracked open my imagination, I remember the phrase “we will destroy the museums”, and I sensed that there was so much profoundly wrong with the world as it is and that separating art from everyday life was part and parcel of the problem.
Fast forward to 1994, I’m 29, I’m a 0.5 lecturer in fine art, my son Jack had been conceived, and I threw myself into a campaign of direct action against the building of a motorway that would rip a hole through east London, destroying 350 homes and several ancient woodlands to save 7 minutes on a car journey. As I sat on a bulldozer with others, momentarily stopping it tearing up a 400 year old forest, my perceptions of the world are transfigured once again. I realised that activism could become an art work, a form of performance that was beautifully efficient. In a time of crisis art could not be about representing the world any more, but transforming it. Little did I imagine that such art would two decades later find itself enclosed in museums.
As I was blocking the bulldozers in London, in Paris, the Grand Palais was holding a gigantic exhibition: Impressionisme, les Origines: 1859-1869. The dates are significant. The first Impressionist show is normally dated April 1874 in Nadar’s studio. What happened between 1870-73? Why did this show’s chronology end in 1869? What history needed to be erased even as recently as 1994?
What happened, was the Paris Commune, an insurrectionary blast that lasted 72 days over the spring of 1871. The rebellion was fueled by the sense that the great revolution of 1789 had been left incomplete. The commune cracked a fault line between the competing forces of the century, it was a fissure between capital and the people, the rulers and the ruled, between those who desired autonomy and those who profited from slavery. What began as a kind of 19th century Woodstock – a resistant festival where bodies reinvented themselves and new forms of life were acted out; ended with the stench of rotting corpses filling the streets of Paris. In the last bloody week of that brief utopian spring, 30,000 protesters were shot dead by a republican government desperate to wipe radicalism from the city of light.
If the commune was one of the first insurrections of the modern era, what objects and artworks did it bequeath to us? There are the hundreds of thousands of posters that plastered the walls. Many were text only communiqué’s that were often transferred to print format within hours of telegraph messages arriving to the printers from across the city and the front lines. The printers were self managing their print works and had the right to read discuss and edit the messages coming in before they went to print and then out onto the streets – it was like an early wiki.
Other art works are the satirical cartoons in newspapers, four thousand lithographs and a handful of black and white photographs where the slow shutter speed blurs any human bodies that are not already dead or posed in complete stillness in glory on a barricade. Their moving bodies become ghostly forms gradually fading into forgetting.
Communards killed by the government, 1871, Paris.
But what were the contemporary artists doing at the time? Most of them, including Manet, Morrisot, Cezanne and Monet, escaped Paris, they took refuge in sea side cottages and rural retreats, most continued painting – portraits, seascapes, silent couples sitting at tables, bunches of flowers…
One artist famously did the opposite, he remained in the insurrectionary city, and put down his paintbrushes, for him; Art was not enough. Convinced that the commune was a prefigurative embodiment of the ideas of his friend and founder of modern anarchist theory Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Gustave Courbet immersed himself in organising. The movement became his material, a kind of prefiguration of 20thcentury German artists Joseph Beuy’s notions of social sculpture. On April the 30th, Courbet wrote a letter from the liberated city, “I am up to my neck in Politics.. Paris is a true paradise, no police, no nonsense, no exaction of any kind, no arguments! Everything in Paris rolls along like clock-work. If only it could stay like this forever. In short it is a beautiful dream. All government bodies are organized federally and run themselves.”
A few weeks later as Marx described, “to broadly mark the new era of history it was conscious of initiating… the commune pulled down that colossal system of martial glory, the Vendome column.” Made from granite and thousands of melted Prussian cannons, with a golden statue of Napoleon in the guise of roman emperor at its summit, this monument to hierarchy and war was incompatible with the solidarity and horizontality of the commune. Originally Courbet wanted to “débouloner” (dismantle) the monument and in a pre-situationist anti-war act of “détournement” re-site it outside the Invalides, the hospital French wounded soldiers retire and recover: “There at least the invalids could see where they got their wooden legs” he wrote.
Despite reservations, Courbet eventually signed the decree for the columns destruction and helped plan the rebellious festival that brought this hated symbol crashing down. The destruction of the Vendome column was a piece of total theatre: Invitations were printed, bands played and twenty thousand people watched as the winches pulled and the column fell engulfing the square in a huge cloud of dust. It was the closing act of the brief utopian experiment and perhaps the commune’s greatest work of art, or rather a work of art after art, the first great performance of artivisme, or neo luddite street art, the world where the spirit of art and activism fuse into one.
The Commune had reduced representation in both its artistic and political form to a minimum, people briefly took back control of their daily life, resistance merged with creativity, alternatives with refusal. The commune heralded what Alan Kaprow one hundred years later imagined the meaning of art might be in the future, “changing profoundly from being an end to being a means, from holding out a promise of perfection in some other realm to demonstrating a way of living meaningfully in this one.”
Six days later the Republican troupes broke through the barricades and began their massacre. The three month long experimentation with new forms of life ended in a week of ruthless killing. Tens of thousands of communards were rounded up, summarily executed or arrested. Marshall law was declared (It lasted till 1876) and the impressionists began to return to town.
Manet, shocked by the repression and critical of what he considers to be the communes ‘excesses’, wrote: “We have all been complicit…This war has ruined me for several years to come.” British travel agency Thomas Cook organised trips to the post commune ruins claiming they rivaled Pompey. Advertising replaced the political posters on the city walls and the communes posters immediately became collectors items.
24 months later in 1874, the impressionists first exhibition opened and it revolutionised painting, but their shock aesthetics simply masked the horrors. It was what today we might call “artwashing”. The slight of hand that transforms ‘radical’ art into a tool for upholding the status quo. On new years eve 1877, Courbet dies in exile, wrecked by debt having been forced to pay 1 million euros for the rebuilding of the column and exhausted from a six month prison sentence.
The Impressionists, ‘painters of modern life’ were radical within the terms of art, they broke the rules of the academy, painted outside and reinvented representation, but in fact their marks were to make us forget.The free and liberated crowd of the commune was erased with portraits of isolated individuals. Streets stained with death were washed away with still-lives bursting with colour. Modern life returned, and with it the myth of the artists as disengaged, ‘neutral’ aesthetic rebel. In Zola’s words an artist who has “achieved perfection” and “arrived at the ideal state”, who “consequently has little care for the world.”
Child on hobby horse, Claude Monet, 1872.
The possibilities of the world were reduced again, a bifurcation closed in on itself. The new forms of social life that arose during the Commune, such as the heated direct democratic debates in the new grassroots clubs, the requisitioned empty buildings transformed into public housing, the expropriated workshops turned into worker owned cooperatives, the demand for female suffrage; withered away like plants brought indoors. Many of these forms would take decades to re emerge, others are still waiting.
From then on progress would be to aspire to an ordered comfortable Bourgeois life. Good furnishings, the smell of freshly cut flowers, the sacred family unit, obedience everywhere. Impressionism had restored the ‘normality’ of modern life. According to art Historian Albert Boeme, modernism was built on the desire to hide the “guilty secret” of the commune. Fearful of taking sides and of getting too close to that which they could not control, the Impressionists had put art in the service of business as usual. The revolting past was given a makeover and moved to the silence of the museum. It’s a lesson for all of us in this moment of transition when we need to give up representation and put art back in the service of life and rebellion.
It’s march 2000 and I’m in the middle of organising an action for Mayday with Reclaim the Street (RTS), the collective that I worked in between 1995 and 2000. Made up of activists, ravers, ecologists and anarchists, RTS became infamous for it’s mass illegal street parties, with thousands dancing to rave music and transforming polluting traffic filled streets into beat filled festivals of resistance. The politics of RTS ‘s politics and its aestheticised forms of protest played a key part in Naomi Klein’s best seller and unofficial bible of the alterglobalisation movement: NO LOGO .
Born in the struggles against the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, RTS brought together subcultures and marginal groups that the bill was designed to attack – squatters, ecological activists, ravers, travellers and gypsies. Perceived by many as ‘weird, criminal, smelly, outcast people’ we were easy targets for applying harsh new laws to. It was an ingenious way of slipping draconian measures into law, at first applied to those on the margin and now forming the basis for many laws restricting civil liberties that apply to everyone, such as the keeping of all DNA on databases.
The more the marginals protested and rioted the less support we got from the public. The movement against the Act culminated in a 40,000 strong march and riot in hyde park to a backdrop of loud Techno and unsurprisingly the bill went through, partly due to a young shadow secretary who at the last minute turned coat and didn’t oppose it. His name was Tony Blair.
The act made direct action on worksites, such as blocking a bulldozer a crime, previously it had been a civil matter. This was a clear response to the victories in the the anti-roads movements which had forced the government to cancel 700 new road schemes a few years previously.
It made living in a van on the road illegal, which was both a direct attack on Irish Travellers and Gypies, but also a response to the huge movement involved in nomadic alternative living, made up of young people who wanted to escape wage slavery and the metropolis, by turning lorries into fantastical mobile utopias on wheels and taking to the road with their friends in what became know as: The convoy.
The Convoy, credit: Alan Lodge
But the Bill most infamously criminalised people attending rave parties. The police could remove anyone at an event where music “wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” was being played. The phrase was a draconian attempt to define and derail the illegal parties that begun in the late 80′s in post-industrial parts of London and Manchester, where a fertile edge between house music from Detroit and Chicago and ecstasy pills from Holland, gave birth to a new world: Rave.
The response to the proposed bill included musicians such as electronica artists Autechre who released an EP which warned the listener that it: “contain repetitive beats. We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law. ‘Flutter’ has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played under the proposed new law. However, we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.”
Sand dumped on the motorway, the beach above the cobble stones, Reclaim the Streets, 1997. Credit: Nick Cobbing
Reclaim the Streets rose from the creativity of the unlikely collaboration between countercultures and despite the bill, the street party form was rapidly replicated across the country and the world via the new wires of the internet, giving a new breath of life to radical movements thanks to its politics of pleasure.
In the summer of 1999 RTS was involved in organising the Carnival Against Capitalism which ended up in a riot costing several million pounds worth of damage to London financial district. The Mayday action was the next big moment in the UK and the spectacular protests against the World Trade Oraganisation in Seattle, which shut the summit down, had taken place that winter. For the following spring, we decided to shift gear and show that the twin DNA strands of radical change were resistance AND creativity. We wanted to show what a post capitalist world might look like and we inspired ourselves from 19th century designer and radical socialist William Morris best selling time travel novel “News from Nowhere”.
Morris had the courage to imagine and describe a radical new world, a horizontal community of communities, which was totally at odds with the society in which he was living.
Despite the orgy of high tech invention and the vast powers of industrial production that were being unleashed at the time, he somehow managed to refuse to internalize the values embodied in the prevailing system and dedicated his life to making a radically different kind of culture.
At a time when progress was the new god inflamed by the spirit of industrialism, he claimed that progress itself was the problem and that answers to injustice, inequality and ecological destruction could be found in traditional forms of communal culture rather than the myth of technological paradise of the future.
It’s hard to imagine today how radical his refusal of industrial capitalism must have felt to his peers, it would be like someone today calling for a world without computers and the internet. A few years before writing “News from Nowhere”, shocked by the failure of the Paris Commune, Morris the wallpaper designer, co-wrote a pamphlet, in it the authors argued that “the result might have been different if the Commune had wasted less time in parliamentary pros and cons and addressed itself more to organising a splendid army.”
Jeremy Deller, Turner prize winning darling of the “political” art scene, recently did a show “English Magic” which acted as a contemporary homage to Morris’s radical politics, bringing him “back from the dead” according to the publicity and “encouraging us to turn the mirror on ourselves and ask questions of the society in which we live.” It was exhibited at the Venice Biennalle and in Morriss’s house which has now been turned into a museum. Somehow I can’t imagine Deller writing a pamphlet analysing the failure of the occupy movement and saying that they spent too much time in badly run assemblies and less time on building weapons against the inevitable violent police evictions. In fact I doubt Deller stepped foot in an occupy camp. One of the trustees of the British Petroleum sponsored Tate gallery, he has refused to make any statement about the dirty relationship between art and oil despite several years of headline grabbing protest by Liberate Tate . Like so many in the world of art, his ideas are safely separated from his everyday life. Two worlds apart.
Morris’s utopian novel begins with him going to bed in Kelmscott house following his attendance at a frustrating evening of public debate on what the world community would look like after the revolution – what Morris called “the change beyond the change” .
He wakes up from a disturbed sleep and goes for a walk along the sunny banks of the river. But things are different, the factory chimneys are gone, there are salmon in the Thames and the river man who takes him across the water is perplexed when Morris offers him money for the service. Gradually he realises that he has woken up in the future, fifty years after a revolution in 1952, its 2002, or rather Morriss’ vision of what it could have looked like dreamt in the 1890′s.
What follows is a trance like utopian trip down the Thames, a kind of ecological postcapitalist road movie by boat, stopping off to visit communities along the way, where we discover that the divisions of work and play no longer exists, everyone takes pleasure in their work which is an expression of their creativity which is seen as a good in itself rather than a means to accumulating property and power. It is the quintessence of what Lewis Mumford describes as “the community as a work of art.”
For Morris, his life was a work of art, not something to be later commodified in a museum, but an ethos to be acted out in society. What a century later Foucault would articulate as “a technique of life, an art of living.” Rather than something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists.” Foucault asked “… couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”
In “News from Nowhere” Morris passes next to parliament in Westminster, “why there are the Houses of Parliament! Do you still use them?” He asks to the coach driver who burst out laughing uncontrollably, telling him that it has become a compost manure storage whilst Piccadilly circus is a cherry orchard now.
An edible city, that was the inspiration for RTS’ mayday event, and the idea was to do a mass guerilla gardening action. We were expecting at least 8000 people, armed with compost, spades and seedlings: and we are going to illegally transform the lawn in front of the Houses of Parliament into a giant community garden. The flyers we designed are inspired by Rene Magritte, above a picture of Bill and Ben the flower pot men, it says: “This is not a protest.” The idea is to show that we are not just against capital, but that we have alternatives such as local food production. This was years before guerilla gardening became a depoliticized hobby for hipsters and urban gardening one of the most popular tools of the ‘critical’ contemporary art world. Reclaim the Street wanted to show that the twin strands of DNA of radical change were resistance and creativity, and that alternatives had to be embedded into protest. Gardening on its own was not enough, neither was protest.
Churchill’s monument detourned, Mayday, 2000. London
On the day itself a stunning subversion of Winston Churchill’s statue took place. A strip of green turf was placed on his bald head transformed him into a mohican coiffed punk. Several art critics suggested that the act of iconoclasm should be nominated for the Turner prize, whilst Street artist Banksy immortalised the image in a painting. It was an appropriate temporary antimonument to a movement whose cheek and creativity helped sow the seeds for a new form of global grassroots politics, celebrating autonomy and direct action, and never wanting to take power but to break it into little pieces for all to share.
Its the weekend before the action, I take my son Jack who is five, to the Barbican gallery to see the Star Wars exhibition of film props and costumes. On the way we are followed by two sets of plain clothed special branch officers (the British secret political police). Jack and I play hide and seek with them weaving behind the monumental modernist concrete pillars of the museum. Unfortunately they don’t follow us into the exhibition and so I can’t use them as living props to illustrate the “dark side of the force” to Jack. But during the following months I learn that when radical movements grow powerful, the state uses every tool in its arsenal to destroy them – media lies, police violence, intimidation, criminalisation. It doesn’t matter whether your violent or non violent, the state will use violence against you as soon as you begin to win. They will nip any winning movement in the bud and insure the future against insurrection of any sort.
In Reclaim the Streets we were un-prepared for the repression, perhaps too many of us had internalised the lies that somehow the “democratic liberal state” was benevolent, surely a movement based on play, and creativity, bringing artists, ravers and activists together could not end up labelled and treated as terrorist.
A decade later we found out that some of our “friends” and for several people “lovers” in the movement had been police spies. The infiltrated undercover officers, some embedded in the movement for seven years, had helped plan and taken part in direct action with us. Many of the protests used techniques learnt from rave culture, where a location would be kept secret to the public until the last minute, but it turned out that the state knew the location of nearly every Reclaim the Streets Party and every Climate Camp. It turns out they even let 9000 people riot in London’s financial district during the Carnival Against Capitalism in 1999. We took pride in taking the state by surprise, we thought we were disobedient subjects making history, but maybe we were just objects of obedience, manipulated by the state, protest puppets for the status quo.
Art critic Brian Holmes, in his brilliant essay on art and politics: Liars Poker, wrote “Basically, what I have to say here is simple: when people talk about politics in an artistic frame, they’re lying.” It’s very fashionable to be doing politics in the world of contemporary culture at the start of the 21st Century. But despite the number of Biennales, Festivals and exhibitions plastering the words activism, social change, resistance and the political all over their publicity, the majority of the work is simply representation of activism, pictures of politics, fictional insurrections, micro gestures with little strategy for how they might evolve into any meaningful social transformation. There is little effort to use creativity to build new social movements yet a lot of work enclosing social movements into the realm of art, as if it were a zoo for exotic species – the “real activists.”
In early 2009 the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (the collective of art activists that Isa and I have co-facilitated since 2004) was invited to take part in two shows themed around the UN climate negotiations, COP 15, to be held in Copenhagen in December. This was to be a historical moment: Copenhagen would be central stage for a global showdown between the world’s governments, all wanting to “save the planet”. Most of the world’s multinational corporations had sensed an opportunity for a crafty bit of green wash, and jumped on the bandwagon – Coca Cola rebranded the city as “Hopenhagen”. The cultural world did not want to be left out, especially as “socially engaged” art was the new darling of the mainstream museums.
One of the shows was to take place a month before the conference at the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol, UK, curated by socially engaged art and research collective Platform. The other would be in Copenhagen, part of an exhibition entitled Rethink, involving all of the city’s museums. Our commission was to be at the Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Centre, bang in the city centre just as the COP 15 circus was in town, a fantastic opportunity to merge art and politics.
The idea for Put the Fun Between Your Legs, Become the Bike Bloc was simple. We had spent a month living in Copenhagen in 2008, in the free town of Christiania during our road trip that became the book/film Paths Through Utopias (La Decouvérte, 2011). As bike lovers, we were impressed by the multitude of cyclists in the Danish capital, but were flummoxed by the number of discarded bikes everywhere. The streets were littered with thousands of old bikes for some reason abandoned by the owners. Copenhagen’s waste would become the inspiration: why not collect the old bikes and transform them into tools of creative civil disobedience to be used during the actions in Copenhagen?
The project would thus be in three parts: Research, Design and Implementation. In Bristol, we would bring together artists and engineers, welders and bike hackers, activists and bike geeks, and members of the public in a series of free open workshops where we would look at the intrinsic characteristics of bicycles, research how people have pushed bike design to alternative uses beyond pure transport, and begin to design new tools of civil disobedience. Using consensus decision making, we would decide collectively on the best designs, build prototypes and test them. A week later, many people from the workshop would go to Copenhagen and scale up the project, working with international activists there, especially the UK climate camp movement.
Arnolfini installation, Bristol. Credit: John Jordan.
There were 8 weeks to go till the project started. Fliers and publicity had been designed and printed, photos sent for the catalogues, information distributed to the social movements, and workshops held with the UK climate camp movement to promote the idea.
Then one day the phone rang. It was the curator from Copenhagen.
“Hi John, I’ve been talking to the Danish police”
“Oh!” I replied slightly surprised.
“They say that there are laws about what constitutes a ‘bicycle’ in Denmark.”
“Yes.” She began to outline them. “ A bike can’t have more than 3 wheels, be more than 2m long etc… There are lots of details, I can send them to you by email. But if the designs of your bikes are outside these rules, we need to send the applications to the police, and it might take them 2 to 3 weeks before the will give us permission to put them on the public highway.”
“That’s interesting” I said. “But in the end, we will be using these bicycles in acts of civil disobedience, it doesn’t really matter whether they are legal or not in the first place.”
“What do you mean?” she replied bemused.
“Well, it is civil disobedience”.
There was a pause.
“You mean you’re going to break the law ?” I could hear fear in her voice.
I tried to reassure her: “Not necessarily, but the whole point of the project is to build new tools of creative resistance and use them during the Reclaim Power day of action.”
“You mean you’re really going to do it?!” she said, shocked.
The conversation lasted over an hour. She said it would be very difficult for a city funded museum to be involved in direct action and needed to talk to the lawyers in the Copenhagen municipality.
I am still astounded at how the disease of representation is so powerfully embedded in the art world that when a curator invites an art-activist group whose track record is all about creating new forms of creative resistance in public space, she somehow thinks that we are just going to “pretend” to do it. The word civil disobedience was used a dozens times in the project proposal, our website is filled with images of direct action. Yet somehow, she did not see it.
We tried to find a compromise that involved the museum drawing up a contract clearly stating that it was not liable for any “illegal” activity that might ensue from their exhibition. Then another email arrived. The curator had realised that it would be absurd to write a contract that would be neutral enough for all parties to be happy, us artists, the social movements we were working with, the municipality and the police. And so, the commission was cancelled. “I wanted very much to include you in the exhibition and I hoped to find a solution, but… I don’t think your project should be limited and cut in every way to fit into a contract. It was like cutting a big colourful bird to fit into a small grey cave.” The curator never accepted that the decision she made was a political one.
Container Arnolfini, Bristol. Credit: John Jordan
The Lab of ii has always had a complicated position on the edge of art and activism, between subculture and mainstream, theatre and street. It is on the edge that creativity comes alive. The point where a forest meets meadowland, or the sea slaps against the shore are the most dynamic parts of an ecosystem. It’s in those slithers of space that a multitude of different species build beneficial relationships. Nearly everything we take for granted in society began as an experiment on the margins, the edgelands. It is for this reason that we try to have one foot in the imagination of the art world and the other in the courage and commitment of the political world.
The story of what happened next with the Bike Bloc is much longer than will fit into this blog. But the Bristol design process involved over 50 people and came up with some great prototypes. Interestingly, during a public debate, the director of the Arnolfini gallery admitted that hosting the Bike Bloc designs was fine but if the actual actions had taken place in his own city, and not hundreds of kilometres away in Copenhagen, he probably would not have commissioned us.
Weeks later, in Copenhagen, The Candy Factory, an ex-squat turned into an open cultural centre welcomed us. Several hundred people worked in the freezing December snow, stripping hundreds of bikes, welding and making beautiful machines of resistance, training ourselves in new forms of street action cycle choreography, and generally working in a colourful collective frenzy. Despite police raids on the space and confiscation of some of best machines, and despite the pre-emptive arrest of over 2000 people (all these arrests were later to be seen as illegal by Danish courts), the Bike Bloc took to the streets on the day of action.
Double Double Trouble. Credit: Kristian Buss.
Over 250 people swarmed around the conference centre to distract the police forces. The tactic helped the rebel delegates from inside the UN negotiations break out and meet activists from outside who had broken into the security area, so as to clearly state that the negotiations were utterly skewed by the power given to corporate lobbyists and the bullying attitude of over-industrialised countries. They mostly southern delegates, called for a society based on solidarity, mutual aid, respect for each other and the nature that feeds and carries us.
Bike bloc trainings. Credit: Robert Logan.
Despite all the walls erected to stop us, that snowy day, we had become the Bike Bloc.
Five years later a replica of one of the bike bloc bikes, the DDT (Double Double Trouble) sits surrounded by white walls in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, part of the Disobedient Objects exhibition. The show is co-curated by radical art historian and friend Gavin Grindon. Gavin and I co-wrote the little book “A Users Guide to Demanding the Impossible” together, over a few sleepless nights during the UK student uprising against fees, and he was involved (with his activist hat on), in the hands on building of the Bike Bloc in Copenhagen.Disobedient Objects is a potted history of late 20th and 21st century protest movements told through “objects”, tools of direct action, communication and resistance.
There are gas masks made of plastic water bottles by Turkish activists protecting Gezy park and pamphlet bombs created by the ANC in their fight against apartheid, Spoof versions of London’s Evening Standard newspaper produced by Reclaim the Streets sit beside a collection of different battered shields designed by activists across the world to protect themselves from police violence. In one room a huge banner from the UK Climate Camp proclaiming in bright magenta “CAPITALISM IS CRISIS” .
The show has been an unexpected public success with the exhibition rooms packed throughout the summer. Queues have even formed in front of the lock on tubes. Designed as a blockading technique lock on tubes enable a pair of protesters to place their arms inside thus chaining themselves together to stop an earth wrecking machine or to block the gates of a destructive corporation. In the V & A the viewers can try the lock ons tubes themselves and they have become the exhibit of choice for the compulsory ‘selfie’.
Several of the objects, are accompanied by free instruction flyers which show how they can be easily recreated. The one about the turkish gas masks even found itself in the hands (via social networks) of people on the streets of Ferguson, protesting the police murder of the 17 year old black teenager Micheal Brown. Better than any good review in the culture pages of a newspaper, this unexpected practical bridge between the elite institution of conservative British culture and the impoverished streets of the US, via the tear gas drenched barricades of Gezy park shows how institutional power can be subverted when curators have the courage to take the risk of recuperation and attempt to redistribute the capital of institutional culture.
The difference between most other shows of this kind is that Gavin Grindon has one foot inside the institution and another in the grassroots social movements themselves, which enables him to play the role of shape shifting trickster, working on the fertile edges. Lets hope that the cultural capital that he has inevitably gained from the V&A show will not distance him from his work in movements and that he will be prepared to risk his cultural capital again, rather than accumulate it and end up like so many curators who watch and recuperate from the sidelines, never stepping into the movements themselves and thus never really understanding their true cultural values, ethics and practices because they have never lived them.
A clear illustration of the distance between curator and those “curated” is in the lists of sponsors of recent contemporary activist art exhibitions. The 2013 exhibition “Global Activism” at KZM in Karlsruhe, included a real piece of fencing covered in folk activist art from the protests in stuttgart against the high speed rail extension and tents from occupy, it was sponsored by the local Nuclear and coal burning power company - EnBw. “Truth is Concrete: artistic strategies in politics and political strategies in art” took the form of a week long marathon art activist camp, inspired by occupy and Tahir square and put on by the Steirich Herbst festival in Graz. The event was sponsored by Steiermärkische Sparkasse, investors in coal fired power stations, funds that promote biotechnology, the privatisation of seeds and the forced implementation of industrial agriculture to the developing world.
The following years festival programme included images from some of the actions of the Truth is Concrete, which were turned into adverts for the sponsors of the following years festival. In one we see Reverend Billy, activist anticorporate gospel parody performance artists, in full flow during an action, ironically against the corporate funding of one of the museums in Graz.
A British organisation, Invisible Dust, which brings artists and scientists together to act on climate change had an event last year sponsored by Siemens. A look at Siemens environmental portfolio, tells us that they are building parts for coal fired power stations, ostensibly to make the burning of coal more efficient and more climate friendly. But anyone who understands the science of climate knows that the issue is not to make coal burning more efficient but to stop burning it in the first place.
A recent report by 20 governments shows that 100 million people, mostly in the global south and producing virtually no CO2, could die in the next 18 years due to the effects of climate – some are calling this a climate holocaust. I could make analogies with the holocaust as its known that Siemens used slave labour to build the gas ovens for the Nazi extermination camps. But Holocaust analogies are always too easy. Perhaps slavery is a more interesting analogy.
Lets imagine that artists, thinkers and scientists came together to talk about the abolition of slavery in the mid 19th century, the event was sponsored by a corporation that had just invented a machine that made picking cotton on the plantations more efficient, thus reducing the need for so many slaves, but of course keeping the slave trade in place. Would these activist ancestors have been able to live with the paradox, or is there something particular to capitalist culture which enables us to separate what we believe in and how we act in the world ?
It’s now been revealed that apple godhead and guru, Steve Jobs, refused his children access to i-phones and i-pads, because he thought they would be detrimental to their psychological health; but it did not stop him marketing such devices to millions of other peoples children across the world. Many of my climate activist friends have flown over to newYork for the Climate March next weekend following the UN summit there. I have to admit that I’m a bit jealous, but I have refused to fly for a decade and flying to a climate protest makes no sense to me. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research says residents of the UK need to cut their CO2 emissions by 90% by 2050 (others say by 2030) if we are to have a chance to avoid runaway climate chaos and to equitably distribute the right to emit CO2 globally. At the moment the average Briton emits 9.5 tonnes per year. One flight from the UK to New York and back emits 1.2 tonnes, which equals the total amount of C02 a Briton could use per year to keep the climate safe. That would mean anyone really believing in climate justice who flew to New York would use up their annual credit on the trip alone and that means for an entire year could not eat, take a train, use the internet, put the lights on.. nothing… The capitalist chasm between our beliefs and behaviour is spreading as fast as the desert.
The curators of Disobedient Objects, seems to have managed to keep a certain coherence between their ideas and acts. The show is not only free for the public, but the curators managed to persuade the institution that corporate sponsorship was out of the question. I have heard some artists activists complaining that they were not payed for the hours they had to spend filling in the realms of paper work that gave the museum permission to exhibit their objects and the 25 pounds price tag on the catalogue makes it inaccessible to most grassroots activists.
In an age of extreme crisis, the key questions artists, activists and curators need to ask themselves are: Can these institutions be machines for amplifying our potential to radically transform the status quo, forms of redistribution of cultural and material capital, or do they simply reframe rebellion into a past tense, an immediate retro refit of revolt. Are museums public spaces that can become alternative common space of debate and action planning to reclaim the rights of the city, or are they palaces carefully engineered for us to play the fool in, whilst outside the kings and queens continue to play Russian roulette with our future whilst enriching theirs ?
Perhaps the fact that the V&A was able to commission this show is simply proof that repressive tolerance is alive and well in the realm of mainstream culture, and that when actions are frozen into museum objects they pose little threat to the institutions of power, whilst in the world outside new terror laws and techniques of surveillance and oppression are being designed and implemented. Or maybe such exhibitions simply provide another consumer choice in the toxic buffet of neo-liberalism. Maybe Disobedient Objects is just a cultural offset for the V & A. After all, in the same museum we can choose to see folk objects of resistance designed by the activists or luxury pearl jewellery from the Qatar state museum funded by Shell oil company. The choice is yours.
“Revolt is contained by overexposure..We are given it to contemplate so that we forget to participate ” wrote the Situationist International in their infamous 1966 student pamphlet. The provocative pamphlet became one of the sparks which lit the fuse for the Paris 68 uprising. Imagining future revolts and finding forms to make their actualisation irresistible, was the master stroke of the situationists. But whilst they were getting drunk, drifting through Paris and writing theory, the Provos, a ragged bunch of counterculture performance artists, hippies and philosophers, inspired by cybernetics and ecology were smoking grass and reinventing revolt in the here and now on the streets of Amsterdam, their target “the addiction of consumerism”.
The first issue of their magazine contained a DIY diagram, reproduced from the 19th century English journal Practical Anarchist, which showed how to make a pineapple bomb. Although the instructions were useless, the editors were arrested for inciting violence but later released without charge.
Today, whilst the V&A is able to publish DIY instructions on how to make a pamphlet bomb without any legal consequences, any activists working outside the safe shelter of the museum caught publishing even the suggestion of such activity, would find themselves the target of antiterrorism laws. Even the writing of poetic situationist inspired booklet can result in a hundred and fifty gun weilding balaclava-clad anti-terrorist policemen, several helicopters and dozens of journalists armed with TV cameras descending on your farm and commune in the middle of the night…
But thats a story for part two, where we see more rebel bikes, in the Hungarian Uprising and counter culture Amsterdam with the Provos White bicycles against the “authoritarianism of the automobile.” And where we hear about the neo-luddite artists exhibiting in the ground breaking show Politika: Art and affairs of the city., which opens this week in Manchester. Ending on a story about Piero Manzoni inspired communist kitsch and the way museums have become weapons in the assault on democracy in Hungary.