“These objects disclose hidden moments in which, even if only in brief flashes, we find the possibility that thing might be otherwise: that in fact, the world may also be made from below, by collective, organized disobedience against the world as it is”.
What do cups and saucers, bicycle locks, shopping trollies and playing cards have in common? This seemingly disparate group of everyday objects- alongside many others- have been united for the Victoria & Albert’s current exhibition Disobedient Objects, a show dedicated to the subversion of everyday items to perform defiant actions. Currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 26 July 2014- 1 February 2015 with free admission, Disobedient Objects offers a compelling glimpse into the material culture of protest and defiance.
In her book Hello World: Where Design Meets Life design writer Alice Rawsthorn states that ‘design is not a panacea for problems, far from it, but it is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to resolve them, providing it is deployed intelligently’. Rawsthorn’s claim that design is an an influential method of achieving change is particularly relevant when explored with reference to the range of objects on display as part of this exhibition.
Entering the space through an entrance designed to mirror barricades, visitors are bombarded with objects, images, text and audio-visual material. One of the first major exhibitions addressing the material culture of protest, Disobedient Objects examines items from the last 1970s until the present, and has a range of objects from across the globe. The items on display range from more traditional tools of protest such as handmade placards and signs like the Book Bloc shield (see below) often used in student demonstrations, to more contemporary forms of technologically designed dissent.
The earlier sections of the exhibition focuses on more established objects used in protest such as bicycle locks, a common tool used by activists, in addition to posters, customised newspapers, playing cards, badges and items of clothing. One of the chipboard display cabinets shows examples of paper money that has been re-appropriated with activist messages and a rubber stamp with the ‘Occupy Liz’ impression is ready for visitors to use on their own currency if they desire (see below).
In addition to these material objects, the exhibition also boasts a large collection of textiles threaded with politically engaged messages referencing the act of craftivism, a move towards transformative activism through craft. These banners, alongside the other objects in the exhibition engage with political, feminist, anti capitalist, environmental and social issues among others and their impact in protest is illustrated with numerous documentary photographs and footage displayed throughout the exhibition.
Moving beyond these initial displays, the gallery space opens up to a larger area with numerous monitors showing interviews with activists alongside documentary footage. In addition to this footage, there are several different disobedient objects that use cutting edge technology in their quest for subversion and protest, for example a political video game about the making of mobile phones. One fascinating digital aid deployed to great effect is a map of the world that shows the location of protests over recent years; this map clearly demonstrates the growing number and geographic reach of protest across the globe firmly rooting this exhibition within a drastically changing socio-political context.
The Tiki Love Truck (below) is a vehicle customised with mosaic and murals and bears the death mask of John Joe ‘Ash’ Amador, a man who was executed by the State of Texas in 2007. This object, like every other included in the exhibition, is accompanied by a makers note detailing the process of creating the truck. British artist Carrie Reichardt created the Tiki Love Truck as a tribute to Amador, a friend of hers; the creation of the death mask allowed friends and family to spend time with Amador’s body, the process acting as a method of grieving and respite.
This poignant account demonstrates the transformative power of design and brings me back to Rawsthorn’s quote mentioned earlier. Design has the potential to resolve, transform and improve when intelligently deployed. The objects shown throughout this exhibition each demonstrate the potential to effect change through appropriation and customisation; this exhibition has bravely explored history from below which is no mean feat due to the lack of documentation often concerning protagonists. Many of these objects have been lent to the V&A somewhat reluctantly due to their homemade and often rushed nature, further supporting a history of making from below, an area that rarely receives critical attention much less the opportunity to be displayed in one of the most renowned museums in the world.  Disobedient Objects is an inspirational exhibition which starkly presents historical as well as current socio political upheaval from the perspective of those protesting.
One of the most admirable qualities of the exhibition from a curatorial perspective is the meticulous attention paid to the methods of display, for example chipboard cabinets bound with tape, barricade inspired entry doors and ‘how- to’ guides detailing how to make your own disobedient objects. This dedication to the traditional, home-made ethos behind protest objects removes the distance between viewer and object, reaffirming the individual’s own agency to effect change.
Many of these objects are at once jarring and familiar. For example the tea cup and saucer displayed at the entrance is emblazoned with the emblem of the Women’s Social and Political Union, reminding the viewer of the bloody battle for female suffrage. Yet, onlookers can be comforted and encouraged by the familiarity of the tea cup as one item that you can find in your own kitchen. For me, this is where Disobedient Objects excels as a politically engaged show forcing home the message that protest and resistance can be exerted through simple handcrafted measures everywhere, and by everyone.
_____________________________ ‘Introduction’, Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, Disobedient Objects (London: V&A Publishing, 2014), p.8.  Alice Rawsthorn, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (Hamish Hamilton: London, 2013), p.10.  Florence Waters, ‘Disobedient Objects, V&A Museum, review: ‘utterly engrossing’, The Telegraph, 28 July 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/10991232/Disobedient-Objects-VandA-Museum-review-utterly-engrossing.html
Charlotte Flint –
Charlotte joined the History of Design MA programme after studying History of Art at the University of Birmingham. After writing about the electronic ankle monitoring of offenders during her first year, this has led to a fascination with all forms of surveillance, their technologies and other designed forms of power and control. Completing her dissertation about Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitoring (SCRAM) in America, Charlotte continued exploring these themes in addition to discourses surrounding space, visibility and gender.
© Charlotte Flint, 2014. All Rights Reserved.