Sticking it to the man

A V&A exhibition of objects of protest, rebellion and social change is a far cry from the museum's usual fare

Barricades, home-made tear-gas masks, protest quilts… Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum who idly stray into its new exhibition Disobedient Objects will receive something of a culture shock. Rather than the finely crafted objects of establishment taste, Disobedient Objects presents an altogether different story of art and design – one as seen from ‘below’ through the objects of protest, rebellion and social change.

  • Bike Bloc graphic poster.
    Bike Bloc graphic poster.
  • Banner made by Ed Hall for the Unite union.
    Banner made by Ed Hall for the Unite union.
  • Storm in a tea cup: Women's Social and Political Union teaset.
    Storm in a tea cup: Women's Social and Political Union teaset.
  • Occupy George overprinted dollar bill.
    Occupy George overprinted dollar bill.
  • Graffiti Writer, robot for writing street graffiti, Institute for Applied Autonomy, USA.
    Graffiti Writer, robot for writing street graffiti, Institute for Applied Autonomy, USA.
  • Inflatable cobblestone from Eclectic Electric Collective during the General Strike in Barcelona.
    Inflatable cobblestone from Eclectic Electric Collective during the General Strike in Barcelona.

This show, which opened on July 26, employs a very different criteria to the norm. Protest in printed form such as posters can sometimes find its way it into conventional design narrative. But curators Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood were also interested in exploring corresponding objects from other disciplines, created by individuals passionate about their cause but often with very limited resources.

‘It’s very different to the very fine making tradition,’ says Flood.

There is no single protest aesthetic. Objects in the exhibition were instead chosen, says Flood, for their purpose and impact.

 ‘We’re not asking people to agree [with the social movements] but to think about the significance of what they mean for our society… These objects are important and should be preserved.’

Successful design can be measured in terms of usefulness and impact rather than commercial gain. An eye-catching slogan can go viral in seconds

The message is often one of empowerment – how people, often not professional designers, become designers and makers as they take matters into their own hands in the form of protest. As Flood says, everyone can have agency to do this since, by their nature, these objects don’t rely on a commercial client to fund them, and certainly not on a museum to legitimise them. Yet here they are all the same in the rather incongruous setting of the V&A, albeit in a setting designed in sympathy with the rawness of the exhibits, using ‘honest’ materials such as OSB and poles.

There’s a lot of ground to cover here. Direct action is a major component, yielding objects such as ‘lock-ons’ – devices used by protesters to fasten themselves to structures – and tent tripod protest camps.  There is the design of defence – whether shields decorated as books, barricades, or anti-tear-gas masks crafted from empty drinks bottles – and of protest camps. The exhibition also includes ‘how-to’ guides for useful protest equipment such as 123 Occupy’s inflatable general assembly structure.

These DIY designs are often shared as open source by their makers for maximum impact. This link between the physicality of the objects and their online dissemination is also made: successful design can be measured in terms of usefulness and impact rather than commercial gain. Makers know that an eye-catching slogan can go viral in seconds.

Then there is the question of how architects should respond. Flood points to a couple of examples from the show that demonstrate a new attitude – away from high-rise icons – to what else is important architecturally. Swiss practice Bureau A has made a study of temporary protest structures in the occupied Maidan Square in Kiev, a human-scale architecture of ingenuity and engagement. In Turkey, Occupygezi Architecture posted drawings and photos of temporary structures on Tumblr, saying: ‘We need new definitions for architecture in situations when architecture is removed from architects.’

Ninety-nine disobedient objects are initially being presented in this show, but there is space for 100. Conscious of the fast-changing nature of protest and conflict, the curators plan to add one more during the course of the exhibition.

Disobedient Objects, until 1 February 2015, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London.