In this presentation I will give an overview of my MRes research project – which at present is very much in its genesis – in order to highlight the key themes and intentions of my research which I will then open up for discussion. I will begin by giving a formal examination of the “Disobedient Objects” exhibition itself along with the museum’s governmental structure. This will be followed with an introduction of my literature review, along with some issues within this that I have found.
My research began to formulate with a curiosity in a curatorial “trend” that I have observed; In the past five years there have been several exhibitions taking place at mainstream galleries in Britain which have taken explicitly political themes, exhibiting art works and ephemera relating to protest, political social conflict and political discourse. These exhibitions include (in order of relevance):
- “Disobedient Objects” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2014–15; a survey of objects appropriated and crafted in political activism from the 1970’s onwards in order to explore the “design of protest”;
- “Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm” at Tate Britain, from October 2013-Janurary 2014; an exhibition exploring the history of physical attacks on art in Britain from the 16th century to the present day for political, religious and aesthetic reasons;
- “History is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain” at the Hayward Gallery in February to April 2015; an exhibition in which 7 artists were invited to curate mini shows responding to political climates throughout British history in the lead up to the general election in May;
- “Conflict, Time, Photography” at Tate Modern, a curatorial exploration of the relationship between the time of the event of conflict and the documentation that follows in retrospect, though this is more relating to war than socio-political landscapes specifically.
What these exhibitions all have in common – along with their content – is that they are group, retrospective shows, taking place in art museums that are all funded through both governmental means and private sponsorship. It is also worth noting that they all took place post-2010 – a year which, in the wake of the inauguration of the Con-Lib coalition government, saw wide-spread anti-austerity street protests from student, teacher, and NHS groups, amongst many others. This immediately prompts questions about the not-for-profit museum’s role as a site of public space for wider social discourse and intellectualism.
It also led me to think about what this means for the future of political objects, now that they have arguably been confined, through the architecture of the museum, to the canon of compartmentalised history. This is of particular interest to me, as my own practice as an academic in critical art practice has always focussed on Left-wing political histories entering the institution – such as the school or the museum – and the legacies that are created from this, including how these histories go on to permeate our everyday lives.
Alongside this, I have had a long-running interest in the work of cultural theorist Mark Fisher, whose 2008 text “Capitalist Realism: Is there No Alternative?” gives a sceptical critique of anti-capitalist protest with reference to the Post-Modern condition, in which everything becomes a site of consumption. I see this as having an intrinsic link to the act of placing a politicised object in the museum, and will expand upon this in my literature review.
My research will take a primary focus on the first of these exhibitions listed, “Disobedient Objects”, because of its direct focus on the objects of street protest over the past 35 years, including those created in the demonstrations mentioned above. The objects in the exhibition also hold an interesting status, as the curators of the show Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood worked collaboratively with the makers of said objects in a series of workshops to make collective decisions on how they were presented within the museum space, and once the exhibition ended, the objects were “released” back to their source communities and into circulation . Having said that, I will draw comparisons between “Disobedient Objects” and the other exhibitions mentioned above within my methods and data analysis later on in my project.
On the exterior of the illustrious Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington’s Museum Square, hung a mosaic-like sign depicting people with fists raised to the riot gear-clad police officers around the words “Power to the People”, with another sign depicting the words “History is a Weapon”. Upon entry to the museum, past the compulsory bag checks at the marble steps and columns, the viewer was confronted with the grand, circular reception area and over-looking balconies adorned with classical sculpture and religious iconographies, and just past this hung the wire-framed sign, “Disobedient Objects”.
At first glance to the unknowing eye this show could have been a simple survey of objects, collected and classified, as is the usual custom in a museum such as the V&A. But these are no ordinary objects, they are the spearheads of a public-body in action. These banners, posters, masks, costumes, barricades, vehicles, puppets – to name a few – are the vessels which scream the desires of the collective, whatever form those desires take.
The exhibition was split into object-based categories; banners, masks, barricades, and so on, each of which was accompanied by written descriptions of the object displayed, with its function, purpose in action, and examples and demonstrations of its use in photographic form. A series of hand-outs – The Disobedient Objects “How To…Guides” – accompanied the object-categories, with bright yellow DIY infographic instructions for the viewers to tear off from paper-pads on the wall in order to make their own Book Bloc shield, for example, alongside images of balaclava-clad students being beaten by Metropolitan Police officers in a cloud of smoke[i]. The other “How To…Guides” include a Bike Bloc, a Flone, Lock-On devices, Pamphlet Bombs and Tear Gas masks.
There was a curious method to the display of the objects, which – whilst the exhibition space consisted of the classic white cube walls – were suspended from vertical steel poles, stemming from floor to ceiling, creating a crude and raw cage-like effect in a make-shift fashion, with chipboard plinths at varying heights and compositions. More confusing still was the layout of the displays and whether or not there was a planned route for the viewer to be led through the exhibition – as is the expected norm within a museum special-exhibition space.
Times frames seemed to cross over, as a Greenham Common Women’s Liberation Against Nuclear Weapons quilt hung above a red hand-held sign spray-painted with the words “I Wish My Boyfriend Was As Dirty As Your Policies” – which became an iconic emblem of the tuition fees protest of 2010.
It is fair to say that the exhibition could have been seen as an intervention in the space and practices of the V&A – what Hettie Judah described in her Art Review magazine article (somewhat critically) as “soul searching” on the part of the museum. Not only were the classical practices of exhibition-making altered in the space with makeshift plinths and raw materials, but the viewer and, arguably, the museum are forced to consider the agency of an existing object; what it is and what it can do, for it is through these means that the objects create the aesthetic of their given spheres. It is important to note here that whilst the objects may have been the same in their objecthood – i.e. fitting into Grindon and Flood’s aforementioned categories – none of them looked the same and there was no grouped aim amongst the protests represented. The causes shown varied from the New York Guerilla Girls in 1989, to the 2007 Heathrow Climate Camp, to the anti-austerity protests in Greece in 2013 (which could be seen as a somewhat arbitrary method of collecting).
Many of the protests and demonstrations represented are fairly recent dating within the past 15 years or so, largely due to practicalities in that few objects would have survived from earlier protests. This is because – argue Grindon and Flood – the objects are deliberately designed to be quick, cheap and easy to make. Their very existence is formed from a rush of emergency and instantaneousness – an element highlighted with great importance by Hakim Bey when considering the eruption of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, describing spontaneity as crucial. Indeed, even in the accompanying literature to the exhibition, Grindon and Flood introduced their curatorial research project with an analogy of Hercules and the Hydra of Lena, with the former representing the higher orders and the latter representing the lower, repressed “long-lost history of the multi-ethnic classes essential to the making of the modern world”; the recurring battle of the Other shown through the explosive regrowth and multiplication of the Hydra’s severed heads.
Indeed the exhibition has a deliberate theme of the carnival amongst it – Gavin Grindon is a lecturer at Essex University and has written many papers regarding Mikhail Bahktin’s subversive, utopian model of the carnival, in which everything is turned inside out.
In an interview in radio documentary “The Design Dimension: Designing Protest”, Catherine Flood described their aims for the exhibition, stating:
“There is a very old idea that the museum is a place – a mausoleum – where objects come to die, and we really wanted to challenge that and say museums can be relevant to important things that are going on in the world. They can be places where people can come and discuss current issues”
To which interviewer Tom Dyckhoff responds “…it gives a new purpose to the very idea of a museum. The museum can be an activist too”.
And they have good reason for saying this; the “How To…Guides” were made available to download on a blog accompanying the exhibition – where they remain to this day. Flood proudly states how the museum received correspondence from activists across the globe via Twitter, to say that they had used the downloads. The most prevalent of these being the Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of unarmed 18 year old Mike Brown. The protesters made and used the bottle-top tear gas masks during violent clashes with police that had likewise been used previously by protesters in Istanbul in 2013, thus making the museum a “democratic space” for ideas to be shared world-wide.
Interestingly, I have also found documents published by the Public and Commercial Services Union announcing plans for a protest to be held at the V&A by its staff over pay cuts on the opening night of “Disobedient Objects”. The documents are completely separate from the V&A website and I have not yet been able to find information about the protest or if, indeed, it happened at all. Because of this it is important to consider the museum’s governmental structure….
The Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A was founded in 1852 and opened five years later as the South Kensington Museum, born of the Great Exhibition and existing as the first ever museum devoted to decorative, applied, or industrial art and the applied arts. Its founding mission was to provide education and social and moral reform to the working classes, with the first director of the Museum, Social Reformist Sir Henry Cole, taking innovative action to make the establishment that of the “democratic” modern age; thus, it was the first museum to have a restaurant, to be lit by gas, and to host evening lectures, loans, and touring exhibitions.
Today the museum exists as a non-departmental body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, governed by a board of trustees consisting of high profile figures across the commercial arts, television and banking, all appointed by the prime minister. It is here that my concerns for the political object particularly arise; is the exhibition an intervention on contemporary museum practices, or have political aesthetics been appropriated into a form of consumption in order to represent Britain’s cultural and heritage sector in a panopticon-like effect to the public and wider world?
As far as I am aware nothing has been academically published in researching the “Disobedient Objects” exhibition and its implications for the future of political objects, or indeed, as part of a phenomenon of political exhibitions in the time-frame I have identified of post-2010. This is possibly largely due to the fact that the exhibition took place so recently (within a year prior to the writing of this proposal). However, as well as finding literature published in the general media about the exhibition (newspaper reviews etc.), I have identified three key themes within my project, which I intend to demonstrate in my literature review through a process of triangulation. These themes are as follows:
Post-Modernism, in particular Mark Fisher’s 2008 text “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?”; this key text gives an account of “Capitalist Realism” which – following the critiques of Capitalism given by Post-Marxist and Post-Modernist philosophers Adorno and Lyotard – he understands as “a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action”, comparing the phenomenon to John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact. And for this he blames Neo-Liberalism – brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s rule of austerity and privatization and pushed further still by Blairism. Fisher describes Neo-Liberalism as pertaining to a “business ontology”, making it seem “simply obvious” that everything in society should be run as a heavily bureaucratic business. The text holds a somewhat nihilistic tone, as he links this ubiquitous cultural absorption and impossibility for anything new to Francis Fukuyama’s text “The End of History”, and within this he describes protest as a “carnivalesque background noise to Capitalist Realism”.
Protest and the Carnival; In the first section of “Disobedient Objects” exhibition accompanying literature of the same name, curators and authors Gavin Grindon and Catherine Flood consider the statue of Hercules that adorns the entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the history of Hercules as an icon. They describe how the figure of Hercules would be displayed at grand dinners of the higher orders of society and thus represented “power and order”, contrasting this with the aforementioned image of the Hydra of Lena. Grindon and Flood introduce their project as a reaction to the influence on art history held by the art market, statng:
“In that inevitable taking of sides, our project turns to objects that open up histories of making from below. These objects disclose hidden moments in which, even if only in brief flashes, we find the possibility that things might be otherwise: that, in fact, the world may also be made from below, by collective, organized disobedience against the world as it is”.
This leads me to the theme of the Carnival and dissenus – a field in which Gavin Grindon is an academic expert at Essex University. Bahktin’s concept of the carnival effectively concerns the double-life of the public sphere, in which the model of the carnival acts as a form of resistance against the reigning ecclesiastic powers, through the spread of an all-encompassing, ambivalent form of laughter:
“…During carnival there is a temporary suspension of all hierarchic distinctions and barriers among men and of certain norms and prohibitions of usual life…an ideal and at the same time real type of communication, impossible in ordinary life, is established”.
This has frequently been used as a metaphor for large-scale protests such as the Occupy movement, and also identifies protest as inherently rooted within the public sphere – a field examined by theorists such as Hakim Bey in the 1980s with his text “The Temporary Autonomous Zone”, and more recently by Pollyanna Ruiz in her book “Articulating Dissent: Protest and the Public Sphere”.
Hettie Judah also references Bahktin in “Disobey!” – a review of the exhibition written for Art Review magazine, in which she refers to the “lower orders” and begins to pose the question of what happens to the politicisation of the object once it enters the museum. This is also an example of where a lot of the themes of my project specifically regarding this exhibition have been examined in a journalistic format, but have not been expanded upon in a research field.
The governmentality of the museum’s institutional structures; for this I will lead with Tony Bennett’s book “The Birth of the Museum”, which takes heavy influence from the work of Michel Foucault. Bennett’s book – published in 1995 – explores the ways in which “high culture” is instrumentalised by the public museum as a mode of social management, stating that museums, and institutions like them such as international exhibitions and modern fairs, are
“…involved in the practice of “showing and telling: that is, of exhibiting artefacts and/or persons in a manner calculated to embody and communicate specific cultural meanings and values. They are also institutions which, in being open to all-comers, have shown a similar concern to devise ways of regulating the conduct of their visitors, and to do so, ideally, in ways that are unobtrusive and self-perpetuating”.
Indeed the 1990s was a prolific period in the development of theory surrounding the museum as the institution began to become more self-aware of its relationship to its audience, following various political movements including the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988, and a desire by government for museums to instrumentalize culture for the purpose of citizenship building – thus giving museums an opportunity to demonstrate their use to society, as examined by Eileen Hooper-Greenhill and later on by Elizabeth Crooke. These texts will be accompanied by Jennifer Barrett’s book “Museums and the Public Sphere” which gives a historical account of museum structures and their educational practicalities, with a specific focus on the museum as public intellectual, and the debates that surround the museum as a contested public space.
As mentioned above, I have found very little research based around the “Disobedient Objects” exhibition per se, and because of this probably being due to how recently the exhibitions took place, I feel it would be naïve to claim this as the gap for my research. And am therefore examining literature regarding other exhibitions of a similar nature, including the BLK artist group and the Feminist Artist Group, as well as literature concerning artist interventions on gallery and studio spaces.
I intend to undertake my research through a combination of interviews with curators and participants, a survey of public documents regarding the governmentality of the V&A – such as board member meeting minutes – and a close reading of the exhibition and Mark Fisher’s text. It is my intention that this will provide intertextual material for debate, which will produce new knowledge towards the institutionalization of political aesthetics.
 Grindon, G. and Flood, C. Disobedient Objects. 8.
[i] Book Bloc was a protest that began in Rome against public-funding cuts and spread globally, reaching London in 2010.