A show at the Victoria & Albert explores the qualities that make an object subversive
The revolution will be ceramicized, according to Carrie Reichardt. In 2000, the artist began the still-ongoing transformation of her London home into a “Ceramic House of Resistance,” covering its walls with mosaic murals designed to encourage public protest. Part potter, part campaigner, Reichardt is one of many artists, designers, and artisans making subversive works today that range from temporary architecture to hand-sewn dolls to politicized computer games.
The do-it-yourself practice of protest design was born on the streets, but it will soon make an appearance in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, when “Disobedient Objects” opens on July 26. For the show, cocurators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon collected art and artifacts from the 1980s through the present day, much of it borrowed directly from activist groups and being exhibited in a museum for the first time.
“Activists are promiscuous in their means,” Flood says. “They ask, ‘What does this situation require?’ It’s not always about form and esthetic, but about the purpose and effectiveness of an object.”
Along with work by Reichardt, the show will include enormous inflatable cobblestones created by the Eclectic Electric Collective (now called Tools for Action) and the Enmedio collective. These were used as barricades during the 2012 general strike in Barcelona, offering safety to demonstrators while mimicking the shape of an object that can become a deadly weapon during riots. Then there will be Andy Dao and Ivan Cash’s “Occupy George” dollar bills, which Occupy Wall Streeters circulated in 2011: a red stamp bisects the defaced banknotes into the “Richest 400 Americans” and the “Bottom 150,000,000 Americans.”
“Protest has been looked at before by academics,” says Grindon. “They’ve tended to focus on poster design, but object-making is just as key.”
Some of the items assembled by Grindon and Flood are the products of professional artists, such as the ferocious gorilla masks worn by the Guerrilla Girls—that anonymous group of women who target sexism in the art world through raucous street performances, billboards, posters, and handouts. Other creations are based on folk-art traditions, like the red-scarf-wearing, tiny-weapon-toting Zapatista dolls from Chiapas, Mexico.
“Many of the rights and freedoms we take for granted were won by disobedience,” Grindon says. “Oscar Wilde called it man’s original virtue.”
Reichardt agrees. “If I wanted to be thought of as anything, it would be disobedient,” she says. “I make things because I have to. It breaks down barriers.” She even has a name for her practice: “craftivism.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 28 under the title “Rebellious by Design.”