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The Architecture of Protest at the V&A’s ‘Disobedient Objects’

I visited the V&A ‘Disobedient Objects‘ on its last, oversubscribed last day at the beginning of this month, expecting to see plenty of makeshift gas masks, defaced walls and posters shouting righteous slogans. All of the above was in plentiful supply, but the real highlight of the exhibition for me was the unexpected role which architecture has had to play in the last 50 years of social activism. Social activism, moreover, which has played a vital role in shaping the society we live in today.

The exhibition entrance features drawings of barricades, and how they have changed over time.

The exhibition entrance features drawings of barricades, and how they have changed over time.

We all remember the year Occupy took the world by storm; it is perhaps the most widespread global protest in history and has been seized upon by a number of activists for any number of issues since its inception. In 2011, protestors in New York occupied Zucotti Park to denounce the growing inequality of wealth distribution in the wake of the global recession.  The camp was built with the skills and knowledge of its diverse inhabitants, including a working group of architects, ’123 Occupy’ (Greta Hansen, Kyung-Jae Kim, Andy Rauchut and Adam Koogler) who designed, amongst other things, an “Inflatable General Assembly”, a model of which was on display at the V&A. The architects imagined a space “made from human movement, as large or as small as the number of people who create and inhabit it.”

A model of 123Occupy's design for a General Inflatable Assembly (c) V&A

A model of 123Occupy’s design for a General Inflatable Assembly (c) V&A

The Occupy movement has grown and swelled its ranks as social discontent and protests have swept across Europe: the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul against an increasingly conservative and prohibitive government spawned “spontaneous” architecture all over the city: barricades, communal dining tables, an open air library and a speakers platform were amongst the structures recorded by Turkish architects in drawings for posterity, as they recognised their temporal nature. They said: “Creating a collective memory is really important when the government is trying to forget everything. The life cycles of these structures were really short so we had to document them. We believe it is a way of passive resistance. We keep remembering what happened in Taksim. In a way we merged the practice and protest by using architecture as a tool to critique.”

Also on display at the V&A was the Acampadasol map of the Indignados movement in Spain, showing the organic urban topography of protest. Motivated largely by the recession and ensuing budget cuts and rampant unemployment, the “Indignants” spoke out against Spain’s current party system, and the disconnect the people currently feel with it. This map helped activists to navigate themselves between different committee meetings in the Puerta del Sol camp in Madrid.

The Acampadasol map, the camp for the Indignados movement.

The Acampadasol map, the camp for the Indignados movement.

A quote from Archivo15, an activist group in Madrid documenting the protests, gives a feeling for the anarchic role urban topography could assume: “Madrid, May 2011. The crowd couldn’t believe it. Who needs them? Making drawings in the street, around the statues of dead kings, maps of places different to the ones we ‘should have in’ IN-SOL-ACTION!!! (Excuse us for ignoring your police lies, we are occupied taking over our squares).”

The scope of the V&A’s exhibition far extended this single aspect of protest, but it is arguably it’s most powerful, as it represents a manifestation of the protest itself, spreading through the streets and parks of our cities, breathing activism into the environment we live in.

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A road sign by Occupy Sandy. They took control of humanitarian aid for the people of New York city after the destruction wreaked by Hurriance Sandy, in the face an incompetent and insufficient government response.

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Advice guides for squatters and “revolutionaries” i.e. social activists clashing with the law.

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Guerrilla Girls banner and gorilla masks; a female group of artists who exposed racism, sexism and corruption in the 1980s art world.They use humour to engage people with their campaigns.

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1960s “bust cards”. Bust cards were pamphlets or cards produced by gay rights activists, giving homosexuals advice on what to do if there were arrested, and listing their rights.

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An arperilla: appliqued textiles produced by Chilean women to document the rife violence during Pinochet’s dictatorship. This example depicts a massacre carried out by paramilitaries during one night in the small Colombian village of Mampujàn.

Gay Bashers Banner

A banner challenging gaybashers to “come and get it”.

Badges Against Apartheid

Badges Against Apartheid

Stencil graffiti by Syrian artists of victims of the civil unrest and political regime there.

Stencil graffiti by Syrian artists of victims of the civil unrest and political regime there.

By Helena Louise Cuss

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