The balaclava, the placard, the loudspeaker – the instruments of protest are well-established. Except they aren’t. As this exhibition at the V&A shows, the methods and means by which people have made their voices heard have been unimaginably varied. Think protest, and most people think violence, but the overriding impression given by the objects on show here is of wit. Resourcefulness, ingenuity, but, primarily, wit. There’s the five pound notes defaced with income inequality stats, elegant china tea sets bearing suffragette slogans and a placard from the student protests reading “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies.”
It’s a reminder that although many protests are going on all the time, the only ones that tend to make headlines are the ones that erupt into violence. If it bleeds it leads. As a result, protestors have had to think of smart ways to get their message out. In centuries past, dissent has tended to be a two-way thing – oppressed and oppressor reacting against each other – but in the media-saturated second half of the twentieth century, disobedience also became not just against government, but to television, newspapers and the wider population. In the days of social media, a snappy tagline could be the difference between reaching no one and reaching millions.
This is one of the reasons the exhibition starts at the 1970s (save for a few items at the beginning). Another is that disobedient objects tend to be disposable. They’re not meant to last, they’re meant to perform a specific task at a specific moment, meaning few objects survive beyond the flash-points in which they feature. The curators had to rely on submissions from activist groups, and even remade artefacts, including the “capitalism is crisis” banner from the Occupy Movement. This isn’t protest art, it is protest itself and it’s refreshing to see objects with little financial value but massive potency exhibited in a place like the V&A.