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First Look: ‘Disobedient Objects’ at the V&A

23 July 2014

What role do objects play in movements for social change, and who designs and makes them? ‘Disobedient Objects’, a new exhibition at the V&A, looks for the first time at the creativity that underlies grassroots movements, and some of the inventions that have been used to challenge the status quo. We spoke to the exhibition’s co-curator, Catherine Flood, to find out more.

Click here for a gallery of highlights from the exhibition

Can you tell us a bit about the exhibition?

‘Disobedient Objects’ is an exhibition about the objects produced by grassroots social movements as tools to achieve social change. It tells a history of art and design from below, showing what is possible when people with few resources are driven to out-design authority using their imagination and creativity. It covers a period from the late 1970s to the present – a time during which political shifts and the development of new technologies have given rise to new forms of creative resistance.

What makes this a distinctive show?

It is the first exhibition to rigorously explore the objects produced within social movements and to invite people to consider them as a significant part of our culture. Most of the objects are borrowed directly from activist groups and have not been collected together in a museum before.

How did you come to curate this exhibition?

I’m curator of posters and graphics at the V&A and I have a particular interest in our collection of protest posters. This led to thinking about the other objects that social movements produce and why institutions of art and design don’t collect them. I started talking to Gavin Grindon, one of very few art historians to work on activist art objects and together we developed the proposal for ‘Disobedient Objects’. We wanted to throw a spotlight on an important but overlooked form of making.

What is likely to be the highlight of the exhibition?

Dolls of the Zapatista Revolution, The Zapatista, Mexico. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Dolls of the Zapatista Revolution, The Zapatista, Mexico. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It is hard to say because the objects are so varied, ranging from a protest drone to a death mask mounted on a mosaic-covered pick-up truck (an anti death penalty statement). It is often said that social change begins with small acts that multiply and add up. I think the greatest impact of these objects is seeing them together in one room. Collectively they give a strong sense of the power that people have to take design into their own hands and make a change in the world.

And what’s been the most exciting personal discovery for you?

In winter 2012 I was in Moscow and was able to collect a number of handmade placards that people were making to carry on demonstrations against Putin standing for a third term as president. One was made by a gay rights activist, Alexey Kiselev, who painted his placard in the LGBT rainbow colours with the slogan ‘Putin, we won’t give it to you a third time.’ He has since had to leave Russia, but we were able to make contact with him. He told us that this was the first time that LGBT flag had been used in public in Russia. That added hugely to the significance of the object.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in preparing this exhibition?

Most of the objects in this exhibition were created under pressure with few resources. Placed next to the many examples of fine making in the V&A, they may appear to fail. They are however, considered responses to complex situations and embody a high level of art and design ingenuity. The challenge has been to present them on their own terms and to communicate why they were made and how they achieve their purpose.

How are you using the gallery space? What challenges will the hang/installation pose?

We have tried to resist ‘museumifying’ these objects as far we can and to give as much context as possible. This has involved using sound, AV and images of the objects in action. We’ve included statements from makers alongside the curator’s labels and broken a number of the objects down into ’how-to’ guides that visitors can take away. We’ve tried to move away from traditional materials and structures in the exhibition build and create a space that doesn’t feel too didactic or pinned down. The exhibition isn’t a final word on these objects, it’s an invitation for people to come and make up their own minds.

Which other works would you have liked to have included?

There is still the opportunity to include another object. There are 99 objects in the exhibition, but we left a pace for a 100th object that hasn’t been made yet. The exhibition is on for six months and new social movements will emerge in that time.

‘Disobedient Objects’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 26 July 2014–1 February 2015.

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