Disobedient Objects is an exhibition about out-designing authority. Looking beyond art and design framed by markets, connoisseurs and professionals, this exhibition considers the role of social movement cultures in re-making our world from below. Disobedient objects can be ingenious and sometimes beautiful solutions to complex problems, often produced with limited resources and under duress. Working by any media necessary, they may be poor in means, but they are often rich in ends.
Disobedient objects have a history as long as social struggle itself. Ordinary people have always used them to exert counterpower, and object-making has long been a part of social movement cultures alongside music, performance and the visual arts. While these other mediums of protest have been explored before, this exhibition is the first to look broadly at material culture’s role in radical social change. It identifies these objects as part of a people’s history of art and design. The exhibition begins in the late 1970s, taking as its starting point the cycle of global social struggles beginning in that period which engaged with the emerging political terrain of neoliberalism and new technologies.
There are many ways art and design can be political, and a lot has been written (and exhibited) on this over the last few years. However, most of this has focused on the individual gestures of critical, speculative design or the picture politics of institutional art. Even ‘activist-art’ and more recently ‘design activism’ generally refer to an incredibly wide range of professional artists’ practices and to socially-responsible professional design. Rather, it seems imperative for a conversation about art, design and social change to begin with the actually-existing but often unacknowledged grassroots cultures of social movements, as the zero-point of political art or design. Yet at the same time, Disobedient Objects doesn’t attempt to define a discipline. The title is intended as an evocative proposition and an invitation rather than a closed concept. When looking at making which places itself in social movements’ conditions of production, we have tried to select objects which embody an important or notable moment in their histories of making. But it is far from an exhaustive survey. We hope this exhibition will be a starting point to get beyond easy stereotypes and open up objects of social movement cultures as an area for further study.
When we have talked about the project, we have often been met with surprise. It many ways it feels counter-intuitive for this exhibition to appear in “the world’s greatest museum of art and design,” founded at the height of British colonialism and which predominantly displays objects of elite consumption. The project has been described to us an institutional critique and there is inevitably some truth in this. It also prompts a question about recuperation. In the nineteenth century it was claimed that museums could prevent riots, sedition and drunkenness by mopping up working class leisure time. What happens when you place disobedient objects at the heart of a building that was conceived for such obedient purposes? Talking about movements outside of the reach of those movements always involves discomfort. This exhibition forces the question of what a museum does to disobedient objects and what disobedient objects do to a museum? These objects embody the kinds of knowledge Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call ‘the undercommons.’ Exhibiting them we test the museum’s claim to truly be a public institution for learning and debate.
Museums have long been criticised as mausoleums – places where objects go to die, preserved in an authoritative scheme of the universe which tends to homogenise and flatten out their contexts. For objects whose contexts are struggles by misrepresented or subaltern groups, this is a particular problem. But disobedient objects are necessarily rough, raw things, whose edges are open to further modification and appropriation. Only their contexts of use make them whole. Rather than being ‘dead’ like a butterfly closed in a case, disobedient objects on exhibition are unfinished, like a political sticker never stuck, its hope and rage still held fast to its laminate backing. Their aura is that of an unfulfilled promise. But this incompleteness needn’t be a melancholy sign of failure so much as one of possibility. They are full of uncertainty – and the empowering and terrifying idea that our own actions (and inaction) could make a difference.
Disobedient objects were not made with a museum in mind. Nor do they rely on the museum to legitimate them – but this does not mean that they have nothing to gain from appearing here. Before we located them, some of these objects were retired from the street to rest in private lofts or social centre basements. Now they find themselves returned to visible public history. For other objects, their struggles are unfinished, and when this exhibition closes they will return to take their place within them. Whatever our emotional reaction or identification with these unfinished objects, we mostly encounter them for only a brief moment. Perhaps inches from our bodies in a crowd; held by (or holding up) our friends; in news footage of people who could be us; in photographs of days growing distant; or suddenly reappearing in a courtroom. The exhibition of these objects is, in fact, one moment when you might actually spend time with them, right in front of you, able to slowly examine them beside each other. How might this moment of exhibition relate to these other moments, of use by activists, newspaper photographers and so on?
Social movements, in contesting established ways of seeing and acting, find themselves beset by a long and recent history of misrepresentation, in which they are ignored or maligned by mass media while simultaneously being appropriated for their vitality and authenticity. Museums are not immune to this process. In our approach we were inspired by the traditions of history from below, but also by methods of participatory action research, as ways to engage with ongoing movements. These admittedly awkward terms stand for rejecting institutional privilege and assumed expertise. We aimed to be guided by their principals of aiming to shape research as a socially-just activity that researches with, rather than on, communities; recognising participants as experts and opening the curation process to be fundamentally shaped by them. This involved a series of workshops, with lenders and other movement participants who had a connection to these objects, which shaped the exhibition’s ideas and physical design.
After long discussions, normal museum rules concerning plinths, barriers and touching distances were revised. As many objects as possible will be uncased and new cases are being designed which attempted to present objects in their own terms, from the perspective they might be encountered by their users, rather than framing them as either incidental historical ephemera or as abstract artistic fetishes. Context will be conspicuously foregrounded, through video, photos, prison letters, even hate mail. Sometimes it makes more sense to exhibit photos or design plans instead of the object itself. There are many voices in the exhibition. Labels written by the objects’ makers or users will appear throughout, given higher visibility than any curatorial text. They speak in their own, sometimes emotional, words about the objects’ meanings and contexts. Meanwhile, takeaway how-to guides offer a makers’ understanding of several objects. There have also been other internal discussions about how the exhibition is organised, on ethical funding, for example.
Like the objects within it, this exhibition is incomplete, and will fail (hopefully productively) in ways that it isn’t possible to yet identify. The histories it uncovers will be blighted by omissions of balance vis-à-vis the Western movements closest to us, incorrect precedents for designs and strategies, or gaps in genealogies. The exhibition doesn’t offer a complete overview. It only opens a crack, inviting us to look into neglected forms of making, to analyse omissions, connections, possibilities.