Disobedient Objects and Counterpower at the V&A Museum

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Are museums, the sites where objects ‘come to die’, capable of helping us to think critically about our current politics? If Martin Davies is right they cannot. He reads them as part of a network of public institutions that use historicization to stop us thinking for ourselves while they get on with the business of replicating and reproducing the political and social status quo. ‘Museums’, argued Davies in Imprisoned by History, ‘ultimately infantilize public attitudes…They invite everyone to subordinate themselves to their historicized conception of reality…museums are just another coercive public agency which “does our thinking for us”’. London’s V&A museum is a prime example of Davies’s argument about how history-focused institutions bind political and economic values together. From its opening in the 1850s the museum fused the activities of design, manufacturing and British imperialism. Now advertising itself as ‘the world’s greatest museum of art and design’, the V&A has dealt almost exclusively with objects of elite production and commodification. Its politics of knowledge usually acquiesce in the reproduction of a common sense that suits dominant interests, including one would imagine those of its own corporate sponsors. As the custodian of a public space that is integral to Britain’s tourism, heritage work and education, the V&A is a very ‘obedient’ institution.

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Over the past six months, however, the V&A’s Disobedient Objects exhibition, which closed last week, sought to turn part of the museum into a different kind of public space. In the words of its curators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, Disobedient Objects was a project ‘both within and against’ the V&A. The free-to-enter exhibition showed how political and social justice activists often use low-tech, improvised and subversive design ideas as instruments of struggle against dominant power. Maybe one way in which the exhibition was ‘against’ the V&A was its staging in the museum’s Porter Gallery, which was built with the support of Dame Shirley Porter – best known in the UK as the Conservative leader of Westminster Council at the time of the ‘homes for votes’ scandal. Or perhaps this was an example of what Marcuse called ‘repressive tolerance’. We might also note here that the coalition government, which has frequently encouraged a hard line against the kind of popular dissent represented in Disobedient Objects, effectively provided the insurance cover that allowed the exhibition to take place. This having been said, the exhibition was a departure from V&A’s usual choice of subjects. In contrast to the elitist aesthetics displayed throughout the rest of the museum, Disobedient Objects featured makeshift tear-gas masks, dollar bills defaced with slogans about hyper-inequality, textiles that bear witness to political murder, lock-on arm tubes used by protesters to make human blockades, and other examples of material culture’s role in the production of counterpower. The sparse design aesthetics of the exhibition space amplified its political stance, with its recycled chipboard display mounts bolted on to aluminium poles recalling the low-cost functionalism of an Occupy camp. According to Flood and Grindon the objects they chose for display were ‘disobedient’ in the sense that their original use constituted a micro-politics of everyday resistance – acts that often pre-dated the formation of a recognizably ‘activist’ subjectivity by their users. The politics of this everyday resistance were invariably directed towards the goals of leftist social movements from the late 1970s onwards: countering climate change, resisting colonialism, extending gender rights, opposing the damaging ways in which global capitalism reshapes people’s relations to work, leisure, technology and culture. In that sense the exhibition took few political risks, its content going with the grain of mainstream liberal political values. The material cultures of far-right and neo-conservative protest groups were excluded from the exhibition, ostensibly on the grounds that their campaigns tend to target minorities rather than authorities. So there was no reference to Greece’s Golden Dawn, for example, Germany’s Pegida movement or the English Defence League. And objects of Palestinian resistance were only a marginal feature of the exhibition’s representational strategy. These exclusions can be fairly criticised, but they were not necessarily fatal to the realisation of Disobedient Objects cultural-political ambitions.

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Flood and Grindon of course understand that representation is political and that the politics of representation are contested. In an attempt to democratise their own curatorial process they consulted widely and ran workshops before selecting which objects to include as representations. They ensured that social movement activists who lent them objects could display their own statements about what they had donated (written on yellow labels which appeared alongside the grey labels used for the curators’ comments). They provided wall space for groups who weren’t represented in the exhibition to display some of their campaign materials – over the next few months a sprawling collection of stickers, posters, flyers, post-it notes and graffiti filled and over-spilled onto an adjoining wall and across part of the floor. More important than the ethical working methods of its curators was the fact that the exhibition had some practical value for activists. On the day after the Hong Kong police tear gassed pro-democracy demonstrators in September 2014, for example, there was a spike in the number of downloads from the Disobedient Objects website featuring instructions on how to make a gas mask out of a plastic bottle and dust mask. And when the Public and Commercial Services Union used the exhibition as a space to put pressure on the V&A management to pay employees a living wage, those managers did at least agree to attend pay talks with the union.

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Perhaps in such small but worthwhile ways Disobedient Objects showed how, as Chantal Mouffe’s argued, museums can be ‘transformed into agonistic public spaces where …hegemony is openly contested’. Educational and cultural sites are critical to the formation of subjectivities, and this exhibition presented a public discourse about counterpower around which socio-political subjectivities might be formed and reworked. Yes, we know the arguments about how capital reclaims dissidence for itself, and how liberal spectators who visited Disobedient Objects might have seen the exhibition as something that performed their anti-capitalism for them as they enjoyed its spectacle. And yes, the commodification of dissent in the form of exhibition-related merchandising looked all too ‘obedient’. Even worse, as visitors exited the space they were met with an urgent appeal for funds. Was this money to be used to make a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the indignados, sweatshop workers and various other victims of what Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’ that they had just been looking at? No, it was to help the V&A raise funds to buy the Wolsey Angels, four Renaissance statues that were intended for Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb, but which had been seized by Henry VIII, sold, separated and eventually lost. Hilary Mantel described the recovery of the angels as ‘one of those miracles that historians pray for.’ Disobedient Objects was a least a reminder that there are better miracles than that for historians and everyone else to hope for.

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