LONDON — Two inflatable cobblestones, outsized and dully metallic, hang from the ceiling. It’s implicit: these are material agents of anarchy, the airborne heralds of revolution. But here, floating above us at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s (V&A) Disobedient Objects, they seem a bit flaccid, a little sad, and markedly out of place. Disenfranchised somehow.
Context helps. Accompanying footage shows the peculiar inflatables on the front lines of a 2012 May Day demonstration in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Protesters push the giant, bouncy cobblestones at a flummoxed police force. Enumerating potential police responses to these odd articles, Disobedient Objects co-curator Gavin Grindon (along with Catherine Flood) drolly asks, “Do they throw the inflatable back, in which case they’re engaging in this weird performance?” This is subversive hilarity, anti-authoritarian punning at its best.
The disobedient objects in the exhibition range from the more tactically frivolous, like the cobblestones, to the blindingly necessary, like DIY tear gas masks. They are largely the products of various left-wing grassroots social movements, though a few objects made in service of paramilitaries — but questionably dressed in the show’s glamorizing rhetoric of left-wing activism — make it into the mix. On the whole, the exhibition is right on trend, combining a growing public interest in design activism with a recent popularization of “object”-centered museum exhibitions and publications. (Have you purchased your copy of The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects yet?)
At the V&A, it is the objects and not their makers who are credited with disobedience or anti-authoritarian intentions, an approach that conveniently allows the museum to depoliticize groups of rebellious people and tuck them into a liberal global family. When the items on display are painted as the political antagonists at hand, their anthropomorphism seems to originate not in some variety of commodity fetishism but in their insurgent desires. These objects collectively call to mind the seminal essay by critical theorist W.J.T. Mitchell in which he asked, absurdly and brilliantly, “What do pictures really want?” Here, what they want is to level the playing field of power, and arguably, disobedient objects can have functional capabilities to this end that pictures lack. But their expression of unfulfilled desire implies a similar feeling of impotence, a power asymmetry in which the object is subaltern. When you see these wily things, cobbled together from whatever means available, it’s pretty evident who is David and who is Goliath, resource-wise. The battle never really ends; it just exhausts.
And yet, small as they may seem next to the grandeur of their institutional opponents, these objects are crafty and persistent; you find yourself loving them for it. In one section of the exhibition is a collection of handmade “book blocs,” a functional riff on the riot shield in which Plexiglas and cardboard are made to resemble oversized book covers. Wielded by groups protesting tuition hikes and budget cuts to education programs, these blocs put police in the bizarre position of physically assaulting oversize books when they attack protestors. It’s a memorable image, and one that certainly drums up attention for its causes as it’s disseminated on the web. Another standout is the Spanish-born “flone,” an economical marriage of laser-cut plywood and open-source software. “Reinventing airspace as public space” in an age of insidious drone warfare, the flone allows the user to fly his or her smartphone for the purpose of filming police and demonstrations. Of all the items on display, it is the flone whose revolutionary potential feel the most formidable.
The maiden flight of the Flone
If you’re curious about how to make your own flone, Disobedient Objects has a DIY guide on display that’s also available for download on the exhibition website. Step-by-step instructions — easy to read, with clear graphics — are pared down to fit on a single yellow page. The show boasts these how-to guides for a total of eight items, from a leaflet bomb to a lock-on device (probably the most popular object with real-life activists globally). The guides exemplify one of the coolest takeaways: that the transmission of information, knowledge, and ideas is in itself a powerful revolutionary act. Disobedient Objects seems hopeful that maybe, even in the institutional mausoleum of the museum, this idea can hold true. The V&A’s framing of the show as recuperative rather than opportunistic dearly depends on it.
Disobedient Objects continues at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London) through February 1.