THE LANGUAGE OF PROTEST 2 – the art(s) of subversion

Demonstration against UK visit by Donald Trump, Cambridge, 2017

The juxtaposition of image and text in public protest has a long history. My previous post focused on demonstrators’ placards and on the ingenious visual displays staged by Led by Donkeys on hoardings and projections.

Here I offer the first sequence in a purely visual chronology, showing some famous and some lesser-known examples of subversion (whether overtly political or overtly absurdist) for public consumption…

Image result for john heartfieldAnti-Nazi photomontage by ‘John Heartfield’ (Helmut Herzfeld) 1936

Notting Hill, Westbourne Park and Grand Union Canal,  London, 1970s, photos by Roger Perry

Image result for jenny holzer

Image result for jenny holzer

Image result for jenny holzer

Conceptual artworks by US artist Jenny Holzer

funny-vandalism-creative-street-art-25

Image result for witty graffiti in public places

Image result for witty graffiti in public places

funny-vandalism-creative-street-art-7

Anonymous graffiti, vandalism and alterations

Image result for graffiti motorway flyover

Image result for graffiti motorway flyover

Image result for anti gentrification graffiti

Anti-gentrification messages, East London

Image result for political protest ploughed into landscape

Image result for political protest ploughed into landscape

Protest as land art

 

A further (very well-chosen by Lyn McKelvie in 1996) selection of examples of photomontage, subvertising and ad-jamming follows here:

And Yet It Moves by John Heartfield
And Yet It Moves by John Heartfield
Rationalization Is On The March by John Heartfield
Rationalization Is On The March by John Heartfield
Creative print ads target plastic pollution | Advertising | Creative Bloq
Creative print ads target plastic pollution
wwf rechauffement climatique glace monde fond
Powerful Environmental Ads
Creative print ads target plastic pollution | Advertising | Creative Bloq
Creative print ads target plastic pollution…
1991
1996

Here, from Flashbak, are Richard Davis’ striking photos of Manchester in the 1980s and 90s, showing slogans and graffiti in their settings, alongside the people of Hulme:

Richard Davis’s Brilliant Photos of Hulme – 1980s and 1990s

For more examples of magazine texts, leaflets, posters and placards, see

Bamn (By Any Means Necessary): Outlaw Manifestos & Ephemera, 1965-1970 by Peter Stanstill and David Zane Mairowitz, Autonomedia 1999

And finally…or rather, we hope, not finally…

Image result for slogans on motorways

(IN)EFFECTIVE INVECTIVE – the language of protest

During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.” -Kurt Vonnegut

Image result for Led by Donkeys white cliffs today

This morning, 31 January 2020, official date of the UK’s departure from the EU, the agitprop group Led by Donkeys projected on to the white cliffs of Dover a message from the UK to its European neighbours…

The group had been active since the Brexit referendum, erecting billboards across the UK replaying the messages of pro-Brexit and populist politicians. Led by Donkeys scores precisely because it doesn’t employ wit or wordplay, or Banksy’s admittedly striking  visual epigrams, but simply replicates and reminds us of the messages it thinks we should beware of…

Image result for led by donkeys

In the UK the recent language of protest, on placards in particular or in graffiti, has tended to employ irony, sarcasm, flippancy, facetiousness, to get its messages across by way of puns and cultural allusions…

Anti Brexit Signs

Invective, banter and wit are mainstays of the British national conversation, irreverence and unseriousness is a default, obligatory style of private and public discourse…

Anti Brexit Signs

The signing and symbology featuring in public demonstrations, and the debates taking place in public spaces is social media IRL; the slogans and quips on display are Twitter come to the streets…

Image result for lots of funny placards demonstrators

The tactics used by Led by Donkeys rather recalls the media manipulations advocated and practised by activists in the 1960s. By way of detournement the Situationists pioneered the hijacking of the multimodal spectacle projected – or inflicted – by capitalism, appropriating and reworking words and images and turning it against its creators…

…and in later anti-capitalist subversions employing the strategies known as culture-jamming, ad-jamming, ad-busting or subvertising

Graffiti Billboard. Postcard. If this lady were a car, she'd run you down.  Photo by Jill Posener, 1979.  Postcard published in England.

The street protestors’ placards, for all their wit, wisdom and wrath, have been dismissed by some as self-indulgent, harmless venting and ultimately ineffective. The rightists’ dismissals are perhaps to be expected…

https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/03/dont-be-fooled-by-the-twee-placards-at-the-peoples-vote-march/

https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/03/25/the-reactionaries-are-on-the-march/

But slightly less predictable is disapproval from the Greens…

http://bright-green.org/2017/08/22/ive-had-enough-of-your-witty-placards/

graffiti saying 'words do not mean anything today'

All these protest styles and strategies are part of a rich and complex tradition which I have only touched upon in this short post. I will shortly add some, hopefully more detailed and more profound observations on the subject on this site, together with a visual history which I hope to incorporate in an upcoming broadcast…

Votes for Women

 

Today’s projection by Led by Donkeys differs from their static hoardings in using an original filmed recording of war veterans, and in adding a poignant final message in what looks like a heartfelt personal coda…

Image result for Led by donkeys our star

It does however appropriate a pro-Brexit trope, as well as an iconic setting, substituting real warriors for Brexiteer nostalgia and for what the left derides as ‘airfix patriotism’ -the false memories and imaginary heroism of those who cannot remember or have never studied the real British past.

In June 2020 the Open University made available its short film on the Language of Protest, accompanied by an essay by Dr Philip Seargeant on the same subject…

 

Here, with his kind permission, is Philip’s article, updating the topic for an audience still undergoing pandemic restrictions…

The Language of Protest: political demonstration in the age of Covid-19