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The visual arm of protest

There is still time to see Signs of Revolt, recording the events and artworks, propaganda and pranks that have been central to the global protest movement from Seattle 1999 onwards. Penny Cole reports

In the window of a shop in Brick Lane, a powerful montage by the kennardphillipps collaboration brings the show right up to date, as Gordon Brown dispenses largesse to bankers with one hand whilst expressing “who me, I didn’t do it”, with the other.

The first artwork inside the show, charts the journey from Seattle up to the present day, with a family tree of movements and events. It begins with an array of influences from the 1960s and before – Dada, Situationists, Foucault, the May 1968 uprising in France, Abbie Hoffman and others. Marx is in there and Hegel is prominent along with Trotskyists but there is no Lenin or Mao, no Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.

kennardphillipps sum up their vision saying: “We don’t see the work as separate to social and political movements that are confronting established political and economic systems. We see it as part of those movements, the visual arm of protest.”

New media are particularly prominent – Indymedia (which seems almost establishment these days) – and technology activists such as the London Hacklab Collective.

It is interesting to be reminded of the crossover between creative resistance practitioners and mainstream advertising. Exhibitor Jonathan Barnbrook owns one of Britain’s leading design agencies – but in another life, in partnership with Petro Inhoue, he uses his knowledge and skills to subvert the medium.

This opens up an interesting discussion about the extent to which the mainstream media are responding to a younger generation’s growing scepticism about glossy brands, by attaching themselves parasitically to low-tech images and home-made music (see T-mobile current ad campaign).

The exhibition touches on every medium, from rolls of plastic tape to posters, photography and film; music and dance; manifestos and situationist happenings such as those provided by the Yes Men and my own favourites, Reverend Billy and the Life After Shopping Gospel Choir.

The struggle is documented, the enemy picketed and ridiculed and alternatives set out. However, perhaps it is not surprising that this aspect is the weakest representation since imagining a future is much harder than setting out the problems of today. Bicycles feature strongly, and trees – all good but not very comprehensive. It seems it is easier to talk about the future than to transform it into a believable visual image!

That’s a challenge we are trying to get to grips with in A World to Win. Anyone with creative ideas, please get in touch!

17 November 2009

Signs of Revolt, Shop 14, Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL until November 22 with a free catalogue.

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