How Political Activism Breeds Design Ingenuity Around the World

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
July 24 2014 11:22 AM

How Political Activism Breeds Design Ingenuity Around the World

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Designed by the Eclectic Electric Collective, these oversized inflatable cobblestones were thrown during the General Strike in Barcelona in February 2012.*

Photo by Oriana Eliçabe/Enmedio.info. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The term design object is usually reserved for high-concept, luxurious, and otherwise shiny things that seem built to be coveted. But Disobedient Objects, a new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, attempts to challenge standard definitions of art and design by shining a rare spotlight on the often amateur-made, cobbled-together but purposeful objects designed by grass-roots political activists around the world. The exhibit aims to show how political activism has driven design ingenuity and collective creativity to spur social change since the late 1970s.

“Objects have played a key role in social change alongside performance, music and the visual arts,” write curators Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon in a book being published alongside the exhibition, which opens Saturday and runs until Feb. 1. “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 role of material culture in social movements is a mostly untold story.”

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GraffitiWriter was developed by the Institute for Applied Autonomy in 1999. It works via remote control and functions like a dot-matrix printer, allowing the mastermind to remain at a safe distance.

Courtesy of the Institute for Applied Autonomy

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From 1994, indigenous women in Chiapas, Mexico, began representing leaders of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation as Chamulita dolls, made using sacred pre-Columbian techniques of preparing wool from sheep.

Photo by Richard Davis

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The Guerrilla Girls, a group of female artists who use graphics and public actions to expose sexism, racism, and corruption in the art world, maintain anonymity and focus on the issues by wearing gorilla masks.*

Photo by George Lange

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This placard was painted on cardboard by Coral Stoakes for a large demonstration against government spending cuts that was held in London in 2011. The “dirty policies” refer to cuts in education funding.

Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

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Bone china with the emblem of the Women's Social and Political Union, a militant group founded in 1903 that fought for women's suffrage in the U.K.

Photo by Ian Thomas. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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The Bike Bloc turned everyday old bikes into subversive blockades as part of the Reclaim Power protests during the 15th U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009, as shown in this anonymous poster.

Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

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In an anti-war performance at Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont, in 1991, a puppet of an Iraqi woman holds a dead body.

Photo by Jonathan Slaff

*Correction, July 25, 2014: This post originally misspelled the names of the Eclectic Electric Company and the Guerrilla Girls.  

Kristin Hohenadel's writing on design has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Fast Company, Vogue, Elle Decor, Lonny, and Apartment Therapy.

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