The new protester is techno-cultural, politically sophisticated, more decentralised and independent than the old left. Dr. D, Banksy, et al disturb our sense of public space, occupied by advertisers, through subversive art
What comes to mind when one tries to picture a protest? An individual or a small/large group of people out on the street either marching or doing a sit-in, shouting slogans, holding placards and most important of all- making a demand! It is this act of asserting oneself/group, either aggressively or passively against those who hold power is the most exciting and privileged part of any democratic society, however mediocre. But, it has never been easy to protest and still isn’t, as the laws governing protest are obsolete and draconian, and new laws can be passed anytime by the legislative-executive nexus. But, this is where the dialectic between protesters with a demand wanting to change/influence a policy decision/ public opinion and those who hold the power to do so begin. The more effective and creative the protest, the harsher the law against it. However, the protesters have always succeeded, outsmarting the oppressive laws. Here, we will look at some of the new protest methods and movements in the recent years and how it undermines the oppressive laws and systems. They are also evidence of the changing politics of protest which has long surpassed the phase of marching-sloganeering. The new protesters are techno-cultural, politically sophisticated, more decentralised and independent than the old left. Dr. D, Banksy, et al disturb our sense of public space, occupied by advertisers, through subversive art.
1. Subversive Art
Dr. D is an artist who specialises in subversion of advertisements and billboards, twisting them in such a way that it ridicules and exposes the underlying hypocrisy. In his own words, “It was about 1999, after reading No Logo by Naomi Klein, in particular the bit about Jorge Rodriguez de Gerada changing billboards with paint and cut and paste alterations, it occurred to me that I could do something similar. I cut the letters “Su” from one billboard and placed them over another. The ad that had read “Suddenly everything clicks” had been subverted to say “Suddenly everything Sucks”.
Banksy is a pseudonymous English graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter. His satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humour with graffiti executed in a distinctive stencilling technique. His works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.
This is what Banksy did after Israel’s bombing of Gaza last year.
This is how Bansky subverted travel advertisements (watch video)
Here is a comic on Banksy by Zed Pencils.
Strike is a bi-monthly newspaper dealing in politics, philosophy, art, subversion and sedition. Now, one would fine it hard to mention and single newspaper or a magazine in India which also deals in subversion and sedition. Strike is always in the forefront in organising protest rallies, talks or book fairs. They are very active on social media, too. Posting all of theirs and others subversive work on social media. The article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber published in Strike! gained popular attention, and most important of all, led to a subversive act. Cheers!? Somebody, yes, somebody glued posters made of excerpts from the article on London tube trains right after new year, with an intention to make the reader think whether their job is real or simply made up!
A more radical action which deserves mention here are the series of counter-propaganda posters which came up in London bus stops occupying advertising space (earlier occupied by positive advertisements by the police department), accusing police of being racist. Read more on the story here.
“A meme is a unit of information – a catch-phrase, a concept, a tune, a notion of fashion, philosophy or politics. Memes pass through a population in much the same way genes pass through a species. Good strong memes can change minds, alter behavior, catalyze collective mindshifts and transform cultures. In our information age, whoever makes the memes holds the power.” – Design Anarchy, 2006
“CLIMATE CHAOS. ESCALATING INEQUALITY. FINANCIAL VOLATILITY. Multiplying real-world disasters sprung from the fantasy world of neoclassical economics — a faith-based religion of perfect markets, enlightened consumers and infinite growth that shapes the fates of billions. To rescue humanity from the mainstream’s march of doom, we need to kick over the orthodox shibboleths and build up a radically pluralist economics for the 21st century.”
A group of rebel economics students bombarded the American Economic Association’s conference (see pictures). Generally, one would see huge crowds sloganeering against such anti-people-environment institutions, but does it always have to be this way? Of course not! Memes like these are an effective and new technique of protest, attracts attention, provokes questions, no need for a big crowd always, but can be done by small group and also gets press space.
Kickitover is a campaign initiated by adbusters for the soul of economics!
Yes, ghost protesters! wondering what a ghost protester is? Well, another innovative technique by which the post-globalised protester has outsmarted the law. Spain introduced some harsh anti-protest laws and this is in response to these laws that the ghost protester (see video) was born. The police can’t pepper spray a ghost protestor for sure!
All you need is a few ideas and a broadband connection
“There’s a whole new audience out there, and it’s never been easier to sell [one’s art]. You don’t have to go to college, drag ’round a portfolio, mail off transparencies to snooty galleries or sleep with someone powerful, all you need now is a few ideas and a broadband connection. This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count,” Bansky!
This is in no way undermining the old and the most exciting form of protest- marching and sloganeering. But, trying to point out new ones and also move out of the old in many ways for the times have changed, identities and politics of the new generation that has taken up the fight for justice have changed and so must the politics of/in protest. Internet and technology as political tools have immense potential: India’s Daughter banned from screening on TV was released on Youtube, Priya Pillai used Skype when denied travel to UK for a meeting with British MPs.
Does an academic paper have to be countered by an academic paper, or a book by a book? Or a Davos with a WSF? Not necessarily. However, these acts must exist and one must play what role one can play best, but new forms of protest must also be acknowledged and given prime importance as an effective political tool, dissenting and challenging the powerful. The cultural industry has more hold over the mediatised than a public scholar, poet or a social reformer. What the new forms of protest are doing is, countering the cultural industry with its own cultural elements. A movie or an image attracts the mediatsed more than a book or a paper full with jargon. The old form of dissent-communication also alienates an entire generation who are taught to hate serious political ideas and love and believe what the cultural industry shows. So, a simple meme designed by the very tools used by culture industry can provoke a thought or two, gain global attention through internet and doesn’t have to be approved by some expert sitting above in the organisation. It also gives the artist and the technologically savvy freedom and a space of dissent of their own in the global solidarity networks, which is mainly occupied by the politically minded. The new form of protests also decentralise and localise- virtues that we talk about so much- the protests and also the power structure within them.
What remains to be seen and studied is the impact of new protesters on the on going justice movements and how it compliments the solidarity networks. This is well beyond the scope here and also not the purpose of this piece. Hence, I invite those who are interested to participate and take this discussion further. This is a collaborative effort and any material or idea can be re-produced without prior permission for non-commercial purpose.
This is the first article of a three-part series on the new protesters and its politics, written for Long & Winding Road