In this episode we look at how art can be an act of protest. How can art question ideas of recognition, representation and equality? Hear artists, activists and a poet discuss their experiences of using their work to bring about change.
Featuring Scottee, Jeremy Deller, Anahita Rezvani-Rad, Sarah Carne, Hilary Powell, Daniel Edelstyn and Alistair Gentry (Bank Job) and Raju Rage.
Narrator: This is the Art of Protest.
Sarah Carne: A lot of us, we do fly under the radar, so we’re making really interesting work, we’re protesting about good things, but it’s not necessarily always so visible that that’s what we’re doing, so we have to find ways of getting it out there.
Narrator: A series telling the human stories behind art.
Anahita Rezvani-Rad: So, I started painting public lashing and public hanging, and things that you don’t want to think about, just to deal a bit, what it is, that part of my identity.
Narrator: In this episode artists and thinkers reflect on the way art and protest meet.
Jeremy Deller: I do make things in reaction to the things that are making me angry, about it’s about people being unhappy with something really, and try and do something about it, and maybe showing their unhappiness or dissatisfaction in public, I think that’s what it is.
Narrator: To protest: to express strong objection and disapproval.
Scottee: My name is Scottee, I’m an artist and an activist. When I think of protest I immediately remember myself being maybe five, stood in our local park – which makes it sound more softer than it was, it was just concrete, and there being these barrel bins in the middle of the park – and being with my nan and my granddad who were going to burn their poll tax books; and I vividly remember this chant, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out; and that being my first protest. So, when I think of protest, I think of my working-class Irish migrant nan and granddad taking me past the market on our estate and onto this pitch of concrete to burn a document.
Narrator: A protest: a gathering or action expressing opposition to something.
Hilary Powell: It’s like [we’re in the back room, because we’re doing it so DIY, it’s like a proper money laundering operation because we’ve got old bed sheets and towels and irons, and hairdryers, and every kind of domestic appliance.
Daniel Edelstyn: What’s your feelings about this, Hilary? Do you think this thousand should be in the corner? Where do you think it should be?
HP: I’m Hilary Powell, I’m an artist.
DE: I’m Daniel Edelstyn, I’m a film maker, and this is the rebel bank.
HP: So we’re in the rebel bank, which is Hoe Street Central Bank, H-S-C-B, in Walthamstow, and here we are printing our own money, we’re making £50,000-worth of our own currency, in denominations one, five, ten, 20, 50, 100, and a thousand, in order to raise £50,000 through their sale at face value. The notes feature local people who are working at the kind of front line of our current economic system: food bank; homeless kitchen; youth project; and primary school; they stand to gain half the money we raise and the other half is going into buying up a million-pounds-worth of local debt.
DE: My initial research was like, okay, so they’re saying that America is a creditocracy; is Britain a creditocracy, and if so, how do I tell that story. So I started looking at, like, Walthamstow; is Walthamstow a creditocracy? And that was my question, so then I began to ask questions looking at healthcare in Walthamstow, looking at housing, looking at, I guess, students, students going into debt; and it wasn’t till later that we devised this technique of raising money to buy up debt, which was let’s create our own currency. And then I turned to Hilary, and at that point we were just in the garden shed, Hilary started to mint the first form of currency that we created.
HP: But I suppose all of it, from the film, to the idea that we’d create our own bank and it would be this act of citizen money creation, are ways of looking at those big questions in society like which even if you’re educated go over your head; like what is money, how does the economy work; they are things you kind of just kind think, oh, shit, how do you deal with that and talk about that. That’s why we wanted to make a bank and then print our own money so that we’d use this arts and film and cultural action and tactile kind of media to really bring those questions to life and use the kind of big public action as a way of exploding the conversation.
DE: Maybe if it was more in the corner of the note…
HP: Maybe…yeah, maybe in the corner…
DE: …wouldn’t it.
HP: …because now we’re going to have that massive thing.
DE: And also, that’s going to go there.
Alistair Gentry: My name is Alistair Gentry, I’m an artist working on the bank job. As an artist, yeah, I don’t earn very much money, I’m in a lot of debt, like a lot of artists are. I was thinking about this at lunchtime actually, I think what I like about this project is it’s actually really subversive but it’s got a really quite a jolly face of it being a lark, and the camaraderie of it. But it’s actually saying some really subversive things, it’s just that money isn’t really real, there could be any amount of it; it’s quite subversive to even talk about the idea of debt being something that you could abolish; we could decide, yeah, hey, nobody owes anybody any money any more, you know. To see all the people that have come in and see kind of like a light bulb going on in their heads, which is just what more can you ask for from an art project.
Narrator: American writer William Faulkner said, never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth against injustice and lying, if people all over the world could do this it would change the Earth.
A R-R: These are the ones with the guns, the plastic guns and the water; these are the ones with them getting arrested; and these are the ones I’m doing now. They are painted from tiny little photos but I use 12 or 13 of them in tiny canvases, and the whole thing makes one work. My name is Anahita Rezvani-Rad. I’m from Tehran and I have been living in the United Kingdom for 14, 15 years now; and I paint. This is a record of my time as a person of the revolution generation who lives abroad, so I’m very common. I’m a young person, a woman, who’s felt that, like, lived under…after the revolution in Iran, and is part of the, do you know, all these people who emigrated. And this is the way, what is happening in my world, so I’m kind of documenting it for myself, and it’s a different language and it’s a different media, and it’s…and it’s saved in a different world. So, a lot of images got out of Iran because of the social media, because of mobile phone being accessible by everybody; but where does it end up, I’m really interested in that.
At one point it was really hard, so boys and girls all went to the, like, to a park and started shooting each other with these plastic guns – which are water guns – in Tehran. And they all got arrested, because I mean that everything was wet and the clothes were sticking to them; and there were boys and girls playing with each other. These are plastic guns and they’re throwing water at each other, and they get arrested for it. And that…yeah. So I take the faces away from them, so…I don’t want them necessarily to be an individual, I just want them to be young people. I think about that too, like, a collective memory, and the role of painting, and the role of painting in documenting. So, my art could be an act of protest too.
Narrator: Indian activist Mahatma Ghandi said, you may never know what results come of your actions, but if you do nothing there will be no results.
Scottee: I am a working-class, queer, femme, who’s fat, and those identities have shaped the way the world interacts with me, but how I also interact with the world. And so a lot of the protests that are in my work is about queerness, it’s about fatness, and fat radicalism, and changing the rhetoric around fat; it’s about looking at those of us who don’t sit within the kind of binary genders of, like, how the world wants a man or a woman to behave. You know, I’m soon to become a parent and so I’m sort of then going to start disrupting family as a non-nuclear family, so my identities make up my protest, make up my politic, and they are loud within all of my work.
But the work that I feel like articulated a certain moment in time was a show that I made called Putting Words In Your Mouth; and this was before the EU referendum, I wanted to see how other white working-class queer people would be using their vote. And I embarked on trying to find working-class white queers, often, like, council queers as well from around the country; and I stumbled across E-D-L-L-G-B-T, so the English Defence League who had an LGBT wing – this is the language they used – and I thought this felt so bizarre that a marginalised and oppressed community would go into a non-political protest group and be a part of neo-nationalism in such an aggressive way. And so I interviewed them all and I asked them questions about what it was to be British and if they’d considered themselves racist.
And the conversations that white people have with each other about race was something that I wanted to expose; and so that show was lip-synced and performed by three performers of colour as a way of articulating a shared sexual identity, or gender identity, but a completely opposing political one. As a piece of work I think it was the most successful in saying you need to all address this.
Narrator: To protest: to bear witness.
Ragu Rage: My name is Raju Rage, I’m an artist, I’m an educator and an activist. I think most of the art I’m into is around the art of protest in some way. I mean I can say that in a lot of my performance work I’m trying to raise questions around people’s ideas of bodies and how bodies are connected and disconnected from each other; when we disconnect from other people then we can allow violence and harm to kind of take place. And so for that reason I kind of use objects and I use kind of everyday objects, with my body, to provoke questions. I’ve used lipstick, for example, you know, lipstick is everywhere and people are used to lipstick, but people are only kind of used to people using lipstick in very normative ways; women using lipstick in terms of makeup, or as far as drag; but then what happens when you kind of push it and you write messages with the lipstick on your body, or you write messages on other people’s bodies, and see how people react to that.
S: Protest is performance, right? You know, like it’s a way that humans think, okay, words are not enough here, we have to act with the body; and that’s all that I do as a performance maker and a theatre maker, I protest with the body, and I do that in lots of different contexts and situations. So performance, its raw essence, is political protest.
RR: I mean I just was really inspired by art from the Black Arts Movement particularly, who were making work that was quite explicitly political and challenging, and provoking; it just made me realise that you can make work about police violence, you can make work about racism, institutional racism. So right now I’m working on a project, I don’t even know what to call it, whether it’s an artwork or it’s a research project, or it’s just my life; I decided to kind of just unpack things that were going on in my life, and so that was me in the art world as an artist, but then it was also the activism that I do being a queer and trans person of colour.
First of all I started to create a map to kind of show these entanglements of activism, academia and art; but then I decided, yeah, what if this map was an archive or alternative archive where you could click on these different aspects of the map and then come up with artworks, texts, audio recordings, different kind of ways of learning about that. And I also printed up the map as a tablecloth to kind of symbolise the kitchen table and the kitchen tablecloth as an informal space. So, this is kind of a work in progress, I guess, which is kind of a protest, against the art world in a sense, in terms of looking at value.
SC: I have a pamphlet here – I always have a pamphlet knocking around – okay, this is for the Barbaras. I’m Sarah Carne, I’m an artist; I’m an artist, I make art about confidence and status and being a woman artist, and being a woman artist who is gradually getting older, like we all are.
It was an unexpected moment when I found myself writing a poem as part of the pamphlet, and it took quite a lot of wherewithal to decide to keep it in; but in terms of if you’re thinking about a protest you sometimes have to nail your colours to the mast, and I thought, you know what, that poem is staying.
So this is for the Barbaras: this is for the Barbaras who are not in catalogues or survey texts, this is for the Barbaras who are under the radar, this is for the Barbaras who have insubstantial evidence, and this is for the Barbaras in miscellaneous filing cabinets, this is for the Barbaras who are unnamed in the photographs, this is for the Barbaras who couldn’t get funding because of a recession, this is for the Barbaras who were ineligible for the young artist’s grants, this is for the Barbaras who had money but were rubbish at networking, and this is for the Barbaras who were just not overly productive, this is for the Barbaras who were emerging and then went back under, this is for the Barbaras who started late, this is for the Barbaras who are bitter, this is for the Barbaras who missed the zeitgeist, this is for the Barbaras who got up at dawn, this is for the Barbaras who did all the right things, this isn’t for Barbara Hepworth or Barbara Kruger, but it is for many of their peers, this is for the Barbaras who self-define, this is for the Barbaras I’ll never find, this is for the Barbaras who don’t want to be found.
I think it’s indicative of a fact that even though it’s the 21st century women are still under-represented in galleries and under-represented in many archives and I care about the invisibility of women.
Another piece I’ve also made, which is just slightly related and was also slightly a protest, where I invited eight artists, not actually all women, but eight artists who had day jobs for which they weren’t recognised as artists, being an artist wasn’t relevant, and they all made artwork in secret in their workplace. So for instance, one woman she worked in Holloway Prison, and so she made beautiful little sculptures out of leftover paper from some workshops that she was running there, and so she couldn’t actually take photographs in situ because it’s a prison and you’re not allowed a phone, so she did actually have to smuggle them out and photograph them outside.
I was leaving small pieces of text underneath my desk; so you’d go into work and every day you’d be doing these small secret things, and you’d think, yes, I’m still an artist, I’ve still got it. So it’s that feeling sort of empowerment, you have to find ways of sort of eking out your practice whilst juggling all the normal sort of work, you know, of having to have jobs, I’m a single parent, all of those things, you have to find those moments where you can still create and … and think about what you’re trying to say, and have those small moments of protest; and then it just would make me laugh because I’d feel like I’d achieved something and it was also secret, and secrets are quite nice.
Narrator: To protest: to declare your doubt in something.
JD: For me the art of protest is the art that’s made on them, it’s the objects and the banners and the placards and things and the drawings and whatnot; that for me is the best part of a protest.
I’m Jeremy Deller, and I do art, I make it; I’m an artist. For me the most interesting demo of the last years was the women’s march in January last year, for the atmosphere and the numbers of people, but also because of the depictions of female body parts that you don’t really get to see; and the language as well of it, which I probably can’t repeat, but I think it was amazing, it was the kind of first time you saw, like, kind of those body parts being drawn, or in public being displayed, you know, the sort of reproductive organs and all stuff like that, but still is quite taboo to show that, or if it is drawn it’s usually drawn by men; so I thought that was really interesting to see that. And I think that was probably quite an important moment culturally in terms of, like, art history and depiction of bodies and so on.
I’ve taken pictures of things that people make and do, because often they get discarded afterwards, which is…well, I think it’s a bit of a pity I think; but I think now people do collect them, for libraries or for collections and for archives and so on, which is good, because they’re very valuable things.
I’m not the kind of person that tweets about politics or makes grand statements on the whole, you know, I’m quite happy causing very minor mischief, in a way, and I think that’s what you could call a…I’m quite happy to make a banner or whatever it is that I do; I suppose that, that’s my role really.
A R-R: When the London riots was happening in 2011, so I just them young people, really angry; and there were some really cool images that I thought, oh, that would make a good painting, with that light and… But then, because my heart wasn’t in it, and there was no emotional attachment to it I couldn’t continue. Like, I did a couple and they’re horrible, but it’s a really emotional thing for me. So when the Iran Green Movement was happening I was painting and crying.
It happened before the Arab Spring, in 2009, a lot of young people were in the street, they all got arrested, because they believed that the vote was rigged, and the person they voted for is in house arrest ever since; and a lot of them had got arrested, they got killed. Some of the images it’s not easy for me to look at, let alone, like, sit in front of it and paint; but I just do it, it’s a really emotional process when I choose it and when I paint it, and the way I paint it, the colours I use, they’re all very personal and very emotional.
But then I had the survival guilt, I was here thinking, well, what can I do, why am I here, why am I not there in the front line getting shot. And then Michael Jackson died and Iran went off the news. And so you’re just wondering, like, I’ve put this in the history, or just, you know, somehow remember it as it was something which has happened and it’s just not down a pit of digital images.
Narrator: American author and cartoonist Dr Zeus said, unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot nothing is going to get better.
HP: We’d got … named the rebel bank, and quite liked that; so we kind of embraced that, because that, when you kind of remember you think, yeah, that it’s actually right, we’ve done this all on our own without much backing, and we’re carrying on; and so many people discount art, and film, that it doesn’t have a way of making a difference; but we’ve kind of … you kind of see it in action when people from all walks of life come in and engage in different ways with this in a way that you couldn’t through a white paper or, you know, a kind of bland talking-heads kind of expert speaking down at people.
DE: This is a fight, you know, and if we’re going to sustain it we’re going to need to get smart about how we keep moving forwards, you know, because we want to, we definitely … we’ve got the energy for it; it’s just that we need to find sustainable ways as artists to respond to it.
Narrator: Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci said, nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.
SC: I think artist have for a long time been using their art to protest about things, I don’t think it’s a new idea at all; but it does feel as if there has become this sort of movement of activism, of people being vocal; there’s more opportunity for people who want to make art about protest to actually find a platform, and also we can now create our own platforms, that’s the other key thing, isn’t it, that we don’t have to wait for the white cube to show our protest, we can protest in multiple ways and in different environments, whether it’s sort of online, virtual, interventions, all of those things.
RR: A lot of people can’t engage with politics, and a lot of people don’t want to engage with politics in that political way of activism and direct action; a lot of people don’t feel they have the knowledge or the education to engage, or to know what’s happening with the State; whereas art, I kind of feel has a cultural language, and a lot of people generally in the world like to connect with culture; so I feel like it can reach people that activism and formal politics doesn’t reach. Art can kind of have its own language of how it communicates.
Narrator: If you enjoyed this podcast please do rate, review and subscribe. You can tune in next week when we’ll explore the art of failure; hear Akram Khan and Tracy Chevalier discuss what art and failure means for them.
Akram Khan: In that year there was one day where I thought, I’m tired of being a failure, how do I use my failure to be my strength; so I started to play on my failures.
Tracy Chevalier: It’s an unsung problem that we all face going to a gallery or a museum, and you get tired almost the moment you walk in or after five minutes; and I have tried to let myself off the hook a little bit.
Narrator: The Art of Protest was produced by Sarah Cuddon and Alia Cassam. It was a Falling Tree production for Tate, with music from Camilo Tirado and the Cabinet of Living Cinema. The reader was me, Thalissa Teixeira. With special thanks to all our contributors. To find out more about Tate podcasts visit Tate.org.uk/podcasts, or subscribe in Apple podcasts or Acast.