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Contemporary Theatre Review – Activist Performance

25.3 cover; image: What Does This Country Kill in You? Syntagma Square, June 2011: photo by Stephanos Magriotis.This blog was set up as part of a research project on activist performance. Between May 2013 and May 2014, a variety of contributors posted documentation of activist performance gestures past and present. Work on this blog and through a series of events has led to a special issue of the journal Contemporary Theatre Review Theatre, Performance and Activism: Gestures towards an Equitable WorldThere is also additional content available on the Contemporary Theatre Review Interventions site.

Dani Alves: a Banana Used As a Banana


Barcelona full-back Dani Alves recently made headlines by eating a banana during his team’s league game at Villrreal’s El Madrigal stadium. While the football press is frequently guilty of giving undue exposure to the minutest of insignificant minutiae, this was not one of those occasions: the banana had been thrown in Alves’ direction by a fan in what has been unanimously accepted (and subsequently penalised) as a racist gesture. Alves’ unique deflation of this long-standing trope of sporting white suprematism has thus been read as a shot in the arm for football’s faltering anti-racist movement. With a swiftness characteristic of media flows in 2014, Alves’ response generated a visual meme – players like his teammate and Brazilian compatriat Neymar Jr., Sergio Aguero, Robert Lewandowski and Luis Suarez all published selfies in which they were depicted on the verge of tucking into a banana – as well as the Twitter hashtag “#somostodosmacacos” (we are all monkeys).

There are of course issues with this fallout. The eventual inclusion of Suarez in the selfie campaign – the Liverpool striker remains unrepentant after being found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra on the field of play in 2011 – highlighted for some the tokenistic nature of this show of solidarity. As Jude Wanga pointed out in a column for the Independent, the impact of attempts by players like Suarez to join in attempting to ‘reclaim’ the insult launched against Alves is minimal, since these players are socially situated on the side of the abusers, not the abused. Musa Okwonga characterised a wave of responses to the event in asking that the conditions which allowed the culprit to feel ‘comfortable enough’ to make such a public gesture be examined: the affirmatory nature of the selfie and hashtag campaigns, so the implication goes, is hardly the sharpest critical tool. Finally, it was suggested some days after the incident that the ensuing campaign had actually been premeditated by Alves along with his teammate Neymar, and carried out with the help of advertising agencies Loducca and Meio e Mensagen. As reported by Spanish sports daily AS, Alves and Neymar had resolved that if a banana were ever thrown in their direction during a game, they would make sure to be seen eating it, subsequently leveraging these images for their social media potential.

Does it matter that Alves’ response was not spontaneous, or that it was conceived with its own mimetic capabilities in mind? Straightforwardly, the event’s premeditation points with even greater clarity to the need for action on racism in Spanish football than the single, central offensive gesture ever could: it reveals the absolute assurance on the part of two men of colour that they will be racially abused in their workplace in the immediate future. Furthermore, the planned nature of the gesture does not erase its peculiar force, which is one aspect of this story that has gone relatively unremarked upon. While newspapers broadly pre-empted the banana selfie campaign by enshrining Alves’ reaction as an iconic moment in football’s ongoing anti-racist struggle, few really paused to consider the singularity of this incident: Alves did not simply renounce the slur, after all, or call out the individual who had thrown it in the manner of Australian Rules footballer Adam Goodes’ intervention in an game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last May. He peeled and ate the banana, not only mushing it into a non-sigifying pulp but digesting it in the process. If the response of white players like Suarez, Aguero and Lewandowski erred on the side of safety, then Alves’ was a particularly and pointedly risky strategy: as many have pointed out, the Barcelona player had no way of knowing that the banana had not been poisoned, laced with razor blades or some such. Even if the chances of a stadium attendee being sufficiently motivated to commit such an extreme act seem slim, the generalised paranoia regarding stadium security can never truly allow such possibilities to be precluded.

Alves’ gesture – perhaps particularly now that we know it was premeditated – opens itself up to multiple readings besides the PR-mandated one. Marcel Duchamp provides us with an opening: the pioneer of the use of “found objects” in visual art once advised that it should be possible to conceive of ‘reciprocal readymades’ like a Rembrandt canvas used as an ironing board. This gesture would serve to prick the bubble of artistic aura in an even more directly confrontational way than Duchamp’s attempt to display an upturned urinal in a major New York art institution in 1917. To convert an object suffused with expressive and cultural significance back into a state of blunt facticity – to swap exchange value for use value, in other words – is to perform a kind of alchemy in reverse. In a similar way, the banana thrown at Dani Alves, once peeled and chewed, suddenly underwent a dramatic structural shift, metamorphosing from symbolic prop with the capacity to wound to dumb, factitious foodstuff with the capacity to nourish. Racism of course perseveres in inescapably concrete ways, but for one tiny moment its symbolic basis was held up as fragile, easily rendered hollow by an unexpected act of wilful misreading.

There is a second figure of the early 20th century whose writing ties up wilful misreading with gustatory metaphors, and he is Brazilian to boot. Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 ‘Manifesto Antropófago’ (Cannibalist Manifesto) famously argued that Brazilian culture was formed on the basis of a “cannibalising” of colonial cultures. Here Oswald drew romantically on mythologies around the supposedly man-eating indigenous tribes of the Brazilian coast, but did so in the name of avant-garde renewal. As Liladhar Ramchandra Pendse argues, Oswald’s “cannibalism” is not the same as simple ideological internalisation, since ‘during anthropophagic discourse, we see a qualitative modification of the internalized values’ – elite texts are chewed up to provide sustenance for a new, self-asserting postcolonial body. In a much-repeated excerpt, Oswald mushes Shakespeare together with the name of a native Brazilian tribe known for their anthropophagic rituals since the Bard’s own epoch of colonial expansion: ‘Tupi or not Tupi’. Dani Alves’ bananaphagy, we can argue, has more than a little in common with this line: Alves is assailed from the point of white privilege with a symbol casting him as inescapably other, and his misappropriation is just so.

This article was originally published by Everyday Analysis

Call for proposals – Hazard 2014

Hazard 2014 – Saturday 12 July – Manchester City Centre

Deadline for proposals – Friday 16 May 2014, 6pm

A micro-festival of incidental intervention and sited performance, blurring the boundaries between art and activism… cheeky, thought-provoking and sometimes raunchy sprees of eccentricity…

For a glimpse of previous outbreaks of hazardous behaviour see here.

Hazard is  seeking proposals for a daytime event (Saturday 12 July 12noon-5pm) work that:

• intervenes in public spaces in the city centre;

• is socially engaged, and/or conceptually motivated;

• is low- or no-tech and self-sufficient;

• is interactive and playful – which could mean anything from street/urban/pervasive games to playful spectacles;

• we will give bonus points for creative engagement with the idea of hazard – chance, danger, risk, and/or use of yellow+black tape!

Honorarium/expenses (£2-300 per piece) available, to be negotiated on an individual basis.  For projects needing significantly more money, please contact to talk it through first.

Deadline: Friday 16 May 2014, 6pm

For more information & to apply visit

Hazard is presented by Word of Warning, produced by hÅb + The Larks in collaboration with the participating artists, a greenroom legacy project

What does this country kill in you?

On April 23th 2010, the Greek prime minister of the time, George Papandreou, announced the official submission of Greece to a programme of international financial aid (that is still in force) from the remote, border-line island of Kastellorizo, idyllically staged for the occasion. Moved by this significant announcement, on the 20th of May, I set up a performance-installation at the maritime promenade of Thessaloniki, in front of the emblematic monument of the city, the so-called “White Tower”. It is worth noting that, in the recent Ottoman past of the city (Thessaloniki had been attached to the Greek state only in 1912), when this monument used to serve as a prison and a place of torture, it was called “Red Tower”, or “Tower of Blood”.

To briefly describe the first version of a work that I would develop during the next two years, I had enacted the persona of a “tsoliás”, a “National guard,” lying in a “coffin” made of cardboard. The participants were invited to respond to the question “what does this country kill in you?” Although they have been invited to also vocalise these responses, in their great majority they had offered manuscripts, drawings, and other objects that were placed next to my body, as grave goods or written dirges. At the end of the piece, I took off the “tsoliás” dress; threw collyva (a wheat-based food that in the Balkans is traditionally offered to the dead) at the spectators; poured red wine with honey and spices on the ground; read out loud people responses; ripped and burnt all my personal belongings; coloured my face and hands with ash; packed the grave goods that had been offered me in the coffin, that was now my luggage, and walked to the edge of the seafront where I stood in stillness, waiting for darkness.

Things have been radically different during the final version of this work, on the 28th of June 2011, at Syntagma square. This is the central square of Athens, situated right in front of the Greek parliament, which has previously been the palace. It takes its actual name (Syntagma=Constitution) by the Revolution of 3/09/1843 that forced the King Othon I to approve a Constitution. In May and June 2011, Syntagma Square had been occupied by citizens manifesting against the new set of austerity measures lanced by the government. On the 28th of June 2011, in the Greek Parliament, the “Medium-Term Economic Program” was about to be voted, proposing a new set of austerity measures. In the square, thousands of people were assembled in a 48-hour protest against the new measures. Given the specificity of the occasion, the description of that day seems to be a particularly hard task. The images produced have been used and abused by the media; or, worse still, they have been turned into aestheticised advertising clichés such as the Time’s campaign the Protester: Person of the Year 2011. Yet for me that day’s images have been committed to memory like tears of a misty glass, through the distorted view of my tear-gas affected eyes.

Thus, let me focus on the soundscape. I can still recall the flash-bangs, intermittent, menacing; the ambulance sirens; the numerous human voices singing, shouting or screaming, chanting slogans or speaking, or drowned out in an unstoppable cough; there was not only tear, but also asphyxiant gas. Some moments, Syntagma square gave the impression of a battle-field. There is one image that remains anchored in my mind: in the middle of a square full of gas –the colour of the air altered, the cityscape oddly pale– I am wearing a mask, and so is the person in front of me; he is playing percussion with a manic stubbornness; we dance, like frantic zombies, or weird birds navigating a lethal fog; breathless.


6:00 p.m. Things seemed to be slightly calmer. This time there were three of us. Again, dressed like the national guards that stand at attention in front of the Parliament, on the left and the right side of a cenotaph, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. Unlike them though, we were wearing oxygen masks and covering our faces with maalox, a white antacid that offers protection against tear-gas. We stepped down the stairs in the direction of the lower part square. Looking at our action, most people demonstrated overtly their approval through full praise and applause. We reached the centre of the square and stood there, mirroring the guards. We took turns to lie in a “coffin,” our simulacrum of the cenotaph. There was lying our own ‘grave goods’. Next to the “coffin”, people could read a set of instructions that invited them to document their own losses and then place these offerings inside.

Now, from the perspective of lying prostrate on the floor, the soundscape of the riot seems to us like a sort of enveloping dome, while the faces of those approaching the ‘coffin’ take a somewhat oval form, as if they are being filmed from a low angle. The sounds of police stun-grenades and of human voices raised in anger or despair interweave with the sound of songs performed somewhere behind us, in a series of concerts put up in support of the demonstration.

Our actions are inserted in, and at the same time dispersed among, everything else that is taking place; and still we have the feeling of a sonic vortex or aspirator around us. In the midst of the hubbub, protesters pause and write something down, or draw a picture; some of them come to hug us, silent. More tear-gas. People are asking for Maalox; we share the bottle; people spread the liquid on their faces, or swallow it.

8:00 p.m. More stun-grenades; the situation seems to be getting out of control. More gas. Protesters starts fainting. Somebody falls into the ‘coffin’. The ambulance stretcher needs space to pass through. We quickly put people’s responses in our ‘luggage’ and we stop. The show must not go on; in this case, in both senses of the word end, the “ends of performance” lied susp-ended

During the days that followed the performance, the aforementioned approval left me an almost disquieting feeling. My intention -and this of my comrades- with this work was to create different reactions and reflections, keeping a great space for ambivalences and irony, rather than imposing a concrete, predetermined meaning; and this dissonance in the feelings of the audience seemed to be always the case in the previous versions. However, within the context of this protest, the feed-back of the great majority seemed to be so overtly identified with what they had perceived as the meaning of the action, apparently a sort of “patriotic” act for the moribund homeland, that it was felt as an almost totalitarian lack of discourse. To put it in other terms, people’s connection with their precarious reality was in this context manifested so strongly that the aesthetic act could only function as a literal affirmation of this precariousness, losing any possibility of indeterminacy.

Fluid Gestures

Jess Allen (University of Manchester), Bronwyn Preece (University of Glasgow)

DiTO Stills 09

Two bottles.  Two messages. Two fresh water sources. Two oceans.  Two tide tables.  Two cameras.  One film.

Two dancers’ bodies separated by skin, screen and sea look out towards the horizon and acknowledge the third that lies between us: the ocean, a body of salt water at the same concentration as their own. They are asking, how do we communicate ecological awareness across distance? How do we reconcile the global and local? And what are the activist possibilities offered by the transformative, immersive alchemy of water + film?

Dropped in the Ocean is a 10-minute split-screen film, the culmination of a two-month exchange of water, writing and movement between us: two eco-feminist artist-activists, living (we were slowly discovering) eerily parallel off-grid lives on either side of the northern hemisphere (Wales/Canada). We were curious about water as a substance, metaphor and medium: a medium of vital ecological process; a medium of communicating ecological consciousness; a medium of connection and collaboration across continents and between selves and site.

This exchange was constructed around the visual, mythical – even whimsical – metaphor of the ‘message in a bottle’: in those old analogue stories, the method of communication employed as a desperate measure, scribed with unwavering hope that someone, near or far, might find it washed ashore and know how to respond. But how much of those messages, that hope was in the dry text itself? How much of the writer’s intention had diffused, osmosed into the surrounding sea water? In the same way, could a message-in-a-bottle be simply water itself – the medium as the message – not to be read but to be drunk, to be taken gratefully into the body to elicit an embodied response…

Bottling it

The fluid gestures of this simple score were as follows:

1)   collect a bottle of one’s local drinking water [spring and tap]
2)   write a message to accompany it
3)   send by sea-mail to the other [Canada – Wales]
4)   wait (excitedly) for water/message to arrive
5)   go to site with water/message that arrived from afar. …what would the message taste like?….how would I respond on     site?… would the other respond to the message(s) [water and written] they received….
6)   video and record the reading of the ‘other’s’ message
7)   pastiche together [one do video compilation, the other audio: then overlay them….see what happens]
8)   watch (get chills by the power of our overlaps)
9)   drink water
10) return to site on World Water Day:
-collect sea water sample at high and low tide in the original vessel
-write poetic message in response to whole process
11) send…
12) wait…
13) read… (get chills)

DiTO Stills 01

Winging it

As two improvisors, it should hardly be surprising that we had planned little.

This we knew: we would film in portrait; we would begin both staring out to sea; we would drink the water and reveal the message the other had sent. That was it. That was all.

How the moments between these elements would be filled, neither of us knew. Until we arrived on site, drank water, read message, all was unknown.  We were not even in a position to anticipate what the other might do, as we had never worked together before.

This we discovered: when our footage was cobbled together – the audio and video material having been edited separately and then combined – there were startling synchronicities. The frequency with which our unrehearsed, un-choreographed gestures aligned – not only with each other but also to what was being spoken – was powerful, chilling, thrilling by turns.

Was this water’s own activist gesture, emerging through the medium of human?

Activism as fluid

As two ecological performance artists, perhaps it was inevitable… but what began as something we believed to be our own (inter)personal exploration of this medium – and its physical/biological/cultural/geographical presence and resonance in our own and each others’ lives – became, through this torrent of transnational coincidences, an overtly activist film.

Through expressing to each other – in what began as a private exchange – our very personal concerns, hopes and fears for water, and then mediating the medium by subsequently filming our fluid responses, something somehow became magnified and politicised.

Perhaps it was the sunlight focused into fire through the lens of the bottle’s glass. Perhaps we fell victim to our own alchemical experiment. Or perhaps the water weathered our perceptions, re-shaping our ideas of what activism looks like, feels like, moves like.

Fluid Gestures

became a metaphor and illustration of how, together, we were pulling the pendulum away from the performative/associative gestures of tension and conflict as the markers of activism, towards the gentle: our activism became an investigation of similarities, commonalities, need and desire.

 Water (h)as gesture

In this way, Dropped in the Ocean is an aquatic, activist gesture of simplicity.

The biological need for water is, after all, the most ultimately humbling: a cross-species leveling device that conspires to connect, whether we wish or choose to acknowledge that or not. Through the medium of water, our gestures were aligned and through the medium of the body, water has gesture.

DiTO Stills 06

Prefiguration in contemporary activism

Please feel free to circulate information about this event …


Prefiguration in Contemporary Activism


A CIDRAL Workshop


University of Manchester, 4th December 2014



Call for Papers


Prefiguration involves experimentation with ways of enacting the principles being advocated by activist groups in the here and now. ‘Prefigurative politics’ collapses traditional distinctions between means and ends in political action, and focuses attention on the possibility of realising change in the present. As Marianne Maeckelbergh explains, ‘prefiguration holds the ends of political action to be equally important as the means, and has the intention (over time, or momentarily) to render them indistinguishable’ (Maeckelbergh 2009: 88). The concept of prefiguration stimulates a focus on the form as much as aims of activism, and creates a context for thinking about how a radically democratic political process might be reinvigorated, both in the processes of political action and the broader public sphere. Prefigurative politics allows for tactics and strategies of activism to be improvised anew in response to changing environments, supporting an open process of learning and adaption which ensures that, in each moment of action, ‘the possibility for another world exists’ (Maeckelbergh 2009: 229).


Much of the literature on prefiguration explores organisational and structural issues, such as the ways in which activist groups create in their own interactions and practices a model of the society they envision (often non-hierarchical, non-representational, respectful of diversity, and based on a logic of solidarity). We invite potential contributors to present research focusing on these issues, and we also hope to include contributions that explore how this definition of prefiguration might be extended so as to encompass textual, visual, performative and aesthetic practices that prefigure activist principles and actualise them in the present. The emergence of the global justice movement in the late 1990s signalled a ‘cultural turn’ in contemporary activism (Amoore 2005: 357). Modes of activism now commonly embrace the cultural, artistic and theatrical as a means of drawing attention to, experimenting with and projecting new modes of being in the here and now. The extension of the notion of prefiguration to include the cultural domain support a stimulating range of conversations about contemporary forms of activism that traverse disciplinary boundaries.


The workshop is aimed primarily at doctoral students. Apart from the keynote presentation, the event will feature presentations by doctoral students whose work engages with the proposed theme.


We invite proposals for paper presentations (20 minutes) inspired by this theme. Please submit your name, university department or other organisational affiliation, title of proposal and 300-word abstract to Mona Baker (, Jenny Hughes ( and Rebecca Johnson ( by Monday 16th June 2014.


We are delighted to announce that the keynote speaker for this event is Marianne Maeckelbergh (Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University, Netherlands, and co-founder of Global Uprisings, see


The workshop is followed (on 5th December) by a half-day masterclass for PhD students, led by the keynote presenter (unfortunately – due to restrictions on space – the masterclass is open to PhD students based at the University of Manchester only).


This event is hosted by Citizen Media Manchester (




The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Arts and Languages ( 


Citizen-led science: Time, Contagion and Immunity

HIV virus attacking T Cell

I grew up collecting newspaper articles on viruses, specifically, HIV and the influenza virus. I have no idea how or why this started. But soon I had many images of viruses, and the articles talking about them, filed away in a red box, separated by index cards. I probably have it somewhere, stored amongst old photographs, letters, music certificates and lego bricks. It wasn’t the text that interested me but the images – like this one above – HIV virus attacking an immune cell.

I had this dream that somehow, collecting these viruses and looking at them from time to time, would take my mind somewhere.

It is no surprise then, that i ended up a scientist, in a lab, looking at cells and taking photographs of them down a microscope. When you work in a lab, you often do timelapse experiments, at hourly intervals 0h, 3h, 8h, 16h, 24h and so on, which also means you have to repeat these experiments over and over, to see the story the experiments tell you over time – at each time point, is the same reading recorded?


Being tied to time in this way, means you have weird hours, you are taken out of the 9 to 5 of everyday life. This, is something, now i think back to being a kid, is very ‘me’. One christmas, the whole family was given a ZX81 Computer by our next door neighbour, a teacher. It plugged into a black and white tv. This gift opened up a whole new world for our family. We could now watch TV in a room other than the living room (and watch anything we wanted!?) and at night time, when everyone else was asleep i could plug the TV into the computer and play computer games. The ZX81 was pretty limited in terms of the kind of games it could play (i yearned for a ZXspectrum and a commodore 64) and in the end what was more fun, was programming the computer to play games.

As time went on, it needed more memory, to be able to do what i wanted it to do, and eventually, i don’t know how, it became infected with some kind of virus. It meant that you could only get so far, programming, working something out and then … crash the virus would take over the screen… This was before the time of anti-virus programmes and that kind of thing.

Inbetween my timelapse experiments, i would go to the cinema and watch movies at the cornerhouse cinema. I remember coming out from watching pictures glowing in the dark, to returning to darkness and going into an empty building to harness cells, to stain them and make them visible and taking photos. And then counting the living and the dead cells and recording that in a lab book.

My other hobby, was photography – again, taking pictures, going into a dark room, doing some kind of alchemy to make an image reveal itself – the invisible becomes visible.

I am wondering about the gesture in this – science aside – and where it leads a person – working in the dark, obsessed with the pattern of what happens, not the feeling of what happened or the people in between.

And now i am facilitating citizen science (see related links to similar projects run by others – i am not alone!), where the public not only shape scientific thinking, collect and create meaning from data, but come with their own questions, own experiments, and perspectives. I wonder about the gesture of this.  Could it be transformative? What do ordinary folk, non-scientists, bring to science that the scientist might not? What does the scientist glean from this? How are we shaped by this? And of course, i am looking for patterns in the gesture, the dance, the rhythm, the language that develops, and maybe some kind of revelation that a ‘people’ virus, infiltrating scientific thinking and practice, might bring… something i hope scientists won’t try to develop immunity to.

Related links



Art and Oil in a Cool Climate (part 2)

Thanks to Steve Bottoms for permission to reproduce this post here. It was originally posted on the Performance Footprint blogsite –


Further to my comments about Platform/Liberate Tate’s Tate a Tate audio guides in the post preceding this one, I want to attempt (belatedly) to unpack some thoughts about another of Liberate Tate’s 2012 interventions, The Gift. I was unable to experience this event first-hand, so my responses to it have been shaped by my access to its documentation — specifically to two videos posted online, the first by Linkup Films, the second on “Vice News” . (You can click on the links to view the films before reading the commentary that follows — or, since there’s some contextualising preamble first, you can wait until I get to The Gift itself, at which point the links will be embedded again.)


What interests me here is specifically the conjunction of (that which is called) activism and (that which is called) art in Liberate Tate’s practice. Their approach suggests a certain frustration and/or boredom with conventional protest methods (placards, marches, etc.), and a determination to combat the Tate with its own tools – those of contemporary art. The implication (which Tate a Tate made explicit) is that these activists are seeking to act as (or to spur on) the “awakening conscience” of Tate – but that in order to be persuasive they need to demonstrate an understanding of Tate’s own business which is equal (or ethically superior?) to that of the institution itself.

I have every sympathy for this laudable approach, but as a critic I’m also very interested in the fact that – and the ways in which – art and activism are different things. Activism is and must be predicated on the assumption that specific interventions can have a material, causal impact on political realities (“because we have manifested protest or dissent about a particular issue, you are compelled or constrained to act differently…”). Conversely, art might be defined as an activity that stands aside from the everyday causal chain – indeed is explicitly “framed” as separate from it (since it is the framing and naming that makes it definable as art). Though it might well prompt thought and reflection in the viewer/reader/spectator, we cannot predict precisely what kind of response an individual will have to an artwork, let alone what “real world action” the individual might be prompted to take – though this is not to say that such action will not occur. (I am making some pretty big generalisations here, obviously, but bear with me… For more detailed consideration of these propositions about art, see Jacques Ranciere’s essay “The Paradoxes of Political Art”, which I am drawing from here, albeit fast and loose…)

Now, art might usefully be in cahoots with activism, insofar that its role is often to affect or challenge our habituated perceptions of the world around us — to oblige us to look at things from an alternative angle or perspective. Alterered perception might very well be a necessary pre-requisite if an individual is to be prompted to take action on a particular issue (“I’d never thought of it like that before… hmm… this has consequences for me…”). But the paradox is that art itself does not and cannot prompt specific action — where activism precisely seeks to.

As I write this, I’m conscious that – considered in the abstract – these statements may seem to be creating a problem where there maybe wasn’t one to start with. But let me be more specific, and turn to some particulars of Liberate Tate’s art-activist practice as it has developed over the last few years. The group’s first action, License to Spill (June 2010) is the one that reads most readily as an activist gesture:


This action took place shortly after the catastrophe of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and occurred at the threshold of Tate Britain — just as, inside the building, a party was being held to mark the 20th anniversary of BP’s sponsorship of Tate Galleries. In this context, even without explanatory text, the image and the statement could hardly be clearer: pouring a messy, oil-like substance all over the place from cans labelled with the unmistakeable BP logo, Liberate Tate were “bringing the spill home” and confronting Tate with the implications of their too-cosy relationship with BP.

The action was tailored to attract press attention, which it certainly did, thanks to the boldness and clarity of the image. But I would argue that, precisely because it reads so clearly and unambiguously as “activist protest”, License to Spill might be tricky to classify as “art” in any richer, perception-affecting sense.  It says, in effect, “we are angry about this” (justifiably so!), and in that respect it is close kin to the protest placard.

But skip forward a couple of years, and Liberate Tate’s actions seem to tend increasingly toward the “artistic” end of the dichotomous spectrum I’ve been proposing. Indeed, quite unlike the mess on the steps of Tate Britain, the Tate a Tate audio tours (made in collaboration with Platform and Art Not Oil) are invisible to the general public. In order to experience them, one needs to make the quite conscious decision to seek out the relevant website, download the content, and take oneself to the Tate Galleries to experience the recordings in situ. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone other than those already in sympathy with the creators’ aims and concerns would go to all this trouble (unless, perhaps, they were assigned as reviewers, or sent by their teachers?). In effect, then, Tate a Tate was largely designed to preach to the choir, and as such has an extremely limited impact in terms of “activism” per se.

One should not, of course, underestimate the value of preaching to the converted: it happens in church every week, and its function is to build and consolidate a sense of shared identity and commitment. One should be careful, however, not to merely keep repeating the same messages that one’s congregation has heard before. For me, the audio-tour of Tate Modern felt too obvious and too familiar in its statements about oil sponsorship of the arts – and its various pronouncements bore only a rather tendentious relationship to the paintings it invited participants to look at. As such, it was (again, for me) far less affecting and memorable than the tour of Tate Britain, with its creative conceit of imagining the whole building as a “Panaudicon” (because the Panopticon of Millbank Penitentiary once stood on this site), and of looking through paintings to hear things that are removed in time and space from the immediate surroundings of the gallery, but are being (re)connected to it. As I explained in some detail in the previous blog post, my perceptions and perspectives were challenged and altered by this experience. This was art doing its work, in supportive relation to (an already assumed sympathy with) activism.

Which brings me to The Gift – an action I have huge admiration for, and which fascinates me in part because its relationship to the art/activism dichotomy is so awkwardly blurred. On the face of it, this has all the trappings of an activist intervention: a group of like-minded protesters descend on Tate Modern at a prearranged time and force their way into the Turbine Hall to “deliver” a “gift” that the gallery has decidedly not asked for. Unlike License to Spill‘s molasses, however, the delivery itself — a decommissioned wind turbine arm — bears no clear visual or symbolic connection to the issue being protested (i.e. oil sponsorship of the arts). Of course, the links are there as soon as one stops to think about it for oneself — i.e. an implied support for renewable energy sources over the continuing extraction of fossil fuels; an alternative kind of “gift” to the moneys solicited from BP. There is also a linguistic pun at work here (a wind turbine arm for the turbine hall of a former power station), and of course a referencing of a whole history of objets trouves that have been reframed as modern / contemporary art – from Duchamp’s urinal on down. The windmill arm, like the urinal, is an everyday object which is conventionally valued only for its uses, but which, when de- and re-contextualised within the frame of art, becomes manifestly useless. Instead, attention is invited to its particular form, colour, contours – as an unlikely sculptural object. Liberate Tate, playing the art game to the hilt, even presented the gallery with the legal papers required to submit an artwork to the national collections: the turbine blade, these papers proposed, should be newly defined as both an art object in its own right and as documentation of a performance action (i.e. the thing delivered stands in as evidence of its delivery). Tate was thus legally compelled to consider whether or not the item should be accepted for its collections. Eventually they declined it, although the smarter move would probably have been to accept it (the institution would thereby have  absorbed and accommodated protest against itself into its own narrative – but perhaps that would also have been to give too much recognition to the issue being protested?).

From an artistic point of view, I find all this fascinating – and it’s almost tailor-made for seminar discussion with students (I’ve used these videos in class on two or three occasions already). But the question of definition remains: is this indeed an activist gesture, if the thing being protested about remains obscure or unclear without supporting explanation? Had I been an innocent bystander at Tate Modern that day, unfamiliar with Liberate Tate’s objectives, I would have seen a group of (mostly white) young people forcing their way past a phalanx of security guards (many of them people of colour), in order to bring in and assemble a large white object in three component parts. I could probably be forgiven for not even realising that the large white object was a wind turbine blade, unless someone told me — and I could certainly be forgiven for not realising that this strange event had anything to do with oil.

The videos themselves illustrate the issue with great clarity. In the first, the event is framed in a way that very much emphasises the aesthetic dimensions of the event and object. There is even a stirring musical score – apparently performed live on Millennium Bridge during the approach, as well as being used non-diegetically to overlay the video edit.  Here, no explanation for the event is offered until close to the end of the film, at which point a voice-over connects the action with the Damien Hirst exhibition that was then taking place in Tate Modern’s pay-per-view galleries. It is suggested (not unreasonably) that the values of art having become confused with the value of money. In this context, we are therefore invited to read the arrival of the wind turbine as being – quite literally and pointedly – art for art’s sake  (i.e. art should be valued in terms of its invention and ingenuity rather than by its price tag). No mention is made of oil at any point in the film: the issue simply does not feature.

In the second video, right from the first caption, a much clearer connection is made between the delivery of the blade and the stated activist objectives of Liberate Tate. The form of the video, placed on an internet “news” site, is that of a documentary: as such, it eschews the consciously aestheticized form of the first video in favour of appearing to offer a relatively unmediated window into the planning of, and motives behind, the performance. Indeed, we hear the event’s orchestrator, Tim (no last name is given, in keeping with the group’s general preference for anonymity),  explaining that The Gift has been conceived as a self-conscious alternative to “holding a placard up”: despite appreciating the value of such traditional activist methods, he feels unsatisfied and creatively unfulfilled by them. It’s worth noting, however, that the placard at least has the advantage of being explicit about what is being protested. The further one moves across this putative spectrum between that which is clearly activism and that which is clearly art, the more open to personal interpretation one’s gestures become.

I would argue that, as a performative gesture, The Gift remains radically ambiguous in its meaning and intentions unless it is clearly underlined by supplementary, explanatory text (as this second video does). There is of course a distinguished artistic pedigree for the art object or performance standing in crucial juxtaposition to a title or verbal statement (one thinks, for example, of conceptual art works such as Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree – which without its textual component is simply a glass of water). But if we’re proposing that the action needs to be read in relation to a statement, then we’re again underlining the status of this work in relation to a genealogy of conceptual/performance art. Is it also, categorically speaking, an activist gesture? Or might we might argue that The Gift borrows and performs the combative trappings of a protest action, but ultimately treats them artistically, in terms of mimetic quotation (just as it also quotes/invokes interventions in the history of art by Duchamp et al) ?

To put this another way… Might it not be the case that some readers/spectators (perhaps those more drawn to the first video than the second) might find the explanation about oil sponsorship entirely redundant to an appreciation of the gesture itself? Potentially, such a spectator might feel that the quality of intrigue that characterises the unadorned gesture has in some way been spoiled by the supplementary explanation of it (rather like a good joke being spoiled by a poor punchline.)

So what exactly makes this an activist gesture? License to Spill succeeded in those terms through the visceral and timely clarity of its statement about oil: its demand on Tate was crystal clear. Conversely, the Tate Britain end of Tate a Tate succeeded as an aesthetic, perceptual experience by importing reflections on the history of oil exploitation into the pristine cleanliness of the gallery. Yet whether in terms of art or activism, The Gift is not clearly “about” oil at all – unless one is told that it is. It is, more obviously, an artistic gesture that cleverly invokes a history of iconoclastic artistic gestures. So it is surely a moot point whether or not it succeeds in Tim’s stated aim of asking Tate to “have a little think” about its relationship with BP.  In purely causal terms, what Tate’s representatives actually had to think about was what it would mean to accept (and to provide storage for) a wind turbine blade, as part of their art holdings. And there is, I would venture, an important difference between the question of sustaining a sponsorship deal, and the question of dealing with an unsolicited gift. It’s even possible that the latter might distract attention from the former: in having to deal, unwillingly, with the awkward material object, Tate might actually be less inclined to deal thoughtfully with the more indirect, reflective questions (around alternative energy sources and alternative sponsorship strategies) that The Gift also purported to be asking.

I would underline here my own sense that The Gift was a rich and intriguing performance action. My reflections on the questions it throws up, however, have led me towards a sharper sense of the tricky questions that artist-activists such as Liberate Tate have to process. One needs to be very clear about what the particular objectives of any given gesture might be – whether political and/or aesthetic – because, again, activism and art are not the same thing, though they may well prove complementary. Without such clarity, one risks making category errors and, perhaps, assuming a certain causal efficacy where only open readership pertains. Jacques Ranciere makes a similar point in terms that seem particularly pertinent to The Gift (even if they may not ultimately apply):

“In ‘activist’ art nowadays a clear trend has emerged that relies on the reality of occupying an exhibition space as a way of proving the real effects of the social order.  [Such gestures characteristically draw] on the combined effects of the self-evidence of sculptural presence, action in the ‘real world’ and rhetorical demonstration. But it may well be that . . . the more [art] professes to be engaging in a form of social intervention, the more it anticipates and mimics its own effect. Art thus risks becoming a parody of its alleged efficacy.” (Jacques Ranciere, “The Paradoxes of Political Art”)


The new chavs? By Roger MacGinty

In December 2012, Belfast City Council banned the flying of the Union flag outside of City Hall except on designated holidays. The decision caused uproar among Protestant-unionists who saw this as yet another erosion of their identity. And so began the ‘flags dispute’, with protesters regularly blocking roads to draw attention to what they saw as a denial of their cultural rights. Most of the protesters were drawn from an urban Protestant working class who see themselves as the political and economic ‘losers’ in the peace process. Whether that ‘loser’ status is merited is hotly debated, but few can deny that the narrative is popular and truly believed by many of the protesters.

Given that the focal point of the dispute is the flag, the protests are inherently performative – if somewhat predictable (there are only so many ways that one can wave a flag). But an interesting development has arisen – a web-based group that is attempting to parody the flag protesters. Called ‘Loyalists Against Democracy’ (, the group is anonymous and seems to come from within the Protestant-unionist community.  They have a wonderful collage of flag protesting images set to a Primal Scream soundtrack:

On one level it is a marvelous critique of the flags dispute, and is quite clear in its opinion of those who cause disruption and those who lead them. But there is also something a little insidious going on too. The video contains a lot of classist profiling. It is reminiscent of the way, a few years ago, that English popular culture re-popularised the notion of ‘the chav’. Originally a derogatory term for gypsies, the term ‘chav’ became a more general derogatory term applied to people deemed to be ‘cheap’, tasteless, or tacky. But there was something else located in the signaling associated with the term ‘chav’. It was also a descriptor of the poor – working class, underclass, cheaply attired or engaged in inexpensive and ‘uncultured’ social pursuits.

Watching the LAD video, it is clear that there has been a judicious splicing of the video shots to show the flag protesters as being ‘chavy’: dressed in sports-related clothes, speaking ungrammatically, drinking cheap lager in public, home-dyed hair, and police mugshots. That is not to say that none of these elements were present. It is, instead, to highlight that there is classism running through the LAD video. There is a danger that this parody strays into the territory of the safe middle classes looking down on economically less fortunate groups. The automaticity in which those of a ‘lower’ socio-economic group are deemed as illegitimate or less valuable to society is cause for concern.

Walking to Beijing


Lei Chuang on his way to Beijing.

Lei Chuang on his way to Beijing.

Shortly after his postgraduate graduation this year, Lei Chuang started off his walking journey from Shanghai to Beijing for the petition to include Hepatitis B drugs into the national list of essential drugs and reduce the economic burden of HBV sufferers. The journey took 80 days and covered 1552 kilometers. On 13th September 2013, Lei arrived at Beijing and submitted his petition letter to the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

There are approximately 130 million Hepatitis B virus (HBV) carriers in China, one third of the world’s HBV carrier population. HBV sufferers face severe discrimination especially in employment and education. Lei himself is a HBV carrier. Before this walking journey, he is already well known for his creative activities to fight for equal rights for HBV carriers, for example, a letter a day to invite the Chinese Premiere for dinner (he’s going to send the 1000th letter later in December), and sending 10 kilograms of pears (yali, sounds like ‘pressure’ in Chinese) to a local human resource department to protest HBV checks in employment.

Regarding his latest action of walking to Beijing, Lei explains in one of his recent talks that the act of walking can create pure and friendly connections and, thus, also becomes a positive attempt to change the prevalent fear and mistrust among people in the Chinese society. Before and during the journey, Lei kept close communication with the outside world through Weibo (a popular social media in China), and made it accessible for others to join the journey in a range of ways. Over the 80 days, there were more than 40 volunteers from all over the country, including Lei’s father and a disable friend, who came to walk with Lei for different sections of the journey. Numerous people donated food and money, offered lifts (however, all lifts were kindly rejected), signed on the petition, or just chatted with them. In return, Lei and his companions tried to wave and smile to each passerby, and even shared food with the homeless on their way. However, not every smile attracted equal reaction. For several times, Lei felt threatened by drunkards and suspected robbers. Such dangers can be very common in the complicated situations during the long journey. Lei seems more willing to prove the pure relationship among people by his safe arrival and all the help he got during the process.

Lei Chuang collects signatures along the way.

Lei Chuang collects signatures along the way.

Lei intends to extend this interpersonal relationship to the government. He chose to travel in the most strenuous way of walking during the hottest days of the year. In his words, he wanted to ‘touch the hearts’ of the government through arduousness. Lei might be one of the thousands of petitioners (no official statistics) travelling to Beijing. For thousands of years, when Chinese people wanted to express grievance and seek justice, they tended to go directly to higher authorities. In today’s society, there are petition bureaus in different levels of governments. Travelling to Beijing to express grievance to the highest authority, rather than resort to normal legal procedures, is still a strong belief for many Chinese people. However, the petition system itself is a big problem. As the petitioner population has been rapidly increasing since 1990s, governments at various levels attempt different methods to block petitioners on their way to Beijing, including illegal detainment and imprisonment in ‘black jails’. In the desperately worsening situations, some petitioners resort to radical and violent means for expression. Many petitioners might also want to ‘touch the hearts’ of the officials with their grievances, anger and helplessness. However, Lei intended to spread a more positive energy. Arduousness has nothing to do with weakness or vulnerability. Instead, it is a process of accumulating power. Moreover, Lei and his companions often made fun of each other and appreciated the scenic views along the way. They turned the arduousness into a funny and happy journey. In Lei’s words, what he wanted to transmit is the power of happiness.


Lei Chuang brings an aloe during his journey, which he thinks represents hope. The Chinese characters read: don't forget to smile when you are going; it is smile that makes us powerful.

Lei Chuang brings an aloe during his journey, which he thinks represents hope. The Chinese characters read: don’t forget to smile when you are going; it is smile that makes us powerful.

Although the idea sounds idealized, Lei is firm and tactful. He believes that rational and non-violent actions, no matter how small it is, can change the society and even the government, which is considered to be the most impersonal organization. In fact, the intertwinement of creative performance and tactful strategies to the government runs through his activities. Lei demonstrates the position as an equal interlocutor and collaborator. He always attempts gain a proactive position by tactically utilizing the existing regulations and laws and artistically leaving room for the officials to respond decently. Long before he set off for the walk, Lei posted the petitioning letter online and made it widespread. During the journey, he kept updating the official department he was going visit with detailed information, so that related officials could have sufficient time to prepare for the reception. Therefore, it might not be difficult to understand the positive results he had achieved: he and his father were formally received by related officials at their arrival and even asked for a group photo after the meeting. Two weeks after their petition, Lei was officially confirmed that the related departments was studying his petitioning letter and would investigate the possibilities of improving the system of essential drugs. It might be a specific case, but in Lei’s cases, such ‘specific’ cases were not uncommon.

Lei does not stop at this point. He continues to campaign for the HBV sufferers through running. Earlier this month, Lei and other volunteers participated in the Guangzhou marathon competition. All of them wore straw hats, which Lei and his companions wore during their walk to Beijing, to demonstrate their attitudes against the discrimination of HBV carriers. Besides, he still keeps watch on the government’s further reaction to his petition. He asserts if the government does not take proper measures to improve the HBV drug system, he will keep walking to Beijing to petition next year.

Related links:

Lei Chuang’s blog:

Lei Chuang’s Weibo:

Video: Lei Chuang’s talk: