On the web version of the Daily Mirror newspaper on 25th August 2011, journalists posted up photographs of bus stops in Manchester decorated to look like bedrooms and living rooms. They called this an ‘art attack’: ‘Artists turned these Manchester shelters into mini houses to highlight how families may lose their homes to banks in the financial crisis’.
Here’s the source:
The ‘art attack’ was part of Upper Space’s Home project (thanks @culturalhijack @grahamjeffery for passing on the source). Upper Space specialise in ‘visual insurrection, intervention and outdoor antics’ – and ‘create unique public realm art projects and interventions that challenge the way we see our streets, cities and environments’. The Home project saw artists working with young homeless people to create street art interventions that critically engaged with the government’s cuts to public spending following the economic crisis. Here’s a link to the project: (with some more photos of other interventions):
The activism here draws attention to the increasing numbers of families under threat of losing their homes because of ‘austerity’, including welfare reforms such as the unspeakably awful bedroom tax (where people living in social housing with a spare bedroom are being forced to pay extra rent – with no means of doing so – or find another home). In Manchester, we are seeing increasing numbers of people on the streets, and also threats to existing services catering for the homeless and those living under threat of losing their homes. A recent campaign to save Narrowgate, the one remaining emergency homeless shelter in Manchester and Salford, experienced a short-term success:
For more information about how the bedroom tax is causing extreme financial stress for the most economically precarious in the country –
As regular readers know, this blog provides a place to explore how the idea of ‘gesture’ might support a discussion about art/theatre/performance as an activist aesthetic. We wanted to create a platform to collect examples of protest gestures and discuss these with artists, activists and researchers.
I want to write a few thoughts about the idea of ‘gesture’ in the context of decorating bus stops. What kind of political efficacy does the gesture of decorating the city in this way have? Upper Space talk really interestingly about pushing at the boundaries of what is possible in public space (see the link above). We might also comment on how the decoration here offers a gentle and ironic yet care-full activist gesture – it renovates a grey space in the city and infuses it with ideas of home, care for living space, domesticity and comfort …
But here I’m going to talk more about decoration as a political act in terms of its associations with the idea of art and theatre as ‘decorative’ (with accompanying associations of superficiality, frivolity, emptiness, lack of utility).
A quick digression – still on this theme – to talk about Antony Gormley’s ‘ONE AND OTHER’ project in 2009 – where the Fourth Plinth on Trafalgar Square in London became a ‘living sculpture’. The plinth was occupied for 100 consecutive days, 24 hours a day, by members of the public who volunteered to stand on it for an hour at a time (people took the opportunity to tell stories or jokes, sit in silence, entertain, draw attention to various causes). Art scholar Claire Bishop disparagingly described this as ‘twitter art’ – she says – ‘in a world where everyone can air their views to everyone we are faced not with empowerment but with an endless stream of banal egos. Far from being oppositional to spectacle, participation has now entirely merged with it’ (Bishop in Nato Thompson, Living as form 40).
This comment, like the idea of the decorative – evokes the phrase ‘empty gesture’. Interestingly, accusations of ‘banality’ – frivolity, theatricality, inauthenticity –are embedded in a long history of antitheatrical prejudice that tend to oppose the banal with a notion of higher truth (and alongside this, also oppose the pure and impure, moral and degraded). Bishop implies that twitter art is banal. But in the project of this blog and the accompanying twitter feed we understand social media platforms as sites for reproducing micro spectacles created by everyday protest gestures in ways that challenge Bishop’s opposition between participation and spectacle …
The ‘theatrical’ – produced by a fluid collection of visual, sensual, material, spectacular gestures – might also be conceptualised as a domain that in some way institutes new possibilities for visualising, living in and moving through public space …
We’re attracted to the idea that gestures have an efficacy that becomes apparent when language isn’t enough – when language is inefficient.
Gestures – in Adam Kendon’s words – ‘may be performed so that they are so elaborated with flourishes that they come to be recognised as having an expressive aspect’ (Adam Kendon 2004 Gesture: Visible action as utterance, Cambridge University Press, p9). Gestures can be decorative, communicative, performative – and in all of these forms, they invite a response.
Lauren Berlant (who drawing on Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben) – describes gesture as a ‘pure mediality that captures a disturbance in the air’. Gesture happens when language (and practical action?) fails to capture its object, and this can reveal the ethical and the political domain in new ways. As such, gestures of protest become especially important when political projects have failed. For Berlant, gestures materialise a space in which we can ask what objects we are willing to use to change the world – and encounter their possibilities and failure:
‘ … the gesture is not a message; it is more formal than that – the performance of a shift that could turn into a disturbance … The gesture does not mark time, if time is a movement forward, but makes time, holding the present open to attention and unpredicted exchange … A situation can grow round it or not, because it makes the smallest opening, a movement-created space’ (Lauren Berlant 2011 Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press p198-9)
In my gesture of blogging and tweeting this gesture of decorating – I repeat the glitch in the system revealed by the original gesture that draws attention to the closure of public services and implementation of punitive welfare reforms (and also draws attention to a lack of public support for austerity policies). In doing so, we create a small suspension of time and space to see if/how/whether these gestures help to realise an alternative situation, ‘truth’, idea, relation, intention …