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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:


Trans-Plantable Living Room: Performing Slow, Growing and Edible Activism through Tea-Time

Co-authored by Lisa Woynarski (Central School of Speech & Drama) & Bronwyn Preece (University of Glasgow)

TY7A20533 performance makers: one from the UK, one from Canada and one from the US. 1 eco-scenographer from Australia and a community-engagement coordinator based in Wales. 1 community allotment garden with 150 volunteers. 17 interviews with community gardeners. All of these elements coalesced to create the Trans-Plantable Living Room: a process and practice of ‘slow performance activism,’ in which seemingly domestic gesture(s) became full of activist potential.


1 part freshly harvested organic mint

1/4 part freshly picked organic sage

1/4 part freshly picked rosemary

In a pot, pour hot water over herbs, cover with a lid, and allow to steep for 20 minutes.

Serve and share with neighbours, friends and community members….sit, sip, reflect and discuss how an inherently local act such as gardening can serve as a global marker for climate change….

Based on a design first realised in Australia by eco-scenographer Tanja Beer, the project existed as part growing experiment, part performance and part tea party, staging 4 performances in Cardiff for World Stage Design, followed by two London performances and an installation. The space, in its first incarnation, was an outdoor, edible living room; and the second manifestation saw the growing living room set indoors. This trans-plantable living room was grown by Riverside Community Allotment in Cardiff, while the London performance featured plants sourced from a series of local urban community gardens, and was activated through performances inspired by interviews with growers, created by Plantable Performance Research Collective: a trans-national group made up of Bronwyn Preece in Canada, Lisa Woynarski in the UK and Meghan Moe Beitiks in the US.

Like the slow food movement, the project sought to foreground the connection between people, food, land and nature; wherein ‘nature’ is not viewed as ‘other’, but rather inextricably connected, the whole of everything that is Earth. We start from the premise that the effects of climate change are, in part, due to the perceived separation between humans and the natural world. Through performance, we were attempting to bridge the divide and highlight the interconnectedness of humans and our surrounding world by literally and symbolically brewing and planting cultural interventions.  The Trans-Plantable Living Room project, by creating an immersive experience in a growing living room aimed to provide a phenomenological experience of gardening, place and community; merging and blurring the lines of outside/inside, the local and the global, gardening and performance, artist and gardener.

IMG_1798We entered this project with a collection of individual questions but with the shared goal of wishing to foster, what Heim calls “occasions for talking together, in public, about nature-human relations,” creating work which would “continue to have effect beyond the event, reverberating in the stories about it, passed along like a slow contagion” (Heim 2003: 184).

We were interested in the coherence and dissonance between an inherently local project, being devised by a team of globe-spanning performance practitioners, most of whom will have never ever set foot on this specific location of British soil until the week before the performance, and most of whom had not met the Wales-based gardeners interviewed for the performance material.  Does geographer Doreen Massey’s thoughts “against localism, but for a politics of place” apply?  Acknowledging that the effects of climate change are increasingly ignoring distinction between local and global, we struggled with what that meant for a trans-national approach and aim to highlight these tensions. How would the process of sharing tea (ironically a plant lovely consumed but not grown in the UK) facilitate the dialogic and diasporic process?

Gardening, particularly urban food growing, has been identified as a strategy for a gesture and site of ecological resilience; that being said, we also recognise gardens as having embedded ironies and contentions within the global context of ecological suitability and adaptability. As with tea, plants are often grown with no original connection to the local ecosystem (for example Russian kale in North America and potatoes in Ireland); unwittingly ‘imported’ plants may have invasive capabilities in new location, acknowledging that labels such native species and origin may contain problematic implications. These sites come with their own set of ecological and ethical imperatives, when one can now grow corn in Wales, or quinoa in Canada, and call it ‘growing local’. As Sally Mackey remarks, ‘historically, allotments are places that are deeply contested’ (2007:184).

To make, serve and drink it is an act of community. This simple gesture has the potential to engage with social, political, ethic and ecology dialogues within the frame of performance. In the Trans-Plantable Living Room, making tea functioned as a performative act, an ecological activist gesture, a form of conflict management and a social induction. Working with the gardeners of Riverside Community Allotments, we quickly realised the importance of the ritual of the tea break. Gardening here was 50% physical labour and 50% tea drinking. Tea, within the process and performance, also contained a number of ironies and tensions, making it a fruitful source of creative debate. We were equally exploring the tension of gardening as control over land while also possessing the ability to connect us to the act of growing and subsequently remind us of our ecological situatedness….to be housed in a series of mere 20-minute, interactive performances at World Stage Design and in London.

Photo 1

Trans-Plantable Living Room embodied a process of slow performance activism through the gesture of making tea – within an edible, growing space – steeping questions into a metaphorical and material tonic

More detailed accounts of The Trans-Plantable Living Room can be found at:


And watch here: ‘trans-planted tea sets’ – a trans-national planting of teapots and teacups, by members of Plantable from each of our separate global locations (made before we met in person in Wales), set to an audio reel of the Welsh Gardeners (whom we had yet to meet)….this video served both as process-building and was incorporated into the London incarnation of the performance.

The teapot that Bronwyn plants in Canada, subsequently made the trip to Cardiff and London: being incorporated into each performance, and returned back to Canada, completing the tea/gardening performance cycle.



Heim, W. (2003) ‘Slow activism: homelands, love and the lightbulb’ in Nature Performed: Environment, Culture and Performance, Szerszynski, B., Heim, W. and Waterton, C. (eds.). Oxford, Blackwell.

Mackey, S. (2007) ‘Performance, place and allotments: Feast or Famine?’. Contemporary Theatre Review, 17: 2, 181-191

Accompanying photos by Nigel Pugh @nspugh


PEOPLE’S ASSEMBLY SPEECH –19th September 2013 – ‘Michele’ from OccupyManchester

I’d like to tell you how I ended up in a shark costume on Market Street the other weekend.

Around two years ago. I was watching the TV and I kept hearing about how my money – my taxes – had been used to bail out banks who’d gambled other people’s money – and lost. While cuts were being talked about – not one banker had been brought to task. I got cross.

Then I read on the Internet  about huge multi-national companies getting round paying their fare share of tax and I got even more cross.

I heard about this group called UK Uncut who were going to go down to town and tell Vodaphone and Top Shop they were a bit cross too.  So very very nervously, I’d never done another like this before, I went to the Arndale, and hung around half in, half out of the action. Some people probably thought I was an undercover police officer  – as I was looking so shifty. What I found was a diverse group of individuals who were also cross and didn’t want to sit at home any more either.

It was all a bit scary so I didn’t do anything else for a while. Then I was working in London for a few weeks and Occupy London set themselves up. More people who were a bit cross about the financial system and the bankers.

After work one evening I nervously went down –  and found another diverse group of people who had also decided that sitting at home wasn’t an option any more. There was a meeting area & learning tent, a library, a canteen. It was a happy, hopeful space where all were welcome.

When I came back home to Manchester I popped down to Occupy Manchester’s second camp and found another group of like-minded people. I struck up friendships and it is these people up here with me who gave me the courage to join in the next action, and the next, and the next – until  – well last week and the shark costume.

We don’t all agree on everything. We have some heated debates – oh yes we do. But what we’ve found is common ground. As humans who want to make the world a better place.

I feel that our colourful and fun way create debate is positive. We dramatise the issue. Give people something to think about. Raise questions.

As an individual it is very empowering and uplifting and it’s FUN! You realise just how many people agree. They beep their horns, they clap as we parade  past. Yes there are those that shout, get a job, though why they assume that because I’m standing round in a shark costume on a Saturday afternoon it means I don’t have a job I’m not sure. There are many more that come up and chat. And every now and then they will join in – and it’s the best feeling when they do.

Using performance to tell a story. To dramatise the situation breaks down barriers. It turns heads and draws people in. It’s non confrontational. People come up and speak to us. Young people ask why we’re dressed up. Little kids laugh. I hope everyone who sees us goes away thinking and discussing what they saw with friends. Raising awareness – and maybe next time they read or hear a news story they’ll question a little more.

There are what, 200 of us in here, there were about 20 of us the other week. We got the message across. Imagine how much fun we could have if everyone here turned up next time!

Be brave, come out on the streets , think of new ways to express yourselves. If you’re scared we’ve got lots of costumes and masks we can lend you !

Occupy Manchester will be present on 29th September []. You won’t be able to miss us. Please come over and join in. Whether you are dressed as a shark or not.


Gestures of Resistance & Exchange

Last night my students from the Academy and and the College came together to perform short pieces of theatre for each other (with reference to The College & the Academy); an event containing processes that were filled with gestures of resistance and exchange.

A few days after the Academy’s hierarchies had approved our proposal to invite the cadets to our College, they realized that their visiting protocols did not permit cadets to ‘come into contact’ with foreign nationals. Although it was talked about as an archaic rule that no one understood any more, the fact that this rule was stated on paper caused some upheaval at the Academy. Were their cadets going to come into contact with non-Indian students; with the ‘Other’? Would these young men flirt with the young (non-Indian) women that they were going to meet, and God forbid, exchange email addresses and phone numbers? What if these ‘non-Indians’ would somehow tarnish the discipline of the Indian cadets?… Gestures of resistance abounded in the two weeks prior to last night’s show — gestures that while admittedly disingenuous to the people making them, had to be followed as a performance of protocol.  These back and forth conversations of ‘maybe’ and ‘maybe not’ continued until two hours before the cadets actually arrived on campus; so up to the very last moment, we were not sure if our gesture of theatrical exchange would even happen.

But it happened. Somewhere in the Academy’s hierarchies, someone stepped in and ensured that this event took place. So, the cadets came to the College, they performed their piece (a brief overview might be found in the post Gestures of Auto-Ethnography), and students from the College performed a series of scenes/ monologues that they had been working on. The performances were followed by a discussion in which the cadets — who were extremely skeptical about the idea of performing monologues that talked about their lives — were met with positive and appreciative responses as to the honesty of the work. “Your monologues were so personal, so honest, thank you for sharing them”, students from the College said, and were met with amused and sheepish smiles from the cadets who did not believe that their thoughts/ opinions would elicit such a response. “We’ve never done or seen performances like this before”, the cadets responded, “we didn’t know that theatre could be like this.” The two groups of young people talked, walked, chatted — without exchanging email addresses or phone numbers, of course, under the watchful eyes of the Academy’s accompanying faculty — and came away (it seemed) with a sense of appreciation for each other. That although they came from different worlds, somehow, theatre became a gesture of exchange between them.

Whether the Academy will want to pursue this relationship, whether this ‘different’ theatre was something too ‘different’, whether there will be negative outcomes from the cadets’ interactions with students from the College, are all unknowns today. Today we rejoice in the success of this one small gesture of exchange. And tomorrow, well tomorrow we will wait for the gestures of resistance that are sure to return.

Wonder Women: Radical Objects


On 3rd April 1913 three suffragettes – Annie Briggs, Evelyn Manesta and Lillian Forrester- attacked a number of pictures in the Manchester Art Gallery as part of the militant campaign for votes for women. One hundred years later this pivotal moment provided the focus for a commemorative season of events aimed at promoting national awareness of the importance of Manchester as the birthplace of the suffragette movement. The first Wonder Women: Radical Manchester season (henceforth WWRM) consisted of around 40 events which took place at cultural venues across the city to acknowledge, celebrate and commemorate the sacrifices made by many radical women, both historical and contemporary, in the fight for equality.

The Radical Objects project was devised as a method for documenting the first WWRM season. When attending WWRM events, I would ask women to share an object which they were carrying in their handbag or on their person. I recorded the stories hidden within these ‘radical’ objects as a means of generating discussion about what it is to be a woman in Manchester in 2013. I took photographs of the objects and uploaded the images and associated personal stories to the WWRM project blog ( The objects included compasses, toothpaste tubes, 3-way adapter plugs and wine glasses. The associated stories were compelling and ranged from the sentimental to the hilarious.

The initial Radical Objects post sparked a dialogue on Twitter. I began to ask our followers to take their own photographs of the objects within their handbags and to upload them to Twitter so that they could be included on the blog. The result is a digital archive of objects and stories told by the women of Manchester. The objects shared by the ‘ordinary women’ of Manchester are re-appropriated in the Radical Objects project; those items we carry around every day take on new meaning by being associated with a personal history. Feminists have long examined the personal histories and experiences of ‘ordinary women’ as a means to democratise authority and knowledge, to deconstruct the male bias of the historical record, and to tell new stories about the past (Chidgey 2).

A key tenet of the suffragette movement was the notion of reconfiguring everyday objects: ‘The material culture of the movement [banners, badges etc.] was consciously developed and given an importance not usually applied to the ephemeral, or everyday’ (Kean 585). The Radical Objects project seeks to find meaning in the everyday objects in women’s handbags in order to encourage them to reflect upon their role in contemporary society, particularly within a commemorative and reflective season of events.

The WWRM project blog continues to serve as a platform for the exchange of ideas and a place to examine how the city might best commemorate the upcoming centenary of 1918 when women were first granted (partial) suffrage.


Chidgey, Red. “Reassess Your Weapons: the making of feminist memory in young women’s zines”. Women’s History Review. Published online: 15 Apr 2013. Accessed 20 May 2013.

Kean, Hilda. “Public History and Popular Memory: issues in the commemoration of the British militant suffrage campaign”. Women’s History Review, Volume 14, Numbers 3&4, 2005 pp.581-602. Print.