Appropriation in Protest Art

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Janine Georg

How is digital art and technology appropriated, used and abused by artists to reconsider and re‐evaluate the thought of protest today?

Janine Georg is an independent researcher. At the time of publication she was Research and Postgraduate Studies Administrator at Ravensbourne.

The term protest art refers to works created by social movements or activists. These movements engage with a variety of different media, with a main focus on printed objects like banners, posters and signs to convey messages of a particular cause at demonstrations or protests. The digital revolution has transformed the world into an information society not only mediated by, but through technology. The impact of this shift in society has increased the way we consume information and we arrange our daily routines, for example through the use of mobile phones, which have become an important tool of communication, organisation and our social lives. ‘The medium, or process, of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life’ (McLuhan, Fiore and Agel, 2001), therefore the central theme of this paper is how digital art and technology is appropriated, used and abused by artists to ‘reconsider and re‐evaluate’ (McLuhan, Fiore and Agel, 2001) the thought of protest today.

Digital Protest Art (DPA) creates products of non‐linear thinking and re‐invests subjectivity into a society controlled by data and CCTV. The art is characterized by its portability, disposability, ephemerality and is not limited to a specific location. Firstly this paper will discuss the relevance of portability, disposability, ephemerality in DGP based on the work of Troika, and will discuss the significance of location, when looking at the works by digital artist Peter Kennard.

Troika is a London-based artist trio, founded by Eva Rucki, Conny Freyer and Sebastien Noel in 2003. The SMS Guerilla Projector (SGP), made in 2003, is an excellent example for hacked technology. It is made of discarded objects including an outdated mobile phone and an analogue camera lens. The portable device is capable of receiving short messages (SMS) and projecting them onto any given space, like streets, cars, people or even through windows onto private walls and space. Made as part of the group’s Subjective Tools Series, ‘which looked at creating functional devices for irrational desires’ (Freyer, Noel and Rucki, 2008), the SGP encourages mass‐participation by displaying messages of any kind by any person onto any chosen space without giving away the author’s identity.

In Present Pasts, Andreas Huyssen (2003) considers the question of how humans apply discourses of memory in order to understand the essence of everyday life in today’s world, and analyses how those help us to imagine a globalized, consumer driven future. He expresses his interest in the palimpsest in relation to amnesia and memory, looking at architecture, monuments, city spaces, sculptures and literary works. His focus here, however, is not on palimpsests as ‘some imperialism of écriture’, ‘but rather the conviction that literary techniques of reading historically, intertextually, constructively, and deconstructively at the same time can be woven into our understanding of urban space as lived spaces that shape collective imaginaries’ (Huyssen, 2003). Huyssen (2003) engages with philosophical theories by Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, who critique the idea of history being written by its victors. Looking at the palimpsestic nature of projecting images onto any chosen space, it becomes clear that in a society where citizens are for example constantly exposed to advertisement the SGP enables its users to re‐claim space and to challenge the regime of international corporations. By over‐writing the past and illuminating the present, thus for a short time only reconfiguring the power structures of society, the projection onto walls is literally challenging what is set in stone; a globalised consumer driven society (Huyssen, 2003).

Another text based project by Troika is The Tool for Armchair Activists (TAA) (2006), which was developed by the group in collaboration with designer and engineer Moritz Waldemeyer. The TAA can be understood as a phonetic follow‐up piece of SGP, where the difference is that the TAA reads out the messages it receives using a text to speech software (Hartmann, Rössler and Höflich, 2008). Made up of a bullhorn, an old fashioned mobile phone, the devica can be attached to any surface or object, making it an accessible tool for people with lower inhibition to join protests actively from home.

With the aim to ‘instigate debate about art, politics and society’ (Kennard, 2014) the British activist artist Peter Kennard takes a sort of immaterial approach to DPA, where he creates art and makes it freely available for download, print and share on his website. For the June 2013 G8 Summit, Kennard produced a number of re‐worked photomontages from his book @Earth. Kennard’s works include images of a military trooper kicking the world in shape of a football, or a group of wealthy people at a gambling table wagering nuclear warheads. These works are an account for the doubt, fury and despair towards the leaders of the member‐states of the G8, the wealthiest countries in the world. In addition to making the images freely available on his website Kennard encouraged his fellow protesters not only to print, adapt, post and share his images, but to upload them to the Internet. Besides the common use of social networks like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, Kennard also created a tumblr page G8 Protest Posters [by Peter Kennard], where he states: ‘If world leaders insist on assaulting our lives and livelihoods, let’s hit back by assaulting their eyes’ (Kennard, 2013). Going back to the thought of the significance of location, but also looking at the questions of ownership, Kennard’s work raises and at the same time addresses the issues of these questions. If the aim is to get the utmost attention for a specific cause, does it really matter who owns the work?

The aim of this paper was to look at how digital art and technology is appropriated, used and abused by artists to ‘reconsider and re‐evaluate’ the thought of protest today. Looking at the works by the artist trio Troika the focus on the portability, disposability and ephemerality of DPA becomes explicit. Troika’s SGP can be easily related to Huyssen’s theory of palimpsests, a sort of general idea to re‐claim space and challenge a globalized consumer driven society. By reading out messages TAA enables it’s users to engage in protest without actually having to physically engage in protest. Troika provide the tool for protest, however the user determines the message. The aim of Kennard’s art is to ‘instigate debate about art, politics and society’ (Kennard, 2014). Kennard chooses the image, thus message, and makes it available for likeminded activists to spread it, by downloading, printing and sharing it. Looking at the different examples one can see that there is a number of different approaches to DPA, and although this paper only scratches the surface of it is very clear that DPA is a very powerful tool for change, reaching audiences worldwide, not being limited to one space or culture only.

bibliography

Freyer, C., Noel, S. and Rucki, E. (2008) Digital by design, London: Thames & Hudson.

Hartmann, M., Rössler, P. and Höflich, J. (2008) After the mobile phone?, Berlin: Frank & Timme.

Huyssen, A. (2003) Present pasts, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Kennard, P. (2013), G8 Protest Posters [by Peter Kennard]. [online] G8protestposters.tumblr.com. Available at: http://g8protestposters.tumblr.com/ [Accessed 13 Dec. 2014].

Kennard, P. (2013) Peter Kennard [online] Peterkennard.tumblr.com. Available at: http://peterkennard.tumblr.com/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2014].

Kennard, P. (2014). www.PeterKennard.com [online] Peterkennard.com. Available at: http://www.peterkennard.com/ [Accessed 12 Dec. 2014].

Kennard, P. and Salhany, T (2011) @Earth, London: Tate Publishing.

McLuhan, M., Fiore, Q. and Agel, J. (2001) The medium is the massage,  Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.

Troika.uk.com, (2003) SMS Guerilla Projector | Troika. [online] Available at: http://www.troika.uk.com/project/sms‐guerilla‐projector/ [Accessed 13 Dec. 2014]