2017: the year that protest became a trend?
“Can you take our picture please?” It’s the 21 January 2017, I’m at the Women’s March in London trying to cram three teenagers and their placards into an iPhone screen. The placards are pretty impressive feats in themselves: accurate pen and paint portraits of Trump and a large hand-drawn, atomically correct diagram of female reproductive organs (incidentally it was at the Women’s March when I finally learned, aged 33, the difference between the vulva and the vagina after walking for a mile behind a wonderfully educational drawing with the slogan ‘My body, my choice, get ovary it’). I know in a couple of minutes of taking this photo it will be up on social media with the hashtag #notmypresident. Where our worth was once represented with the possessions we owned, which was then replaced with the experiences and holidays we took part in, 2017 saw our status most defined by our activism. What we care about and how much we care is the social currency of the moment.
Protest is the new brunch reads an astute placard at a 2017 Trump protest in DC. While there weren’t any baked eggs at the Women’s March, I did manage to buy a croissant half way round, pop to the toilets in Waterstone’s and have a laugh with my friends. Although at no point did I hand a can of Pepsi to a police officer, it wasn’t exactly front line protesting. It was so easy to feel like an activist, I can’t help also feeling a tad fraudulent: if activism requires no sacrifice, poses little risk and garners social media likes, is it still activism? Are we joining the resistance if we buy December’s Teen Vogue? It’s cover, the last-ever print edition, shows a punk like photo-collage of a defiant Hillary Clinton with the cover-line ‘Never the less, we resist.’ Protest art adorning the cover of a Condé Nast fashion magazine means only one thing: activism is on trend, it’s quite literally en Vogue.
On March 7, 2017, the day before International Women’s Day, a statue called Fearless Girl was installed in New York by advertising agency McCann to promote an investment bank with a gender-diverse fund. It’s little wonder the statue was criticized as ‘corporate feminism’ being the ultimate capitalist advertising masquerading as protest art. Whatever you think of brands co-opting activism, good or bad, when advertising jumps on a bandwagon it’s evidence there’s an audience for it. Aligning yourself with the opposition was once thought to be commercially divisive, but in 2017 more and more brands are signaling left allegiance with their advertising. Even if brands are being socially responsible it doesn’t dilute the fact that they’re also being commercially opportunistic. Is that girl really so fearless if everyone wants to hear her message?
In the lead up to the presidential election artist Antony Micallef created an oil paint portrait of Donald Trump on a cigarette pack entitled Trumps Fags. They were shown in the 2016 exhibition Why I want to fuck Donald Trump. On his website, Micallef has a link where you can download a high res image of the work where he states ‘Please use, print, share or distribute freely.’ Wolfgang Tilmans adopted a similar strategy in the lead up to the Brexit vote. He made a series of posters for The Remain campaign, which were provided as downloadable PDFs on his site. United by a common cause, artists are open sourcing protest art, making sure the resistance is a beautiful (and sharable). The sharing of protest messages, also known as Hashtag Activism has been criticised for allowing people to feel like they’re creating change with very little effort. Thinking back on everything I’ve re-tweeted and linked to this year, I’ve probably been feeling a little smugger than I should. I’m sure every repost of a Gloria Steinem quote does some good, but it doesn’t quite make us all Gloria.
I discuss protest art with artist Aram Ham Sifuentas, her work focuses on the injustices facing immigrant communities in the US. “After the elections I started to do banner workshops for the public, providing the space and materials to make protest banners. Many immigrants can’t vote and some people don’t realise that attending a protest is a privilege – an undocumented migrant might not be able to stand on the street with a banner, but they can participate by making one,” she tells me.
I ask Aram whether it’s still protesting if everyone seeing the art is on the same side? Aram answers by telling me a story. “Sometimes people come to the workshops and make banners that don’t align with our politics, but a banner takes two to three hours to make so it gives me time to have conversations with them. Two teenagers came and made a banner that said ‘All Lives Matter’ and I asked them if they knew the context of that slogan and what an affront to the Black Lives Matter movement it was. They explained they were making an anti abortion banner, which again didn’t align with our politics and led to interesting conversations. If I didn’t run a banner making workshop I probably wouldn’t have found my self talking to pro-lifers that week.”
I consider myself an activist but I can’t think of a time recently when I’ve really put myself out in the name of a cause. Apart from ringing extended family to chat about voting for Corbyn before the General Election this June, I haven’t really engaged with anyone outside my echo chamber. When I hashtag #Blacklivesmatter, I’m retweeted, when I march as a white, cis, British woman, I’m received positively. My activism for the most part profits my personal brand and entertains the converted. It’s as easy as brunch.
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