[‘Inflatable barricades, Ende Gelände 2016’ Photo: Paul Levi Wagner / 350.org]
In a recent interview Artúr van Balen of the Tools For Action (TFA) collective discusses the evolution of the now iconic inflatable barricades (née cobblestone), a silver foil inflatable cube which was recently featured in the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, Disobedient Objects (2014). The artist explains how the design and fabrication of the various inflatable objects now used in protests around the world, is largely a collaborative process undertaken in open-call workshops with other artists and activists. He says, ‘We try to find symbols that resonate within the popular imagination and that contain multiple layers of meaning’ (van Balen cited in Duarte, 2014).
Whilst inflatable sculptures such as a saw, a hammer, a giant pink slipper and even cobblestones can be understood as parade props with symbolic characteristics, the latter has since become something of an actual tool for activists, as van Balen explains:
We call them a secret weapon of tactical frivolity: they transform a protest in a highly interactive and playful event, make it hard to control and all at the same time, they can physically protect people from a police baton (van Balen cited in Duarte, 2014).
Putting them to use in protests and demonstrations continues to inform the development of the cube, for example van Balen describes how police at a recent May Day rally in Berlin were frustrated in their attempts to pierce the object’s slippery surface: ‘everyone saw how a highly armed squad of riot cops tried to destroy a balloon’ (van Balen cited in Duarte, 2014). In such situations, the inflatable becomes an object of distraction, diverting police attention and allowing protestors to escape.
For COP21 in Paris 2015, the cubes transformed into barricades, a homage to the design innovation of the Paris Commune. Holding them together in formation, a handful of cubes can be used as a quick and effective technique for temporarily blocking a street, their reflective surface mirroring their adversaries, and allowing all parties an opportunity to pause and reflect.
For their contribution to Truth is Concrete, A handbook for artistic strategies in real politics (accessible on the TFA website), the Eclectic Electric Collective (EEC), the precursors to TFA, discuss the appearance of a ‘reflecto-cube’ on Spanish television, following reports of police attempting to ‘arrest’ a cube in Barcelona, wrestling its unwieldy shape into a police van.
In the video above, a spokesperson for the Spanish police admits they would much rather be hit by an inflatable cube than stones, spears or other heavy objects and it seems such scenes of absurdity are, as T. J. Demos observes, effective in ‘disrupting police paranoia that sees protesters as violent criminals, injecting a childlike lightness and joy into civil disobedience events’ (Demos 2015). EEC also note that:
[i]n both Berlin and Barcelona, when protesters and police were at their breaking point, the situation transformed when a silver inflatable cube bounced in. A protester throws it on to the police line, the police bounce it back, protesters push the inflatable back again. To everyone’s astonishment a ball game happened between protesters and the police. (Tools for Action, n.d.)
Of particular significance to protesters, it seems that when tossed about above a crowd, inflatables help relieve the boredom and lift the morale of a blockade. Such novel techniques are particularly effective in calming protesters’ anxieties if trapped in a police kettle and de-escalating tense situations.
Because it is also about the politics of images: What kind of images do we create? Which kind of stories? (van Balen cited in Rainer 2012)
At Ende Gelände (2016) Isa Fremeuax from the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination spoke of the silver cubes making ‘interesting images,’ echoing comments I overheard earlier in the press tent in which they were described as looking ‘fake’ like a 3D rendering in the aerial drone video. Perhaps it is their ‘irreal’ appearance in the landscape that accentuates the game-like deployment of cubes in multi-stage actions and accounts for their current popularity.
As van Balen claims in an interview for Truth is Concrete, the cubes can also inform a media strategy. Often media reporting on protests focuses on violent clashes between police and activists or the destruction of property. Smashed windows, overturned cars, graffiti and clouds of tear gas are often used to portray protesters as anti-social and criminal. Giant reflective cubes, however, provide reporters with a different perspective on protest culture which van Balen argues emphasises collective creativity, self-reflexive experimentation and play:
We wanted to exaggerate this image of ‘stone throwing trouble makers’ by throwing oversized inflatable stones. Not only did we manifest a media spectacle, we also orchestrated our own countermedia strategy. Equipped with three secret camera teams, each team focused on a specific scene they tried to capture in the seemingly spontaneous course of events (van Balen cited in Rainer 2012).
Aspects of novelty and entertainment have become characteristic of recent mass protests, at least since the alter-globalisation movements in the 1990s. Well known examples include the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army who emerged in the UK in the early 2000s and the Rhythms of Resistance samba crew. It is often argued that such techniques of ‘tactical frivolity’ defy the expectations of authorities and onlookers, are able to motivate, move and entertain crowds, and accentuate elements of the absurd and unexpected to situations of potential conflict, transforming them into ‘carnivalesque celebrations.’
Some activists that I have spoken with are critical of the emphasis on the carnivalesque and indeed the gamification of recent mass actions, for example Climate Games. They are concerned that a focus on festive aspects have resulted in protests becoming something of a ‘middle-class distraction,’ like a music festival, or a form of ‘activist tourism’. For example, many protesters who arrived at Ende Gelände for the weekend of actions were bussed in and out of the camp, and their commitment adhered to this schedule. To quote Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their critique of protest culture as ‘folk politics’:
This is politics transmuted into pastime—politics-as-drug-experience, perhaps—rather than anything capable of transforming society. (2015, p. 17)
Whilst this level of organisation is no doubt useful in achieving mass actions, developing a popular movement and, let’s not forget, producing arresting images, some argue that such tight scheduling can work against activists determined to stay with a blockade for as long as possible. Indeed, it seems inhabitants of LAUtonomia, the nearby occupation in a patch of forest owned by Vattenfall, suffered from the regular influx of curious visitors from the Climate Camp. Authorities initially confiscated the activists’ climbing equipment, presumably nervous that the occupation, which at that stage consisted of only three platforms, would expand. In the days following Ende Gelände the entire occupation was cleared, with trees being felled and activists arrested.
Perhaps what projects such as the Climate Games and collectives such as Tools For Action highlight are activists’ desires to innovate via collaboration and peer-review, and protest itself as a form open to experimentation. Certainly, committed and at times militant actions are required to successfully shut down identified targets such as power stations or economic summits. It is also possible I have set up a false dichotomy between militancy and frivolity, as both exist in large-scale mass actions. Indeed, in researching for this post I was reminded of the Infernal Noise Brigade (INB), a ‘marching drum orchestra and street performance crew’ (Whitney 2003, p. 218) who purposely combined aspects of both discipline and parody. Formed in Seattle 1999 for the large demonstrations surrounding the World Trade Organisation summit, the INB were a well-rehearsed and uniformed phalanx of drummers and musicians, flag bearers, rifle unit, medics and scouts led by a baton-twirling majorette—a detourned military band designed to move and motivate crowds whilst intimidating authority.
It may be that a strategic choreography of these techniques—playful, disciplined, spontaneous, media savvy and disobedient—is what is required for movements to remain effective and relevant.
Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex, 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Verso, London and New York.