“I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” That was the sentiment of utopian socialist William Morris, who trusted that access to these things is not a luxury, but an essential right. It is also the sentiment of Save our Placards, a project set up to collect and lay bare the placards from political demonstrations. The first exhibition from Save our Placards was held beneath Hungerford Bridge on the South Bank, shortly after the anti-cuts demonstrations in London, March 2011. For those who have flirted with scepticism over the idea of art and politics as compatible, the project conscientiously preaches otherwise. In its origins, it was seen as a possible means to prolong the temporary nature – and to aid reflection of – a protest, and to actualise a non-elitist means of expression. Save our Placards offers an intricate yet lucid synthesis of art and politics; the idea of displaying the placards together, in exhibition format, means that there is a mediated way to bring political ideals into the domain of day-to-day. Moreover, the scrawled utopian faces of these cardboard and chipboard objects can be received for both political face-value, in their explosions of anti-conservatism, or they can represent the conspicuous facet of politics that is too often disregarded; that behind our material and political world are people.
Here’s what the Save Our Placards’ Guy Atkins had to say:
# What did you hope to achieve by collecting placards from The March for the Alternative?
The honest answer is we weren’t sure. Certainly, we saw the march as an opportunity to create a major participatory art piece. With 500,000 people in the centre of London, all with their politics on show, we wanted to see if we could add something to the protest – maybe help people reflect on the act of protesting, and work against the temporary nature of the march by extending it beyond the day.
We looked for a way of creating a moment that people might not have experienced on other rallies. In the end, we offered people a kind of deal: leave us your protest ephemera and we’ll work to find new audiences for it.
We had no idea whether people would want to hand over their creations to the project or not. But they did. At a tree in Hyde Park, hundreds of people laid down their placards, banners, props, costumes, flags… What we thought would just be a logistical exercise turned into a kind of performance, a ritual almost. As well as those giving us their material, hundreds more came by to watch the ‘placard tree’ grow.
It seemed people wanted their protest to go on, and for new audiences to see their work. And that’s what’s happened. Every month there’s a new request from people wanting to borrow the material, and from different media outlets across the world wanting to discuss the project.
# Did you have a favourite placard? (and if so could you give us a description)
I’ve got two. One for its sheer brilliance, by a guy called Iain Whiteley. It shows David Cameron with a pair of foam jazz hands. It’s very meta, I guess. The hands are on springs. So when Iain walked along they became ‘jazz hands’. After the march we interviewed him about how he made it. [This is a link to the interview on the Save Our Placards blog.] The placard is one of those which we’ve given to the Museum of London, and was recently on show at the Museum at an event looking at how society documents social unrest.
The other one is a ‘protest umbrella’ given to us on Piccadilly by Maureen Kerry from South Wales. On each panel of the umbrella there’s a different anti-government slogan marked out in felt tip pen. I’ve never seen anything like it.
But as well as being an amazing item, it’s special for my memory of meeting Maureen.
When I came across her I asked if she’d like to make a donation to the project. It was so noisy on Piccadilly with thousands streaming past that she couldn’t make out what I was saying. And so at first she reached for her purse, wanting to give me cash. When she realised I was talking about her umbrella she handed it over immediately. And then we just hugged. It seemed the right thing to do.
# Can you tell us about the Placard Parade?
The Placard Parade was one of those ideas that you have and it just won’t leave you, until you do it. I wanted to see what would happen if the placards returned to the route of the march last year, a year on.
So on the anniversary of the March For The Alternative, volunteers walked in two and threes down the South Bank in London, over Blackfriars Bridge, then along the Embankment. Many of the volunteers were the creators of the placards who had left us their material.
Drawn out from the mass demonstration, the small groups seemed quite absurd. Was it an extension of the protest? Was it a celebration of protest art? This ambiguity made it interesting. The piece resisted being framed.
For sure, the placards remain relevant today. One even predicted the ‘granny tax’ fiasco from the other week. But at the same time there was a distance from the march last year. And it was this distance that was always likely to make new things visible about what it is to be a protester, and in fact what is a protest.
# We heard that you experienced some resistance from the police? (What was this and why do you think they felt this way?)
Originally, I’d wanted the route to be the same as last year but the police weren’t keen. They felt – and I think rightly in the end – that having a staggered parade like this along the three mile route could have been difficult to manage. I didn’t want to put volunteers into an environment they would be challenged.
What was interesting was that this drew out the relative safety of the mass demonstration – that you are safe to express yourself because others who share your views are around you. Alone or with a couple of friends, people were very exposed on the parade. Reactions were at times hostile – why are you talking about politics on a nice Saturday afternoon? why can’t you just enjoy the sun like the rest of us?
The other limitation from the police was around publicity. They gave permission for the event on the basis I didn’t advertise it on open media.
This meant recruiting volunteers was difficult. How do you get a message out without social media when people are now reliant on Twitter and Facebook? Part of me wishes I’d pushed back on this, but to get the go-ahead felt like a result.
And in a way, through the process of requesting approval from the police I felt the parade revealed something of how London is controlled. And I think this is why having spaces like The Illuminator is so important as it is often in the arranging of events their impact occurs. And this doesn’t get documented much.
Also, it wasn’t just the police that were involved, the South Bank Centre had to convinced for example. And I was also grateful for the support of the TUC who organised the march last year.
# How do you feel about the tactics of the police in the protests of last year?
It pains me to see public spaces so tightly restricted: the removal of protests from Parliament Square, the kettling on Whitehall, the eviction of Occupy outside St Pauls…
In a similar way to the lack of space for public art in towns and cities, meeting to discuss politics outside of institutions is really difficult. I guess the Placard Parade was in part a challenge to this. And it was great to hear that most of the reactions to the volunteers weren’t hostile, many were approached by people who were keen to learn more about the politics behind the placards.
Ultimately, to make any interesting or ambiguous art event happen now in a public space – even when you’ve had to compromise along the way – is an achievement.
# Do you think that the British marches and demonstrations of the last few years have changed anything?
It’s an important question and in many ways it’s too early to judge. Clearly for the anti cuts movement there have been defeats – the NHS Reform Bill has gone through, the Educational Maintenance Allowance has gone etc.
But it feels like there has been a shift in the level of political engagement, and belief in the potential for changing things. And I’d say marches and demonstrations have been essential to this process – online activism can only go so far in helping people feel part of something.
When I left university for the first time 10 years ago, friends were not politically active, and didn’t really question the status quo. Now, that’s changed, to some extent. There is a sense that the difficult times we are in could be a chance to make important and lasting changes to how society functions. The success of UK Uncut for example in shifting perceptions on tax issues and on how people can get involved with politics is striking.
# What are your plans for the placards now?
We’ve an exhibition at the moment at the CMR gallery in Cornwall. That’s running until 6 May. Thanks go to Paul Farmer and Duncan Hopkins for taking the placards on.
And there are a number of events coming up this year which will be on the project’s blog. It would also be great to put a publication of some sort together – about the placards, their makers and the project itself.
Finally, we’re looking to find them a permanent home, one that would allow them to be lent out easily to people who want to borrow them for their own projects, and would act as an archive for all the stories that go with them.
# Are you working on any new projects?
Yes, lots. Possibly too many. Some directly related to protests, others not. For example, I’ve been writing for a long time on the wonders of old postcards. In a similar way to the placards, I find them great objects for not losing sight of the fact that behind our material world are people.
I’m particularly drawn to the postcards before World War I when cards could be sent and received in the same day. Ever since I came across a 1904 card reading “Come home all is forgiven” I’ve been hooked. I write for various magazines on them and have a book coming out next year. My blog, if you’re interested, is http://www.postcardese.com.
On protests, I’ve got a project starting around the idea of ‘protest tutorials’ which could be really exciting. Hopefully, I’ll have a bit more to say about this in a few months.