By Hannah Dickinson
“But disobedient objects are necessarily rough, raw things, whose edges are open to further modification and appropriation. Only their contexts of use make them whole. Rather than being ‘dead’ like a butterfly closed in a case, disobedient objects on exhibition are unfinished, like a political sticker never stuck, its hope and rage still held fast to its laminate backing.” – Catherine Flood & Gavin Grindon, exhibition curators.
The V&A is currently hosting a free exhibition which charts the myriad ways in which everyday objects are appropriated by social movements for the purposes of protest and resistance. The 99 item exhibition is aptly named “Disobedient Objects” and reveals not only how objects are used for acts of disobedience, but how through their utilisation, manipulation and subversion, the objects become ‘disobedient’ in their own right- often surpassing their intended purposes. To a Geopolitics student, it was abundantly clear how the exhibition encapsulated many salient (critical) geopolitical themes. The items evoke longstanding geopolitical concerns surrounding dynamics of power, contestation and statecraft across a large geographic and temporal scale; exhibits include items used by social movements from the 1970s onwards, and in global contexts as far afield as Asia, South America, Australia, Europe and the US. However, the exhibition also problematises state-centric geopolitical assumptions by focusing on the margins of geopolitics in ways that allow the subaltern to speak, as well as demonstrating the increasing recognition amongst Geographers of the necessity of “unscrewing the scaffolding of the world to reveal its nonhuman composition.” At essence, this refers to how objects can be recognised as “force-full”, thereby highlighting that objects can act, can be disobedient, have agency and “are never dead or inert, but involved in networks with us.”
An object which particularly captured my attention at the exhibition, and which I felt embodied disobedient material agency, was a slingshot taken from the Second Intifada: the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, which started in September 2000. The use of slingshots in the Second Intifada is inherently disobedient, as they were used by Palestinians against Israelis in a demonstration of refusal to accept occupation. But this particular slingshot is disobedient not just in its use and application, but in its production, intention and through the agency and power it possesses in its material construction.
As the photograph of the object on display shows, this slingshot is representative of the human capacity to be adaptive and to shape objects to fit the individual’s desired purpose. Indeed, the slingshot appears to embody what exhibition curators Flood and Grindon characterise as a disobedient object: “ingenious and sometimes beautiful solutions to complex problems, often produced with limited resources and under duress.” The slingshot was created from the tongue of a child’s shoe and shoe laces. This use of everyday, mundane and banal items to fashion a weapon, is poignant for the fact it is both a shoe, and that it belonged to a child. A shoe is designed to afford protection to the wearer: to be comfortable and supportive. By utilising the shoe to create a weapon, the original intended use of the shoe becomes subverted; rather than acting to protect, it now acts to inflict damage or pain. Moreover, the use of a child’s shoe indirectly positions a child in a violent setting, thus eliciting an uncomfortable tension due to the co-presence of apparently dichotomous concepts. War and violence are often stripped of any reference to childhood and are juxtaposed with associated ideas of purity and childhood innocence, however, the origins of the slingshot serve to make childhood a part of the violence, rather than apart from the violence – thus drawing attention to the children embroiled within conflict and in the consequences of such conflict.
Moreover, the slingshot has a larger discursive power which exceeds its functional capacity as a weapon. The object is displayed alongside a photograph of the slingshot put to use, taken by photographer Larry Towell, whose collection exhibits photographs of slingshots both in action and as objects. What is so powerful about the image, is the resonation it has with the iconic image of “tank man” in Tiananmen Square . Furthermore, the figure of the individual Palestinian wielding a simple weapon in the face of complex and sophisticated Israeli militarised vehicles evokes compelling links to the bible story of David and Goliath, where, “David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone.” However, this representation of the modern conflict fundamentally subverts the original biblical characterisations: the figure of Israeli David is now synonymous with a vulnerable Palestinian individual, and the Goliath figure is now a “well-armed Israeli giant” – thus transforming Israel from the “David” to the “Goliath” of the Middle East. This grand narrative has evidently informed the curation of the slingshot in the museum, given that the photograph places us (the viewer) behind Palestinian lines, facing an approaching Israeli line which is reinforced and clearly stronger. Evidently, the deployment of the slingshot and the way it is portrayed in the exhibition is intended to evoke emotionally charged responses, and this is largely achieved. However, perhaps it is necessary to contest such depictions, and consider what it may hide. For me, the presentation of the slingshot alongside the photograph, actually serves to divest the slingshot of some of its meaning, and instead reduces its use to oversimplified traditional geopolitical identities of good versus evil – i.e. David versus Goliath – which is particularly compounded by the fact the photograph is of an anonymous silhouette. By simplifying the conflict, we remove the contextualised and complex political identities of those involved, placing the conflict into grand narratives and depriving it of the situated political identities which reflect its true character. Moreover, does “imprinting a biblical frame on the public perception of the conflict,” essentialise, or even naturalise it, thereby suggesting that “it is, at essence, a religious conflict, leaving little room for modern political solutions.”
Despite the potentially problematic representation of the slingshot in the exhibition, what must be reinforced is that the slingshot itself defies and transcends representation, exceeds its intended use and has an agency of its own making. Referring back to the earlier quote from Flood and Grindon, the slingshot is “ingenious”, it is produced with “limited resources… under duress,” and is arguably “beautiful,” given its capacity to exceed its own intention and become much more than either a shoe or a weapon. Disobedient objects are disobedient precisely due to their capacity to act as more than the sum of their parts, and in this instance the slingshot possesses a visceral power which is “force-full.” The recognition that objects have an inherent “force” draws parallels with the work of Jane Bennett who demands that we pay attention to the “vital materiality” of life, whereby the world is “populated by animate things rather than passive objects.” An item like the slingshot captures the essence of what Bennett refers to as the “vitality” of objects: “the capacity of things… not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans, but also to act as quasi-agents or forces with trajectories, propensities or tendencies of their own.” Moreover, by recognising the “force-full” nature of the slingshot, we begin to “articulate a vibrant materiality that runs alongside and inside humans,” thus serving to potentially alter our perceptions of political events by paying attention to the importance of the objects which make up these events.
Personally, I found the exhibition enlightening and inspiring, and it helped me to consider exciting trajectories forward which may allow me to consolidate and build upon previous work I have done focusing on both social movements and materiality. Watch this space!
Hannah Dickinson is an Oxford University Geography graduate and a current student on the MSc Geopolitics and Security program. Her research interests focus particularly on borders and the ways in which these spaces can be critically examined through ideas of resistance, embodiment and material agency.