‘First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.’ — Nicholas Klein
With these words, a fascinating new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum begins. Disobedient Objects is the first exhibition to examine the power objects in movements for social change. Showcasing 99 objects that defy conventional definitions of art and design, the exhibition explores the catalytic effect of political activism on collective creativity. Barnbrook – with its history of political design – was commissioned to design the visual identity, exhibition graphics, book and marketing campaign.
The exhibition identity is centred around a prominent theme of the exhibition – the ingenious transformation of everyday objects into weapons of social change. Rather than placing the focus on the exhibition title, a call for social action takes centre stage: a silhouette of an ordinary object, superimposed with directions on how to transform it into an object for political activism. Intrinsic to the curatorial thinking was a hope that the Disobedient Objects will be viewed not just as activist objects but as thoughtfully designed objects. This naturally led to the adaption of a user-manual aesthetic as a method by which to reveal the intelligent design and construction of the objects. The posters take on the technical language of a user manual with hope to empower the audience and have them create disobedient objects of their own. A series of these bold call-to-arms feature across exhibition posters and the book produced to accompany the exhibition (details of which below).
The design concept for Disobedient Objects is typographic in application and the deploys the VirusFonts typeface Doctrine – itself a political critique of the North Korea dictatorship. Moreover, Doctrine’s alternate character set provided a second voice in which to speak the words of activist, artist and maker, a voice which speaks alongside the more conventional museum narrative.
The utilitarian aesthetic of the user manual finds its way into a series of how-to guides – illustrated instructions to make objects featured in the exhibition. These guides were applied to the invitations and are available as well as tear-off sheets in the exhibition itself.
In the spirit of the everyday materiality, the title of the exhibition was created from cable-ties affixed to an upside down crowd-control fence hung at the entrance of the gallery space. A large-scale representation of the history of barricades dominates the doors of the Porter Gallery. Each individual panel features one particular moment, from the French Revolution to the latest barricades seen in the Arab Spring and Ukraine. The drawing features the same utilitarian aesthetic as the how-to guides – simple line drawings in white against black doors.
The exhibition itself includes a multiplicity of voices from the various artists, designers and makers involved in the creation of the objects. Each each section panel is printed on a unique material all of which are cheap, mundane and most-importantly used in the making of the objects on show: fabric, stainless steel, cardboard, plastic, tarpaulin and OSB board. The object labels include the curator’s statement set in Doctrine’s regular character set and on grey board, and the maker’s statement set in Doctrine’s alternate characters and on yellow board.
In the spirit of radical functionality, the book designed to accompany the surpasses conventional definitions of an exhibition catalogue. As well as a series of how-to guides, the book contains six essays and roundtable discussions that deal in rich detail with the themes highlighted by the exhibition. The essays are illustrated with images of the objects in context, facilitating an understanding of their raw power. Each essay opens with a list of (disobedient) objects that are subject to the same call to arms as the book cover and posters. The same objects are underlined throughout the book, offering an alternative reading of the texts; disobedient quotes that crudely interrupted the text. In a spirit of openness, the book features an exposed spine thereby revealing its own construction and highlighting a red thread that runs throughout.
Jonathan Barnbrook and Marwan Kaabour will be speaking at the London Design Festival alongside V&A designer Line Lund, to discuss how they approached design the exhibition design.
18 September, Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre
Jonathan Barnbrook will be taking part in an international conference exploring the challenges in archiving and curating objects and artefacts of recent and historical political conflict.
8 November, Seminar Room Three, V&A Museum