A little creativity can change a lot about the way we protest

Anoushka Kavanagh reports on the art-activist collective creating playful new forms of direct action

Photo: Artur Balen

Kreuzberg, Berlin, 1 May 2012. The tension is tangible as 15,000 protesters defiantly face 7,000 menacing police, heavily armed and shielded. The protesters have been warned that a new water cannon, with a 10,000-litre capacity, will be tested on them today. But they remain unarmed. That is, until several inflatable foil cobblestones float into the crowd.

Security forces, only minutes ago ferociously formidable, are thrown into disarray as the drifting decoys are blithely bounced through the throngs of marchers. A scene of comic confusion quickly unfolds. Troopers scratch their heads before sprinting after the strange shapes, and taking a stab at them. The shiny surfaces are slippery though, and they struggle to deflate the spectacle. As the sun sets, the stones are still gliding through the crowds, glistening in the twilight. The squad of riot cops has been defeated by a bunch of balloons.

The objects in question were created for the demonstration by the art-activist collective ‘Eclectic Electric Collective’ (e.e.c) – and are effectively what it says on the tin: five feet tall inflatable silver sculptures, mimicking conventional cobblestones. A reinterpretation of an age-old weapon of antiauthoritarian struggle, these tools of intervention were intended to do what the collective does best: innovate enduring protest strategies.

Cobblestones have long been tools of protest. In both the Paris Commune of 1871 and the 1968 demonstrations, paving was used as weapon. Not only is it an easily accessible medium, but it’s also symbolic of dissent: by removing part of a city’s pavement, you are refusing to consent to the authorities. Yet where real cobblestones cause casualties, the inflatables are harmless. Instead, they are simultaneously playful and protective: while designer
Artur Van Balen (now a member of the artivist collective, Tools for Action) has labelled them “weapons of tactical frivolity” – making protest an interactive, engaging experience for opposing participants – the inflatables also act as a physical fence to police batons.

This interactive element was key to the cobblestone’s conception – for the objects necessitate consideration in a way that more traditional weapons do not. Van Balen says that the shapes truly reach their full potential when they succeed in creating a situation in which “your opponent needs to decide what to do”. The opponent, in this case the cops, must now engage with the rioter in order to quell the disobedience. Security forces cannot simply open fi re or whip out batons, because brutally battering a harmless floating sculpture is somewhat challenging, not to mention ineffective. The comic nature of the situation then strips the authorities of much of their power, in much the same way as protest theatre. As such, these artivists are attempting to close the rift between police and protesters, via playful visual language.

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While the cobbles were initially deployed individually at marches, in more recent years they have been compiled collectively into sculptures, that further challenge the nature of protest. The units are arranged into linear or grid formations, then secured by Velcro to one another, so that they resemble walls. Together, they hinder movement in much the same way traditional barricades would. Again, this plays on another historic device of discontent.

Barricades are now almost a cliché of civil unrest, thanks in part to Les Misérables’ iconic scenes. But their origins lie in the religious conflicts of 16th century south-west France. By the 19th century, the structures were indeed highly visible at major riots across Paris, including the July Days and the 1848 revolution. Typically, barricades were fashioned from hollow barrels, stuffed and secured by stones: arduous to construct, immoveable, and relatively permanent.

The inflatables by contrast, can be folded compactly and transported transnationally. Significantly, the lightweight shapes facilitate rapid creation and elimination. During the 2015 UN Climate Summit in Paris, Tools for Action sent packages to activist groups as far afield as New York, Portland, and London. Inside, were instructions describing “how to block a street in 20 seconds and just as easily disappear again”. Not only does that suggest the cobblestones enable greater spontaneity, but it indicates the transportable tools are effective in uniting protesters globally, through shared spectacles.

Drawing from these instructions and inspirations, inflatable blockades have been employed in Portland, outside the US Forest Service offices in protest of logging; in Westchester, New York, in protest of fracking; and in Lausitz, Germany, at the Welzow Sud Lignite Coal Mine, in protest of the continued burning of the dirtiest form of coal. The latter protest had a particularly international dimension to it, as 60 inflatables – made in the Netherlands, UK, France, Denmark, and Sweden – were amalgamated outside the mine.

These collected cobblestones were the product of the ‘training for trainers’ programme, launched in 2016 by Tools for Action and the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. Under this initiative, activists came together to learn about organisational tactics and creative direction, before heading home to instruct a new generation of activists.

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But this was not the first time that the artivist collective had expanded their horizons into creative education: in 2015, the ‘inflatable barricade training’ project was established in Paris, educating climate activists in new methods of demonstration in the run up to the COP21 Conference. Nor was it the last.

Recently, Tools for Action teamed up with Respekt Buro to launch their most ambitious, comprehensive programme to date, using the floating foil cobblestones: ‘Barricade Ballet’. Named after the unique demonstration choreography which demonstrators and artists created together, the project sought not merely to change ideas about strategies of protest, but to change ideas about the matters at the heart of the protest themselves. The protest for which the programme prepared was a reactionary demonstration, against a forthcoming neo-Nazi march in Dortmund, June 2016. In the preceding months, the collective worked within schools to create open, inclusive environments in which to address the issues facing the city. High-schools are thought to be a common recruiting ground for neo-Nazis in Germany, so project organisers believed it important for discussions to be held about xenophobia, discrimination, and Neo-Nazi ideology here. Of course concurrently, students were given the opportunity to engage in artistic forms of direct action – creating the cobblestones to be brought to the forthcoming protests, and constructing barricade choreography.

4 June 2016, Dortmund, Germany. 900 neo-Nazis flood onto the city’s streets for their “A Day of the German Future” rally. 5,000 counterdemonstrators are also rallying. They connect their cobblestones and construct the barricades. At BlockaDO, the demonstration against the alt-right is confined by police, as neo-Nazis approach.

Unrest unfolds, and the foil inflatables protect protesters from police as planned. Unlike in Berlin though, the cops in Dortmund are better prepared: they cut the sculptures to shreds. But before they can do this, the counter-demonstrators are able to realise the full potential of their plan: their metallic barricade acts as a literal mirror held up to the alt-right, forcing marchers to reflect upon the city’s society.

Germany may not yet have won the fight against the alt-right, but it appears pioneering paths in direct action are helping to tackle problems peacefully and playfully. Instead of alienating, Tools for Action are engaging. Entertainment and aesthetics can replace animosity and aggression. A little creativity can change a lot about the way we protest.