Metro: The Art of Protest

Credit: Leah Borromero

June 2013

‘Fight the power!’ bellowed Chuck D on Public Enemy’s eponymous, iconic protest song in 1989.

However, as the last few years have shown, political activism isn’t restricted to the demonstrations, marches and rallies, with movements such as Occupy, UK Uncut and Climate Camp deploying artistic and creative strategies.

Esteemed visual artist Peter Kennard, whose work can be found in Tate Britain, has been stimulating debate around art, politics and society for more than 40 years with striking photomontages.

He has produced thought-provoking artwork on apartheid, nuclear proliferation, the Cold War, the Iraq War, climate change, state surveillance and more besides, so it’s no surprise Banksy cites Kennard as an inspiration.

For the G8 Summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland (where world leaders will be enjoying a power breakfast as you read this), Kennard’s made eight images from his 2011 book @Earth available for free. Considering many artists guard their work jealously, why is Britain’s pre-eminent political artist sharing his as widely as possible?

‘My idea of copyright is to give people the right to copy my work,’ he said. ‘For four decades the point of my work has been to get it out to people who will respond to it outside of galleries.

‘It’s been used on T-shirts, badges and placards, so the fact people can now use Tumblr to download and print these images anywhere in the world is great.’

As a senior lecturer in photography at the Royal College of Art, Kennard can see how politics is influencing students.

‘In the 1990s, students wanted to be the next Damien Hirst,’ he said. ‘Now they’re struggling, paying for university and realise it will be hard to find work as artists and afford studios.

‘So there’s less competitiveness and a willingness to work together and make work that has social meaning. Also, they’re exhibiting in artist-led or pop-up places – it reminds me of the DIY feel of the conceptual art movement of the 1970s and 1980s.’

Is protest today more creative than yesteryear?

‘If you go back to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at Greenham Common in the 1980s it was the most creative time. On weekends, the whole fence – six miles around the air base – was covered with an amazing giant montage, a beautiful, human piece of work.

‘Protesting was very creative then and it is now: at the Iraq War demo school kids created lots of very strong imagery. Street art also came to the fore around Iraq and has developed over the last 20 years as a form of political expression as public space becomes more private.’

Political art – whether graffiti, photomontages, theatre, brandalism or otherwise – feels more accessible and enjoyable than being cornered by a hectoring bore.

‘I don’t see what I do as telling people what to think or do – I hope it helps people think critically and there’s very little imagery that does that,’ said Kennard.

Mel Evans, of art activist group Platform, is the writer and producer of Oil City, an immersive, site-specific theatre piece, exploring the machinations of London’s oil economy.

She feels taking the audience on a journey through the moral, legal and environmental dimensions of the tar sands oil extraction project in Canada means they connect with the issue more meaningfully.

‘That’s the opportunity immersive theatre allows – it puts the audience in control and gives a sense of empowerment in that they’ve had an affecting experience, and through having a more embodied and engaged process, feel like “I’m going to go away and do something about this”, or speak passionately to friends about it,’ she said.