The Phaidon Folio

"Make Tea Not War": Eight Examples of 21st-Century Protest Art

"Make Tea Not War": Eight Examples of 21st-Century Protest Art
Photo of London's 2003 protest against the Iraq War, featuring the "Make Tea Not War" poster by Karmarama

Last night's midterm election results might have left you feeling some type of way. To keep the momentum and the anxious energy going, we revisited––and excerpted!––Phaidon’s Visual Impact: Creative Dissent in the 21st Century . The book is a helpful survey of protest art from the past two decades, looking at how artists variously responded to the Financial Crash, the Iraq War, and austerity measures. They're heartening reminders of long-term, communal acts of resistance.

What is our one demand? by Adbusters (2009)

Occupy What is our one demand? by Adbusters, image via Adbusters

In early June 2011, the anti-capitalist magazine Adbusters sent an email to its subscribers saying, “America needs its own Tahrir.” The website quickly followed, and July brought a meeting of activists in New York City keen to set up a protest camp under the slogan “We are the 99%.” On September 17th, Adbusters published their iconic poster of a ballerina poised on top of Wall Street’s Charging Bull statue, which represents the New York Stock Exchange and US financial might. Protestors gathered in Zuccotti Park and an encampment was established that vented anger at corruption in politics, the financial institutions responsible for the 2008 crash and the austerity measures that followed. Nearly 300 people initially slept in the park. In the next few weeks the camp became more established, and for the next two months, hundreds of people were drawn to the movement and the park for discussions, meetings, and free food and medical care.

The Iraq Book Project by Rachel Khedoori (2008-10)

Iraq Book Project The Iraq War Project by Rachel Khedoori, image via Art in America

The Iraq Book Project by US artist Rachel Khedoori was created a an ongoing documentary piece that collated online news articles, dating from the start of the Iraq War in March 2003 and intending to continue until the war ended. The articles were sourced from around the world, using the search terms “Iraq,” “Iraqi,” or “Baghdad” in the title, then translated into English, They were then chronologically compiled, designed in a flat, uniform manner––so that each article visually flowed into the next, and printed as a series of large books.

The project shows the glut of information about the war accumulated over the years, or acts as an opportunity to explore different attitudes to the war. However, it also represents a symbolic attempt to capture the vast amount of war information and reporting that exists in the digital realm.

Imposition Symphony by Stelios Faitakis (2011)

Greece Imposition Symphony by Stelios Faitakis, image via Prix Jean-Francois Prat

The global economic crash of October 2008 provided the inevitable trigger for the Greek debt crash of October 2008 provided the inevitable trigger for the Greek debt crisis. Although the causes of the Greek crisis were highly complex, some of the chief players included a succession of corrupt state institutions and avaricious moves made by the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the Central European Bank (dubbed the “Troika” of lenders involved in the much-debated bailouts intended to keep Greece afloat.)

Faced with extreme austerity measures, high unemployment and little hope for the future, citizen unrest was inevitable. In December 2008, protests broke out when police shot and killed fifteen-year-old student Alexis Andreas Grigoropoulos. In the Byzantine-style paintings of Stelios Faitakis, the rich, the fascists and the riot police mix with the blessed, who are depicted with halos: the protestors, the poor, and the generous (who even feed downtrodden businessmen).

Snake Ceiling by Ai Weiwei and others (2009)

Snake ceiling Snake Ceiling by Ai Weiwei, image via Artsy

On May 2008, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake occurred in Sichuan province. China’s central government acknowledged that the quake causes the collapse of 6,898 school buildings, but soon rumors of “tofu-dregs engineering” (i.e. shoddy construction) surfaced in the media. Allegations of corruption were made, suggesting low-standard construction was agreed between the government and contractors in order to secure surplus funds. Over 5,000 students in primary or secondary schools died and, given China’s “one child policy,” many families lost their only child.

Soon after the earthquake, Ai Weiwei traveled to Sichuan to document the disaster and, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, created a citizen’s investigation to research, document, and memorialize the students. The volunteers, many of them grieving relatives, played a crucial role in gathering information, with some under threat from government surveillance and retribution. A number of works emerged to form a requiem for those who died. The sculpture Snake Ceiling (2009), featured here, is constructed from backpacks representing those worn by schoolchildren.

Harrier by Fiona Banner (2010-11)

Harrier Harrier by Fiona Banner, image via the artist's website

Fiona Banner investigates war by reinterpreting objects associated with it and collating the images and language surrounding them. Her project All the World’s Fighter Planes (1999-2009) is a collection of newspaper images of every fighter plane in service during that time period. In 2010-11, Banner installed two decommissioned fighter planes in a work titled Harrier and Jaguar (both models still in active duty at the time). In the Tate Britain 's South Gallery, a Sea Harrier was suspended vertically from the ceiling, nose cone almost brushing the ground. The inversion turned the machine into a serene, bird-like form, overwhelming and beautiful as a piece of sculpture––yet still a killing machine.

An Epoch of Clemency (Kissing Policemen) by the Blue Noses (2009)

Kissing Policemen Kissing Policemen by the Blue Noses (2009)

Photographed by Russian performance art group the Blue Noses, the image was an homage to homage to Banksy ’s Kissing Coppers . Here, two men dressed in the uniform of the Russian military kiss passionately in a birch forest. Add Kissing Airbornemen, Kissing Ballerinas and Kissing Football Players , and it seems that all of Russia’s most favored icons (the military, ballet, sport) are “at it.” It’s a forceful show of humorous irreverence by the Blue Noses, created in a country where the authorities are deeply intolerant of homosexuality.

Make Tea Not War by Karmarama (2003)

Make Tea Make Tea Not War by Karmarama (2003), image via VAM Museum

With the “War on Terror” declared and the War in Afghanistan already engaged, it soon became clear in early 2003 that the US/UK “special relationship” was headed towards an invasion of Iraq with the intention of “regime change” through the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Doubts over WMD claims and suspicions as to governmental motivations and protests reverberated around the world. On February 15th 2003, over one million people marched through London in what was the biggest political protest in British history. All ages were present and families came with babies and buggies in tow. It was a visual extravaganza with a sea of posters and placards: “Regime change starts at home,” “NO,” and “Make Tea Not War.” Millions more marched around the world in over 300 cities and sixty countries.

Casualties of War by the Dorothy Art Collective (2011)

Casualties Casualties of War by the Dorothy Art Collective, image via the collective's website

The Casualties of War action figures, a starkly serious project created by the subversive UK art collective Dorothy, were inspired by two articles about soldiers returning home. A two-part series published in July 2009 by the Colorado Springs Gazette (entitled “Casualties of War”) focused on a battalion based in Colorado Springs who, after returning from duty in Iraq, had been involved in beatings, rape, suicide, and other violent events. Returning soldiers were committing murder at a much higher rate than other young US males. Another investigation into suicide disclosed that three times as many Californian veterans and active-service members died soon after returning home than those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Moved by the plight of real soldiers returning home from duty, Dorothy chose plastic toy soldiers (and the childhood imaginings of the heroics of war) as tools for presenting a different kind comment. They created a box set of four 2.75-inch soldiers, but showing cruel realities: one is committing suicide, one berates a cowering woman, one is begging in the street and the last is in a wheelchair with an amputated leg.


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