Wish my boyfriendSomewhere in a book I wrote on International Civil Society there is a comment about folk dancing and basket weaving not really meriting the label ‘social movement’ because such activities only acquire social and political significance as part of a wider collective struggle. Seeing the arpilleras (textile representations of Chilean life under Pinochet, hand-sewn by female relatives of those tortured, murdered and disappeared by the military regime) at the V&A’s Disobedient Objects exhibition made me think again. Of course objects can only be invested with political power by people – ‘every tool is weapon if you hold it right’ as Ani DiFranco raps. But then such things also develop a life of their own, weaving inside their material memories, aspirations, collaborations and disagrements that outlive the specific moment of protest. Once the dictatorship banned public display or ownership of the arpilleras, these seemingly innocent, even infantile textiles acquired the quality of a subversive social movement – they needed to be controlled and  repressed.

Such are the disobedient properties of dozens of objects on display at the V&A’s Porter Gallery. Some of these serve a purely practical purpose – instructions on how to create makeshift tear gas masks, or the bucket pamphlet bombs crafted by London-based anti-apartheid campaigners. Others, like the Suffragette teapots have a more symbolic value. Most disobedient objects, however, combine both: riot police swinging their truncheons at Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment book-shields makes the point eloquently.

Beyond the big questions of art and politics – including why and whether such objects need to be formally displayed at all–  the exhibition made me reflect about some of the things I teach about space and power, and indeed on some of my trade union activities at Birkbeck. The inflatable cobblestone deployed at recent European demonstrations invokes all the carnavalesque and riotous traditions of protest, perhaps best expressed by the Situatinonist graffito ‘Beneath the Pavement, the Beach’. It also brings to mind the collective political art of barricades which Kristin Ross showed in her study of the Paris Commune, can combine the democratic reappropriation of space, labour, creativity and politics. A critical difference plainly remains between these two cycles of protest in that actual cobblestones draw blood. This is something that wouldn’t be lost on the Clandestine Syrian stencillers or the makers of the masked Zapatista dolls on display, thereby reaffirming both the universal grammar of protest and its very specific spatio-temporal meaning.

All of which prompts a final reflection about the centrality of bodies – and more specifically, visible faces – to democratic mobilisation. Disobedient objects are in the end politically useless without recalcitrant subjects. The simian masks worn by the feminist Guerrilla Girls at their inaugural protest in 1985 are displayed in the gallery, hinting at the continuity in camouflaged resistance from Dick Turpin to the contemporary Anonymous. However, one of the keywords of modern socio-political protest is the ‘manifesto’ – to render programmes, strategies, membership and debate open, public and explicit. Marx and Engels after all famously proclaimed at the end of their own Manifesto that ‘Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims’. And to this might be added, ‘we refuse to conceal our faces’. For political subversion, resistance, antagonism to be democratic it needs to be visible, contestable, recognisable. As my Birkbeck colleague Sophie Hope suggests, this is why, as form of protest the workplace picket line is as much about solidarity, diruption and raising awareness, as it is about the flesh-and-blood individuals very publicly and collectively expressing their political emotions, arguments and identity in face-to-face encounters with colleagues and the wider public.

Dr Alex Colás is Reader in Politics at Birkbeck. Disobedient Objects runs at the V&A until 1 February 2015.