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Ralph Borland. Suited for Subversion. 2002

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Ralph Borland (South African, born 1974)

Suited for Subversion

Nylon-reinforced PVC, padding, speaker, and pulse reader
47 1/4 x 31 1/2 x 23 5/8" (120 x 80 x 60 cm)
Credit Line:
Fund for the Twenty-First Century
MoMA Number:
© 2015 Ralph Borland

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 247

Suited for Subversion is a civil disobedience suit designed to be worn by street protesters to protect them from police batons. More than just a shield, the suit is a conceptual prototype that draws attention to the risks that protesters face while defending their convictions. Borland's design draws on the tactics of White Overalls, an anticapitalist group that originated in Italy. Its members dress entirely in white overalls padded with bubble wrap and polystyrene. Their protective wear is a safeguard and a way to create spectacle, attract attention, and encourage society to echo their sentiments.

In Borland's design a wireless video camera mounted over the wearer’s head records police action. The system transmits the signal directly to a control station, removing the need for a tape, which could easily be destroyed. A speaker in the center of the chest amplifies the wearer’s heartbeat and can also be used to play music or amplify speech. During a group protest, increasing heart rates would be audible as tension and excitement mounted in the crowd, creating a natural soundtrack. At the same time, the audible heartbeat would expose the vulnerability of the individual. The fragility of the human body is exploited as a tool, a shield—almost a weapon—against police munitions.

Audio Program excerpt

SAFE: Design Takes on Risk

, October 16, 2005–January 2, 2006

Curator, Paola Antonelli: Think about the scene. Protestors and police confronting each other—the police on one side with translucent shields, helmets and batons. And on the other side, hundreds of protestors wearing a seemingly harmless red vest. All of the sudden, the vests all inflate at the same time and transform themselves into gigantic heart-shaped mattresses that protect the protestors from the blows of the police's baton.

What the protestors are wearing is Suited for Subversion, a project by Ralph Borland, a young designer from South Africa. Ralph had a lot of inspiration from the behavior of certain animals that get all pumped up and raise their claws and their hair and their feathers when they are challenged in a battle.

[Hearbeat sound]

What you're hearing is the collective sound of the protestors' heartbeats, the sound that is amplified by a little loudspeaker that is positioned on each one of the protestor's chest. The police are disoriented. They don't know what to make of this terrifying sound that reminds them that every single blow they will strike on these protestors is a blow on a human being, and not on an enemy.

Moreover, there is a wireless video camera that is mounted over the head of the protestor, and that acts like a witness and records every kind of police action. And the wireless system transmits the signal directly to a control station with no need for a tape that could be destroyed and therefore no risk of losing the evidence.

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