Hacked Protest Objects (Anon)
From the curators: Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight on December 17, 2010, after being repeatedly harassed by Tunisian authorities. His act galvanized the Tunisian Revolution, the wider Arab Spring, and, in part, the Occupy protests across Europe and America. Although these protests had different goals and consequences, as designer Carlotta Werner and artist Johanna Sunder-Plassmann highlight here they are connected through the use of everyday objects that have been “hacked” in one way or another. Such designs take many different forms and are created for various ends. At first glance, hacked chemical spray bottles held to protesters’ eyes suggest violence, and yet instead they are used to mitigate its effects; in Hamburg, the seemingly benign toilet brush symbolizes public anger; in Kiev, the baseball bat morphs from playful to punitive design. Bouazizi’s self-immolation underscores the grassroots—and often desperate—nature of these acts; as unrest continues in Syria, Nigeria, Thailand, and elsewhere, protesters will use any means at their disposal, from mundane objects to their own incommensurable lives.
[Carlotta Werner] Istanbul, a night in September 2013. I am not aware that the ongoing Gezi Park protests against Prime Minister Erdoǧan’s government have shifted to the Asian quarter of the city as I find myself among a crowd. Teargas—my lungs are burning. A guy next to me sprays cleaning agent into his girlfriend’s eyes. I am shocked at this violent attack, but no one else is. Everybody around me seems familiar with this act, and it soon becomes clear why. The pump spray is filled with milk and used to ease the effect of teargas on the eyes.
During the next few days, I notice many more modified or hacked objects of daily life among the protests. Before I moved back to Germany a year ago, my Turkish friends and I had a common understanding about the use of objects around us. Since the protests started, a new layer of recognition and perception has emerged. Cleaning sprays turn into medical supplies. Paint respirators become teargas protectors, as well as fashionable accessories that identify people as protesters. Later, they become decorative objects in their flats.
Goggles, scarves, and plastic bottles with pierced tops have also changed their intended use. The emergence of such modified objects of daily life is an epiphenomenon of the political protests in Istanbul. Born in no time, out of necessity, the new designs help to cope with many different tasks. They protect the body and provide first aid, they allow individuals to communicate events and to organize demonstrations, to identify with or dissociate from a group, and to defend, attack, and provoke.
Designed by an outgunned crowd that faces professional, well-equipped forces, the hacked objects have some common ephemeral features. They are readily and cheaply available, and they appear and disappear as they change their symbolic and practical meaning. Both—and often simultaneously—a direct reaction to and an action in response to the suddenly changing social circumstances, the objects contain certain information about the mode and nature of the protest itself. This includes the level of violence, groupings, organizational forms, ways of communication, information about particularly striking events, social and civic qualities, and the cultural setting.
The phenomenon of hacked objects is not unique to Taksim, but appears also around other places, like Tahrir Square in Cairo or Maidan in Kiev. Reflective safety vests identify the members of the self-organized group “Tahrir bodyguards” in Cairo. Their purpose is to protect female demonstrators, as a reaction to the numerous instances of sexual harassment that occurred during the protests.
In Ukraine, self-made and archaic-looking weapons speak to the brutal violence of this protest-turned-conflict. Some of the altered clubs and bats are decorated with nationalistic writings or Christian symbols, and show the personal attachment of the owner to his object.
In Hamburg’s so called “Danger Zone,” toilet brushes became an ironic symbol of unjustified police control. Hours after the screening of a short video on national television that showed a policeman confiscating a toilet brush from someone who had legally obtained it and was doing no harm with it, toilet brushes were instantly sold out and carried into the streets by demonstrators. This event evoked a creative wave of digital image alteration, graphics, and caricatures.
The variety of objects is proof of the creative energies that are released by mass movements, and show the ambivalent effects of these dynamics. Which differences and parallels of the protests can be exposed by these objects? How does social media influence the distribution of such objects and their local adaptation?
The research project “Hacked design in political protests” invites everybody to contribute experiences, images, videos, objects, and stories of participation in global protests, and the designs that have been born in tandem with them. The project will collect, discuss, and reflect on this political and global crowdsourced design process to explore what is currently happening in many parts of the world. A pump spray is not just a pump spray anymore.