May 28, 2014 | 7 Comments

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.


Do you know of any other seemingly neutral or defenseless objects that can step up and become heroes in times of need?

  1. June 2, 2014, 3:11 pm

    Pedro Oliveira

    "The Vinegar Revolution"

    Similar to what happened in Hamburg, during Brazil’s wave of protests in June 2013 the Internet went bonkers when police announced publicly that they would be confiscating vinegar from protesters – vinegar works against tear gas. People started calling the protests the “Vinegar Revolution” (Revolução do Vinagre) and whatnot, and a myriad of memes and caricatures flooded social networks.

    Not so funny though, several people got arrested and targeted by the police. A few months later, only one conviction: Rafael Vieira, a homeless black man. He was passing by the turmoil, carrying with him a bottle of cleaning product.

    Interesting to observe how the “appropriation” of everyday objects into protests (or as instruments thereof) is a two-sided coin: it can serve as empowerment, but also as a deliberate method for state oppression. During the entire month of June, any person buying vinegar could potentially be targeted by a passing-by officer.

    (source for the conviction:

  2. June 2, 2014, 9:18 pm

    Josh MacPhee

    Way Way Back...

    Social movements have been recuperating everyday items for as long as capitalism has been producing them. The wooden shoe, or “sabat,” was shoved into early machinery at the advent of the industrial revolution. The mass-produced glass bottle was likely converted into the molotov cocktail early on in its lifespan (at least since the 1930s). For that matter, the Christian cross is a re-purposing of the tool used by the Romans to punish enemies of the state—long before capitalism or mass production.

    This is a great idea for a project, but it’s important to remember that there is likely little “new” to be found in contemporary movement innovation. Even in the realm of social media and technology. I’ve seen the argument that Twitter was re-purposed by movements, but this is a bit off the mark. At least a portion of the code for Twitter was written by activists for the Republican National Convention and then recuperated for corporate profit. Struggles to create and uphold systems of value other than monetary profit are always in tension with the capitalist economic imperative to crush and/or recuperate these alternative systems.

  3. June 7, 2014, 3:45 pm

    Gregory Sholette

    What is striking about the recent Ukrainian revolution that ousted corrupt President Viktor Yanukovych from office back in February of 2014 is the degree to which a previously shadowy sphere of ideological interests rapidly (though temporarily) developed coherence through acts of DIY self-representation made possible by a combination of populist activism, networking technology, and a significantly weakened central state. Something similar took place at the level of material production on the central square of the city known as Maidan. Throughout the battle makeshift barricades appeared across all the streets leading to Maidan. Stacked three and four meters high these improvised barriers combined wood shipping pallets with packed ice and assorted objects from benches to pieces of the dismantled city-sponsored Christmas tree and hundreds of automobile tires. Operating behind Maidan’s improvised plywood shields men bore sticks, rods and makeshift wooden maces built from materials purchased at the local version of home depot with the objective of defense of course, but also in an attempt at reconstructing an imagined Ukrainian historical identity, one that at times seemed quite anti-modern, even medieval. At one point protestors constructed a Molotov cocktail launching contraption that resembled a catapult. On another day babushka flashmobs sang quaint Ukrainian folksongs. Illuminated by pyres of flaming tires this brightening slew of unrestrained fantasies, some at least partially real, flared rapidly into visibility on Kyiv’s Maidan. And at least in this case the act of improvised design was not only an instrumentalized re-purposing of materials found at hand, it was also a attempt at ideological hacking that was filled with hopes, fears, humor and resentments. The rising visibility of informal, artistic “dark matter” across the globe is one way to describe this paradox. (For more go to: )

  4. June 30, 2014, 4:10 pm

    […] recent post, “Hacked Protest Objects (Anon),” features everyday objects that have been “hacked” to take on a different role—one […]

  5. November 3, 2014, 11:05 am

    Ralph Borland

    Portable toilets used in protest in Cape Town, South Africa

    The toilet has become a highly political object in South Africa, where it is at the nexus of unrest around inequality and the role of the state in providing sanitation and basic services in poor urban settlements. In Cape Town in 2013, protestors brought used portable toilet canisters from the city’s outlying informal settlements into the city centre and dumped their contents on the steps of the legislature. University of Stellenbosch academic Steve Robbins wrote about the significance of the protests and their medium in ‘How poo became a political issue’, July 3 2013 I’ve included the porta potty canister in the archive and upcoming exhibition DIY, which uses South African functional objects as a form of story-telling:

  6. January 2, 2016, 7:15 am


    Some Commonly Hacked Objects Used by North American Activists.

    A metal bar can be strapped to a forearm, on the outside between the radius and the ulna, concealed beneath a jacket sleeve, and used to painlessly deflect baton blows from the police.

    An elevation mask with micro fiber cotton balls in the filters and some swim goggles, my friend promises, will allow you to at least tolerate tear gas while mobile.

    If you break the ceramic coating off of a spark club, the pieces can, when thrown, shatter windows.
    Duck tape across the street will wrap up around a car axle, making an incredibly loud and frightening sound inside the vehicle.

    The best defense I have heard about here, though, is a go-pro camera strapped to your chest.

  7. January 18, 2016, 11:48 am

    […] Design and Violence (MoMa) […]