Suited for Subversion (Ralph Borland)
From the curators: 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 in the mid 1990s. Its members dress entirely in white overalls padded with bubble wrap and polystyrene. Their protective wear was 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.
The rise in global trade and communication has brought threats to local cultural, political, and economic autonomy, as well as uneven development and a polarization of incomes. Responses to the negative consequences of the “invisible hand” of neoliberal political economy have taken many forms, from playful cultural appropriation to armed conflict. Borland’s Suited for Subversion attempts to find a middle ground by suggesting a humane but active resistance to global exploitation and inequality.
International political theater groups like the Yes Men counterfeit official stationery and impersonate corporate executives to subvert brand messaging and challenge the symbolic authority of global political and economic leaders. Online petitions from groups like Avaaz have brought global attention to injustices in faraway locations. Even the crass commercialization of the image of Che Guevara and handmade armed Zapatista figurines allow people in the U.S. and Europe to express their solidarity with struggles in Latin America, however vaguely. These actions inspire the possibility of new international cultural and political unities, but are generally far removed from exercising concrete political power.
There is also a darker side of the resistance to the new global order. Upheavals of political and cultural violence associated with religious and political extremism have produced outrages like 9-11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the assault on Mumbai. Political violence has become almost an end in itself as local actors literally fight for access to the world’s front pages and 24-hour news stations in an environment of failed and repressive states working hand in hand with unaccountable corporate elites.
In between these strategies is one of active nonviolent resistance targeting the institutions of free trade and global governance. Massive protests have been held at meetings of the World Trade Organization, the G8 and G20, and the International Monetary Fund. At the time of this writing, Hong Kong is the latest epicenter of this type of action. In a few cases, the protests have succeeded in disrupting the plans of global elites. In 1999, demonstrators used coordinated direct action to block all entry points to the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, preventing large numbers of delegates from accessing the convention center. This caused delays and contributed to the ultimate failure of the meetings, as developing countries felt emboldened to hold out for a better trade deal.
The success of this and similar large summit protests was inspirational, but also engendered new, more repressive forms of protest policing. As protest shifted from a symbolic display of opposition to actual disruption, police came to rely on more aggressive and invasive tactics. The use of tear gas, water cannons, baton charges, and a variety of “less lethal” weapons became commonplace. In addition, police increasingly took steps to disrupt and isolate protest activities through surveillance, negative advance publicity, the denial of march permits, preemptive arrests, and restrictions on free movement across borders.
One of the most innovative responses to this escalation of police tactics was the Tute Bianche of Ya Basta, an Italian autonomist movement. The Tute Bianche wore elaborate foam padding and chemical-resistant white coveralls to allow them to withstand baton blows and tear gas without relying on rock throwing or street fighting. This tactic produced a creative middle ground between using violence to confront the police and allowing the police to isolate and disempower protest.
The Tute Bianche’s largest expression was during the G20 summit in Genoa in 2000, when upwards of 10,000 members attempted to breach police lines near the convention center. The result was a series of street battles that resulted in the Carabinieri [the Italian national military police] killing one protester. That night the police exacted retribution by raiding movement centers and brutally beating and arresting hundreds of demonstrators. In the end, the police were successful in protecting summit meetings by further increasing their use of violence. One of the results of this was that summit protests in general are now seen by the public as violent protests, not so much because of the violence of demonstrators, but because of the violence of police towards demonstrators.
Borland’s suit, a product of that period of tactical experimentation, evokes the human dimension of these large protests. While not a practical form of protection—police are trained to target arms and legs, not torso and head—its amplified heartbeat reminds us that protest participants are in fact quite vulnerable to the violence of the state, regardless of what they wear. While the tactic of donning protective clothing may have reached its practical limits, the challenge of effectively expressing popular discontent in the face of an ever more powerful state remains.