Artúr van Balen has produced inflatables for protest as a member of former group Eclectic Electric Collective and, now, Tools for Action. One such inflatable, a cobblestone for a 2012 demonstration in Barcelona, will be featured in ‘Disobedient Objects’. In this post we interview Artur about his own work, the role of inflatables, and their long history as objects of protest.
The inflatable carbon bubble is a great tool to transform a protest into a highly playful, fun and interactive event and at the same time raise awareness about the carbon bubble issue.*1 The making of the inflatable can be an inspiring group activity. It can be also used for symbolic or direct action: for example the popping of the inflatable carbon
bubble can be very powerful to tell and visualise the future market crash of the fossil fuel industry.
Please email us on firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions. And please send us pictures of your inflatable action!
Let´s pop this carbon bubble!
Tools for Action
*1 The “carbon bubble” is first coined by the Carbon Tracker Initiative in their “Unburnable Carbon” Report (2011). A definition of the idea is, that “fossil fuel companies are overvalued because if and when the world ever gets serious about dealing with the climate crisis, the fossil fuel companies won’t be able to burn their carbon reserves, from which they derive their value.” Kessler, Huffington Post 29.10.2013
This 4 day workshop happened between 29th of march and the 1th of april in Zagreb after an invitation of Željko Blace from the organisation QueerSport. QueerSport is a loose international sports and culture community, that voices critique on normativity in sport institutions, events and practices, that go beyond sexuality and gender discrimination.
During the workshop a spontaneous group of people from Zagreb created a 8 meter long and 4.5 m high inflatable rainbow. The inflatable will be used for interventions on normative sport events. The rainbow is not only a symbol of gay or LGBT-culture (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), but also refers to an Eastern European superstition that when you walk under a rainbow you will experience a sex-change. The myth is still present in the popular imagination today: a participant of the workshop recalled to have read this story as part of the school education when she was six years old!
Below some images and a short video about the last day of the workshop. The workshop was made possible with the kind support of the ULUPUH program on engaged creativity.
Watch this blog for inflatable interventions to come with the Pop Up Rainbow!
The preparation of a prototype by Željko and Sara.
A pathetique first prototype. A little limp, but you get the idea.
Video concept by Artúr van Balen (Art Director), Video production Jakob Huber (Edit), filmteams LeftVision and Regenfrei. Thanks for everyone participating.The video would not have been possible with the big help of numerous individuals.
The inflatable lung breathes every 5.5 seconds in and every 5.5 seconds out. The inflatable sculpture is part of the #Cough4Coal-Campaign, a self-initiated campaign about the health impacts of the coal industry.
The burning of coal by coal fired power plants not only release CO2 emissions, but also various toxic metals, acid gas and fine particulate matter. Scientific studies say, that the fine particulate matters from coal fired power plants are particularly hazardous. The fine matter from a diameter not bigger as 2.5 micrometer penetrate our lung tissue, enter our blood stream, causing asthma, high blood pressure, a higher risk of cancer and other related health problems.*1
“Protecting protesters from police and causing no damage: an enormous inflatable cube that reflects light! The objective: to impede charging riot police, and prevent them from recording images. The Reflecto-Cube has been already used throughout Europe! You can find DIY tutorials for making them online..“
These are the opening words from the female reporter from the Spanish TV channel La Sexta in May 2013. The broadcast highlighted the wave of popularity of making of inflatable cubes for demonstrations against the austerity cuts in Spain. In the background behind the reporter plays footage of our intervention with inflatable cobblestones in Berlin at the First of May Demonstration. The camera pans over a crowd tossing the inflatables in the air like balloons in a festival, until a giant 3x3x3 meter inflatable cube appears. Why did Spanish television represent a Berlin demonstration on their broadcast about Spain’s austerity protests?
The news report continues, dubbing the enormous inflatable cobblestone a “barricade of the 21st century”. A squad of 20 highly armed riot cops walk backwards intimidated by the sculpture. One policeman tries to tear the inflatable apart, struggling with the shiny slippery surface. Cheers and applause burst from the crowd as the police become increasingly embarrassed by their clumsy attempt to destroy the inflatable.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the recent media infatuation with inflatables is not just their popularity, but also their effectiveness. Inflatables serve multiple functions in a protest that can be summarized by the term “tactical frivolity.”
First: inflatables uplift a grim protest situation into a playful event. There is something magic about what inflatables induce in people. Their enormous size combined with the weightlessness and softness makes them irresistibly attractive and dreamlike. People have a natural tendency to touch the inflatable sculpture and to join the game of throwing inflatables in the air—changing a march into a poetic, joyful and participatory event. In situations where people are kettled in, they serve as excellent playing devices not to let the atmosphere become boring or demoralising.
Second: in times of conflict inflatables can deescalate tension or protect ones own body. In both Berlin and Barcelona, when protesters and police were at their breaking point, the situation transformed when a silver inflatable cube bounced in. A protester throws it on to the police line, the police bounce it back, protesters push the inflatable back again. To everyone’s astonishment a ball game happened between protesters and the police. I have heard stories that in Barcelona two police men arrested an inflatable, squeezing the bulky shape into a police van. Not only do these kinds of situations break the binary confrontation between protester and police, they also ridicule authority.
Third: inflatables provide strong visual imagery that can capture the media spectacle. Protests are often misrepresented or not represented by (mainstream) media. Journalists need a hook, something exciting, unusual or creative that they can spin their story around. An intervention with inflatables can provide this spectacular hook, especially when the joyful inflatable gets destroyed by agitated police or other opponents.
In the First of May Demonstration in Berlin the destruction of the inflatables was carefully planned to subvert the typical representation of the protest. Mainstream press reports of the annual demonstration tend to describe its participants as “stone throwing trouble makers”, using predictable images of broken shop windows, bonfires on the street and stone throwing kids (that could secretly be agent provocateurs). This media representation tactic has been used time and time again, from the Arab Spring to Gezi Park in Istanbul to Barcelona, to sway public sentiment towards the ultimate goal of justifying police brutality and restrictions on protests. We wanted to exaggerate this image of “stone throwing trouble makers” by throwing oversized inflatable stones. Not only did we manifest a media spectacle, we also orchestrated our own countermedia strategy. Equipped with three secret camera teams, each team focused on a specific scene they tried to capture in the seemingly spontaneous course of events.
Other examples of inflatable induced media spectacles is the twelve meter inflatable hammer at the United Nation climate conference in Cancún, Mexico 2010. Protesters stormed the fence of the conference complex and threw the hammer at it, where the Mexican police, in full view of the press. tore the inflatable to pieces. Within an hour the media corporations choose the hammer as a symbol of the climate changes protests and its image traveled across the world.
The realization of an inflatable intervention follows three stages.
The second stage is the intervention in public space at the action or demonstration. A dramatic narrative is carefully orchestrated at a point of intervention. Cameras are put into place and possible scenes for recording are discussed.
The third stage is the viral spreading of the event through mainstream and alternative media. The inflatable works as a storytelling device. Their dramatic destruction is a tactical spectacle to draw attention to the causes of the social unrest. Despite their destruction, the images of inflatables reappear like ghosts to haunt authorities and inspire disobedience, as the inflatable hammer of Mexico appeared in a remote Indian newspaper and films of the inflatable cobblestones appeared on Spanish TV.
Many thanks for art-activist group Enmedio and the Reflectantes for providing us with information about the news report and keeping up the good work.
This article appears first in Truth is Concrete, A handbook for artistic strategies in real politics, Steirischen Herbst.
The adventures of a giant inflatable saw during the opposition rally in Moscow
by Veronika Komarova
On may 6th 2013 almost 20 000 muscovites gathered on Bolotnaya square near Kremlin to mark the 1 year anniversary of the “March of Millions” – an anti-Putin demonstration, which in previous may turned into a bloody clash between the protesters and the police. During this major opposition rally, the third of its kind in 2013, a giant inflatable “saw” («Pila» in russian) was seen surfing through the crowd. This 10 metre long symbolic sculpture (the “saw” is an easy-recognizable symbol of corruption and budget-stealing in Russia) was made specially for the event by Artur Van Balen/Tools for Action in collaboration with the artivist group Partizaning and other local activists, artists and journalists to show support for the protest movement in Russia.
Anniversary of a bloody protest
The Russian opposition movement today is noticeably losing its former power and popularity among the citizens compared with last year. Started during the autumn of 2011 as a response to the rigged parliamentary elections (as of which the opposition leaders started to call current ruling party “United Russia”- “the party of crooks and thieves”), it soon began to spread all around Russia and received active support from foreign countries as well – with the slogan “Fair votes for Russia” mass demonstrations were regularly held in more than 20 countries. After the massively falsified presidential votes in March 2012 – when then prime minister Vladimir Putin received 63.64% and became the president for the 3rd time – a sudden wave of protests reached a new high. However, only 2 months later, on may 6th (the eve of Putin’s new-term inauguration) the opposition organized a new demonstration called “March of Millions” which unintentionally turned into a huge violent fight between the protesters and the police. People were walking down the Yakimanka streets to Bolotnaya square with posters saying “We will not let the thief into the Kremlin” when the police suddenly blocked their way, announced that the rally had been cancelled, and began force them to disperse with batons. What resulted were dozens of injuries and hundreds of arrests.
“The battle of Bolotnaya” became a turning point in the short history of the 2011-2012 protests – people suddenly became aware of how dangerous even the most “peaceful” rally can be in this country, and, as a result, some part of them decided to step away from the movement. One year on, civil activists still live in daily fear of being caught and tried in the “Bolotnaya square case” (there are already 30 people accused of organizing the 6th of may’s mass disorders, most of whom are under arrest and awaiting trial) and a lot of former protesters, who used to take part in almost every rally last year, now choose to stay at home instead of taking risks on the streets.
The new symbol of Bolotnaya
However, a year after the “Bolotnaya tragedy”, the opposition decided to gather again on the same spot on 6th of may 2013 – with a new claim to “Free Bolotnaya prisoners”. As everyone else, we had doubts about attending the demo – no one could guarantee the safety of the event, especially with last year’s tragedies at the forefront of our minds. In a situation where anyone could be arrested without cause, it was extremely dangerous to be there, especially with a giant saw-shaped object «the Pila» (“sawing the budget” in russian is a settled expression which means “corruption” and “budget-stealing by the officials”), which we had made specially for this event and were supposed to bring with us.
On the day of the demonstration, the inflatable was taken-out to Bolotnaya square by his associates who were activists of the local movement “Partizaning”. The problem appeared right away at the entrance to the meeting – as in Russia protesters need to go through a metal detector before entering an authorized rally. A policeman began shaking his head as soon as he noticed our cart with a huge silver object, and it seemed like our plan would fail at the first hurdle. Our explanations that it would be a “huge inflatable silver ball” didn’t work. The guard said that the art-action should have been confirmed earlier, directly with the organisers.
Luckily, we could quickly catch one of the organisers, who helped us to settle the problem with getting the saw through the entrance. Thus, the police agreed to let our cart through with the proviso that the sculpture would be inflated under their close watch. The process of inflating the saw attracted a mass audience. Demonstrators couldn’t understand what would come of it – was it a silver caterpillar, or a phallic symbol …
When the inflatable was ready, poet Alexander Delphinov, who was also attending the event, grabbed it and went straight into the crowd shouting out an improvised verse about the saw, the corruption and the “crooks and thieves” who “cut and steal” the budget.
The saw was joyfully greeted by the crowd with people helping activists to carry it. Someone even organized an improvised performance with words: “It’s time to saw some budget”:
The sculpture had made two crowd-surfing “trips” from the entrance gates to the stage and back, and then stopped under the monument of the well-known russian painter Ilya Repin. People kept coming there until the very end of the day – they were taking pictures, touching the saw from different sides and discussing its meaning. I would imagine that, for some of them, our huge inflatable «Pila» became a symbol of Bolotnaya-2013.
The inflatable art-action with inflatables showed russians a new way of protesting, one which was more creative, self-organized, and safe. Perhaps this was also a method which was a little more fun to express their thoughts and demands during the mass demonstrations. Fortunately, solidarity with the “May 6 prisoners” rally has gathered more than 20 000 people and ended peacefully.
Veronika Komarova is a journalist writing for Public Post, an online russian news blog.
*Brinjal is the word for “Aubergine” or “Eggplant” in India. BT brinjal is the first GM food-crop that the biotech industry has been aggressively marketing in India. Lucy tells the story of what happened with the inflatable Brinjal, that was brought into a protest against the Indian Governments new Land Bill.
The farmers refused the leave Delhi when the one day of protest was over- they stayed for 3 days sitting, cooking, sleeping in the streets of the capital. The arrival of the 6 meter inflatable BT brinjal*1, made by a group of artists and activists in South India, was welcomed with cheering. It was tossed back and forth over the crowd, spinning slowly and then bouncing back.
Suddenly a farmer leader on stage was shouting “we must resist the Land Bill just as we must resist the GM industry – and not believe their propaganda. BT Brinjal Nasho! Nasho*!” (Nasho means “destroy” in Hindi. )
Suddenly, and savagely, the brinjal was beaten with sticks and kicked, and publicly destroyed. When it was found on the ground, a group of old men were still hitting the deflated and flaccid ex-brinjal.
After the destruction, it was found being torn to shreds by three punjabi farmers. Seemingly they were still venting their rage at BT brinjal. Then it turned out they wanted to use the remains as a tarpaulin – indeed, the protest stretched to 3 days, and farmers were all sleeping in the streets. So the inflatable lived on as a sleeping mat for the farmers.
Background of the Protest:
From 18.03.2013 TILL 21.03.2013 there was a massive mobilisation of 40.000 farmers from all across India in Delhi. It was a huge protest against the Government’s new Land Bill which will allow more agricultural land to be diverted for non-agricultural purposes. The government is acting as an agent for industry, removing farmers from their their land. In India 70% of the population practice small-scale farming. This grabbing of farmers’ land is in keeping with the current paradigm of development which sees the villages emptying and agriculture being corporatised, whilst both the urban population and consumption swell.
After the Delhi gangrape in December 2012, a revival of the feminist movement began in India. This 7 meter inflatable slipper supported the “Walk for Women”, a Women rights demonstration in Mangalore, South-India. The video documents the collaboration between Artur van Balen and Tilly Ferguson // Tools for Action and the political theatre group Tharikita Kala Kammata, Breakthrough, Shakari Snehittara Niranthara, based in Mangalore and the village Bramakutlu. The building process took place in the village Bramakutlu, 25 km east of Mangalore.
Many thanks to Vani Periodi, Vidya Dinker, Uday Kumar, Sunila, Malika, Pavitra, Ini, Kishur, Agyi, Aydin, the groups Tharikita Kala Kammata, Breakthrough, Shakari Snehittara Niranthara and many others in Bramakutlu village and beyond.
Object: 7 x 3 x 1,5 m
Material: flex foil, double sided tape, thread, discarded car tubes, bike pump
Video: 6:10 ; edit Artúr van Balen
“Art is not a mirror to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” -Bertolt Brecht/ Vladimir Mayakovski/ Karl Marx
In 2010 an inconspicuous looking suitcase was sent from Berlin to Mexico City containing a 12 meter tall inflatable silver hammer. Thus began El Martillo’s odyssey to protest the policies of the United Nations Climate Conference in Cancún. El Martillo’s short, but glorious life, climaxed when protesters from Marea Creciente (Rising Tide) stormed the conference complex fences, gigantic hammer above their heads.
In full view of the press Mexican police tore the inflatable to pieces. Within an hour global the media corporations declared El Martillo a symbol of the climate changes protests as its image traveled across the world.
Watch the video below:
The action is also archived and preserved in The El Martillo Project, published by Minor Compositions. The book documents the whole process from its conception and construction to the media flurry it sparked off. Included are numerous full color images and documentation of the project; texts and analysis by David Graeber, Alex Dunst, and Cristian Guerrero; an interview with John Jordan from the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination; and a fold out technical manual and plan for creating giant inflatable hammers.
Initially inspired by the quote “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,”The El Martillo Project aims to inspire creative action and joyful disobedience.
“In the world of contemporary art people often publish beautiful critical documentation of projects that are neither very beautiful nor critical. These glossy catalogues give surface value to projects that are often vacuous and obtuse. Nothing could be more different with The hammer – the project itself beautifully merged the aesthetic and the activist, the world of art and that of social movements, whilst being a critique of old forms of protest and a celebration of collective creativity. The catalogue amplifies this fantastic project and tells the story of this courageous experiment in art activism via texts, press cuttings and images that inspire us and remind us of the power of beauty when it is thrown into the streets.” – John Jordan, Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination
“I often think that grassroots activist communities don’t document enough. There’s so many battles to fight and oppressive systems to counter that we are always on the move. The power of archiving our creative resistance means than future movements don’t have to start from square one. It’s always a delicate balance of taking action, reflecting on it, archiving it for others and making our actions stronger for the next time. This organising praxis can be profound and help us shake power in the achilles heel if we get it right! The brilliant El Martillo Project most certainly struck that beautiful balance… so enjoy!” – Dan Glass, The Glass is Half Full
Bio: The eclectic electric collective (e.e.c.) is an international art collective operating at the borders of art and activism. It is founded in 2008 by Artúr van Balen and Jakub Simcik.
The 12 meter inflatable hammer was sewn during a 10 day participatory workshop from the eclectic electric collective. The hammer can be inflated in 9 minutes by a small high-tech ventilator (DV 6224) using two car batteries (24 V) as its energy source. See the video for instructions:
The motive for the hammer was inspired by the quote: “Art is not a mirror for reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”, expressing clearly the distinction between “representational political art” and “interventional art politics”. The sewing pattern was developed during the workshop by Sarah Drain and many others.