“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.
First is the community building and bonding stage. As the inflatables are shaped out of a formless piece of plastic, so are the relationships between the group members. New people learn the skills of making so they can pass the knowledge on to the next group. (See this link for a great manual how to make inflatable cobble stones. The manual has been made by our spanish art activist comrades, the Reflectantes. They used the inflatable cobble stones as part of their super hero costume. The reflective surface has the double function to reflect the evil of capitalism and hinder the police men trying to film them by reflecting the light.)
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.
This article appears first in Truth is Concrete, A handbook for artistic strategies in real politics, Steirischen Herbst.