The Short-Lifespan of the Inflatable BT Brinjal (Delhi 2013)

Inflatable BT brinjal shortly before it’s destruction in Delhi on 18.03.2013.

*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.

Three punjabi farmers use the remains of the inflatable BT brinjal as a sleeping mat.

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.

The Eurocentric Media-Trap
One of the mainstream newspapers, The Hindu carried a good article (see picture) with an image of the inflatable BT brinjal. Unfortunately the photo – not representative of the event-  was taken in the minutes just as the brinjal had been inflated and was initially being carried into the crowd. Of the 40.000 people present, only two were western. We were careful to stay away from the BT brinjal  as we knew the press love the western-centric images and it diverts attention away from the indian grass roots movements (Westerners are commonly associated with big funding, NGOs and diminished autonomy for movements).

The Pink Slapping Chappal – (Mangalore 2013)

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.

The Pink Slapping Chappal // Mangalore, India January 2013 from Artur on Vimeo.

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

Preparatory Workshop in Mangalore on 7.01.2013

Mangalore Skillshare from Artur on Vimeo.

12 meter hammer storms the United Nations Climate Conference in Cancún (Mexico 2010)

“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 Martillos 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.

You can order the book here.

Reviews:

“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.

Inflatable cobblestones (Berlin 2012)

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Sous les pavés, la plage.(Under the pavement, the beach.)
Streetgraffiti from the french ’68 movement

On the 25th revolutionary 1st of May demonstration in Berlin-Kreuzberg, protesters were throwing huge inflatable cobblestones, made of silver-reflective foil and tape.The creative intervention was initiated by the artivist collective “eclectic electric collective” (e.e.c.) and was meant as a celebration of an object which is both a symbol and a material weapon of anti-authoritarian struggle everywhere. It also aimed to bring new strategies of tactical frivolity into the demonstration.

A member of the collective explains:

Through 25 years of riots, the cobblestone has become an icon for protests at the May 1 in Berlin Kreuzberg. The use of cobblestones in social uprisings is however much older: from ancient Rome, to the Paris Commune in 1871 to the ´68 movement, cobblestones have been used for barricades and as a weapon of defense. Taking stones out of the pavement is a favoured act of those who refuse to consent to an oppressive social order.

Cobblestones used as a barricade in the uprising of the Paris Commune 1871.

The May 1st demonstration in Berlin has long been a testing-ground for police tactics of crowd control and restrictions on protest. This year, 7000 highly-armed and aggressively shielded cops matched some 15 000 protesters, who were warned that a new water cannon, with a 10 000 L water-capacity, would be ready to be used against them.

The inflatables are a collective creative intervention against this growing repression of protest and dissent, in ways that are both concrete and as well as symbolic. The experiences of the inflatables on May 1 proved their many uses in situations of protest, which can be summarized by the term “tactical frivolity”. Inflatables bring celebration and play to a demonstration while at the same time having strategic functions in situations of conflict…

Watch Video below:

Inflatable Cobblestones Berlin Part 1 from Artur on Vimeo.

Inflatable Cobblestones Berlin Part 2 from Artur on Vimeo.

The Story of the Hungarian Orange (Budapest 2012)

On 23.10.2012 government supporters of the right conservative party Fidesz and opposition flood the streets in Budapest to commemorate the revolution against the Soviet Union in 1956. For the occasion artists and activists built a 5 meter inflatable lemon, that intervened at the pro-government demonstration of Fidesz. The object provoked violent reactions of the government supporters.

The object’s name refers to an attempt in communist times to cultivate oranges in Hungary. As the climate is not suitable for subtropical fruits the mission failed. The mission was parodied in the movie “A Tanu” (The Witness) of Péter Bacso in 1969 and became a symbol for expressing the gap between the sweet party propaganda and the daily sour reality of socialist life. As the leading right-conservative party Fidesz has an orange circle as its logo, the sour “Hungarian Orange” is now commonly associated with the party politics of Fidesz.

More about the inflatable Hungarian Orange you can read in the story below, which is originally published on the blog of the Heinrich Böll Foundation: Dossier Focus on Hungary.

The Story of the “Hungarian Orange” by Artúr van Balen 23.11.2012

“Don’t go. They will beat you. You can’t achieve anything anyway.” These were the comments of my mother, when I explained to her that I wanted to join the opposition protests in Budapest organised on the 23rd of October by the One Million for the Freedom of the Hungarian Press Movement (Milla).

As a Hungarian living in Berlin I feel this resigned attitude is characteristic of a general atmosphere in Hungary. There is a general distrust towards politics, a burden from
communist times, fuelled by more recent events. In 2006 a closed-door speech by Ferencs Gyurcsány, Prime Minister and head of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) at the time, revealed that they had falsified the country’s economic data to win the elections. The reactions were riots and a majority vote for the conservative right-wing party Fidesz, which now governs the country. The results we have heard in the media: measures aimed at establishing indirect control over the media and the economy [1], centralizing power, reinforcing social hierarchies, and strong nationalist propaganda (directed notably against the EU) to divert attention from anti-democratic policies.

Norbert Pálfi, one of the organisers of the Milla demonstration told me: “The two days in the year that people go on the streets are national holidays. The 23rd of October, the day the revolution of 1956 began and the 15th of March, commemorating the revolution of 1848. If you organise a protest on any other date, chances are that only a few people will show up.” This 23rd of October was not only significant because of this, but because the government and the fragmented opposition were engaged in a “war of numbers” [2] aimed at showing who could mobilize a larger crowd and because Milla had announced that it would invite the country’s previous Prime Minister, Gordon Bajnai to come on stage. The far right party Jobbik also organized a demonstration in central Budapest, but this did not draw nearly as much attention as the other two. The commemoration of the Greens (Lehet Más a Politika) – held in the cemetary where the revolution’s martyrs were buried – went largely unnoticed.

I travelled from Berlin to Budapest to lead a workshop introducing activists into the art of inflatables designed to support protests. The idea of inflatables emerged from an art-activist group I co-founded called the “eclectic electric collective.” [3] With the group we explore different forms of art-activism and are currently experimenting with the use of inflatables as an empowering tool for protests. We see inflatables as an element of playfulness and interactivity that can attract media attention, providing messages of dissent and collective creativity greater visibility.

“A bit more yellow, a bit more sour”

It was in the workshop that the idea of the “Hungarian Orange” came up. The term refers to an attempt in communist times to cultivate oranges in Hungary. As the climate is not suitable for subtropical fruits the mission failed. Importantly, the attempt was parodied in Péter Bacsó’s famous movie: “The Witness” (1969). In one of the scenes we see a party leader visit the co- operative where scientists experiment with orange-growing and learn that the comrade would like to taste an orange. As the only ripe orange is accidentally eaten, he is given a lemon instead, accompanied by the following explanation: “Its’ the new Hungarian orange, a bit more yellow, a bit more savoury, but it’s ours.” It is thanks to Bacsó’s movie that the “Hungarian orange” became a symbol for expressing the gap between the sweet party propaganda and the daily sour reality of socialist life. The symbol was recycled by then liberal-alternative Fidesz in the early 90s. The party’s weekly paper was baptised “Hungarian orange” (Magyar Narancs [4]) and Fidesz adopted an orange circle as its logo.

We decided that it was time to revive the “Hungarian Orange” as a visual meme. With the help of around 15 artists and activists we created a 5 meter long, 3.5 meter high inflatable lemon, which we brought to Kossuth Square where the “Peace march” organized in support of Fidesz ended and where Viktor Orbán gave his speech. Our idea was that when the TV cameras film the crowd (to show how gigantic the support for the government is and how little the support for the opposition) the giant inflatable lemon would also make an appearance. Unfortunately, this plan did not work. Having entered the crowd 500 meters before the square, the “peace-marchers”, who consisted mainly of retired people, asked us what this object was about. “It’s a Hungarian orange” – we said. It took them about a minute to digest the meaning of our inflatable at the end of which an older man shouted that we are from the oppositional newspaper “Hungarian Orange”. A chain reaction followed: “Go to Milla”, one screamed. “Go to Gyurcsány-father [5]”, another screamed. “Takarodjatok!”(get lost) they yelled in unison. Some older men tore the inflatable, ripped off the valves and tried to peek through the foil. We knew that the Fidesz-supporters would not like our inflatable lemon, but the intensity of the reactions surprised us.

Having escaped the “Peace march” by running into a side alley we repaired the damaged lemon and only arrived for the closing words of the Milla-demonstration. The national anthem was played. In an almost sacred procession we waded through the crowd, holding a limp Hungarian orange above our shoulders. We were gretted by surprised but smiling faces. After the anthem, the inflatable was joyfully tossed around in the crowd.

Experiencing the 23rd of October in Budapest showed me how emotionally polarised and divided Hungary is at the moment. On the one side you have Fidesz supporters, many of whom were brought in by busses from all over the country. Their number was placed between 400.000 and 150.000. Viktor Orbán’s central message to the crowd is that they won’t let Hungary be governed by foreigners and that there is just one way forward.

Then you have Jobbik and its supporters who are relatively few in Budapest, but well visible outside the capital city as they had a parallel rally in Gyöngyöspata. The far right party’s strategy is largely aimed at overtaking Fidesz from the right. That’s why you could hear its leaders reeling against the government claiming that Orbán is only feigning to act against foreign interests and its followers shouting “Orbán is a Gypsy!” during their march.

Change can happen only by understanding the past

The protesters gathered at Milla’s demonstration, estimated between 40.000 and 70.000, were mostly there to hear Gordon Bajnai speak. During the protest he, together with Péter Juhász from Milla launched “Together 2014”, a coalition of civic organisations aiming to defeat Orbán at the next elections in 2014. Bajnai, a former prime minister backed by a weakened Socialist Party during his short tenure (2009-2010), but now without party association, spoke about Hungary being at a turning point. According to him the country does not only need a change of government, but a change of regime and political culture. What kind of change Bajnai envisions one can only guess from his background as an entrepreneur and his leading role in introducing harsh and efficient austerity measures during his premiership. Despite these unpopular measures some people appear to have good memories of him and his emotional speech gave hope to the disenchanted.

Hope and political participation is needed now more than ever, as a week after the protests a new amendment was passed for voter registration. The measure clearly aims at creating administrative obstacles to political participation. Oppositional parties fear that this move will help Fidesz secure its election victory, as those social groups with low interest in politics may end up not registering and thereby unable to participate at the election.[6]

Reading the press about Hungary I realised that foreign media often tend to give somewhat one-dimensional news reports. They mostly stress that Fidesz’ is attempting to cement its power by undemocratic means. While this is certainly true what is left out from this picture is an explanation of how Fidesz could secure a two-thirds majority by democratic means in the first place. There is very little talk of the corrupt, at times aurhoritarian measures introduced by earlier Socialist governments, which gradually eroded public confidence in democratic institutions and democratic politics as such. Just think of the moral and political consequences of: a Prime Minister (who happens to be Bajnai’s earlier business partner) lying about the state of the economy in order to win the elections and refusing to resign despite clear evidence of misconduct and the brutal repression of protesters.

When you plan the future you simply cannot forego thinking about the past, especially in this country. This is why far from everyone who opposes the current government was happy with Milla’s decision to invite Bajnai on stage, let alone joining forces with him. Although the former Prime Minister is not a member of the Socialist Party he does not rule out working together with the party. The problem for Milla is that by joining this new alliance so hastily it severely undermined its former strategy, which was aimed at building a new political culture in Hungary – one built on the principles of truth and justice, as well as the methods of critical engagment with the past and citizens’ participation. If Milla and “Together 2014” want to succeed, they will need to demonstrate in very practical terms their commitment to these principles and methods. If they don’t accomplish this, nothing will distinguish them from the parties of the past.


Footnotes:
[1] Centralization and the capitalist market economy, János Kornai, 01.02.2012 Népszabadság online [2] See for more on the “war of numbers”
[3] See for more information: www.eclectic-electric-collective.blogspot.com

[4] In the meantime the weekly has become one of Fidesz’ staunchest critics. Their website can be accessed here: www.magyarnarancs.hu

[5] Ferenc Gyurcsány was the head of the Socialist government until 2009 (when he was forced to resign due to the collapse of the country’s budget). He is one of the most hated politicians in Hungary who has become a symbol of corruption and bad governance.

[6] Spiegel online: Kéno Verseck, Orbán Cements His Power With New Voting Law

Originally published on the blog of the Heinrich Böll Foundation; Dossier Focus on Hungary.