A conversation with Artúr van Balen and Verena Meyer of the eclectic electric collective about inflatables as tools in strikes and the concept of tactical frivolity.
Berlin, April 13th, 2012
One of your projects is the creation of inflatables – huge objects filled with air to use at demonstrations etc. Was the Climate Conference in Cancún in 2010 the first event you built them for?
No, we had made inflatables before. And for the Climate Conference it was actually a Mexican painter mentioning that they haven’t any inflatables in Mexico what got us motivated. We made an open call and brainstormed with many people which objects we should send. Then we got inspired by the quote “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” and created different hammer-prototypes. It was a ten day intensive workshop with theoretical and technical input. We created a gigantic hammer and went to different demonstrations in Germany. Then we packed it into a suitcase and gave it to a friend who went with it to Mexico and who gave it to a Mexican activist group.
The 7th of December 2010 was the big day of demonstrations against the United Nations Climate Conference and their green capitalist policies. The protesters inflated the hammer and ran with it to the fence and threw it over – the police tore it to pieces. This was a dramatic act that fed the media spectacle as a lot of journalists were present. The hammer became an iconic symbol for the protests of that day.
In Barcelona at the festival Cómo acabar con el mal you presented a reflecting cube.
We presented a 1,5 x1,5 meter inflatable cobblestone that we tested at the general strike in Barcelona. The ambitious initial idea was to make a hundred of them for the May 1st in Berlin.
In Berlin, May 1st has become something of a ritual, with heavy repression from the police and protesters often acting in quite pre-determined roles how they respond to this. We wanted to do something that would disrupt this ritual by bringing a new form of creative protest to the day. Our intention was also to subvert the image of the “stone-throwing demonstrator” which the media spectacle around May 1 feeds off so much.
We are interested in tactical frivolity, in finding new ways of protesting. And we are interested in how the opposition between police and protesters can be subverted. So when we playfully throw an inflatable cube at a police line and they, not knowing what else to do, throw it back, suddenly they are engaged in a game with us and their image as tough riot cops is broken. We are interested in finding new forms of creative activism, and we hope with this we can also inspire other forms of protest. We also want people experience the fun of inflatables! We noticed that people are really happy to play with them. A spontaneous crowd volleyball starts. The inflatables also have a strong visual impact when people carry them.
During the general strike in Barcelona, the police jumped in and out of their cars just for seconds and hit everybody who was in their way. But when they saw this cube, they first hit that. People around us ran away, but we were safe behind the cube. It was amazing to see: the police became so aggressive towards the cobblestone, they wanted to destroy it and that turned their attention away from us.
They didn’t focus on you, but…
… on the shiny thing! It is like with fish and the lure.
But using the inflatable as a barricade was not the original plan?
It is one of the many side-functions of it. There was this funny situation when we threw it towards the police. And there was the spontaneous game when they the police kicked it back, protesters again kicked it to the police, police kicked it back, etc. – and suddenly they realised they were part of a game. So they threw it behind the police line where children found it and began to play with it.
So the inflatable has a lot of connotations: It looks very massive but it is very light so it has also this almost poetic quality. It makes the situation absurd. Even if they shot rubber bullets at it, it would make the situation absurd. The photos and films would be in favour of the protesters. Because it is also about the politics of images: What kind of images do we create? Which kind of stories?
It is really nice that a lot of people joined in the inflatable building for the action at the 1th of May this year, and that everyone has her/ his own motivation for it. It is an important part of the process that they all get together, get to know each other and create something collectively. The workshops are functioning as mobilisation processes.
Everyone can bring in own experiences and abilities?
Right. The workshops are also for people who want to become instructors and show others how to make inflatables. And we will make a instruction video, so it can be an inspiration to other groups in Spain, in New York – everywhere.
So how do you imagine the role of inflatables in, let’s say, five years?
Well, in five years we will have to do something else; but for this year and the next, it would be great to see this idea spreading. Like the clown army did. It would be great if people used inflatables everywhere.
So maybe let’s sum it up: What is the impact of inflatables on demonstrations, protests etc.? What do they create?
Inflatables are like giant puppets. They strike the imagination. You remember them. David Graeber, an anthropologist, made an interesting observation: Police – mostly in the US – hate these giant papier-mâché puppets that are used sometimes because they are a symbol of collective creativity. People who are smashing windows are easier to control because you can criminalize them; but a symbol of collective creativity is much harder to denounce. And: You can not give instructions to a gigantic inflatable or puppet. It transforms the situation into a carnivalesque celebration. Inflatables embody the idea of tactical frivolity.
Interview by Johanna Rainer
The eclectic electric collective (Germany) is an artist group exploring new grounds on the thresh-hold between art and media-activism.
In 2010 the collective created “El Martillo”, a 12 meter inflatable hammer that was sent to Mexico to the UN CoP 16 as a weapon of mass-media communication. Reflective inflated cubes by the eclectic electric collective were tested as a tool of protest in the General Strike in Barcelona Collective on March 20th 2012 and were introduced as inflated cobblestones at the May 1 Revolutionary demonstration in Berlin. The M15 movement used inflatables for the reflective block in Barcelona on May 15th.