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The Banner Project
It is the middle of a London winter, late afternoon, and in the room in which I sit the brightest light comes from the screen of my laptop. It is cold in hue. I start to open image files—a clutch relating to a project in Australia. The screen bursts with warm, saturated colour.
The pictures show a multitude of banners simply fashioned from a few metres’ square of cloth stretched between two lengths of timber. The banners have been carefully ‘planted’, each with a space around it, in a large grassed-area beside a Melbourne beach—common land? From afar (the distance of the ‘installation shot’), the image is of mixed blooms—a happy riot of strong hues and bold shapes. And yet, the emphasis on ‘pure’ opticality is not innocent.
Feeling my distance, I realise that the theme of ‘being at one remove’ is key to what I am looking at. That I have encountered the banners via the mediation of the documentary photograph is a neat co-incidence. In the first place, there is the literal absence of the banners’ subjects, or the standard-bearers. Paradoxically, the anthropomorphic form of the structures (each has a torso and two legs) underlines this, even as it also acts as a stand-in for the absentees.
Reading the verbal and pictographic slogans that the close-up shots reveal, I start to wonder if there is an explanation for the missing marchers in the tenor of the messages. Some are predictably didactic. In the necessary shorthand of the genre, one commands: ‘HEAL YOURSELF’ (the ‘R’ is back to front). Some make sweeping observations: ‘LUCKY COUNTRY NO MORE’ (the second ‘N’ reversed) in yellow cut-out fabric letters on a green background. But often the messages are more clearly self-expressive: ‘MY NAME IS maureen i like 2 come 2 artclass on MONDAYS’. Another rhymes: ‘I WONT SACRIFICE MY IDENTITY TO BECOME YOUR CORPORATE ENTITY’. Before the letter of the theory of ‘the multitude’ as Negri & Hardt express it, this declaration—as indeed, the banner project overall—grasps its essence. Antonio Negri writes: ‘the multitude is a whole of singularities’.1 As such, no one slogan serves it; each person needs their own.
And the more the banners’ individual utterances are personalised the more they beg the presence of their authors, as the messages compel the reader–viewer to respond. Emotionally, a plea is heard. One utterance dramatises this: ‘OH DeAR LIVE’. By virtue of its layout, this reads, ambiguously as ‘Oh dear, live!’ or ‘Oh dear, life’ (sic). The text crawls around the image of a pill-popping, beer-swigging, fag-smoking skull. This is heartfelt and heart-rending. Of all the texts, this also most forcibly proposes a reason for the absent activists.
The press release has told me that the banners have been made by disenfranchised Melbourne people, who have clearly thereby gained a powerful public voice. But in our liberal democracies, ‘freedom of speech’ is never quite so simple. These abandoned banners address an aspect of its complexity: that everyone is free to identify their proclamations with themselves (either via their name, or their body, or both). Sometimes that connection makes the speaker far too vulnerable. This darker theme—speaking of the difficult/ the difficult dimensions of such speech—proposes the formal pleasure of the banners as a ruse to pull in the viewer.
However, the political effects of the banners’ messages are various. Explaining the absence of the marchers in this way does not hold for all the work, ‘Maureen’s’ placard being a case in point. Rather, other explanations might prevail.
We could note that in refusing the conventions of a protest march—precisely by protesting but not marching—this work finds its identity as art. So the theme of ‘at one remove’ appears for a second time: as the work is not (quite) another disciplinary activity. And so this work is symptomatic of a growing trend for artists to appropriate non-art practices: '[m]eetings, encounters, events … games, festivals’.2 However, as I and others such as the artist-theorist Michael Lingner have proposed, this appropriation must avoid exact replication for art to maintain an identity. One way it does this is to approach the other discipline (here, protest art) asymptotically; moving ever closer to its axis but never reaching it. In this essential difference, art retains its power to prod and poke. By virtue of its odd relation to existing categories of things, this banner project disrupts the accepted contours of the urban landscape and its politics. And that upheaval presages the growing self-awareness—and moreover, action—of the variegated multitude.
1. Antonio Negri, trans. Arianna Bove, ‘Approximations: Towards an Ontological Definition of the Multitude’, http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/agp/space/multitude.htm
2. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du reel, 2002, p.28.