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The Art of Protest

Arts charity NOISE combines international artists with the youth of today with their pop-up exhibition in Manchester

Proof that looting and violence aren't nearly as effective as positive and peaceful protest, UK based arts charity NOISE are hosting a timely two week exhibition entitled, 'The Art of Protest'. Taking over a discarded retail space in the recently riot hit, Northern Quarter of Manchester, NOISE will be hosting the biggest pop-up project of its kind in the country.

Featuring leading protest art from international artists including Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing, Banksy, Joseph Beuys and Stella Vine, the iconic and inspiring pieces will be shown alongside an international compilation of photos from young people in Berlin, Madrid and Manchester promoting their protest issues. We spoke with Noise Festival's Executive Producer, Denise Proctor, about the importance of young people exercising the right to protest and the most effective ways to instigate change.

Dazed Digital: Why was it important for Noise Festival to put this exhibition together?

Denise Proctor: As a charity we work with people up to age 30 to create opportunities to showcase their work and help them earn an income from their creativity. The ‘Art of Protest’ exhibition is an extension of the that we ran throughout 2010 as a ‘Free Arts Enterprise’ in a store, on Manchester’s busiest high-street. It was the biggest pop-up project in the country and got young people direct from the streets in, to meet their creative heroes, such as Virus Syndicate, Pete Fowler, Pure Evil etc. talking about how to make a creative career work. With the cuts all projects like these, and basic provisions for young people to continue education or gain paid work experience (via Future Jobs Fund) have disappeared. So NOISE is giving space to young creatives to develop a positive response.

The August riots were not a positive backlash. They proved that there were young people who were bombarded by consumerism, without the means to earn the money to engage in it legitimately. They can be easily dismissed a just criminals without a message.

DD: The location is very significant to the overall message and purpose of the exhibition. Did you know from the outset that you wanted to show at 1-3 Stevenson Square?

Denise Proctor: Our office is in Stevenson Square in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. There are lots of local, creative entrepreneurs in the square and the streets around. The bigger brands are attracted to have boutiques in the area, and it was those brands that were targeted. We could see the looters and rioters from our offices. The Square is on a direct path between the retail heart of Manchester and the most deprived Manchester wards of Miles Platting, Harpurhey etc.

We were keen to have the exhibition on Market Street where the original NOISElab was, as there are 2 million shoppers passing by each month. We were rejected, but I don’t think that the “protest” theme of the exhibition was the issue; it was more a case of the big brands not wanting to give up valuable marketing space in their windows. Whereas the owners of the spaces in the Northern quarter are more local, they know the issues, they want to give something back.

DD: What process did you go through when choosing which work would form the exhibition?
Denise Proctor: The NOISE “Re-masters : Art of Protest” exhibition is the start of a project that takes iconic Protest art by the ‘Masters’ into schools, colleges, uni’s, community arts groups in the form of teaching notes, to be used to inspire young people to express their issues creatively.

The key piece is the Beuys/Peiter “Baader Meinhof” placards from the “German Autumn”, which are an interesting comparison to the “Arab Spring”. The violent Baader Meinhof or RAF terrorist group came from the student protest movement, alienated by the entrenched Nazi officials who continued to hold power in German society, long after the 2nd world war was over. Here was Beuys, an ex-dive-bomber pilot saying that he could “rehabilitate” the misguided Baader Meinhof gang by giving them a tour of the Documenta 5 art expo. Out of context of the time it seems arrogant to believe that he could have made a difference. Yet could we achieve anything by getting into the schools and communities across the UK, where these rioters came from, and having their teachers work with young people on ways to express their issues in creative, peaceful yet impactful ways, that get media coverage (without them getting a criminal record that will destroy their chances of a career).

All of the “Master” pieces are selected on the basis of the impact they have had, and the different media or methods they use. For stencil art Banksy has allowed us to use his ‘Laugh Now’ piece to inspire young people. The painter Stella Vine agreed to the use of her painting of Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker with Asperger’s syndrome, against his extradition to the USA. When you think of protests as ‘happenings’ the John Lennon & Yoko Ono ‘bed in’ was a great use of their fame, to co-opt international coverage of their marriage photos to highlight protest against the Vietnam war. Think fashion protest and Katherine Hamnett’s bold t-shirt protest is genius in subverting what the Downing Street soiree was hoping to achieve. For music Billy Bragg has always remained resolute to continuing the history of folk-music as protest. Gillian Wearing reacted with a law suit when advertising companies that tried to “re-master” her ‘Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say’ to promote products. It’s this body of work in particular that inspired us after the riots. We used the NOISE Festival creative network across Europe to capture the issues that were concerning young people on the streets of Madrid, Valencia, Berlin and Manchester to get their issues and concerns seen by a wider audience.

DD: The work you’re doing promotes the art of positive and peaceful protest can you expand on that idea and what you mean by that?
Denise Proctor: The non-violent Wall Street ‘pop-up festival’ as protest, inspired by the “Arab Spring”, is getting as much press as the UK riots. It shows that you don’t have to use violence to get noticed. If all that the next generation of protesters are remembered for is a national, guerrilla supermarket-dash, then they’ve failed. They have to find the means to both capture the media’s attention, yet gain the average voter’s sympathies. Remember Swampy? People loved him. Everyone knows Banksy, parents, teachers etc., even bankers buy his work. All of the “Masters” chosen as inspiration for the ‘NOISE Art of Protest’ project are heroes of this older generation of voters. What NOISE is doing as a creative charity is showing here’s what’s been done before, and challenging young people to do something equal or better.

DD: Why do you think it is important for young people to exercise their right to protest?
Denise Proctor: It’s important for young people to exercise their right to protest because they should become the engine of the economy, the next labour force, the new start-ups, the present workers pension providers. So with a million 18-24 year olds unemployed in the UK, it affects us all. They cannot be ignored. Opportunities that were there for their parents are gone. They may never afford a degree, a house, a living pension; what future is that? All this will be ignored unless young people act to demonstrate the problems they face, and get support from the older generations.

DD: What other up and coming projects are you guys working on?
Denise Proctor: For 2012 we’re planning ‘The NOISE Festival of Festivals’. It will be delivered outside of the usual arts and youth funding, we’re attempting “crowd-funding” for this via . It’s a chance for all the established creative companies and beyond, to easily give something back to this generation. We want to raise the money for loads of small bursaries that we will give out on a national basis to young people with ideas to showcase young people’s talents, positively and effectively, to a wider audience. We’ll be working with established arts and new venues to host and mentor these young groups, and we’ll be providing qualifications towards a degree for those who take part. Over the last 7 years as a charity has reached kids in trailer parks, young offender’s institutes, city centres, remote rural locations and beyond, to give credible, high-profile showcasing opportunities for young people. We now need the public to help us to continue this work.

‘NOISE Festival of Festival’s’ is in response to the London Olympics. The original modern Olympics were set up by Pierre de Coubertin for disaffected youth. The test for the 2012 Olympics will be whether the legacy still has benefits for the UK’s youth a few year’s down the line? 

NOISE ‘Art of Protest’ Exhibition, 1-3 Stevenson Square, Manchester, from 19–27 October 2011, weekdays 9-6pm, weekends 11 – 5pm