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Extinction Rebellion red robed protesters
Image courtesy of Sibylla Bam Bam

The meaning behind Extinction Rebellion’s red-robed protesters

‘We wanted people to almost empathically feel and understand our message, which is the power of art’

Their roadblocks have been cleared, their army of arrestables has retreated, and their occupied spaces have been reclaimed, but Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) impact will be felt long after the last protester has been peeled from the concrete. London’s Extinction Rebellion demonstration drew to a close with last night’s celebration at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, but the action’s influence far exceeds its physical presence on the streets.

Their ten day protest successfully hijacked a mainstream political discourse bogged down in stale Brexit nuances, and united figures from across the political spectrum in agreement over the climate crisis. The action has already managed to focus the world’s media on the urgent need to tackle climate change and that’s thanks in part to one of its most striking visuals – ghostly-white figures cloaked in scarlet-red, drifting gracefully through lines of police and crowds of demonstrators.

These mystical apparitions are the brainchild of Bristolian Doug Francisco, founder of The Invisible Circus launched as a street performance troupe in the 90s. “We used to do a lot of these statue slow motion things around Europe,” he tells me, “and they were our signature characters. But for this, I thought I’d bring it out in a different colour to represent the blood of the species.”

The blood-red cloaks are very distinctive against the urban backdrop of Central London, but Doug admits: “I didn’t realise quite how big an impact they were going to make. I wasn’t anticipating the press pick up but the visual is very strong. People relate to it a lot, the red thing. People always seem to remember it, like it has this universal resonance.”

For their performances, dotted around the various sites XR occupied over the past ten days, Doug says they “tried to keep it simple”, opting mostly for “very slow moving, focussed” and “meditative” dances, more improvisational than choreographed, but bound tightly by raw feeling. “We would call on different emotions to express collectively in different moves, but individually the white mime masks helped to convey that further.”

Each dancer’s face is painted a deathly-pale white with rosy cheeks and red lips. “It gave us the means to have these really expressional faces,” Doug says, “and obviously when you put people in those masks their faces become something else. I was looking through the photos afterwards, and you can relate them all to different archetypes or classical Greek characters.”

The Invisible Circus’ performances are totally silent. “We just want it to be emotive and to have a message without having to explain it; the idea was that you would almost empathically feel and understand the situation, which is the power of art. We wanted to embody that ethos and convey our non-violence emotively.” They’re like spirits coming back from beyond the grave, here to warn the living of the grave errors they’re making; a beautiful, bloody mob of nightmarish bodies, pleading with us not to destroy ourselves.

Political activism and art interacting so harmoniously is a uniquely powerful thing. “As artists, I feel like it’s (art) a really important element in protests that can bridge the gaps and fill the gaps.” Their message is certainly cutting through the noise, even after protesters have left the streets of London, but right in the thick of it, Doug tells me that emotions were running high.

When they arrived at Waterloo Bridge at the height of the rebellion, the police had surrounded the truck that was being used as a stage. “We were kneeling in front of them and we began to realise there were all these people glued and locked on underneath the truck; that was a really emotional moment, loads of the performers started to weep a bit and so did the people under the truck, even the police looked a bit weepy. That was once of the most intense points of contact for us.”

“When you see the photographs, you have the police, the protesters, and these weird signature characters in-between. It’s a powerful image.”

The Invisible Circus continues to work their festival and seasonal calendars of events and appearances, and plan to stay in touch with the XR movement. “Someone just took a costume to Finland, and it’s something people want to start replicating in other countries. We’ll support that if people want to take it further.”