Monday, 7 May 2012

Caged Bird Club at Ante-exhibition

We had our first indoor, non-clandestine exhibition in the beautiful Kirkgate Centre in Shipley this weekend as part of the Ante-art festival. It was such an uplifting event with so many amazing people taking part that we are going to publish a separate post about that. Our contribution was a collaborative attempt to redefine what it really means to be one of history's losers.

We started with a quote from the liner notes of the last Godspeed! You, Black Emperor album that celebrates the act of resistance regardless of it's success or failure: "Stubborn tiny lights vs clustering darkness forever ok?"

The No constructed the mostly dark light box out of trash wood. Pivo painted the lettering.

We provided five historical examples of groups of people who have resisted oppression and lost, emphasizing that they could never win because the forces they were up against were too big (and are those we still face today). First up were the medieval peasants who resisted the enclosure of common lands but really were facing the emergence of capitalism and privatisation of everything.

The enclosure of common lands destroyed rural communities and cut off people's access to fuel, food for themselves and their livestock as well as the only medicine that was available to them. The privatisation of land was particularly detrimental to unmarried women who were barred from owning or inheriting property. Many peasant women were actively involved in fighting against enclosures, organising amongst themselves and their wider communities with the only resource they had left; their physical power. One night in York in 1624, a group of women smashed fences and filled in freshly dug ditches and then "enjoyed tobacco and ale after their feat," as one rankled man in authority complained. Vandalism and revelry, a winning combination.

Up next were the captured Africans who struggled against slave traders when crossing the Atlantic. They fought for one thing: freedom. But the symbolism of their struggle is unavoidable.

Typically, history remembers a white dude (William Wilberforce) as coming up with the idea of ending slavery. Yet what this ignores is the part slaves themselves played in sabotaging the whole business – often through the greatest sacrifice of all. African men and women captured to be sold into slavery would often starve themselves, self-harm or throw themselves overboard. They would even rise up against their captors using makeshift weapons and try to force them to turn the boats around. These uprisings were rarely successful mainly because the ships' crews were better armed. But it all cost the slave traders money.

Then we presented the Luddite uprising, a struggle against industrialisation and the elimination of the skilled working class that is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year.

When artisans working in the textile industry were faced with having their skilled jobs taken away by machines, they decided the best course of action was to destroy those machines. Parliament instantly passed legislation rendering machine breaking, or industrial sabotage, a capital offence, an early example of the government protecting the interests of private capital over ordinary workers. As a result, most men who participated in the Luddite uprisings were either executed or shipped to penal colonies in Australia. This did not stop the rise of machines in industry. But they did provide an early lesson in the power ordinary workers can have when they take matters into their own hands or as historian Eric Hobsbawm described it, “collective bargaining by riot”.

The miners' strike in 1984-5 was a fight against the closure of pits and the loss of jobs in the mining industry but hindsight reveals it was a last-ditch attempt to derail an assault on organised labour that was a necessary prelude to unfettered neoliberalism. 

We cannot say for sure whether there was any accuracy in the chant “the miners united will never be defeated,” because by 1985 the miners were not united. But while working miners are blamed for breaking Britain's most bitterly-fought industrial action since 1926's general strike, this lets Margaret Thatcher off far too lightly. Organised workers, led by the miners, had brought down the last Tory government, and when Thatcher entered office in 1979, the unions knew she would avoid a repeat at all costs. This time they were not just fighting for their jobs, they were the focal point of an ideological siege. The story books tell us she broke a union “stranglehold”. But this jars with the memories of mounted police and baton charges at Orgreave that depict what was, in fact, a callous war against normal people. Thatcher won, but today's austerity and assault on jobs is her legacy as much as anyone's – and the miners' defiance has never seemed more inspirational.

And finally, we included the young people who protested against the increase of university tuition fees and the abolition of EMA. They kicked off the fight against IMF-endorsed austerity policies that are forcing ordinary people to pay for the greed of the rich the world over.

In 2010, young people, educators and their allies took to the streets to voice their opposition to the tripling of tuition fees and the ending of the EMA programme, justified by the coalition government's deficit-reduction dogma. The day MPs voted on the bill, thousands of protesters defied the ban on gathering in Parliament Square to make as much noise as possible. They were met with police brutality, cavalry charges, and even the potential threats of water cannon and rubber bullets. The bill passed, but the protests exposed the police as bullies, the politicians as liars, radicalising a whole heap of young people in the process to carry on the struggle.

We asked people to contribute to our list of inspirational losers, providing paper, pencils, markers and a place to sit and get creative. We got some really great additions, including Guy Fawkes vs the sham of democracy, road protesters vs car culture and feminists vs patriarchy. We also got an elephant standing on the Luddites and a dog in a tutu - humiliated animals vs circuses? Or just the idle musings of punks' and hippies' children? We didn't ask.

We loved being part of the Ante-exhibition and hope it can become an annual tradition, if only to get the chance to hang out with so many good people again. 

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