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10th December 2020

Is it Art? Student protest banners

Just cardboard and bedsheets, or something more? Sam Burt discusses whether recent creative efforts at demonstrations can be considered ‘protest art’
Is it Art? Student protest banners
Photo: Sam Burt @ The Mancunion

A plethora of banners have recently appeared around campus, voicing students’ discontent with university leadership during the pandemic.

Spray-painted bedsheets fluttered defiantly from the windows of Owens Park during its occupation. Cheap’n’cheerful cardboard placards asked ‘9K 4 WHAT?’ at solidarity protests. And the 9k4what.mcr Instagram account surely speaks for many with its iconic fist breaking out of a laptop screen.

Which got me wondering, when do displays of protest become ‘protest art’?

A brief Guardian survey of characteristic protest art suggests a great deal more effort, and, well, artistry than our recent local additions. At first glance, it seems easy enough to identify protest art, as that which is primarily artistic and only secondarily a political artefact.

But consider Relocate Destroy by Edgar Heap of Birds: it’s simply words on a blank canvas, expressively written. So it would seem protest art needn’t even include visual representations.

The use of bedclothes in the Manchester protests is clearly for convenience’s sake, but they are also symbols. Mirroring the occupation of the Owens Park building, they represent the inversion of the public and private spheres, and the politicisation of students’ domestic lives.

In the past week, S.A.F.E.R. Manchester has hung canvases on trees and railings outside the Student’s Union, voicing students’ anxieties. In their simplicity – block caps, black-on-white quotations attributed to unnamed students – they evoke the anonymity, the feeling of being invisible and isolated, that many of us have experienced this term.

They look like scraps of cloth carried by the wind and snared on branches. They’re sad to look at.

I couldn’t help noticing that one of them was written partly in cursive: “I’m lonely but don’t have time to do anything about it.”

Photo: Sam Burt @ The Mancunion
Photo: Sam Burt @ The Mancunion

An aesthetic choice, surely? Harder to take in at a glance, but suggestive of the nameless hand behind it. (If you’re the creator and there was a more prosaic reason, please don’t write in. Indulge me. Its been a long year.)

Verdict: if they seem to say more than the words themselves…yes.

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