Times Are A Changin’: Temporality, Memory and Social Movements in the Digital Age

Times Are A Changin'
The Times Are A Changin’ Symposium was held at the University of Westminster on the 2nd and 3rd of June 2016 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I spent Thursday and Friday of last week at Times Are A Changing: Temporality, Memory and Social Movements in the Digital Age, a two-day symposium at the University of Westminster organised by Dr. Samuel Merrill and Dr. Anastasia Kavada. I really enjoyed the chance to meet new people, listen to some fantastic presentations and engage with some new concepts. Most of the other attendees were from Memory Studies or Media Studies, so there were a lot of new ideas for me to think about, particularly around the key themes of the symposium, temporality and memory.

As a Geographer, I am aware of just how significant time is (although space will always be my favourite!) However, the ways that different temporalities can impact, and be used by, activists and social movements is not something I had considered before. In her paper, Dr. Veronica Barassi argued that temporalities are constructed through practice, which means that activists can resist or reproduce hegemonic temporalities through their actions. Dr. Kavada’s presentation about the recent Nuit Debout protests in France provided a good example of this. The activists varied the speed at which they posted on social media depending on when they wanted attention; they would increase the intensity of posts before a important protest or meeting, for example. Dr. Kavada called this ‘temporal agency’; activists can gain power by negotiating with, or interfering in, temporal rhythms. It could be interesting to think through these ideas in the context of my PhD as the activists involved in my case studies had very different media technologies available to them, which all involved different temporalities.

The other key theme of the symposium was memory. For some activists and social movements, the memory of past events, people, and movements can be an important source of inspiration, morale, and identity. There were several papers relating to the various ways in which activists carry out ‘memory-work,’ such as Lorenzo Zamponi’s paper on #ioricordo, a hashtag created to memorialise the 2001 Genoa G8 protests. Archives have a significant role to play in the preservation of memory. Foteini Aravani, the Digital Curator at the Museum of London, gave a fascinating presentation about the museum’s experiences collecting items and digital media relating to recent protests, such as Occupy London. You do not have to be a museum to create an archive, however, and some movements choose to keep their own records.  Dr. Anne Kaun’s paper, entitled “Archiving Protest: Changing Temporal Regimes of the Archive,” discussed how modern social movement groups create their own digital archives. Occupy Wall Street had an archiving working group in order to capture representations of the movement from their own perspective. For my case study on the Battle of Cable Street, I am focusing on the various ways in which the Battle has been remembered, and how these memories are constructed and used, so this element of the symposium was also very helpful for me.

I have only mentioned a few of the great papers and speakers from Times Are A Changin’, there was so much interesting research presented that I can’t discuss it all. Suffice it to say that the symposium gave me a lot to think about, and I am confident that my own research will be better because I went. With that in mind, I would like to thank Sam Merrill and Anastasia Kavada for organising the symposium, and particularly Sam Merrill for inviting me. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Disobedient Objects: Mainstreaming the Subversive

The entrance to the ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition at the V&A museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last weekend, the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A museum in South Kensington closed. For the past 6 months, when you walked into the front entrance of the museum on Cromwell Road you could turn right and walk into a gallery filled with the objects of protest, from a suffragette branded teacup, through a remote-controlled spray-paint machine, to giant inflatable cobblestones. Safe to say it’s not what you would usually expect to find in “the world’s greatest museum of art and design.”

Since its foundation in 1852, the V&A museum (named after Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert), has housed a collection representing 5,000 years of human history, in the form of art works of all kinds, from all over the world. The purpose of Disobedient Objects was “to examine the powerful role of objects in movements for social change” (V&A, n.d.) using “objects that open histories of making from below.” (Flood and Grindon, 2014; 8).

The 'Disobedient Objects' exhibition.
The ‘Disobedient Objects’ exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I visited the exhibition several times, and I thought it was fantastic. It had objects of all shapes and sizes from social movements and protests all over the word, and it even had an empty space on the wall for visitors to contribute to as more social movements and contentious issues developed over the course of the exhibition. However I did notice some interesting conflicts between the culture of the museum and the cultures of protest represented by the objects in the exhibition. Protest is ephemeral, messy, and anti-hierarchical, and it was very interesting to observe how the museum, a place of quiet permanence, dealt with these characteristics.

The ceramic 'intervention' at the entrance to the V&A.
The ceramic ‘intervention’ at the entrance to the V&A (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The first example of conflict appeared before you even entered the exhibition. On the walls outside the main entrance to the V&A is a ceramic ‘intervention,’ made by Carrie Reichardt and the Treatment Rooms Collective. It is beautiful, but it was done with the full permission and approval of the museum, and is mounted on metal frames, so it can easily be removed. It demonstrates a common phenomenon that occurs when subversive subcultures are accepted into mainstream culture; they lose some of their edge, their spontaneity, often the things that made them so exciting in the first place.

The seating provided for watching a short film.
The seating provided for watching a short film (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Another example I noticed of the clash between museum and protest culture was during my last visit. It was the final day that the exhibition was open, and it was very busy. A short film was projected onto the back wall of the gallery, and there were a few bench-like things in the ply-wood used for displays so that people could sit and watch it. On this day people were sitting on the backs of the benches, with their feet on the ‘seat’ bit, to watch the film because it was so busy. They were ordered down by a V&A employee, a triumph of the strict rules of museum spaces over the freedom of protest spaces.

A sticker in the exhibition protesting a pay cut for V&A staff.
A sticker in the exhibition protesting a pay cut for V&A staff (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

My final example is less a contradiction, and more just something I thought noteworthy. I have already mentioned the space in the exhibition set aside for visitor-generated materials as the exhibition progressed. On this wall, and dotted around the rest of the exhibit were stickers protesting a 10% pay cut at the V&A. If you celebrate methods and practices of criticism, you have to be prepared to receive some criticism yourself.

Subversive subcultures such as graffiti, skateboarding and protest have all been appropriated by mainstream culture to various extents over the past few decades. I think that Disobedient Objects is a good example of this process, and highlights some of the difficulties involved. The social norms and expectations of museums are very different from those of protest. Disobedient Objects existed on the border between the two, a precarious position that was reflected in the constant negotiations around how the space was used by visitors and controlled by the museum.


“Disobedient Objects: About the Exhibition.” V&A. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/disobedient-objects/disobedient-objects-about-the-exhibition/

Flood, Catherine and Gavin Grindon. “Introduction” in Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon (eds.) Disobedient Objects. London: V&A, 2014.

“Victoria and Albert Museum.” Wikipedia. No date, accessed February 2nd, 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_and_Albert_Museum

Pits and Perverts Revisited: ‘Pride’ the Movie and Politics Now

The Pits and Perverts Revisited panel.
The Pits and Perverts Revisited panel (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last Friday, I went to an event at Birkbeck College called Pits and Perverts Revisited: ‘Pride’ the Movie and Politics Now. It is almost exactly 30 years since the Pits and Perverts fundraiser in Camden was organised for the striking miners by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the group depicted in this year’s hit film, Pride. This event was a reflection on the film and LGSM itself, with Mike Jackson and Siân James speaking, upon whom characters in the film were based. It included a screening of the documentary All Out! Dancing in Dulais and a panel discussion also featuring Diarmaid Kelliher (a PhD student at the University of Glasgow working on solidarity groups for the miners in London), and Bev Skeggs (a professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths). All Out was made in 1986, and is about the work that LGSM did for the miners. It was a great evening full of passionate discussion, which raised a lot of interesting points.

The key thing that really came home to me during the course of the evening was the importance of solidarity to protest movements. The point was made in All Out that it is illogical to fight for the right of one oppressed group or minority but not others. Solidarity can take many forms, from a declaration of support to volunteers to help man the picket lines, but all types are important. There is a long tradition of solidarity amongst social movements in Britain, for example miners from across the country joined the Grunwick strike on the picket line in the 1970s. However there is also a tradition of groups not receiving the support they need, for example many of the big trade union’s attitudes to women workers. Solidarity between different protest movements is still not a given, but as Pride demonstrates, it can be an invaluable and incredibly beneficial experience.

Another important characteristic of social movements that was emphasised was networks. Exchanging solidarity with other groups involves making connections, sharing knowledge, resources and experience. Several of the speakers emphasised the importance of making connections with other movements and activists, particularly internationally as many of the issues campaigned on now have international causes and implications. Academic geographers frequently analyse social movements from the perspective of networks, and it was nice to know that this is a legitimate perspective to take.

The final thing that came out of the discussion that I think is really important to emphasise is the necessity of fundraising. The main things that LGSM did in support of the miners were collections and fundraisers. At the height of the strike the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valleys Miners Support Group needed £5-8000 per week to feed 1000 mining families. These funds were essential for the strike to continue, and without it, the miners would have had no choice but to return to work. Fundraising is not glamorous or exciting, but no campaign will last for long without some form of income.

The audience for Pits and Perverts Revisited was more mixed than your average academic seminar, which I think contributed to the vigour and practical nature of the discussion. The evening gave me a lot to think about. Pride is a fantastic film, funny and heart-warming, but it is also inspiring activism and discussion, which I think is a truly wonderful achievement.