2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which extended voting rights to women who met certain, limited criteria, but left 60% of the female population disenfranchised. One hundred years later, with turbulent global politic fuelling public debate, Normal to Dissent. sought to address issues of visibility across gender, race and access by examining their systems of language and representation.
Curated by Rebecca Wright, Programme Director and Kate Keara Pelen, External Liaison Coordinator from Graphic Communication Design, Normal to Dissent. was split across an exhibition in the Window Galleries and a series of conversations and workshops in the Lethaby Gallery. Alongside work from Graphics students, staff and alumni, the project brought together three additional programmes: Art; Culture and Enterprise and Drama and Performance.
Devised as a multi-faceted project with an experimental format, the material exhibited in the Window Galleries spanned over a century, with Window One dedicated to historical printed matter from the Museum and Study Collection on the subject of women’s suffrage, and Window Two acting as its contemporary counterpart, with responses around the broader issues of equality, diversity, personal and political agency. Scaling the entire height of the windows, the broad selection of work was democratised through printed reproduction, with 18 paper banners suspended in each window. The large-scale vertical ‘drops’ referenced the visual elements of 20th century suffrage: the sashes, placards, printed matter and other ephemera which permeate the movement.
Selected from the Museum and Study Collection archives, Window One documented acts of revolt, solidarity and control. Pages from The Suffragette and Common Cause newspapers detail rallying speeches, notifications of arrest and forcible feeding, all enlarged to monumental size. While this printed material was reframed through a re-publishing process, Window Two brought together various disciplines and visual and linguistic methodologies including embroidery, film, photography and the documentation of events, all homogenised through print. BA Graphic Design student Anoushka Khandwala’s dissertation ‘Why Are There So Few Women of Colour in Design?’, published in Creative Review, here re-presented as banner, became an urgent call to action. BA Fine Art student Rebecca Hancock’s embroidered, diaristic self-portraits, originally small and tactile, became emblematic through enlargement and reproduction in print. A (stereo)typically ‘gendered’ activity, embroidery is laborious, and Hancock uses it to detail the often-invisible issues of personal mental health and well-being.
Psycho Redux, a project from BA Performance: Design and Practice students, is a video documentation of a live performance which took place in 2017. At the end of a six-week long rehearsal process, the performance was an attempt at an exact re-enactment of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film Psycho, in real-time – a task that could never succeed. As a documentation of an event, which itself was a re-presentation of a feature film, presented here through the lens of a window without any sound, Psycho Redux articulates the inherent failure of representation.
Using the Window Gallery displays as source material, a series of evolving activities took place in the Lethaby Gallery. Subverting the established idea of the gallery as a site for high-production value and resolved display, the Lethaby Gallery instead acted as a facilitator for exchange and experimentation. Encouraging positive disruption, members of each of the four programmes took up residence in an otherwise empty gallery space, equipped with a large format printer, reproductions of the museum suffrage material and the Representation of the People Act, and rolls of punk-inspired orange fluorescent tape. Refrains from the suffrage movement were extracted and repeated. At times emblazoned across walls in fluorescent orange, phrases such as ‘share each other’s pursuits’, ‘fined for being a woman’, ‘mandate’ and ‘together’ monumentalised the creative potential of collective protest.
Graphics student Alva Skog installed a new banner in the gallery, this time asking visitors to name as many female artists and designers, specifically women of colour, as possible, without the aid of Google. Beginning as a monument to the persistent invisibility of female creatives, it was gradually filled with names. Under the collective rubric ‘Two Hijabs on Tour’, BA Fine Art students Sara Gulamali and Maria Mahfooz staged an intervention by removing a ping-pong table from the public spaces in the Central Saint Martins building, and re-housing it in the Lethaby Gallery, placed in on a traditional Persian rug. As a pretext for conversation, the two British Muslim women re-framed the participatory game by putting it in a gallery setting, paralleling the necessary collaborative nature of ping-pong with the need for discussion about race, diversity and visibility. Their action was also seemingly a dissenting one – removing property with the knowledge it would provoke reaction – but it was in fact achieved with permission. This simple action raised the question: can protest be endorsed and facilitated, but remain subversive?
Normal to Dissent. culminated on 19 April with a closing event and a series of performative disruptions. Students moved around the Lethaby Gallery, inventing games and periodically launching into chants. A group of participants from the BA Culture, Criticism and Curation course recounted the final words of Eric Garner, an African-American man who was restrained and killed by police in 2014 and recited lines from Ben Okri’s poem Grenfell Tower, June 2017. Reflecting on the project, Co-curator Pelen spoke of the importance of risk and vulnerability, which the students embraced: “it’s not an intellectual thing, it’s something more fundamental. The responses were genuinely meaningful. The framework of the project allowed the students to create a version of real life and then critique it.” Using the protest of women’s suffrage as a starting point, Normal to Dissent. gave our students the freedom to instigate dialogues around gender, race and inclusivity, encouraging disruptive change.
Normal to Dissent. was on view in the Lethaby Gallery from 9–20 April and in the Window Galleries from 5–26 April 2018. The concept was developed by Kate Keara Pelen and Rebecca Wright in conversation with Sarah Campbell, Peter Hall, Paul Haywood, Teleri-Lloyd Jones, Laura McNamara, Ruth Sykes and Judy Willcocks with support from Margot Bannerman, Alison Green, Andrew Marsh, Fred Mellor, Louise Garrett, Pete Brooks, Alex Schady, Charlotte Bonham-Carter and Allan Atlee.