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Anarchist art: Words on the street

An exhibition of subversive art is designed to make the viewer question the issues of the day

22 February, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

THEY showed up in plain clothes and, bearing their warrant cards, the officers from the Met Police’s intelligence wing told the arts curator that they wanted to check the gallery was large enough for guests who had replied to a message of Facebook about an opening night party.

But Vyvian Raoul – a pseudonym used by the show’s organiser – was suspicious as to what the officers’ real reasons were for coming to the Flaxon Ptootch art gallery on Kentish Town Road – as it features a host of anarchist and subversive art, with many pieces bearing imagery and slogans about the behaviour and role of the police in London today.

“They wanted to know if it was correctly licensed,” says Vyvian, who also runs the hard left and libertarian publisher, Dog Section Press. “They said they did not have any problem with the content – in fact, they said they quite liked it – but wanted to check how many people were coming. I asked them if they go round to every opening party to check this type of thing – and they said no. It seemed a spurious reason.”

The works have two strands, says Vyvian. One, called “subvertising”, takes a form of advertising that is recognisable and tweaks it. Placed surreptitiously on billboards, at first glance they look to be selling a product but actually carry a message of a different kind.

“There is a serious point in it, which becomes obvious as you read it,” says Vyvian. “The subvertising movement mimics the advertising aesthetic and language. It relies on subtlety. You are drawn in, and then you get a punchline at the end.”

Others are more straightforward and are not based on mainstream campaigns, he adds.

Artists include Special Patrol Group, Brandalism and Hogre.

Hogre originally won notoriety as a street artist in Italy. “He came to London and started working on subvertising and became prolific,” says Vyvian, while illustrator Hannah Meese was commissioned to create a piece based on a George Orwell quote from his Spanish Civil War memoir, Homage To Catalonia.

Vyvian believes works of this type can help people think about the role the state and the police play in their lives – and raise important questions over issues such as civil liberties.

“Different people have different experiences,” he says. “Yet mainstream media coverage is almost 100 per cent positive. Officers are often painted as heroes, as untouchable.”

But with cases such as Orgreave, Hillsborough and the murder of Stephen Lawrence, it is vital we continue to question how the police are monitored, he adds.

“The force was created by Sir Robert Peel after the Peterloo massacre made it no long acceptable to send in troops against unarmed workers. We believe its primary purpose has not changed.”

Because of the nature of the art, they are rarely seen in galleries and are not created to be collected or sold. Instead, they are often reactions to a political issue.

“In 2012, there was art made in response to the Met Police’s own advertising, called The Confidence Campaign.

“It cost around £500,000 for two weeks of posters . They were placed in bus stops in areas identified as having low confidence in the police. It was basically spurious propaganda, with statistics we say were not true – so the Special Patrol Group did their own versions that had more honest messages.”

Moving the art from the street on to a gallery wall provided a fresh take and an unusual context. “It was an interesting dilemma whether to go into a gallery,” says Vyvian – who reveals the name is taken from the Adrian Edmondson character in The Young Ones.

“Subvertisers are often asked to go into galleries – for example, the Design Museum are due to a show called The Art of Protest. The Special Patrol Group were approached but refused.”
But this show will send the ideas to a wider audience, says Vyvian.

“All the art on display has been put up on the streets,” he adds. “Its nature is such that people do not keep it, or sell it. It is not a commercial thing. And most of them do not want their art on display in this way, ever. Furthermore, it is not street art – it is art that just happens to be on the street.

“By doing this show, we will hopefully draw more attention to it and therefore have a greater impact. And the gallery we have chosen suits it – it is as if it is on display in The Tate.”

Dog Section Press runs until March 1 at Flaxon Ptootch, 237 Kentish Town Road, NW5. Tel: 020 7267 5323.

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