London has become the center of state-sponsored violence against art and artists. The government, in conjunction with metropolitan police, has decided that if you can’t limit art to household decorations or museums, kill the messenger.
Recently, CCTV footage released to Dezeen online architecture magazine shows more than 40 police streaming into the Hoxton Docks arts building in east London. The leaders of this police group used crowbars and power tools to break the door down. The scenes are reminiscent of German stormtroopers in old movies featuring Hitler and his thugs.
Another clip shows eight officers yanking the owner of the building, Russell Gray, off his motorcycle when he arrived at the building after being informed about the raid. A third clip shows police shoving Gray up against a wall and handcuffing him. Gray was taken to jail on the charges of ‘suspicion of attempted assault and dangerous driving’.
The police believed that the building was being used by the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion to prepare for protests against media groups that dismiss climate change as fiction.
The British government, apparently, believes that suspicions and beliefs are sufficient reasons to break and enter an arts building and arrest all staff including artists. Mobile phones were confiscated as well. The police have offered no apologies and no immediate charges following the raid.
What’s in the building?
Organizers of the annual Antepavilion architecture charity competition were, in fact, using the building to feature rooftop tensegrity (tense-gritty) structures used in protests to block streets. A collective called Project Bunny Rabbit designed this particular installation, called All Along The Watchtower.
During its construction, the arts venue held workshops to show members of the public how to assemble these lightweight, reusable structures made of bamboo poles and steel cables. The police have threatened to return and remove or destroy the structures.
Police later said the raid and arrests of artists was “proactive action to prevent and reduce criminal disruption which we believe was intended for direction at media business locations over the weekend” (dezeen magazine, 2021).
Why are the police particularly interested in media protests, one might ask? Wealthy people own the majority of the media in the UK, and are overwhelmingly right-wing. Three billionaire families, Murdoch, Rothermere, and Barclay, for instance, control roughly 70% of national newspaper circulation. They also control over 50% of news websites. This ownership concentration has grown by approximately 10 percent since 2015 to 80 percent today.
Two companies, controlled by wealthy shareholders, control roughly 70% of all local commercial analogue radio stations and 60% of digital stations (Report: Who owns the UK media, March 4 2021).
One might argue that highly concentrated ownership of the press and websites by billionaires doesn’t really matter. They are after all separate from influencing the government.
This is an Alice In Wonderland view of media: from the point at which Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019, for example, to the end of September 2020, three billionaire press owners and their representatives had more meetings with government ministers than all the rest of the UK media combined.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp—which owns the Wall Street Journal in the U.S.—- was top dog with 40 meetings alone. There is no record of what was discussed because no minutes were taken.
These are the same media groups that put Boris Johnson in power, via the Sun, Daily Mail, and Telegraph, persuading 52% of those who voted in the EU membership referendum to favor Leave. And while newspaper and magazine readership has been dropping over the years, the news websites and TV media have been compensating.
Emerging power dynamics
A fundamental change in power dynamics is underway, driven in part by social media. We are moving from vertical, top-down corporate power to what I call horizontal power, which manifests itself on the street.
Horizontal power is issue-oriented for sure, but it manifests itself in spontaneous associations and expansion in multiple directions. It is more like art than traditional social organizations for protest. Its essence is manifested in collectives, like Project Bunny Rabbit that created the installation at the Hoxton Docks arts building. This is its strength and weakness.
Even if individuals belong to the Extinction Rebellion, for example, they are more often than not loosely affiliated rather than group identified adherents that espouse a particular party line or ideology. The police may try to arrest them all and confiscate their mobile phones, but next week there will be 100’s more, perhaps even thousands distributed throughout London.
This emerging form of spontaneous organization and protest is sending shock waves into the corridors of traditional, vertical corporate power, and the State is responding with all of its power.
This is what makes it seem hollow and almost antiquarian when news media label protests as driven by Communists, Socialists, or outside agitators. They will do anything to wrap the story in traditional hierarchal terms, the bosses and the others. The billionaire media owners and their cronies only long for the days when demands for social change were canned and predictable.
The Communists and Socialists today are as impotent as they were in France 68 when they sold the students out to the government. They traded freedom and a genuine future for order and control, returning to business as usual.
Why the street matters
Many would like to render art as useless to social and political transformation. The same wealthy classes of people who are ‘art collectors’ determining aesthetic trends are the same people who want their streets under state control.
They are much happier with artists and the view of art as a global commodity, typified for example by Jeff Koons who sold one of three exact copies of a stainless steel polished Rabbit at auction for $91 million USD, May 2019.
The wealthy have also tried to eviscerate the critical street art of Banksy, an England-based street artist, and political activist. His graphic arts painted on buildings sell for millions of dollars, and street art has now become tied to urban renewal—–relegated to street sites and districts and approved by government agencies.
Those artists that don’t adhere to the rules of society are placed under arrest and fined for the destruction of property.
The streets belong to us, the people, and individuals can be engaged through art. Streets must be kept free for protest and real, direct communication by:
(1) Showing up at city meetings and protesting against private ownership of public spaces, which is happening in cities like London and New York;
(2) Joining a protest and participating in erecting street art to alert others to the importance of the cause at hand;
(3) Utilizing a projector to show what’s happening in the social order to oppress people; it can be shown on the side of a building that’s visible to the public, especially in a public square. Generators can be rented cheaply to drive projectors.
If you are living in London or nearby, be sure to attend the public opening of the Antepavilion on July 23, 2021. You might get a chance to make a difference and meet new people on the way to jail. Bring an attorney’s phone number, in case you need help.