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Arts and Disruption

“Future arts will be disruptions of situations, or nothing” – Guy Debord, 1952

Director/actor Ben Stiller filming on location for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Bloomsbury Applied Visual Arts

For critic Tzvetan Todorov, storytelling is a dance between ‘equilibrium’ and ‘disruption’. In The Language of Film, Todorov’s three-act structure – a journey from balance to imbalance, and back again – is examined in light of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s 2013 feature film. Mitty is a hapless dreamer who grieves the unlived life of an adventurer. He enters a ‘disrupted state’ when his day job is threatened by lay-offs. The film ends with a kind of equilibrium, leaving ‘aspects of his life resolved yet still in a state of flux’. Read the chapter for more narrative theory.

Disruption, as an agent of flux, is a potent catalyst for change. In Interaction Design, Helle Rohde Andersen, project lead on Rockwool Foundation’s charitable work, describes the importance of disruption as a dynamic in effecting real-world change. ‘Disruptive innovation’, as Fran Sheldon puts it in A Practical Guide to the Fashion Industry brings flux not only to the stories we tell ourselves and the aesthetics they inspire, but to our behaviour, too, which informs and mirrors the art we create.

Repurposed Blazing Tube Cooker, with aluminium sheeting used to construct a shelter

Bloomsbury Design Library

Contrary to popular belief, necessity is not always the mother of invention. Accident and uselessness may do just as well. At least, this is what Craig Martin proposes in his fascinating book Deviant Design, a treasure trove of ‘disrupted’ objects and devices. Read about the Blazing Tube solar cooker, for instance, an appliance which failed to meet the needs of the Goudoubo refugee camp in Burkina Faso. Instead, the community repurposed it variously, from a makeshift shelter to fencing, and even a wheelbarrow. Explore further for more ingenious uses of objects beyond their original utility.

Design as a response to neglect, whether for refugees or other communities, is Ann Thorpe’s definition of activism: “I define activism as taking intentional action to instigate change on behalf of a neglected group.” Maziar Rezai’s chapter in Ethics in Design and Communication on the Ethics of Design Activism explores the designer’s responsibility to society. For a primer on the subject, read Natalia llyin’s ‘What Design Activism Is and is not’. Mahmoud Keshavarz’s discussion of design politics (‘There is no design “and” politics; rather, there is design politics’) provides an excellent insight into design as potentially harmful in its disruption, what he calls ‘the politics and violence of design beyond its interaction with its intended environment or end-users.’

‘Change the world from where you are’, writes Ezio Manzini in Politics of the Everyday (trans. by Rachel Anne Coad). In this chapter Manzini explores the concept of ‘transformative normality’ – everyday-life choices that shape policy and design infrastructure. Click the link above to read about transgressive tactics and degrees of participation in enacting change, rebelling against systems, and the idea of ‘productive consumption’.

Collective Unconscious on view during the 'Eileen Agar: Angel Of Anarchy' exhibition photocall at Whitechapel Gallery on May 14, 2021 in London, England

Bloomsbury International Encyclopedia of Surrealism

When Guy Debord wrote that ‘future arts will be disruptions of situations, or nothing’ in his Prolegomena to all future cinema (1952), he articulated a goal shared by both Situationists and surrealists alike. In 'Situationism', Joël Gayraud writes about the proximity of the two movements and how they were less interested in ‘settling into the realm of art, which was limited to representing situations’ than in ‘realising art itself . . . of constructing situations.’

This unmooring from representational styles of art is a surrealist staple. British-Argentinian painter Eileen Agar, who you can read about in this article by Michel Remy, describes how she plays with form and creates a ‘mental perspective’ in her work. Remy contextualises this technique: ‘In Paris she followed the teaching of the Czech cubist painter František Foltýn, who initiated her into the geometricization of space and how to disrupt conventional perspective’. Agar’s artwork developed into something ‘halfway between abstraction and representation’, he says, and found company in the UK alongside the likes of Roland Penrose, Paul Nash, David Gascoyne, and Herbert Read during the mid- to late 1930s.

Sotheby's employees pose with the newly completed work by the artist Banksy entitled 'Love is in the Bin'

Bloomsbury Art Markets

Notorious for subverting art spaces and best known for his signature stencil-style graffiti, Banksy’s self-shredding portrait of ‘Girl with Balloon’ (newly titled ‘Love is in the Bin’) is perhaps the most famous disruption of an auction house in recent memory. The stunt at Sotheby's in 2018 is only one of many kinds of disruption within the art market, which is itself a competing network of innovation and change that comprises patrons, collectors, curators, scholars, critics, conservators, as well as artists.

Read about the Claire S. Copley Gallery in Los Angeles, for instance, whose founder was committed to disrupting the art market. Their exhibitions only rarely consisted of works that could be purchased. One of the gallery’s noteworthy shows deconstructed the walls of the gallery itself. Or the Galerie Iris Cletmin Paris, which was reinvented as a travelling truck after years of representing young and unknown artists in defiance of critics’ opinions and the art market at large.

Gallery exhibitions, too, can serve of acts of disruption and defiance. In 1941 the Galerie Friedland put on an exhibition to defy the occupying German Army by displaying solidarity with artists who had been denounced as degenerate by the Nazi regime. Wartime art trade and anti-war art have a long, shared history, as with the Bykert Gallery, which was involved in the US anti-war movement in 1970, providing a base for activist outreach.

Images above and on the homepage are courtesy of Getty Images.