1525: Protest (ft. Pepe)

Sitting in the Studio, I listen to fellow young people discussing how activism shapes their practice. I try my best to avoid politics, it brings out the worst in me. I manage this successfully for small number of hours daily. Ultimately, everything is political. Policies shape where money is distributed and so effect e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g.: access for people to go out into world and do things; who is listened to; what opportunities are available; and who for. We’re the people politics affect. As we start talking current affairs, the energy in the room shifts. It’s well familiar to me; a punishing angst that frequents post-election pubs, and the bedrooms of teens listening to The Jam, rears its head. These conversations are especially important because some people in the room have no official political voice; either under 18 or living in the UK on a visa.

These conversations are being had regularly by 1525; Nottingham Contemporary’s youth collective. The group of creatives aged 15 to 25 meet weekly in the rooms of Contemporary. For many collective members, being an artist and activist overlaps. Although a 1525 member, I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an artist. Before I began my internship at Nottingham Contemporary, the art world often seemed alien to me. It still is. But, apparently, even artists feel this way. I now find myself blessedly lulled by a false sense of security that I may have the slightest clue what’s going on. On the other hand, activism is something I’m more familiar with. Playing into the strengths of collective members is something that Youth Programmer and 1525 Mom, Wingshan, is amazing at doing. So, naturally, a strand explored by 1525 is youth activism.

To a fault, I question everything and, in that respect, going into this exploration I was in my element. I wondered; how are young activists covered by media outlets? How are they talked about by ‘real’ adults? What processes are familiar across different cultures? And, how do various tactics effect the success of acts of activism? In the autumn of 2019, the telly, Twitter and Tik Tok were bubbling with talk of the protests happening in Hong Kong. Clips of violence, claims of misrepresentation and angry voices reverberated across all channels, so it made sense to focus our attentions there. Our exploration began with discussing footage we’d seen on main media outlets. We talked about our confidence in sources, language translation, how each outlet selected and represented various voices, and where we should be sourcing our news. That angst you only feel in a teenager’s bedroom or over a pint during election fortnight burns hot in the room when you bring so many creatives together. Of course, nothing was cut and dry, these are artists – young artists – and we each experience the world a little differently. That’s one of the real benefits of a collective – the possibility to approach, support and understand something in the world in a more rounded and thorough way.

Thanks to the efforts and passions of 1525 members, we got our hands on items that had been distributed, worn and used during protests earlier in the year. They were collated and placed along the table so we could read, watch and begin to understand more about the political messages protestors in Hong Kong were trying to spread. The banning of masks and use of Pepe the Frog were too intriguing to be overlooked. In the UK, the covering of the face is traditionally met with suspicion. It suggests protection of identity and therefore something to be hidden. In China, people wear masks when they are poorly, to protect those around them from the spread of their illness. Both the use of and banning of masks during the protests was a cultural etiquette being manipulated by people for political gain but ultimately assures a cultural significance on an object. These moments develop and embolden the mask as a symbol of protection. Similarly, Pepe the Frog is a meme that has been manipulated in the same fashion. A prominent and symbolic image of culture in the digital age that has been manipulated by political groups across the globe. The contrast in ideologies of pro-democracy protesters of Hong Kong and the alt-right movement in the US is stark. Yet, for all groups, Pepe is a symbol of resistance. Like I said, e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. is political, even your favourite internet gags.

Naming the exhibition was another conversation that, inevitably, became political – though, I thought, had a beautiful poetry to it. Add oil, 加油, is a phrase used regularly by protestors, and those who are in support of them. It resonates in its metaphorical meaning through translation; we speak colloquially about adding fuel to a fire. Further considering its nature, oil and water just don’t mix. No matter how hard we try force them together, they separate from one another. The collective felt that this represented the position in which Hong Kong found itself, under the political discourse of the time. In a similar vein, the fact that you cannot extinguish an oil fire with water, is significant. Young voices are fuelled by other young voices. We add oil to each other, uplifting and validating political expressions. Young people’s right to be heard and involved in politics is not handed to us, we must continue to demand our acknowledgement.

Our exploration was not a question of who is right, rather how can we be better activists and learn from one another. Oil & Water is currently on display in Gallery Zero. Please come along to check out a snapshot of 1525’s creative research process when our galleries re-open on Sat 8 Feb.