In the following article, based on a talk given at Counteract’s Art and Heart gathering in 2017, Iain McIntyre explores how applying and incorporating a creative approach to a variety of social change events refreshes the parts that other tactics cannot reach.
Street theatre, costumes, props, dance and puppetry
This might involve a performance that provides a direct, didactic message to audiences or more subversive acts that are not clearly theatre but which serve to challenge everyday reality. Dressing up, not dressing at all, dancing, spelling out words with bodies, and using puppets and props either as part of or as the focal point for a rally, occupation or protest can liven things up and get people thinking. A little theatre can also rapidly shift protest dynamics, such as when people diffused tensions with police by breaking into a can-can dance during an anti-uranium bike ride in the 1970s.
Creative civil disobedience
Sombre and simple acts of refusal can clearly show opposition to unjust laws and demonstrate tenacity and commitment. If they grow they can possibly become big enough to overwhelm the criminal justice system and render bad laws unenforceable. In the early 1970s the Australian government essentially abandoned prosecutions against all but a few high-profile activists due to the mass refusal of young men to register for conscription. To prove that the law had collapsed draft resisters publicly humiliated authorities through actions such as daring authorities to arrest them whilst chained to the gates of Pentridge Gaol. Afraid of generating extra publicity the government demurred.
When civil disobedience campaigns stall they run the risk of becoming impressive displays of state rather than community power. Repeatedly walking lemming like into the hands of the police and head banging with courts can become a dead end as people lose interest and resources get drained away. Knowing when to switch gears is difficult to assess, but throwing in variety, creativity and humour from the beginning can’t hurt.
Civil disobedience is not all about risking and getting arrested either. During Queensland’s harsh crackdown on public protest in the 1970s and 1980s some activists would call ‘phantom’ marches to waste wrongfoot police only to strike with the real thing when the authorities slackened their efforts. Equal pay campaigns from the 1940s to 1970s saw industrial action undertaken in which women only worked the percentage of the hour that reflected their disproportionate pay rate as well as refuse to pay full fares on public transport until income, as well as costs, were made gender neutral.
Probing gaps in the law and using loopholes to your advantage are a similar means of illustrating the selective application and ridiculousness of many laws and regulations. From protesters walking backwards in Melbourne during 1905 to defy a crackdown on street marches and Noel Counhian giving a speech from inside a cage in Brunswick in 1933 through to the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy exploiting long forgotten rules allowing camping on Parliament lawns and Occupy Melbourne protesters dressing up in tents to flout camping regulations Australian activists have had a long history of combining subversive means to undermine anti-protest laws.
During the 2011 Occupy Melbourne protests activists defied council bans on camping by wearing their tents. Initially dumbfounded the police unfortunately later responded by strip searching one woman in order to remove her tent, thereby demonstrating the cruel lengths they would go to keep the city’s parks protest free.
Creative civil obedience
As Critical Mass bike rides have shown since the 1990s mass obedience of pro-social laws can be empowering for those facing dangerous situations on an otherwise individual and daily level. They can also draw attention to rights that are otherwise regularly flouted, such as cyclists having full access to roadways. Since the convict days on the job ‘work-to-rule’ industrial action has long been a way to control the pace of work and force concessions by following instructions and guidelines to the nth degree.
Music and song
Music has a unique ability to engage us. It can give us a sense of unity and belonging, connect us to movements near and far in terms of time and geography, mark and create significant events in our individual and collective life, rouse passion or engender grief. It’s become standard for rallies to include a singer who gets up after numerous speeches and that’s not a bad thing, but we can incorporate music in so many other ways.
Gigs, concerts and tours are a common means of fundraising and allow us to involve those who wouldn’t attend other kinds of events. Complaints choirs and singing events can be fun protests in themselves. During the 1990s and 2000s the Fairwear campaign would regularly sing retooled Christmas carols outside retailers during the festive season in order to draw attention to the exploitation of outworkers.
Whether it’s leading a song or banging a drum, music is easily incorporated into rallies, marches, occupations and blockades. It can rev up the crowd or diffuse tensions, such as when protesters faced with the imminent smashing of their picket line during the 1991 AIDEX anti-arms fair blockade began singing Monty Python’s ‘Always Look On The Bright Side of Life’. Both the police and blockaders cracked up and, knowing that they would no longer go in hard, police commanders ordered their charges to stand down. If an anthem or campaign theme song doesn’t emerge organically then you can write your own or commission someone else to do so. Make it a competition for extra outreach and promotion.
Pauline Pantsdown’s classic track which reached #10 on the ARIA charts in 1998.
If inspiration is lacking then you can always adopt or adapt a pre-existing song. In the run up to the S11 alter-globalisation protests in 2000 the organisers held a poll which resulted in John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’ being selected. A subsequent uproar orchestrated by the usual media suspects did both the singer and the protest a favour in terms of publicity. Parodies are another good way to draw on, and lampoon, the familiar.
2016 Parody of ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ opposing the proposed, and ultimately cancelled, East- West tunnel.
Assembling seemingly suddenly to carry out a performance or action seems to have become a bit passé, but that’s often when a form is ripe for rediscovery.
Being Out and Proud
Simply heading out the door and entering the wider world can be a subversive and radical act for marginalised communities. These daily acts of resistance have at times been amplified through collective endeavours such as Gay Zaps of the 1970s during which friends and lovers cavorted on public transport en masse to assert their existence and challenge heteronormative conventions.
Footage from the morning rally that preceded the 1978 Sydney Gay Mardi Gras.
These are an effective tool for reclaiming space and putting a halt to anti-social corporate and government activities, but they become even more effective when they also put that space to pro-social use in the present and/or provide a glimpse into the future. An occupation at the University of Melbourne in 1970 created its own creche for children as part of an early campaign for childcare provision.
Such repurposing can include disused as well as misused property as repeated occupations of buildings and houses originally slated for demolition due to road building projects, but subsequently used for housing, community centres and art spaces have shown since the 1970s. Women took over empty houses and Ministry of Housing flats in the 1970s and 1980s in Sydney, Victoria and South Australia to set up domestic violence shelters. After being repeatedly ignored by authorities families in Redfern built their own playground in 1975 on vacant lot left unused by the Rachel Forster Hospital for 40 years. A series Empty Shows in the 2000s used buildings, generally abandoned for the purposes of real estate speculation, as galleries. In 2016 houses left empty after the abandoned East-West tunnel scheme were squatted in Bendigo Street, Collingwood to provide housing and a First Nations embassy.
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy of 1972 was a classic piece of creative activism in which a new way to assert sovereignty was created and the concept of holding a vigil transformed. Not only have there been multiple Aboriginal embassies held across the country since, but other groups have adapted the concept, such when Atom Free embassies and Women’s embassies were set up in Canberra in the 1970s and 1980s. Following the Dili Massacre in 1990 an East Timorese embassy was built outside the Indonesian one as a means of defying the occupation.
A clip from the 1972 documentary film Ningla A-Na Hungry For Our Land.
Pranks and Hoaxes
Be it putting out bogus press releases that force companies and politicians to reveal what they’re truly up to, getting fake content into media outlets to expose their biases, or posing as a member of the elite in order to gain access to the halls of power, pulling one over the rich and powerful in order to embarrass them and expose their transgressions is a powerful form of entertainment and illumination.
Fast Freddy helped expose business and politics as usual during the 2014 Tasmanian state election.
Public demonstrations of policy outcomes
Protests, vigils and actions can incorporate elements that drive home the negative effects of policies to decision makers. MP Joan Coxsedge set off what was dubbed the ‘Smorgon Stink Bomb’ in Victorian Parliament to make it reek even more than normal whilst demonstrating what constituents living near factories in the city’s Western suburbs had to put up with every day. During an anti-aeroplane-noise campaign in Sydney during 2001, Sydney’s Sonic Soldiers, aka Laurie’s Alarm Clock (named after the Minister for Transport) visited the homes of various senior politicians at 6:00am to give them a little taste of what others were suffering. With the help of 4800 watt rock’n’roll bins driven by a 3000 watt amplifier, the group played them numbers by the Screaming Jets as well as other Oz rock classics.
Turning protests, rallies and vigils into parties can make what would might otherwise have been a dull walk around the city followed by hours of passively standing around to listen to a succession of speakers a celebratory event. A festive atmosphere can not only put some pep in your step, but also draw in new and differing crowds. Reclaim The Streets events which opposed car culture by turning thoroughfares into dance parties were very popular in Sydney during the 1990s and 2000s before, like most tactics, they were eventually countered by police and lost steam. The Sydney Mardi Gras march of 1978 was originally aimed at getting sections of the community out of the bars and into the streets by having a celebration in the heart of Sydney’s GLBTIQ community.
Memories of Sydney Reclaim The Streets parties of the 1990s and 2000s.
Travelling from place to place to spread the word and demonstrate commitment to a cause has long been a means of protest. In recent decades Michael Long and Kevin Buzzacott have shown how an old tactic can be given new life through walks which have highlighted ongoing injustices and the refusal by power holders to engage in meaningful dialogue with First Nations. The anti-uranium bike rides of the 1970s and 1980s were a novel way of protesting the dangers associated with the nuclear industry as was the Humps Not Dumps camel expedition of the early 2000s. Australians have long dispensed with their clothes to add extra zing to protests and this has continued in recent times with annual nude bike rides.
Commemorative events are a powerful way to mark important, but often ignored incidents and people, whilst acknowledging and exposing ongoing wrongs. Annual community initiated events have commemorated the 1842 Melbourne execution of Aboriginal resistance fighters Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner since the 2000s with the City of Melbourne eventually recognising the figures with a permanent memorial in 2016.
The 159th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade was commemorated in 2013 with a variety of events in Ballarat from 4am onwards including the burning of an effigy of climate change denier and arch-conservative businessperson Maurice Newman. Photo by John Takver.
Activists have also long creatively repurposed and subverted existing commemorative events. ANZAC Day marches from the 1980s to 2010s have seen Aboriginal people try to march as representatives and ancestors of those who fought colonisation in the frontier wars whilst women have repeatedly attempted to lay wreathes and march to represent the millions raped in war. On January 26th 1938 a widely-publicised march and Aboriginal-only public meeting was held to mark the 150th anniversary of colonisation and mourn its legacy whilst demanding citizenship and land. Whilst settlers celebrated during state sanctioned events Henry Fergusson, Jack Patten, Pearl Gibbs, William Cooper and other Indigenous leaders braved the threat of arrest to hold the first-ever national Aboriginal civil rights gathering.
Other forms of protest can also incorporate commemorative elements such as when, referencing the suffragette struggles of the early twentieth century, Zelda D’Aprano chained herself in 1969 to the Commonwealth Building in Spring Street, Melbourne to highlight inaction on pay equality.
Repeatedly materialising alongside ne’er-do-wells to disrupt their public appearances is a proven method of giving notice that you’re onto their nefarious deeds as well as one that broadcasts news of them to the world. And as with everything humour and creativity will lend your good works extra impact. In the 1990s the Menstrual Avengers and other women opposed taxes on sanitary items by showering male politicians with tampons whilst the John Howard Ladies Auxillary repeatedly infiltrated events to lampoon and expose conservative agendas. In more recent times leading politicians and mining oligarchs have been shown much love by Coal Diggers.
The Menstrual Avengers in action in Nowra, 2000.
Infiltrating events otherwise forbidden to protesters in order to disrupt them and make statements generally involves reconnaissance, research and disguise in order to avoid tipping off the opposition before the deed is done. Slipping past obstacles is often required for pranks, but is also a necessary part of other forms of protest. During the 1980s feminist and disabled activists targeted the Miss Australia and other beauty contests that were ostensibly held to raise money for disabled charities. Crashing the events to protest on stage provided these activists with the means to directly challenge prevailing notions regarding physical norms and agency whilst simultaneously gaining lots of publicity. Members of Western Australia’s Project Iceberg joined public tours of US warships in the 1980s in order to carry out onboard peace and anti-nuclear protests. As security tightened activists turned their creative nous to means such as painting letters on nappies which could be hung over the side of a ship to form a banner. During the 1991 anti-AIDEX blockade one activist disguised as a delegate had to run the gauntlet of a fierce picket in order to gain entrance to the arms fair and film the presence of weaponry inside.
Opportunities to infiltrate can arise without warning, such as in the late 1980s when an activist who had recently knocked off work simply followed invited guests into an private function held by tycoon Alan Bond at the Western Australian Art Gallery. Once inside she just kept on walking and was soon on stage delivering a speech to the cream of Perth’s elite outlining the killing and repression in Chile that was funding Bond’s profits.
The John Howard Ladies Auxillary Fan Club snuck into various events during the 2000s including one held by the right-wing think-tank the Institute for Public Affairs. Following the 2008 election they were reborn as the Kevin Rudd Char Ladies Corporation. Here they demonstrate a new fashion use for clean coal during a 2009 rally.