The Art of Effective Protest

From Flamenco Flashmobs to craftivism, environmental and social campaigners are getting creative by using illustration, craft and dance to put sustained pressure on business and governments

The image of a tiny, inflatable Greenpeace boat circling Shell’s Brent Spar became a defining moment in corporate activism.

That was 1995. NGOs have always met big challenges with ingenuity, but two decades later we are seeing campaigning groups take on corporate power and governments in different, arguably more subtle ways. Here are just a few examples.


Posters, banners, music, puppetry and performance have long supported demonstrations. Now art is at the centre.

The Brandalism campaign caught the attention of the press and public during COP21 in Paris when 600 bus shelters were plastered with satirical posters critiquing the corporate takeover of the climate talks. The artworks, installed in advertising spaces across Paris, challenged the environmental credentials of the car manufacturers, airlines, banks and fossil fuel energy companies involved in the climate discussions.

Artist Olafur Eliasson and scientist Minik Rosing also brought ice from Greenland to Paris as a visual reminder of the effects of climate change.

Beyond Paris, other examples of art bringing social and environmental commentary to public spaces include Helen Storey’s Dress for our Time and Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculpture, The Rising Tide, featuring four horses which are submerged as the Thames tide comes in. Such works force us to stop and reflect in our day-to-day lives some of the truths activists have long been campaigning on.

Greenpeace USA recently engaged an illustrator in its campaign against tuna company Thai Union for its destructive fishing practices and human rights abuses. Multiple issues are represented in one image, enabling Greenpeace to convey simply and beautifully the complex issue of unsustainable tuna fishing.

“We want to reach people through innovation, whether that’s through surprise, beauty, story or art. And especially when we’re working on a global campaign, images have the power to reach people when words fail,” says Molly Dorozenski, Greenpeace USA’s media officer.

Much has been written about how art and culture are important to expand narratives beyond science and policy. The number of art projects focused on the problem of ocean plastic pollution can only accelerate corporate and political responses, which have so far been lacking. Most recently, Sophie Thomas, director of the circular economy programme at the Royal Society of Arts, produced artwork based on the plastic pollution she found at Kamilo Point in Hawaii. Last year Alaska’s Anchorage Museum organised an exhibition in Los Angeles featuring a series of exhibits made from marine plastic debris.


Earlier this year a “craftivism” campaign, run by the Craftivist Collective and ShareAction, was used to encourage Marks & Spencer to pay the living wage. Campaigners coordinated “stitch-ins” at branches of M&S across the UK to sew messages on to the company’s handkerchiefs, encouraging the company to adopt the living wage, to be delivered to the board and major shareholders. Stitch-in locations included London, Brighton, Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham and Milton Keynes. The numbers were kept to 15 people or fewer so as to intrigue rather than intimidate the public.

Founder of the Craftivist Collective, Sarah Corbett, adopted a creative approach to campaigning after beginning to doubt the effectiveness of years of marches and protests.

M&S is meeting campaigners in January to discuss the issue.

Elsewhere, the Climate Coalition campaign and Ben & Jerry’s teamed up in November to host an evening of “arts, craft, activism and ice cream” to help people prepare for the People’s Climate March in London. People stitched their climate messages on to a green heart which they wore on their sleeve as part of the Climate Coalition’s #fortheloveof movement.

Performance and dance

In Spain, flamenco flash mobs have been targeting banks for years. Organised by the anti-capitalist group Flo6x8, carefully choreographed performances are carried out in front of bank staff and customers, which are recorded and posted online.

Flash mobs are nothing new, but the use of flamenco — a dance form that originated among socially marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Andalusia — allows people to consider issues through the lens of a familiar cultural phenomenon.

Global movement One Billion Rising also taps into the power of dance, this time to address violence against women and girls. The platform sees dance as a way to unite sometimes disparate gender and feminist movements to bring about collective change.

The fight for workers’ social justice has been at the centre of many of these “risings”. In New York, One Billion Rising activists joined the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United) to call for an increase in wages and an end to gender discrimination in the restaurant industry. The joint campaign secured an hourly minimum wage increase for 400,000 of the city’s workers living on tips.

Earlier in 2015 performance activists occupied Tate Modern’s turbine hall to protest over BP’s sponsorship of the gallery. In a performance titled Time Piece, activists from Liberate Tate spent 25 hours writing words of warning about climate change in charcoal on the floor of the gallery.

Activists stage a protest outside the Louvre pyramid, calling on the museum to cancel its contracts with French oil giant Total and Italian oil company Eni. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP

In Paris, during COP21, activists held an unsanctioned performance to protest against the Louvre’s sponsorship deals with oil companies Total and Eni. Activists walked barefoot through an oily substance leaving footprints on the gallery’s marble floor as a symbol of fossil fuel corporations’ influence on museums. Outside the gallery, hundreds of artists and activists gathered with black umbrellas painted in white with the words “fossil free culture”.

These new types of campaigns can help put sustained pressure on business and governments by bringing renewed energy, kick-starting conversations, and sparking the imaginations of a whole new set of participants.

Originally published at on December 29, 2015.

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