Climate Rush: Creative visuals in protest
Alice Haywood-Booth is a founding member of Climate Rush – a female-led group taking direct action on climate change. We caught up with Alice to ask her about the use of creative visuals in Climate Rush actions…
MTM: What role does visual creativity play in Climate Rush actions and messaging?
Alice: Using strong visuals has always been part of what we do – starting from the very first Climate Rush action, our Rush on Parliament in 2008, we wanted to tie the climate movement to the strength and style of the radical Suffragette movement 100 years before. By referencing the Suffragettes through our dress, sashes, banners and even our flyers and website, we wanted to remind anyone watching what a huge role direct action had played in securing a basic human right, and that a similar effort was needed to confront climate change.
MTM: Often Climate Rush protests have taken place in period dress. How does that go down with those taking part?
Alice: The period dress element can divide opinion! It’s actually something we’ve done less and less, but we’re still drawn to costume and theatrical protest – it’s a good way to engage with the general public, and it turns protest from a confrontational to a joyous thing; it’s what we choose to do in our spare time so it’s nice to have an element of fun and a sense of occasion.
MTM: What effect do you think being dressed up has on those witnessing the protest – both passers by and the police?
Alice: I’ve never found flyering a crowd easier than when I’ve been wearing a floor-length Edwardian gown and a sash – you feel a bit silly but people really want to find out what you could possibly be promoting! In terms of the police, we’ve almost always been able to charm and disarm our way around difficult situations, which I think is due in part to our costume and also to our effort to remain good natured. We haven’t always been so lucky though – about ten of us got arrested at Southend airport wearing air hostess and pilot uniforms last year, protesting its expansion. You’re usually taken slightly less seriously if you look ridiculous, which often helps us push things further than we would otherwise be able to do, but that time our costumes didn’t work their magic!
MTM: Climate Rush visuals tend use homemade costumes and props. Was this a deliberate policy, or was it down to practical constraints such as money and ensuring eco-friendly resources?
Alice: We’re quite a creative group so I think we’ve always wanted to put our own mark on things. We’ve also got slightly overactive imaginations and props we want to use aren’t always readily available to buy – like the giant Papier mâché Viagra we gave to Nick Clegg encouraging him to get hard on climate change, or the graffiti we made out of car exhaust outside Boris’s house. Making things is also a really nice way to hang out together, and to invite other people to get involved. Usually when we have an action coming up we’ll have a Creative Day – an afternoon making sashes, banners or whatever else we need, and having a good catch up and a cup of tea. Once I showed my dad, who is an art curator, a flyer me and my sister had designed and he said ‘It’s nice when things aren’t too perfect’! He had a point in that an image that’s too slick can make people feel there’s no room for improvement and there’s less incentive to get involved. We’re grassroots and want to encourage activists to learn new skills and contribute however they can, without having to already be experts.
MTM: What practical advice would you give to others about using creativity in protest?
Alice: Protest can get you down – it’s exhausting to campaign on an issue like climate change where the barriers to action can seem so huge. The policing of protest has also become a lot more intimidating over the last few years, which doesn’t help. So I think one thing creative protest does is lighten things up – we have so much work to do in terms of behaviour change and creating a popular mandate for action, that we have to present a cause people want to join and that they see hope, enjoyment and humour in. If I was giving practical advice to others I would say use your imagination and don’t be afraid to try and make it happen. Two of my favourite creative actions this year were Occupy’s amazing floating tent city for May Day, and the life-size wind turbine blade brought to Tate Modern’s turbine hall by Liberate Tate – these actions must have started with one brilliant idea that the people involved had so much faith in they simply worked out how to make it happen.