Week 7: The Romanticism of Rebellion

What does it mean to be rebellious?
To rebel means to reject, resist or rise against an authority, control, tradition or simply the status quoTo be rebellious is to be critical.
And as such, it is something society usually frowns upon.

To be rebellious used to be challenging conformity, standing up for individuality, and having an urge to make a change in the world; that is, of course, before it all got so commercialized.

There seems to be a certain appeal to rebelliousness that fascinates the general public. The idea of the rebel relates to coolness, nonconformity and soulfulness, values that, due to social prejudices deeply intrinsic in our current society, are often seen as desirable – something that brands and even the media have noticed and begun exploring for their own profit.

More and more, images, messages and slogans with connotations to activism and rebelliousness became common in advertisement, restricting the values of the rebel to their looks.

This is often called the commodification of dissent or, in other words, the romanticism of rebellion, a “process by which attitudes that oppose the status quo are co-opted by marketers for the purpose of selling consumer items. The result is painfully ironic because the consequently increased consumerism and assimilation of the superficial characteristics of dissent without the system challenging ideologies, actually serve to bolster the status quo.” (Purvis, 2001)

We buy these products for their appeal to rebelliousness but, in reality, we’re not actually resisting or rejecting anything. Far from that, we’re doing the opposite, contributing to a specific trend and an increase in consumerism. “Meaningless commodification strips these signs of political integrity and meaning, denying the possibility that they can serve as a catalyst for concrete political action. As signs, their power to ignite critical consciousness is diffused when they are commodified. Communities of resistance are replaced by communities of consumption.” (Hooks, 1992)

Corporations today have the privilege of having enough power to change laws and habits but they still choose to use their influence in exchange for money.



Week 6: Digital Activism

Living in the digital era, taking action has suddenly become much easier than ever before, as a result of the uprising of social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. This new medium has enabled us to communicate with more people, faster and further, and is giving us the opportunity to re-invent the world we live in.

‘’Increasing accessibility and the ability to communicate with thousands of citizens quickly has made the internet a tool of choice for individuals or organisations looking to spread a social message far and wide. Independent activists the world over are using the internet and digital tools to build their community, connect with other similar-minded people outside their physical surroundings as well as lobby, raise funds and organise events.”

However, despite reaching thousands and thousands of people, some argue that this form of activism is still not as effective as an offline campaign.
“Generally speaking, clicking like on someone’s Facebook post or retweeting a trending hashtag on Twitter requires less effort and less forethought than signing (or setting up) a petition or joining in a demonstration on the streets.”
For this, digital activism has been condemned, with some questioning whether the online engagement in issues and causes might not be, in fact, too reductive and passive, defining this new era of activism as ‘clicktivism’.

Though I recognize there is truth to these arguments, ‘clicktivism’, in my opinion, can also be quite positive. Indeed, this is a much more passive form of activism but, without the Internet, most people would probably never join any causes anyway. We live in a time where people can be empathetic enough with our cause to click ‘like’ or share a post but, especially if it doesn’t concern them, they won’t care for it as to take any efforts to do more than that. In a world with no digital activism, these people would much likely remain idle; by sharing a post, they can at least spread the message to someone who might want to get involved.

Nevertheless, in order to fight this idea of ‘clicktivism’, some organizations are already trying to encourage people to engage in both the online and offline experience. One of my favourite examples is the Un-Idle Collective, a community of people committed to being idle no more and “(…) to bring activism into their daily lives, through taking one action a week”, aiming for “an active, empowered, creative group of people ready to ‘kick-ass’ and take action on and offline”.

In the world we live in today, it is important to fight for what is right and make our voices heard. So whether you prefer yelling and protesting on the streets, or silently ‘like’, share and sign, do not stop pursuing the values you believe in.


Week 4: Ethical Spectacles

Much like in advertisement or propaganda, sometimes activists also need to use persuasive techniques in order to make an audience join their cause. To ‘sell’ an idea successfully, it is important that spectators rethink their own assumptions by themselves or rather that they believe they have come to a premise or change of perspective on their own. No one wants to be told what to do, hence the key lying in making people believe it was their idea in the first place.

“The goal is to make the intervention as realistic as possible so that it provokes spontaneous responses. (…) Bystanders can and will engage with the scene as if it were real life because for them it is real life.” (Mitchell, 2012)

Ethical spectacles will thus achieve a sense of cooperation that other protests or manifestations can’t, removing the limits between performers and spectators, and “creating very accessible conflictual situations in which people can rethink their assumptions and engage with sensitive issues they might otherwise avoid.” (Mitchell, 2012)

Even though the aim is to create spontaneous reactions, a certain amount of direction is always needed. Performers won’t have any lines or cues but guidelines must set so that everyone has an idea of how their performances should unfold. “If spectacles are to be politically useful, they have to be directed towards a political goal. If they are to communicate a strong message, they need to be fashioned into a coherent brand.” (Duncombe, 2007)

Open spectacles emerge then as a solution to this dilemma – a way to organize an effective manifestation, while still remaining open to the participation of the audience. The open spectacle, similarly to the open works in modern art, and as its name suggests, is left open, unfinished. It has no definite closure; the spectacle keeps changing its form and meaning, with the performers, the audience and the ‘stage’. Open spectacles are indeed planned, but not regimented, allowing space for transformation, organic growth and a wide range of possibilities.

“This, however, does not mean chaos. No matter how open to the public, not matter how much form and meaning are in motion, there is still a generative text, and this text sets some guidelines.” (Duncombe, 2007)

Another interesting aspect of open spectacles is that they are also open to a variety of meanings. As a reflection of the convincingly spontaneous, unplanned act and the diversity of participants, the performance will be open to interpretation. “(…) with a spectacle committed to openness, it is sometimes unclear that there is a message at all.” (Duncombe, 2007)

An ethical spectacle, as an open work, “never arrives at one answer. Open to the noisy diversity of participants, observers, and settings to create the completed work, it ends (or rather, rests) in a field of possibilities.” (Duncombe, 2007)


  • Duncombe, S. (2007). Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. 1st ed. New York: New Press, pp.124-142.
  • Mitchell, T. (2012). Invisible Theatre. [online] Beautiful Trouble: a toolbox for revolution. Available at: http://bit.ly/2lXPMUu [Accessed 31 Jan. 2017].

Week 3: Unpleasant Design

A bench in Rotterdam with arm rests designed to deter sleeping

“Benches in parks, train stations, bus shelters and other public places are meant to offer seating, but only for a limited duration. Many elements of such seats are subtly or overtly restrictive. Arm rests, for instance, indeed provide spaces to rest arms, but they also prevent people from lying down or sitting in anything but a prescribed position. This type of design strategy is sometimes classified as “hostile architecture,” or simply: “unpleasant design.” (Mars, 2016)

It may be that you have never noticed any examples of this kind before – they are in fact intended to target those in particular unwanted demographics, such as youngsters or homeless people; nevertheless, unpleasant designs can be found almost everywhere these days, work as a strategy to restrain undesirable behaviours and are an active form of social control.

Although uncomfortable benches and other hostile architectural interventions (such as metal spikes, used to keep people from urinating or sleeping in street corners) are quite physical and even somewhat agressive, not all unpleasant designs are as visible and tangible.

Some of the most intriguing strategies are aimed at loitering teenagers and use sounds and lighting – some businesses play classical music to prevent young people from concentrating in front of their property; others put up pink lighting that is meant to highlight skin blemishes and drive teenagers away.

The interesting aspect about using lights to affect people is that different colours will stimulate different effects and behaviours. Similarly to the pink lighting strategy, blue lighting has been used in public bathrooms in the UK to discourage the use of intravenous drugs; the colour makes it more difficult for people to find their veins. It also creates a calming atmosphere that may prevent enraged reactions and make people uncomfortable when acting out.


Another great example of unpleasant design is the Camden Bench, a “highly refined work (…), impervious to essentially anything but sitting.” (Mars, 2016) Designed by Factory Furniture, the Camden Bench is a curious, angular, sculpted, solid piece of concrete with rounded edges and tilts in unexpected places; the “perfect anti-object.” (Swain, 2013)

Due to the slopes, it is practically impossible to sleep on the Camden Bench. The recesses near the ground allow people to store their posessions behind their legs, making it anti-theft as well. It is anti-dealer and anti-litter, as it features no gaps in which to stash drugs or trash. It is anti-skateboarding because the edges on the bench vary in height and a special coating created to repel paint makes this piece anti-graffiti too.

However, even though the Camden Bench is very successful as a design piece, it does not solve homelessness or criminal behaviours.
In reality, unpleasant designs focus on the manifestations of social problems rather than their causes, meaning that these problems will ultimately be just pushed to a different area of the city. It’s a “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” sort of philosophy, that aims to redirect people in undesirable demographics to somewhere they can’t be seen, making it look like the problem no longer exists.

It is, in my opinion, a rather cruel “solution” that becomes even more hostile and offensive if we remind ourselves that this design strategy first began by trageting animals (e. g. pigeon deterrents). It is one thing to try to make streets more safe and clean; it is quite another to limit the shelter options for those who aren’t lucky enough to have a place to call ‘home’.

“Designs that are unpleasant to some are put into place to make things more pleasant for others, and that latter category might just include you.” (Mars, 2016)


  • Mars, R. (2016). Unpleasant Design & Hostile Urban Architecture. [podcast] 99% Invisible. Available at: http://bit.ly/29xwpJZ [Accessed 25 Jan. 2017].
  • Savičić, G. and Savić, S. (2013). Unpleasant Design. 1st ed. G.L.O.R.I.A.
  • Swain, F. (2013). Designing the Perfect Anti-Object. [online] Medium. Available at: http://bit.ly/2lXPMUu [Accessed 25 Jan. 2017].

Week 2: Graphic Agitation

“In 1989, the clothing giant ‘Benetton’ launched ‘United Colors of Benetton’ as the label for a single, global brand – and, henceforth, clothing disappeared from their advertising.” (McQuiston, 2004)

Oliviero Toscani, an Italian photographer and creative director, was the man responsible for Benetton’s shocking campaigns throughout the 90s decade, exposing truths and inciting public awareness and discussion with images that continually went ‘one step too far’.

5fea79414b1359feeac3d830ed94fff12602His controversial photographs often portrayed themes and scenes of affection, such as a woman breastfeeding a baby or two people kissing.
“There isn’t such a thing as a shocking picture; there is a shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren’t there. (…) Pictures put you in front of a reality that most of the times you don’t want to see, don’t want to know about, don’t want to get involved.” (Toscani, 2010)

A picture of a woman breastfeeding a baby may seem ordinary and meaningless. However, by making a contrast between the mother’s and the baby’s skin colour, Toscani is subtly introducing a message that, to many, became distressing.  “The breastfeeding picture was seen as a reference to slavery, with black women as wet nurses, and also to black women’s position as the object of white men’s desire.” (Seppänen, 2000)

The same happens with the second image. Here, it is the clothing the two protagonists wear that transforms its context. If a kiss is seen as something innocent and beautiful, then here it becomes sinful and perverted, “a particularly serious offense to Catholics.” (The New York Times, 1991)

Although many have complained about Benetton’s (and particularly Toscani’s) outrageous campaigns, some have praised it for standing up for these important causes. Personally, I feel it is imperative to raise awareness about social issues and prejudices. Shock advertising is only one of the many methods to do this, but it is a good one. If done differently, these images would certainly go unnoticed. Oliviero Toscani knew that only through shock could he get the message across.


  • McQuiston, L. (2004). Graphic agitation 2. 1st ed. London: Phaidon Press.
  • Seppänen, J. (2000). Young People, Researchers and Benetton. University of Tampere.
  • The New York Times, (1991). Benetton Ad’s Opponents Fail. [online] Available at: http://tinyurl.com/h5vja9s [Accessed 18 Jan. 2017].
  • Toscani, O. (2010). ‘There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality’.