Beautiful Trouble is one of my most dog-eared books!Mary DeMocker, Co-founder and Creative Director of 350 Eugene
To bring playfulness to a protest; to soften a tense standoff with police; to ridicule the authorities.
Inflatable props, or inflatables, can transform a boring protest march into a playful, memorable and interactive event. Inflatables are pneumatic objects made of thin plastic foil and filled with air or helium. Folded into small bundles, they can be transported in a backpack or suitcase. Once inflated, they mesmerize with their enormous size, their softness and their gravity-defying weightlessness.
Inflatables bring a tactical frivolity to protest settings. They can be put to many uses, from engaging the crowd, to ridiculing the police, to providing an iconic meme for the media (see PRINCIPLE: Do the media’s work for them), to forcing authorities into a decision dilemma (see PRINCIPLE: Put your target in a decision dilemma). In the same way that protest theater phenomena like the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army and the Pink Bloc use comedy and absurdism as a tactic to get beyond police lines, the grotesque, goofy nature of inflatables can be used to similarly disarm or ridicule the authorities.
The building of large-scale inflatables is difficult to do alone, making it a social activity of equal importance to the action that follows. There is something poetic and utopian in making lightweight, oversized structures together. The work is ideally suited for engaging people from diverse backgrounds: creatives, wanting to learn, as well as activists, wanting to realise an action. As the big inflatable takes shape, excitement grows over the collectively built sculpture that soon will be shining in public. The inflatable studio is, therefore, the ideal creative, social space, fostering trust and friendships that go beyond a political mobilization.
One example is the 12-meter, silver, inflatable hammer that was built in Berlin and sent in a suitcase to the United Nations Climate Conference in Cancún, Mexico, in 2010. The global march for climate justice stalled at the fences assembled 100 meters in front of the conference complex. A sense of frustration was in the air. Suddenly a group of protesters ran in with a gigantic hammer above their heads and banged the inflatable against the police barriers. In full view of the press, the Mexican police ripped the inflatable to pieces. Within hours, the global media corporations declared the inflatable hammer the symbol of the protests for that day.
Another example is the inflatable cobblestones used in 2012 in Berlin during the May Day protests and in Barcelona against the austerity cuts. The shape is a simple cube, made of silver reflective foil and tape, making it easy to build in larger quantities. At the Berlin May Day protests, the inflatables proved very effective in disarming aggressive police and buoying spirits after the crowd got kettled in. Bouncing the inflatable against a phalanx of heavily armed riot cops was a humorous activity, as the police could not help but to bounce them back and were thus unwillingly participating in a game of catch. Videos show the cops struggling with the slippery surface of the material, trying to restore order but in fact engaging in slapstick comedy. The action caused loud laughter and effectively flipped the standard media portrayal of the protest from “stone-throwing troublemakers” to “mean old riot cops destroying a balloon.”
Judging from these examples, inflatables are best deployed when they are not only used as a visual element in a march, but when the objects are placed into a tactical, performative situation, which might involve blockades. (see PRINCIPLE: The real action is your target’s reaction). Striking a balance between utter seriousness and a sense of absurdity or humor is key for a compelling story. And of course it is important to have a team of camera people ready to document the situation.
As the most visible symbol of your protest, an inflatable prop can be a great way to frame your action and communicate your key message or idea. For example, giant inflatable rats have become commonplace at US labor protests of workplaces where the employer is acting like a “rat.” Choose the right symbol, and your message will be clear to everyone who sees the prop, in person and in the media.
Creating inflatables can be technically demanding and, once deployed, they can be easily damaged. There is nothing as sad and demoralizing as a limp inflatable. There are, however, some ways to compensate for these weaknesses:
Avoid making holes by working in a clean environment without sharp objects.
For objects that are bigger than 5 meters, you can use a fan that continuously inflates the object. This allows the inflatable to have a few small tears without it looking limp. Bring tape with you to the action to repair the biggest holes.
Making inflatable sculptures is always more work than imagined. Start small by making a quick and simple prototype and then enlarge the object. With Tools for Action we use double sided household tape or carpet tape joining plastic foil strips together. Ironing the plastic foil strips is also possible and some are capable of being sewn, like RipStop, for example. With sewing you need to use a continuous fan, to compensate for the tiny holes in the material. If you use tape, always test beforehand if your tape works on the material. Don’t try for flat shapes as everything you inflate tends to becomes round. Try to make the object as big as possible. Size matters!