rebelocracy & the language of uniform

In these artworks created over a long period of time, I have been exploring the idea of uniforms and belonging, expressed in a similar way to the use of gesture.  The University of Chicago says ‘gestures are temporal. They come and go in time and are often fleeting.  While sometimes a gesture remains in space forever, like in painting, photography or film, its meaning changes.’ 

Like gestures frozen forever in time, the language of uniform will have different interpretations depending on the viewer’s perspective, different cultural understandings and readings. The uniforms may be recognisable and denote certain fandoms or place based meanings. But, in a more general sense, the presence of a body described or marked in a particular way, denotes a sense of belonging, of not being entirely individual, of being on one side or another.  The uniform is in a sense a floating signifier.

More than that, the symbolism of a team in these works goes a little deeper. The portraits are sometimes of rebels or ordinary folk, mixed with football players. Equally, the players may be depicted on their own, so are they part of a team really? Mixed message, mixed metaphors but the intention is to create a sense of something where the gesture is recognisable, even while it is opaque.

Ana Arjona’s Rebelocracy analyses how armed groups and communities develop a new way of working together. I’m borrowing this term to explain the way that people, teams, individuals, work together in ways that are both very ordered and yet have elements of chaos. The grass roots nature of rebelocracy (grassroots not because it doesn’t have intent, meaning and order, but because it emerges from discourse, action and collaboration) implies a surging force of human activity, which because it is by humans, must have elements of chaos.  

One of the most hopeful descriptions of people working together in a kind of rebelocracy comes from Stalin’s writing on the Soviets: they are ‘the immediate organisations of the masses themselves i.e. they are the most democratic and therefore the most authoritative organisations ..which facilitate to the utmost their participation in the work of building up the new state’ (The Foundations of Leninism, J.V. Stalin). So, a way of people influencing, steering and shaping policy and decision making. 

In 1950s Colombia, Juntas Accion de Communal (JAC)s (community action boards) were adopted as ‘strategic state induced mechanisms created to pacify class-conscious peasants’ (Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia, James Brittain.) Whether this pacification was successful or not is up for debate, but JACs evolved over time, changing their relationship with the State and in some cases were mechanisms for resistance. 

Rebel groups like FARC-EP governed areas, creating new systems of social order. Ana Arjona analyses how armed groups and communities develop a new way of working together and what contradictions are thrown up: ‘when (local) institutions are legitimate but not effective, or effective but not legitimate, the (rebel) group can expect to find a divided community where at least a sector is willing to bring about change – be it regarding class structure, ethnic prerogatives, social mobilisation, or any other grievance…By making alliances with key actors, infiltrating their organisations, or colluding with them, the armed actor penetrates the community, gains power, and eventually establishes a new social order of rebelocracy’. Arjona goes on to describe the influence of rebel groups (and paramilitaries) in administering justice and I find this idea of taking the ‘law’ out of the hands of ‘experts’ and re-creating it as a system of listening and sharing, with a framework of rules that citizens abide by (a kind of restorative justice process, if you like) very appealing.   

‘The majority of peasants, ‘ says S.A. Smith of early Soviet Russia, ‘though disgruntled, appear not to have been deeply hostile to the government and a sizeable majority positively approved the Communist ideal in principle, seeing in it an extension of the values of the collectivism, equality, and mutual aid that were inherent in the commune’. In Latin America ‘building communal power meant dissolving political power into the community itself; it meant “broadening of democracy in which the communities will assume the fundamental powers of the state”’ (Building the Commune, George Ciccariello-Maher). 

In 1970s/80s Liverpool, the TGWU 6/612 branch, of which 90% of the membership was unemployed, was involved in setting up centres for unemployed people. Brian Marren quotes Kevin Coyne: ‘The Unemployed Centre in Liverpool was founded on the basis that unemployment was a creation of political action and therefore only a political solution could solve it…(we) felt that we had to pursue a policy of campaigning by way of mobilising politically’.  These were physical centres where people could sit, talk, celebrate, commiserate and learn. So the rebelocracy that I try to reference in these artworks is in this invincible human collective spirit: sometimes messy, getting it right, getting it wrong. But always moving forward.   

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