The artists of Extinction Rebellion: ‘Our bold imagery is helping to change the conversations around climate change’ (i Paper)

Extinction Rebellion’s striking visual identity is part of its success. Anna Behrmann finds out how XR uses art to draw people to its cause

If you walked through central London last month, you might have seen a giant pink octopus floating serenely and mysteriously on stilts through Trafalgar Square. You could have seen people dancing with eight-metre artificial silk flags, designed by Brazilian artist Otavio Avancini, which were flung in the wind and painted in the colours of the oceans, forests, fire and earth to represent the melting icebergs and our burning planet.

Thousands of musicians and performance artists came together, marching in the October protests, in an outpouring of colour, emotion and mourning for the earth. Writers read out their poems and performed work about the impending climate crisis, standing in the rain.

It’s something that you might miss in the debates about Extinction Rebellion, whether you believe they are making a powerful statement, or simply anarchists holding up the traffic. The rebellion only launched around a year ago but they have an instantly recognisable visual identity, as well as an army of people creating art around the world.

Activists carry a giant pink Octopus towards Trafalgar Square during the third day of climate change demonstrations on October 9, 2019 (Photo: Isabel Infantes / AFP/ Getty Images)

Telling new stories

Kat Brendel, one of the movement’s art coordinators, has a background in creative production and arts administration. She first joined Extinction Rebellion after stumbling across a small demonstration where protesters were blocking the road in Dalston, east London.

She saw musicians and artists, and excellent graphic design – and she wanted to be involved. “I really thought that these people could add something new in telling a story about climate change that people don’t want to hear because it’s too terrifying,’’ she says.

“Art has been at the centre of Extinction Rebellion since it was first formed. It is completely fundamental to the movement’s ethos, which is to bring creativity into exploring the ecological emergency and present it to the public in a way that hasn’t been done before. The idea is to change the discourse around climate change with imagery that’s bold and different.”

The original Extinction Rebellion art group has spawned hundreds if not thousands more. “As the rebellion developed over the last six months, different art and culture groups formed and everyone started to explore different ways of telling a story around the ecological emergency through performance, visual art and music,” Brendel explains.

Art blockers

“It was about making people feel something and think differently about their place in the world.”

Brendel is one of the coordinators behind the XR Skeletons Rebellion group, where activists make skeletons of extinct and endangered animals to carry on marches. They built a huge walrus which can be broken down into pieces and carried on the tube. Their little skeleton turtles were confiscated by the police in October – they are still missing in action.

Extinction Rebellion encourages people to set up workshops and spaces where they can build something with their hands as part of a wider community. Brendel believes that this might be a good support network for people who have suddenly come to a shocking realisation about the extent of the ecological crisis and might otherwise feel lost and isolated.

The XR Art Blockers group, led by Miles Glyn, use old fashioned wooden blocks to handprint banners with environmental slogans such as “Act Now” and “Tell the Truth”. Working in a house in east London, they produce flags and signs which can be carried on marches. Paul Nelson, 30, who comes to the house a lot, says that the practical, methodical action of printing the words on fabric makes him feel more mindful and less anxious.

Vintage designs

Much of the graphic design and branding behind Extinction Rebellion was developed by the designer Clive Russell from the agency This Ain’t Rock’n’Roll. Russell and his business partner Charlie Waterhouse began working with Roger Hallam and Clare Farrell, two of the Extinction Rebellion founders, after they went to a talk by Hallam about climate change.

“We started off by looking at some of the key protest movements throughout history – the suffragettes and the Paris 1968 movement,” Russell says. “The suffragettes were heavily branded and all their signage was done in the same font. The Paris ‘68 movement had an art group – they were pumping out all this propaganda and it made them famous around the world.”

“We wanted to make our design welcoming, with bright colours. We wanted people to look at us and not be sure if we had designed it now, or years ago – or we might have always been there.”

The font used across many of the posters and banners is based on a vintage woodcut type that Russell found on eBay. The hourglass symbol for the group had already been designed by an anonymous artist known as ESP.

Featured in museums

Activists can download samples of the fonts, colours and graphic design through the Extinction Rebellion website. They can then add their own illustrations and embellishments, while staying on brand. In Hong Kong, for example, they have added an image of a pangolin, endangered scaly mammals which are killed in Africa and Asia for their meat and scales.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has acquired some of Extinction Rebellion’s artefacts for its permanent collection, as part of its “rapid response” programme to put newsworthy objects on display. They have a green, blue and pink flag with the hourglass symbol and wooden printing blocks from the group.

Within the wider arts movement, new ideas are being developed all the time. Doug Francisco, creative director of the Bristol-based Invisible Circus, created the “Red Rebel Brigade” – ghostly-white, other-worldly figures, moving silently and meditatively through the raucous protest marches on the streets, swaddled in loose blood-red cloaks.

Their faces are painted white, with their eyes and lips outlined to bring out their expressions. They follow the slow, deliberate movements of the figures in front of them, moving as one.

Francisco started out with a troupe of about twenty red rebels in the Spring, but the brigade grew very quickly, with protesters making their own costumes, donning white face paint and joining in the performance. There are now red rebel brigades taking place around the world.

“The red cloak symbolises the blood of all species and it is a very emotive, powerful colour in terms of looking at the extinction of animals, and humans as well,” Francisco says.

He found that the white face paint brings out the character in people’s faces, exaggerating their features, rather than making them all look the same. “It’s quite a mythical thing – it brings people’s archetypes out, reflecting their internal beings.”

‘Reclaiming right to be free’

There were 76 Red Rebel performance artists leading the 20,000 people-strong Extinction Rebellion grief march through central London. “We were reclaiming our right to walk in the streets and the public space. It was a funeral procession for the planet – so I had a mix of emotions – it was very sad and serious, but the protest was also very empowering.”

Francisco says that there is a lot of tension on the streets, especially during a protest, but that the calm, meditative movements of the red rebels can transform the atmosphere.

One of the most powerful effects of the Red Rebel Brigade has been to de-escalate tensions between the police and protesters. There are some striking photographs of red-robed protesters standing in front of the police, their palms open in front of them, with the police looking confused, unsure how to react to these mystical, otherworldly creatures.

“We happened to turn up at Waterloo Bridge when the police were surrounding it and arresting people, so we were facing lines and lines of police. It was super awkward for the police and it kind of humanised them as well. The energy of the situation changed. It became less about confrontation and more poignant and emotive for the police and the protesters.

“There is quite a high, intense energy to that sort of situation, and once you de-escalate it, it makes it seem even more ridiculous – arresting people who are trying to save the planet.”

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