Inside

The Odious Smell of Truth: Peter Kennard and the RAGE Collective

What does it mean to tell the truth, in a world of false news, social media misinformation and democratised information channels? And what can we achieve by getting angry? The Odious Smell of Truth exhibition by the RAGE collective of international young artists from the Royal College of Art, led by world-renowned protest artist Peter Kennard, demonstrates the strength of collective action and puts under our noses issues that will define our future.

‘Our complex, connected media channels are changing the political landscape faster than we can keep up,’ says Kennard, who started making protest images around the occupation of Greenham Common. ‘Political surprises from the Arab springs or Brexit to the rise of Trump are all the result of a shift in information ownership that rivals Gutenberg’s printing press in era-shaping impact.’

As information is tailored for delivery within our increasingly short attention spans, manipulators of the ‘politics of protest’ understand that – rather than being just a framework for understanding social movements and political dissent – it’s fast becoming an instrument of political influence.

The common understanding that provokes millions to march is that democratic constitutional design invites protest movements to offer continual challenges. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that there is a growing power in protest; that expressions of mass dissent both reflect and influence mainstream politics – in the act of protesting and the sharing of dissent.

Nowhere is our cultural reflection seen more clearly than in protest art. Protest is a profoundly social impulse, and in a world of Brexit, Trump, populism, climate change, the ‘mother of all bombs’ and the rise of global migration, collectives like RAGE demonstrate the power of bringing together international voices in an expression of humanitarian dissent.

Can artists meaningfully lift their voices to persuade societies to put our common humanity centre stage? Peter Kennard believes they can: ‘Making a critical image that communicates is so important, and artists are trained to have a refined sense of which images will have visual impact. These younger artists are deeply concerned and angry about the state of the world, and it’s important that they express that.’

‘It’s important for art colleges to have a social base to their teaching that enables students to explore their beliefs,’ Kennard continues. ‘These young artists recognise that they’re working in urgent times, in which government policy is often at odds with citizens’ beliefs. They combine rage with hope, understanding that we still have everything to play for, and that emotional charge gives real power to the messages they’re advocating.’

Globalisation in education provides a unique opportunity for cultural interchange. This is not lip service; these artists come from over 60 countries worldwide and work in neighbouring studios for two years. Debating the role of the artist in an increasingly globalised world, these young artists are themselves the embodiment of that emerging community.

‘We cross-reference what happened in each other's countries and cultures, and relate different issues to our own experiences,’ say RAGE. ‘Several of us come from a background of colonialism, so we share similar experiences. It also resonated with very different experiences, for example a Korean concern with identity and power. The process of discussing has been impactful on every one of us.’  

Bringing with them the complex understanding of both a multiplicity of international issues and the political situation in their country of origin, and a willingness to explore their beliefs within an aesthetic discourse, these internationally trained artists inform each other’s work and liberate UK-trained students with their ability to be critical. They express a need to represent intensifying conflicts around immigration policy, LGBT repression, politics, protest and populism – issues that are urgent, even life-threatening, to people around the world.

Kennard says, ‘These global voices reflect back our privilege as a democratic first-world nation. The Korean, Filipino, South African and Hong Kongian perspectives, seeing their own countries through the focused lens of exile, remind us that we are fortunate to be able to criticise our politicians and political systems without fear of incarceration, or worse.’ 

‘These young artists are making art in a variety of media that doesn't turn away from the global state of emergency but rather tries to explore their deep concern about the direction in which society and politics is moving,’ Kennard continues. ‘They want to make work that punctures the lies both of news and “fake news”, and search for ways to communicate directly to a global audience.‘

In order to be meaningful, political art must communicate in and far beyond the art world that spawned it. By bringing visual quality and critical intelligence into play, protest art can also move into uncharted cultural spaces powered by new media  –and online activism, whether through subvertising or brandalism, has the capacity to mobilise unprecedented numbers.

RAGE say: ‘We feel that what we're doing explores how artists can use different strategies and approaches to talk about very current issues in a myriad of ways. It is important to do it as a collective in order to have a strong stance, but what we're saying is that there is no single way to approach politically engaged practice.’

Truth is powerful. Eminent academic Stanley Fish’s deeply serious postmodern quip, ‘Ye shall know that truth is not what it seems, and that truth shall set you free,’ now carries a playful innocence to our media-battered ears and minds. ‘Reclaiming the power of the image and putting it to the service of truth and truth-telling is paramount,’ says Kennard,  ‘and protest art that challenges lies and surfaces clear truths is grist to the mill of progressive discourse.’


The RAGE Collective exhibition The Odious Smell of Truth is open Thursday 20 and Friday 21 April, details here.