An Exhibition that charts a half century of youth protests.



It’s an ugly truth that violent conflict never strays far from social and political change. Even the ‘peaceful’ student protests of late last year had their fair share of scraps. Kids throwing rocks; policemen dragging a disabled lad from his wheelchair… twice; that kinda thing. But while the brutality remains, the soundtrack appears to have been dialled down to Bruno Mars. The classic protest songs of the ’60s have all been written, as have their gnarly, antagonistic cousins of the punk movement that went nose to fist with the National Front and Thatcher. Our Clash come in the form of Take That flamboyantly performing at The Brit Awards as their dancers strip off riot gear couture and discard missile shields in the name of Che Barlow and his revolutionaries, Mark, Jason and Howard; our Dylan is Justin Bieber.

Street Fighting Man: Fifty Years of Youth Protest is an exhibition that documents the decades when activism and popular music were properly shacked up together. It celebrates not the throwing of fists but the importance of rock’n’roll in galvanising a generation to overthrow old prejudices and promote new liberalism. It’s a collection of photographs that span from 1968 (the year the hippy dream went bad and the streets of Paris went ‘boom’) to the poll tax riots of 1990. ’68 was also the year that Mick Jagger wrote ‘Street Fighting Man’, having attended an anti-war demonstration outside London’s U.S. embassy.

“This exhibition is absolutely about making connections between music and society, from the 1960s through to the present day,” says curator Christabel Armsden. “Whether it was the idealism of the 1960s, or the anarchism of the 1970s, music has always provided a mouthpiece for radicalism. It has always been engaged with transforming society. The Clash and The Sex Pistols for instance, very much offered a generation a voice and a focus for rebellion.”

It’s not only rock-n-roll-as-rebellion that this exhibition charts though. As well as the extensive coverage of a riot at a Rolling Stones concert in Zurich in 1967 [above], and a collection of punk photography by one-time Clash manager Caroline Coon, it revisits CND marches, inner city demos and civil unrest in Ireland, all of which reassure us that activism doesn’t really need a soundtrack at all… thank God.

Christabel says: “The economic cuts of today are very much reminiscent of those that spawned the social unrest of the 70s and the 60s. This is not simply an exhibition presenting Rolling Stone concert riots; we are instead tracing the wider sociological context of street protest. This coincides with today’s new wave of national demonstrations, involving both union activism and student protest against government economic policy.”

Street Fighting Man: Fifty Years of Youth Protest runs from April 28 – June 4 2011 at Flash Projects, Saville Row, London.

By Danny Canter

Originally published in issue 26 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. March 2011

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