Textile geographies, plasticity as protest

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Introduction Green, blue, red, domes, A-frames, collapsed, interlocked and freestanding: images of tents are central to the representation of protests at Tahrir, Zucotti Park, St Paul's and many other contemporary and historical protests. Tents play such a central role in them, because a sustained protest needs bodies, and the bodies need some type of protection. In a protest camp, this protection is partly provided by soft, flexible and moldable material, the textile. From clothes to banners, blankets and tents, textile simultaneously supports the protest as it provides bodies with a dry place to sleep, protects them from the elements, facilitates privacy within the public space, and promotes messages. In this chapter I will take a closer look at the geography and architecture of the textile constructions in camp – the tent. The tent is only a thin membrane held in tension by poles and lines. A bullet, a knife or even a fist can easily penetrate the tent's membrane making vulnerable anything behind it. Either fire or force will quickly reduce a tent to a small pile. Simultaneously, the textile material can also work as a protection against certain threats. The material can expand to create space and provide a shield from sun, cold and water. All textiles have some common elements and universal qualities. The cheapest nylons as well as the finest silks and wools have qualities such as flexibility, portability and softness. These material qualities are employed in various ways in the different camps I have visited. Within the discourse of protests and protest camps, materiality and the importance of materiality have been sparsely researched. This chapter is an introduction to my research on architectural materiality in political protest, a field that could benefit from further research. Some architectural discussions claim that the impoverished appearance of protest camps forms an intentional contrast to the cityscape representing wealth, or that the ‘unplanned’ camp marks a conscious critique of the planned city (for example, Hosey, 2000; Cresswell, 1996). In this chapter I argue that the function of textile is instrumental for reasons other than just appearance. I explore the tent's protective functions by examining the unique qualities of the tent as both symbolic and infrastructural elements of protest camps.

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