Ralph Borland, The Civil Disobedience Suit

What if we could diffuse protests without tension and violence? Ralph Borland subverts the art of protest to find empathy in conflict

Building projects in Turkey, high stadium costs in Brazil, incompetent governance in Egypt, political corruption in Thailand, or most recently Russian cronyism in the Ukraine, not to mention the perma-protest of the Arab Spring. Protests and demonstrations for social change are such a common occurrence lately, it is almost too easy to tune them out.

While these protests may all have different origins, they share a common denominator in the affect of technology on the rhythm and art of protest. Protests are no longer organized by unions, lobbies, or activist groups, as they once were. Some are initiated by small groups of purposeful people, but often news spreads through social networks so quickly they grow into beasts of their own. This spontaneity gives protests an intoxicating sense of possibility and an altogether different texture to their execution.

Ralph Borland, a graduate of New York University’s Masters Program in Interactive Telecommunications uses critical design to reflect on and challenge the art of protest performance. Based on his own experiences, he explores the boundaries between the activist and the state, transgressing the digitally contrived and often artificially controlled euphoria of protest.

As Borland points out, often demonstrations take place within demarcated zones where citizens are corralled and ‘managed’ by the state, performed using a formula set by the authority. However, performing within these boundaries defangs the subversion of a protest and strengthens the very status quo they are meant to defeat. He says, “It gives the feeling that we all just roll out, fill our role as protestors while the cops fill theirs, everybody's happy and we go home feeling we've done our duty... but what have we really done?”

In response, Borland designed The Civil Disobedience Suit to bring attention to the fundamental and essential ingredient in any form of overt activism – human passion and conviction. Inspired by other activists who create protective clothing and make creative use of tools and technologies in demonstrations, Borland fabricated a multi-functional vinyl and polyester foam-stuffed shield shaped in the form of a human heart.

A wireless camera above the head acts as a witness, recording the entire action in real time for indestructible evidence or useful reconnaissance. A base station can receive the signal, record it, and project it for other protestors to use for planning.

But the real touch comes in the form of a pulse reader attached to the wearer's ear that triggers a prerecorded single heartbeat amplified and repeated over a loudspeaker. In a group action, one can imagine hearing hundreds of heartbeats increasing as tension and excitement mount, like a natural soundtrack arousing the crowd in an ironically threatening act. This simple sound reminds the police that protesters are first and foremost…human beings, not enemies.

Using human-centered design, Borland succeeds in subverting the body as performer, shield, pawn, and weapon all in one. He plays on age-old ideas of vulnerability similar to, but oddly different from sit-ins, lie and lockdowns, or hunger strikes. As much as his suit is armor, it is also disarming. As much as it is provocation, it is protection. As much as it is performance, it is a welcome vessel of empathic humor able to deflate moments of tension in the height of conflict.

Suited for Subversion was part of the exhibition SAFE: Design Takes on Risk at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2005/2006. The first edition was purchased by the Museum in 2006.