I wasn’t sure whether I was going to write this piece up to be part of my portfolio. It’s hard to produce political stuff like this as I worry it can come across as cliche. However, on a cold November evening, the seeds of dissent were sewn in my mind and Operation Peace Take was conceived.
I love how my ideas manifest themselves. Small snippets of information about the remembrance commemorations had been steadily seeping into my subconscious, but it was actually a football story that got the proverbial ball rolling. Some footballer was being castigated about not wanting to wear a red poppy because he was Irish and felt that to commemorate what he saw as an occupying force was wrong. This news story resonated with me and made me remember that the red poppy wasn’t solely about the great war, that there existed a white poppy which represented an opposition to war and a commitment to peace as a core cultural value.
The red poppy is traditionally seen as an emblem of Remembrance Day, their red colour symbolising blood spilled in the first world war. Yet, in the years that have followed, it has come to symbolise a broader remembrance of all armed forces personnel who have laid down their lives in service to their country. By excluding the non-military victims of war from remembrance, the red poppy upholds a moral hierarchy of worthy and unworthy victims. The heroic soldier who is worthy of respect, official commemoration and national pride, and the unworthy, unnamed civilian killed or maimed by the heroic soldier who remains faceless, unacknowledged and unremembered.
The red poppy is intimately tied up with a series of myths about heroic sacrifice and necessary violence perpetuated by a monopolized media led sensationalism that fuels a naive and ignorant patriotism. The truth is that war is vicious , bloody, inglorious, and that the soldiers we remember are there to kill and maim fellow human beings. The truth is that many of our wars are nothing to do with freedom, liberty, or democracy. They are often illegal, and predatory in their conquest of resources, lobbied by corporations with a vested interest in the perpetuation of a continual state of war for profit. The images of politicians, and the royal family laying wreaths at the cenotaph to commemorate the slaughter of millions of people, used as fodder to maintain the class privileges which they enjoy, is truly an act of shameful hypocrisy!
People from all over the world had been travelling to London to see the tower poppies exhibition, where ceramic poppies were used to fill the moat of the tower of London to represent our glorious dead from the ‘great’ war. So, with all this simmering away in my mind, I decided to plant a few huge white poppies at this now world famous tourist attraction. I was cautious about how I was going to tackle this because it was imperative I didn’t portray myself as disrespectful. This protest was out of a greater respect for all victims of conflict, whilst denouncing the current climate of militaristic values that celebrate a history that ought to be a source of shame.
This wouldn’t be easy, however, as the exhibition was about to be taken down and I had literally no money. If I wanted to get on this idea, I had 24 hours to do it! I needed some cash, a lift, or both. I decided to put out a post on Facebook asking for people to buy some of my left over prints from City Of Colours. I didn’t want people to give charity. I was overwhelmed by how many people came forward to donate! I had been incredibly vague in the post about what I was going to do. It simply read:
“ALERT: I NEED YOUR HELP! I have an art terror installation i’d like to throw down tomorrow in London. This promises to be the most poignant piece i’ve ever done. I have all the materials ready to go but no funds to get there! I need either a lift to the big smoke or to raise £40 by tomorrow as it’s a proper last minute dash to get this done. I’m not asking you to give me the money. I have prints, canvas’, CD’s & vinyl for sale via the links below.”
I achieved the £40 mark, then called it a day, though I was still being offered more money for the next 24 hours! I can’t thank people enough for supporting this project blindly. I have some incredibly trusting friends, else they just wanted to see me get arrested! With the cash in my account, I began making 2 giant white poppies out of cardboard. [I rightly decided against the initial white paint bombs idea] They were an exact copy of the red poppy only about 3ft and 5ft in height! I’d managed to find someone to take some photographs and booked my tickets. It was now very early in the morning, but Operation Peace Take was a go!
I ‘d been awake all night trying to make the poppies, but they weren’t finished. I decided nothing was going to prevent me from doing this now I’d come this far, so I took the poppies in bits and planned to put them together once I arrived. I needed to find a paint shop, the poppies needed another coat of white and I had decided to splatter the poppies with red paint and a red hand print that I felt represented blood on the hands of those responsible for sending generations to their slaughter. Once I’d dealt with the mission for paint, I dutifully headed toward the tower of London.
I love that feeling just before I’m about to cause some trouble. A heightened state of awareness, high on adrenaline. I had to wait for my photographer to arrive, so I cased the security and possible locations for me to place the poppies. It was going to be a doddle! It makes me laugh to think no one saw me coming a mile off, I was being so blatant. I finished painting my poppies right in front of the tower with spray paint flying everywhere, there was every chance I would get caught red handed!
The photographer arrived, it was showtime. I’d chosen to get my white poppies as far into the metaphorical river of blood as possible because they would be impossible to remove. The plan was for my photographer to follow me to view my locations, then for us to split up. I would go in first, they would then follow shortly afterwards to take the images, hidden amongst the countless other people taking tourist snaps. I wasn’t bothered about getting arrested, as it would mean a much bigger story. I would try to avoid it, but I didn’t want to get my photographer in trouble. They decided to remain anonymous.
Sadly, the largest of the poppies broke up and was removed almost immediately, but one of them was right in the fray. A perfect location! It would have been nicer if the red hand could have been made out, or that the poppy was a little more clear to see. Perhaps there should have been more of them, yet the sight of the lone poppy almost made it more significant as a beacon of hope among a brutal reminder of our imperial past. In the weeks that followed, I was inundated with theories about how I had broken in, or whether I had used a drone. The truth is, I’m not going to tell you. It’s much more fun that way! I love a bit of intrigue. If someone guesses correctly, I promise I will admit as much! It’s hilarious, because no one really noticed me do it, bar one disgruntled citizen that chastised me as ‘silly’. The deed was done, and it was time for a celebratory pint before the journey home.
The photographs had turned out perfectly. They were later sent out to literally hundreds of journalists, blogs, news broadcasters and newspapers. Sadly, the only people who ran with the story, or even replied, were more obvious institutions like The White Poppies For Peace Organisation and The Stop The War Coalition, even though I pretended at times to be an offended member of the public, morally outraged at the heinous disrespect shown to our troops.
I think it’s time for an honest debate about the morality of our wars and their justification, our role in the world, and time for transparency and accountability by governments for their actions. I found it disgusting that less than a week after the poppies were removed, a private dinner was held at the tower of London for all the major players in the British arms trade. It’s astonishingly crass and I’m ashamed of my country and our role as a major arms dealer. I’m a little disappointed that the story didn’t cause more of a stink, but in retrospect, I guess it was naive to think that anyone would run it. Nevertheless, I hadn’t done anything this subversive for a while and I was proud to have done something I had real conviction in. I have many more excursions planned for the summer.