Activist Object by Hannah Knox


Fig. 1

Fig. 2

My ‘activist object’ is a document that was produced by a group of environmental activists working in Manchester. It was put together as a response to the release of an official report on climate change which had been commissioned by Manchester City Council, carried out by an environmental consultancy based in London and was deemed by those already working on carbon reduction measures in Manchester to be highly problematic in its recommendations. The commissioned report was called ‘A Call to Action’. The activist document that was produced in response was entitled a ‘Call to Real Action’.
I have chosen this object, as I was interested in how something as apparently benign and static as a report became a viable form of activist intervention in Manchester’s climate politics.
Since the signing of the Kyoto treaty in 1997, tackling climate change has largely been seen as a matter for public bodies and as such has been a highly technocratic exercise. The activists object I present here suggests that for activists, intervening in this technocratic world has meant the development of their own counter-technocracy. Documents play an important part in technocratic interventions: formulating evidence, enacting reports, establishing strategies and development plans of action, But documents can also play a disruptive role, appearing to participate in the same set of circulating references as official documents, but at the same time subtly subverting them.
One possibility, when it comes to curating the activist object of ‘the report’, is to enact a comparative analysis of the activist object vs. that which it is emulating/subverting/countering. In this case, this involves a comparison between the ‘Call to Action’, produced for the City Council, and the ‘Real Call to Action’, produced by the activist collective.

Rhetoric and Reality

Starting with the title, the notion that the first call to action was not ‘real’ stands out as an interesting counter move. What, I want to ask, was not ‘real’ about the first document that was ‘real’ in the second?
Clues can be found in the second document itself – an overt criticism is made of the Call to Action, for example in the quote:

Fig 3


In contrast the second document is clearly programmatic. In it, the first document is criticised for being enmired in Bureacratese, deploying sentences such as:

Fig 4

In contrast, the second document deploys rhetorical arguments to galvinise its readers:

Fig 5

Action: From the General to the Specific

If the rationale for action was differently articulated in each document, so were the kinds of action being called for.
The activist document criticized the first for being vague about what it classed as action. For example, where the first document states:

Fig 6

the Call to Real Action responds:

Fig 7

…and so on.
In terms of its own recommendations the call to real action suggests that:

Fig 8

From Statement to Dialogue

As well as trying to move the tenor of the document from generic recommendations to specific actions appropriate to Manchester as a particular place, a final aspect of the documents that I want to draw attention to is the way in which the second document seemed to transform the first document from statement into dialogue. The conclusion of the first document states that:
‘this document has described the potential for Manchester to turn the challenge of climate change to its advantage…’
It is signed off, Manchester City Council, 14th January 2009.

Fig 9

In contrast, the second document ends with a request:

fig 10

The document is not signed by an organization but closed with two words – Thank You, words that we learn come from the eighteen people thanked on the first page of the report.
In terms of activists objects then, the document enacts itself as an activist object in at least three ways: whilst mimicking the documentary form of the report it also subverts it through a) the deployment of rhetoric in place of bureaucratese; b) through an emphasis on the specificity of actions in place of generic gestures and c) through an attempt to move from static statements to ongoing dialogue.

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