Dezeen Magazine

Sam Jacob opinion flip flops are politics disguised as leisurewear

"These flip flops are politics disguised as leisurewear"

Opinion: in this week's column, Sam Jacob investigates how flip flops from a street market have taken their place alongside placards and banners as objects of protest in the recent Bangkok election demonstrations.

On a Bangkok street corner late on a Sunday night, there's a guy with a stall catering to a very particular market. Spread over a section of pavement and hung from the front of a roller shutter are exclusively Bob Marley branded goods. It's good to know that even late on the sabbath evening, even on the night of the Thai elections, there's somewhere catering for such a specific demand: Bob Marley beach towels, hats, shorts, even toothbrushes. A whole universe of Marley-ware. All your essential products striped red, gold and green, splattered with the silhouette of marijuana leaves or a high contrast three-quarter portrait of Bob himself.

In these images, Bob's head is always thrown back, a real-life gesture captured at its most expressive but now mechanically transferred through God-knows-how-many mechanical processes into a stylised frozen image.

The aesthetic is pure cartoon Rastafarianism, like that episode of the Simpsons where, in an effort to boost The Itchy & Scratchy Show's ratings, the network introduces a new focus-grouped dog-with-attitude character ("a dog who gets 'biz-ay!'. Consistently and thoroughly... a totally outrageous paradigm").

Cartooned like this, Bob's gesture becomes at once purer and more debased. It's shorn of all its contextual political and ideological meaning, but at the same time becomes a direct shorthand for what that all stood for: emancipation.

Emancipation from what, exactly? Here, on a Thai street corner not far from the epicentre of backpacking-gap-year-opolis, Marley's ghost is all shape and no fleshy body. His image and the colourways and symbols that accessorise it have become just another figure in the Pantheon of global pop culture.

Of which, down the road in a night market, there's plenty of other evidence. There's a stall selling Beatles gear for example, which includes a Hawaiian shirt with cartoon Fab Fours interspersed with Linda and Yoko as if it were a rockumentary transcribed into leisurewear. Lives, bodies of work, principles and ideologies are frozen into instantly recognisable, instantly consumable global symbols which are then in turn tumbled with other references, chronologies, contexts and media, forming an international pidgin language.

This is nothing new, of course. French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard told us this was the fundamentally postmodern condition of modern life:

"Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald's food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong."

But like that other French connoisseur of postmodernity, Baudrillard, there's a haughtiness to this kind of cultural analysis that means - despite its sharpness - it doesn't quite cut like it should. Baudrillard, for God's sake, went all the way to Disneyland to encounter the dark heart of the simulacrum and never even went on Space Mountain. No wonder he thought nothing was real!

That Italian backpacker pulling on his brand new Rasta hat might be an idiot, but he's at least a real idiot with a 24 carat, bona fide, 100 percent, really idiotic hat.

One of the reasons why people like to think that these kinds of things aren't real is because of the relationship of the applied image to the object. Of course, all those Bob Marley products most likely come from a factory producing the very same items branded with other perennial naive youth culture favourites: the same beach towel with John Lennon's face reminding us to imagine no possessions. It's all appliqué, surface not depth, image not authenticity. Just like the factory I once visited in Shenzhen that produced souvenirs: souvenirs of anywhere, any place on the planet, all sculpted by their master craftsman. Who, of course, had never left Shenzhen himself. There’s something completely magical - a modern day fairy story - about a master souvenir maker who had never traveled anywhere. I could see Tom Hanks being Oscar-nominated for his sympathetic portrayal of this bittersweet character-of-our-time.

In another market, a hop, skip and two-hour traffic jam across town, in one of the gatherings of anti-government protestors trying to shut down Bangkok and force electoral and governmental reform, something broke through this supposedly flat veneer of shallow culture. Not because it was any more real, but because it was equally inauthentic, just in a different way.

Like anywhere in Thailand where two or three have gathered, a market has sprung up. Amongst the street food, opposition-branded whistles and T-shirts was a stall set out with flip flops. The upper side of the soles are printed with portraits of the opposition's main targets in the kind of high-contrast graphics we associate with hip young ideological politics (think Che T-shirts, think Banksy, think that godawful graphic hack Shepard Fairey of Obama Hope fame).

On your left foot is an image of the current Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, with the legend "Get Out". On the right is her brother and ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with "Wanted" in a wild western font in reference to his conviction in absentia for corruption while in office.

Here was something churned no doubt out of the very same production lines as Bob Marley beach balls and Joe Strummer strimmers in the light industrial units where generic objects are batch-laminated with cultural symbolism. But here was something that flipped (and flopped) all that poststructuralist ennui on its head. Here, in the shape of a dumb generic product was something that split the night with its sharpness and intelligence. Not least in its own ironic self-awareness, given the protest's reputation for producing as many selfies as proclamations.

These flip flops are politics disguised as leisurewear, a way to seriously yet nonchalantly register your opposition in a city declared a state of emergency. Every step you take disrespects the image of government with the sole of your foot. And if that wasn't enough, it enacts the old Situationist International slogan from Paris '68 with a new life. If the beach really is beneath the pavement, then here's the perfect footwear!

Even more than this, the flip flop as political symbol embodies a far more positive idea of politics, footwear and the future than Orwell imagined. Instead of the jackboot stamping on the face of humanity here we have a flip flop, flapping on the face of government.

Occupy Bangkok
Occupy Bangkok image by Sam Jacob

The Thai protests partially brand themselves as Occupy Bangkok and there's something entirely appropriate in the street market flip flop ascending to the status of political tool, along side the placard and banner. Occupy itself is a product of the very same rag-bag eclectic urge, an assemblage of fragments of ideology. It's a politics of sensation perhaps, too, rather than of argument.

Occupy might even wear a Rasta hat, possibly has white dreadlocks, maybe bangs a drum and blows a whistle, five parts Lennon to one part Lenin, a quart of Marley and a dash of Marx. In other words, it imagines no possessions in a government yard in Trench Town. Its aesthetics, its ideology even, might be a half-formed shape in the cultural surf but that's exactly what makes it the politics of now. Yours for just 100 Bhat outside the MBK shopping centre now.

Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing