England’s 2011 riots were one of the first digital revolutions in British history. On 4th August 2011, Mark Duggan was shot and killed by the Metropolitan Police in Tottenham, London. Two days later, riots erupted across cities like London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.
Each city has a long history of protest and 2011 was no exception. Word spread like wildfire through Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) broadcasts, allowing thousands of young people to organise using only their mobile phones. Ten years later, its legacy lives on in the way we use social media to document, organise and protest against injustice.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 2011 riots, British-Ghanaian artist Baff Akoto has created UP:RISE, an augmented reality exhibition that invites the public to reflect on the civil uproar using the same device that ignited the riots.
Spectators can access the public exhibition by scanning a QR Code on posters across London, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool. Through their phone screens, audiences are transported to a four-dimensional cube sculpture superimposed onto the space they’re standing in. Each face of the cube is a digital time capsule that screens archival footage through the eyes of the marginalised communities who took to the streets ten years ago, alongside audio from protestors on how their lives have been impacted since.
Outside of the virtual realm, UP:RISE is taking the conversation of digital surveillance back to each community through a nationwide programme of panel discussions and events throughout August. It’s an interactive look at what pushed people to rage, why it’s much deeper than the media ever portrayed and how 2011 influenced the way we protest in modern Britain.
Today social media is the hub of activism. Back in 2011, what was so novel about the organisation of the London riots?
You can trace a lot of today’s mainstream discourse in this country back to things that were emerging and new at the time. Back in 2011, no one really had WhatsApp or Instagram. BBM was the main medium of youth communication. That was fundamental to how [the riots] spread and how the youth movement en masse out-witted and stayed ahead of the police and the state. At the time, mobile digital communication was marginal. It wasn’t mainstream and that’s why it caught everyone over a certain age by surprise.
The benefit of BBM was that police couldn’t infiltrate conversation. With the rise of digital surveillance, is the freedom of 2011 now a thing of the past?
Freedom wasn’t abundant in 2011. People who perceive themselves and their circumstances as free don’t tend to riot, with the notable exception of exuberant sports fanatics. Today is no different in regards to freedom. Though, there is a more conscious mainstream discourse about the right of the state and commercial entities to access and monetise our data footprints.
Did the 2011 riots change the way the media covers protest and the communities affected?
The hyper-connectivity demonstrated in how 2011’s riots spread allowed the digital sentiments of the youth to spill over into the real world. [That] has remained and matured in a way that has definitely defined much of the mainstream media agenda over the past decade.
How do you think our relationship with digital activism has evolved since then?
In 2011, we were almost like a toddler with a new piece of kit when it comes to our relationship with mobile and digital technology and activism. It was messy. It wasn’t polite. It wasn’t orderly in any sort of way. But you fast forward 10 years and how school kids strike for climate action, how we organise to march for Black Lives, or the mechanism of #metoo when it comes to bullying and sexual exploitation of women in the workplace. All of these things you can trace back to 2011, when society was beginning its fledgling embrace of the digital era. 2011 really marked the arrival of 21st century Britain. It wasn’t just here. By 2011 you could see what was happening in Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Libya. It’s a very particular moment in human history that we’re marking. This was a very British chapter in that global trend.
Have you noticed any similarities between the riots in 2011 and BLM protests in 2020?
We’re at the 10 year mark where we’re really able to have a bit of hindsight and look at where we’ve come from, in light of not just BLM, but also coming off the back of one financial crisis 10 years ago, austerity and politically motivated cuts to lots of youth and social services. All of these things fed into what happened in 2011. When you’re talking about haves and have-nots, who has a stake in society, who doesn’t and are therefore willing to literally rip up the concrete on the pavement outside where they live to use as a weapon against generationally heavy-handed policing, it becomes a much more contextualised situation.
You’re right. Enraged and marginalised groups turn to protest and the internet because it’s the only chance to actually get heard.
The interesting thing is that, as we become increasingly networked, what might usually be a local matter is now easily transposed to a national and international setting. People can see parallels between what’s happening with them locally and what’s happening elsewhere and that helps galvanise marginalised individuals and communities into action.
Do you remember what the riots were like?
The sense of that is very much represented by the subjects and the contributors to the artwork. You’ll see front and centre these testimonies of people who were there, who were convicted, who were arrested from up and down the country, with that firsthand perspective of their experiences at the time and their experiences since then.
What impact have the riots have had since?
That first protest and subsequent uprisings [were] all sparked by police killing a Black person. This was one year before Trayvon Martin and three years before Mike Brown. Again, very mainstream narratives, but at the time it wasn’t mainstream discourse outside of diaspora Black communities across the western world, in terms of organising ourselves and taking it to the streets.
Do you think the riots impacted England for the better?
I don’t know if it was for better or worse. Beyond reductive labels of good, bad, better or worse, UP:RISE is re-examining the causes and legacies of the 2011 riots to understand the preoccupations of modern Britain in a more expansive way.
I’m interested to know what inspired you to choose a non-traditional route like augmented reality to explore this.
Augmented reality is inherently a medium concerned with bringing the digital and built environments together in conversation and dialogue. But also, it kind of is a nod to 2011, when a bandwidth and mobile data explosion coupled with the advent of the smartphone. Wide smartphone adaptation really took us and our digital selves on the streets. We became mobile digital creatures en masse for the first time.
QR codes are becoming part of our everyday lives with the pandemic, why did you choose that as a means of access?
We’ve been thinking hard about how to reduce friction and make it as much of an inclusive experience as possible. Part of that is using the phone as the primary point of entry into the artwork. In the art context, [we] used another emerging mobile technology from today to really drive people to go out into the street, experience the art and hopefully participate in the national conversation that we’re having with this exhibition.
To this day, the 2011 riots are tainted in controversy. How do you think UP:RISE is shifting the narrative on that point in British history?
The idea with the artwork and the exhibition is to really look at our past as a country – not just 2011, but even further back – and connect the history of rioting in Britain to what happened in 2011. But it’s also looking to the future, our digital future, and really having that conversation about how we can, as a nation, address and think about these issues that persistently manifest as rioting every decade or so.
UP:RISE will exhibit nationwide from 6th August.