Every two years, the Defence and Security International exhibition, known colloquially as the DSEI arms fair, takes place in the vast ExCel Centre in East London. People come from all over the world to see and purchase the latest weapons and defence technology at one of the world’s largest arms fairs. Every year, there are protests attempting to stop, disrupt, and draw attention to the event. This year, at the same time, the 12th-15th of September, a very different kind of exhibition also took place in East London, with the aim of raising awareness of the DSEI, an event which most Londoners have no idea exists. The Art the Arms Fair exhibition took place at SET Studios in Capstan House in Poplar. It was preceded by an art event on the 9th of September at the ExCel Centre, where artists produced works in a variety of mediums. The exhibition displayed art that responded to the arms trade. Events, such as spoken word and comedy, were held in the space in the evenings. Works were sold to support the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), an organisation which aims to end the international arms trade. I have always been a little sceptical about the significance and power of art, so I went along to see if I could be convinced.
To begin with, SET Studios is not your typical art gallery. SET is an initiative that provides artists with affordable studio and project space in buildings that would otherwise be empty. Capstan House is a stylish new office block, with an imposing foyer and fancy elevators. SET occupies the seventh floor, with beautiful views across the Thames to the O2 arena and the Emirates Airline Cable Car. You can see the artists’ studio space through the glass walls that are so fashionable in modern offices. The art, some of it attached haphazardly to plywood display boards, sits oddly in this environment. But none of that detracted from the effect the exhibition had on me. In fact, it might well have contributed to the disconcerted feeling with which I left the exhibition.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not a great believer in the power of art. I did not need to be convinced that the arms trade was a bad thing; I was already a strong believer in the futility and cruelty of war. But I left the exhibition feeling a lot more emotional than I expected to. Whilst I thought some of the artwork was good, I think what really affected me was the opportunity to ‘Make Your Own Art’ on blank postcards. Attempting to focus my response to the arms trade on one small rectangle of white card clarified and crystalised my feelings in a way that I was not expecting.
The Art the Arms Fair exhibition was powerful and emotive. It’s main stated goal was to make the DSEI arms fair visible, to make people aware of its existence. It would be hard to say how far that goal was achieved; the exhibition was nowhere near the ExCel Centre, and the area didn’t seem like the kind of place that people just pass through, so it was unlikely to attract many people who didn’t already intend to visit. I do wonder if an art exhibition in an out-of-the-way office block in East London is really the best way to raise the profile of the DSEI. Nevertheless, it hopefully raised some money for CAAT, and provided a space for creative opposition to the arms trade. At the end of the day, I am reluctant to criticise anyone who is attempting to make a positive difference in the world, as doing something is very often better than doing nothing.