We are standing in the Natural History Museum in Oxford. Around us are animals, fine examples of the taxidermist’s art, either on display in glass cases, or like the brown and black bears out in public space with a sign telling us to ‘Please touch.’
But it is not the animals that hold our attention. Nor is it the beautiful architecture of the building we are standing in. Instead our heads are all turned to the back of the room. Emerging from the entrance of the Pitt Rivers Museum are people clothed entirely in red. Their hands appear to be outstretched and they walk in two lines. Silently.
They are the Red Brigade of the Invisible Circus. Dressed head to toe in red (well, not quite as I can see black sneakers sticking out), they appear wherever Extinction Rebellion are active in a silent and visual protest against our treatment of this planet.
The Red Brigade are a performing troupe from Bristol who decided to use their artistic platform to protest against climate change. One member of the group told Bristol Live, “The red is to represent all the sentient beings that have gone before due to climate change and the sentient beings that we are about to lose, including humankind, through climate change.”
Every time I hear about the Red Brigade, I have found myself fascinated by them. The mime artists’ face-paint, the draped red fabric, and the strange gothic nature of it all. It’s the kind of protest I can get behind, if only because there seems to be an air of magic to it all.
So, their sudden appearance on a normal day out fills me with some delight, which I don’t believe is their main intention. But they certainly have all of our attention, but then it would be hard to look anywhere else.
They continue walking in their lines, through the museum. They do not stare at us, or even glance out of the corner of their eyes. Instead, any eye contact made, any feeling that they could be watching is purely incidental. They don’t need to look at us, or explicitly make contact for their message to get through. Their silent presence is enough.
The red is startling, and the effect complex. They are veiled and flowered, like girls who might be dressed in white to dance around a maypole, but their innocence and purity has disappeared. Those painted white faces give even the youngest participant an aged look, and the red suggests that their white robes have been soaked in blood.
It is striking, but I do find my mind wandering slightly due to the overwhelming red. It may be eye-catching, but so was Kate Bush’s all red outfit in her 1977 Wuthering Heights music video. In fact, it’s only the veil and headpiece that are missing from Bush’s video, but they could easily belong there. And as a massive Kate Bush fan I just want to burst into song. Which I feel would not be appreciated.
This aside, their presence is strong, especially here in the Natural History Museum. In a place that celebrates all the life on the earth, the blood red gowns are shocking and potent.
They are gone almost as soon as they appeared, and the museum returns to normal. Everyone goes back to peering at the exhibits and the room barely seems affected by the appearance of the Red Brigade. It is almost as if they were never here.
We remember them at other points throughout the day. Such as when we stumble across them again in the town centre, but they are surprisingly quickly forgotten in the business of life. Which doesn’t bode well for the planet, either.