When Paul Powslesland was threatened with arrest in September for protesting the monarchy, he didn’t have to be silenced. He was already saying nothing. Standing outside Westminster Abbey before the Queen’s funeral took place, Powlesland did hold something aloft but it was totally blank: a plain piece of A3 paper.
“There seemed to be a movement by the police towards arresting people for what were clearly just lawful and reasonable expressions of opinions about the monarchy,” says Powlesland, who is a high-end barrister and the founder of environmental legal group Lawyers for Nature. Wanting to go and protest, Powslesland had an obstacle: he really couldn’t get arrested as he had to represent a client the next day. “The reason for it was purely practical. I was reasonably sure that I wouldn’t get arrested for just holding a blank piece of paper,” he says. “I couldn’t take the risk so that’s why I did it.”
Naturally, he got a few blank stares. “A lot of officers were quite perplexed and sort of looked at me to try to work out what was going on,” he says. Then, as the viral video shows, an officer came over asking for his details. “I asked him: ‘If I wrote “Not My King” on it, would you arrest me?’ And he said, ‘You know, I probably would, because it would be offensive and therefore against the Public Order Act.’” Cue Powlesland’s appearances on news channels across the globe and the police forced to issue a statement saying people wouldn’t be arrested for peaceful expression. The next day, Powslesland returned with a written sign. The trial run had worked.
Similar demonstrations followed in Edinburgh, which saw a group of people holding blank signs and sheets outside St. Giles Cathedral, this time not in protest of the monarchy, but against anti-monarchy arrests. “I didn’t mean to inspire others, but I guess it kind of happened that way,” Powlesland says. “I do quite enjoy the satirical end of protests in general and making people think differently – it’s the magical ingredient of protest.”
While this kind of stunt might be new in the UK, there’s a paper trail behind it. In March this year, Russian police arrested demonstrators in Nizhny Novgorod for displaying blank signs, supposedly protesting against the Ukraine war but, of course, there was no written proof. “In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, holding a blank piece of paper can land you in jail,” read an Economist op-ed, unaware that similar policies could soon be introduced closer to home. Years earlier, Hong Kong activists had used the same tactic, silently holding up blank signs in a shopping centre to circumvent China’s national security laws, which class pro-democracy slogans as terrorism. All of them were arrested.
More recently, Denmark’s football team announced that they’ll play at the Qatar World Cup in blank shirts to criticise the host nation’s appalling human rights record. “We’ve toned down all the details for Denmark’s new World Cup jerseys, including our logo and iconic chevrons,” kit maker Hummel said. “We don’t wish to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives.” There’s a red and a white kit, but the third is particularly poignant in plain black, “the colour of mourning,” as Hummel put it. “We wish to make a statement about Qatar’s human rights record and its treatment of the migrant workers that have built the country’s World Cup stadiums.”
This trend targets a striking truth: as authoritarianism emerges, having something to say – even if it’s essentially nothing – becomes subversive. The mere intention of writing something political, rather than the actual act of doing so, becomes loaded. A blank piece of paper censures censorship, making a silent statement on being silenced. If authorities see it as offensive, reading it as a form of protest, they’re implicitly acknowledging that this unspeakable viewpoint exists, that it holds some sort of relevance.
But to go all Swiftian for a second (Taylor, not Jonathan): what’s the visual “magic, madness, heaven and sin” of blank space? Well, life imitates art, so it’s little surprise that blank expression has long occurred in visual culture. Exhibit A? The fact that entire exhibitions have provocatively focused on nothingness. Nothing at Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt grouped dozens of pieces exploring stillness, emptiness and silence, while, a decade ago, the Hayward Gallery in Waterloo staged Invisible: Art about the Unseen. The exhibition featured 50 works, including a movie shot without film in the camera, a plinth, invisible ink sketches and four walls with blank pieces of paper on them. Bang for your buck.
Both exhibitions featured the work of Tom Friedman, an American artist who’s often used blankness, emptiness and nothingness to critical acclaim. “Blank space is the void where creation begins,” he tells THE FACE. One of his most well-known works is 1000 Hours of Staring, a large piece of blank paper that Friedman intentionally gazed at for days. “During the time I started 1000 Hours of Staring I was exploring the tiny, making very small works that could be easily overlooked,” he says. Referencing another work, Untitled (A Curse), for which he got a witch to hex a spherical space above a white pedestal (as you do), he says both pieces were used to “contextualise the presentation of visibly nothing”.
“For 1000 Hours of Staring I thought about what me as the artist and the person experiencing my art shared. We both stared at it, so that became the medium for the piece.” The blank canvas becomes something that, like Friedman, the onlooker projects onto, a screen for the imagination. And what did Friedman think of the protests? “The blank signs in this context become a vessel for meaning. It changes the rules in places where people can’t protest certain things. I love it!”
Just last year, Danish artist Jens Haaning combined both protest and art in impish fashion, sending two blank canvases to the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg. “The exhibition was called Work It Out, the concept being about the working conditions we have today in the Western world,” Haaning tells THE FACE over the phone, while breaking into frequent fits of laughter. The gallery wanted Haaning to reproduce a couple of his pieces from years ago. He unexcitedly acquiesced, but soon realised that the fee wouldn’t cover the production expenses. “I was short on money so I took a walk and was wondering who can lend me the money, and then suddenly this idea came as a response to the concept of the exhibition of why we go to work.”
He decided to send in the two blank canvases, call it Take the Money and Run, and do exactly that. His comment on the issue of poor wages soon went viral – and litigious. Although the gallery exhibited the work, it issued a lawsuit to recover the £72,500 fee from Haaning. Laughing about people who asked if it was the beginning of a series, he still revels in the reaction and genuinely believes taking the money and running is a rational action. “Everybody wants to do all kinds of things with me now. But the only thing people don’t want is to commission me for a new work. Who wants Take the Money and Run 2?”
For Haaning, the subversiveness of blankness comes from the fact that it’s a symbol of not working, an action of inaction. In our capitalist world of hyperstimulation, overtime and ceaseless content, blankness is a silent fuck-you. After all, time is money, but so is space. The 10,000 ads we see every single day rely on every layout being maximised and even unused billboards are covered with ads to advertise on them. “We believe that the more information, the more communication the better,” he says. He compares staring at blankness to looking at a scenic vista or going for a long drive, a chance to meditate on nothing. “We’re too busy to look at a blank canvas.”
This philosophy of more is more bleeds into the world of print. “With magazines, it’s very predictable. There’s a page, there’s some content and we want something to communicate,” Haaning says, perhaps underestimating the blood, sweat and tearsheets it takes to create THE FACE. So provocative and luxurious is empty space in print, many publications rely on the Intentionally Blank Page, writing on it that “this page is left intentionally blank” to avoid people thinking it was a mistake and creating a neat self-defeating phrase in the process.
In the past, newspapers have also published entirely blank front pages to show defiance against censorship: Ukraine’s Kyiv Post printed white space in protest against new press laws 10 years ago, Belgium’s Gazet van Antwerpen once mailed out a blank newspaper to show subscribers they relied on their support and La Repubblica in Italy ran an almost empty cover to demonstrate against new gagging laws. Other times, its unwritten power is used to pay tribute, like when Vogue Italia went blank as the pandemic gripped Italy or, to go full-circle, British Vogue’s latest blank cover to commemorate the Queen’s death.
A combination of politics and art, blankness is subversive because there’s so little of it left. It creates uneasiness, confronts us and demands thought, a void that we often try to avoid. A blank piece of paper or canvas isn’t just scary for the artist or writer, but for the onlooker, too. “Maybe some people are frightened by blankness in its connection to boredom and groundlessness. I find blankness to be pure potential,” says Friedman.
Ultimately, it doesn’t just show resistance, but resistance to resistance, too. And it’s never been a more relevant tool. With the Public Order Bill now passed (which has been called “the most draconian legislation of the modern era”) and demonstrators increasingly facing police aggression, protests are under threat and even the intention of writing something on a placard puts you at risk.
“I want to go and protest the King’s coronation [in May next year],” Powlesland tells me near the end of our call. “I will be taking a banner of some kind and standing in the queue, but in addition to my banner, I’ll also have a blank piece of paper on me,” he says. “If the banner gets taken away, the blank piece of paper will go up instead. It’s useful when the system has failed to actually allow you proper free speech to point out the ridiculousness of it.”
Perhaps we say it best, when we say nothing at all.