Inflatable Objects

Artúr van Balen / Tools for Action

“World delegates trying to hammer out a deal on climate change. Mexican protesters are carrying a giant silver inflatable tool down the road. The blow-up hammer was sent by the German based Eclectic Electric Collective!”

These were the opening words on 8.12.2010 of the British ITN news channel about the climate justice protests during the United Nation Climate Conference in Cancún. The clip showed how the object was hurled over the fence and then destroyed by armoured policemen. (fig.1) The news clip was distributed by global media corporations and within two hours the inflatable hammer had become the symbol of the protests of that day. The inflatable hammer was sent in a suitcase from Germany to Mexico. It was the first action where we understood how inflatable sculptures could be used as a tool to tell stories and create media spectacles. Under the group name Tools for Action we now hold skill-share workshops to teach people how to make inflatable sculptures out of cheap materials such as mylar insulation foil and double sided carpet tape. The building of these poetic, lightweight sculptures is an entry point for people from diverse backgrounds: it serves as a doorway to intervention-based grassroots politics and enables people to take home their new-found skills, such as how to make an ´inflatable barricade´(fig.2).

The original idea for the inflatable sculpture was inspired by an essay by anthropologist David Graeber about giant paper-maché puppets used in protests in the United States. Graeber describes how the puppets produce an instant aversive response by the police, who try to confiscate them as soon as they appear on the streets. Graeber wonders why these innocent sculptures pose such a problem. The sculpture transforms the protest into a colourful carnival-like celebration; they are symbols of collective creativity that–unlike protest groups such as the “black bloc”–cannot be criminalised or controlled, as it is impossible to give orders to a puppet.

In hindsight, it is no coincidence that our inspiration for inflatable sculptures came from puppets. The inventor of the figure balloon was Tony Sarg, a puppeteer by profession. Myth tells us that Macy´s, one of New York’s first department stores, started a Christmas Parade in 1924 with animals from the zoo. But as children were afraid of the growling animals, Tony Sarg exchanged the animals for balloon sculptures in 1927. The figure balloons were made in cooperation with the Goodyear Rubber and Tire Company. The shapes were constructed from different size inflatable globes stuck together with a latex-impregnated cotton fabric and filled up with helium. The parade, later called Macy´s Thanksgiving Day Parade is still held today and marks the beginning of the Christmas sales in the United States.

Until the 1960s, pneumatic technology was mainly reserved for those fields of society with a budget: advertisement and military. It was only in the 1960s when cheap mass-produced plastic was introduced into the market, that pneumatic fever caught the popular imagination in Europe and the United States. Among the most fervent experimenters were young radical architecture groups such as the UTOPIE group in Paris, Coop Himmelblau and Haus Rücker in Austria, Event Structure Research Group in the Netherlands, the Ant Farm in the United States and the UFO group in Florence, Italy. Generally we could say that an utopian promise was projected into this new medium that resonated with the spirit of the times: techno-optimistic dreams propelled forward by outer-space explorations, the student uprising of 1968 and the counter culture movement with their interest in psychedelics. There are three different groups that deserve mentioning here.

The French UTOPIE group, consisting of architects, urbanists and even sociologists like Jean Baudrillard, theorized pneumatic technology in their magazine UTOPIE from 1967-1979 and in their exhibition ´Structures Gonflables´, on show in March 1968 in Paris. The new inflatable architecture was used as a counter-example to contest the conventions of the architecture taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris at the time. The architectural designs of the group were playful, mobile, lightweight and contrasted the ´boring´ monotonous city blocks of the 1950s.

While the UTOPIE group was critiquing the architecture faculty in Paris, the Italian UFO group was occupying the faculty of architecture in Florence from February until May 1968. The students performed seven Happenings which used inflatable objects as their base material and a tool for disruption. The events were called Urboeffimiri/Scala 1:1. Influenced by the teaching of Umberto Eco, then appointed professor in semiology, the happenings played with the idea of icons and signification. The happenings included a playful occupation of the faculty with abstract pneumatic tubes, an inflatable rocket during an anti-Vietnam protest with the words ´Colgate con Vietcong´ and an intervention during a religious procession through the centre of Florence.

Within the tradition of emancipatory art practices the InflatoCookbook (1971) by the Ant Farm comes to mind. The leaflet explains different ways of making pneumatic environments for play and shelter in a fast and inexpensive way out of household materials, making the technology accessible to a wide audience. The cookbook is a Do-It-Yourself-guide and also proposes projects such as the ´Truckin´ University´, a nomadic educational facility for the consolidation of a counterculture: four trucks, consisting of cameras, an editing station, loudspeakers and of course a large inflatable structure that serves as the pop-up university (fig.3).

The pop-up surprise effect by inflation always seemed to lend itself well to (media) spectacles. The culture jamming duo the Yes Men (Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos) hit headlines, when they create fake identities and personify corporations or politicians at conferences or on TV interviews. They frequently use inflatable costumes to create an absurdist twist to their spoofs. In January 2001 the duo was invited to a “Textiles to the Future” conference, where actor ´Andy´ personified a trades representative at a WTO conference. At the end of his ironic lecture about the history of successful workers exploitation, he ripped open his business suit and presented the “Employee Visualization Appendage”, a golden penis-shaped computer inflated by a mechanism used for emergency airplane slides. (fig.4)

fig. 1: Inflatable Hammer in Mexico City, 19.10.2010, Photographer unknown.
fig. 2: Tools for Action, Testrun of the inflatable barricade in preparation for the protest at the UN Climate Conference, 27.11.2015, Paris, Photo by Artúr van Balen
fig. 3: Ant Farm, Truckin´ University, excerpt of Inflato Cookbook, Second Edition July 1973
fig. 4: Yes Men, Beyond the golden Parachute, Tampere, Finald, January 2001, Photographer unknown.


  •  Marc Dessauce, The Inflatable Moment: Pneumatics and Protest in ’68, Sept. 1999, Princeton Architectural Press; 1 edition (1999)
  • Robert Grippo: Macy´s Thanks Giving Day, Arcadia Publishing; Reprint Edition edition (2004)
  • UFO Story, Dall Architettura Radicale Al Design Globale, Pecci Archivio LApo BinAzzi – UFo / Firenze Centro per L’Arte contemporAneA LUigi pecci / PrAto (2012)
  • Eclectic Electric Collective, The El Martillo Project, Minor Compositions (2012)



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Reference / Quellennachweis:
Artúr van Balen / Tools for Action: Inflatable Objects, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 13 January 2016, URL:

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