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Research Case studies

The Etiquette of the Arms Trade

Our work

The UK and US regularly sell weapons to repressive regimes and regions of conflict. How are these deals legitimised?& Jill Gibbon is an artist, using drawing and performance to research the etiquette of the arms trade. She visits arms fairs covertly across Europe and the Middle East by dressing up as a security consultant. Once inside, she draws and collects complementary gifts, exploring how arms deals are normalised and glamorised through dress, manners, and hospitality.

Her research is unique in using art to give an insight into the secretive world of the arms trade. The drawings show tanks open for viewing, champagne served alongside missiles, and a string quartet on the back of a military truck. Complimentary gifts include stress-balls in the shape of bombs and grenades, toffees, and condoms. Her performance as an arms trader provides a metaphor for a masquerade of respectability in the industry. The arms trade has predominately been studied in the social sciences with quantitative methods and reason. However, etiquette is not counted or reasoned, but aesthetic. It is performed, enacted and displayed, so it has been largely overlooked in previous research. The significance, originality and rigour of her research has been recognised with an ISRF Early Career Fellowship.

A founder member of ‘Art Not Arms’ her research also concerns arms companies’ use of arts sponsorship to improve their public image. The research has been disseminated in exhibitions at the Bradford Peace Museum (2018), Ruhr Museum, Essen (2018), Platform Gallery, Belfast (2017), James Hockney Gallery, Farnham (2017), and the Royal West Academy, Bristol (2014); articles; a book; and talks.

Our impact

Gibbon’s research has had an impact on the public understanding of the arms trade by revealing how arms deals are normalised through rituals of etiquette. Her exhibitions have been covered by Al Jazeera (2014), BBC Radio Four (2018), BBC World Service (2014, 2018), and The Guardian (2014, 2018), with reports suggesting her work offers insights into contentious arms deals. The BBC World Service introduced Gibbon as ‘lifting the lid on the murky world of arms sales’ in the context of an arms deal between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. (BBC, 28/04/2018) The Guardian discussed her work in relation to UK and French arms sales to Russia, and said that her drawings, ‘highlight how the arms trade treats missiles, tanks and bombs like any other commodity’ (07/2014).

Visitors to the Bradford Peace Museum described how the exhibition impacted on their understanding of the arms trade: ‘The line drawings are an extraordinary exposure of the ‘mores and manners’ involved in selling arms’. (BPM, 13/04/2018) I did not know that the UK makes arms that are sold around the world and that are responsible for harming civilians’ (BPM, 02/06/2018). The exhibition has been a key source for a Common Wealth theatre production about the arms trade I Have Met the Enemy, particularly the way deals are legitimised through rituals of respectability. Co-artistic director Evie Manning wrote, ‘The exhibition's observations and depictions of the 'performance of respectability' has informed our play in such a way that we have built a significant opening scene around this idea and the characters, action and gestures that The Etiquette of the Arms Trade explored’. (14/02/19) The international reach of Gibbon’s research is evidenced by invitations to take part in exhibitions about war in Essen (2018) and Berlin (2019).

A co-founding member of ;‘Art Not Arms’, Gibbon’s research contributed to a successful campaign urging the Great Exhibition of the North to refuse sponsorship from the arms company BAE Systems in March 2018. Her research shows how the arms industry is legitimised through aesthetic methods, informing a petition against BAE sponsorship, collecting 2,366 signatures. Her research also influenced campaigners. Boff Whalley conductor of the Commoners Choir described the impact of seeing her drawings at an LBU F= exhibition in 2016, ‘it alerted me to a side of the international trade in weapons that I hadn’t understood – that arms dealing is normalized with entertainment, trinkets, and wine’. The Commoners Choir was one of three acts to pull out of the festival in protest against the arms company sponsorship on 02/03/18. BAE Systems withdrew from the festival five days later. The campaign was covered by the BBC (02/03/18), The Guardian (09/03/18), Frieze (09/03/18), Artist’s Information Company (09/03/18), The Art Newspaper (08/03/18), and Arts Professional (09/03/18). ‘Art Not Arms’ headed an Art News story describing 2018 as a year of ‘protests and petitions that called attention to abuses of power, inequity, and privilege in the cultural sector’ (21/12/18) showing the impact of the campaign on the art world.

Next steps

Gibbon continues to draw in arms fairs in Europe and the Middle East, disseminating the work in art, academic, and activist contexts. In September 2019 she will exhibit as part of ‘Up in Arms’ Bethanien Gallery, Berlin.

She is currently writing about a performance of ethics in the arms industry.

Lifting the lid on the murky world of arms sales, the artist Jill Gibbon has been infiltrating trade fairs organized by the defence industry for the last decade.

Celia Hatton, BBC World Service, 2018

Research outputs

Plus Icon Exhibitions
  • ‘Kreig. Mach. Sinn’, Ruhr Museum, Essen
    November 12th 2018 - April 30th 2019
  • From Nope to Hope, Graphics and Politics 2008 -2018
    Brixton Rec, September 15 – 30th 2018
  • The Etiquette of the Arms Trade, undercover drawings of the arms trade
    Bradford Peace Museum, April 13th – June 28th 2018
    Extended until the end of 2018 in a pop-up show, 60 Kirkgate, Bradford
  • Transcriptor: illustration and documentary materialism
    James Hockney Gallery, UCA, Farnham, Surrey, Oct 19th – Jan 10th 2017
  • And This Too: art and conflict
    Platform Gallery, Belfast, Nov 3rd - 30th 2017
  • Shock and Awe: contemporary artists at war and peace
    Royal West Academy, Bristol, July-Sept 2014 
Plus Icon Publications
  • Gibbon, J (2018) ‘I Go Undercover into Arms Fairs and Secretly Draw’ The Conversation, March 22nd 2018
  • Gibbon, J. and Sylvester, C. (2017) ‘Thinking Like an Artist-Researcher about War’ Millennium, January 17th 2017
  • Gibbon, J. (2015) ‘Hiding in the Light, drawings of the arms trade’, in Sylvester, C. (ed) Masquerades of War, London: Routledge

Media mentions

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