Professor Elizabeth Resnick was one of the AIGA members who contributed artwork. Twelve years later, Resnick put together a collection of political posters from our digital age: posters created not by ad agencies or even nonprofits, but by individuals. I viewed highlights from Resnick’s collection at the Art Director’s Club in New York City.
At the opening of Graphic Advocacy, Professor Resnick, along with noted art director and author Steve Heller, and graphic design legend Milton Glaser, best known for creating the I ♥ NY poster, among many other iconic works, discussed the new presence of the political poster.
Before the web, a designer would likely need a client or a sponsor, or pay out of pocket, making these posters a significant undertaking. But today, as Milton Glaser said at the event, “The poster has outlived its own history.” There is no limitation to the size, color, or quantity of online poster, and there is little cost.
The exhibit is split up in movements: there are protests of the US government’s response to 9-11, anger towards the terrorists, the Bush Administration, FEMA’s incompetence in New Orleans, the earthquake in Haiti, the Fukashima nuclear disaster, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement. But dispersed throughout are posters that have more general causes in mind. Global warming; pollution; war; a critique of how consumerism has impacted our culture. Glaser’s own “I ♥ NY More Than Ever,” posted on almost every New York street after 9-11, is present in the collection.
But one poster that was absent was Shepherd Fairy’s Hope poster, created for Barak Obama the 2008 election. Heller described it as “a banner for our times,” and further back from the podium where Heller, Glaser, and Resnick stood, was an Occupy Wall Street poster, done in Shepherd Fairy’s robin’s egg blue and umber red, with the mask of Anonymous smirking back at the viewer. It told another part of that story, about the disenchantment and activism that followed not long after the election, and the unlikely ascension of a Guy Fawkes mask in American pop culture.
What I didn’t know until further researching this article, was that Shepherd Fairy had also made an Occupy poster with the same image at the same time. The tone is much different: while Fairy emphasizes wearing the mask, the poster by Ben Stahl on display at Graphic Advocacy shows the mask as logo. Stahl’s just seems much more direct.
This is what digital activism looks like: you see the similarities in work, the concurrency of influences, the amateurs, and the independents working at the same time as the professionals and the big names. And in the end, the only thing that matters is the work.
Across the room, a different icon was on display, a poster of Manal Al Sharif, the woman who dared to break Saudi law and not only drive, but share a video of herself driving. She’s rendered in a stark geometric style, her eyes challenging the viewer.
On the wall next to her, posters mourning the nuclear tragedy at Fukushima. On another wall, a poster of a hand, with a finger that would be pointing, if it were not replaced by an illustration of a prosthesis: “No More Land Mines” is scrawled across the hand.
There are the posters that have causes, and others that are critiques. A stark black and white poster showed a dove with a serpent’s tail, looking a bit like a rat, with “PEACE” printed next to it. On a placard next to the poster, the designer, Mehdi Saeedi of Iran, described his frustration with how “peace is but a mere slogan howled from every corner,” and alludes to how much danger can come “under the guise of peace.”
I’ve been struggling with this image, wondering if it is fair to depict peace as vermin, if peace is really just a slogan. I viewed this image for less than a minute, and have remembered it even after thousands of Facebook posts and click-this tweets that show up in my feed on any given day.
In talking about the power of the poster, Stephen Heller shared that “The first time I heard of AIDS was an Act Up poster” and I remembered seeing the Silence = Death posters around Washington D.C. I was in junior high school. The slogan seemed conspiratorial, mysterious, threatening, and all of these things were true of the AIDs crisis, but it was hard to understand that the posters and stickers were talking about AIDs at all. I didn’t realize what it meant until seeing it on the giant quilt on the Washington mall, with the names of AIDS victims. Perhaps the power of political work isn’t always when you see it, but when you remember it.
There is a tension and sadness to Graphic Advocacy, which is knowing that the exhibit is incomplete. There is no question that will be more struggles, tragedies. It’s really no wonder why we have affection for World War II posters, particularly the British government’s Keep Calm and Carry On. These posters tell about long, difficult conflicts that were eventually won. But global warming, poverty, nuclear disasters, and earthquakes? These threats loom in both our past and future.
But I think that the multitude of posters on display at Graphic Advocacy are how future generations can view our history. Now that there are so many points of view that can be accessed and archived and shared, it’s possible that future generations are going to have a better understanding of our present. That they may know about not just what happened, but how people really felt when it happened.
We tend to treat decades as having one defining political moment. People talk about the “sixties” or the “eighties” or any decade as if the events in those years all happened at the same time to everyone in the same way. But when you look at the last twelve years in Graphic Advocacy, you see just how much can happen in twelve years. And if it seems daunting, it’s also encouraging.
Graphic Advocacy can be viewed online here.