The medium is the message

The idea of political engagement is in sharp focus this week as the UK goes to the polls, Paris celebrates the 40th anniversary of the 1968 uprisings and we all mark the value of the worker with May Day.

These neatly dovetail at the Southbank Centre this week with an exhibition at the Hayward Projects Space called Paris 68, the first major display in the UK of posters produced by art students and striking workers in Paris during May and June of 1968.

The 46 posters that make up the exhibition are drawn from the collection of the American writer and curator Johan Kugelberg. Their existence goes back to 16 May 1968, when students and faculty spontaneously took over the École des Beaux Arts in Paris to form the Atelier Populaire, producing hundreds of silkscreen posters in an extraordinary outpouring of political graphic art.

These powerful, graphically reductive posters cleverly combine imagery with slogans to provocative effect, exhibiting a playfulness and simplicity of graphic language that were driven, according to Kugelberg, by the urgency and speed of the work. ‘There was no time to over-think a design. It was all urgent: the message had to get out each day. It was medial,’ he says.

In a statement produced at the time, the Atelier Populaire declared the posters ‘weapons in the service of the struggle… an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centres of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the factories’.

So, in contemporary centres of conflict, such as protests against the war on terror and China’s occupation of Tibet, where are today’s ‘weapons in the service of the struggle’? Why aren’t we seeing them on our streets? ‘I don’t know! It baffles me,’ replies Kugelberg. Sasha Vidakovic of SVI Design, a passionate advocate of the poster as a medium for protest and someone who has designed a number of them, thinks it is ‘because work like this doesn’t pay and because it is a passionate display of opinion which we’ve been conditioned to suppress.’

Vidakovic feels a number of factors have combined to see off the protest poster. ‘Colleges, designers and studios too often seem to forget the poster as a medium to communicate opinion unless there is a commercial element behind it,’ he says. ‘And it is not a spontaneous opinion any more, it’s a brief. We’ve become too addicted to the creative process and the need for a commissioning client, so that by the end you forget what you were supposed to be angry about.’

‘Most designers don’t even feel the need to protest or express an opinion, let alone design posters about it,’ he adds. Vidakovic feels the problem starts in our design colleges. ‘I would be very, very surprised if there is one single brief to design a poster on this theme in any given design course in the country,’ he says. ‘Design colleges don’t train kids to think in this way.’

Michael Johnson, founder of Johnson Banks, a consultancy with hundreds of posters under its belt, says, ‘The power of the poster to work at street levels seems to have been blunted by endlessly bad band bill-posters or banal fast-moving consumer goods advertising hoardings.’

And he also identifies ‘a lack of desire, and probably a less political student population, more concerned about scratching their iPods than actually trying to save the world,’ he says.

But he makes the point, picked up by other graphic activists such as Jonathan Barnbrook and David Gentleman, that contemporary graphic activism has not so much disappeared as metamorphosed. ‘If you activate mass protest on-line to say “Make Poverty History”, where does that put the poster?,’ he asks.

On the streets, a poster may catch the wave, as Gentleman’s ‘No more war’ ink-splat design for the Stop the War Coalition did in 2004, ‘but a good soundbite or “student in front of tank” eyebite seems to be more telegenic’, says Johnson.

It seems that in grassroots protests – like the Fathers 4 Justice – ‘media moments’ become far more important than placards.

As Barnbrook said in an interview with Design Week last year (DW 25 October 2007), ‘There are many kinds of protest and it’s just taking new forms, like hacking culture and blogging, which are happening alongside the old ones. You use the methods and tools of mass communication of the day to fight the messages in the mass media that are trying to take up people’s mind space.’

Power to the people

May 68: Street Posters from the Paris Rebellion

• At the Southbank Centre, London SE1
• Runs from 1 May to 1 June
• Is part of a season of events across London called All Power to the Imagination! – 1968 and its Legacies

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