Revolt is back in style

This year has so far been marked by considerable political upheaval as people around the world defy the establishment and stand up for what they believe in. Dominic Lutyens looks at the current upsurge in political engagement and iconography

Recent events such as the Arab Spring and, closer to home, the Trades Union Congress’s anti-cuts protest in March, demonstrations against cutbacks, student tuition fee increases, and actions by anti-tax avoidance group UK Uncut have seen people become increasingly politicised.

On our streets the political placard is once again fighting for attention. Indeed, these signs of our times have become objects of interest in their own right. A recent Radio 4 programme focused on ’the golden age of the protest placard’, and pointed to a new flourishing of witty sloganeering (’These men have Eton our education’ was a recent anti-Coalition example). Goldsmiths students collected placards from the TUC march, donating them to the Museum of London.

Several artists and designers have made recent political interventions. David Shrigley and Mark Wallinger created artworks decrying the Arts Council cuts as part of the Save The Arts campaign, while graphic designer Tim Ratcliffe created postcards of photographs documenting performances by art activist group Liberate Tate. The group protests against the Tate accepting sponsorship from BP, particularly in view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Much of the work at the Free Range Art & Design Show at the Old Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane, which claims to be the UK’s biggest display of photography, art, graphic design and interior design by young graduates, has a political content either overt, direct and hard-hitting or suggested through multilayered allusions. Images by Josie Ainscough, a University College Falmouth photography graduate, are veiled both literally and metaphorically. Her sinister photographs show women’s heads draped with incongruously pretty floral fabrics. ’My work focuses on the influences of advertising and the media, particularly in the fashion and beauty industry, which can be damaging to the individual, more so for women,’ she says.

’The covered heads extend the idea of fashion “taking over” an individual and consuming their identity. Inevitably, they recall burkas and even the widely publicised images of abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib detention centre. The work is open to feminist and politically inspired interpretations, but my aim is to challenge the viewer and not point out a definitive message.’

Bath Spa University fine art graduate Joseph Meldrum’s work is more explicitly political: he takes simple photographs of people wearing slogan T-shirts. One says ’Liberty is precious, so precious that it must be rationed.’ Meldrum says, ’My art is a tool for fighting consumerism and capitalism and promoting socially aware thinking. My politics are left wing and this influences my work. I try to make a positive difference by creating pieces that can be viewed in several ways as activism, art or philosophy and so be read by more people.’

Havering College graduate Luke Fowler’s posters also carry an overtly political message. One links Hollywood with the US military. ’The Pentagon provides film directors with access to military bases and equipment in exchange for editing the script in a way which praises the American war effort,’ claims Fowler.

Fellow Havering graphic design graduate Richard Phillips’ grimly monochrome, Barbara Kruger-esque posters mount a polemic against warmongering and consumerism. One shows Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg accompanied by the widely reported observation from author Bruce Schneier: ’Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are Facebook’s customer, you’re not you’re the product.’ Says Phillips, ’It reflects how Facebook is generating a huge amount of profit from selling space to advertisers.’

Meanwhile, graphic designer Dawn Gardner an admirer of anti-Nazi campaigner John Heartfield creates photomontages which refer to the Vietnam War, but aim to call to mind ’current conflicts’.

The Obama ’Hope’ poster by Shepard Fairey quickly became iconic, because it didn’t conform to stereotypes

Why this plethora of political imagery at Free Range? ’Students have a vested interest in expressing their opinions, which they do through their work,’ says founder Tamsin O’Hanlon of free range. ’Life has become significantly more political since 2000, especially after 9/11 and the worldwide financial crisis. Increasingly, visual art is used to communicate emotionally charged topics in a powerful way.’

There is, in places, a less convincing, commercial aspect to the trend. Fashion label Diesel (as part of its Diesel Island concept) and youth marketing agency Don’t Panic (which has previously commissioned posters by Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Jamie Reid) have instigated a protest placard competition. Entrants must devise a slogan using a maximum of 140 characters; the winning one will be distributed as a poster.

Diesel Island is a somewhat woolly campaign which claims to put the world’s problems to rights. It includes films of young cuties colonising an island, where they create a Utopian society.

A new book, Protest Stencil Toolkit, by Patrick Thomas (Laurence King), comprises stencils of classic protest-movement symbols. Essentially it is a DIY protest graphics kit. The book contains no text and so feels vacuous rather than politically serious. Also, its standardised symbols don’t allow much room for graphic inventiveness.

To be effective, political imagery needs to experiment and avoid being derivative. ’Political graphics cover an enormous range of work,’ says Ian Vickers, co-director of design consultancy Eureka, which has produced graphics for many TUC publications.

’One area of protest graphics appears to follow the vernacular of the 1970s and 1980s, and is easy for politicians and the media to dismiss as “fringe”. But the Obama “Hope” poster by Shepard Fairey quickly became iconic, because it didn’t conform to stereotypes. It had more in common with May 1968 posters, particularly in its speed and means of production, than with much of the pastiche work produced since. It didn’t shout, but was direct and positive.’

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