For those of us who grew up in 1970s Britain, graphic agitation was part of our everyday lives. The CND and Anti Nazi League badges, John Heartfield and Peter Kennard posters, and T-shirts emblazoned with witty parodies of corporate Americana advertised in the back of the NME all spoke to a youth that was engaged and enraged.
As a fascinating new Imperial War Museum exhibition, Weapons of Mass Communication, shows, these striking examples of dissent graphics are part of a protest heritage that is as diverse as it is vital.
Curator Richard Slocombe has combed the museum’s collection of 15 000 posters to present a comprehensive visual exploration of ideology as a battleground. A section on the years between the World Wars, when countries such as Spain, Hungary and Austria underwent radical political upheaval and conflict, is particularly interesting. Then, a small but impactful section on protest poster illustrates a broad view of dissent that spans both time and subject matter in a fascinating way.
Outside the museum walls, what’s happening to visual dissent by designers? You might be forgiven for thinking that, beyond the pages of culture-jamming bible Adbusters, there’s not much going on. Britain’s most famous culture-jammer Jonathan Barnbrook thinks you’d be wrong. ‘The mix is about the same as it’s always been. There are many kinds of protest and it’s just taking new forms, like hacking culture and blogging, which are just happening alongside the old ones. Most of it though is tied together by the Internet. Either you see a work reproduced there, or it’s a way of collaborating to raise awareness, or simply organising a protest. It really is a very powerful tool and that’s why governments are trying to control it and make every message traceable,’ he insists.
It’s true that much dissent is now done on-line, but this inevitably lacks the visual impact of poster and public work. Micah Wright’s war posters, Copper Greene’s iRaq (iPod) ‘ads’ and Amnesty International’s Cachez campaign all maintain the tradition, yet even these lack the impact of classic dissent designed by the likes of FHK Henrion, Seymour Chwast and Tomi Ungerer.
So have they gone, or have they simply gone underground? ‘I think that we see them all the time, especially on the Internet. Maybe we are just far more used to them being part of our general visual landscape now, so we are less aware of their existence,’ says Barnbrook.
However, where there used to be all sorts of organisations (even the Labour Party and Greater London Council commissioned anti- Trident posters) commissioning outdoor dissent design, now there are just two big hitters in the UK. Amnesty International and the Stop the War Coalition are forging the way in delivering posters that fire us up and inspire us to protest against the things being done in our names. One Amnesty campaign launched earlier this month, Unsubscribe, hopes to harness the power of social networking on-line to mobilise millions behind a defence of human rights values, yet it is being promoted using billboard posters designed by Drugstore. Does this suggest an ongoing need for public outdoor dissemination of such dissent? As Amnesty International UK spokesman Neil Durkin says, ‘We’re keen to engage with all forms of communication, so while we’re taking Unsubscribe into the Web 2.0 world of social media, it doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about the power and impact of other ways of getting the message across. Posters on the street, campaigners with placards, articles and images in newspapers, virals on-line – they’re all part of our campaigning these days.’
Yet arguably the only truly memorable anti-war graphic poster of the past ten years is resolutely old-school/ David Gentleman’s ‘No more lies’ for the Stop the War Coalition. Gentleman’s beautifully simple idea, in which the letter ‘O’ is replaced with an aggressive splat of blood, is powerful, immediate and expressive – no wonder it appears as the last image in the show’s accompanying book and has been used as the focal motif for the exhibition. ‘It developed from a photomontage idea I originally sent to the coalition when the Iraq war looked imminent,’ recalls Gentleman. ‘This used a shot of a march overlaid with hundreds of tiny “No’s”, which eventually led to the “No” with the blood motif. Marches have always had a good division of homemade and official posters, and these, with the beautifully handcrafted trade union banners that get brought out for these occasions, have combined to give protest graphics a real vigour and energy,’ he says.
Will there always be room for the protest poster? According to Barnbrook, ‘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.’ So as long as there are poster sites there should always be protest posters. And as anyone travelling westbound on the Central Line through London’s Liverpool Street station, where the entire length of the platform has been plastered with Gentleman’s design, will see, the medium is as powerful as ever. l
Weapons of Mass Communication: War Posters runs at the Imperial War Museum until 30 March 2008. The accompanying book by James Aulich is published by Thames and Hudson in association with the Imperial War Museum, priced at £19.95