There is no question that art, design, and culture have played an influential role in maintaining the gross inequality we see in our world. They have also been important tools for every social movement that has attempted to challenge the status quo. But not all tools are the same: we don’t use a nail gun to plant a garden, or a rake to fix the plumbing. A healthy and hearty examination of how culture has been used to foster social transformation can be utilized to challenge our own current practice and give us insight into what is possible.
Signal: A Journal of International Political Art & Culture is a publication from the United States focusing on exploring and documenting international political art and cultural output. It is edited by Josh MacPhee and myself and was begun with the aim of finding, assessing, and sharing the different cultural tools people have used in struggles the world over.
When we began this project five years ago, the majority of graphics (and tactics) we saw used in social movements here felt dull. The same set of images and symbols (a woman standing up to tanks, a fist, a peace sign, to name a few) had been used so repetitively as to have lost almost all meaning. These images no longer functioned as mechanisms of critical communication with the potential to exchange ideas, ask tough questions, or make a viewer simply stop and pay attention, but merely as signposts—they had lost all impact. They neither challenged nor intrigued. For example, if you saw an anti-war poster and you were against war and believed in protesting, you might note the date. If you weren’t so sure about going to a protest, nothing would lead you to believe that this one was going to be any different than any other protest that you may have tried before. Never mind if you weren’t already anti-war.
We believe that the moribund quality of images reflects a political culture that lacks vigour and vision. So with Signal, we want to expand the language of possibility with political graphics. Josh and I both come to this project as producers of posters, flyers, graffiti and t-shirts, and we are personally interested in understanding the terrain we work on. We’ve found the exploration of work that comes from other countries—work that doesn’t fit in with familiar aesthetics—the most rewarding. We hope to challenge pre-existing ideas and expose novel ways of approaching image production and image crafting. We also hope Signal can be one small instrument which strengthens solidarity and communication between international movements and cultural producers.
Political artworks can be used in a variety of ways: to inspire, to agitate, to document, to inform, to memorialize. We’ve taken an ecumenical approach to political art – we’ll cover any form that pushes things forward, that excites us, that challenges us. We’ve covered movement graphics, underground comics, revolutionary murals, graffiti and modernist sculpture. We’ve had a photo essay on adventure playgrounds and an article about the importance of the Gestetner printing press and its use by radical groups in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s. We’ve also, of course, covered the output of fine artists and designers. We’re proud to have featured work from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Europe.
There are a few inter-related ideas that we are developing and pushing forward. Firstly, we believe that there is power in art that is made as part of a struggle (as opposed to artwork which is simply about a struggle, or produced by artists working outside of social movements). Good art and good design will not lead the way in changing political movements, but cultural workers in political movements are afforded a unique opportunity. When working within a movement, we are able to take part in the conversation of how the movement is representing itself, of what it aspires to. We are able to help synthesize ideas and frame conversations.
Secondly, to be able to control and shape how a message goes out in the world is both a privilege and a responsibility. If we hope to have viable, vibrant movements then the artwork should reflect that. We want to cover artwork that communicates, that puts forth a bold vision, and that respects the intelligence of the viewer.
Thirdly, we want to promote the power of collective cultural work. We are curious about the ways collectives work together—the nuts and bolts of decision-making and group expression. We also want to explore the social implications of working collectively— how collective work becomes a reflection of liberating ideals. When we work collectively we encourage solidarity, skill sharing, communication, and direct democracy. Collectively we can approach a selflessness and a political love that is powerful for those involved and possibly transformative for the movements themselves.
We live in a landscape that is overly saturated with targeted advertisements and constant messaging. Because of this we need to think creatively, to be bold, and dare to break through the current media landscape. The idea of struggle/revolution/utopia is a creative idea—the imagining of a world outside of the confines of the present day. Graphic works occupy a special place in that they can move beyond national and linguistic boundaries. Our hope is that by sharing graphics from around the world that we can build solidarity and commonalities between movements and increase the sense of possibility when working to better the lives of our neighbours and ourselves.
“My ideas are never shaped only by me. It has to be put in a larger context, so if we can say that we want to be moving towards social justice, we have to ask, how do we know were going the right way? How do we know when to adjust? These are big questions and as an artist I represent only one segment of the people who should be thinking about this stuff”
-Melanie Cervantes of the Taller Tupac Amaru, from an interview in Signal:01
“When the student movement started, there were 8 demands. We started making images based on these. We made banners and posters articulating what we wanted and what we were fighting for. Then we had people from other departments asking for our graphics support. They would write out fliers and we tried to illustrate the message… I think that graphics had a very important role because it was what made the movement educational. When the movement started, there was a lot of abstract talk, and graphics became a way to illustrate what those issue were.”
– Felipe Hernandez Moreno, member of the propaganda brigades from the 1968 popular uprising in Mexico City, as interviewed in Signal:01