Mainly Museums: PHM

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I was honoured to be asked to write something for the Mainly Museums website recently, and decided very quickly that it would be good to champion Manchester’s Peoples History Museum, (PHM), on the site. My choice was influenced by the fact PHM tells its story through the graphic accoutrements of political activity; from trade union banners to posters, from badges to membership cards, from propaganda leaflets to magazine covers. This visual telling brings the story alive of the fight for social justice, not just in the North of England, but across the UK and internationally. I would urge anyone to visit should they be in the area.

The article itself is an expanded rewrite of a Field Readings’ post I wrote about the People’s History Museum after I visited many years ago. The new version was first published on Mainly Museums website in July 2019.

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Led by donkeys

In living through the nightmare that is, (possibly), the final stages of the UK being in the European Union, it is difficult to see outside of the political, media and social storm that is raging around us. Looking back on this post, after whatever Brexit becomes, readers will, I suspect, be aghast at just what the British public have allowed to take place in their name. Amidst the turmoil though, there is a beacon of hope that is lightening the depressing situation by poking a finger in the ribs of contemptuous politicians. That finger poking is coming from a group calling itself Led By Donkeys.

Image of a quote by David Cameron posted to a billboard
Source: Led By Donkeys

Over a pint in early January 2019, four friends discussed the idea of using billboards to quote politicians contradictory words about Brexit back at them. With MPs using Twitter as an immediate way to score points over their rivals with quick soundbite statements, the four realised they would have plenty of examples to choose from. As the talk of this being a humorous prank continued, they convinced themselves to look into it further. After some research, they found that £300 would pay for the printing of 4 billboards and the equipment they would need to hang them. Clubbing together, they decided to make the pub banter joke a reality.

Image of a quote by Jacob Rees-Mogg posted to a billboard
Source: Led By Donkeys

As working people with families to support, after their first foray into the night-time manoeuvres of illicit flyposting, they realised they couldn’t afford to keep this up, nor risk arrest for covering over other’s paid for adverts. So they decided to go legitimate and launched a Crowdfunder campaign, thinking they would be lucky to get the £10,000 limit they had set for themselves. With a Twitter feed promoting what they were doing, it only took 3 hours to raise an incredible £50,000. Very quickly they realised that they had hit upon a hugely popular idea.

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Reclaim the sheets

While some may praise Lush for its recent #SpyCops poster campaign, having your own shop window to deliver a political campaign message in is a luxury most do not have. Now, the non-shop owning agitpropper can turn to Brandalism, who have launched a Subvertising Manual that shows anyone how to reclaim visual spaces from advertisers by replacing 6-sheet adverts with their own artwork.

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Taking aim at the backlit hoardings most frequently seen at bus stops, the manual tells you everything you need to know to hang your own work in these spaces. Subtitled What You Need And How To Do It, it discusses what tools are required to open the displays; artwork sizes for the majority of bus shelter hoardings, (advertising lingo calls these 6-sheets); what to wear and the best times of day to hang your work to avoid getting caught; and where you can find information online so your work stays up as long as possible.

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Exhibitions are always political

The bracketing of the Hope To Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–2018 exhibition at London’s Design Museum is interesting for many reasons. Starting with Shepard Fairey’s Hope campaign for Obama’s 2008 election, and (almost) finishing with Trump’s Make America Great Again baseball cap, these two items showcase how effective vacuous phraseology can be in winning over people’s emotions when asking them to vote on big decisions. Both speak to the human condition of wanting ‘better’, without actually defining what that ‘better’ might be. They leave it for the reader to appropriate the slogans and adapt them to their own set of desires.

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It has to be said the application of such sloganeering adds weight to the message—the words alone didn’t win their respective elections for each candidate. Fairey’s message appealed to the youth vote as much because they were street posters and were run counter (and unendorsed) to the official Democrat campaign; while baseball caps are everyday headgear worn by the everyman and everywoman of America. Each message is targetted precisely, whether strategically intentioned or not. What both tell us though is that logos do not win elections, neither for Obama in 2008 nor Clinton in 2016. As graphic communication devices, logos tend to be overly associated with corporate structures, despite both Obama’s and Clinton’s being applauded by design critics for their aesthetics, symbolism and ‘cleverness’. In thinking that these could help win around floating voters, it strikes me that the audience was ultimately forgotten, unlike with the street posters and baseball caps.

These are just a few of the thoughts I came away with after visiting Hope to Nope with a group of graphic design students the week it opened in April.

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Can graphic design kill you?

There is an irony to the fact that four days after the Can Graphic Design Save Your Life? exhibition opened at the Wellcome Collection, the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair kicked off at the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands.

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Banksy’s submission to Art the Arms Fair

The former, in the words of Creative Review, showcases graphic design used to “educate, inform, persuade and even save lives. Items include anti-smoking stamps, anatomical pop-up books, a 17th century plague notice and a mural that uses illustration to explain the symptoms of Ebola to people in Africa.” Where as the latter, in the words of Andrew Smith of Campaign Against the Arms Trade will: “bring many of the world’s most appalling regimes together with the biggest arms companies.”

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Uncomfortable post-truths

In discussing 2016 election campaigns with a student recently, I mentioned that to have a true understanding of the topic, it was necessary to research publications that they might not agree with—the Daily Mail, the Express et al. It has to be said that most of the critiques I’ve read of both the EU referendum and American Presidential election campaigns do so from a liberal arts perspective.

In considering this I proffered that, unfortunately, we might have to accept that despite any feelings of abhorrence towards the UKIP Breaking Point campaign, it was in fact a brilliant piece of propaganda on their part.

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Picture source: The Guardian

Potentially it was as defining for the Brexit vote as the Conservative’s 1979 Labour’s Not Working poster, (and there are certainly visual similarities). Equally, any such controversy about UKIP’s blatant use of xenophobia only fuels the flames of such a message to those it was aimed at, precisely because it upsets bleeding heart liberals. This train of thought bought me to an uncomfortable truth that this poster, arguably, could be crowned one of the defining images of 2016.

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Burn baby burn

I do like a good stunt, which is why I’m looking forward to Joe Corré burning all of his punk memorabilia in a protest about Punk London in November. Corré, the son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood, has amounted a collection of punk atifacts he claims to be worth over 5 million pounds. Despite that this seems like an obvious publicity seeking act, the gesture does at least feel like a true connection to 1976’s nihilistic ‘year zero’ fervour.

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Corré’s manifesto

I can’t comment on any of the Punk London events having not witnessed any of it first hand, but my one concession to all things punk in 2016 was to read Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming for the first time. The context of the times is detailed with a genuine insight into the revolutionary effect that punk in 1976 had on the lives of its participants. Reading Savage’s account after Corré’s announcement brought home to me that he may have a point about the capital centric ‘celebrations’.

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Brutal equations

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In my teens in the 1980s, as I was becoming politically aware and active, (going on CND demonstrations and reading radical publications), it is difficult for me not to be very familiar with the work of Peter Kennard. I think I must have held several of his images in my hands as placards and certainly stuck some of his photomontages on my bedroom wall torn from pages in lefty rags. When I heard he was having a retrospective at the Imperial War Museum, titled Unofficial War Artist, I debated whether I should go or not, thinking that I knew what I would get and worried about it being an exercise in personal nostalgia. It wasn’t until I read Art-e-facts’ review of her several visits to the show that I decided to go, and without a shadow of a doubt it blew me away, (no pun intended).

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