The Victoria & Albert Museum’s 2014 print exhibition, A World to Win. Posters of Protest and Revolution, is in its last week at the National Print Museum in Beggar’s Bush, brought to Dublin by Irish Design 2015. The exhibition is curated by Catherine Flood, V&A Prints Curator and lover of political posters. ID2015 spoke to Catherine about some key pieces in the exhibition, the importance of political posters and the influence of the digital age on this type of communication.
The exhibition first opened in the V&A in May 2014. Did you feel this was a particularly timely moment to open an exhibition on the topic of political and revolutionary posters?
Yes, definitely. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and with the events happening in Istanbul and Kiev, there was a lot of new protest imagery emerging. The exhibition launched in conjunction with Disobedient Objects, another exhibition I curated at the V&A which looked not only at graphics but all the forms of art and design that protest movements and social movements have engaged in, in the last 35 years. So it was definitely a moment when we were looking at the design of protest.
And what was the process of curating this exhibition? What were the criteria for inclusion?
The exhibition was based on the V&A’s existing collection to a large extent – we have a fantastic poster collection and a really strong element of that is political posters, which is a particular research area of mine. So the exhibition was really about getting the gems of the collection out and also showing them in a slightly new way. We also had the opportunity to fill a few gaps with key pieces we were able to acquire, like the Sun Mad poster by Ester Hernandez, a Mexican American artist who did a very famous re-working of the Sun Maid raisin box logo to protest against the conditions that grape pickers were working in. If you’re thinking about how artists subvert corporate imagery, that’s a really key piece. And we were also lucky to be able to acquire a few loans, in particular from the Royal Library in Belfast where they have a really interesting collection from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Very often, the posters from that conflict aren’t included in general histories of graphic design. And there’s an interesting connection with the history of printmaking as a site of political struggle with these Northern Ireland posters; in May 1968 in Paris, the students occupied their art college and set up the Atelier Populaire, a famous example of spontaneous print making to support a struggle, and students all around the world immediately took up on that, including in London where The Poster Workshop was set up in Camden to teach others how to make posters. People’s Democracy in Northern Ireland invited the workshop to come and teach them how to screenprint – so we have the results of that spread of information in the exhibition.
How effective do you think posters can be in agitating for political change?
Incredibly! It’s of course quite difficult to measure the impact of a particular poster – you don’t know how it changed someone or whether it made them act in a new way, but I think they’re an extremely powerful and emotional means of getting a message across. I think it’s also not always just about the poster itself – it’s also about the process of making it. Historically, it’s been a way for artists to get involved in revolutions and contribute their skills. The actual set up of a printing collective helps create a sense of solidarity, allows for discussion and the swapping of ideas, so they can actually act as hubs for movements too.
So they give artists a sense of agency within the political process?
Definitely. And certainly within left wing struggles, there’s this idea that if you’re going to change society, then the role of art has to change as well, and it’s no good having the artist as a separate entity who comments but isn’t involved. Art needs to be part of everyday life, not just something that’s put in a gallery and part of an art market. So seeing posters as a new form of art that is part of people’s lives has been quite a strong theme throughout political poster making.
How does the disposability of posters, the fact they’re mass produced, influence how they’re viewed as pieces of art?
Well certainly, they don’t have the same commodity value as original art works. But there has always been a strong tradition of collecting posters. The Atelier Populaire in Paris in 1968, which I already mentioned, issued a statement saying their posters must not be collected or shown in bourgeois places of culture, but of course ultimately they were. For me personally, I think it’s very interesting that museums can be spaces where these objects have a life and they can still communicate something of their message, especially when you start to see them next to contemporary works and contemporary struggles. I’ve spoken to activists from the 70s, when there was a very strong tradition of having community poster collectives and print workshops, and at the time they wouldn’t have had any interest in their work going into a museum collection, but now they feel it’s very important that that part of history is not lost.
And does the mass-produced character of posters affect how you present them in the exhibition?
Yes, definitely. The works aren’t in traditional frames, but protected by Perspex boxes. So it is a balance between protecting and conserving the works, but giving the idea that they’re frameless so you can see the rough edges. And also, they’re cluster hung on the wall, not spaced out, the idea being that posters are designed to compete for visual space. They’re meant to fight with each other and jump out. A poster designer wouldn’t assume that you’d see their work with a space of white wall around it.
Tell me about the oldest and newest pieces in the exhibition.
The two oldest pieces are from 1910. One is from the 1910 election in Britain. It’s a labour party poster from the first election where the labour party had a real presence in politics and it was a year of real constitutional crisis because the Lords had rejected the people’s budget, which was proposing very far-reaching social changes. We don’t necessarily think of elections now as moments of big social change, but this perhaps was one. The second poster from this period is a suffragette poster. The suffragettes had an incredible range of activist strategies, from smashing windows in Oxford street to defacing currency to having an amazingly unified image through the colours of their clothing, which was repeated across badges. They’ve actually been credited with pre-figuring corporate identities and the ability of those identities to project a strong visual image. But they also set up the suffrage atelier, which was a workshop where women could come and learn basic stencil printing techniques to print their own propaganda materials very quickly and cheaply. And we have an example from that in the exhibition.
Then the most recent piece would be an entire section that’s projected on a screen which looks at where protest graphics are going in a digital age. We’ve got a few recent examples from protests in Hong Kong. One particular artist set up a Facebook page asking people to design logos for the movement. We’ve also got images from the Right to Water campaign in Dublin, when the logo of the movement was projected onto various buildings last December. So guerrilla projection has become something that’s quite important in getting a message out to the public and onto the streets. And with smart phones and everything being recorded, it’s easy to spread those messages over the internet. The printing stage is sometimes missed out completely now, because social media can make it unnecessary.
Do you think the poster is an endangered form of communication then?
No, I think its future is changing and I think for some people printing is still really important. There’s a piece in the exhibition from 2010, by an artist called Anthony Burrill who works a lot with letter press. He made a poster about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which simply says ‘Oil and water don’t mix’, but the ink that the poster is printed with is taken from the sand where the oil from the spill had penetrated, so the physicality of that poster takes you right to the situation. There’s still a kind of joy in some types of printing. But digital media offers a whole set of other opportunities for getting political messages out. And what you see now is the creation of symbols almost instantaneously. When you look at some of the older posters in the exhibition, you can sort of see how one motif has spread from one situation to another, like the clenched fist for example. But now that creation of a symbol happens so quickly. During the Arab Spring, there was a photo taken in Tahrir Square in Egypt that caused a lot of outrage, where the police dragged a woman across the ground and exposed her blue bra. People started carrying this image in demonstrations and then it started to be stencilled onto walls as murals. It went viral and the blue bra became a symbol of people’s outrage against the authorities. It happened so quickly and became instantly recognisable, which wouldn’t have been possible before social media.
What opportunities has the National Print Museum offered for this installation of the exhibition?
Of course the connection with the history of printing is great. But also, the fact that these posters are made in a context of political action means it’s sometimes a little bit hard to see them in a gallery – they can become a little flat. So to have them where printing presses are working and people are encouraged to come and try out printing, that really helps with the context. The actual shape of the space works really well too, because the posters are arranged throughout the museum’s gallery, into a sort of tunnel like effect. They’re arranged by different graphic strategies and each one has a very different emotional impact – there are some which are images of people literally smashing the system which are quite vilent, while others show new dawns, very utopian imagery, so that emotional content gets concentrated and it becomes really powerful as you walk through the space here.
A World to Win. Posters of Protest and Revolution runs at the National Print Museum in Beggar's Bush until Sunday 8 November.
Words by Rachel Donnelly.