My first sighting of Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster was at Barbette in Minneapolis. I routinely peruse billboards and I don’t think I hesitated more than five seconds before I unpinned it from the cork board, rolled it up and gently tucked it under my arm. I knew I had a treasure (and besides, there was more than one). The bartender noticed and I had to do a little sweet talking, but I still have that poster, among others. Not all of the posters I’ve collected are political, but it seems that some of the best posters in history have been either musically or politically oriented.
|“Return to Normal”|
It’s widely acknowledged that the political posters from the Paris Uprisings of 1968 greatly define the genre. I was first exposed to this period of French history through the steamy film The Dreamers, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and set before and during the uprising. The posters shown briefly in the film piqued my interest more than the NC-17 content did, yet I could only find limited information, most of which was in French. Thanks to the Arab Spring and Occupy, the history of protest and protest art seem to have gained a lot of attention lately. There are all kinds of sources on the net and also a few beautiful new books dealing specifically with the poster art of this brief period.
|“Be Young and Shut Up”|
The uprising started with a small student protest and burgeoned into a 11,000,000 worker labor strike- 22% of France’s population at the time. They shut down the country and President Charles de Gaulle’s government was dangerously close to being toppled. You will often see de Gaulle caricatured as a large-nosed figure (see poster to the left). At the end of the protests, the National Assembly was dissolved and new parliamentary elections were held. The uprising forever changed France- all in two weeks!
|“A Youth Disturbed Too Often by the Future”|
The posters are the product of a group of art students called the Atelier Populaire (Popular Workshop). They took over the printing studios of their own university and cranked out an impressive volume and variety of posters in a remarkably short time. They switched from lithography to silkscreen because the prior method was too slow– the group often produced over 2000 posters per night. Most of the posters are monochrome, simple in design and direct in message. Posters were chosen by vote within the group and then posted nightly for the public to see current issues every morning. I will never again complain about how much work a social media campaign can be!
Although Occupy and these students share a common root (Situationist International), there is nothing vague about the poster messages of May 1968. They express anxiety for the future and distrust of authority and the press. They warn and inform of police brutality and call for for unity of the workforce and a better quality of life. They express that merely producing and consuming goods is not a good way to live and encouraged the viewer to believe that so much more was possible. They encouraged people to fight for change.
Atelier Populaire Mission Statement:
“The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centers of conflict … in the streets and on the walls of the factories. To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect.”
Individual artists never took credit nor signed their work and long after these events had passed, the Popular Workshop refused to put any of the posters up for sale. I’m sure if these students had the media at the time, they would of been gods of Twitter and Facebook. Fortunately the media of the time left us a lasting and powerful record that is still relevant today. Despite the fact that the Popular Workshop would despise and discount me for a bourgeoisie, I would love to have just one of these posters prominently displayed in my collection. Ça, c’est dommage!
To view more posters check out Art for Change.
To buy a book, see Beauty Is in the Street: A Visual Record of the May ’68 Paris Uprising
Blogging as Connected Writing- POST 2
|Protestors in Iran during the Arab Spring|
I watched an animated video by Evegny Morozov called “The Internet in Society” that addresses how the internet may not help the cause of democracy. There were many things that struck me about this video, but in particular I was chilled by Morozov’s lecture point that currently in Iran, authorities are using the documents left online from the protests as evidence to crack down on the creators (bloggers, posters) and as tools to find the protesters depicted by re-posting pictures of individuals and encouraging people to turn them in.
It reminded me of Milan Kundera’s book/film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” which takes place during the Prague Spring of 1968 when the Soviet Union and most members of the Warsaw Pact occupied Czechoslovakia to squelch liberal reforms that were taking place at the time. Kundera is Czech and lived in Prague during these historic events. A liberal communist and a patriot, he was deeply committed to Czech communist reforms along with other leaders such as Václav Havel.
Tereza, one of Milan’s main characters in the book, is a photographer struggling for inspiration and is deeply moved by protesters in the streets when the occupation begins. In frenzy, she shoots roll after roll of film and in the chaos, hands her exposed film to someone claiming to be a foreign journalist. The photographs are powerful- I have posted actual photos taken during this time period. With the exception of some suicides and incidents of self-immolation, protests were non-violent and there was no military resistance whatsoever.
Later in the story, Tereza is taken to a place where hoards of people are being interrogated in a large, open space by the occupiers. Scattered throughout the room, light boxes display the images she captured. The people in her photos are the people being interrogated. In Tereza’s photographs, each person is caught in a heroic and passionate movement or act of protest. In the room, the same people are beaten, injured, small and terrified.
Earlier in the film a public statement is made by Tereza’s husband Tomas (who seems to portray Kundera in his youth) asserting that despite lack of prior knowledge, people should be held accountable for the outcomes of their actions. He draws a metaphor that Czechs pandering to the Soviets should eventually claw their eyes out just as Oedipus did when their naïveté eventually and inevitably falls away.
When Tereza realizes the film she shot is being used as evidence, her hands fly to her eyes in horror of what her camera lens has revealed and the consequences her art has sown.
I still cannot look at the images from the Prague Spring of 1968 without getting tears in my eyes and an ache in my heart for the courage and obvious sense of mass betrayal and despair the Czechs collectively felt at the time of the occupation. When I look at Iranian protest photographs such as the women at the top of the page, I wonder if they are still alive. I wonder if any of the bloggers/posters in Iran or other countries like it, are feeling a sense of deep guilt or despair as a result of their online activism being used as evidence to punish those who dared to protest- that is of course, if these individuals themselves survived the subsequent response to their initial courage.
The media may change, but the tactics of oppressive regimes never do.