Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Political designs for our times

An interview with Josh MacPhee and Alec Icky Dunn of Signal, a new journal of international political graphics and culture

January 24, 2011
9 min read

What are your backgrounds in political artwork?

Josh MacPhee I grew up in the punk rock scene, and began making zines and t-shirts in high school in the late eighties and early nineties. Through the do-it-yourself ethos of the punk scene, and also by becoming politicised with the US invasion of Iraq in the early nineties, I turned towards making more political art. I became involved in the anarchist movement, particularly the creation of ‘infoshops’, which consisted of bookstores, libraries, meeting spaces, Food Not Bombs, and lo-fi community organising. I made posters and graphics for the anarchist community, as well as broader left activism around diverse issues such as prisoner’s rights, healthcare, anti-war, and global justice. In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in the history of what I was doing and have worked on a number of projects unearthing and analysing politicised art production.

Alec Icky Dunn I have a similar background but also, when I was a teenager, I worked putting up posters for rock clubs, so I started making my own (political) posters to put up on my rounds of the city. It has been a sporadic but continuous pursuit since then. Art and politics started to get a little more focused when I lived in New Orleans in the late nineties. I was involved in some of the solidarity work around the ‘Angola 3’ political prisoners in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and I also saw the first few ‘Celebrate People’s History’ posters, which Josh was curating and printing. I made one and sent it to him unsolicited, which he then printed, which was pretty exciting at the time! A few years later we ended up living together in Chicago and have collaborated on many projects since then.

I think one of the main things we have in common is we both come to political art not only as producers but also as fans. We are both very interested in the history of cultural work as it relates to political struggles and we’re both excited about its potential (both historically and currently) to add to social movements and movement-building.

Why did you feel there was a need for an ‘international journal of political graphics and culture’?

Josh Over here in the States when you see any political graphics or artwork used at all, a lot of it is the same set of images, which have been used over and over again. But there is an incredibly rich amount of artwork and aesthetics that have been used in left/anti-authoritarian/liberation struggles all over the world, and I think we are in some ways hoping to expand the base of what people here think is possible.

It’s easy for a lot of political graphics to blend into our sensory landscape. For example, you see a poorly copied poster with a fist or a peace sign or an anarchy symbol and it’s an easy thing to ignore, because it’s boring! And often those uncreative, ineffective, posters are tied to uncreative and ineffective protests. Obviously, it’s not quite as simple as that, but I think we’re looking for ways that cultural work can help clarify political movements and work with them to feel more urgent or effective.

The US left has a fairly distinct tradition of graphics, but when we started discovering stuff from around the world, we saw many commonalities and a lot of cross-pollination. In 1968 you had the agitprop artists in Paris and the poster brigades of Mexico City both making really expressive, simple images to be put up on the street. We can see the influence of this work subsequently in the student movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s around the globe, later within the anarcho-punk scene in Europe, then also taken a step further with the silk-screening movement that worked in South African townships during the anti-apartheid struggle, and more recently during the financial meltdown and bottom up re-organisation in Argentina in the last decade.

This influence was not only aesthetic – strong, minimal, and often biting images – but also organisational. Artists were setting up ad hoc workshops so that people could make posters for things in a really immediate way. These are interesting models and examples of what can be done.

Alec We are also interested by things that haven’t had that type of cross-pollination, because there are really different graphic traditions all over the world. For example, I just saw a Japanese poster for a protest against the US military base in Okinawa – it was really vibrant and celebratory looking. It had very bright colours and a cartoony goose honking in one corner. This type of poster is almost unimaginable in the US and I’m not sure why. A friend of mine just came back from Tanzania and she brought some fabrics, once again very bright colours, and what you would think of as African style, but with political themes. The point is that we think there’s a lot to be gained from a more international perspective.

And finally, we think there is value is history and memory. For instance, we’ve been slowly accumulating images – posters, book and magazine covers, stamps, et cetera – from the CNT/FAI in Spain. They often have really amazing illustrations or type treatment. What’s interesting to me is that it’s a good example of what a broad-based working class movement looks like. These images were made by people in the movement, people who had a craft; they were working illustrators, typographers, and printers.

Josh As largely self-taught artists from the United States, it has been a life-long struggle to try to find and understand people making artwork akin to ours in other parts of the world and in other time periods. The US tends to be so myopic.

Signal is an opportunity to both reveal a rich and diverse historical (and contemporary) field of cultural action that is outside of our view and to share it with others. I feel strongly that this culture is something that should be held in common by all those struggling for equality and justice in the world, but is too often locked in the vaults of cultural institutions or the heads of individuals.

What is the range of culture you intend to cover?

Josh We’re very ecumenical. As a visual artist, and in particular a maker of political graphics, that is what I’m most knowledgeable about, but I’m interested in a much wider range of cultural production. Social movements have successfully used everything from printmaking to song, theatre to mural painting, graffiti to sculpture. We’re open and curious about this entire range of expression and its implications for both art and politics. For future issues we are already collecting material related to comics, newspaper promotion, guerrilla print studios, photocopy art, pirate radio, architecture, billboard correction and postage stamps.

Most of the articles are illustrated interviews with artists and designers, rather than essays. Why did you take this approach?

Josh There is very little politically engaged art writing today that doesn’t exist in rarefied academic or art-world discourses. Unfortunately most critical exchange excludes the vast majority of those who might be interested in the intersections of art and politics.

Alec We wanted to show as much of the work as possible! That’s really one of the big focuses of what we’re doing. And also it was partly about expediency. This was a first issue, and it was hard to solicit longer writing when people didn’t really know what we were about. We are hoping to have more writing – not just interviews, but ideas, criticism, and even (gasp!) theory.

Josh Our goal is to incorporate critical writing, but it is a challenge to find essays that are accessible, well-written, and insightful. So as we develop that writing, we have been excited to publish interviews with engaged cultural workers whose voices are rarely, if ever, heard.

The first issue seems quite strongly grounded in broadly anarchist politics. Is that a fair assessment of your intentions for the journal? 

Josh This is the background we come from, but we are not interested in narrowly focusing on cultural expressions that come from groups or moments that self-define as ‘anarchist’. I’m much more interested in exploring the breadth of left cultural expression, and trying to understand how social movements and cultural producers within them articulate their politics and goals, both to themselves and others. The field of politicised visual communication has largely been ceded to advertisers, but it is essential that engaged artists attempt to understand how their work operates in the world, and looking at a wide range of examples seems like a good place to start that process.

Alec I think it’s not quite a fair assessment. One of the five features was strictly anarchist (Rufus Segar), two had strong associations (about Red Rat and adventure playgrounds), and the other two didn’t identify as anarchist at all. I think you could say we’re pro-anarchist, but I don’t think it defines this project by any means.

Issue one of Signal, published by PM Press, is available from book retailers or online at www.pmpress.org

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced


27