Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
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