Art as resistance in the age of unrest

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It feels like things are in flux at the moment more than ever before. I’ll save the theatre metaphors for my last post, but this is a world stage changing so fast that I can hardly keep up to write about it.

The worrying thing is that very little of it seems like progress; most feels like regression. To borrow Donald Trump’s favourite Twitter catchline: sad. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you’re lucky enough not to read his tweets, which are a garbled mess of egotistical grandstanding and hurt feelings about his media coverage. But Newsweek have compiled a list of all the things that made him ‘sad’; published last December, it hasn’t even got to some of the best stuff, but there’s ample fodder here to make you laugh (and cry).

How do we go about processing such rapid changes in politics? It feels hard to rationalise some of this stuff. The speed at which his Republican administration has reversed travel rights for migrants and foreign travellers (and then fired the US Attorney General for refusing to endorse the ban), muted the social media accounts of his environmental staff, and disinvested in global family planning and abortion funding is staggering. But the danger is that we find it so hard to process we give up on doing so altogether. This might be exactly what Trump’s administration want, so that they can press ahead with yet more aggressive strategies whilst we split our attention between one carefully manufactured crisis piling on another.

One way we can think (and communicate to others) about what’s happening is by looking at how art and graphic design respond to political upheaval – whether that’s via protest posters, graffiti, or advertising. We’ve seen the way that right-wing media manipulate privately-felt, often inaccurate anxieties within the general population to further their own media agenda. But looking to more creative expressions of feelings from individuals that are communicated outside of mainstream media channels offers us different perspectives.

 Protest posters

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We’ve seen protests around the world in the past week, and the signs were some of the best bits. The first, from Monday’s march in London, was made to protest Theresa May’s refusal to speak out against Trump’s ‘muslim ban’ (photo credit: Rex/Shuttershock). The second is from the women’s march in Washington DC last week (photo credit James Jackson).

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This is not a new protest poster – far from it. Made in 1966 as an anti-war image, it got the message so perfectly right that it’s been used ever since. I remember a version of it my mum stuck to the wall of our downstairs loo when I was young, so when I saw the print in the V&A exhibition ‘So You Want to Start A Revolution?’ exhibition the day after the London women’s march I was amazed. Over 50 years on and we’re still having to make the same kind of public demonstration.

Graffiti

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How about graffiti? Whether it’s art or vandalism is a separate issue (my personal nightmare is seeing good graffiti covered by sloppy work), but graffiti is uniquely placed to make a visual impact in what are often high-footfall urban environments. The above piece is a chillingly relevant image to accompany the way that Trump (and increasingly, Theresa May) works to turn opinion into pseudo-fact through dogged repetition. Many attribute the above to Banksy, but the tag suggests it’s by Mogul, a Swedish-based stencil graffiti artist. Stencil graffiti may not represent the cutting edge of street art any more, but as a platform for expression, it is well suited for communicating powerful political messaging because it lends itself to text information and is so easily decipherable.

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The weird thing is that I used the above piece in an article about the run-up to the EU referendum, back in June, yet now it feels more real than ever. Boris Johnson ‘managed to’ secure free passage for Britons who hold dual nationality with countries on Trump’s banned list: therefore the UK, we are encouraged to believe, has nothing more to worry about. How about us working as allies to those in less privileged arrangements? Not likely.

Advertising

When it comes to advertising, I’m not naïve enough to believe that corporations work without their own ulterior motives when they respond to political situations – their image is their brand, and by capturing some of the sentiment of what the public feels, they are managing to be ‘on side’ with that public at times when scrutiny of consumption is at its very highest. That said, it’s a good feeling to see advertising that responds to political unrest and resists those things that most agree are problematic or dangerous. It doesn’t have to wade into international relations and come ‘out’ as partisan; the fact it does means that it is confident that a significant proportion of viewers or consumers will share the viewpoint.

Take this Danish TV advert on ‘all that we share’. I defy you not to feel moved by it (and jealous that the Danish once again get this kind of thing right). Click for the video.

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The below advert really caught my eye as I cycled past it in a drizzly Victoria Park this morning, where LOVEBOX festival runs every summer. The double meaning is clear – people get lost at music festivals all the time; in fact I think I must have spent half of every music festival I’ve ever been to lost and with a dead phone – but the political ring of the statement is strong too. In times of dangerous geopolitics we can find resistance in being there for each other.

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Another brilliant image comes from the New York Times magazine cover. It’s from 2015, not now, but it’s doing the rounds on Twitter because of its prescience in predicting Trump’s isolationism (I say prescience, but the hands don’t quite match; Trump’s are famously small). As a magazine cover this just blows the competition out of the water. I love it. Look at that blue paint colour, and the erasure it indicates. The position of the globe, how it contrasts the global with the local, and how the whole composition feels old-fashioned, even retro, makes for a striking piece.

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In fact, the New York Times has received a lot of media attention for its scrutiny of Trump’s dystopian regime presidency, resulting in appeals to subscribe to its news in the interests of maintaining independent journalism. I’m in two minds about this idea – if you read the content, great, but you might look closer to home for this kind of exchange support model; for example the Guardian has a similar fundraising scheme and rapidly dwindling reserves in the age of online news which is free to access. Better yet would be to fund civil liberties organisations or human rights charities who employ trained policy advisors, researchers and legal teams to investigate human rights abuses and lobby government accordingly. Liberty and Amnesty International are good starting points.

What can we do?

What exactly can we do? I’m not sure I have answers. I missed the London march against Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ because I was teaching, so I wrote to my MP, Meg Hillier, asking her to lobby on behalf of constituents for government to act more decisively than Theresa May’s mealy-mouthed statement calling on Trump to rethink his travel ban (truly an exercise in tautology). Lest we forget, May’s first take on Trump’s bombshell read as follows: ‘immigration policy in the United States is a matter for the government of the United States’. Wow. Judging by the popular and media response, May thought it time to hire a new comms chief, and did just that, choosing – aha! – the Daily Mail’s political editor.

It’s hard to know what else we can do to be effective. Figuring that the ACLU was getting much-needed attention from the U.S side of things, I donated money to the UK Refugee Council and signed a petition calling for the U.K to postpone Trump’s state visit until he reverses his discriminatory travel policy. But how can I be sure that a petition actually works? It seems an awfully easy way to be an activist. Writing to your MP is (slightly) more likely to result in action, and the brilliant They Work For You finds your MP and gives you a template. But my MP is up to her neck in Brexit negotiations (cheers electorate for that time and money drain) and besides, as an inner London Labour MP, I can be pretty sure she already shares her constituents’ views and is lobbying accordingly.

Donations are better yet, as crowd-funding work in America has shown over the past week. And marching is a highly visible form of protest that also brings people together. As this article by Owen Jones points out, Trump is a threat to structures of democracy and grassroots campaigning may be the best strategy to adopt.

But this Medium article is essential reading, expanding on the theme I touched on earlier of manufactured crisis as a way to make larger, more ominous legislative changes; as I say, I’m not sure funding newspapers is more effective than specialist NGOs. But the writer makes a good point that protest is only covered by the media who are interested in covering it; a large swath of American media is in favour of the current administration and won’t promote coverage that impinges on that narrative. Just take a look at the results: Americans actually report feeling safer with a ‘Muslim ban’. As I’ve written before, we all absorb our news through media filters of like-mindedness, and it means we consume often completely different stories to those who are politically opposite-leaning. The gulf is widening all the time.

Through all of this we need to be allies to those in more precarious social situations than us. Migrants, whether documented or undocumented; minorities; those experiencing job insecurity; and those who experience disproportionate police harassment: these groups most need advocacy and representation and are also least likely to receive it. Talking and communicating across the spectrum – from blogging to protest to conversations with friends, students and family – can help maintain momentum and political engagement amongst us ‘normal people’ at a time when the bigger picture can feel overwhelming.

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