|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
A collective celebration
AgitPop: activist graphics, images and pop culture
London Print Studio (425 Harrow Road, W10)
To 31 May 2008
Reviewed by Manny Thain
THE POSTERS facing the street signal the start of the AgitPop exhibition before you even enter London Print Studio. One for women workers, a community association dance, a squatters’ ‘benefit bop’, Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign, the death of Colin Rock at Stoke Newington police station in the late 1980s, a satire on old Labour leaders James Callaghan and Dennis Healey. Most impressive, next to the main door, is a large collage: France, May 1968.
On 16 May 1968 students and staff at the École Nationale Supérieure de Beaux Arts in Paris occupied its studios, setting up the Atelier Populaire as part of the revolutionary movement sweeping through France. The students declared: "Posters are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centres of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the factories."
The posters were produced quickly, using simple techniques: silk-screen, lithographs and stencils. Members of the atelier held a general assembly every day to discuss and argue out the slogans and designs. ‘Nous sommes le pouvoir’ (we are the power) is a red paint silhouette of workers on newspaper pages. Striking. Direct. ‘Université populaire – oui’, is a call for an end to the elitist university system. Another announces: ‘Mai 68, début d’une lutte prolongé’ (start of a long struggle). ‘La chienlit, c’est lui’ (the mess/shit-in-the-bed, that’s him) points to a cartoon profile of General Charles de Gaulle (there’s no mistaking that nose). De Gaulle had denounced the students as ‘chienlit’.
The immediacy is still there. But that is not down to good design alone. Context is important. The ever widening gap between rich and poor, the deteriorating lives of working-class people facing cuts in public services and pay, students deep in debt, and the exposure of capitalist economic crisis are all raising with added urgency the need for radical change today.
In the 1960s, of course, socialism was much more widely accepted as a viable alternative to the capitalist system. There was plenty of room for debate and conflict over what kind of socialist model might work but the general ideology was defended by mass organisations linked to the working class and millions of individuals, too.
Although May 1968 provides the reference point, AgitPop has wider aims, the press release saying it "celebrates the changing art of utopian rebellion and activism in this exhibition". So the exhibition is not made up solely of overtly political or left-wing material. It traces the emergence of a counter-culture from the 1960s. It is a mixed bag. On display is the copy of Oz magazine which led to an infamous obscenity trial in the high court. The offending cartoon depicts Rupert the Bear in an act of sexual intercourse. It is explicit. It is puerile. It is a two-dimensional bear.
Magazines such as Oz and International Times (which became IT after legal threats from The Times) were never mass circulation publications, but the point the exhibition is making is that they provided a sense of identity for the developing underground. Prosecutions through obscenity trials and drug busts by a paranoid establishment gave the counter-culture much wider publicity than it could have generated itself.
Although such publications were part of a radicalising scene, they also dragged a lot of old baggage with them. On display is a two-page article on female sexuality. It appears to be a serious article. But the text is laid out on a pornographic image of a woman, completely negating anything constructive which might be in the article. Whatever the intention, all that is denigrated here is women’s sexual integrity. That is reactionary.
The exhibition is very much a local/global mix. Part international perspective it also throws a spotlight on this area of west London and the role it played in the development of counter-culture(s). The area was notorious for Rachman landlords: slum conditions with high rents, extorted with violence and intimidation. It was also one of the centres for migrant communities in London, especially Irish and Caribbean. Facing discrimination and exploitation, community collectives developed to provide social and economic support and, when necessary, self-defence.
John Phillips, curator of the exhibition, makes the link between France and west London: "Perhaps the greatest contribution that the Atelier Populaire made to the development of radical communication, that is to say the dissemination of information and messages counter to the dominant ideology, was the idea that it is possible to just set up a studio and do it". London Print Studio began in the early 1970s along those lines. And that decade saw the growth of Notting Hill carnival, the rise of feminist politics, squatters’ groups and punk rock, all of which were reflected in the area’s music and graphic material.
To illustrate this, the exhibition throws into the mix photographs of the construction of the Westway motorway (built in the wake of the Notting Hill riots), Martin Luther King at a local meeting, CND marches and beat poets. There are psychedelic posters of Jimi Hendrix, for legalising cannabis, a jazz gig at the Roundhouse organised by North Saint Pancras Labour Party. There are posters advertising punk and reggae gigs in the late 1970s. Along with the exhibition is a free soundtrack, including many tracks from the mid-1970s and into punk and reggae: Pink Fairies, Junior Marvin, Sex Pistols, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Tapper Zukie.
‘Outspan: South Africa’s bitter fruit’, is a reminder of the anti-apartheid struggle and the big-business links with that brutal, racist regime. There is a poster depicting abandoned buildings: ‘If it’s empty take it’. The stark demand, ‘Coal not dole’, is from the 1984-85 miners’ strike. A portrait of Margaret Thatcher is brown and metallic, a rusting iron lady. There are some stunningly beautiful posters from Cuba: ‘Cancion Protesta’, a stylised rose, a thorn dripping blood.
In an essay to accompany the exhibition, Damon Taylor makes the point that the Havana office of the American advertising agency, J Walter Thompson, went over to the revolution, bringing "the visual sophistication of commercial advertising to the ‘revolutionary tools’ of political communication". This is remarkable.
Then again, revolutions are remarkable events turning the existing order upside down. The main agency for change is the organised working class because of its collective economic power and social cohesion. Swept along the workers’ tide are many intermediate layers: scientists, technicians, professional people, artists, etc. After the Russian revolution, for example, the leading avant-garde artists fell over themselves to support the revolution – using the resources made available by a nationalised, planned economy. (This early creative dynamism was short-lived, however. Alongside the rise of Stalinist totalitarian rule, came censorship and repression, the suffocating grip of bureaucracy.)
The exhibition brings us up to date, asking what the future of grassroots propaganda is now there is such wide, individual access to digital technology. The premise of AgitPop is that what was vital to May 1968, Cuban revolutionary propaganda, and the community activism of the 1970s and 1980s was the way posters were produced out of collective effort in small-scale studios by politically engaged people.
Indeed, the exhibition seems to lament the passing of the poster in the internet age. But is news of its death premature? Or is the individualisation of protest connected with the current relatively low level of mass industrial and social action by working-class people?
Whatever the answer, this small exhibition is a chance to see some excellent political and social commentary from the last 40 years. There is little in the way of explanatory material which allows the graphics to speak for themselves. On the other hand, that means that a working knowledge of those years is helpful in putting the exhibits into context. Ultimately, for all the advanced technology available, the working class cannot take power online. It will come down to industrial action, political organisation and community mobilisation. The most refreshing aspect of this exhibition is its celebration of collective action.