At the crossroads of art and activism, the thinking person makes a choice. Aside from discovering and pushing the boundaries of aesthetics and the occasional petty street beef, Brooklyn’s street artist sometimes sprays for a higher calling.
Brooklyn’s street artists have a proud history of getting out a message; citing social ills, expressing dissatisfaction with a current war, yelling about a feared police state, or even advocating positive solutions.
A new book out by Josh MacPhee and Favianna Rodriguez places the messages of the streets in a context that helps the reader understand that we are, at any given point, merely on a continuum; peeps have been reaching the masses on the streets for years using their artistic talent.
The book, Reproduce & Revolt quickly engages you and cuts to the chase: social justice movements have always heavily relied on the talent and ingenuity of the artist to communicate, elevate, agitate, and educate. CHANGE, anyone? HOPE, anyone? Some of the most pressing issues of the 21st century – gender inequality, racial injustice, prison reform, globalization, labor rights, queer rights, immigration reform — all of these movements started in the margins, with little resources and little political clout. The power, resourcefulness, and creativity of the graphic designer and the artist were crucial to getting the message out to as many people as possible, in the most meaningful way.
In both English and Spanish, Reproduce & Revolt features the work of artists from over a dozen countries. It includes hundreds of permission-granted images that can be used (and have been) on flyers, posters, t-shirts, brochures, stencils, and any other graphic method you can devise. Most importantly to the authors, the reader is encouraged and schooled step-by-step on how to to think of themselves as the artist.
One of the authors, Josh MacPhee, is a well-known Brooklyn dude. Artist, curator, writer and activist, MacPhee has had a hand in creating many a piece that advocates and educates – his favorite may be the poster. In fact, a large poster show he is co-curating opens January 23 at Miller Gallery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania called Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now.
We are thankful that Josh took some time and talked to us about this book, and what it means to him.
Brooklyn Street Art: What is your personal connection to art and activism?
Josh MacPhee: When I was a kid I used to make art. When the US invaded Iraq in 1990 I was in high school, and started to realize sh*t wasn’t right in the world. Between punk rock, graffiti and stumbling upon an early issue of World War 3 Magazine, I realized that art and politics could and should go together.
Brooklyn Street Art: And your co-author, Favianna Rodriguez, has dealt with social issues with poster design?
Josh MacPhee: Favianna is practically a political poster making machine. She has and continues to produce an amazing breadth and depth of political graphics.
Brooklyn Street Art: The book serves as a step-by-step primer with a quick history of modern social justice movements and how they have each used art to energize and activate the populace. Why is this history relevant to today’s artists and activists?
Josh MacPhee: Everyday I wake up and feel like the world around me is losing meaning, with more and more people getting screwed, and at the same time more and more of us throwing our hands up in the air and saying, “well, nothing matters anyway.” F*ck that, sh*t matters! And sh*t changes. By understanding our history, we can understand that things haven’t always been the way they are, which means that they can change. If as street artists we had a slightly better understanding of the diversity of amazing art that has been done on the street in the past (and I’m not just talking 1980, but 1960, 1940, 1910…), then we’d have much more to draw from in making new work that is engaging and powerful, rather than just rehashing and slightly tweaking what everyone was doing 6 months ago.
Brooklyn Street Art: In a media soaked world, how can a message break through and reach people?
Josh MacPhee: People read what they see on the street. Not everyone, and not every word, but people do read, and do absorb. Never mind whether you “break through,” there’s no way you’ll ever reach people at all if you don’t even try to meet them where they are at.
Brooklyn Street Art: What have modern activist/artists learned from corporate advertising methods?
Josh MacPhee: Or vice/versa? Most corporate advertising steals from youth culture, street culture, and graphic history. Street stenciling started as a political act, now it’s a promotional device. Images on moving trains started during the Russian Revolution. The creativity of capitalism is purely parasitic, it never comes up with anything new on its own.
Brooklyn Street Art: Do you have to go to art school to make effective political graphics?
Josh MacPhee: I didn’t. Most effective political graphics are made by “amateurs.”
Brooklyn Street Art: But definitely you need a computer and Photoshop, right?
Josh MacPhee: These days it helps, but it also has a tendency to get in the damn way. Not only do you get sucked into the screen, and forget how to do things with your hands, but the computer has a nasty habit of homogenizing the way things look, and spitting out carbon copies of slick and dull images and designs…
Brooklyn Street Art: You like stencils? What other techniques do you like to use?
Josh MacPhee: My body hates spraypaint these days, so I’ve started cutting my stencils out of rubylith, and using those to burn screens to silkscreen my images. Silkscreening is a cheap and easy way to make really nice short runs of prints. But if you really wanna reach out to a lot of people, you need to go offset and print 500 copies, 1000 copies, 5000 copies.
Brooklyn Street Art: Okay, Josh, imagine you are speaking to a fired-up teenage artist who wants to really shout out their message visually. What is the rule of thumb for an effective design?
Josh MacPhee: If you can, let your image speak for itself. The failure of most radical political communication is that it’s way too wordy. No one wants to read a poster with 20 paragraphs of small type on it. Catch people’s attention, communicate a tight, concise idea, and send them on their way to think about it. If you reach them, they’ll follow up, do research, and hopefully act on whatever your trying to change.
And diversify how your communicating. Posters reach one audience, emails another, social networking sites, flyers, stickers, graffiti, pirate radio, murals, banner drops, do it all.
Brooklyn Street Art: When designing for social change, how important is it to know your audience?
Josh MacPhee: Most important. period. You can’t speak to people if you don’t know what language they understand. So many well intentioned artists try and put out social messages but use graphic language or vocabulary that most people misunderstand, and then they get frustrated when no one responds. It’s like going to Bolivia and putting up giant posters in Swedish, it’s unlikely people will be feeling you.
Brooklyn Street Art: What street artists today use their work to draw our attention to social issues?
Josh MacPhee: The most successful, of course, is Banksy. But Chris Stain and Swoon are pushing the envelope, I’ve been impressed by what Above has been up to lately, Armsrock, the whole Yo! What Happened to Peace? crew, and on and on….
Brooklyn Street Art: You want people to reproduce the graphics in this book, right?
Josh MacPhee: Hell yeah, let ‘er rip! The point is that all these images and ideas are part of the commons, we share them, just like we share the earth we live on and the air we breath. These images exist to help people change the world.
Brooklyn Street Art: Are you going to be in any shows this year?
Josh MacPhee: A giant show of political posters, flyers, photos, video and film that I curated with Dara Greenwald is opening on January 23rd at the Miller Gallery in Pittsburg
Justseeds (a political art collective MacPhee is a part of) has a big collaborative show coming up in Milwaukee in March (http://www.aux.uwm.edu/Union/events/gallery/Spring%202009/JustSeeds.htm), I’m really looking forward to that.