Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008-2018
The Design Museum, 2nd April 2018
I have banged on before about how satisfying a trip to the Design Museum can be, for the building, (specifically that beautiful roof), the permanent collection and the exhibitions. Not cheap, though make yourself a child, student, pensioner or, better still, since some of these options may defy the laws of physics as we currently understand them, an Art Fund member, to get the cost down. This is the one place in London where I guarantee the “hard of concentration” will not moan and may even forego phones for a few minutes.
When I went to this exhibition, I was passing (sort of) and decided to risk the Easter rush, it was full, though not uncomfortably so, with exactly the sort of audience the curators will have hoped to collect. The exhibition looks at the way graphic design has impacted the politics of protest other the last decade. No ancient history here kids. The important issues of the day are sprightly showcased in the bijou downstairs space. Everywhere you turn is an image and idea that will maybe make you angry, sometimes make you anxious, probably make you smile and certainly make you think.
Obviously for an old-skool, pretentious, Guardian reading, hand-wringing. metropolitan elite, liberal like the Tourist, with only two typing fingers immersed in the rush of digital communication, a lot of what is here feels a bit lightweight. If the late capitalist, neo-liberal machine that has crushed all intellectual opposition is to be tamed, (not overthrown, that doesn’t work), then it is going to require a more rigorous intellectual framework than a few hashtags.. On the other hand Generation Z is unlikely to be sign up for an Althusserian re-appraisal of state and ideology. So this then is the new look of protest. It has got its work cut out. The acceleration of alienation and helplessness is as dehumanising for the powerful, (who still think they can tame it), as the powerless, (whose stake in humanity is shrinking).
In some cases though, the look is persuasive despite, or because of, its brevity. An arresting image has always been a valuable tool for those who seek to persuade. I am reminded of the recent exhibition of Soviet poster art at the V&A (Red Star Over Russia at Tate Modern review ****) or the Nazi posters LD guided me through at the Deutsches Historisches Museum on our recent visit. These were tools of the state however. The revolution in the communication of information we have seen in the last four decades or so, for good or bad, leaves everyone with a stake in the battle of ideas. Interesting, but especially new, times.
The exhibition is organised around three themes, Power, Protest and Personality, though definitions are understandably loose. The exhibition kicks off with the famous Hope poster designed for Mr Obama’s first campaign which has spawned a thousand meme imitations. Western democracies split in half, wild oscillations of political supremacy, the expansion of institutional authority beyond the state, expanding autocracies, inequality fuelled by capital expansion, none of this is new, the problem is whether the fictions of nation-state and credit are still up to the task of accommodating the billions of people now with a stake in the outcomes. When the pendulum swings back away from authoritarianism and populism, as it will, these dilemmas will remain. Now everyone has a view though.
See what few posters showing the shift from Hope To Nope in a decade can do to me. Maybe time to revise my view that all these new modes of communication has no impact on me. The first room also displays material from Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Remain campaign in the Brexit Referendum which marks a sharp contrast to the output of those “Russian troll farms” and far-right US websites. Appeal to reason or confirmation of prejudice. The Sun’s pastiche of the Bayeux tapestry was new to me: it is pretty funny I admit. Elsewhere my eye was caught by the North Korean anti US propaganda with its mix of revolutionary poster zeal and 60’s pop art, some striking infographics and the spoof VW activism poster from Barnbrook. Overall this space makes a pretty good case of showing that what is sauce for the “levers of power” goose is also sauce for the “critical re-appropriation” gander. Design creates and undermines ideas, identities, governments, nations and corporations. Designers can be apolitical guns for hire or active critical agents.
In the Protest space, I was particularly fascinated by the poster designed by Derek Kim, mostly because it is rich in detailed information of the events leading to the financial crisis of 2008. This was not the first, nor will it be the last, but vast buckets of your capital, as in all the hundreds, maybe thousands, of previous financial crises, have been used to steady the ship. I was similarly taken with the Information is Beautiful infogram.
There is a wealth of material drawn from the various Occupy protests and from recent mass protests and marches. Humour, whether satirical, parodic, ironic, sardonic or epigrammatic, has always been, and remains, a vital weapon for getting up the noses of the powerful, or for bursting the bubble of the priggish. They are usually a pretty humourless bunch. Look around at the leaders of the world if you don’t believe. There are some good examples here. Lucille Clerc’s illustrations showing the power of the pen, the Sour Brexit drinks, Oddly Head’s posters about the futility of posters, Sagmeister & Walsh’s pins. Whilst little of the fabric of protest has changed, the speed of dissemination has.
The final space dealing with Personality is a little thinner in terms of ideas and content and the least surprising. You’ll be drawn to the infamous Trump fortune-telling machine and perhaps the Anonymous material with its eye-catching Guy Fawkes mask drawn from a graphic novel and film
I am always wary of people that want you to believe that this time is “different”, “unprecedented”, “grave threats”, “more dangerous”, “massive change”, or any other such hyperbole. We humans, being what we are, are prone to exceptionalism, by identity, geography, or time, and a cursory reading of history will tell you that everyone, ever, has lived in exceptional times. Technology which changes the direction of society isn’t new, to whit the printing press, but this exhibition is an interesting take on the idea that the massive technological leap forward seen in my lifetime has altered the nature of political discourse, and the way graphic design fits into that narrative.
And a lot of cool things to look at and Instagram.