Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Graphic agitation

“I’m an old believer,” says Liz McQuiston. “I’ve been involved in social movements for years, and I will never give up.” This optimistic outlook was at the heart of “Graphic Activism,” the presentation McQuiston gave [in 1994] at the Royal Ontario Museum under the auspices of Virtu and the Advertising and Design Club of Canada. Based on her book Graphic Agitation, McQuiston presented a slide show of dozens of activist posters and graphics from the last three decades. And while the graphics were inspiring enough, McQuiston’s analysis skirted a few issues and left others unresolved.

The former head of the graphic art and design department at London’s Royal College of Art divided her slides into three broad themes – national politics, global issues, and liberation movements. All amount to power struggles, she says, and “what I’m interested in is the role that graphics can play in such struggles.”

In these struggles, McQuiston says, there are two sides to the story, broadly categorizable as establishment forces vs. unofficial agitators. The work of either side could be considered propaganda, and while establishment forces usually have the advantages of money and distribution, populist forces are fueled by personal commitment and solidarity and have a knack for winning out over the big bad establishment.

Trends in pop culture – homegrown fanzines and comic books, graffitti, punk rock, rap – have sparked an awareness that even small numbers of people can do something about issues like human rights, disarmament and the peace movement, health care and AIDS, and ecology. “We have gradually entered a new era of personal politics,” McQuiston observes.

The presentation was chock-full of examples of graphic activism from around the globe:

The various social movements, McQuiston believes, have power not only due to the right(eous)ness of their cause but because the public is smart enough to comprehend the issues and take a stand. “I think it’s very good that some kind of visual debate is being carried out,” she says, adding that an activist poster might be wheat-pasted to a utility pole one day only to be papered over by an opposing flyer the next. (Actually, that’s more likely to occur with competing concert promoters – Oasis papers over Metallica.)

While McQuiston has what Republicans would call a big-tent approach – individual AIDS-activist buttons and multi-million-dollar ad campaigns for Spike Lee movies both qualify as graphic activism in her view – she rather short-changes important activist movements which meet with her disapproval. Here’s how Graphic Agitation describes Oliviero Toscani’s Benetton ad campaign, one that’s fashionable to deride but arguably brilliant, effective, and influential: “Benetton... for better or worse opened up a debate on how images are used in the public domain, and for what purposes. But... in the caring 1990s, social and political ‘involvement’ has become enmeshed with commercial sales strategy. It is an uncomfortable mating no matter how well it is handled.”

Maybe. It’s unfair of McQuiston to point out the money and distribution advantages of establishment forces while downplaying the same advantages of multinationals like Benetton who, it can be argued, are advancing the same causes as grassroots activists who can barely afford to photocopy and wheat-paste a few anti-racism posters. Money isn’t always bad. She does not address the role graphic design plays in explaining why some activist movements succeed (Nelson Mandela is as far removed from jail as he could possibly get; General Electric is out of the weapons business) while others fail (gays and lesbians do not have legal rights and responsibilities equal to heterosexuals anywhere – including, as recently seen, in Ontario).

While McQuiston notes that activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation needed to “operate at the same level of slickness and sophistication” as establishment forces, she sheds no light on why, even with whiz-bang graphics, those groups have imploded and/or been bought out by their former enemies – e.g., many ACT UPpers now work for agencies funded by pharmaceutical juggernauts.

Moreover, what could be characterized as right-wing causes are poorly represented in McQuiston’s analysis, which she openly attributes to personal distaste. There is no such thing as objectivity, so it’s hard to fault McQuiston for being choosy. Still, the tactic of showing photos of leghold traps (what anti-fur protesters oppose) is not markedly different from showing photos of aborted fetuses (what anti-abortion protesters oppose). McQuiston missed the chance to analyze how these similar means differ dramatically in ideological origin: You can show a leghold trap without killing, harming, or even going near an animal, but you can’t show an aborted fetus without making yourself at least indirectly complicit in its death, which presumably is an anti-choice no-no.

Similarly, her book and speech include posters opposing the Gulf War (which the book notes were few and far between), but, beyond a single illustration in the book, neither addresses the ubiquitous symbol of the yellow ribbon, which Gulf War boosters tied around every old oak (and pine and birch and maple) tree they could find.

With these limitations, though, McQuiston’s work amounts to second-order graphic activism (meta-activism, you might say) and invites counteranalysis. If protesters can paper over each other’s flyers, then maybe it would be entertaining and edifying to witness an on-stage debate between McQuiston and a savvy booster of right-wing graphic activism, assuming there is such a person on the planet. It would be dueling slide carousels – and dueling ideologies – to the max. And just think of the leaflets they’d come up with to promote the event.

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