Jeff Gates, a graphic designer and writer, for the past eight years he has been remixing old propaganda posters with new text and altered imagery attacking the sorry state of American political discourse. He does this under the guise of the Chamomile Tea Party. Google Arts & Culture has just published a six-part online exhibition of his posters on their platform. This is the first time Google has published current political art on their site. “As I’m sure you know, politics is sometimes too “hot” of a topic these days. So, I applaud Google’s investment in my work,” he told me. The opening exhibit webpage can be found here.
Even before the internet, Gates was interested in alternatives to pasting posters on walls. In the late 1980s, he founded an Artists for a Better Image (ArtFBI) to study stereotypes of artists in contemporary culture. This happened to coincide with the culture wars of the early ‘90s. He produced a series of bumper stickers that focused on artist contributions to society. Just before the 2012 presidential election, he bought ad space in the DC Metro where he placed two posters. The dialogue generated by the installations was exactly what he was going for. He stood near them and engaged people about the issues.
The format of the Google Arts & Culture project allowed Gates to weave a narrative that starts with the rise of the Tea Party in 2009-2010 and continues to present. A year and a half in the making, it has allowed him to provide some context to the visuals. I asked him about his method and the efficacy and effectiveness of poster making in light of the current dismantling of democracy.
Other designers, like Micha Wright, have co-opted vintage posters for contemporary messages. Why more? What do you feel you are contributing to the conversation?
Using old propaganda posters is just the initial structure for my work. These posters focus on the state of American political discourse during a specific period of time, from 2010 to the present. It started with a visceral reaction to the hyper-partisanship that began in 1994 when the Republicans gained control of the House, but clicked into higher gear with the Tea Party’s ascendency and influence around 2009. My early work dealt with Congressional hyper- partisanship. But, the content has become more focused as this partisanship led to the failure of our government to effectively deal with the issues we face. This work isn’t just a broad reflection on American culture and politics at the beginning of the 21st century; it deals with very specific issues such as the bank crisis, gun control, healthcare, the rise of white nationalism, citizens’ right to privacy, and the 2016 election, just to name a few. It’s given me the opportunity to question my own biases and to think about my vantage point when I convey messages through my work. Last year, I wrote about this process in my essay, Choking on Our Words. My recent Google Arts & Culture project allowed me to weave a narrative around the posters that reflects what has been happening in our country during this period. In a way, it’s a poster documentary —a visual record. And, as time goes on, it will become a visual history of these years.
Do you believe that a poster or posters will help ignite of change the political discourse in a meaningful way? Or is this more a cry of frustration?
Posters are both a call for change and a reflection of Americans’ frustrations. In part, we must look at their combined effect in crowds of the hundreds of thousands who have been protesting, both on the left and on the right. The first contemporary use of posters in this cumulative way was at Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall. And, it was my first opportunity to put out a call to use my posters (all are free to download and use under a Creative Commons license). I brought one, but others did as well. And, I started getting text messages from friends with sightings. The next day, one sighting appeared on the home page of The Huffington Post.
The thousands of handmade posters at recent rallies are an important part of the activ engagement we’re seeing. But, they are also a way to connect with others. I have said about my own work, “these posters reflect a desire as an artist to ‘do something’ about the social and political upheaval going on in this country.”
I certainly advocate activism of any But what do you hope your graphics will achieve?
I hope they will provoke, make people think, and inspire. People have contacted me to show me their own posters. I also want them to set a stage for dialogue. That was the impetus behind my buying ad space in the Washington, DC Metro just before the 2012 presidential election. I placed two posters on platform backlighted signs, usually used for advertising. And, I would stand by them to watch, listen, and engage those who were looking at them. One of the most interesting conversations I had was with a conflict resolution advocate who worked as a mediator.These posters could not be displayed in the subway today. The Metro outlawed the use of “issue- oriented” ads in its system after anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller submitted a proposal for an ad featuring the winner of a “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in 2015. In March 2017, a former Egyptian political prisoner’s ad campaign set to run during Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s April visit to Washington was also rejected on the same grounds. Citing free speech, the ACLU filed a suit a few months later, but the ban remains in effect.
What do you think of your own work is the most powerful and effective?
There are a number of my posters I feel have been successful in conveying my ideas. Here are a few:
Created in 2012, I was already concerned about “alternative facts.” And, it wasn’t just from politicians. As I look back at this poster now, I was a bit prescient about the concept of “truth.” But, I didn’t realize, nor do I think any of us realized the extent to which this would affect our country.
This was one of the first posters I did. The idea for the Chamomile Tea Party came to me as I was walking home from work, just before the July 4th holiday in 2010. I was listening to a news report on the Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court. The reporter said that all Republicans were expected to vote against her (five eventually voted for her).
That’s when it hit me: hyper-partisanship could bring our government to a standstill. There is an irony in the original poster’s declaration, “Never let it happen here.” It has. I came home and, within a week, created the first 9 posters in this series (I now have over 120). This was also one of the posters I put up in the DC subway (but because the advertising signs were horizontal, I had to build out the rest of the poster to fit the dimensions).
This is my reaction to the misguided tangent the Republican Party has taken over the last few years. The use of two very different typefaces reflects the clash between the GOP’s past and its place in contemporary society. Old and abandoned buildings are often the canvas for graffiti artists. Likewise, a working Republican Party has been abandoned. Instead, we have a party that is being strangled by ideology and ambition. I miss intelligent and fruitful discourse between liberals and conservatives.
I’ve done a number of posters on healthcare. This one focuses on one of the main problems Americans face: our right to healthcare has become a partisan issue. And, those who can least afford health insurance are the ones suffering the most. The original poster is a perfect fit for the remix.
It became a joke. At the beginning of his presidency, no one realized the extent he would go to create his own reality. I went to this inauguration to photograph, the fifth I’ve attended. I know how many people were there.
This is based on a 1939 Soviet poster Soviet by Viktor Nikolaevic Dobrovolskii. The text at the bottom is Russian and says, “Long Live the Mighty Air Force of the Land of Socialism!” The scene is over Moscow’s Red Square.
Made in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign, one of the most vitriolic in recent memory, I’m happy with the simplicity of this poster to convey the precipice upon which our society now stands. Based on a 1929 motivational poster designed by Willard Frederick Elmes for Mather & Company.
As time went on, I expanded my source material. This is from a poster advertising the late 19th century magician, Kellar. Of course, putting Donald Trump’s head just right on Kellar’s body was a wonderful challenge. But, adding the ropes conceptually made the piece.
On occasion, I have created original posters. This is one of my favorites and came together relatively quickly. I was tired of the GOP enabling Trump’s behavior for their own purposes. I love the simplicity of the design—the spine that seems to be falling apart with the phrase “Get a backbone” reinforcing the broken nature of our political system.
In a Washington Post article in March 2018, columnist Paul Kane wrote that after deciding to retire, GOP Congressmen were now free to speak out against Trump. I wrote a letter to the editor saying they were always free to speak out. They just chose to put their party and career ahead of the American people.
There is something quiet (a novelty these days) and deeply sad about this poster: a call to Americans to strive to be more understanding, compassionate, and inclusive—to listen to others who think differently and to be curious enough to question our own biases. This is a call to step away from the buffoonery that has become our country’s zeitgeist. The sad clown is a perfect representation of that feeling.
The inspiration for this poster came from a short-lived 1930s progressive magazine called Ken. The magazine was founded by David A. Smart and Arnold Gingrich, who earlier had founded Esquire.
I’ve done a number of posters about gun control. This one is not a remix. After Parkland, I felt the need to turn up the intensity. And, I got the results I wanted. Some were outraged by the graphic nature of this image. One person asked, “How could you do that??! How could you post that online?” My answer: people are dying because of our intransigence.
This poster also comes from a Ken magazine cover. But, like many of my posters I adjusted the image to fit the idea. The original cover featured a blond, blue-eyed toddler under the shadow of what looks like a bayonet. I changed his hair and eyes to brown and replaced the shadow to one of an angry Donald Trump. The imperative text was meant to mirror the horrors of both a child being separated from his or her parents and incomprehensible actions of the Trump administration.
Is there an answer to the statement that those who believe in their points of view will not change because of a clever poster?
It is likely that no poster will change a person’s mind. If logic and facts can’t, how could a poster that points out that logic or fact be persuasive? But, the reason millions of us have made political posters is that it satisfies our need to express ourselves about important issues at this critical time. And, when seen in the thousands at a rally or protest, their effects are magnified. Those who feel they aren’t heard are given that chance. So, one could suggest that posters may not convince one to change their mind. But, they could convince someone they have a voice.