Up Against the Gallery Wall

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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An exhibition of artifacts from the “All Of Us or None” poster archive collection will be on view at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) from March 31 – August 19. OMCA presents the first comprehensive exhibition exploring the poster renaissance that started in the mid-1960s as a powerful tool for public debate on social justice issues.

Featured are 68 original political posters, in addition to dozens that are digitally printed and collaged on the gallery walls, a method similar to the way they were originally displayed. The exhibition is guest curated by collection archivist and author Lincoln Cushing, who edited the exhibition catalog published by Heyday Press. You can see a complete selection of the posters and citations here. I recently asked Cushing to talk more about the exhibit.

How do you define social justice?I use “social justice posters” to describe this exhibition rather than “political posters” because the second term usually makes people think of campaign posters. This is hugely broader. The All Of Us Or None collection was deliberately inclusive, and covers almost any movement or action that challenged the dominant paradigm, that “stuck it to the Man.” These posters were largely the fruit of small, community-based groups rather than large organizations. That ranges from obviously political events such as opposing the war in Vietnam or an end to segregated schools to other social inequities, such as those raised by advocates of reduced automobile use, gay liberation, veganism, medical marijuana, and abolishing the death penalty.

Was there a distinctive style or approach that distinguishes Bay Area posters from other places in the U.S.?The argument presented in this exhibition is that, although other cities had powerful moments of social justice postermaking from time to time, the S.F. Bay Area is unique in that such cultural work has been continuously sustained over a long time – essentially, an unbroken arc from 1965 until now. And it’s not over. It’s also evident from the breadth and depth of the collection that several powerful artistic movements that flourished here – underground comics, rock posters, Chicano murals – contributed to a remarkable range of styles and design approaches in the posters, which consequently had an impact around the world.

How did you start this collection? And where has it taken you?The collection was lovingly assembled by Michael Rossman, a veteran of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement who realized how useful posters were for teaching about “the movement.” There are almost 24,000 distinct titles, most of them from the U.S., most of those from California, and most of those from the Bay Area. The research possibilities have only begun. The Oakland Museum of California has been an enthusiastic and supportive host for this trove. One key feature is that I shot all of them as high-resolution digital images, which makes sharing and cataloging the collection enormously easier. We are utilizing 21st century tools to build image datasets. This exhibition is but one way to make sense of these materials, and reducing the number of actual images to 250 (in the catalog) and 68 (framed originals for the exhibition) was like trying to take a sip of water from a firehose. I started making political posters in 1969, I thought I knew this stuff, and I’m still learning something every day through this research.

There is quite a range of images, do you believe that any single image had any more impact than another?In some ways, yes, certain posters made more of a difference than others. But I would argue that what’s more important is how they have had a cumulative impact. This collection, and this exhibition, is not about “stars” – individual artists that are “great.” That’s the art world model, and this crew doesn’t buy that. It’s about the role that community-based posters play in raising issues and suggesting solutions. That’s not part of the common understanding. This is a grassroots tool for democratic discourse, just like alternative newspapers or micropower radio stations.

In the age of the internet, what, in your opinion, is the future of the poster?Posters are not threatened by newer social media. One thing to bear in mind is that, among younger people, there is a resurgent hunger for craft. “DIY” (“do it yourself”) is leading many artists to the thrill of handmade objects, including posters. Anyone observing postermaking at the recent Occupy encampments could see that the lines for people to get a poster were as long as the lines for food. The web has enhanced, not limited opportunities for research, sharing, and dissemination. And the posters are far more permanent than even the coolest YouTube post.