• Steven Heller

Remix Politics

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.

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.

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.

We’re Losing Our Competitive Edge, 2010, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

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).

Grand Old Party: We Don’t Even Know You Anymore!, 2012, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

Don’t Use Our Healthcare as Your Political Battlefield, 2013-2018, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

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.

Putin Helps Trump Bring Up His Numbers, 2017, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

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.

Waiting, 2016, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

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.

Trump’s Fake News, 2017, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

Spineless, 2017, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

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.

Be a Better American, 2018, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

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.

Be a Better American, 2018, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

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.

Welcome to America/Bienvenido a América, 2018, Jeff Gates, Chamomile Tea Party

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.