The Daily Heller: Putting the Agit in Agit Prop
Celebrate People's History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution (Second Edition), edited by Josh MacPhee, is a history of global agit-prop, dissent, activism and collective resistance. It recalls 3,000 years of history—from the ancient Secession of the Plebs to the 2017 protests of the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham.
The book further focuses on grassroots organizing and how artists combat the enemies of freedom and advocate for racial justice, women's rights, queer liberation, labor, and environmental conservation. This second edition includes 100 new posters from an international array of artists, including Miriam Klein Stahl, Swoon, Cristy C. Road, Bishakh Som, Sabrina Jones, Nicole Schulman, Christopher Cardinale, Eric Drooker, Klutch, Carrie Moyer, Laura Whitehorn, Dan Berger, Ricardo Levins Morales, Chris Stain and more.
MacPhee, a designer and archivist, is a founding member of both the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Interference Archive, a public collection of cultural materials produced by social movements. How has the world of politics and posters changed since the 2016 election—and what are the prospects for the future? I asked MacPhee to contribute his observations.
You've been a designer, illustrator, activist and archivist for many years. Have you seen an increase or decrease of printed posters in the digital era?
Between 2005–2015, it started to feel like the age of the poster was at an end. It became really difficult to find anyplace to hang anything larger than a letter-sized sheet, as cafés and bookstores removed their community message boards and more unofficial public posting spots became dominated and overrun by paid corporate advertisements. People stopped looking for posters and flyers for information, and instead looked to their computers and phones. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 saw a nice spike in posters and live screenprinting, particularly here in NYC and out in Oakland. This was the place we first started to see the fulfillment of the promise of the internet as a tool for decentralized distribution, as poster files zipped across the globe and were printed out and used at encampments all over. Then, with the No DAPL movement, and post-2016 election, the web-distributed reproducible graphic and poster really came into its own, with people finally using the digital not as the end goal, but as a way to share image files that could be brought back out into the embodied world. So now, especially with the resurgence of the movement for Black lives, we see the digital and print realms working together to bring an absolute deluge of both online and print posters out.
Do you feel that posters still have the power they did even as recently as the first war in Iraq?
I think they can. There is really no space anymore that all different people share other than the street, so I still believe a well-placed poster can have an impact.
What does a poster do to move people that other less-static media cannot?
Because posters hold physical space, they can participate in structuring the frame we share with other people, [e.g.,] having a conversation about war on a street corner covered with anti-war posters will likely be influenced by them. They can help build a shared frame, while so much other media is about creating a singular frame for each individual. We might read the same story on our phones, but the advertisements the story is littered with will be different, as will be all the media we see before and after.
Is there a quality that separates a good poster from a bad poster—aesthetically, conceptually, or whatever?
This feels like one of those age-old chestnuts. I increasingly believe that a “good” poster doesn’t simply reproduce what we already don’t want, but gives us a glimpse of something better. At the same time, it doesn’t tell us what to do or think, but nudges us to think, period.
Has the opposition (the ultra right) mastered the art of posters or propaganda in the 21st century?
The right has certainly mastered the meme, which is arguably the most common form of 21st century agit prop. But when interrogated, most right[-wing] media is designed to short-circuit critical thinking rather than encourage it. This is always easier to do, because it plays to the intellectual weaknesses of your audience, taking advantage of stereotypes, ignorance of the world, and the general individualist alienation that is completely pervasive in our society (and increasingly across the globe).
In terms of Celebrate People's History (CPH) posters having an impact, one of the biggest impacts has been seeing the popularity of posters representing movements that have been severely under-represented. For instance, the ADAPT poster has been explosively popular (I’ve had to reprint it multiple times), because the social movements of people with disabilities have been so marginalized. Because there are so few images of people with disability in struggle, many people think the CPH poster is actually from an ADAPT action, rather than an overarching celebration of the organization and movement, i.e., the posters slip from a celebration of history into history itself. This has also happened in other contexts, where the posters are used as stand-ins for the media produced by movements. A good example of this is the mural image below, from Belfast, where three CPH posters are painted into a broader image about people’s history.