Exhibit highlights political posters' role in social upheaval

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2009

Everyone knows the refrain of the ever-popular 1971 anti-establishment song "Signs" by the Five Man Electrical Band.

"Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind. Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?"

But whereas that song was pointed social commentary that railed against the social mores of the time, the reality is that the so-called hippies of the radical decade that preceded it were very much all about signs.

During the turbulent days of the 1960s, hippies frequently employed signs and posters during protests and demonstrations relating to everything from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War.

A number of these posters are among the exhibit "Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now," on view at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University.

Featuring hundreds of posters, photographs, moving images, audio clips and ephemera, the exhibit brings to life more than 40 years of activism, political protest and campaigns for social justice.

Organized by Dara Greenwald, a media artist and Ph.D. candidate in the electronic art department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and Josh MacPhee, an artist, curator and activist living in Brooklyn, N.Y., the exhibit originally debuted in the fall at Exit Art, a nonprofit cultural center and art space in Manhattan.

Like it was there, it is arranged here around seven themes: Struggle for the Land; Agitate! Educate! Organize!; Forward to People's Power; Freedom and Independence Now; Let it All Hang Out; Reclaim the Commons; and Globalization from Below.

Forty countries are represented, surveying the creative work of dozens of international social movements, such as those for civil rights and black power in the United States; democracy in China; anti-apartheid in Africa; squatting in Europe; environmental activism and women's rights internationally; and the global AIDS crisis.

"We wanted to research and present a history which is largely invisible to us, and which is relevant to the society we currently live in," says MacPhee, 35, who along with Greenwald, 37, have been collecting posters, video and ephemera from social movements for years.

The pair began digging through their personal collections and searching out all the other material in the show about two years ago, after joining forces in Exit Art's Curatorial Incubator Program.

MacPhee says that, although political posters like these have a history that stretches as far back as the Depression and World War II, "the political poster had a large-scale resurgence in 1968," he says.

"Silkscreening and block printing became immensely popular (then), because they were relatively easy to learn and could be used to make a large number of posters quickly with very basic and accessible equipment," MacPhee says. "Unlike in the 1920s through 1940s, where most political posters were offset lithograph productions created by large governments or unions, the hand-printed posters of the 1960s were made by thousands of groups, many small and grassroots, which reflects the democratic impulses of many of these groups."

That's why, among several slick posters on display, visitors will find many handmade posters related to uprisings and protests, such as those for indigenous control of lands; against airport construction in Japan; and for radical social transformation in France.

For example, one simple, black-and-white screen-printed poster reads: "Stop F.B.I. Terrorism against the Puerto Rican Community."

The exhibition also explores the development of powerful countercultures that evolved beyond traditional politics and created distinct aesthetics, lifestyles and social organizations, such as the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

MacPhee says "Signs of Change" also offers a chance for viewers to see relatively unknown or rarely seen works. "Many pieces were difficult to find, and many are very important," he says.

MacPhee says the exhibit is not only intended to provide a historical framework for contemporary activism but also to serve as an inspiration for the present and the future.

"Today, many of the roles traditionally played by posters have been partially filled by e-mail and social-networking Web sites, but this does not make posters obsolete," MacPhee says. "Corporations still spend billions of dollars annually producing and publicly displaying posters that attempt to sell their products. They do this because it works.

"People interested in social justice causes would be smart to take heed, and see that the role of the political poster is not over."

Additional Information:

'Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now'

When: Through March 8. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays

Where: Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University, Purnell Center for the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland

Admission: Free

Details: 412-268-3618

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