On [Activism]: Event write-up

28 September 2011
Reading Time
3 minute read

Rather ironically we had to postpone On [Activism], due to the madness of events – the wide-scale rioting – in August. So the talk took place last night and although it had been a while since we were at Red Bull Studios (for On [Narrative]), it felt like a happy home-coming. And this was only improved by our speakers, Francesca Gavin, Lucienne Roberts and Ken Garland providing blinding talks and some food for thought.

Lucienne Roberts opened the discussion by introducing two ways to think about graphic design and activism (or design activism as it’s known). According to Lucienne, upper case ‘A’ctivism graphic design presents weighty, hard-hitting or political subject matter in a confrontational, provocative way whereas lower case ‘a’ design tends to be less polemic and engage people in a more passive/subtle way. She believes the two approaches are both valuable but appropriate in different settings as she illustrated with her work and that of others. Her passion for graphic design, and belief in the “power of design” to inform, and bring about change was very heartfelt; she continues to reject the notion that the industry should be inward looking, but rather it must engage with the world on many levels.

In a different vein, Francesca Gavin showed us a number of interesting and playful internet-based open source projects from the last 15 years or so, that fall under the umbrella of activism. The internet is a public sphere/space which is politically unbiased and allows a multitude of artistic voices rather than one dominant voice to come to the fore, unlike the role of traditional artists; it democratises art. There is a pretty unquantifiable plethora of imagery already existing in the world and now internet artists are working more like curators to adapt, manipulate and reinterpret this. By providing the code, they encourage others to do the same as an on-going collaborative process, widening access, pushing boundaries and engaging an-ever increasing online audience.

The luminary Ken Garland took to the floor with an enviable energy for someone who has been working long before most of us were born, as he pointed out. His brilliant sense of humour, and stories about political campaigning in the 1950s and 60s, including a sit-down protest with Bertrand Russell and Arnold Whesker (whoa), had us all utterly captivated. We were treated to seeing original, much-sought after copies of his posters for the CND campaign, some of them are the only ones in existence (lucky us).

His designs went through various iterations and developments because they were deemed as likely to “incite violence”. Garland said this called for “sneaky behaviour”; a team of people joined forces to go round under cover, physically sticking the text back on the censored posters. Garland called for us to take up this mantle, “we need more sneaky behaviour” in the industry. He also explained that he’s become a devotee of “partially chaotic, diverse graphics”, as he realised uniform, ubiquitous identities, swamping an environment (although effective in political marches) have a chilling effect, reminiscent of Nazi Germany. He finished with a rousing call to arms, urging us to think about what activism ours and future generations will engage in, now that once again we’re facing nuclear threats from around the world.

A massive thank you to Lucienne, Francesca and Ken for such a fascinating and enjoyable evening, and to all the other speakers who featured in the On […] talk series hosted at Red Bull Studios. It’s been emotional. We hope you’ll join us for future events, and keep your eyes peeled for a big conference we’re planning for the end of the year which is going to be HUGE.

Images: Steve Stills for Red Bull Co. Ltd.

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Maya Davies

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