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Features / Response and Responsibility

Extinction Rebellion on the creative industries: “What is the cultural sector even for?”

Illustrations by

Janice Chang

If you feel like you’re stuck in a dead-end design job, jumping through endless hoops of client feedback in the name of commercial success, then Extinction Rebellion might just have the solution for you: Join the rebellion.

Back in May, I sat down with three co-founders of the climate activism movement Extinction Rebellion in a distant and somewhat sterile corridor of Birmingham City University. Clare Farrell, Clive Russell and Miles Glyn have been part of the movement since its beginning, helping to block five bridges over the river Thames in November last year in one of the biggest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in the UK’s recent history. They helped name the movement and design its bold identity, now a global symbol of climate change activism. And since the group first announced a Declaration of Rebellion against the UK government in October 2018, the community of nonviolent activists has persistently protested, marched and amassed over 1,000 arrests to address the fact that we are in the so-called “sixth mass extinction” and must act now.

A couple of hours before our interview and two storeys above our current carpeted setting, the co-founders proceeded to depress a roomful of Birmingham Design Festival listeners with some terrifying but vital facts about climate change. Amidst distrust of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), compared by Clare to “a scientist’s opinion down the pub”, along with substantial evidence that we are annihilating the planet’s biodiversity while inhaling illegal amounts of toxic air pollution in London, the activists were certainly not ones to sugarcoat our current situation.

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But despite the despairing chat urging us to act now before we poison the very last few drops in the ocean, the group’s most resonant words rang out in the latter half of the talk, as Clive took to the stage, calling out: “Designers have the power to change minds.” With a friendly confidence and by no means short of unflinching opinions, Clive encompasses the punk-rock-activist-cum-socialist-graphic-designer. Citing Milton Glazer’s 1976 design of the I <3 NY logo, he explained how the trademarked design transformed Manhattan from a city in desperate need of rejuvenation into a desirable tourist destination (still very much the case today, as Glazer’s slogan remains a golden symbol of the city’s splendour).

Later on, back in our airless interview setting, Clive, the designer behind much of Extinction Rebellion’s bespoke type design, expanded on this point. In a faded Yves-Klein-blue workman’s jacket, the bespectacled designer maintained that as a creative community, “we’ve lost our connection with the activism within design, and that’s really sad”. When we think of the Bauhaus, we might immediately think of understated geometry and concrete buildings. When we think of William Morris, we think of decorative wallpapers and floral patterns. But visuals aside, Clive believes that “no one talks about the social impact of these designers” and, challenging today’s emerging designers, he asks the crowd: “Who will replace them?”

Paris ’68 placards, Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama “Hope” poster, Russian constructivism; there are countless examples of our industry’s rich activist history. So when he faced an auditorium filled with design students, Clive frankly addressed their futures: “Some of you are thinking about a career in the design industry. But what’s that even going to look like?” Well, according to Extinction Rebellion, it probably won’t look like much, when 97 per cent of all life on earth is wiped out during the sixth mass extinction they argue is imminent.

As the ecological crisis deepens, the international movement sees it as its duty to take action on behalf of our children, our communities and our planet’s future. Our situation is so desperate, they see it as an act of acquiescence to continue in a role that does not fully consider its environmental or social impact. As Clive puts it bluntly: “I know that within these companies, the pressure to deliver is immense, but also the rewards are really low, because they are just financial. There’s the data analysis et cetera and all that other bullshit that doesn’t change people’s minds at all, and it creates a ubiquitous nothingness that allows people to plow on in a mindless manner forever.”

In another impassioned statement commenting on the multitude of cultural institutions inadvertently supporting unethical conglomerates, Clive remarks: “Look at your sponsorship cultural sector! Really, really, really, all sponsorship.” But if you want to keep your job and also enact some kind of change, then, says Clare, “Keep your job and join the rebellion.”

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Wearing a tie-dye T-shirt and blue denim jacket, the bleach-blonde co-founder exudes the cool confidence that comes with being a seasoned speaker. “Ask a speaker from XR to come in and speak to staff and management about the problems we’re facing,” she says, reclining back against one of those hard black leather sofas often found in waiting rooms.

“I think it’s really cool for staff to ask employers for time off to get out on the streets – if there’s a month-long world uprising, in October, for example,” she hints with a laugh. She has a few words of advice for employers in the creative industries, too: “Let your staff have two weeks off and tell them that they won’t get fired if they get arrested. Tell them that they’re doing the right thing to make a massive social change. It’s totally necessary for businesses to help facilitate their staff doing things like this where they can, because it’s not possible everywhere.”

In its short but influential existence, Extinction Rebellion has spawned a number of international movements across every continent except Antarctica. Its bespoke typeface, based on Futura condensed wood type but with a more discordant feel, designed by Clive, has been appropriated by several of its international counterparts. The identity now has versions in Chinese, Arabic, Czech and Hindi amongst others, as all its designs were created to be scalable and transferable. In an early criticism, explains Clare, someone commented, “They’re obviously funded by George Soros because otherwise how did they afford to make those flags?” When in fact, “someone hand-carved a big block so we could stamp the flags by hand in Miles’s fucking kitchen.”

Part of the original Rising Up movement, Clare Farrell experienced a series of uphill struggles while working in the fashion industry for a number of years. She worked for a number of small brands in the ethical sector, which ultimately amassed to very little impact, then attempted a different approach, trying to change the industry from within bigger brands. In the end, it came down to the fact that “I’m really not interested in selling shit,” she says. And despite years of trying and trying, “It just ended up being pointless.” As Miles puts it, “It’s the only radical thing left that you can do: Not to sell something.”

“I think there’s a positive to facing up to the fact that there is no purpose in being part of the commercial world anymore. But for me,” says Clare, “it’s a total liberation to not be involved in something that you call a creative career, but actually makes you endlessly compromise and endlessly make people feel like shit and not able to understand why you’re so unhappy, even though you’re doing something which is supposedly really privileged.” So why be successful when you could do something good?

Though Clive’s experience of working in the design industry is pointedly different to Clare’s fashion background, and Miles’ fine art background, he shares similar views on the creative sector. “I never ever wanted to work commercially but was forced to, because I needed to eat,” he jokes. “But I do not think commercial graphic design is good. There isn’t a single example that I could find where someone has done a piece of commercial design work for good – and I don’t mean the design work itself, I mean for good – and that’s the kind of state we’re in.”

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The design director of Brixton-based studio This Ain’t Rock’n’Roll was partly responsible for the Brixton pound, a complimentary currency designed to support community businesses in the London area and encourage local trade. In his opinion, the design of today struggles to be meaningful, because it is compromised by a stifling corporate culture. “Design is a cultural byproduct and in essence, it is shaped by the culture that it is being produced for and by,” he continues. So if the culture we live in is unethical and unsustainable, then naturally, design follows suit. That’s where the rebellion bit comes in.

In the nonviolent organisation, the group pays heed to the collaborative making practices enacted during the Paris ’68 riots. They host screen-printing workshops, encouraging learning through physical making, adopting a method of decentralised management known as Holacracy to spread their ideals. “The organisation is attempting to be as nonhierarchical as possible, which is obviously kind of impossible,” Miles says beside me, one leg of his multicoloured-patched jeans hooked over the other. “We have a little library where people can look at anarchist literature and we’re always thinking about how we look outwards as we’re engaging in a cultural war on some level. And,” he says, with a knowing pause, “we’re gonna win.”

Despite the fact that Extinction Rebellion has become a worldwide community of mighty activists, raising awareness in their nonviolent wake, the group is aware that it won’t run on forever – hopefully. “It’s a rebellion. It’s meant to reach a point of non-linear social change,” says Clare. “And then it’s basically done its job and after that, I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do. But at least I haven’t been in the fashion industry for a couple of years.”

By working towards a culture of care, establishing an economy based on needs instead of endless wants, the group argues that the creative sector could make a real difference and possibly divert us from impending doom. “There’s some really simple things that cultural institutions can do,” says Clare. Above all, it comes down to asking yourself, “What is the cultural sector even for? During the war, cultural institutions let people go fucking sleep on the floor. This is an emergency. What are you going to do with your space? How much of that space is empty, when barely anyone in London, for example, has space to organise community meetings or hold events or talks to bring people together in radical ways.”

It’s not just about avoiding plastic and reducing your meat consumption; there is also a lot of work that needs to be done which asks us to question: “What do we actually exist for?” While churches open their doors to people sleeping rough in the street, why don’t powerful institutions like the Tate also open theirs? “You could get 400 to 500 people in the Turbine Hall instead of exhibiting some crap art,” Clive says, with a wry smile. “Or you could still exhibit something but also allow people to sleep on the floor so they’d be warm at night.”

It’s by making radical statements like this, along with equally radical actions, that Extinction Rebellion has managed to amass a worldwide following and copious amounts of press coverage thus far. Not to mention its memorable logo created by the anonymous street artist ESP in 2011; an hourglass signifying the world running out of time. “If you really exhibited a culture of care at an institution of that scale, that would actually start to change our culture and make a big statement that we need to start caring for each other properly,” says Clare. “There’s all kinds of exciting things that can go on if people admitted how bad it is.”

This article is part of Response and Responsibility, a new series of stories about the ongoing climate crisis and what the creative industries can do about it.