For the final part of the exercise I am exploring how visual communication is used by subcultural groups, ordinary people as a tool for protest. There were two groups that came to mind when I began thinking about who to research further; The Guerrilla Girls and The Craftivist Collective.
The Guerrilla Girls are a self professed group of women who have worked for the last 30 years to expose and challenge sexism, racism, and inequality within the world of art and culture. Their tag line is , Guerrilla Girls, reinventing the “f” word: feminism. The group have designed their own stickers, billboard posters, books and protests to promote and include others in their cause. As the name suggests, the group remain anonymous due to wearing guerilla masks over their faces and by adopting pseudonyms when interacting with the press or media.
Before I go into any examples of their visual communication through their posters etc, I think it’s worth exploring a little their use of the mask. The choice to wear Guerrilla masks (a motif which also appears in their protest images), is an interesting one. Visually I think it communicates several different things. Firstly I think the Guerrilla is an animal we associate with strength and perhaps aggression, they subvert the ideal of women as meek or subdued visually by connecting that ideal to women. I also think the mask is somewhat unnerving – masks allow them anonymity, perhaps this emboldens them to say what they think without repercussions to their job or status or to protect themselves and their family from media interest. But masks also make it difficult for the viewer to feel at ease , I personally find it hard to interact comfortably and openly with someone in a mask. What incentive is there for me to share my true or more vulnerable self with someone who is hiding their true self from me? Personal issues with masks aside I think the mask suits their method of protest, as a movement to confront and challenge incorrect cultural norms.
I watched an episode of the BBC’s Artsnight; Episode 22: Nina Conti, which was dedicated to the use of masks in culture. She spoke the some of the Guerrilla Girls during the episode, hence why I felt like discussing the use of the mask in their movement. I couldn’t find a link to the specific episode but you can buy the episode here if you’re interested.
The poster opposite is now perhaps the most synonymous image with the Guerrilla Girls movement. One of their earliest images, it was originally created following a commission to create a billboard by the Public Art Fund in New York. They took a count of the art and artists on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The PAF rejected their design and so instead the Guerrilla Girls paid for their poster to be displayed initially on buses in New York. Following the attention this gather they spread this image in a grass roots manner, via stickers on streets, posters in public transport, billboard advertising.
A remix of their 1989 poster is seen opposite. This time in response to a commission by musician Pharrell Williams for an exhibition he curated at Perrotin called; G I R L . This time they incorporated an image of naked lady from the infamous Robin Thicke, Pharrell song called Blurred Lines. I’m not including a link to that video here because I don’t want to encourage anyone to watch it.
Both posters work by way of subverting an initial image; the first subverts a famous nude painting, La Grande Odalisque, 1814,by Ingres , the second by taking a still of a naked female dancer from the music video for Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. Both images make use of bright colours, that acid yellow, neon pick, which remind me of colours synonymous with the Punk movement; think Sex Pistols imagery. The use of pink here is much more aggressive, it’s not a dainty pastel shade, its bold and eye catching attention grabbing. Again I think this is a subversion of a colour so often used to market things to girls or indicate this product or item is for a girl so it’s pink. The use of hand drawn lettering is on the second image also adds to the do-it-yourself feel of the image.
Their latest target has been billionaire art collectors who seem to have control of much of what goes into art galleries and collections. Just considering things from a visual point of view the image opposite (a sticker), again has that punk look. The cut out letters from newspapers, acid yellow and pink all give quite a strong, perhaps even threatening message. Maybe it’s just me but I associate that method of cutting out letters with threatening letters (perhaps I’ve just seen too many films with bomb threats in)! Either way the affect is certainly eye catching and challenging. You can see more about their campaign called,Billionaires Hijack The Art World, Guerrilla Girls Hijack Billionaires, by watching their video below:
I also read an interesting interview from the Guardian on-line with the Guerrilla Girls, discussing sexism in the art world, and marking their 30th anniversary. It’s worth a read. Final comment or note is a link to the collection of Guerrilla Girls work which is now owned by the Tate. I can’t decide whether its good or bad that their posters and campaign work has been turned into a collection on display at the Tate Modern. On the one hand it seems ironic, on the other it seems fitting to have work that challenges the establishment of the art world being displayed in their midst. Does this mean their campaigns, their voice is being heard? Is this evidence of emerging equality in this sector?
I’m really excited and intrigued to be taking some time to think about and reflect on this particular group. I came across them or rather their manifesto through a friends post on Instagram. In their own words they;
“believe a true Craftivist uses craft as a tool for gentle activism aimed at influencing long-term change”.
They’re part of a movement defined as Craftivism, a phrase first coined by Betsy Greer. Craftivism connects craft with activism to create a form of protest against all kinds of political, gender based and human injustice. It represents a shift from the traditional, often aggressive forms of activism, one where craft or hand based skills and creativity are used to thoughtfully challenge or provoke thought around issues.
The Craftivist Collective takes some of it’s form from these same ideals. But seeks to help people by providing physical tools, or tool kits for individual and corporate acts of Craftivism. The founder of this collective, Sarah Corbett, shares more about the process that led her to form the collective and the alternative that this offers to activism in the video below:
Now moving on to addressing the form of visual communication used by the Craftivist’s Collective…
Much of their work is collective ; it’s the work of individuals across the UK and the world, so there’s not a exact set style or branding so to speak. Each Craftivist is encouraged to personalise their creation for whatever cause they’re campaigning for. But I’ll do my best to focus on general visuals produced by or in connection with the organisation.
So I’m going to focus on their campaign with ShareAction to convince retailer M&S to pay all their workers a Living Wage:
So firstly here’s a their page asking; Why don’t Marks & Spencers pay staff a living wage?
Secondly here’s their page explaining how they used craft to campaign for a living wage for M&S workers…
Now finally for some images:
This perhaps isn’t the clearest picture in terms of size, but I felt it represented their projects and ethos well. Here a craftivist is holding a hanky which she hand embroidered with a message or letter personalised to a shareholder at a meeting held with Marks and Spencer’s. Visually this is fairly non-threatening, its tactile, soft and personalised. The hand stitched element implies care and passion, about the cause, I think an effective tool for persuading attention. Physically a hanky is an object held closely by the owner, kept out of sight, again this sits well with the objective of giving people space to consider and reflect on the issue brought (i.e. the living wage).
A different method here used to carry the campaign message, screen printing onto the hankies. I think there’s a clever subversion here in their use of a very similar font or typeface on the hanky as M&S use in their corporate branding. Also clever re-interpretation of their slogan to suit the campaign “It’s not just a job, it’s an M&S job”.
The text and the hanky itself are non threatening, even humorous. Again I think the strength of this is it’s quiet, personalised boldness, this hanky is something that can be carried around by the recipient and used as a visual reminder of the need for change. A very different approach from the aggression of shouting slurs and offensive chants at companies down a megaphone outside their headquarters…
Craftivist Collective Visual Branding:
The scissors and thread seem to be the logo for the Craftivist Collective. They appear to be drawn or an illustration of the objects, which supports that ideal of making with your hands or craft as opposed to mass production or mechanisation. I am slightly confused about the choice of scissors rather than a needle, as the slogan is “changing our world one stitch at a time”, perhaps the scissors seemed a more powerful image for change? The colour choice of a pale yellow and black and white illustration sits well with their non-aggressive ethos. It’s not confrontational or instantly eye catching (like the Guerrilla Girls posters), it requires a careful eye and a conversation to be explained. Again perfectly fitting with their ethos.
In the image opposite the logo takes a slightly different shape. Enlarged and in colour the logo still retains it’s charm and invitation to contemplative action. The colours are subtle, the overprinted effect gives a gentle warmth. Again the choice of medium reinforces their message; hand printed using letterpress methods on recycled card in Bristol. Choosing to use letterpress or printing to produce the manifesto also sits well with the personalised nature of craftivism, each print is unique as is each piece of craftivism.
I’ll finish there, as you can see I’ve explored two very different approaches to using visual communication for protest, challenging injustice from grassroots level. I personally think I prefer the approach of the Craftivist Collective, they are quietly radical, seeking not to offend or preach but to challenge and provoke change through changing thinking first. I also enjoy the hand made approach, perhaps that’s just because I also enjoy working with my hands, printmaking.