Autumn 2005

A grasp of political design

Design of Dissent

By Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic: Socially and Politically Driven Graphics
Rockport Publishers, £34.99, USD50

‘Political Design after the Cold War’ is probably a rubbish name for a book. However, in the case of Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic’s book, it would have been a more accurate title. A comprehensive, if somewhat flawed compendium of graphic dissent, Design of Dissent can be read as a visual history of the late twentieth century. The core themes – war, globalisation, more war – give it a sombre tone.

Without an explanatory foreword, it is left to a modest collection of posters, gathered under the chapter title ‘Communism’, to set the tone. The bold illustrative style of Hungary’s István Orosz offers a particularly useful point of departure. In a poster from 1989 a bent nail (hit with a hammer) and sheath of wheat (cut with a sickle) are positioned in the manner of the Soviet hammer and sickle symbol. The work references stock motifs but avoids cliché. Even when he introduces type, in a poster from 1990 advertising a concert for the victims of communism (it shows a dove of peace splayed against a red star), his style remains concise, the peripheral positioning of the type reminiscent of Barbara Kruger.

To say that his is a defining example of late-twentieth-century graphic dissent might be pushing it, but certainly all the better works in this book variously follow Orosz’s simple formula. To quote Glaser, it is the task of socially conscious design to continually ‘re-imagine’ the clichés if it is to be upfront about being pissed off.

It is fitting that a series of posters challenging Soviet hegemony should open this book. Throughout much of the Cold War era the ideological standoff between the US and the Soviet Union gave rise to the period’s more inspired political graphics. A photograph from 1963 offers a resonant example. It shows a group of CND activists waving black banners with white, stencilled lettering designed by Ken Garland.

While the book includes recent examples of graphic dissent that duplicate Garland’s simple DIY methodology, it also compiles examples of work impossible to imagine before the advent of PhotoShop. For example, the highly crafted posters of expatriate Zimbabwean designer Chaz Maviyane-Davies are the antithesis of the roughshod style proposed by the early Dadaist pioneers of photomontage.

If digital flattening is unavoidable, it is also resisted. Paula Scher’s hand-drawn visual diary, composed from an assortment of colour pencils and recording in terse wording major public events between September and December 2002, offers one example of work inimical to the desktop revolution. Whether such exhibitions of graphic artistry are antediluvian in the age of the Internet is an entirely different question, and one that briefly occupies Glaser and Heller.

By its nature dissent speaks to a community. With the advent of networked computers, Glaser (tentatively) moots the idea that ‘the idea of posting printed objects has become less relevant’ – an idea I first heard suggested by the Critical Art Ensemble at a colloquium on digital culture at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in1994. The death of the street, they proffered. On one level this book could be read as a salutary critique of such hubris masquerading as digital idealism.

As an historical archive of recent graphic dissent there is, however, much to criticise in this book. Although designed with restraint in mind, the extensively annotated works collected here are grouped in a somewhat puzzling manner. Rather than illustrate a consistent classification system, the book’s fourteen chapters suggest a purposefully idiosyncratic understanding of ‘dissent’.

Sometimes dissent is treated as a geographic phenomenon, with chapters illustrating work growing out of the conflicts in Israel / Palestine and former Yugoslavia. This is in contrast to chapters focusing on rights-based issues, such as Peace and Equality. Often work shown in one chapter could easily be read in the context of another.

The book’s loose taxonomy of dissent probably arises from the authors’ well meaning if rather imprecise ability to articulate a cogent theoretical understanding of dissent. Much of the conversation between Glaser and Heller around this point, particularly at the outset, reveals this and is uninspiring. Tony Kushner’s remarks, which precede the interview, while lucid, do little to illuminate the subject.

The book’s conceptual failings can easily be compensated for by jointly reading Noam Chomsky’s 1991 book, Deterring Democracy, a meticulous study of the US’s ‘aggressive and

interventionist military posture’. In it, Chomsky warns of possible ‘adventurism’ by the US on a global scale, an expression that this book – illustrates as having been prophetic.

That Chomsky and Glaser are not unlikely companions (ideologically) was recently made apparent when both added their signatures to the Not in Our Name declaration of conscience. The closing statement of this document

also offers a concise description of the ideals underpinning this book: ‘We will resist the machinery of war and repression and rally others to do everything possible to stop it.’

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