Winter 2004

Pulse-taking for armchair activists

Graphic Agitation 2: Social and Political Graphics in the Digital Age

Liz McQuiston, Phaidon, £35

‘The dozen years spanning 1990 to 2002 covered by this book brought a dramatic shift in world politics and power, glimpses of a future environmental Armageddon, and little in the way of peace,’ writes Liz McQuiston in Graphic Agitation 2, the follow up to 1993’s Graphic Agitation: Social and Political Graphics since the Sixties.

Revisiting the earlier book today, which McQuiston described as ‘a broad look, over the past three decades, at the use of graphics for propaganda and protest’, one finds a competent political and social survey that travels from the 1960s to the 1990s, visually chronicling along the way key movements and issues, including black awareness, feminism, the campaign for nuclear disarmament, apartheid, anti-fur protests, gay and lesbian rights, environmentalism, the emergence of AIDS and the Gulf War.

Graphic Agitation 2, a social and political survey of the past decade as told through its graphic language (with an emphasis on the impact digital media has had on global activism), begins with a recap of territory covered in the first volume (which considered in today’s political context, feels like altogether new and fresh material), before going on to tackle themes such as ‘subvertising’, ‘eco-protest’ and ‘cyber-activism’. The book offers a compelling and engaging pulse-taker of our current political and social era, though at a price, format and weight better suited to the armchair activist.

There are plenty of new issues, notably the post-9/11 global political climate, protests against capitalism, consumerism and globalisation. Just as the Gulf War loomed large over Graphic Agitation, Bush Jr’s ‘War on Terror’ looms even larger over Graphic Agitation 2, as poignant juxtapositions of establishment propaganda (the American government’s infamous Iraqi Most Wanted playing cards) clash with antiwar graphics (Karmarama’s Make Tea Not War poster). All these visuals, hand-picked and sensitively sourced by McQuiston, showcase the current protest mix of ‘hi-tech, low-tech, no-tech’, a fascinating combination of the latest technology and age-old, grass-roots, DIY activism. Particular highlights include: Jonathan Barnbrook’s poster for Nixonscript (‘a font for telling lies with’); TBWA’s billboard for the May 2001 election with Thatcher’s famous bouffant on William Hague’s face; Adbusters’ 1999 ‘Buy Nothing Day’ poster; the less familiar ‘Stopped Sands of Time’ poster by Predrag Dosen (a moving photograph of sandbags symbolising the devastation of Dosen’s Croatian hometown by the Serbs); and the striking ‘Bloodbath’ poster by Yossi Lemel (a photograph of a bathtub filled with blood, a damning comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

Clearly impassioned by these politically charged times, the book’s design

(by Harry Pearce and Nicole Förster of Lippa Pearce) is stronger this time round. The bold, angry black on red, typographical chapter breaks are loud, ‘in your face’, and very much in keeping with the graphic ethos of the book’s subject matter.