Spring 1995

Art directing the opposition

Daniel Walsh, former US Marine, founder of Liberation Graphics and self-styled ‘communications therapist,’ uses the poster to argue for alternative points of view

An oppositional poster is a ballot in search of an election. Buying one is like casting a vote for a cause which has been marginalised by official policy and the media. Daniel Walsh, founder of Liberation Graphics in Alexandria, Virginia, sees the classic oppositional poster as a challenge to taboos, ‘in its moment – not 40 years later when it’s safe for curators to sit back and analyse it without endangering their jobs or getting Congress people rattled.’ For 11 years, this former US Marine and Peace Corps volunteer has been the leading broadcaster of messages that otherwise receive scant attention, including such controversial subjects as Palestinian, Cuban and Nicaraguan sovereignty. Through the poster, Walsh gets alternative viewpoints aired, disseminated and raised to the level of common discourse.

The poster, though the least technological form of mass communication, is still one of the most effective means of subverting the monopoly of mass media. At best, a poster is a kernel of thought contained within an icon that celebrates, cautions or educates. A poster’s message can easily be transmitted through a stark (or starkly beautiful) image with minimal text, and while simplicity does not always ensure memorability, it at least stands out within the indigestible and complex web of electronically transmitted information with which we are bombarded. Though reaching a relatively small audience, it is one that when strategically addressed will most probably grow larger.

The social critic Christopher Lasch argued in The Atlantic that the United States does not need more information – people do not know how to analyse what they already have. What it does need is debate. To make the overload comprehensible, information must be scrutinised in public forums. The mass media, which should provide such forums, claims non-partisanship, yet it is the media that determines what information the public receives, pushing a wide range of issues to the sidelines and stigmatising them as irrelevant. With the transmitters in the hands of the few, supported by businesses (via advertising) that prefer to stay the centrist course rather than offend clients and customers, the oppositional poster has become a medium of last resort for those who choose to question official policy. Or, as Walsh asserts, ‘for those people who are unhappy with a political system that says once every four years, two rich, white, male donkeys are trotted out so that you can pick Donkey A or Donkey B, which is the end of your impact on politics.’ Here is where the ballot comes in. Americans buy posters, and engaging with one, says Walsh, ‘even as a commodity, whether the owner passionately identifies with the issue or not, is ultimately a political act that counteracts indifference.’

Historically, the mass media has been more factional (though not more democratic) than it is today. From the late nineteenth century until the advent of television, print journalism was obviously partisan. US news coverage was unrepentantly slanted towards one or other of the major political parties. This ideological dialectic gave rise to an early oppositional press which publicised a wide range of beliefs of people who did not subscribe to status quo politics. In the early twentieth century, socialist, syndicalist, trades unionist and bohemian newspaper, magazine and poster publishers, largely representing immigrants and workers, produced oppositional printed matter that sought to inspire a growing constituency through the presentation of alternative truths. In some cases these outlets mobilised widespread public opinion against a particular social injustice. It is in this spirit, and for some of the same reasons, that Walsh established an oppositional ‘consultancy’ which uses the poster as part of a broader mission to raise the level of political consciousness and get unpopular issues on to the debating floor.

Walsh, an Irish-American, was born in 1949 into a racially integrated working-class housing project that gave him an awareness of social injustice outside his community. It was during the Vietnam War, however, while training to be a Marine, that the gap between society’s haves and have nots was brought home to him. Half way through basic training, he noticed that the reservists – white middle-class boys – went home, while many blacks and working-class draftees went off to war. ‘This was an indelible lesson in the benefits of being from one class as opposed to another,’ he recalls.

After serving two years in the Marine Corps, he entered college on the GI Bill and later joined the Peace Corps to advance his foreign-language studies. It was as a vocational teacher in an industrial education centre for Moroccan army veterans on the outskirts of Marrakesh that he became interested in posters as a way of learning Arabic. In a country without a sophisticated mass media, posters advertising everything from movies to products abounded, and Walsh studied them as textbooks on the nuances of language.

A new understanding of the political discourse of the Middle East followed when Walsh was introduced to Palestinian posters in 1974. Scrutinising the frequently changing cultural and political material on the bulletin board outside the PLO’s office in Rabat, he became increasingly fascinated by the way the Palestinians portrayed their struggle, in contrast to the reports in the western media. ‘I was amazed that Palestinians believed their struggle to be heroic, romantic, and thought of it in terms of liberation.’ After showing a serious interest, he was given free access to PLO posters and collected thousands of them representing a variety of groups and their messages, including solidarity with oppressed peoples, tributes to fallen heroes, militant resistance to the Israelis, and steadfastness against Zionism. As with other revolutionary groups who lacked access to high-tech media, the Palestinians based many of their political posters on calendar events such as the anniversary of a battle or the death of a martyr. They ran the gamut from the prosaic to the polemical, with aesthetics that followed no particular ideological style – such as social realism – but took their direction from the group or individual artist responsible, as well as from the content of the message.

On returning to the US, Walsh began a career in what he calls ‘communications therapy.’ In 1980 Mobil Oil funded him to give a slide presentation about Arab-Israeli posters which attracted considerable attention. Since most of the posters had been designed for domestic use, the idea of exporting them to further the Palestinian cause had never been considered. For many people, these posters, which included polemics from the Palestinians as well as other organisations such as the Israeli peace movement, were the first exposure to a longstanding political and graphic debate. Though Walsh says he was not using the posters to promote the issue of Palestinian liberation, their introduction to the US definitely had an impact. In 1983 an exhibition at the United Nations of 50 Palestinian posters was forced to close on its first day. The New York Times reported that Israeli representatives complained that some of the posters suggested that Jews were responsible for the fate of the Palestinians and quoted UN representative Jeanne Kirkpatrick as calling the show ‘pretty outrageous.’ Walsh asserted in a subsequent article that the exhibition was an attempt to ‘humanize both Palestinians and Israelis’ by showing images that represented the Palestinian struggle for nationhood as well as the sympathetic support of the Israeli peace movement. Eleven years later, he finds it interesting that the debate he was attempting to encourage is now manifest in official Middle East peace policy.

In 1989 Walsh was contracted by the PLO to distribute posters in the US to counteract its terrorist image. The posters he selected received significant press coverage, and as a tribute to his work, a Palestinian delegate at a recent peace-process meeting in Washington greeted him in Arabic with, ‘Good evening, Minister of Posters.’

Walsh soon recognised that the Palestinian posters were part of a larger pool of oppositional graphics promoting the struggles of many different nations. But to build a foundation for political discourse on the poster took hard work. As Walsh notes: ‘The thing most westerners don’t understand is that in most places in the world, the poster is a vital medium just like a newspaper, book or television programme.’ He likens official and underground poster ministries to the major American television networks – ABC, NBC and CBS – rolled into one. ‘The poster is not a frequency everybody picks up on,’ he admits. ‘But if you walk into its path, or happen upon it, it can be a regular frequency.’

In the early 1980s Walsh attempted to do a graduate thesis on alternative communications, but he could not find an academic sponsor. Instead he founded Liberation Graphics in 1983 as his own ‘graduate laboratory.’ The lab became a serious business when in addition to cataloguing his own collection he began to sell imported posters to schools, institutions and other collectors (one year earning $100000). He also became an art director/consultant to foreign groups like the PLO which were seeking to better their image in the US, as well as to homegrown grass-roots organisations wanting to find their own graphic frequencies. In addition to research, he devoted himself to conservation, exhibition, analysis, distribution, and inevitably design. Without any formal graphic training, he operates as an art director and curator according to one simple dictum: ‘Never insult the public. Never make a poster an intelligence test, or make it too simple because you think people are stupid and won’t get it.’ Walsh defines his single most important design tenet as user-friendliness. ‘I am ordinary people. I know when something touches me or doesn’t. If something doesn’t move me, I won’t have anything to do with it.’

Some of Walsh’s posters include political slogans and symbols that over time have become clichés. He refers to these as political Esperanto – a common language that can evoke strong feelings. Compared with other alternative poster distributors in the US, which deal primarily with domestic posters – for instance, the Syracuse Cultural Workers and the Northland Poster Collective (Minneapolis, Minnesota) – Walsh’s selections and creations are trenchant and moving. He insists that posters selected for American consumption are not propaganda gratuitously spewing hate; indeed, hatred does not lend itself to oppositional posters because it alienates the moderates and appeals to the fringe. Walsh carefully distinguishes between hate and anger: ‘I’ve never seen a Palestinian poster that was anti-Semitic or inhuman. I’ve seen very angry posters that attack political Zionism, the Israeli army, the question of Jerusalem and other Israeli claims to territory, but never one attacking Jews.’ While there is an ideological distinction between political anti-Zionism and religious anti-Semitism, Walsh admits that it is one most Americans cannot make and so veers away from such issues in his work.

That doesn’t stop the criticism. Walsh has been chided in the Wall Street Journal by a member of the American-Israeli Committee for ‘giving propaganda tools to organisations seeking the destruction of one of America’s most important allies.’ He does indeed do a brisk trade with Arab embassies in Washington which gave away posters to schools and other groups. But despite his unambiguous partisanship, Liberation Graphics’ dove-of-peace logo speaks of a larger mission to promote understanding and peace.

While many of Walsh’s posters focus on social or cultural concerns – for instance, he has advised Syria on how to make more effective tourist posters – Liberation Graphics never shies away from political controversy. As a graphic lobbyist, Walsh’s professed goal is to identify and then polarise issues using the poster as his tool. He sometimes uses foreign posters (official and oppositional) to critique domestic politics. ‘I didn’t have money to print posters attacking capitalism, so I arranged a deal with the Soviet government to get their posters that did the same thing,’ he explains, referring to a 1988 agreement with Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga, the former ‘Evil Empire’s’ book-exporting agency, which provided him with a variety of specially printed vintage propaganda and contemporary glasnost posters that among other things took a critical stab at world capitalism.

Walsh made his selection with an eye to what would resonate in America, choosing environmental, peace and women’s posters as well as revolutionary posters from different areas, and avoiding the anti-American clichés so common in Soviet propaganda. ‘I wanted Liberation Graphics to leaven the political dialogue, and let people see images in a way that this system was never going to allow them.’ On another front, he did not have ‘the wherewithal to get posters that attacked [South] Korean fascists so I worked with church groups in this country that were looking to print posters on the issue.’ In yet another critical campaign, he was the first to distribute anti-apartheid posters to campus groups in the early 1980s, which sparked widespread protest and encouraged government and industry to place economic sanctions on South Africa.

Walsh advocates international solidarity and his posters from various foreign groups supporting Palestinian liberation, anti-apartheid, the Sandinistas or Kurdish independence are distributed globally to advance ties between these different groups. He laments the fact that there is not more co-operation and that a lot of Middle Eastern, Kurdish and South American posters are cast for internal dialogue only. He is particularly admiring of the OSPAAAL (Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America) policy of publishing Cuban posters in four languages simultaneously.

The OSPAAAL posters are the jewels in the crown of his collection. But the Cuba Poster Project, a joint effort of Inkworks Press, a poster collective in Berkeley, California, and Liberation Graphics, has been a legally arduous exercise. Walsh believes Cuban political and cultural posters to be ‘unquestionably the finest in the hemisphere’ and almost ten years ago sought permission from the US Treasury Department to waive trade restrictions to allow him to visit Cuba to meet artists and import their work. While a 1988 Congressional exemption authorised commerce in informational materials, including books, films and graphics, financial transactions between Americans and Cubans continued to be prohibited. Walsh fought a relentless battle in courts – earning two supportive editorials in the Washington Post which argued that at this stage the embargo was meaningless – but not until 1993 was permission finally granted for a two-week stay. The result was worth it: Walsh identified major collections and signed an exclusive reproduction contract with the Cubans.

Cuban posters have held a special place in revolutionary art for over 30 years. In the 1960s official Cuban designers and artists adopted a contemporary style which not only echoed that of North American youth culture, but was curiously reintegrated into the American graphics of the day. OSPAAAL posters continue that tradition, framing political symbols and messages – including solidarity with revolutionary movements in Guatemala, El Salvador, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere – with otherwise undoctrinaire design elements. By making these posters and other Cuban arts available in the US on cards and T-shirts, Walsh is fulfilling two missions. The first is to introduce people to an alternative cultural perspective that has been suppressed by governmental decree; the second, he proudly states, is to drive the radical right nuts.

Walsh believes that the role of Liberation Graphics is to keep the heat on. But in recent years, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the defeat of the Contras, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the beginning of the Arab-Israeli peace process, many of the key issues he has championed have fallen away. But times have changed on the domestic front, too. With the so-called Republican revolution in the US Congress now in full tilt, liberal domestic social and political agendas are in jeopardy. While Walsh has not abandoned his international affiliations, he now devotes most of his energy to being a ‘political art director’ or ‘agent of empowerment,’ working with American grass-roots and community groups to produce greeting cards, murals, comic books or anything else that will give them a public profile. In fact, he is telling such groups not to produce posters right now, because small organisations struggling to pay bills will not necessarily earn the greatest return from a single sheet of paper. Groups must look realistically at what is the best trajectory for their messages.

Walsh warns against putting resources in the wrong medium for the wrong reasons. ‘I tell people, if you want to make a poster, go to the yellow pages; if you want to make history call Liberation Graphics. What people with a mission have to realise is that they need to be represented in the political moment by their art, and also have a place in the ongoing debates that spring from the interpretation of that art. It’s about having presence. It’s about realm. Not some superficial notion of a political poster as an end unto itself.’

The current shifts in the political landscape will no doubt increase the importance of oppositional domestic movements and make solidarity between them more critical. Walsh is convinced that the leading American practitioners, the ones who have already taken risks by devoting themselves to making posters on social issues, will rise to the challenges ahead as the Republican Party and Christian right flex their muscles. For those who despair of the grim political prospects, Walsh offers this coda: ‘For the oppositional posterists, the First Amendment is their only sacrament. And as long as there is at least the tacit willingness of the government to tolerate it, oppositional posterists are going to continue to put their messages out.’

Steven Heller, editor of the AIGA Journal and design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 16 vol. 4, 1995

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