By Matthew Herzog
Soundbites, headlines, and tags. Catch the eye, catch the ear, or you will lose your audience in seconds. Quick language and memorable imagery is often needed in a saturated, high speed / low patience, environment. So with human rights, global warming, and other movements in a battle against their opposers, it’s not surprising protest language uses tactics to reflect the urgency of their audience’s attention span. Slogans like My Body My Choice and This is What Democracy Looks Like grab by their metric and digestible cadence. But by doing so, do movements risk tripping on the exponential speed of trends? Are they being pigeonholed, isolating themselves from demographics outside their own? Are buzzwords and lyricism reductive in an ever-individualized society where protest imagery mirrors the diversity of its protesters?
In this first part of a two part series, we will search into the language of protest material with commentary from Philadelphia’s best open mouth, Blur. As a street artist, Blur situates language within the image of an open mouth, using it as a platform for candid speech about her body, her politics, and often prose straight from her journal. She sat with us in a Fishtown cafe keeping names on the DL and authenticity on the reg. We found it’s possible the difficulty behind language is not only when it is catchy, but when everyone takes a step to the mike. In a fast paced and dense space, urgencies are triaged; when we’re always on, it may only be a scream that stops us.
According to Blur, ‘...the most common thing most Philadelphia street artists have been saying, since the change in the political atmosphere, is that we’re not going to just lay down and take it. We’re not going to be quiet… Some are more intense than others. There is a way of doing it where you can scare people and there is a way of doing it where you can empower people…’
‘With the stickers… when I’m writing those, the only thought in my head is I got to grab their attention, something has to hit them in the face. I’m limited… so it has to punch it in the kisser… Some of the pieces that have gotten the most attention are the ones… that’s just like a clip, a little snapshot of a huge poem… I’m writing for myself but I also want to connect with other people.’
Blur brings up a good point. One cannot overlook the importance of immediacy and how consumable language holds a widespread effect. We also can’t negate the element of personal messages in a political environment, putting laws in context with those they affect.
The Obey street art God, Shepard Fairey, was also the designer of the 2008 iconic image of Obama in black, red, blue and white often tagged with the word HOPE, CHANGE or PROGRESS. For the recent Trump Inauguration, Fairey began a Kickstarter Campaign with a goal of $60K. The intent was to offer free prints of his recent work in protest ‘...to the hate, fear, and open racism that were normalized during the 2016 Presidential Campaign.’ In a somewhat expected turn, over $1 Million was raised. His WE THE PEOPLE campaign successfully accompanied the 2017 Women’s March with a portrayal of three women of varying demographics, Muslim, Latino, and African-American, each with a tailored second slogan underneath.
Though these mass produced posters were successful from a manufacturer and fundraising view, they did not grasp the social voice as it had with Fairey’s previous Obama campaign. When I walked in the Washington March, for every few hundred posters I saw one or two WE THE PEOPLE signs floating beside them. (A very conservative estimate. I’m not the tethered aerostat, aka weather balloon, that was used to count the Women’s March crowd. This is some ground level recon shit.)
Fairey’s Obama campaign was without the diverse political subjects of his current one, which could account for the breakdown in numbers. Yet, during the recent protests at the Philadelphia Airport where the image of Fairey’s Muslim woman would have been most poignant, there were, again, only a few amongst the hundreds of others. This begs the question, ‘Why didn’t we see the same popularity with WE THE PEOPLE as we had with the Obama campaign?’ We have a populous wishing to speak, but chose not to use the easily accessible images. The kickstarter provided free imagery. It was funded by the people for people yet only a few took Fairey up on his offer. One critical difference: the Obama image was political propaganda designed to help a president while WE THE PEOPLE was a protest against a president. Obama was a singular image capturing the identity of one man, while WE THE PEOPLE was multiple posters attempting to capture the voice of millions. This transition in popularity from Obama to WTP highlights an alternate tactic in voice. People wanted to choose their own routes. As I talked with Blur she mentioned how many other street artists in Philadelphia found themselves forging the same path. She recognized how her work did not start from a political angle but was quickly infiltrated by one. In a candidness so close to that of her work, Blur described the history of her process and her recent contribution to the dual-city public art protest organized by curator and Little Berlin Member Eric Preisendanz, artist Aubrey Costello, Founder/Editor of StreetsDept.com Conrad Benner and photographer Conor Gray. To learn more on this project click here for Conrad’s article on Streets Dept.
‘I’ve never noticed Philadelphia street artists be so political before. We’re all kinda stretching, getting used to it... With that project, [Signs of Solidarity] Eric, Aubrey, Conrad, who headed that project... this was kinda the topic… This is not a protest of one single man but hate in general. In that, it came out there was so many different views. We’re all saying different things but it’s all about the same thing… Whether or not that is as successful as saying the same thing, the same slogan… time will probably tell.’
Over email, Blur continued describing the evolution of her art. ‘Though my work did not start with the instinctive thought of wanting to protest social issues and be an act of activism within Philadelphia, I believe the notion of myself, a woman, exploring my past demons and current life issues through street art – became a method of activism. My street art focuses on how I've felt silenced my whole life because I'm female, and how our society teaches us to be polite, to answer when spoken to, to not be emotional, rude, too much anything, etc. (Hence the image of a mouth). My prose, phrases, and poetry focuses around my personal experience with essentially human rights issues. I write about my relationship with my body, as a female and as a person with illnesses and disabilities. I write about recovering from my sexual assault, and the experience itself. I write about how I was mistreated growing up, and abuse. I write about overcoming all of that, for being more than it, not ignoring it but cohabiting with how it all happened to me. And for the longest time I viewed myself as writing about my issues, how they're mine, and I own them. But they are unbelievably prevalent problems and my experiences are not unique, so the simple act of sharing them sheds a light on those issues.’
What it appears we’re talking about when referencing protest material versus political material - is the difference between populous expression and popular influence. But the two are not entirely disconnected. If I go old school history lesson for a moment, protest imagery is the defiant child of a very successful propaganda movement during WWI and WWII. I could go further back to the first use of the term propaganda by Pope Gregory the XV in 1622 when he created the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide as a defense against protest reformation. But, the real beginnings of propaganda as a large scale tool via the invention of radio, television and major publications, began in America in the early 20th century. A specific example is The Committee on Public Information aka The Creel Commission created by George Creel under Woodrow Wilson’s presidency which, over the course of six months, changed the American perception of war.
What made this propaganda pervasive was not only the severity of their messages but the quantity of prints and their prominent presence in the public sphere. They were in every grocery store. They were sold on the streets. They were in homes, bars, drug stores, schools. A united population was defined by their agreement and consequent proximity to these few images. To say you were united was often expressed by a poster in your window. (Not an unknown tactic if we think about contemporary examples: blue light bulbs outside a police officer’s home, pink knitted caps, safety pin on your work cardigan.) Unity, in these previous examples, could be defined as a digestible and easily repeatable language created and regulated by an authority to bracket collective voice. How could one question war if their populous voice hadn’t developed the words?
Over time, propaganda and the tool of mass imagery infiltrated commercial tool belts and changed hands from authoritarian conglomerates to individuals and companies. People realized, whether it be in protest, political propaganda or art, that tone and lyricism are neutral implements. It is only through our judgments of their use that we determine the user's morality and ethics.
This allowed propaganda to evolve in the hands of the Mass Media companies from the Mad Men to the current digital age shapers such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The linguistic and visual suggestions fundamentally changed communication and increased the necessity for affordable print, photography, and film. American Art introduced Pop Art.
‘It could be argued that the Abstract Expressionists searched for trauma in the soul, while Pop artists searched for traces of the same trauma in the mediated world of advertising, cartoons, and popular imagery at large.’ (TheArtHistory.com, Pop Art)
Whatever the intent of our actions may be, imagery not only saturates culture but due to its ability to repeat, a power struggle has developed between companies that want the biggest voice and individuals whose voice can be duplicated by user-created/curated content. Mass Advertising and Governmental Imagery has lost ground while Mass Individuality soars. (It should be noted, sneaky capitalism has found a way to absorb mass individuality by co-opting its movements. For now, I’ll keep capitalism as footnotes and stay on track.)
Stickers don’t only exist as surface content, they can be photographed and shared on a grand scale. Street artists like Blur, Pussy Division, and Kid Hazo, have a growing traction in the public forum. Individual voices can travel as far as the imagery we once popularized. If there is a friction between advertising tactics and individual voice powered by guerrilla writing, maybe Fairey serves as evidence. Maybe he’s an example of how one transitions from sub-cultural nod to corporate irrelevance, losing the sense of dissent it once acquired. Maybe his clothing line, OBEY / Andre the Giant has a Posse, reached a head and changed the perception of his allegiance from Craft to Capitalism. Mind you, I still like the work and Fairey seems pretty cool but as a friend suggested, ‘I probably won’t go into Urban Outfitters and buy his stuff.’ It’s the very familiar argument, ‘He made it big and his thumb slipped from the pulse of America, man. Am I paying him or corporate greed, dude?’ The line that defines that transition seems a whole other article. And frankly, my head is spinning from realizing the density of protest material. So maybe as a separate point, what Fairey faces is that the slogans, prose and imagery of protest material demand individuality and constantly fight ebbing shelf lives.
I can relate to that as an artist. Finding the middle ground between the openness of ambiguity and the specificity of sensibilities can be difficult. But as Blur confirms, the two can most certainly find common ground.
‘If what I’m writing is on a specific social issue, I will definitely put more thought into the phrasing so that it will be remembered and have a longer shelf life… The collaborative series with Yuenglingblingbling… the flower mouth… that was thought of as a feminist series. I had a hard time removing my personal self... trying to find phrases that represented more than just me. The biggest one that sticks with me is ‘I will not shrink myself to fit your standards.’... a huge issue in our country with eating disorders, the fact that a girl can be a size six and still think that she’s fat, then the literal, everyone is trying to be like, ‘No, shush. Go away. Go into some tiny box and be put in your place…’ That one I thought really hard about.’
‘I like making my work shorter because I like how it can be perceived so differently. But there are certain topics… where I’m like either too proud to break it into pieces or I’m like, ‘No, I want everyone to understand it is all of this and only this.’ ’
Blur mirrors what hundreds of thousands of DIY posters express. Mind you, the protest posters of late have often been made with tacky paint, glue, glitter and ink jet printed imagery while Blur creates each piece with meticulous precision. That’s right. It is worth mentioning, there is no photocopying here. Blur can fucking draw and does so with each piece. Back to the point, an element that unites Blur and the posters are the thorough/thoughtful slogans.
THE FUTURE IS NASTY. WE SHALL OVERCOMB. (Seen in the Berlin Protests and repeated in Streets Dept’s Signs of Solidarity campaign by Philadelphia Artist Monica O as it hangs at Awesome Dudes Printing. The phrase is a reference drawn from the African-American civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome.)
NOW YOU’VE PISSED OFF GRANDMA, IMPEACH THE PEACH, NINETY NASTY AND NOT GIVING UP, RESISTANCE IS FERTILE. In some cases it was simply NOPE and HOLY SHIT!
When Blur and I talked about this she commented saying, ‘That means that… people have become more brave to say what they want and mean to say... In a way, that’s exactly what I did. I felt empowered to, and found a space, to do that too…’
‘I started doing this in the Fall of 2015 and my health declined that year… I literally could not speak. I would but it would be a sea of vowels… It ignited something inside of me...If I draw another thing and it ends up on my wall, and no one gets to see it, I’m going to freak out… I had a pack of Hello. My name is stickers in my apartment and I just... it just spilled out of me… sometimes I have to use a walker but that makes me feel more bad-ass. I have a basket with my wheat paste... and I’m walking around… I don’t want to be in bed feeling sorry for myself. I want to make something out of it. If that means sometimes I have to use my walker, than cool. And, I’m going to put a fun twist on it and make myself feel like a Pixar grandma or something.’
To be fair, collective protest imagery and slogans are still very present and retain power despite their advertising contemporaries. To paraphrase a friend, she spoke about the power of screaming ‘My body, my choice’ while listening to her boyfriend yell, ‘Her body, her choice.’ It brought a pang that perpetuates the slogan. Though many posters were repeated and reflect commercial tactics, they were the people’s repetition, the people’s voice. Hundreds of thousands of participants, millions world wide, sat down at their kitchen table, on their floor, by couches, standing by others, listening to others, and did what they don’t typically do or hadn’t done since childhood or were saving for a boring phone call; they drew, they imagined, they painted, they wrote, glittered, printed. They called into question whether templates, either printed or heard, completely bracketed their individual voice and concern. They thought of who they were and what their humanitarian responsibilities demand.
Our contemporary exchange of influence from government to people brought humor, eccentricity, and character to a tactic typically engaged with hate, fear, and vehement often exclusionary nationalism. Momma always said, ‘Everyone’s an artist.’ Or critic, depending upon your position.
To be fair again, our protests since Trump was a Presidential nominee, then President Elect, then President, were not the congealing of popular voice. Rather, they may be the inspired coughing of a populous largely silent. The latest surge of protesters have been those who have never protested before. The last year has been an exercise in public voice catching up with what others already knew. There are many frustrated parties that have been protesting for decades asking the public, ‘Where the fuck have you been? Where were you at the Black Lives Matter marches, the LGBTQIA protests in the late sixties and early seventies, Global Warming outcries? Why now and why not then?’ One viral photograph captured a controversial moment at the Women’s March in Washington, when Amir Talai stood with a sign reading, I'LL SEE YOU NICE WHITE LADIES AT THE NEXT #BLACKLIVESMATTER MARCH, RIGHT? It seems, as we navigate the learning curve of a society fighting to accept its individuals, it isn’t just that we should speak but consider our responsibility over the times we didn’t. Is the rapid succession of protest prose an urgent effort to make up for what many should have been doing decades ago? Do we hope, by the speed of our slogans' irrelevance, that what we protest dies with them? Or, is it time to slow down, to write longer, to sit for a few more moments, to draw or paint or glitter?
As Blur and I wrapped up our talk, the music in the cafe grew quieter while dishwashers got louder, signaling it was our time to leave. She finished saying, ‘The path that I’m on is forgiving my body for failing me… I went to Tattooed Moms once for their Characters Welcome sticker show. And, I met someone and they asked me if I recently went through a breakup because a lot of my writing sounds like I’m heartbroken over a lover or something. That’s really funny because it’s about my body and I guess I’ve broken up with it.’ ‘I don’t want to negatively affect anyone, even if it’s one person. I get very nervous to get political because I don’t want to say the wrong thing… but I try to also kinda flip that fear and do it anyway… Just because I’m opening up within what I say, it’s a huge leap for me. It doesn’t mean other people will do the exact same thing… I encourage anyone who reads my stuff and like, cross my fingers that it inspires them to do it. But, it’s unbelievably hard. I mean, a huge part of why I want to keep privacy to myself - though it’s funny I’m throwing my diary all over Philadelphia - it’s because I’m throwing my diary all over Philadelphia. It’s unbelievably nerve wracking every time I do it. But I have a really weird obsession with shattering myself and putting myself together.’
What is more contemporary than that?
I would like to extend my utmost gratitude to Blur. It was a cold day, we had never met before, and she brought her veracity as comfortably as I brought my pen. If the ending of this article appears unfinished, that’s probably because it is. Thank you for reading the first part of this two part series. In next month’s issue we conclude with a look into the appropriation of prose. Are we writing personal realities or fulfilling a trend on our social media presence? How do we write what we mean?