Work in process & excerpts from doctoral research.
Exploration into the capacity of protest design has profound implications within a variety of contexts. Practitioners in the field (both from the past and today) have produced work that creates a solid foundation for research and further application of design for agitational protest.
Design as a professional activity, in conjunction with a mixed method approach to image production, has the potential to create ways within which we can work against the stakeholders of commercially oriented mass media.
As a researcher, this topic relates to me in two ways. Firstly, as a member of society who consumes media and secondly, as a commercial designer and media educator. Practitioners within the design industry often create media to influence sales, establish brand loyalties and construct identities. The boundary between mass media and propaganda is sometimes difficult to see. I have an established history of using my skill set to benefit corporations and political figures. Only after continuing my education, did I realise the extent of my capacity to influence others and question the quality of the influence.
An increased awareness of the power of media facilitates growth in critical understanding. The production of alternative images that represent ‘what is hidden’, create a record in time that would otherwise be absent. Hidden content can refer to minority groups, beliefs or subcultures. The impact of protest design may not be immediate. It moves through our history, reminds us of who we are and may take time for society to understand its impact.
There is extensive research about the impact of mass media and growing critical awareness about its power, but continual effort is needed to ensure we are able to maintain and refine our understanding. In particular, this research will investigate the capacity of design to act as an instrument for agitational propaganda, that acts to counter the mainstream and expose the constructions of commercial media.
Why does this matter?
Culture and economic power are no longer separated (de Oliveira 2009). The images of ‘political reality’ and ‘commercial reality’ dominate our physical and psychological environments. Few places represent this statement better than the city of Gold Coast, Australia. It is simultaneously branded by media, advertising and political agendas as many different things:
- The crime capital of Australia (Larkins 2013)
- Family friendly holiday destination (Potts, Dedekorkut-howes, and Bosman 2013)
- Party town with easy access to drugs and sex (Schindeler and Ewart 2014)
- Government moderated Schoolies destination (Pennay and Lubman 2013)
- Prosperous business destination (City of Gold Coast Council 2013)
As evidenced by the list above, the Gold Coast is not an easily definable place with a singular identity. This indicates a need for exploration of the tension between the imposed identity of the city and the alternative reality (Griffin 1998; 286). It is imperative that the Gold Coast has a force able to push against the images generated by those who maintain power.
Using design as a form of protest is not a new concept, but continual effort is required to maintain and refine our understanding. The Gold Coast provides an ideal location for this exploration, and the process will be explored in the future to incorporate wider locations and issues. Initially the Gold Coast was selected as a focus for this project as it provides easily accessible resources within the scope and time of this research project. In addition, the issues sounding the complexities of the city’s identity provide valuable data that require exploration and increased understanding. Although the creative culture on the Gold Coast is growing, there are few public practitioners using design to agitate and protest the ideas currently dominating mainstream media.
By undermining the mainstream narrative through the exposure of alternative messages, we can work towards revealing and recording what is hidden within the Gold Coast. Designing an alternative visual message that disrupts the idea that we are not visible unless we confirm to the mainstream. Through examination of the recent subcultural phenomenon of the ‘Hipster’, we can argue that there is a lack of alternative or counterculture available. Unlike previous subcultures, hipsterism acts as a consumer group, without any political stance or social agenda. It is the first subculture to be constructed by the advertising industry and it provides no real alternative to the mainstream. (Kauffman 2013)
The exposure of the ‘real or alternative’ has potential to be dangerous. (The ‘real’ may include an unattractive or non commercial aspect of a place, a group of people who are suffering because of lack of government services, or everyday occurrences that are not presented to a wider audience by mass media.) Not because its content is necessarily traumatic, but because it directs our attention towards an ellipsis within the historical record where none is supposed to exist. (Shoulette 2011) Shoulette further highlights this by telling us that:
“If we were to extend our inventory of heroic defiance to include those many minor, sometimes petty acts of everyday disobedience that Michel De Certeau theorized as tactics of resistance… then it seems suddenly as if an entire realm of shadowy, non-compliant labour has materialised into gloaming visibility about the margins of mainstream social, political, artistic, and economic discourse… Nevertheless, isolated flashes of defiance are disjointed acts of insubordination. They do not necessarily knit together as sustained politics, and they are not inherently progressive or democratic. By and large these are gifts that often “forget themselves” insofar as they are generally not perceived as gifts given or received. Still, insofar as this creative dark activity refuses to be productive for the market, it remains linked, however diffusely and ambiguously, to an archive of resistant practices—past, present, and to come—that Fredric Jameson called a “political unconscious,” and that theorists Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge described in more literal terms as a counter-public sphere made up of dissident affects, re-appropriations, and fantasies.” (Shoulette 2011; 187)
In addition, art, design and media (and hybrids of all creative outputs) contribute to our collection of social-historical data. Regardless of whether any form of protest design creates change, it will become a part of the historical record, creating information that would not otherwise exist. Its impact may not be immediately apparent, but over time we are able to better understand the impact. It tells us who we are, and over time this becomes apparent.
Practitioners in the Field.
An examination of literature has been conducted to provide a solid foundation for the project. It is a continual process, with a wide selection of resources available. Interaction with my supervisors, peers, practitioners in the field and friends always result in the suggestion of new resources, theories and creative work to explore. Below are some of the sources currently in focus at this stage in the research process.
The only female member of the Berlin Dada group (that included John Heartfield, who rejected her participation), Höch was a photomontage artist who utilised content originating from mass media publications, to highlight her objection to a male dominated society (Somerville 2014). She is known for mocking public male figures by placing their head onto female bodies, a concept that is mirrored in my own work in relation to political figures on the Gold Coast (see Tom Tate series). She differed from other members of the Dada group by focusing on her reality of the redefinition of social roles of women of the time (the rhetoric and the reality), and maintained use of fine art principles in conjunction with photomontage experimentation.
Her work investigated the difference between the new and old perceptions of women within society, criticising mass media representations of women. Like Carrie Moyer, Höch reached her audience by making the unknown familiar and the familiar unknown, combining images to create a new reality (also supported by her commercial design employment) and like Peter Kennard, aimed to recontextualise images to create new layers of meaning. Her work ‘Der Vater’ focuses on gender roles within family and society while depicting images that seem joyful and contradictory.
As an outsider within her artistic practice and political values, Höch is an exemplar of how the emotion and motivation born from being silenced or hidden can be used to produce powerful images.
One of the most valuable statements I have found to date comes from John Heartfield; ‘what is important is not so much the medium itself as who is deploying it’. (Gough 2009) As a member of the October (Oktabr) Association, his work involved processes which allowed for mass production or simple technological reproduction. These processes link closely with my own creative practice; graphic design, cut and paste, hand colouring, photomontage, photography and combinations of these methods. Heartfield spoke of two variations within the development of photomontage; the first having origins in American advertising and the second belonging to Soviet political-agitation photomontage. Both had individual methods, principles and laws of construction. It can be argued that the photomontage was one of the primary agitational weapons of Soviet propaganda (Gough 2009).
Although controversial, Heartfield believed that the hybrid medium of photomontage had superior agitational efficacy when compared to realist (painting) outcomes. The impact of the photomontage was also said to represent the dynamics of life (not fixed or frozen like a standard photograph) and that its manipulation with text, colour and graphic elements produce an image of reality (Gough 2009). The photomontage agitates by creating disjunctions with composition and scale “to tell a story, to agitate, to explain” (Gough 2009; 138).
Heartfield’s practice involved forcing a standard photograph into something else, revealing the lie it had been used to tell or to create a new meaning. He altered the meaning of the original images by embedding them into a new and uncomfortable relationship with other elements. He celebrated photomontage and technological reproduction as the medium for revolutionary artists. He identified the fear some had over the unfamiliar technology and the pressure to achieve technical accuracy, but urged artists to come to terms with the production methods and use them as a weapon, a way of mass communicating his message (Gough 2009). In regards to technical skill, Heartfield confessed to being a poor photographer, preferring to pay professional photographers, cut images from magazines and photo agencies.
In regards to my own visual practice, I utilise disjointed elements (often appropriated from existing media as evident in Vagina Octopus) to disrupt the viewer’s gaze and steal an extra few moments of consideration. The elements in my work are often ready made (stock photography or vector images), or produced by other designers for commercial output. I digitally ‘cut and paste’ elements, using them in a way that was not originally intended to comment and reflect on aspects of our society. This process allows me to comment on both the mechanics of graphic communication and its interaction with the viewer. My technical ability in regards to commercial graphic design is being utilised as a weapon against itself.
In regards to both its visual style and intended meaning, Heartfield’s ‘Adolf, The Superman, Swallows Gold and Spouts Tin’, reflects the goals of my own practice. Through photomontage, he reached a large audience and communicated a message of political contradictions and ethical standards. Within my teaching practice, this is often an example I present to students to showcase the power of graphic design to communicate and provoke change. This photomontage depicts Adolf Hitler with his chest transparent and full of gold. He is suggesting to the audience that Hitler wasted the money of those who financially supported the war effort. Originally indented as a magazine cover, the image was reproduced as a poster and displayed throughout the city. The works of Heartfield will be further explored during this project, as he provides a powerful and historical context to design and protest.
Through use of art and design, Kennard aims to instigate debate about politics, society and global themes. Like Heartfield, he utilizes photomontage to create more ‘truth’ than an individual photo. He says of his own practice “…pummel these pictures into revealing invisible connections, disconnecting them from direct representation into statement and argument” (Kennard, 2001). He unapologetically uses religious icons to disrupt the complacency of the audience, resulting in dialogue and exploration. His work reflects a strong emotional reaction to events within our global community, and disrupts the idea that art and profit are inseparable. Kennard aims to connect with the real world rather than produce art for the market. He describes it as combining creativity with protest (Kennard 2008), which is a statement that directly links to my own motivations and research project.
Photoshop is Kennard’s weapon of choice for manipulating images of Tony Blair into a Middle East bombing scene, making the political figure appear as though he is taking a ‘selfie’. He seeks to produce art that reflects what’s happening in the world right now. His life is funded by teaching design, providing him with the financial means to create non-commercial protest art. This mirrors my own employment situation and provides an exemplar of how the two ‘life objectives’ can work in harmony.
The well known (and largely unidentified) graffiti artist and activist is an exemplar of agitational street art and design. His work subverts the status of public spaces and art galleries and simultaneously occupies the space between cultural criticism, art and vandalism. His work has been described as ‘high street irony’, utilising both words and images to create meaning, a method that frequents my own practice. He uses comedy, intertwined with heavy themes (racism, poverty, consumerism, political authority and terrorism), resulting in urban interventions that inspire and work towards the subversion of well known clichés. ‘Toxic Mary’ (2004) and ‘Christ with Shopping Bags’ (2005) demonstrate how Banksy uses a type of humour to engage the audience, while still allowing views to make meaning within the context of a political idea or message.
Critics of Banksy highlight the connection between his attack on mainstream ideology, his production of retail merchandise and relationship with stakeholders. He has created the image of a subversive street artist who questions mainstream assumptions, while making significant profit from the sale of his art, retail products and commercial collaborations (Branscome 2011). Regardless of these corporate/street relationships, Banksy represents the use of street art (or design) to critique culture, drawing attention to social issues while understanding his target audience. Like Adbusters, those who critique the practice of Banksy provide me with the framework to look critically at my own work with the view to avoid hypocrisy within my practice.
A painter and graphic designer who also explores agitational propaganda within the context of street art, lesbian culture and New York. She states that the best way to connect with an audience is by using the familiar to arrive at the unknown (2007). Her work as a graphic designer not only funds her art practice, it significantly impacts her public art outcomes. She uses commercial strategies to create a point of difference, cutting through the existing visual noise of the city. Moyers’ reflection of her own commercial practice has a significant link to this project and also relates to the practice of Barbara Kruger.
She comments on varying degrees of success in regards to the success of her work, its ability to engage the audience or contribute to any positive social change. Moyer questions ‘what painting is good for’, as a mechanism for advocating for queer equality and representation (Moyer 2007), while appropriating the means of production and distribution from her graphic design job. The outcome resulted in a ‘counter-narrative’ to the outcome of her paid (graphic design) work, exposing the absence of lesbian visual representation in mainstream culture and its implication that an individual is not visible within society unless they belong to the niche market. The image ‘Shared Women’ represents the culture of both collaboration and exploitation and related themes that need to be shared with an audience wider than the ‘alternative community’.
In conjunction with members of ‘Dyke Action Machine’, she interrupted mainstream visual culture by inserting lesbian images into the mainstream, through poster installations (a form of culture jamming) and reclaiming public space from commercial dominance. Moyer refers to this as ‘speaking to the Citizen as well as the Consumer’.
With a professional background in graphic design, Barbara Kruger influences my design practice in both her professional path and movement towards art and photomontage for the purpose of questioning ideological control by political and economic power. Her outcomes and processes resist neat classification and the content of her work consists of aggressive, argumentative or provocative images. She sourced images from magazines, newspapers, and instruction manuals, combining them with text to create new meaning. She utilised various methods to publish her work in both formal and informal public spaces; galleries, train stations, billboards, magazines, posters and t-shirts. This created outcomes and messages that were ‘circulating endlessly and relentlessly throughout society.’ Her work is a ‘powerful presence that interrupts instant legibility and undermines immediate subjectification while simultaneously invites us to decode the message’ (de Oliveira 2009).
She uses neutral spaces to activate tensions associated with society, beyond the reach of the ‘art crowd’ and into non-academic spaces. The use of neutral or ‘low brow’ installation spaces is an element this project will explore. Kruger aims to expose the need for openness to others, expose instability, failure and inadequacy (de Oliveira 2009). One of her main objectives is to expose the violence of stereotypes and interrupt the ambivalence of viewers. Her work seduces and intercepts, mimics and disrupts. Importantly, Kruger states that her work is not designed to be a threat in itself, but it is designed to signify threat with instability and a lack of fit.
She uses her understanding of design principles to accelerate the transference of the message to the viewer and to attract attention. The ideas and methods of both Heartfield and Kruger relate to my research in numerous ways. Their method of image construction is based on both traditional and technological graphic design practice, for the purpose of (mostly) non-commercial outputs. This relationship may appear to be a basic connection, however it is important to my practice in that it showcases a contrast professional design and the view that graphic design practice is largely superficial and commercial (or requiring a ‘client/designer relationship).
Although Heartfield’s and Kruger’s specific skill sets are based in media, their outputs focus on anti-media messages, creating a visual that represents an alternative to the messages presented to society by those in control.
Her recent work on the cover of W Magazine (featuring Kim Kardashian) is inspirational in that it blurs the line between commercial culture and protest. Her transparent use of graphic design in conjunction with a print publication is in direct contrast to a message that is not really clear to her audience, confusing social commentators. The ambiguity of the text and image are what cause the disruption, highlighting the void surrounding the usual celebrity image and suggesting space for an alternative to the mainstream. Slogans in her older work include:
“WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”
“WHY ARE YOU HERE?”
“WE HAVE NOT RECEIVED ORDERS TO MOVE”
AND “THINKING OF YOU.”
These are combined with pictures that create a new layer of meaning; these works are an example of the success of graphic design with counter culture themes.
An exploration into the capacity of protest design can have profound implications within a variety of contexts. Practitioners in the field (both from the past and today) have produced work that creates a solid foundation for this research and further application of design for agitational protest. The skills and resources from ‘graphic design’ as a profession in conjunction with montage and mixed media creative practices provide numerous avenues to work against the stakeholders of commercially orientated mass media. In addition, this creative practice will explore the power behind mass media and the process of control relating to communication in society.
Increasing our critical awareness of the powers of media allow us to continue to understand it, and keep up with the same changes that perpetuate technological growth and change. Generating images that represent what is usually hidden from commercial media provides a record and representation of the alternative.
Research publications & conference papers/presentations.
- 2017 Book Chapter. Engineering Teams: Supporting Diversity in Engineering Education. Strategies for Increasing Diversity in Engineering Majors and Careers. Co Authored with Dr Jen Loy and Simon Howell
- 2017 Book Chapter. Engaged Learning for Diverse Student Cohorts. Strategies for Increasing Diversity in Engineering Majors and Careers. Co Authored with Dr Jen Loy.
- 2016 Conference Paper/Presentation. CreateWorld: The Creativity of Things
- 2015 International Exhibition. QCA Exhibition at Crane Arts Philadelphia. Curator: Cassandra Lehman-Shultz