|All around the world/We are the 99%!|
You enter Occupy Bay Area at YBCA through the back and up the stairs. When you get there, you aren’t quite sure whether you are at the beginning or the end. It’s like the movement itself: are we at the start of a well-needed revolution or the sad, last gasp of progressive politics? It’s all a little disconcerting, especially when you look at the first wall and it’s small, so small. There are a handful of posters, mostly ones that anyone living in the Bay Area in 2011 would recognize. That’s me all over: take a trip on a time machine and go back one whole year! But behold, I turn the corner and I’m facing several framed typewritten documents (this is a museum after all), exclaiming: “PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS,” “U.N. Plaza,” and “YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE!” What’s going on here? Are the curators at YBCA actually suggesting that there was another Occupy movement?
In the opposite corner of the room, there are, covered from floor to ceiling, orange, red, green, brown, purple and yellow signs proclaiming, “We are the 99%!” in about 100 languages. Whew, that’s more like it. But wait, in this same room there is even more ephemera from the past. I had no idea there was so much pre-Occupy, Occupy! This is crazy and educational at the same time. No one ever talks about the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in the 1960s. I laughed at the thought of the show puffing up its chest and boasting, “Hey New York City, the Bay Area did it first, we were occupying before Occupy!” And it’s true. I was taken aback by how much there was, but equally frustrated by how little information the show provided about these earlier events whose character and appeals parallel those of the most recent Occupy movement. The implicit argument seems to be that this Occupy movement is a copycat of earlier movements, just less deliberate. But as I soon realized this was only an introduction, and would stay that way, as the show was mostly about the events of one year ago. I’m going to have to fix the dial on that time machine.
Although the show is titled Occupy Bay Area, it should have been called, Occupy Mostly Oakland. As you walk along a hallway of these posters from last year, it’s like being caught in one protracted, schizophrenic public service announcement. Two different voices come to light: one, youthful and grungy; and the other, a little more sophisticated and graphically informative, but kind of lifeless. Both these approaches have their strengths and limitations and it’s interesting how they reveal the tensions within the movement itself.
APPROACH ONE, THE KIDS: The Rise of the Anger Child
A lot of the these kinds of posters were wood block and screen printed, which gave them a hand–made quality that aesthetically and historically connects with protest movements of the past that championed the poor and dispossessed. Also, this style has a certain natural humanity to it, a non–corporate feel that makes the work seem as if it were really speaking to the public and trying to inform them. But the hooks weren’t hooky enough and the messages had a teenage angsty feel to them, like, ‘I’m mad at my parents, so Occupy!
|Reprinted courtesy of the artist and YBCA|
A piece that is familiar to those of us who reside in the uber-progressive areas of Oakland and San Francisco is Jon Paul Bai's, “Hella Occupy Oakland.” My first experience with this poster was last fall in the screen-printing studios at CCA. It was in the hallway of the studios’ building, posted up on the board with all of the other school and student announcements and for some reason it just seemed perfect. It was both comfortable and expected and it seemed to catch the spirit of the times. When we were re-introduced in the gallery, it was a little awkward, like running into your high school sweetheart at a Led Zeppelin sing-along. There’s a nice familiarity to it, but still.Bai’s screen-print was actually a drawing first and so it was either directly drawn on acetate or traced with a sharpie from the original drawing. No Adobe illustrator 6 here! You can sense that human quality in his work. However, the problem is it also flattens the entire image and message. The key to striking visual images, no matter what the field, medium or point-of-view is in manipulating contrast and visual hierarchy. If everything blends together, it is harder for the viewer to find the message, let alone spend time with it and “Hella Occupy Oakland” should be well worth our time. There is a beautiful amount of detail and a great amount of humor in the way that Bai caricatures the Oakland skyline. He makes us understand that these issues are right in front of us; that they are literally in the architecture of the city and our lives. The more time you spend looking at “Hella Occupy,” the more you see subtle, symbolic details start to emerge. It really is quite a clever illustration, but that’s all it is and when the message is a political call to action that’s a problem. Bai's poster fails to speak beyond agreement and a general disenchantment with the world and that gets tiresome.
“Hella Occupy Oakland” is by far the most successful of the youthful, grungier type, but its limitations speak of the more general limitations of all the posters of that kind. They would have greater success if they used a more, and I know this won’t go over well, corporate approach with a touch of humanity. The politics of change is about thinking with empathy and you have to learn to speak the language of the system you are trying to change. Instead, these kinds of posters only slander in their own language. I understand that it is necessary to rally those whom you are trying to help, inform and join forces with. But still, by creating easy enemies and a generalized hostility, there is a lack of attention to what the slogans are truly saying. Yes, “Occupy” is a guerrilla tactic movement and that is what made it cutely unique, but as we all saw, all that righteous anger didn’t really get us anywhere—except maybe a Romney presidency.
APPROACH TWO, THE ADULTS: Graphically Sound, Obviously Informative and Sadly Boring
|Courtesy of YBCA|
The second type of poster in the Occupy show was much more adult and info-graphic. Some were brilliant, yes, but most of them, even the most beautifully designed lacked a conversational and communicative touch. It was as if they were practicing for the big speech in front of the bathroom mirror. One particular poster was obviously Epson-generated and committed to the idea of the info-graphic. The artist/designer is at pains to visually communicate the distribution of wealth in America. The poster’s bottom title, rendered in that all caps, condensed san-serif style, reads: “THE TOP 1% OWN 42% OF AMERICAN WEALTH—MORE THAN THE BOTTOM 95% COMBINED.” On the left side is an isotopic figure of a man (with a tie) and three full-length columns of dollar bills. On the right side of the poster are a much larger number of isotopic men and, yes you guessed it, not as much money—the right side and the left side? How could you miss that message and yet now, duly informed, what are we going to do about that message? Yes, it’s disturbingly disgusting, but the poster is dry and fails to elicit the kind of rage the grungier ones seem born to express. You wouldn’t even call it corporate, because at least they’re employing marketing techniques that make you want things you don’t need and that’s a kind of emotion. The info-graphic is neat, but the contrast in the scale of the figures lacked the necessary visual and emotional punch to move people to action. I nod to the artist/designer for translating this bit of information for us, but like, “Hella Occupy Oakland,” it’s angrier cousin-in-arms, it finally seems flat and unable to catch the depths of the problems facing us. Or more damning, it doesn’t make you want to think or engage.
What both styles need is a greater sense of how mass media works and how visual calls for change must go beyond anger and clever representations of power. The issues couldn’t be starker and we need to be aware of corrupt corporations and the growing class divide, but for that to happen we have to represent it in ways that are more effective than the posters on display at the YBCA. It’s important that we are capable of greater, more complex expression if we’re going to demand reform. That might sound as we are at fault or responsible for fixing what we didn’t break and some would say that isn’t fair. But fairness isn’t the issue. It’s the depth and intelligence of our response that will win or lose the day and easy sloganeering is the wrong way to begin all the hard work and difficult choices that lie ahead.