Resisting a definition

Liz McQuiston is the most assiduous documentarian of visual protest publishing today and anyone interested in this area of design is likely to know her previous books, Graphic Agitation (1993), Graphic Agitation 2 (2004), and Suffragettes and She-Devils (1997) about design in the service of feminism.

McQuiston’s latest project, once again published by Phaidon, is something of a departure. Instead of the paving-stone picture-book format favoured previously, the new volume, case bound with a flexible cover, has a much narrower page and is light enough to hold in the hand for bedtime reading. The book’s graphic style sends out mixed signals, though. The cover is mildly corporate, despite the overused torn-paper motif, and the bold sans serif chosen for the text feels cold and needlessly insistent. On the other hand, the uncoated paper gives the layouts a relaxed, eco-conscious air, like a directory of alternative thinking, which it is.

The title is oddly chosen, too. Visual Impact? It could be about anything. Visual Dissent (‘dissent’ is buried in the subtitle) would have expressed the theme more cogently. This time round, in what is effectively the third instalment in her ‘agitation’ series, McQuiston has dropped the word ‘graphic’. Here, she reflects the widespread conviction that the term ‘graphic design’ is too specific and professionally focused to cover the range of possibilities for sharing visual communication that exist in the age of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and blogging – a crucial paradigm-shifter in the early years of open-access before social media bloomed.

McQuiston goes so far as to say that, “professional labels such as fine artist, graphic designer, photographer, filmmaker and so on start to lose their relevance, and terms such as artist, activist or social commentator start to become more meaningful”. It’s not clear, though, why the second set of labels should cancel out the first – you can be both a photographer and an activist, or any other mixture – and McQuiston continues to use these professional terms throughout the book. In fact, she makes an excellent

Front cover of POP magazine (#30, Spring/Summer, 2014), using the CA$H 4 PUSSY fanzine cover by 69 Red Balloons Libération newspaper, 23 April 2013, with artwork by Pierre et Gilles, France, 2013 Make Tea Not War poster by agency Karmarama, UK, 2003 Poster artwork by The United Unknown, USA, 2013 Dirty Rotten Art Works by DRB (aka DRB Match Industries), inspired by the London riots of August 2011, UK, 2013. Tax the Rich poster by designer and writer John Emerson (Backspace), US, 2011

case that trained and dedicated designers, artists and photographers are continuing to produce visual dissent of great inventiveness and power. The possibility now of ‘amateur’ visual messages enabled by new technologies only means that the terrain of protest is potentially more fertile than ever. The most compelling reason to seek out Visual Impact is that it contains an immensely thorough selection of international projects.

A mass of material this broad presents some big challenges of exposition and analysis. In the longest section about economic and political unrest, McQuiston sets out to provide a grounding in topics such as the Arab Spring, the Green Revolution in Iran, Los Indignados (The Outraged) in Spain, Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London, Pussy Riot in Russia and Ai Weiwei in China. This is the sphere of the political journalist, commentator or historian and she handles it deftly, drawing on many scrupulously cited sources, but the background context, which can be found elsewhere, often comes at the expense of analysing the illustrated projects in enough detail. From an observer so deeply embedded in radical communication, who is also a design teacher, I want to know what McQuiston thinks works, or doesn’t work, as a communication strategy, and how the choice of imagery and conceptual frameworks are changing as a result of the technological developments outlined in the book’s intro. If we could hear more about the work’s reception, it would be even better. McQuiston is perfectly positioned to offer personal critical insights, and sometimes she does so, yet more often she holds back.

Study of Perspective – Eiffel Tower by artist Ai Weiwei, China, 1995-2003.
Study of Perspective – Eiffel Tower by artist Ai Weiwei, China, 1995-2003.

One development that leaps out is how compelling the visual dissent produced by fine artists has been in the years since 9/11 and some of these projects do suggest the emergence of new, expanded forms of protest. The French artist JR encourages collaborators to plaster areas of the city with huge black-and-white blow-ups of faces. A double-page spread shows an action in a favela in Rio de Janeiro in 2008, titled 28 Millimetres: Women are Heroes, where the haunting eyes of the favela’s women cover the walls of the slum dwellings and stare out from the hillside. In Queen and Country (2006–10), the artist Steve McQueen made 98 sheets of facsimile stamps using photos of 98 soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq, as an act of remembrance. The project will only be finished, in McQueen’s view, when the Royal Mail, which has so far declined to cooperate, issues the stamps for public circulation. Until then, this moving reminder is on display in the drawers of a wooden cabinet in the Imperial War Museum in London.

Graphic agitation lives on in equally inventive projects by graphic designers. In 2011, American designer James Victore collaborated with the illustrator Ross MacDonald on In and Out with Dick and Jane, a “loving parody” of the children’s reading books that targets social malaise in modern America. McQuiston devotes plenty of space to graphic initiatives such as the incisively designed Occupied Times newspaper, pungent remixes of the BP logo (“biosphere poisoners”) after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig environmental disaster, and the United Unknown group’s ‘Nope’ poster, where Shepard Fairey’s Obama ‘Hope’ icon is replaced by one of the loathsome drones that multiplied under Obama’s administration.

BELOW: Images reprinted from Visual Impact (Phaidon, 2015)

Below, from left: ‘Hijabizing’ intervention in the Paris Metro by Princess Hijab, France, 2006-11 Umbrella Girl by Banksy, New Orleans, US, 2008.

Few of the book’s most striking projects have much to do with social media for their creative concepts, even if social media was used to disseminate images that didn’t last long. In the Paris Metro, for instance, Princess Hijab’s indelibly sinister ‘hijabizing’ modifications to ads of semi-nude models, using old-fashioned black paint, were lucky to survive for an hour before censorious officials took them down. But even when reduced to images, their impact comes from their presence in a real location. Visual Impact argues convincingly that our relatively new technologies allow visual messages to be seen far more widely and immediately than in the past, and these platforms are clearly an inspiration and spur to visual dissenters. Ultimately, though, for citizen protesters who want to bring about fundamental change, the cause and the struggle must often still be taken to the streets.

'Football martyrs’ photo by Mia Gröndahl. All images reprinted from Visual Impact (Phaidon, 2015)
‘Football martyrs’ photo by Mia Gröndahl. All images reprinted from Visual Impact (Phaidon, 2015)

Rick Poynor writes a weekly column about photography at Visual Impact: Creative Dissent in the 21st Century by Liz McQuiston is published by Phaidon; £24.95