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This Is A Golden Age For Activist Design

So suggests first major museum show dedicated to protest art in the age of Brexit and Trump.

Protest art is centuries old. Every era of upheaval enjoys its own visual culture–usually defined by the day’s technology–from 17th-century British broadsides to the political posters of the suffragettes of the 1910s. But within the past decade, we’ve entered a new epoch for activist-driven visual culture, one that depends heavily on the medium that broadcasts it: smartphones.

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[Photo: courtesy Design Museum]
After all, Occupy Wall Street got its start just a year after Apple debuted the iPhone, in 2008. Over the next few years, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms would shape movements including the Arab Spring–and later Black Lives Matter, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to power, and, of course, the response to President Trump’s election. All confirmed the power of visual culture in the age of ubiquitous connectivity, when a single post or banner can define a movement, and a hat can become the basis of a presidential brand.

That’s the backdrop to Hope to Nope: Graphics and Politics 2008–18, a new exhibit at London’s Design Museum that situates itself amid a constellation of protest events, starting with Occupy and ending with the Trump era. The show is far-ranging and secular about what it includes in its definition of graphics. Alongside plenty of videos and multimedia, there’s an illustration of Jeremy Corbyn dabbing (nope, hasn’t aged a bit), a Nasty Woman T-shirt riddled with enamel pins, an entire wall displaying dozens of magazine covers satirizing Donald Trump, North Korean propaganda, and a satirical Volkswagen ad by the group Brandalism reading “Drive cleaner–or just pretend to.”

[Photo: courtesy Design Museum]
Then there’s the All-Knowing Trump, an animatronic fortune-telling machine that produces “fortunes” about how great America is. The machine, which was carted around New York during the election, is an oddly powerful symbol. After all, the early fortune-telling machines on which the All-Knowing Trump is based gained popularity during the Great Depression, another era when robber barons and protectionism ran rife in America. That makes the All-Knowing Trump the exhibition’s pièce de résistance, an example of how visual culture circles back on itself, again and again, even if the medium changes.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a 21st-century protest without a gift shop; you can buy a $10 Corbyn face pin or a $126 sweatshirt embroidered with “Liberal Elite.” The merch might be the show’s most poignant symbol of activism culture during this era–when what we buy has come to represent, for many, what we believe.

You can check out Hope to Nope until August 2018.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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