After walking through the gift shop and the swanky jewellery galleries, the display of A World to Win – Posters of Protest and Revolution can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), in London. The overview of a century of protest posters from the museum’s collection is organised thematically in two rooms and allows to see less recurrent choices from the graphic design canon. However, it perhaps overlooks more recent work at a time when the death of the poster is almost proclaimed on a yearly basis. This is compensated by the presence of a screen which appropriately notes the increased importance of the digital poster.
The small selection of posters being exhibited in the V&A’s rooms, curated by Catherine Flood, is carefully labelled as a ‘display’—this can perhaps be an anticipation of the more ambitious exhibition Disobedient Objects (2014). Being trapped between necklaces, rings, paintings and large glass cabinets probably didn’t allow the curators to explore exhibition design that promoted a more meaningful immersion in the work being exhibited. Instead, this display appears to seek to provide space for graphic design to have exposure to the museum’s broad audience, along with work from all the other disciplines represented in the V&A. This is something that could and should happen more often.
A World to Win is divided into nine categories, signalled by dark grey captions along the walls: 1) Smashing the System; 2) New Dawns; 3) Ongoing Revolution; 4) All Power to the People; 5) Subvertising;[sc:sidenote side=”right” ]1Our World is Not for Sale, Noel Douglas for Globalise Resistance, 2001. https://modesofcriticism.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/IMG_1272-318x477.jpg 318w" sizes="(max-width: 600px) 100vw, 600px" /> 6) No!; 7) Bearing Witness; 8) Print it Yourself and finally, 9) Digital Dissent. This categorisation doesn’t question nor confronts lineages, evolutions and even point failures, problems or shortfalls of the posters. The printmaker Aida Wild’s poster using the fashion designer John Galliano’s quote “there’s a credit crunch, not a creative crunch,” (2011) apparently encourages artists to “overcome the negative impact of the recent recession.” Such vague statement is unchallenged and the poster’s achievement taken for granted. Likewise, Anthony Burrill’s famous poster Oil & Water Do Not Mix (2010), crafted in his traditional style seems misplaced, and is perhaps representative of what can be described as decorative activism. This issue has been previously debated, for example, by design educator David Stairs in Arguing with Success (2009) and more recently in Help (2011). These posters serve, however, to raise an important question: what’s the difference between protest, revolution, activism, propaganda and aid?
This was left unexplored, and therefore important work by designers and studios using graphic design (and specifically posters) to investigate, question and debate political issues and conflicts around the world was absent from this exhibition. A clarification of this terminology could have had an important impact on the works selected and the way they were organised.
Web posters have a discrete but important presence on a screen in the corner of the second room, displaying work that engages with very recent or ongoing conflicts. The patronising, infamous Tory Bingo web poster released on Twitter by the Conservative Party through its chairman, MP Grant Shapps—along with several variations—can be seen on a fast slideshow. Other works include the visual representations of the military police abuse in Egypt based on a photograph that became powerfully iconic and posters from the conflict in Ukraine, with the hashtag #Euromaidan.
In times of political crisis and of much needed revolutions, design and specifically the poster can still play a relevant role despite its much-debated demise. That is why exhibitions, even ‘displays,’ like this have an added responsibility towards the discipline and the public. They can serve as an opportunity and venue to debate and reflect on method, impact and achievement, not just good intentions. This can minimise the inevitable commodification of the protest poster in environments like the V&A galleries—not by conservatively distancing itself from politics but by being openly political.
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