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Entries in politics (4)

Wednesday
Mar152017

Paul Peter Piech: political posters from 1968-1996

Paul Peter Piech, Racism Is a Poison, Remember Soweto. Linocut from the Regional Print Centre/Coleg Cambria Collection

If we are meant to be remembering Soweto, we are somewhere in the late 1970s, nearing the end of the handmade political poster: one could also be remembering Vietnam, remembering Nixon, remembering so many things that brought people out onto the streets in their hundreds of thousands: vigils in front of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square that continued for decades, Greenham Common, a massive 1980s women's encampment protesting the placing of Cruise missiles in the UK by the USA.  Far from being some sort of golden, simpler era where men were men and women were cross and the Cold War was frozen in an impasse, the 1960-80s era, ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the impending release of Mandela, was hot and full of social movement and where those who are considered the elites now, the educated, the left-leaning, the experts and the professionals, had a serious voice.

But that's a long time ago now; one looks at the political posters of Paul Peter Piech to measure just how emasculated the alleged elites are now.  This is why we look at the past, not through rose-tinted John Lennon glasses, but to measure where we are today and how we got here.  One thing we no longer have is the political poster: we have political tweets — 140 characters with all the economy of the linocut and two colours of ink. Both can be devastatingly direct and inciting. The poster is not a long form essay; rather it puts out visual memes coded with references: above, identity and stigmata, violence and gun barrels held by hands, pointed at other hands, letters laboriously carved out of linoleum by hand, run off a press by hand, hands bleeding. The hand as synecdoche for a long form message.  

Piech was an American posted to England during the war, married there and stayed.  Some of his work was recently shown at the Peoples History Museum in Manchester.  The exhibition was called Dedicated to all Defenders of Human Freedoms: The Art of Paul Peter Piech.  I feel as if I am in a time warp: evidently this sort of thing still goes on, this valorisation of the alternative voice, not here, but at least somewhere, such as Manchester. 

Piech's work is, by the by, quite beautiful.  He was working up to his death in 1996.  The 1995 poster below, The History of Jazz, still uses his laboriously-carved hand lettering.  The sheer amount of time it takes to cut a letter, to fit the word to the space, to make a capital C hold a smaller letter – the process itself allows time to think.  At the same time, to do a portrait as face and hands, the way that Sargent did a century before, cuts to the chase. The processes might be slow, but the message is quick and focussed. If there was ever a time that we needed fewer words dashed off hot-headedly on a phone by people who don't write particularly well, it is now.  In the incoherent and very confusing cloud of words that surround us, perhaps the processes by which alternative voices will emerge will be like the political poster of the 1970s: deliberate and slow.

Paul Peter Piech The history of jazz. Linocut 1995. From the Regional Print Centre/Coleg Cambria Collection

Tuesday
Mar222016

Nadia Myre: owning the Indian Act

From Art Mûr: Indian Act speaks of the realities of colonisation – the effects of contact, and its often-broken and untranslated contracts. The piece consists of all 56 pages of the Federal Government’s Indian Act mounted on stroud cloth and sewn over with red and white glass beads. Each word is replaced with white beads sewn into the document; the red beads replace the negative space.

Nadia Myre, Indian Act, 1999-2002. Glass beads, stroud cloth, thread and downloaded copies of the text of the Indian Act (chapters 1 to 5, comprising 56 pages) amended in 1985.

Handwork as a political act: each bead is threaded and strung, attached by the hands of hundreds of volunteers who worked on this project, each page calculated and beaded.  And under it, printouts of a downloadable version of the Indian Act, produced by computer and printer, infinitely replicable, which was, of course, its problem – its replicability in the minds of not just bureaucrats in Ottawa, but in every school system in the country, in every mind of every petty administrator, policeman and worthy.  Did any of them actually read the text, the way the artists beading over it must have?  The speed of reading, or scanning versus looking at every letter, every word, every loaded space between each word, each paragraph, choosing a red bead or a white one: this project was an intensely political process and act – truly an Indian act. 

Nadia Myre, Algonquin, intensely beautiful and significant work.

Monday
Mar162015

Resilient Cities

The introductory blurb about Resilient Cities outlines resilience in response to both climatological shock and systemic social problems.  Dandy.  I read on, I watch the videos – they are smooth, earnest, sophisticated; everyone dresses and speaks in the language of the boardroom.  Such groomed spokespeople.  

I find it something of a revelation to find that civic resilience is a project of 'partners from the private, public and NGO sectors'. It indicates that this is primarily an economic project that works on infrastructure and the delivery of services. This is big money. It gangs cities together to pool ideas and strategies: we can all learn from one another.  

There is not a small dose of TED-talk enthusiasm here: what can possibly be wrong with all of this?  Individuals shouldn't have to struggle on in isolation, always learning as they go, reinventing the wheel, cut off from advanced technological solutions; Resilient Cities is like a global think tank that all cities can access.  Forget culture and history, cities are machines that can be fixed.  Ultimately this is what it comes down to, these strategies for resilience. They are like strategies in war: always the same no matter who the antagonists, what the century, what the technology.

Two immediate questions: Vanuatu and Syria.  Aleppo, Damascus, Port Vila: not on the list of selected cities.  Montreal and Barcelona are however.  I think resilience is relative.  I worry when I am shown a diagram of what constitutes resilience.  Can't imagine that it is all so tidy and universal.  Shall think more about this.

Wednesday
Jun042014

Indian Candy 2

Dana Claxton. Contact billboard, 9th Avenue SE, Calgary. right: Tantanka (buffalo) 2013. Indian Candy in the process of disappearing. Real billboard images are clear, art is ambiguous; advertising is immediate, art prints itself on the mind and sits there the rest of the day as one tries to make sense of it.

Artefacts exist, but it is not necessary to 'see' them.  Claxton is interested in the image, not the artefact, and how the image has a life much more insidious and invasive that the material thing.  It makes one rethink the value of archives (all the originals) and their digitisation, free to use in a way the originals will never be.

Claxton's images in Indian Candy belong to an era before even my time, more like the 1920s-40s, the era of the Hollywood western.  We used to see them at the Capitol Theatre on Saturday mornings when I was a kid, and on Fun-o-Rama, a kid's late afternoon TV program from Seattle in the 1950s: endless reruns of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, the Three Stooges, lots of David Niven as a swashbuckler.  But even then the white hat/black hat/Indian chief thing was remote, disconnected to all the kids from the Esquimalt Reserve that went to our elementary school.  It never occurred to me that Donny Albany was an 'Indian'; it was something I learned much later, that he was the son of the Esquimalt band Chief. (old terminology, I know, but it was the 50s, sorry)

The power of Claxton's images is that they pinpoint an era and a process whereby the stereotypes were formed and then embedded in the American psyche via popular culture: the midway, movies, toys, games, TV.  During the long era of residential schools in both the US and Canada which were gutting the structures of North America's indigenous peoples, they were portrayed as dangerous, fearsome and inscrutable – a portrayal that was, and still is used on any group resisting assimilation.

Dana Claxton. Contact billboard, 9th Avenue SE, Calgary. Sitting Bull's signature, 2013Forgetting that this was our Contact billboard, I first thought it was something to do with the Stampede which starts its advertising about now.  However, violet is not a Stampede colour, nor is the dangerous allusion to difficult histories.  Clearly, if this is Sitting Bull's signature, he was taught to write in commercial script.  Is it shaky because someone else wrote it for the Wild West Show postcard and it seemed appropriate?  Another act of embedded 'weakness'? 

I don't think it is his signature.  You cannot trust documents.