Laying Bricks to Build Social Change: An Interview with Favianna Rodriguez and Josh MacPhee

q: and babies? a: and babies

if vietnam were now what would you see?

media has become a branch of the war effort

united we stand on the rest of the world

solidarity

welcome not welcome

drawing

reclaim your self

come enjoy the mission

visualize tax reform

steal the poor, feed them to the rich

los campesinos del mundo

globalization as gatorade symbol

 

Favianna Rodriguez and Josh MacPhee don’t want you to curl
up on your sofa and quietly flip through their new compendium of
political graphics, Reproduce & Revolt (Soft Skull
Press, 2008)--they want you to tear out the pages, scan images,
distribute their guide for designing political graphics to everyone
you know, use any image you want in the book to create flyers, graffiti,
bumper stickers and more. They want you to do just what the title
demands.

Reproduce & Revolt highlights how artists worldwide
are responding to the critical issues of our time. Featuring the
works of artists from more than a dozen countries, the book is an
offering to activist artists and organizations alike, complete with
a primer that explains how to utilize images to improve the effectiveness
of campaigns. What’s more, all of the images of “copyleft,”
meaning you can copy them over and over again.

Rodriguez and MacPhee, both social artists themselves, were inspired
to create the book out of an urge to update the library of images
upon which activists draw. Rodriguez has created vibrant illustrations
against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as works to support
immigrant and women’s rights, affirmative action and youth
activism. MacPhee, a member of the political art collective Justseeds.org,
focuses his work around the themes of radical politics, privatization
and public space.

Both took the time to speak with Alexandra Tursi about their new
book and social art then and now.

Alexandra Tursi: What inspired you to create Reproduce
& Revolt
, and how did you come together to create it?

Favianna Rodriguez: There was an artist’s
call in circulation, and I thought it was really important for a
woman of color to be involved and to make it reach multilingual
communities. I reached out to Josh, who I know from other political
activist work, and suggested collaboration and he was open to it.
At the time, the artist’s call was translated and shared among
parts of Mexico and Latin America. I noticed that when the translation
happened there was an exponential increase in the visibility of
the project and circulation online, especially among non-English-speaking
communities.

Josh MacPhee: Inspiration came from the feeling
that there was a desperate need for something like this. The majority
of graphics that have been circulating in left circles--flyers and
posters and things--were images that had been recycled from the
70s and 80s and were continually being reused. Some of them are
amazing and great graphics, but the times have changed and the issues
we’re dealing with have evolved. A new injection of visual
ideas is necessary for activists, artists and designers to directly
use to create. If we’re able to share a little bit of our
knowledge of basic design and experience with graphics so more people
have access to it, then hopefully we can help improve people’s
ability to reach out to one another.

AT: What do you consider the key part of social art?

JM: Ultimately, what makes all art effective is
its ability to communicate. I think for social art the key
is effectively communicating about the social issue being addressed.
So it’s about people receiving the information in a way that
gives them insight or understanding into what it is you’re
communicating.

FR: I think the key part of social art that it’s
not so much profit-driven, but driven by getting people active,
inspired and mobilized. The intention and objective is very different
from selling a product. There is no manipulation of the user/viewer,
but rather education of the viewer/user.

Because we’re in the context in which our messages are not
visible enough, because you’re dealing with communities that
are oppressed, or issues that are being misrepresented, we have
to talk about those issues in a different context than most of mass
media does. There are a lot of political decisions made about how
to represent an issue and what message to focus on. There are decisions
around education and exposure and concerns about depicting people
so that it’s responsible, accurate and relevant.

AT: What are the images that stand the test of time? What
themes occur again and again?

FR: The issues of labor and labor rights keep
coming up, the rights of workers to organize and to fight for equal
pay and health care--sadly, it’s one that keeps coming up.
Another is women’s issues, and we’re also now dealing
with LGBT issues. The other timeless images are around resistance--the
fist, the rally, the people marching with signs.

AT: What are some of the newer, contemporary issues we
are seeing social artists creating images about?

FR: One of the major issues is the growth and
power of multinational corporations and their role in everything
from destroying the environment to privatizing prisons to controlling
the media to funding the war in Iraq. That’s a major new issue
I see intersecting all areas of social art.

There is also the militarization of the border and immigration.
A lot of the work in the book also deals with gender and sexuality.
There’s also an image in there that deals with trans-sexuality.
One image in the book says, “Fuck Gender Roles.”

We also see a greater consciousness around what we eat and the
food activism movement – the fight for clean food, the push
to eat locally. It’s interesting, because in the past food
activism was very much centered on farm workers; the frame wasn’t
around eating local, it was more around labor rights.

What’s apparent is that there is a huge intersection of issues.
As an activist in the 21st century you can no longer be in your
activist silo. I’m dealing with immigrants, labor, race, the
world economy, WPO, IMF, WTO, free trade, and sweatshops.

AT: What are the biggest changes we’ve seen in social
art over the last 30 years?

JM: I think that the biggest change in the '70s
and '80s was technology-driven. With the placement of the photocopy
machine in every office, school and library, basically anyone who
had access to a copy machine had access to his own printing press.
In the late '70s and '80s, you had an explosion of black and white
political graphics because tens of thousands of more people had
access to being able to freely or inexpensively reproduce their
ideas. Now we have the Internet, which has taken that to another
level.

We now have access to technology that allows us to easily and inexpensively
distribute images around the world. What that has led to is people
taking and evolving images and ideas nearly instantaneously. An
artist in Buenos Aires will create a stencil against the war and
put it up on the street – within twenty-four hours a photo
of that is put up on the Internet and someone in Europe pulls it
down and makes her own version of it and prints it on a flyer and
sends it to a friend in another country and she takes it out and
does something else with it. People are making the graphics just
like they were a hundred years ago, but now they have the tools
to shoot them halfway across the world in an instant.

AT: What criteria did you use to select the images for
this book?

FR: It was really important that we had a fair
representation of diversity in the book. We were looking for artwork
that not only showed a diversity of issues, but a diversity of language.
We wanted to have artists from different countries so that it wasn’t
American-centered. The decision was not only on great art but on
also doing something that, politically, was a diverse representation
of the activist world.

JM: Usefulness was the key component. Could we
envision someone picking up the book, putting that image on a copy
machine and then using it to campaign? There was really good art
by some fairly well known artists that we didn’t include because
we didn’t think people would use it. There is really great
art that doesn’t really translate as a political graphic;
it speaks on other levels. There is a lot of stuff in here that
is very effective as a political graphic, but would not be considered
“great art” by most people. We tried to think about
usefulness and communication--what would speak to broad activist
and organizer audiences so that there would be something for everyone
to be able to use.

AT: In the book, you mention that large corporations have
the luxury of money to spread their messages through myriad means,
billboards to cell phones and beyond. How can the images and messages
contained in this book move beyond paper? What do you hope people
do with this book?

JM: In all likelihood, in the immediate future
we won’t have access to the same budget and resources. We
hope by taking and collecting these images and putting them into
the public domain in a form that is accessible to people, and we’re
currently working on getting a website up where these images and
more will be available for people to download, we create another
access point. The more people use them, the more visual material
that we can put out that is intelligent and speaks to the issues
and provides an alternative to the way those issues are presented
in the mainstream media. We see this as one brick in a large building
that needs to be built.

The book and the website serve as a toolkit for people to access
this whole community of artists and also play a role in convincing
organizations, community and activist groups that the way they present
themselves--cultural and visual presentation--is very important.
It’s not just artists on their own trying to combat the media
landscape, you need a whole network of organizations thinking about
the visual realm of the work that they do. This is just as important
as the other parts of the work that they do. I think that this can
help confront the dominant and mainstream visual landscape.

AT: In the book, you say that we live “in a world
increasingly obsessed with private property and intellectual property
rights.” How does the type of art you’re demanding combat
this?

JM: There’s a debate raging about intellectual
property, and I think it’s going to become a much louder debate
among people who consider themselves artists. I feel that creativity
is a collective process and that in art, just like any field, innovation
happens over periods of time in which there are lots of people adding
bits and pieces to the generation of ideas. What’s happened
is that there is a threat to that kind of collective idea generation
by the profit motive. The status quo demands that anytime anyone
comes up with something they think is slightly nifty, they immediately
privatize it so that nobody else can use it.

I know that the things I produce are the product of the interactions
with anyone I’ve ever communicated with and everything that
I’ve ever seen. There needs to be a greater acknowledgement
of that. The best ideas and the most effective things usually come
from our interactions with each other, it’s the way innovation
happens, how ideas rapidly and quickly grow. We want that to happen
in the visual realm.

One thing that distinguishes political graphics from traditional
fine art is a long history of recycling ideas. You see hundreds
of posters that use master artwork as a visual reference point to
get people to key into an idea. It’s an extremely vital, driving
and lively visual conversation. We think that this book will help
to protect and propel that and encourage more people to participate
in that.

Visit Favianna Rodriguez online at www.favianna.com;
visit Josh MacPhee online at www.justseeds.org.
Please also visit www.reproduceandrevolt.org.

Image Credits:
“Steal the Poor” Josh MacPhee; “United We Stand”
Alex Lilly; “Bullhorn” unknown; “Come Enjoy The
Mission” San Francisco Print Collective; “Gentrify Me”
San Francisco Print Collective; “Globalization” Mark
of the Beast; “Q. And Babies?” Art Workers’ Coalition;
“If Vietnam Were Now” Claude Moller; “Solidarity”
Kristine Virsis; “Welcome” Nicholas Lampert; “Farm
Workers of the World, Unite!” Favianna Rodriguez; “Reclaim
Yourself” Cristy Road; “The Flood” Icky A.; “Visualize
Tax Reform” San Francisco Print Collective

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