The Visual Language of a Resistance
How to visualize dissent? At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, down the hall from fine China and ornate 17th Century textiles, the doors were opened for an exhibit devoted to this very question—and its still-evolving answer. The recently-wrapped exhibit, called Disobedient Objects, explored the dynamic relationship between protest and design.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously expressed that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” In an environment where reasonable grievances are not addressed, nor given recourse to find resolution, protests are a natural extension of our need, as humans, to be heard. After all, we are highly expressive beings.
As humans who are also designers, we’re feeling newly fascinated--thanks to our current political climate--by the actual language of protests, and wanted to dive deeper into the visual history of resistance. Beyond the riots or protests of a resistance movement, what does this language of resistance look and sound like?
Protest, Then—Movements of the 1960s
Taken as a case study, the 1960s is one of the most transformative periods of American history due to the widespread social justice movements taking shape. The Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Vietnam War Movement, Women’s Rights Movement, Gay Rights Movement—at the time, called Gay Liberation—each contributed to a period of massive upheaval in American history. It also laid the groundwork for how still today we protest, organize, and express dissent. Throughout the late 50s and throughout the 1960s, students, community organizers, politicians—plenty of ordinary Americans, too—rose up around these issues, taking to the streets and participating in marches, boycotts, rallies, and demonstrations.
Of course, the visual language of these movements vary just as widely as did their missions and key players and champions. Still, we see recurring aesthetic threads that characterize the period. In color choice, bold, primary hues with high contrast – reds, blacks, and whites – are present in many of these examples. Protest posters of the time also draw on iconic imagery and language associated with Americana, appropriating the American flag, the likeness of Uncle Sam, and slogans of the day, cutting, collaging, and remixing them to serve a new purpose.
Effective protest comes from an ability to subvert norms and question mainstream discourses—in other words, to disrupt. It follows then that protest artwork lives in this space of subversion, appropriation, even mockery. The visual language of protest seeks to throw into sharp relief and question the behaviors, systems, and patterns of what we as a society accept and promote.
Protest, Now—The Women’s March, 2017
Fast forward to today and we find ourselves in the midst of some very, very rocky times. Just one day after the inauguration of the 45th President, a reported 4.2 million people joined the now-historic Women’s Marches across 600 cities throughout the United States. It was the largest day of demonstrations in the history of the country. Other formidable protests followed in response to the executive order on immigration, while many others are in the works (the March for Science, slotted for April 22, a.k.a Earth Day, calls to support and safeguard the scientific community seen as under threat).
“A sea of pink” is one of the most common descriptors of the day, referring to not only the irreverent knit hats worn by marchers, but the overall color of the demonstrations. In the works for several months, there was certainly a reigning aesthetic to the marches. Artists of every ilk were invited to design posters for free downloads while others took it upon themselves to disseminate their own creations to their communities (artist Shepard Fairey, known for the designing the iconic Barack Obama “Hope” poster, was giving away a range of posters at his Echo Park studio). There was even a line of official Women’s March merch.
Just as the protest language of the 60s drew from iconic Americana, so too did the Women’s March draw from our canon of pop culture. Mined from the existing repertoire of imagery and symbolism was Barbara Kruger’s resolute and strident art, for example, Princess Leia—General Leia Organa, rather—and the Star Wars Rebel Alliance, even a mashup of the two.
A peaceful day of protesting – not a single arrest was made (especially incredible considering the scale) – the tone of the Women’s Marches was notably upbeat and surprisingly bright. It was also oftentimes miraculously comedic, with an irresistibly inspiring helping of tenacity, against-all-odds hope, and ready-for-this-moment vigilance. It’s a mashup of emotions that says so much about this particular moment in history. The incredible variety of messages and moods reveal the ingenuity of the voices speaking out.
As the marches began winding down, signs peppered the streets of host cities, propped up against buildings and mounted on fences, left for all to see. The image of these signs lingers—signs demanding equality, rebuking sexual assault, welcoming love, defending the lives of African Americans, the homes of at-risk immigrants, and the rights of LGBTQ individuals and women everywhere. Visual analysis helps us understand a movement’s aims, identity, and overall strategy. In the case of the Women’s Marches, while the protest may have lead with pink, there were countless other passions galvanizing the crowds to come out. In Los Angeles, the visual language of other timely movements, such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights, certainly had a notable presence. It is, however, important to note that the mix of representation certainly varied from city to city–Some have suggested that this presence was lacking.
Whether it’s is a comfort or an alarm, human history is filled with cycles of uncertainty and discord—of change and transformation. It’s what (with great effort, courage, and also sacrifice, usually) propels history forward, even if while we’re in the thick of it things feels quite ready to fall to pieces. May we continue to use our voices and unleash our creative vision to fight for what’s right.
Editor’s note: For the sake of this brief essay, we chose to study the Women’s March as a case study of modern resistance. Lingo Blog acknowledges other hugely important and timely activist movements, such as Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ movement, which have also made their voices heard on national and international stages. Seeking to highlight, and ultimately dismantle, systemic racism and ongoing social injustice, these movements are part and parcel with our hopes and objectives for the present and future.