If the cap fits

Review of the Design Museum exhibition Hope to Nope: Graphics & Politics 2008-2018

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In his poem September 1, 1939 W.H. Auden found himself “Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade”.

His words, penned as Europe entered a conflict that over the next six years would drag the whole world to war, resonate in the uncertain atmosphere of our own era in which Brexit and the Trump presidency have shifted political and social consensus.

Whilst Wystan in his New York dive bar mooted that “accurate scholarship” might “unearth the whole offence”, the Design Museum looks to the graphic expression of dissent and protest in an effort to understand the tempestuous ten years from 2008 to 2018. Bookended by the respective ascensions to power of Obama and The Donald, the period covered offers the curators of Hope to Nope no shortage of material: the financial crisis and the Occupy movement; the Arab Spring; independence campaigns; environmental disasters; terrorist outrages; and three general elections in the UK alone all generated a range of creative responses in both material and digital cultures. Agile and responsive, the exhibition moves rapidly between causes and media in an effort to explore the interplay of politics, identity and (sub)culture in the modern world.

For all the light and height of the Design Museum’s new Kensington home, in this show we find ourselves, fittingly somehow, in a basement bunker of an exhibition gallery. The space works well, bringing a bustling urban feel to the experience as posters, video, digital installations and campaign ephemera compete for our attention and sympathy. It is to the curators’ credit that they have taken a truly global perspective even if that does, at moments, demand some mental agility of the visitor to jump from South America to Russia to North Africa to Wetherspoons in the space of a few artefacts. There is an enjoyable, if occasionally bewildering, eclecticism in seeing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ flag alongside graphics decrying sexual violence in India. The curators are at pains to present a global melange of causes united by a creative expression powered by anger and a desire for change.

Asked what he most feared as prime minister, Harold Macmillan famously (may have) replied ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ The quotation has been used since as a shorthand for the idea that in politics as in life, one incident can change everything. Hope to Nope shows a creditable keenness to stay absolutely up to date with events. During the exhibition’s press viewing one of the billboards (inspired by the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) challenging the government’s response to the Grenfell tower disaster was still being installed. However, events will also colour responses to some of the artefacts. The frenetic pace of current affairs is forever producing new champions and betes noires. For one, the Cambridge Analytica story has made us all more wary of social media platforms and how we view them as neutral facilitators for the sharing of information and opinion. Meanwhile, the Jeremy Corbyn as superhero comic books and the bootleg ‘Corbyn’ Nike swoosh T-shirt that seemed such merry japes in the early summer of 2017 feel somewhat tarnished by the stain of the Labour leader’s response to accusations of anti-Semitism within his party.

Although its sympathies do tend towards the causes championed by the left, the exhibition does acknowledge – in reference to pro-Brexit campaigns in the UK and the ‘alt-right’ movement in the US – that a broader spectrum of political opinion has turned the tools of protest to its advantage. Perhaps rather than thinking in terms of left/right political orientation, it makes more sense to approach the exhibition in the context of ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’ identity. Protest and dissent are of the outside – challenges to prevailing thought and the status quo – and as such cannot be confined to political wings. Outsider status has found expression in the anti-capitalist movements such as Occupy as much as in certain populist nationalist movements.

Elements of the pro-Brexit campaign, for example, courted ‘outsider’ status, positioning the movement in opposition to the massed ranks of international business, Westminster politicians, and ‘experts’ which collectively were cast as the architects of ‘Project Fear’. Likewise in America, one of the most powerful aspects of Trump’s presidential campaign – discussed in more detail later – was how it portrayed the millionaire real estate mogul as somehow anti-establishment, an antidote to the Washington ‘swamp’ which he was so keen to drain. One thing the exhibition proves is that no side of the political divide can now claim to have a monopoly on counterculture.

Placing politics to one side, the exhibition is at its strongest when it engages with questions of how the modern world has influenced the practice of protest, in particular the significance of digital communication technologies. Central to the layout of the show (organised around the themes of power, protest, and personality) is a video wall that cycles through footage of recent protests from around the world – South Africa, Catalonia, Brazil to mention a few – overlaid with hashtagged text. It’s a canny reminder of how technology has changed the shape of protest. The first generation iPhone was launched in 2007, just one year before Shepard Fairey created the stencil style Obama ‘Hope’ poster that was a defining image of his 2008 campaign and opens this exhibition. Social media (Twitter in particular), facilitated by the ubiquity of the smartphone, has created a platform through which the like-minded can rally around causes and rapidly share graphic ‘memes’ that react and comment on an event.

Has the pixel replaced the placard? Well, not entirely. There are a number of tablets throughout the exhibition on which visitors can browse digital work – one striking example being parodic takes on Soviet social realist style imagery protesting the oppression of the LGBT community in Russia. However, there is also a counter trend in evidence in the shape of the evolution of print ‘zine’ cultures. A table-top display shows fascinating examples of such material including The Occupied Times – a newspaper produced by the anti-capitalist protestors who ‘occupied’ St Paul’s, London in 2011 – and Strike, a radical political magazine published by a feminist collective. These publications are typified by expressive graphic design alongside typographic originality and are proof of material culture’s ongoing significance in an increasingly digital world.  

Furthermore, the traditional home-made protest sign is still very much in evidence. A collection of such items – recovered from the 2017 London women’s march, one of many organised in cities around the world to coincide with Trump’s inauguration – in fact illustrate an interplay between traditional and digital protest media. Activists spend time devising a cutting slogan or witty design often because social media has made us all aware of the power of sharing – a placard might not just be seen by fellow marchers but could ‘go viral’ and spread its message across nations through likes and retweets.

The contrast between the homemade and the corporate, the instant and the considered is another of the exhibition’s overarching themes. It’s an irony that an exhibition in a museum of design should posit that handmade, ad hoc, even ‘bad’ design can prove more effective than crisply executed, meticulously planned schemes by the industry’s leading professionals. The failure of ‘professional’ work to compete with ‘popular’ output reaches its apotheosis in Trump. The most recognisably ‘agency-produced’ scheme of graphic campaigning on display is the ‘H’ logo designed for Hillary Clinton’s doomed presidential bid by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut. We see sketch books and ideation as the H with its crossbar arrow took shape. I’m sure it all looked good on paper – the logo was concise, shareable, adaptable, repeatable, recognisable – but, ultimately, it failed. It’s as if the big beasts of the design world hadn’t seen the terrain shift away from intensely focussed-grouped, ‘designed’ (imagine those inverted commas as air quotes) identities to more organic expressions of belonging – the rough, the ready, the in-yer-face rather than of-the-mind.

What they were up against was a hat. To be precise, a red trucker cap with the words ‘Make America Great Again’ stitched in white thread across the front panel. We all know what we’re talking about: the MAGA hat became an icon of the Trump campaign. We find it here sealed in a Perspex cuboid on a plinth. Whilst I’m sure one motivation for this mode of display is defensive lest – perhaps inspired by the mood of the exhibition – someone should deface or despoil the artefact, there’s also something playful and significant going on. The hastily-conceived, mass-produced item is elevated to the status of great art; it’s a Saxon decorative helmet or the Mona Lisa, near-sacred items to be venerated, fetishized even. It’s perverse, but the MAGA hat is perhaps the most successful piece of design on display: instantly recognisable at rallies and on rolling news footage, the garment communicated its message beyond the legibility of the text itself, a signifier of both belonging and provocation.

Behind the hat is a wall of magazine covers – all carrying a version of Trump’s image – from publications around the world. The Donald’s distinctive features – the bouffant backcomb, the perma-tan, the puckered mouth – have proven irresistible to cartoonists and illustrators. Der Spiegel imagined him as a blazing meteor on path to consume the earth; Time envisaged his face as a wrecking ball; Adbusters cheekily re-positioned its cover barcode on Trump’s top lip as a Hitler moustache; and, perhaps most fittingly, the food magazine Tapas rendered Trump’s profile in baloney and bananas.  

We cannot escape Trump. Yet in playing the perfect antagonist he has proven a gift to practitioners of graphic dissent. To return to Auden’s poem, when he writes of the “ironic points of light” that “Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages” he touches on the power of graphic protest exemplified in this exhibition. Creating and sharing are acts of solidarity. The cartoon, the zine, the placard, the flag, the hashtag, and the meme – all can be expressions of Auden’s “affirming flame” that burns all the more brightly in gloomy times.