Paper or digital, political posters matter as much as ever

“Print is not dead!” Lincoln Cushing exclaims. And digital is not always the ideal alternative – with social media algorithms set up to silo people into comfortable bubbles, these posters might not travel to unlikely audiences.

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SOURCEIndependent Media Institute
Folded poster inside Tricontinental Magazine issue, La Guinee Guinea (1969), by Olivio Martínez, OSPAAAL. Courtesy of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

There has always been a war on printed posters on the streets of urban areas. From Los Angeles to Delhi, putting posters on private property is a crime. This week, over 3 million political posters were removed from the streets of Delhi in accordance with orders from the election commission. (This removal order, however, has no authority in digital space.) In the aftermath of general elections in Thailand last month, as a measure to reduce trash, designer Panupong Chansopa decided to recycle political posters by turning them into tote bags.

Political posters have a long and global history; this mode of communicating is certainly not going anywhere, but it is being reworked with digital technologies.

In the United States, before Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster from the 2008 presidential election, there was an 1863 poster of Andrew Jackson – it was his portrait and it said: “Protector and Defender of Beauty and Booty.” It was painted by J. Wood and engraved on steel by C.G. Childs in Philadelphia. Now you can see its digitized version on the Library of Congress’ website.

In the Lebanese civil war, political posters flooded the streets from 1975 to 1990. The posters changed as the war continued, and the encoded messages in the posters, over time, gave a more well-developed understanding of the internal conflicts. Many of these posters – the ones that were collected – have been catalogued into a digital exhibit for anyone to see.

The Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) is known for its posters. Since the 1950s, OSPAAAL has produced hundreds of posters that were shared internationally. Each poster is in its own way an expression of anti-capitalism or advocating for anti-imperial and socialist causes in the developing world.

Unlike many political posters that were posted in the streets with wheat paste – a direct action technique for communicating locally – the charm of the OSPAAAL posters was how they were shared: tucked into their magazine.

In Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research’s April 2019 dossier – “The Art of the Revolution Will Be Internationalist” – the experience of unfolding a poster when flipping through the magazine is deeply explored. Now, OSPAAAL posters circulate on the internet and often without the context of the magazines. And, as stated in “The Art of the Revolution Will Be Internationalist,” the choice to remove the posters from their magazine homes was not always easy, but giving them over to the archive seemed necessary.

The digital archiving, exhibitions, and sharing of posters from a pre-digital age certainly contribute to the medium’s goal for wide distribution. But circulation and distribution are not the only reasons for digitizing these images. There is also the need for preservation, research, and supporting a continuity in social justice media.

Lincoln Cushing, author of Revolucion!: Cuban Poster Art (2003), archivist, artist, and founder of Docs Populi – a collection of materials on political causes and themes for open access – was the first person to digitize OSPAAAL posters.

I had a conversation with Cushing about his theory and method for digitally preserving posters. Just as with wheatpasting or folding posters, digitizing posters requires labor – specifically, the transportation of the images into a digital space. For Cushing, the digitization of the posters began as part of an academic endeavor in the 1990s. The goal in sharing OSPAAAL posters digitally was to promote the research of the posters. Moreover, Cushing firmly believes that “once digitized, these posters moved into the next generation of social justice media.”

Beyond this basic utility of digitizing social justice posters, he also notes that “sharing high-resolution digital images within the noncommercial movement community for books, articles, and documentary videos greatly enhanced their presence as graphic testimony.”

One of OSPAAAL’s most popular images, Day of the Heroic Guerrilla, was made in 1968 to commemorate the anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. It was created by Elena Serrano, who – alongside Berta Abelenda, Estela Diaz, Clara Garcia, Daysi Garcia, Jane Norling, and Asela Perez – was just one of the women graphic designers creating for OSPAAAL.

Her poster is vibrant. A graphic of Che’s face shadowed in red radiates from the center of the poster. And the poster’s message is straightforward. It says: the effect of Che’s death has reached far beyond Bolivia, and his words are still echoing. In a broader sense, the image communicates the anti-colonial position that the struggle against imperial rule cannot be silenced. And Serrano’s graphics also seem ready made to succeed on the internet.

A digital sharing of OSPAAAL posters has significant meaning and potential for the movement itself. The hypersharing of Day of the Heroic Guerrilla is to some extent an ideal outcome of Elena Serrano’s poster, as well as the other several hundred OSPAAAL posters that have been archived alongside it. These posters were created decades ago with the intent of wide and international distribution. Political posters usually live outside the realm of a single original enthroned in a museum. The more a poster is replicated, the more effective it becomes in its art form.

But the never-ending shares on the internet are in no way a replacement for local organizing needs, even if the posters end up in the trash (hopefully we see more creative recycling projects following Panupong Chansopa’s environmentally sound concept). Folded into a magazine or wheat-pasted alongside our busiest streets, political posters can be a gift of solidarity.

“Print is not dead!” Lincoln Cushing exclaims. And digital is not always the ideal alternative – with social media algorithms set up to silo people into comfortable bubbles, these posters might not travel to unlikely audiences. According to Cushing, “contemporary graphic activist artists have found that under certain circumstances, prints are better than digital media alone.”

If that is the case, then we will continue to need both: political posters in both digital and printed formats. Sharing these posters in WhatsApp groups, tucked into magazines or newsletters, and through guerrilla poster campaigns are all equally necessary. For every image or graphic created by the left that gives visualization to dissent, there are hundreds more representations of the capitalist aesthetic. So both print and digital posters are needed in moving forward, and hopefully a continuity can be established – not for the sake of tradition, but for recognizability.

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