From the Black Panthers and LGBTQ+ movement, to the Summer of Love and punk music, counterculture has long defined the Bay Area — and posters, buttons, zines and newspapers have always been a means for disseminating these progressive and dissenting ideologies. Protest art, from the Bay Area and beyond, is the focus of “Strikethrough! Typographic Messages of Protest,” a new exhibition at Letterform Archive, featuring over 100 pieces of design ephemera from the Archive’s collection, as well as loans from the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and other institutions.
The exhibition extends as far back as an 1838 American Anti-Slavery Society broadsheet and as recently as protest posters screen-printed in the Bay Area in 2020. The breadth of communities and countries represented in the show reveals unrest as a global phenomenon, as well as an historical one, but a substantial amount of the work comes from the local movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. That isn’t because the Archive focuses its collecting efforts locally, but is rather a testament to the extent of the Bay Area’s revolutionary political history.
Posters and covers for the Black Panther newspaper designed by Emory Douglas, former minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, shine for their graphic, illustrative quality and as an example of the disseminated nature of protest graphics. Unattributed designs from the Berkeley Political Poster Workshop also fit this bill. In one, a vibrant illustration of an emaciated child with the large statement “hunger is violence” stands out starkly on a sheet of repurposed dot-matrix paper. A woodblock print made by a 14-year-old member of the indigenous peoples’ occupation of Alcatraz reads, “This is my land” above a carving of the island prison, and “all of it” underneath, accompanied by a silhouette of the United States.
These are artworks with a sense of urgency, meant to be handed out and passed around, not given the precious treatment of other art objects. The lack of a known or singular auteur, in many cases, highlights the collaborative and decentralized nature important to protest movements. The scrappiness of the materials conveys their imperative. The only thing lost in the translation to the gallery space is the context of the movements themselves. But, to borrow a contemporary colloquialism, there’s an app for that.
Mariah is an augmented reality app created by artists Adam DelMarcelle and Heather Snyder Quinn. Apps like this have been cropping up a lot in the art world lately, to hokey results: Aim your phone camera at an empty pedestal and a moving sculpture appears in virtual space. Mariah is a welcome exception. The original version was itself a subversive, typographic intervention, augmenting visitors’ experience of Egyptian antiquities in the Sackler Wing of the Met with text about the Sackler family’s ties to the opioid epidemic.
Here, Mariah offers a field trip opportunity: Visit various locations in the Bay Area, aim with your camera and reveal information about significant protests and political movements connected to those places. Sites include the Golden Gate Bridge, Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley and Alcatraz, among others.
Stopping at a few of the locations on my trip home from the gallery (the app provides a guide), I noticed just how quiet the streets were, while many of the issues Mariah informed me about are by no means happily resolved. Protest is a reactionary medium, a rejection of the present and a proposal for the future — and examining it under glass, while inspiring, risks stultifying progress by placing too much emphasis on the past tense. The history of these movements is valuable, but particularly so for how we use it to encourage and inform further actions.