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Power to the people: Signs of Change at the ACCR.

Blunt Images

By Nadine Wasserman

Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now

Arts Center of the Capital Region, through June 5

American folksinger Pete Seeger celebrates his 90th birthday this year. Over his lifetime he has been a committed activist who believes that “the world is going to be saved by millions of small things.” By this he means that the small actions that average people take will transform the social and political landscape.

The exhibition Signs of Change celebrates such actions by presenting protest art produced by grassroots social movements, both in the United States and around the world. Included are posters, photographs, prints, and electronic media created to support and/or document activist causes.

Historically, the graphic arts have been a key component of social protest and political movements. Some images have so affected the political landscape that they are instantly recognizable, such as the Uncle Sam recruitment poster or, more recently, Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster. But this exhibition is not so much interested in mass movements as it is in chronicling more grassroots, anti- authoritarian and non-traditional social and political movements.

The exhibition, which was produced by Exit Art as part of its Curatorial Incubator Program, is divided into seven sections, each with a different heading. Posters and photographs are hung salon style with small banners separating sections. There is a lot of material here but, unlike the sprawling and seemingly endless display that was at Exit Art, this presentation is more focused and easier to digest. While the smaller space has forced some necessary editing, there are some unfortunate drawbacks. For instance, there is no room to display the posters from Kein Mensch ist Illegal side-by-side, and the amazing banners from the Indonesian collective Taring Padi are barely noticeable in a window alcove just outside the gallery. But despite its awkward presentation, the exhibition is an interesting mix of aesthetics and pedagogy.

Under each heading there are both familiar campaigns and more obscure ones. Some of the images are more iconic than others, such as the Silence = Death poster with the floating pink triangle on a black ground that was so prevalent during the height of AIDS activism. Other posters are less recognizable. Under the heading Let it All Hang Out, for instance, there are specific references to counter-cultures that would probably only be recognized locally, such as the San Francisco Diggers, an anarchist group from the 1960s. But most of the headings include movements that were higher profile. Struggle for the Land encompasses the American Indian Movement, Independence for Northern Ireland, and the First Intifada. Agitate! Educate! Organize! has a section that shows posters and photographs from the 2006 Oaxaca uprising. All Forward to People’s Power presents posters from the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement. Freedom and Independence Now includes anti-apartheid posters. Globalization From Below shows examples from the anti-globalization movements. And Reclaim the Commons has anti-nuclear posters. The mix of well known and less recognizable movements demonstrates the extent of activism that has taken place, and continues to take place, over the last several decades on a global scale.

Since most protest art is made to be displayed in the streets and not in the rarefied space of an art gallery, it is difficult here to experience their full effect. However, the organizers have provided video and an audio collage to animate the objects. The audio collage includes the voices of such notable activists as Fannie Lou Hammer, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Cesar Chavez; the videos include items such as excerpts from a women’s liberation march, a documentary about the Black Panthers, and recent footage of street theater performed by the Iraq Veterans Against the War at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Signs of Change celebrates protest and dissent as agents of progressive political and social transformation. It shows how small actions can grow into mass movements and how the use of powerful and creative imagery is central to any cause.

Several decades after Pete Seeger’s version of “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem for the civil rights movement, we have an African-American president. The women’s liberation movement has brought us closer to gender equity; the gay liberation movement has yielded the beginnings of legalized gay marriage; and the environmental movement has everyone talking about their carbon footprint. Progress, sure, but there is still plenty of work to do.

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