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From Punk to Proudhon?

August 7, 2008

Jared Davidson of the New Zealand-based Garage Collective has posted a follow-up essay to his earlier piece we blogged about here: “This Is Not A Manifesto —Towards An Alternative Design Practice.” Here is the full text of his new piece, “From Punk to Proudhon?”:
I never wanted to be a graphic designer. At least not in the traditional sense — the faceless middle-man servicing the corporate body was something I didn’t want to be. And when that’s often the only direction encouraged within the design world, it becomes increasingly hard to find and explore alternatives, let alone sustainable ones.
Inspired by one part ego, one part punk, and a good dash of ‘politics’, my alternative to the overly commercial realm of graphic design ended up as ‘Garage Collective’ — the banner under which my design and screenprint output has come to be known. Over time, Garage Collective has had a number of projects and sometimes confused directions — from local and international band’s gigposters, grassroots political campaigns, features in a few exhibitions (as well as one of my own), numerous zines and writings (This Is Not A Manifesto — Towards An Alternative Design Practice), and my own personal screenprinted projects. It’s these personal projects that have encouraged me to re-think, not only my own practice, but Garage Collective itself — it’s current position and the possibility of other creative directions. The following text is the manifestation of that re-think.


Garage Collective was set up in my garage in Christchurch, New Zealand around August 2007, with the explicit intention of avoiding the design industry and all that it encompasses — advertising, profitability, marketing, consumption, and ultimately, the advancement of our current exploitative and illogical system — Capitalism. By setting myself up independent of this mainstream conception of design, I have been lucky
enough to participate in projects which, in my mind, have been far more worthwhile and productive than encouraging profit margins, consumer culture, and an elitist design minority.
Whole-heartedly subscribing to the punk ethic of Do-It-Yourself, my dad and I built most of the equipment required to screenprint from scratch — a lightbox for exposure, the vacuum table — both crafted from some basic internet plans and a few trips to the hardware store. And while I knew I wanted to focus on the medium of screenprinting as
a way of merging my interest in punk and design into screenprinted gigposters — my knowledge of screenprinting was basic at best. The best way to learn is by doing, so my skills as a rather lo-fi printer grew as I dived head first into production.
For me, gigposters are chronologically linked to the community notice board of old, as well as those decadent Victorian broadsheets packed with oxymoron’s, chaotic type, and more often than not, a slightly warped sense of humour. They both spoke to a particular audience, and in the case of gigposters, not much has changed. The visual language of a subculture — gigposters often convey, through particular imagery
and aesthetics, a set of codes meant only for those in the know. This idea of communication between like-minded individuals, bands, and other screenprinters and poster makers inspired the name ‘Garage Collective’. Although not a literal collective, for me it has come to mean a loose gathering of shared ideas and ideals, of both the people I’ve physically worked with, as well as the people I get to share my visual interpretations with on the street and at the shows.
So, the initial phase of my practice was to design and print unique,
hand crafted posters from my garage — gigposters, political posters —
anything that was not intended to profit off the backs of others. No
design firms, no major label bands, no advertising. To exist in this
fashion, completely independent of the design industry, was in my
mind, a political feat.

For close to two years this idea of independent and alternative
printing has sustained Garage Collective and my individual practice.
However, a growing interest in community and workplace struggle, and
the ideas of non-hierarchal, direct action politics has meant I’m
revaluating the direction of Garage Collective. My interest in band
posters has dwindled, towards a greater interest in the role cultural
and graphic work can play in political agitation and radical,
collective struggle for social justice — as well as a more tangible
political stance for Garage Collective, rather than simply existing
independent of the design industry. This hasn’t been a sudden shift in
thinking — political and social causes were always on the agenda, as
well as a visual sensibility that is (hopefully) more though-provoking
than your typical band poster. Rather, it is a shift in priorities,
with emphasis on the political winning out over the musical.
‘Political’ is a rather ambiguous term, one that can cover the
spectrum of elections, political parties and parliamentary democracy
to stencil art and sidewalk graffiti. The definition of political work
I lean towards is what some may consider a-political — that is to say,
completely devoid of parliamentary politics, with an emphasis on
community building, self-determination, empowerment, economic
emancipation, and most importantly, class awareness via cultural
production. Sound like a mouthful? That’s because it is, and comes
with a number of issues that, as a creative person educated on the
unfailable idea of artistic individualism and a bourgeois concept of
‘insistence on form and knowledge of form’ — can be rather
problematic.

Subcultures, like elitism, are often extremely exclusive.
Unfortunately, large aspects of design, art, and even activism can be
rightly regarded as exclusive in their own ways — the uber
fashionable, money-driven design culture, or the alienating, dogmatic
‘know-it-all’ vangaurdism of activism. Thus a problem arises — how do
I, as an individual ‘designer’ interested in making socially concerned
work, do so in a way that is inclusive, worthwhile, and ultimately
empowering — not just for myself, but for those around me? When
society places such an emphasis on the ‘individual genius’ of the
artist and their final output, rather than their social commitment, it
makes it rather hard for those completely disenfranchised by this
understanding of artistic work to construct alternatives, completely
free of the established connotations.
More than ever, I am finding that I am no longer concerned with the
visual language of subcultures, whether it be musical (gigposters) or
cultural (design) — but with building sustainable relationships and
decentralised, social organisation with communities and everyday
working people — in short, a wider and more inclusive demographic.
Again, problems arise — what gives me the right, as a somewhat
privileged, white, ‘middle class’, university educated designer, to
seek out and interpret those communities through my creative practice?
Is this kind of cultural approach even valid when compared with the
various forms of drudgery forced upon us from every angle — that being
social, economic, and political? Would my energies be better served
somewhere else, in an entirely different form? These realities of
everyday, working life strongly influence my thinking — whether it be
artistic or not — and figure with a lot more clarity than they had
previously.
Ultimately, cultural production is the most direct means available to
me at this point, and as such, seem to be the most logical way to
approach the vices of everyday life — vices which are not only
perpetuated by social, economic, and political means, but increasingly
cultural as well.

Cultural production, such as print and electronic media, plays an
integral role in the current way of life. It is the means by which a
monopoly of content and control by a few over the rest of us is kept
in check. Consumption, and the spectacle of consumption, contribute to
the alienation and social poverty we currently experience. “The powers
that be are no dummies: they know that power largely rests on the
unfettered spread of emotion, on illusions of success, symbols of
strength, orders to consume, and elegies to violence” (Eduardo Galeano
in “Upside Down”). Mass culture not only encourages us to buy and
sell, it actively maintains the necessary prejudices and stereotypes
that keep division, isolation and fear prominent in our class-based
society.
Design is a conscious proponent of this hegemonic process, and an
affluent one at that. That is why it is increasingly important to
create alternative cultural perspectives or values, and illustrate the
points of views based in reality that have been long silenced by the
establishment — values that resonate with the majority of working
people, rather than those of the folks selling it to us. And not just
to create or romanticise these values on behalf of the ‘low income’
census statistics — but to empower and create awareness within, and
amongst communities — of the effectiveness of class consciousness and
direct, collective action towards social change.

Increasingly, I’m coming to realise that to do this, images are not enough. Like individual acts of dissidence — on their own they may educate, encourage or enrage — but unless they are linked with some aspect of wider struggle, they become obsolete.
So, the direction a socially concerned design practitioner could take becomes two-fold — cultural production that questions the dominant values and constructions of today, which in doing so, explores alternate possibilities — without alienating people and without their ideas becoming watered down in the process. Also, a practice that could deconstruct the privilege of the individual ‘artist’ while grounding their work in the realities of everyday life — in our communities and in the workplace. Whether this takes form as a co-operative print shop, art and screenprint workshops, community art or poster projects, or something else entirely — is something that I feel really excited (and challenged) to explore.
Thankfully, these ideas are not located in a void. Print collectives such as the Justseeds Visual Resistance Artists’ Co-Operative, designers and websites such as those found in the Groundswell Collective, various exhibitions and community projects such as the Peoples History Project, Street Art Workers, and Paper Politics, as well as designers and artists (both home and abroad) — all are beginning to counter the webs of hegemony and control with their own communal and egalitarian forms of artistic solidarity — between practitioners and people, between creativity and community.
Alternatives to the mainstream conception of art and design do exist. It’s just a matter of creating them ourselves.

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