In 2003, I took to the road and drove around the Northeast and Midwest United States and interviewed about 2 dozen radical artists about their work. I posted an edited section of the interview with Nicolas Lampert (one of our Justseeds members) about a year ago. So, here is the second installment…an interview with Josh MacPhee. Keep in mind that this is six years old, and as such, is dated. I will be posting others over time, so keep your eye out!
These interviews became a rough draft/sketch for the chapter I edited (“Subversive Multiples”) in Realizing the Impossible, edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Ruin and published by AK Press in 2007.
Josh MacPhee interviewed by Meredith Stern in 2003:
So what mediums do you work in and how long have you been working in these materials?
I work in a lot of materials in a range of mediums, from just drawing to a lot of types of printmaking. Historically my primary medium has been stenciling. I have also at different points done silk-screening and block prints. When I produce large numbers of things I have worked in offset and letterpress. My personal work tends to be rooted in some form of printmaking.
How did you get into that?
I got into stencils through seeing World War 3 Illustrated and the stencil art of Seth Tobocman, Peter Kuper, and Anton van Dalen. I was in high school and a lot of my friends were into traditional forms of graffiti, and I goofed around with that, but was far more attracted to stenciling. Stenciling is to me the most basic form of printmaking. You take a rigid object, cut a hole in it, and press pigment of some sort through it to make an image. You need almost no tools and no money, and it is extremely easy. Everything else is an evolution from that.
In terms of where you have drawn inspiration, what artists and political movements, writers, etc have informed your work?
It has changed over time. When I was in high school I was inspired by graphics from punk bands, record covers, posters, WW3 and the magazine Punchline, which John Yates used to do. Being in the punk scene I was around the idea that anyone can be in a band or make a zine, that it isn’t reserved for the specially trained. I started exploring art history on my own and would run into things that inspired me. I stumbled upon Russian Constructivism and the Mexican muralists, the Cuban Poster makers, and French poster makers from May 1968. I found different points in history where artists were at the crux of large scale social change and were figuring out ways to use art and culture in the service of change. I have been very influenced by the cultural output of people of color in the US, like Jacob Lawrence, Rupert Garcia, both printers who use huge planes of flat color to represent historical figures and social movements. Faith Ringgold also. The history of the New York radical art scene from the late 1970’s into the early 1990’s has been very influential. This includes artist collectives like Group Material and PAD/D (Political Art Documentation/Distribution), and the large group shows organized by Co-lab and the squatted gallery Bullet Space, where artists were taking art outside of the gallery and hanging it in squatted store fronts or small apartments. For me, it was instrumental in thinking about how public space is made and who controls it. Graffiti has been a formidable force, no matter how much money they spend to try to stop it or remove it, it is like a bulldozer destroying everything in its path. There were also experiments at that time like Fashion Moda, that was less a gallery and more an artist space/community center. There were classes for kids and adults in the community that were often taught by people who went to art school but who rejected the mainstream art world. There was a basement space where graffiti kids worked, a space where crafts were sold. It was this collapsing of the ways that being trained in art is valued differently in our society than people who make art as a fundamental aspect of being alive.
In some ways the feelings stick with me more than the specific examples. I love the feel of posters and print graphics created in the late 1960s up through the earl 1980s. I like when things are printed and the color separations aren’t right and the registration isn’t perfect, and the colors are muted or too bright. I like when things don’t mesh perfectly and things are printed on type setting machines before computers, so nothing is really slick, and things still need to be cut and pasted and moved around. I like booklets made in 1979 where the layout overall is not particularly artistic, but to me has really influenced the way I look at design in art. The Celebrate People’s History poster series is, to me, an attempt to recreate those posters of the 1970s that don’t quite line up perfectly, and the art doesn’t have to be some super slick computer design. I like the book design of the British anarchist presses of the 1970s into the 1980s with artists like Clifford Harper and Favio Costantini, who both did work for Cienfuegos Press, which is really nice book design. I could go on forever. I have trouble narrowing it down.
In terms of the things that have influenced you, what roles do you think art has had in transforming societies?
Well, I think the hard part of that question is that the kinds of changes that art and culture help create tend to be qualitative, not quantitative. It’s hard to say, X poster converted Y amount of people to your cause. I don’t think it’s a clean equation like that. At the same time, we’d be hard pressed to find a situation of large scale social change where culture didn’t play a large and important role. I don’t think that the impact has been recorded very well in history, either. In places where it seems less important, it has probably played a more larger role than has been written about. This isn’t to say that culture is more important than the production of goods that are necessary to survive, or that art is the root of social change. But for people to want to and struggle to change their lives, there needs to be some inspiration to do that. All of that inspiration is represented culturally, in the form of songs, plays, graphics, murals and things. I think the kind of resolve necessary to make difficult decisions can often come from the culture that one exists in. It’s not a coincidence that we are completely dominated in the US by a culture that is so uninspiring beyond making us want to buy things. Culture is as a control in our society and is used to manipulate us. I think it is a real mistake when activists reject the role of culture, because clearly our enemies don’t.
What are the important principles that you work from?
Much of my art is about social change, social justice, being a part of a larger movement. That can take the form of a didactic t-shirt that addresses the injustices of the prison system or it could take the form of organizing other artists to make art about those issues. All my work used to be about that and I don’t think that is healthy or balanced in some ways. For me it’s also nice to just draw or whip up a print that is more abstract. I used to think that was selling out, and maybe it is, but I also think it’s necessary for mental sanity. I want to find balance. I just did a book about stencils and it’s a significantly larger undertaking than I’m used to but it was really important that I try to keep some part of it related to the political aspects of stenciling and why it was important to me in the first place. Increasingly it’s becoming a vapid street art style that is all about computer reproductions of movie stars. I could probably make more money documenting that style than the stuff I really love. So to me it’s about re-injecting politics in the things that are losing it.
Who are some of the people that you have collaborated with? You have done a lot of collaborations, from the Celebrate People’s History series, to the Paper Politics show, to the Stencil Pirates book. You have done a lot of work bringing artists together. Are there other ways you have collaborated on specific pieces?
I think that at some point I realized that my art and cultural production felt better when it was in concert with other peoples. Part of it is just basic ideas of mutual aid, where if I do a big show that has a lot of artists in it and help a lot of people out, I think that is useful to everyone, and then I get helped out by people too. Part of it is about the political ideas that social change comes from groups and movements, not individuals, and that if that is true, then my art has to exist in a context where it is a part of a group or movement affecting change. By itself almost everyone’s art is weak. It can affect how an individual thinks about something, or over time how a lot of people think about something. But it’s still not as powerful as a movement is. I think that goes back to the Constructivists, or the Cuban poster makers, or the Mexican muralists. The collective output is as powerful as the individual pieces. And often things have been attributed to individuals when actually they were the result of group process. On a basic personal level its just far more fulfilling to have my work exist with other peoples than by itself. The first two Peoples History posters were my art, but I feel significantly better about the project now that so many other people’s art is included as well.
Where would you like to see radical art moving in the future?
I think the larger social movements need to value how culture is important in what they do, because right now I think art is extremely undervalued in activist communities. And I think it makes it less attractive for artists to do political work. When I have done art for political groups, it is often really thankless. I believe artists should get paid, and if they can’t they should at least get a copy of what they do. Unfortunately we live in a society where we need money to eat and keep roofs over our heads. If I make a logo for a letterhead, the organization knows it has to pay a printer to print the letterhead. So they should also be willing to pay the artist for designing it. So I think there needs to be a real reassessment of art, because artists are really undervalued. From the other side, I don’t think artists can have it both ways. Artists can’t get paid like someone with a wage job and then think they are special and be able to do anything they want without any accountability. People shouldn’t rain money on them and put them in museums and such. I think contemporary artists are generally bloated and disconnected. Artists really need to build an audience for their work, it’s part of their responsibility. If you want to be respected and get paid, you need to do work that people want to respect you for and pay you for. I think part of that is making decisions not to just have your art hanging in galleries that only certain people go to, and to price your art in a range that is unaffordable for most people. Contemporary artists in general tend to be more concerned with the concept instead of the actualization of how their art exists in the world. Concept is important, but how we exist in the world is important too.
The first Paper Politics show included 60 artists, 250 pieces of work, but everything in it was $25 or less. For me that is really important. Just organizing an art show in itself isn’t that interesting. But for this show, probably every single person who came to it walked out with a piece of art if they wanted to, which is a really different experience than your average gallery show.
What do you see as the power of radical art? You talk about it as a cultural tool, and so maybe in some ways you’ve already answered this.
Yeah, I think culture is necessary for social change. Ideally as change occurs radical art will step up to whatever is necessary for it at any point in time. I don’t think we can predict that. At a base level I think artists need to be more committed to changing the visual landscape we exist in so that it puts forward the ideas that we want to see, instead of the visions of the corporations and the state. That is a role for artists now, and not in some hazy utopian future.
How would you define radical art?
I guess any kind of art that really interrogates and questions the status quo. That status quo could be anything from capitalism, gender binaries, racism, or colonialism. I often use the term “socially engaged” art. I’m generally happy if an artist’s work openly relates to the world they exist in and attempts to affect it and is influenced by it in return. I think if you are truly doing that, it is hard for your work not to be political. I think a lot of people say they are doing that but it’s just their own personal process they are expressing. We all exist in a context and it affects us, but I mean working in a very conscious way and being engaged in your environment.
Do you think the state should financially support what you do? What role should the state play if any?
I guess the easy answer is no. But of course answers are never that easy. I think the social body at large should support art. I think the state is this really malignant bureaucratic abstraction of the social body at large. So in that way, I’m not that interested in it supporting me. Though, I am willing to swindle money from it when possible. I think that artists should use state funds when they are accessible, but not depend on them. I’m against the artist whining that they aren’t getting state funding. Maybe it’s generational and if I was ten years older and existed in a time when funds were available, I would feel differently. But in my lifetime the state has been a useless pile of shit. So it’s hard to have any kind of warm feelings towards it.
We did this project in Autonomous Territories of Chicago where we organized artist and activist groups to have a community fair where folks got booths to represent what they would be in their most utopian form; if Chicago was a collection of autonomous territories instead of a centralized, massively authoritarian, top down government. Ironically enough it coincided with Chicago Art Month and we got some money because they really didn’t know what they were funding. I don’t know if taking money when there were no strings attached really negatively affected us in any way. But I wouldn’t want to say we really need money from the government to do it, because that seems like a dead end. I think that’s why artists in the generation older than us have had all these problems, because they became dependent on this artificial support system. The state is fundamentally our enemy, but for a brief period of time it thought it was a good idea to fund artists. And then people got dependent on that. For however ironic and maybe contradictory it may be, I think we are better off dealing with the market. Not that the market is ultimately going to benefit us. But in some ways it seems more on our terms, rather than begging for money from a centralized authoritarian body. I’d rather beg for money from thousands of individuals. It’s a little less efficient, but ultimately it’s more populist because you connect with a lot more people to survive.