German-born satirist George Grosz attacked the socially detached avant-garde with the 1925 essay "Art is in Danger": "…come out of your seclusion, let the ideas of the working people take hold of you and help them fight this rotten society." The traveling exhibition Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960 to Now reveals how the socially progressive 1960s spurred this desired alliance between artists and activists, allowing the raw emotions and elevated ideals of social revolution to find more concentrated graphic expression. Curators Dara Greenwald and Josh MacPhee, themselves artist-activists, present a stunning half-century panorama of revolutionary ephemera and video documentation.
Greenwald and MacPhee incorporate social movements from 42 countries, including Burma, Iran, and South Korea. Beginning with "Free Richard Mohawk and Paul Skyhorse" posters from the American Indian Movement (AIM), the show continues with evidence of historical uprisings little known in the United States. Witness South Korean artist Hong Sung Dam’s revelatory woodcuts from the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement, during which the South Korean military killed 2,000 unarmed civilians.
A segment is devoted to the 1987 artwork of non-partisan ACT UP, a group dedicated to arresting the AIDS epidemic. Another segment features the promotion of environmental consciousness in Britain. The exhibit ends with graphics opposing globalization and gentrification, each intended for urban posting and distribution.
Many works bear a clearly adversarial tenor, while others are velvet-fisted. Take, for example, the anonymously hand-quilted Chilean arpillera, "Por la Libre Expresion." Sewn by female prisoners of Pinochet’s regime, arpilleras were colorful textile images bearing hidden messages for outside helpers that easily slid past even the wariest prison guard.
Inevitably, with such a broad scope and circumscribed space, there are omissions: for instance, the masked feminist art collective Guerilla Girls is absent. However, the overall thrust of the exhibition is both scholarly and arresting. A cacophony of silk-screened posters, vertical banners, and flickering video screens—all in multiple languages—reveal the power of unified action. It is also compelling history, some parts of which are unfamiliar while others are in danger of receding from collective consciousness.
By its conclusion, the show alludes to, but does not directly present, the unifying power of digital culture, from which a new era of activism is budding. In this sense, Signs of Change is also an historical bookmark, a record of the foreseeable change in message medium: there will be words and images, but perhaps fewer tangible examples.