Don’t get mad, get even: the ancient art of communication in a technological age.

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Don’t get mad, get even: the ancient art of communication in a technological age.


Church, Julia.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Don’t get mad, get even: the ancient art of communication in a technological age.
by Julia Church

In a recent article about the live television audience phenomenon, journalist Anthony Dennis quoted a veteran of the circuit:

“I've never been to the theatre to see a play”, (says Lisa Arbaci). “I enjoy this more. It’s fantastic. It’s more fun, more exciting. When you become part of a studio audience you're involved with the actors. They actually talk to you, though some, like Mark Mitchell, are a bit snobby...But I've had my picture taken with Col’n Carpenter. And you get to see all the stuff-ups which people at home don’t get to see...The audience is important...[1]

Lisa Arbaci is not the only person to turn her back on a traditional art-form because it no longer provides her with optimal experiences. The art-form she prefers invites her to take an active, creative role; to participate in a conversation that uses a language and forms that have meaning for her, with all participants working towards mutually satisfying goals. Equality is implicit: the audience knows that artists are not gods because “they get to see all the stuff-ups”, and that without that audience the show cannot go on.

It takes a special kind of interest in communication to enter into that risky relationship with the audience. The ‘stuff’ that makes television programs, such as Andrew Denton’s Live and Sweaty, work so well is essentially no different to what made the French Mai 68 poster-makers, medieval minstrels, vaudevillian or Shakespearian performers popular in the days when their forms were the most culturally relevant. None of these forms operates on the assumption that culture comes from on high, and an essential component is audience feedback. Each derives its dynamism and appeal from a fusion of contemporary and traditional language and forms. The aim is not to create perfection, but to make some sense — by combining them — of the oppositional tastes, values, traditions, narrative forms, language and memories that make up pluralistic societies. So what we get is something more reflective of the human condition, a subject on which we are all obviously qualified to express opinions.

Some printmaking forms have these same qualities and for that reason there is a role for them to play in the late 20th century. The majority of visual material created for the public domain (that is cinemas, streets, cafes, the printed and electronic media, and public transport) is created with the purpose of selling a product or service. But the public domain is also a forum for debate and constructive cultural activity. For a long time, other cultural agendas were rarely represented in high profile media, they appeared in the form of graffiti, reworked advertising billboards or limited edition, relatively small posters. Tiny budgets and legal restrictions limited the range and effectiveness of these works. But in the last few years, new players whose cultural agendas differ from traditional advertisers are presenting their world views. Not all these players have large budgets, what they do possess is a sophisticated knowledge of popular culture and communication strategies.

The Environment

Growing concern about our environment, and a desire to create more balance between the needs of humanity and those of other species, has thrown up new challenges to artists. Many printmakers are looking to less hazardous production processes and exploring new ways of communicating with audiences.

Melbourne printmaker, Jon Paton is one such artist who has combined responsible use of ‘environmentally friendly’ materials (such as recycled paper and unbleached cotton fabrics) with an effective communication strategy. In the last 2 years, Jon’s woodblock posters have appeared in cafes, bars, on the street and on the trams. He works part-time for the Wilderness Society, designing posters, t-shirts, postcards and tram ads for the Walk for wilderness and Anti-woodchipping campaigns.

No environment, no economy 1992 is part of a series of posters and other printed material designed to draw public attention to both the economic and environmental consequences of woodchipping: the industry fells 400 year old trees for overseas markets that sell them back to us as paper. Posters from the series have appeared in cafes, on hoardings and as tram advertisements.

Jon sees the public domain as a more appropriate venue for his art, and draws on popular forms that have meaning for diverse audiences. His work is a fusion of influences from 19th century almanac engravings to so-called ‘trash culture’ creations, including posters from the B-grade films of the 50s and 60s. Using humour and commonly recognised symbols, he examines the themes of art as a commodity, and the use and abuse of stereotypical representations in the mass media.

Far from seeing the spectator as a passive consumer or pupil in need of learned instruction, Jon Paton is interested in the creative process of interpretation that takes place between viewer and object. In his most recent work, there is a sinister element of mystery. In Untitled 1992, two hands draw a wheeled ouija board across a sheet of paper. The irregular pencil line represents the tumultuous course of a relationship growing stronger. In the left hand panel are a range of possible outcomes for the couple's future. The balance between loss and gain, want and need may be too delicate to maintain: the pencil is running off the paper. The first impression of a legible, integrated whole, begins to fall away and separate elements come forward to take on new meanings.

This work forms part of an exhibition called, Paintings and Woodcuts now showing at the Lounge Bar in Melbourne. Woodcuts appear both in their traditional form on paper and translated as paintings, made from projecting slides onto fabric banners. The banners are hung in the bar and on the busy city street below.

Jon’s next project is the Wait and See bus stop advertising program, organised by the Melbourne City Council. He will be producing 6 different woodblock posters for display in the new bus and tram stop shelters in the inner city area.

The Ecover Recycled Advertising Campaign

As printmakers, we have been active users of diminishing natural resources, as well as polluters of air and waterways. Last year, an environmental campaign attempted to address these issues, and look at ways in which printmaking could be adapted to minimise environmental impact.

In August 1991, fifty-one unique billboard posters appeared on the streets of London and Brighton. Public and media response was phenomenal, with newspapers and television stations vying with one another to break the story on the ‘look’ and the location of the latest billboard; at one stage it was rumoured that London tour buses would reroute to include the billboards!

The billboards were commissioned by Ecover, a Belgian company which produces cleaning products that have minimal environmental impact. For 12 years, Ecover promoted their product through health food shops and by word of mouth, avoiding advertising because they saw it as a form of visual pollution. They were forced to recondiser their position when mass-marketing of new, so-called ‘green’ products threatened to eliminate Ecover from the field.

A team of people, from Ecover and advertising company Chiat/Day, worked together on the creation of a recycled advertising campaign that would promote an environmental message, in a culturally relevant way, without creating more pollution in the process. They had no desire to duplicate the values and stereotypes common to detergent campaigns: As Chiat/Day's Andy Law put it: “Detergent advertising is probably the worst kind of advertising. It is generally patronising to women and plays on feelings of inadequacy...Most advertising creates a problem by saying something like, ‘The dirt you can’t see’. The concept of guilt is played on. Then [the commercial] offers a solution for the invented problem.[2]

The team had no desire to create preachy sermons from on high, either. They worked from the assumption that most people want to do something positive for the environment, but that motives vary radically. When 51 billboard sites were offered, at off-peak prices, the team snapped them up and used the opportunity to reflect that diversity by employing 52 artists to express the nature of their relationship with the environment. They created joyful, and sad, subversive and humorous works that have a transcendent quality that makes them both engaging and useful. For me, these pieces retain the spontaneous quality of a conversation, fulfilling one of printmaking’s earliest functions as a recorder of ideas that had previously been passed on by word of mouth.

Having considered the ethical and aesthetic issues, the team turned their attention to practical problems. Lawyers, artists and environmental experts were consulted on aspects of production — from copyright issues related to the use of old billboard run-ons to environmentally friendly glues that would weather the storms.

Recycling unused billboard posters was strategic for a number of reasons. The printing industry produces hundreds of thousands of unused printed run-ons every year. The toxic nature of the weather resistant inks and paper stocks makes them difficult to recycle; so they lie around in printeries before they make it to land fills, where they contribute to the contamination of the water table.

Two graphics students were employed to co-ordinate the team of 51 artists. Using sheets of unused printed billboard posters and found objects, teams and individual artists created one-off 10 foot x 40 foot collages. Each billboard was to carry an Ecover product shot and a stencilled impression of the 4 foot diameter 'Recycled Advertising' stamp.

Following the consultation period, each artist had four days to create their collage. For many, it was their first experience in communicating with such a large audience and on such a massive scale. Most artists worked out of a disused warehouse in Streatham, with the boards laid out on the floor or against the walls. They got a lot of help from interested artists and others, as one team acknowledged: “We’d like to thank several hundred friends (and dogs) for their saliva, used instead of environmentally unfriendly glue”.[3] A number of artists chose to work at the billboard site, attracting attention from locals and police who were convinced that this kind of thing could not possibly be legal!

The artists took a great deal of pleasure in turning hackneyed concepts and stereotypes on their heads; as one artist put it: “Art directors and copywriters have been recycling old ideas for years. We’re just the first to admit it.[4] Graham Rawle, who created a billboard for the Shepherds Bush site, discovered just how recycled art can be: “I found an old sheepskin rug in a skip which I decided to make back into a sheep. These were nailed onto the hoarding. After three days somebody had nicked one of the sheep, presumably an over-zealous recycler who wanted to remake a rug”.[5]

“London has turned into a huge art gallery”, exclaimed the British press, describing the billboard campaign as, “one of the foremost art exhibitions of the 20th century”. Indeed, the billboards were featured in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum after the campaign ended. They are now touring the United States. Billboards are available for sale, with 15% of profits donated to ‘Green’ charities. Ecover also ran a competition for the most effective billboard; the winner was sponsored to design their own project.

The month-long billboard campaign preceded a two month television promotion. Marrying the medium with the message, the television advertisements recycle 50s soap commercials, superimposing Ecover products over the originals, and replacing the original soundtrack with dubbed voice-overs. Deliberately hamfisted jokes and visual techniques create a subversive message, which not only questions the values of the market economy, but also the fundamentalism of the ‘apocalyptic’ greens. The first advertisement begins with: “A recycled commercial for today”. Subsequent ads in the series build on the theme, so we get: “Another recycled, recycled, recycled commercial for today...”

A character then introduces Ecover and talks about the product, the environment, obsessions with cleanliness, and the desire to be “greenie green”. The end shots feature green and blue dishes or socks that spin around until they form symbolic land and sea masses. The deadpan voice-over replaces the familiar “whiter than white” slogan with: “Ecover, washes righter”.

Needless to say, the campaign was enormously successful. For the campaign team and the artists involved, it represented more than an economic triumph: they created art for the street, they challenged a set of dominant marketing values, and they got the recycling issue out onto the streets and onto the agenda. As Ecover’s Robin Bines put it: “The campaign is trying to change people's perceptions about detergents and make them think more about recycling. It's certainly better than men in suits telling you your armpits smell”.

For many of us, the public domain is our theatre, art gallery and forum for debate. The communicative motive in art is not new: the guilds of the middle ages created advertisements for God. Patrons, the like of Constantine, the Medicis and Suharto, have commissioned artists to promote their value system through public works. Regardless, or sometimes because of their ideological stance, some of these works still move us, so we call them art. A greater number of people, representing diverse cultural agendas, now have the resources to express their views in the public domain. As a result, our values are being reshaped. New kinds of art, with different audiences, are emerging.

Clearly, we can have art that is about communication, and we can have communications that have nothing to do with art. For me, the communicative motive in art is becoming a dynamic force in our culture, and I am delighted that printmaking is a part of that.

© Julia Church, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.

[1] Lisa Arbaci, Live and Sweaty in Sunday Age, Agenda 3 [Melbourne], 20 September 1992.

[2] Andy Law, Business Development Director, Chiat/Day, in Advertising Age [London], 3 December 1992.

[3] Butler/Stout/Braxill, in The Recycled Advertising Diary, England: Ecover, 1992.

[4] Peck/Shane/Hubbs, in The Recycled Advertising Diary, England: Ecover, 1992.

[5] Graham Rawle, in The Recycled Advertising Diary, England: Ecover, 1992.