The art of protest

Installation View, Sam Durant, More Than 1⁄2 The World, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 15 March – 13 April 2017 Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo by Robert Glowacki

Is the current social and political upheaval breeding a new form of creative expression?

Text Hannah Vasdekys

There was a time when a humble flap of old cardboard with a hastily scrawled slogan was sufficient attention-grabbing signage to take to the streets. More recently, and most notably for anti-Brexit rallies, Women’s March and anti-Trump protests, the attendees have showcased a stunning level of artistry and wit in their signage, transforming the typically austere protest aesthetic into next level pageantry that flooded our Instagram feeds.

A lot of UK citizens and Americans weren’t really ‘sign people’ until the UK voted to leave the European Union and Trump was elected. “You know it’s bad when introverts are marching,” read one sign. And this new breed of “introverts” aren’t just producing your commonplace signs – they are works worthy of professional graphic designers, linguists, and satirists. Today’s marches are now a sea of clever puns, (“Pulling out never works”), word play (“Girls just want to have fundamental human rights”), and meta references (“Too many issues to fit on one sign”).

Protest Art Signage

But the efforts amongst our next gen protesters are far from lighthearted. The Trump administration has already started reeking havoc on the National Endowment of the Arts budgets and with his antagonistic approach to science, the growing complexity of the Brexit negotiations and the hung parliament outcome of the UK’s last general election. They say bad times make for great art. If the past few years are anything to go by, there’s going to be a serious renaissance.

With a pithy mix of humour and aggression, this is protest art for the social-media era. While many kept their messages serious and straightforward — “Refugees Welcome,” “Keep Abortion Safe and Legal” — it was the new breed of signage that was stamped into memory long after the crowds dispersed. Gaining virality on Twitter and Instagram or through various “best protest signs” listicles, they reached an extended audience that never even marched a step.

Although protest signs have been around since the American Revolution, now that signs can have a long digital afterlife, it seems the pressure is on to create ever-more memorable and creative messages. That people want to have their political views heard during a time when the boundaries between real and fake, facts and fiction are becoming blurred makes sense. The powers that be communicate via propaganda, activists pick up permanent markers.

Our next gen protesters are not only ready to show up and fight back, they’re also getting creative about what activism looks like.

A Certain Syrup