Americans are so used to seeing thousands of advertisements on a daily basis that it is impossible not to recognize what a Nike swoosh looks like or to know what product is being advertised with a poster using a black silhouette on a bright background.
“Subvertisements: Using Ads and Logos for Protest” is an exhibition currently on display at the CSUN Art Gallery that demonstrates how popular ads can be used to express political and social issues. The show is organized by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.
While these types of political posters are not new, becoming aware of the issues expressed through them is inevitable. “Subvertisements” allows for the appreciation of both the artistic quality of the work and the social and political messages they convey.
“[The posters] grab your attention by being bright and bold and then they make you look at the world a little differently,” said Carol Wells, executive director of CSPJ.
The posters are mounted on white foam boards to conserve their street quality, but the appeal is in the simplicity and cleverness of the posters.
“(With) every exhibit that I curate, I put together to challenge people to look at the world a little different,” Wells said.
The exhibition is divided into three main groups. The first group uses fake ads to promote real issues such as “Sun Mad,” a silkscreen by Est?r Hernandez. “Sun Mad” mimics the design of the Sun-Maid Raisins packaging. The poster illustrates an issue related to the appropriated brand, namely the process in which raisins are “unnaturally grown with insecticides, miticides, herbicides, fungicides.”
The iPod ad series is also in this first group. Even though the war in Iraq has nothing to do with iPod, the ads have become so popular that creating a political message with the ads would make anyone take a second look.
The second category includes posters created for real boycotts such as posters created to promote boycotts of Nike for their sweatshops practices.
The last group of posters includes political concert posters. These posters are real advertisements used to promote concerts, but they also include political messages.
Louise Lewis, director of CSUN’s art gallery, said the reason behind naming the exhibition subvertisements is to take advertising, something that is familiar to most people ads, and twist it.
“All of these things are things that you know from advertisements,” Lewis said. “This is what is (referred to) in today’s world as branding.”
The exhibition includes three pieces by CSUN graduate student Eric Lindroth. His “Grim Sneaker,” “Starvebucks Highfee” and “Genital Electric” were created to draw attention to capitalism.
Through a series of exposures to different books and documentaries, Lindroth said he became aware of how much of what people consume is derived from human and environmental exploitation.
The “Grim Sneaker” depicts a grim reaper using the Nike swoosh as a sickle and reads “Sweatshops provide dead-end jobs around the world.” Of the $70 that people pay for Nike sneakers, only about $5 actually goes toward sweatshop laborers, who are systematically underpaid, Lindroth said.
The exhibition shows a side that is not usually told, Wells said. Companies such as Nike, that have been subject to boycotts, will not tell the public about their abusive business practices and their sweatshop laborers, Wells said.
“We’re using this to tell you about what they don’t want you to know,” Wells said, adding that the negative effects of capitalism are often not taught in school.
Since its establishment in 1989, the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, a non-profit organization, has collected about 60,000 posters. The center’s collection of graphics is considered the largest in the world. Most posters were donations from activists.
The center only accepts posters that were created in multiples and that include overt political content, said Wells.
“All art is political, but not all art is overtly political,” Wells said.
The exhibition will be on display through April 21 in the CSUN Art Gallery.