Artificial Limb Unit – Discomposure (2020)
x500 digital posters
Political unrest and unease produces discourse. The rhetorical impact of political slogans increases as different political movements attempt to wrestle and establish control. In the UK, a long history of non-violent protest has led to a swathe of humorous messages on placards, the weapon of choice in a battle against a political system that, although flawed, is far from a tyrannical regime. We are misled by the slogans, soundbites and speeches of intractable politicians from both the right and the left. Against a backdrop of uncertainty and doubt about what the future may hold, and rather than attack those on the wrong side of reason with violence, or by echoing their own ridiculous idioms, well-chosen words might be our only hope.
I came of age, politcally, in the late 1970s, moulded and shaped by Crass album and single covers. The Crass slogan Fight War Not Wars, Destroy Power Not People left its mark on me, as did There is no authority but yourself. Those slogans, the lyrics (“Do they owe us a living? Of course they fucking do!”), Dave King’s logo, the fold-out sleeves and Gee Vaucher’s collages, the pay no more than… line on every release, Penny Rimbaud’s essays, the whole DIY aesthetic, even now I consider them to be the works of genius. Joy De Vivre and Eve Libertine provided me with a feminist education. I pored over the inside cover of Big A Little A/Nagasaki Nightmare and then went and joined CND, marching and leafleting and all that shit. Everything about Crass seemed more authentic than anything else I’d previously encountered and remains so and, of course, they didn’t want us to worship them, merely to think for oursleves. True iconoclasts. That was rare for a band then, even anarcho-punks, when we were all looking for heroes to guide us, and unheard of today, in the age of celebrity worship.
I guess I liked the words, the slogans, the call to action, more than the music. I was gobbling up a lot of music from 1977 onwards but nobody’s artwork ever gave me as much pleasure, nor provoked as much thought and further reading. It comes from this, I think – my dad was a signwriter and the house was full of posters that he’d be working on, sort of cash-in-hand jobs outside of his day job doing the same for a supermarket chain. He’d do those posters for churches, those pun-packed invitations to workship, like “Carpenter from Nazareth seeks joiners” and all kinds of other bits and pieces, selling and promoting all manner of things, all in the age before computers, desktop publishing and digital printing. So I’m looking at text, fonts, composition and the production of posters from being a little kid, almost taking it for granted really, all that skill he had, and how brilliant these pieces of work looked when he finished them. And then I’d see them all over town. So I was well-versed in looking at signs and posters and if we were in a car, or on a bus, little irritating bookish geek that I was, I’d read signage out loud as we drove past it, much to everyone’s annoyance.
My musical-hoovering led me to Lennon, buying and then returning Two Virgins because, brilliant packaging and design aside, it was unlistenable shit, and I probably encountered those War Is Over If You Want It posters and those situationist pieces he did with Yoko around the same time as I was listening to Stations of the Crass and you can see a sort of lineage there through to Rimbaud and Vaucher’s work and words.
If we fast-forward to that terrible period in music that brought us Wham! and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, again you can see a twisted contortion, a bricolage, a borrowing of the concept of the use of text and slogans from the 1960s and punk heritage, as by then that culture was deemed over and done and we’d all wasted our time, when it comes to their inane slogans. I mean, George Michael telling me to Choose Life wearing his Katharine E. Hamnett designed tee, I’m not buying that. Hamnett was clearly influenced by Crass but there’s nothing clever about any of it, it doesn’t prompt any further thought. And then Paul Morley, never one for original ideas, took Hamnett’s work, although she did encourage people to rip them off, as she’d done herself, and further bastardised that approach with his series of Frankie Says.. tees. Frankie may as well have said, game over. It sort of sums up the 1980s for me, that everyone was wearing t-shirts with utterly meaningless words on them. There’s no hope for humanity. In the early 2000s, Hamnett designed a t-shirt emblazoned with STOP WAR, BLAIR OUT. Which is a fine enough sentiment but compared to Fight War Not Wars it’s dramatically lacking in intelligence, it’s too on the nose, it’s about as useful as Down With Everything.
In the 1990s a mate of mine gave me a copy of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. And suddenly all of these worlds collided. Experiments with typesetting and page-layout, neologisms and slogans. And also venting a frustration about the vaccuous nature, in the 1990s, of slogans themselves. So post-modern it took us full circle and suddenly Coupland was saying clever things about the extreme present that we were all failing to cope with, was simultaneously prescient whilst absolutely expressing everything that was on the minds of us post-baby boomers (so much so that it felt like he was writing what we were thinking). I mean, We’re Behaving Like Insects; Eroticise Intelligence; You Are Not Your Ego; Simulate Yourself – instructions and observations a million times more satisfactory, and a whole lot funnier, than anything George Michael would ever have worn and harking back to Crass. I can’t overstate how important Generation X was to me, at the time; it led to a renewed love of words and book buying. It also made me consider what the act of reading has become, bombarded as we are by so many words that we cannot process them fast enough, an overload of dyslexic-inducing proportions. Generation X can be read by those paralysed by the thought of not having time to read in these accelerated times by chunking everything down into something that the eyes and the mind can compute. As supporting evidence, it was Coupland who conceived word clouds, which advertisers and marketeers went on to adore when computers caught up with the author’s imagination.
Generation X is the first generation of digital natives; we have grown up with IT, we were the first online with our dial-up modems, the first to blog on a daily basis. What followed was social media, where everything was reduced to 140 character soundbites. Coupland, and Crass before him, demonstrated that it is possible to say a lot in a tight character count, but sadly most tweets are from the school of Hamnett, at best, or just babblingly incoherent. They come from a world of self-help books, inspirational quotes and motivational signs around the office. No action will ever come of them, no thought will ever be provoked. These are the times we live in; why try and imbue anything with meaning when a hefty dose of cynicism can be employed?
I was tremendously excited by Coupland’s interest in Word Art, which has seemingly sprung forth from his typesetting experiments and natty neologisms and led to Slogans for the 21st Century, a collection of text-based works containing thought-provoking statements. For Coupland, AUTOMATED GOVERNMENTS ARE INEVITABE, and THE INTERNET OCCUPIES THE SLOT IN YOUR HEAD ONCE OCCUPIED BY RELIGION AND POLITICS. Meanwhile, ARE WE TOO FREE? seems to me to be a 21st Century response to There Is No Authority But Yourself. Or would be, if Coupland was a Crass fan. As it is, he seems to have been raised on a soundtrack comprising Orchestral Manouvres in the Dark, which must be a Canadian thing, so disturbing is it to comprehend.
Anyway, on to Discomposure, a series of 500 slogan-bearing posters. In 2018 I went to see Selina Thompson’s exhibition Race Cards which, to put it simply, is a room containing 1,000 questions written on postcards about race. Which you read (although you don’t have to read them all) and then you are invited to respond to one of the questions, also writing on a postcard. It’s quite an overwhelming experience, and unbelievably powerful given its simplicity. This bombardment of words and provocations is unsettling, not least because as a viewer you want to give it your full consideration because of the serious subject matter (although the exhibition is not devoid of humour) but also, and I might have been the only one doing this, you start calculating how long it will take to read 1,000 questions and whether you have time for all this in these accelerated times. And then you start to think about how long it took Selina to write them, and also to somehow have crafted a narrative arc that runs through these words, and that you don’t want to do the artist a disservice by throwing in the towel. Then you start to shake when you write your response to whatever question you’ve been gripped by and, if you’re like me, you cry too. And afterwards, after you’ve pulled yourself together, you start thinking about how this exhibition relates to your dad creating thousands of posters in his lifetime, the punk aesthetic, the words that shaped your politics, sense of self and duty to others, the value of words themselves, and that maybe words are all we have. So, Race Cards and all of the above are what got me thinking about text-based art work, and slogans, and statements, and overwhelming an audience by surrounding them, eventually, with 500 posters containing words, and an audience’s reaction to such words, especially given that they might have their own slogans and that they would be better than mine. Which is where I’m at right now, and why, in a roundabout way, I’m doing this.
Dave Windass / Artificial Limb Unit, 2020