Sunday, January 18, 2009

Celebrate People's History!

My text for the upcoming Labour History Project newsletter.

I never wanted to be a graphic designer — at least not in the traditional sense. An important part of my artistic practice has been to explicitly avoid the design industry and all that it encompasses — advertising, profitability, marketing, consumption, and ultimately, the advancement of our current exploitative and illogical system — capitalism. By setting myself up independent of this mainstream conception of design, I have been lucky enough to participate in projects, which, in my mind, have been far more worthwhile and productive than encouraging profit margins, consumer culture, and an elitist design minority. Work for the Labour History Project, in the form of Blackball and May 68 posters, as well more recent work for the ‘Celebrate People’s History’ project initiated by Justseeds (a collective of US based printmakers and illustrators) reflects the sort of artistic endeavors I see particular value in.

As my interest in the role graphic and cultural work can play in political agitation and education has grown, I’ve come into contact with other like-minded practitioners home and abroad. Justseeds Visual Resistance Artists’ Co-Operative, like myself, realize that cultural production plays an integral role in the continuation of values and systems that prevail today — including our sense of identity, and equally important, our understanding of history. Hence the ‘Celebrate People’s History’ project — an ongoing collection of educational and agitational posters designed to illustrate aspects of our past often marginalized, overlooked and outright ignored.

When I was asked to contribute to the project I immediately knew I wanted to concentrate on an aspect of Aotearoa’s past, or more specifically, our vibrant labour history. A poster on the ‘Red Feds’ and the influence of the I.W.W (Industrial Workers of the World) in Aotearoa seemed a natural choice.

It’s fitting that my growing understanding of labour history in Aotearoa (especially militant ones such as the forming of I.W.W locals and the advocating of direct action tactics) was stoked by the Blackball celebrations of 2008, hosted by none other than the Labour History Project. Before that I had tended to look elsewhere for evidence of agitation and class struggle, for traces of politics similar to my own — understandable, considering the relative obscurity of radical labour history in my own (and the majority of people’s) upbringing and education. To find concrete evidence of syndicalism, revolutionary unionism and class struggle outside of the parliamentary arena right here in Aotearoa was a truly empowering experience — one I felt I had to share.

So, a growing consciousness of labour history, Erik Olssen’s ‘The Red Feds’ and the opportunity to empower thanks to Justseeds has meant a slice of Aotearoa’s working class history will be printed and shared with the wider world — in an edition of 4000. And not just as a nostalgic fragment of a past long gone. For me, this type of historical awareness is a reminder that we still live in a society deeply divided by class. The actions of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labor, the various Wobbly locals, and other militant individuals between 1908-13 in Aotearoa stand as an inspiring, but unfinished movement to continue to build upon in our present situation.

I hope to encourage and take part in similar work in the future, including the screen-printing of my Waihi poster ‘Black Tuedsay’, as well as future projects in collaboration with the Labour History Project and the Christchurch branch I, among others, have helped to form. I understand the printing of this poster offshore may be somewhat of a first for Aotearoa labour history, but I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.

Check out more on the the Labour History Project at

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