May 1968: A Graphic Uprising
40 years ago next month, the streets of the French capital saw workers and students protesting against the increasing levels of unemployment and poverty that were all too apparent under Charles de Gaulle's conservative government. As a reminder of the power of self-initiated protest, May 68: Street Posters from the Paris Rebellion, launches this Thursday at the Hayward Project Space in London and brings together a range of handmade posters that were used to convey the protestors' grievances during the uprisings. Before the show opens, we talked to the exhibition's organiser and curator, Johan Kugelberg, about how this vibrant and uncompromising graphic art came about and what it means today...
In Paris, on the 16 May, students and faculty staff took over the Ecole des Beaux Arts to establish the Atelier Populaire (the Popular Workshop). The organisation went on to produce hundreds of silkscreen posters in an unprecedented outpouring of political graphic art. In a statement, the Atelier Populaire declared the posters "weapons in the service of the struggle… an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centres of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the factories."
Q&A with May 68 curator, Johan Kugelberg:
What brought you to this project and why decide to exhibit these posters now?
There was no formal organisation behind this uprising. It was everyday people who had been pushed too far, showing a solidarity that jumped the shackles of class, age and education. The kind of revolution of everyday life leading to a societal dialogue where people truly functioned as a collective brain, pulse and heart. There seems to be evidence here of the making of an ultra-potent antidote to the extremely scary fragmented, cubicled and computer-screened hyper-individualism of today. Your blog won't change anything. Your Facebook potentially could, but only if you add to it by meeting and communicating face-to-face with people from walks of life very different to yours.
The artists who originally designed and printed these posters have never been credited. Have any come forward or been contacted for the show?
No, not exactly: an aspect of the core idea is that the posters are anonymous. I respect the idealism of that anonymity – for the ones known to me, as well as the ones unknown. It’s not about “art” and the “artist”: it’s about ideas, self-starter activism and a do-it-yourself ethic. My hope is for this exhibition to inspire activism, especially amongst the youth.
Have the posters come from various sources or do they belong to a permanent collection or library?
The posters belong to me but I'm actively searching for an appropriate institutional home. This is how I work. The archive for the book I did on the early history of hip hop, Born in the Bronx, was donated to Cornell University. Cornell are commencing a curriculum based on the archive and book, which was my hope to accomplish all along. I’ve spoken to a few people about this collection, but the right people have not shown up as of yet. My next major project, which is an aesthetic overview of the punk movement, tracing its roots throughout the entire 20th century and following its reverberations up until today, is close to having a firm partnership in place with an academic institution. They’re showing interest in May 68, but the curriculum is the most important bit for me to decide upon where my stuff ends up.
Do you know how many posters were produced in the first place and how many have survived?
Hard to say: my guess is that the total number of different images is around 200-250. Posters were also printed in other parts of the country (Marseille, Lyon, for example). The print runs are only a guess, but ranging from hundreds to thousands. How many have survived is also a guess. You rarely see them available for sale; occasionally I've found them in flea markets in Paris, mostly in the suburbs. Once in a while a book-seller will have a few. They rarely show up for sale online.
What importance do these posters played in the context of May 1968?
The media belonged to de Gaulle's government – this was the means of communication that the students and the strikers had that they could rest assured was untainted and undoctored.
Nowadays, does the poster have the same impact in raising political awareness?
Anything that could wake the slumbering giant would be good. I personally love and admire the current crop of young British stencil artists and am hoping and praying that if the art establishment manages to swallow them whole, which seems likely, that said establishment will get thorough indigestion. I feel about the 68 posters in a similar way.
How valuable are some of these posters now?
The Atelier Populare would have hoped for them to be worthless, like any progressive movement would hope for their scattered remains. I've paid a lot of money for some, and very little for others. It doesn't really matter to me; what matters is that they don't get lost in time, as they are so ephemeral. The paper can literally crumble to the touch.
May 68: Street Posters from the Paris Rebellion
The Hayward Project Space, Southbank Centre, London
1 May – 1 June, 10am – 6pm (daily), late night Fridays until 10pm
More on the show at parismai68.net/
About the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery - La Lutte Continue
I was in Paris in 1968. Not, unfortunately, for political reasons. More youthful romantic reasons, and it was April anyway. However, it brought home a few political realities when I noted that students were being dragged out of the café where I used to have my coffee by the CRS .
I took part in the student protests in my university and I wanted one of the Paris posters. However, the producers refused to market them and they were impossible to find. I did get hold of ’Nous sommes tous indesirables’ from the cover of a magazine but that was all.
Here is the statement they made at the time. As sponsors of the exhibition, I wonder if you have been in contact with the successors of Atelier Populaire? Did they or yourselves have any comment to make about the implications of this statement?
La Lutte Continue
“The posters produced by the ATELIER POPULAIRE are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it. Their rightful place is in the centres of conflict, that is to say, in the streets and on the walls of the Factories. To use them for decorative purposes, to display them in bourgeois places of culture or to consider them as objects of aesthetic interest is to impair both their function and their effect. This is why the ATELIER POPULAIRE has always refused to put them on sale. Even to keep them as historical evidence of a certain stage in the struggle is a betrayal, for the struggle itself is of such primary importance that the position of an ‘outside’ observer is a fiction which inevitably plays into the hands of the Ruling Class. That is why these works should not be taken as the final outcome of an experience, but as an inducement for finding, though contact with the masses, new levels of action, both on the cultural and the political plane.”
Statement by the Atelier Populaire, Paris, 1968.
Restated by http://www.myspace.com/metiercommunications 2008
I own a large book showing almost two hundred of these posters produced by Atelier Populaire, copyright 1969 by Usine-Universite-Union. First published by Dobson Books Ltd of London in 1969. There is one poster per page on thick 11inches by 16inches paper. There are numerous pages preceding the posters that reference each poster explaining the contents/context/and place of production. There is also a long statement by Atelier Populaire. It covers May, June, and July 1968. Do you know if there are any other copies around? I have never seen another copy of this anywhere. I spent last evening with a woman who was a 20 year old then journalist who came to Paris from Italy and spent many weeks reporting to various agencies from the streets every night. She had never seen this collection, either. She was, as you can imagine, thrilled and quite nostalgic about the contents. It is, as you can imagine, starting to show quite a bit of wear, binding coming apart, pages separating. I'm going to try and find a restorationist to preserve it. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about it. I am NOT looking to sell it, in fact would love to find another copy for my friend mentioned above.
There is a bookstore in Paris that was selling the 1968 Atelier Populaire posters. It is located on the fringes of the flea market in Saint Ouen. There is only a handful of them and were selling for around 200 euros. Beautiful work but selling them as artifacts defies the context of their creation.
As part of the Atelier populaire, I helped in the selection and lay-out of Dobson's book . There were two kinds of books:one hard cover and one soft. As Mel Packer has remarked, the books' pages come loose after handling, so I had mine redone by a binder. The soft cover is now in hardcover form and the hard cover has been restored and now they are like new. I would be willing to sell a copy for 500 euros for ..." large book showing almost two hundred of these posters produced by Atelier Populaire, copyright 1969 by Usine-Universite-Union. First published by Dobson Books Ltd of London in 1969. There is one poster per page on thick 11inches by 16inches paper. There are numerous pages preceding the posters that reference each poster explaining the contents/context/and place of production. There is also a long statement by Atelier Populaire. It covers May, June, and July 1968".
On the last page there is a post scriptum signed Atelier Populaire August '68 UUU 64 rue de Richelieu Paris 75009
"The posters produced by the Atelier Populaire are weapons in the service of the struggle and are an inseparable part of it".
I am lucky to have just one of these posters, it makes me feel a part of something bigger.
I recently read Robert Merle's novel set on March twenty-second in Nanterre. If you're interested in the events leading up to May, check it out:
I posted a review, as well: