“The police post themselves at the School of Fine Arts – the Fine Arts’ students poster
the streets.” An anonymous poster from the Paris student uprisings of May 1968
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.”
“Popular power” – the initials of France’s political parties make up the columns
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.
“A youth disturbed too often by the future”
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.
“Light wages – heavy tanks”
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.
“Return to normal”
“The struggle continues”
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