Organised by letterpress studio New North Press, the exhibition was originally held at the Standpoint Gallery in London, where it opened in December but then had to close due to the latest UK Covid-19 lockdown. It has since reached people online and via a catalogue of the works featured.
While the events of last year make an exhibition about protest very timely, planning for it actually began in December 2019. “That’s when we chose the subject of protest,” says Richard Ardagh, who curated the show alongside Graham Bignell. “We had no idea at the time the significance this would take and the world-changing events round the corner with Covid-19, the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and the general turmoil of last year. We announced the exhibition with an open call in February 2020 and the show was originally scheduled to open in July, but was pushed back later to December.”
The topics featured on the posters are wide-ranging, including Black Lives Matter, Brexit, climate change, gay rights, fake news, social housing, police violence, gentrification and the NHS. Following an open call for submissions on the protest theme, the show features works created by the global letterpress community in addition to a series of new collaborative works that aim to help bring new voices and issues to the fore.
“Our idea was to unite everyone in a letterpress show where the emphasis was on the message of the work, rather than just the technique,” continues Ardagh. “The special collaborative print editions we produced were our way of making sure that the voices we were representing were diverse. This had begun early last year when we worked with a talented group of adults with learning disabilities who had clear ideas about the issues they wanted to communicate. We wanted to do something similar with a group from the local homeless community but the virus made that impossible. We did manage to connect with a Senegalese asylum seeker and produce a poster based on their sketches but didn’t manage to broaden this out as being associated with speaking out put their application at great risk.
“There was also a list of people known for their activism in various fields who we approached. We worked with Extinction Rebellion Art Group and graphic designers Malcolm Garrett, Jane Plüer and Sarah Boris (who managed to come and set their posters with us at NNP) as well as artists Bob and Roberta Smith and Mark Titchner, fashion designer Katherine Hamnett, poet John Anstiss, and comedian Stewart Lee; 26 collaborations in all – a full alphabet.”
The show offers a view of the wide-ranging issues that are occupying us in these complicated times. “In the main part we gave our collaborators free rein on the message of their poster,” says Ardagh, “although we did encourage some local school-leavers to make a poster about the downgrading of their A-level exam results (due to the exam regulator’s algorithm overriding teacher assessments in the wake of Covid-19).
“When it came to selecting posters from the open call, we picked everything we thought had a strong and relevant message. This made for quite a big show but, in a way, we knew that it would be the collection of all these artworks together that would make an important snapshot of living through these times.”
As well as the messages, part of the exhibition’s draw lies of course in the enduring appeal of letterpress (even if the smell of the ink can’t be experienced online). “I know I’m not alone in finding too much screen-based work deeply unsatisfying,” says Ardagh of why we keep returning to the style. “The slow and systematic process of letterpress is therapeutic in a way a lot of people seem to be searching for with mindfulness and meditation, and there’s a permanence, tactility and even smell to print that can’t be ignored.”