About a year ago, I got a note from Nicholas Blechman, the talented designer who runs the New York City firm Knickerbocker, inviting me to contribute to the next issue of his magazine Nozone. With the United States beginning its invasion of Iraq, Blechman had decided to create a special issue with the theme "Empire." As I prepared my contribution, a reproduction of a proclamation by British troops on the occasion of their own invasion of Iraq 86 years ago (not "as conquerors or enemies," they took pains to point out in 1917, "but as liberators") I remember worrying that the ironies would no longer be relevant by the time the book was published.
Sadly, I needn't have worried. The occupation was still in full swing by the time Nozone #9 made its debut, with America and its nominal coalition under increasing attack with no light at the end of the tunnel. And "Empire" turned out to be great, filled with passionate expressions of alarm by artists and designers as various as Stefan Sagmeister, Luba Lukova, Christoph Niemann, Robbie Conal, Ward Sutton, Seymour Chwast and Edward Sorel. All this and a promising distribution plan: Princeton Architectural Press was supporting a first printing of 10,000. "The result," wrote Dan Nadel in Eye, "besides solid, often cathartic, political criticism and satire, is a glance at what today's designers and illustrators can do outside the bounds of commercial gigs."
Yet, as satisfying as catharsis can be, the project felt a little bittersweet to me. I was reminded once again how irresistible it is for sincerely committed designers to preach to the choir. What effect would those 10,000 copies of left-wing artistry have on the world at large, those millions of otherwise normal people who don't make a habit of buying left-leaning 'zines at Barnes and Noble?
I was astonished, and then heartened, one morning about a month later to find the main subway station at New York's Grand Central Terminal transformed into a veritable hotbed of anti-Bush propaganda. Surrounding us sleepy commuters on all sides were large - and well designed - posters sporting much the same messages as could be found in "Empire:" the words "Because he doesn't read" plastered over the face of George W. Bush; "Fighting the axis of Enron" over Cheney; "The war on error" over Rumsfeld; and the Homeric "What if one man owned all the media. 'D'oh!'" over Rupert Murdoch. But this was no abstract exercise in graphics-as-political-engagement by the students of the School of Visual Arts or the members of the AIGA. Instead, in the old-fashioned capitalist way, these posters were selling us something. They were, in fact, tune-in ads for a new left-leaning radio network, Air America. The posters were created by the New York studio Number Seventeen, and they would seen by about 10,000 people every day, if not every hour. In short, we were witnessing the results of nothing more and nothing less than a "commercial gig."
This is not to diminish the considerable accomplishment represented by "Empire." It's a historic document and everyone should buy one. But I wonder whether the best way to affect public opinion in a free-market economy is not to disavow the market, but to embrace it. In the days after 9/11, marketers in New York were hesitant to stoop to anything so crass as advertising. So billboards in Times Square were filled with images of billowing flags and empty, eerily unattributed exhortations: "United We Stand!" The effect was Orwelllian, and I found myself yearning for some Calvin Klein underwear ads: at least with those you know where you stood.
So why can't we sell the anti-imperialist agenda like a pair of jockey shorts? Recent history has some lessons here. Anti-AIDS activists like Gran Fury understood the power of the market: their most effective messages took the form of commercial communication. The "Silence = Death" logo was deployed with the consistency of a corporate brand; the best Act Up ads looked exactly like the corporate p.r. that they viciously critiqued. Gran Fury's Marlene McCarty, a classically-trained graphic designer, put it well. She talked about "the authority of the media," and explained, "Our idea was to use that authority to sell a different agenda."
There will always be room - no, a necessity - for impassioned individual voices like those represented in "Empire." But what we need right now is salesmanship. Those posters in Grand Central for Air America represented the intrusion of another voice in the public conversation in the arena that people assimilate best: the public marketplace. The more of us that can wade right into to its murky depths, the better.