In June 2011, I spent a few days in Barcelona. In May, the city had been the site — one of many across Spain — of a wave of demonstrations by members of the public furious about high unemployment, especially among the young, corruption among politicians, business people and bankers, and the country’s dire economic condition. A manifesto produced by ¡Democracia Real YA! (Real Democracy Now!) outlined the protesters’ demands. A peaceful demonstration in the Plaça de Catalunya in the heart of Barcelona had been brutally suppressed by the police. Just a few months later, the Occupy protests would emerge from the same profound sense of frustration at the absurdly widening gap between those at the top insulated from the effects of the global financial crisis by extreme wealth and ordinary people, who are apparently expected to bear the brunt of the downturn by governments failing to represent their interests.
The Plaça de Catalunya had been cleared, but some of the protesters returned and in early June they still occupied the square. There was a camp of tents at one end and the trees around the edge contained makeshift aerial living platforms lashed together from ropes, planks, poles, railings and plastic sheets. On the ground, the protesters had improvised a loose, carnivalesque village of covered structures and kiosks, where people could go for information, food, company and help. It was a warm day when I was there and the atmosphere was peaceful, cooperative and exciting, even for a visitor, because unfinished things in a state of emergence are always exciting. If the construction of shelters around the square represented a rudimentary form of building — a re-learning of a basic skill in the absence of architects — then the hundreds of handmade banners, signs and messages that covered everything showed, just as clearly, an untutored but inevitable need for something akin to graphic design.
The pleasure and optimism of strolling in this space came from a utopian reminder of how different it might be if we could somehow start again and devise a new politics and new social structures on the basis of a different set of priorities, values and goals. But this was now and looming over everything as a backdrop, at the top of the square, were the omnipresent billboards, where a Hyundai car ad with a soulful baby gorilla informed shoppers, without irony, that “another way of thinking is possible.” They couldn’t have put it better.
I have shown these pictures a few times in lectures and some designers have been intrigued by the raw but effective DIY design. In some ways, these scenes are not so unusual. They are representative of what happens when people with limited resources, who are engaged in urgent and idealistic collective action, resort to ad hoc “design thinking” and ramshackle bricolage to create the spaces and communications they need. I’m posting the pictures here as a postscript to the two essays about Occupy Wall Street’s occupation of Zuccotti Park as “spaces of political action,” published by Places, and my recent piece about activist posters and protest signs.
Photographs: Rick Poynor