When you think of revolutionary artwork, you may conjure up Soviet-era propaganda, or the harsh red-and-black colour palette of traditional leftist posters. But there are other ways to disseminate anti-capitalist messages. Ways that are bright, approachable and easy to understand.
This is what Autonomous Design Group (ADG) sets out to do. A UK-based collective of creatives formed in 2019, the group creates artwork on issues such as police reform, rent strikes, the climate crisis and better pay for care workers. These striking posters incorporate clever use of collage, typography and copy, making them infinitely shareable on social media. But for ADG, it’s not just about the retweets. The collective hopes to see its work displayed as physical copies on the street, and also offers artistic support to social movements and political groups. By pooling their creative talents, the members of ADG hope to reach a much wider number of people with their message – both online and in the real world.
So, in true collective fashion, VICE spoke to ADG as a group about their work, and why political art is so important right now.
VICE: Hey, Autonomous Design Group members. What's the main aim of ADG and your work?
ADG: We’d say the main aim of our design work is to aid social movements and put approachable and clear ideas into the street. We aren’t interested in producing art to be exhibited in galleries. Throughout history, radical art and ideas have been recuperated by capitalism, pacified and sold back to us as commodities. Indeed, capitalism “guarantees our passivity by selling us the image of revolt”.
We want to make the distinction between art in and of itself being revolutionary, and the repetition of clearly, well-presented ideas in the street being revolutionary. It’s the act of placing ideas into the streets, so that they affect thousands of people’s consciousness that is the revolutionary act. In this way, we view our role as attempting to reconfigure art as a method of revolutionary change, whilst also supporting groups on the ground putting the work into building a new society.
Why is it so important to promote and showcase these ideas? And in a visual way?
Well, put simply, we’re faced with the choice between the continuation of capitalism or human extinction due to climate breakdown. We need to win, and extremely quickly. Part of this is winning the war of ideas. The vast majority of people, if you sat them down, and talked to them for hours, could be convinced of what we would call libertarian communist politics. But we just don’t have that luxury, we need to communicate our ideas within a matter of seconds.
For the most part, the visual field has been almost completely colonised by capitalist logic. From advertising on billboards to online marketing, the system has perfected how it sells us things. Both exploitative labour practices and consumerism are so normalised that they are the only way we are able to imagine our lives. Interrupting the visual domination of capitalism is essential in seeding its destruction.
At the same time, the aesthetic of political movements plays a large part in their success. Therefore, good design that is accessible and joyful is hugely important. We want to show political ideas in an accessible way that will mean people will see ideas that they perhaps are not usually exposed to, and act upon them.
Your designs have been shared quite widely online recently, especially on social media. Is an online presence also important to sharing your message, as well as through the streets?
Our view would be that the streets are far more important than having an online presence. It is often said, but social media really is a bubble. Digital space is still a significant political terrain in which it’s important to amplify and support left wing ideas and groups. It obviously has a place, but communicating ideas through the streets reaches far more sections of society. A thousand posters are better than a thousand retweets.
All the designs you produce are open source and editable. Was this always the case or something that developed over time?
Having open-source and editable designs has always been fundamental to our project. We want people to be able to print out our designs, or edit them for their specific context. In our work we are not producing a product or commodity, we’re producing a tool for struggle which anyone can use.
We also try to produce all our work collectively. We want to get away from this idea of the individual artist, and the social capital and prestige that comes along with this and instead work towards all our art being a collective process.
Why do you think people are so interested and engaged with your designs?
We think this is because our designs break from the mould of traditional anti-capitalist design, which is often very Soviet, or crusty and folksy. We want to show that you can make anti-capitalist art without the only colours being red and black. Instead, we try to use bright colours and striking typography, which present our ideas in an understandable and approachable way.
Whenever we create a design, we always try to go through a checklist in our heads i.e. if someone saw this in the street, what would be going through their minds? Is it going to alienate people? Or is it instead going to bring people onboard? In order to succeed it’s necessary to revolutionise all of society, not just a tiny number of people on Twitter.
You've explored themes such as housing, unions, and the police. What other themes will you be looking into?
These are all symptoms of the same problem: capitalism and hierarchy. We’re going to continue supporting movements that address these issues, although we also have a large array of ideas in the pipeline. We hope to do a piece inspired by the writings of David Graeber (who very sadly died recently), around bullshit jobs and the idea that a 15-hour work week is possible. More generally, we hope to build a sense that people can have autonomy and control over their own lives.