Abigail’s post yesterday on protest culture, Wisconsin and WAGE has me thinking about a lot of things, not the least of which is the visual culture of demonstration itself. Last week Eyeteeth’s Paul Schmelzer blogged a newsbit about the Smithsonian sending a curator to document the signs and placards being used during the protests. I had never really considered all those black Sharpie-scrawled cardboard signs and drawings as conveying anything other than the messages written on them, but as soon as I shifted my perspective to consider them historically, i.e. as examples of material culture worthy of historical documentation and preservation…well, that was a head slapping moment for me. This material is so obviously significant, and yet so easy to overlook. The fantastic set of images Abby used to illustrate her post also helped slam this point home for me, especially because several of those messages were delivered on something other than written placards. Protestors wear costumes and perform. They make collages and small drawings. They build installations and sculptures. There is an art to all this: whatever form the protest sign takes, it needs to be sharply worded (or visualized) yet concise, funny helps too, and even if the sign consists solely of text it needs somehow to be strikingly visual in nature. The Wisconsin signs reference Edvard Munch alongside movies like Kill Bill and Star Wars, and I think I even glimpsed a nod to the Librarian in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (ook!).
Smithsonian curator Barbara Clark Smith has her work cut out for her. Just think of the sheer volume of great material that must be surveyed and, ultimately, selected. Now that’s a fascinating idea to contemplate – what are the curatorial standards for determining which protest material is worth preserving for posterity? Also worth noting is the large volume of internet-based photo archives that are already collecting this material. Some of Abby’s images came from a Flickr archive by Marc Fischer from the Public Collectors photostream (Fisher documented protests occurring on Saturday March 12, 2011 in Madison). If you’re interested in scouring more of this material, other great sources include Brooklyn Street Art (link via Eyeteeth), who in turn culled a number of great images from Buzzfest.com, TheArcadeFlame, MarkonF1re, MarkTasman, pinku_pinku, and Lost Albatros.