The social life of protest posters

The mobile poster, printed or, in most cases, made by hand, constitutes an important semiotic resource of the discourse and collective actions of street protest. Created for individuals by individuals, albeit often in the company of others, it often expresses personal concerns, through slogans and/or more or less creative images, which dialogue with collective interests and memories, but also with the here and now of the specific event protest in progress and with the more global social situation in which the event happens.

In addition to being important forms of immediate popular expression, these communicative or rhetorical artifacts constitute a significant extension of the bodies (Taussig, 2012, p. 75) that occupy public places (usually urban) which they claim and make their own, in a more or less ephemeral way (Butler, 2011; Martín Rojo, 2014). Along with many other signs of protest, which can integrate the “repertoires” (Tilly, 2008) of communicative action of activist movements, hand-made posters are inherently mobile semiotic objects and are intrinsically linked to protest actions at various levels, including its spatial, communicative and social dimensions. In the current communication landscape online – offline, some may see it as an old-fashioned medium comparing to, for example, wall posters that, being printed, are suitable for a wider range of uses, or protest murals that, when integrated as permanent parts of neighborhoods (Sarmento, 2020), transform space and experience in a lasting way, despite their transitory nature (Awad & Wagoner, 2017).

Is the protest poster an old medium in disuse, redundant, which must be discarded? Is it as ephemeral as it seems? What has been the fate of this type of protest poster?

The indexicality inherent in artisanal protest posters should not prevent us from observing the specific cultural biographies (Appadurai, 1986) of the messages propagated by some of the members of this class of artifacts. In the contemporary protest culture, the close relationship that has been observed between spatial practices and practices in the social media (Gerbaudo, 2012) has complexified the trajectories of these messages that sometimes travel from the social media to the streets, other times from the streets to the internet (Lou & Jaworski, 2016; Romana, 2015), thus opening the possibility of observing the dynamics inherent in the multiple “recontextualizations” (Wodak, 2009) that these messages go through during a protest event, which, as  it is known, may have a transnational or global nature (Doerr, 2010). As a result of an organized effort, the designs of these messages are repeated to the point of ubiquity, a job facilitated by graphic software, home printers and mobile technologies. Remember, for example, the works of designers and artists in the youth protests in Hong Kong in the second half of 2019, in the anti-Trump protests in 2017 and the well-known posters of the Occupy movement in the USA.


But it is the social life (Appadurai, 1986) of the handmade protest posters, as a particular class of cultural objects, which is important to know better, since the driving force of change may be in the long-term cultural impact that they have.


The itineraries of the activist protest poster and the activist artistic poster (more and more indistinct) between the streets and studios, museums, artistic centers, libraries, art books and curatorial activism, are well known (Message, 2014), since the convergence process between art and politics has been underway for over a century and continues to evolve (Reed, 2016). But the interest in the art of protest often excludes hand-made posters (see these exceptions, Still they persist, 20/20 Insight), although the photographic record of many contemporary protests shows the continued presence of this type of  do-it-yourself visual form, accessible to everyone, spontaneous and often temporal. It is known, however, that the life of these handmade signs can continue in different ways beyond the protest event to which they are associated, giving rise, for example, to graphic versions with varied purposes, including those of “semiotic” (Eco, 1994)  or “rhetoric” guerrilla (Burgin, 1976), where they see their original purpose subverted; to conceptual compositions by artists interested in problematizing the language of space and politics, as in the case of New York street artist Adam Void; or to public art projects, such as the one carried out in 2018 by the American photographer and art teacher, Jason Lazarus in Miami.


To trace the social life of artisanal protest posters in society and in the contemporary world is to claim the observation-in-movement of these communicative artifacts instead of their observation in-one-place. It is to claim that the meaning they acquire is in their uses and that the place, time and the social, historical and political dynamics of these uses and their materialities matter in the processes of their progressive resemiotization (Iedema, 2007). It is to emphasize not so much their messages, but the chains of diffusion, the processes of sedimentation (Nelson, 2003) and change. It is to claim that semiotic resources, object and action work together to create new realities. In short, it is to recognize that the mobile handmade protest poster is simultaneously an object of and about the past, present and future.



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Zara Pinto Coelho, 01/2020



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