Berny Tan’s essay on The Beehive Design Collective

Below is the essay by VCS student Berny Tan that I introduced in yesterday’s post. It’s wonderful piece of research and writing, and I’d like to thank Berny for giving me permission to share it with a wider audience.

(Note: within the essay below, I have tried to keep the size and appearance of the images as close as possible to the way they look in Berny’s original paper. You can see an enlarged view of each image by clicking on it.)

Poster As Pollination

The Beehive Design Collective and its Educational Use of the Activist Poster

Berny Tan
Reading, Writing, Thinking I
Professor Janice Ahn
December 8 2010

Introduction

In the past century-and-a-half, the poster has become an important part of our visual culture. Whether it serves economic, social or political purposes, each poster has the ability to at least grab our attention, if not ultimately persuade us to action. In particular, increasing socio-political unrest all over the world in the past few decades has resulted in the rise of the ‘political’ or ‘activist’ poster, typified by confrontational imagery and provocative text. The Beehive Design Collective’s approach, however, seems to be the obverse of this model. A non-profit organization composed of volunteer “bees” based in Machias, Maine, the Hive spends years researching and creating stunningly intricate ‘giant posters’ that bring attention to the complexities of social and environmental issues. These posters form the pedagogical foundation for talks, protests, fundraisers and other activities with audiences of all ages. It is in my view that the Hive’s approaches are more successful in the areas of educating and inspiring, as opposed to the conventional methodology adopted by modern activist groups such as the Guerrilla Girls. And yet, effectiveness in these areas has only been achieved by sacrificing relative efficiency and visibility.

The History of the Poster

The origins of the modern poster lie in the 1840s, with advancements in lithographic printing allowing for colorful posters to be printed in large quantities.[i] Nevertheless, it was only with the work of the French artists Jules Cherét and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the latter half of the 19th Century that the modern poster – a reproducible, elegant combination of text and visuals that relied on accessible popular imagery – really entered the public eye. As seen from Figure 1, these posters were originally used to sell theater or circus performances to the bourgeoisie in densely populated urban environments, before evolving into advertisements for consumer goods. From then on, art movements – Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism – and associated artists continued to influence the style and techniques of poster art, ensuring the Poster’s consistent aspiration towards aesthetic quality and innovation.

Figure 1. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘Moulin Rouge: La Goulue’ (1891)

Though the roots of the political poster stem from the turbulence of the French Revolution, when demands for change plastered the walls of Paris, it only matured in the years during and after World War I. From military recruitment to Communist propaganda to the anti-war movements of the post-World War II era, posters had become an indispensable part of any sort of campaign because of their ability to swiftly and effectively convey a call to action. It is such bellicose climates that saw the formation of artist collectives, whose members maintained anonymity – a practice adopted by members of the Hive today. These include the ROSTA (Satire window of the Russian Telegraph Agency), and the November Group of Berlin.[ii]

In recent times, technological advancements such as color-offset lithography in the 1960s and oversize digital printing in the late 20th Century have yet again fueled the development of posters. Despite the rise of digital media, the Poster, while not as powerful as it once was, continues to survive and evolve.

Form and Function in the Giant Poster

These days, the form of the Poster no longer conforms to its initial definitions, i.e. the aforementioned combination of text and imagery. Although it was the introduction of text into visual that first signaled the beginnings of the modern poster, nowadays “either text or image can be used in isolation.”[iii] Nevertheless, a third component remains indispensable, and underlies the function of all posters – the message. A poster needs to be able to ‘sell’ something, even if it is simply an idea (for example, the evils of mountaintop removal coal mining in the Hive’s most recent poster). It needs to convey that in a compelling manner, along with the information required to obtain (or in some cases reject) the specific object or idea.

A poster can never be obscure. The designer cannot allow his work to express a private idea that subsequent generations may be able to unravel: He must achieve instant contact. To do this, he must, like an entertainer, work with his audience.[iv]

Inherent in this characteristic is the desired ability of the poster to grab and command one’s attention. This is the first step towards persuading the viewer to act on the idea that they were just ‘sold.’ Traditionally, this relies on the use of imagery that is both realistic and popular; the more recognizable the images, the more accessible the poster is to the public. Lastly, the mass production of posters satisfies the objective of communicating the message to the most number of people possible. This methodology is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Diagram explaining conventional poster methodology

 

Regardless of the objectives of the poster and the content of the message, this is the basic – if flexible – framework of all posters, activist or otherwise. In comparing the techniques and impact of the Beehive Design Collective and with other groups such as the Guerrilla Girls, for example, one can observe how the Hive has manipulated this methodology to create a unique structure for all their campaigns.

Since their first posters appeared on the streets of New York City in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls have become the quintessential art activist group.[v] Billing themselves as the ‘conscience of the art world,’ they are a gorilla mask-wearing feminist group that has been advocating gender equality in the art world for the past twenty-five years. Confrontational statistics-backed posters and theatricality have defined their activist approach. The group has achieved international infamy by succeeding in bringing attention to the previously hidden gender discrimination of the art institution and market.

Restricted to the consideration of their use of the Poster, the Guerrilla Girls are the apparent antithesis of the Beehive Design Collective. Firstly, the Hive practically excludes all unnecessary text from their posters, although they do print accompanying explanatory narratives. The entire poster is an elaborate visual mapping of the issue at hand, depicting well-researched historical and current situations that explain the causes and effects of their chosen social or environmental issue. To appeal to all ages, the characters are represented by animals instead of humans, a technique that recalls Aesop’s fables or Peter Rabbit, and in fact many traditional folk tales around the world [Figure 3]. Conversely, the Guerrilla Girls use hard facts in the form of text distilled into an eye-catching and often accusatory slogan accompanied – if at all – by one simple but effective image that encapsulates their message [Figure 4].

Figure 3. Beehive Design Collective, ‘The True Cost of Coal’ (2010)[vi]

Figure 4. Guerrilla Girls, ‘Do women have to be naked…?” (2004, first appeared 1989)

The Hive’s approach certainly has its disadvantages. It lacks the straightforwardness of the Guerrilla Girls’ posters, which efficiently convey important information – the statistics clearly show the gender inequality in the art world. Despite the option for a poster to rely on either imagery or text, it is uncommon to adopt imagery on such a dizzyingly large scale, akin to a mural on paper (‘The True Cost of Coal’ measures 30” x 60”). Furthermore, the images used by the Hive are far from simplified for “instant contact.” They seem to have chosen the opposite route by making their images so detailed that the viewer needs to delve into the poster in order to discover every single one of its overlapping stories. As such, they have had to add an additional step into the process, depending heavily on the passionate speakers that tour with their posters each season to act as the ‘middleman’ between the viewer and the poster. Seen purely in relation to the efficacy of the Poster model, their method appears to be much more cumbersome.

Yet, the ‘cumbersome’ nature of this method also works in its favor. While the Guerrilla Girls may be adept at communicating their point of view, they do not provide the means to understand the complexities of the situation in the art world – merely the evidence of the situation. This is directly opposed to the Hive’s choice of the giant poster:

The style and size of our posters… gives us the opportunity to talk about many different things at once… [‘The True Cost of Coal’] is not just about the mechanics of MTR. It’s also about the economy, American history, and all the amazing things happening to resist it. The size of the poster itself shows you how complex our world is, and how we must include the big picture in our considerations for the future.[vii]

In addition, this approach opens the door to face-to-face conversation between the members of the Hive and the public, allowing for the direct transference of both knowledge and passion. There exists that devotion to the act of explaining each detail of the poster such that their audience can fully grasp the issue, just as they had done so when they had intensively conducted research through “listening projects” with affected communities.

Next, the Hive also does not appear to make full use of the reproducibility of posters to increase the visibility of their organization, which is mostly limited to the activist community.[viii] Partly as a result of the need for explanation of the graphics, their posters are not as widely distributed, at least not in the way that those of the Guerrilla Girls have done (that is, by plastering the walls of the streets). Although their material is readily available online, their main channel to the public is through grassroots activities – that means that their reach is restricted by the number of ‘bees’ that they can send out into the country and region to give talks or participate in public events. Furthermore, they spend years on the process of research and illustration just to create one poster.[ix] In this age, one would think that the most efficient way for a poster to be produced and spread is via digital illustration and printing. Nevertheless, the Hive stands by the principle of producing painstakingly detailed hand-drawn illustrations: “We are openly resisting against … the over-stimulating input of information that our media today offers us.”[x] Thus, it is simply not feasible for them to utilize the methods provided by mass media to their fullest potential.

Again, these sacrifices have merely been a means to an end. Their limited reach is made up for in terms of depth of understanding achieved with each member of the public that they come into contact with. Additionally, the championing of hand-drawn illustration is respectable and ultimately much more inspiring – the artists are able to develop and contemplate a landscape of multiple layers and metaphors (such as the symbolism of the animals) that captivates each viewer. It invites the viewer to revel in a process of absorbing information that is stimulating, as opposed to being fed statistics in a typical one-sided relationship with a poster. All of the Collective’s posters are black-and-white and anti-copyright, and they are available on their website for download. They intend for the posters to be reproduced even beyond their control and used over and over again as “educational and organizational tools.”[xi] This sets up the foundations for the Hive and their posters to enjoy a longevity that may be unattainable by other social groups.

Lastly, with consideration of the provocative nature of most activist posters, we see that the Hive’s giant posters are once again on the other end of the spectrum. Any negative imagery are not exaggerated. In fact, they are muted by the use of animals and beautiful hand-drawn illustrations. Yet, the Collective clearly wants to inspire the public to contribute to their cause, and the issues are pressing. Consider this comment on the French Revolution: “…in revolutionary times the poster cannot be subtle. It guides or demands; it invites denunciation or participation; it lists suspects; it incites people to hate. In short, it plays an active role in shaping events.”[xii] Such animosity can be seen in the posters of the Guerrilla Girls. They unabashedly “list suspects” (male artists, critics, galleries and museums), “incite hate,” and fiercely “demand” change; essentially, each poster is a direct call to action.

Such confrontational tactics, however, can also be a repellant. Sensationalism and controversy can be an affront to the average person’s sensibilities, and they might refuse the information altogether. Therefore, the more narrative and benign approach adopted by the Hive in their posters can be much more persuasive to many more people, especially when presented by someone who believes deeply in the cause: “We are presenting a reality that we believe is so compelling that people will feel moved to action on their own – without provocative slogans or pressure.”[xiii] Clearly, the Hive has discovered their own ‘call to action’ that is buried inside their complex designs, but still strongly emanates from within each poster and talk.

Conclusion: Bees vs. Gorillas

This analysis was not to disparage the efforts of the Guerrilla Girls. Like the members of the Beehive Design Collective, the Guerrilla Girls also tour the country each year to make presentations about their history and work. It is simply that the Guerrilla Girls take a different approach styled on the characteristics of guerrilla warfare, and they do not rely as heavily on their posters as educational tools. Theirs is a commentary on the patriarchal institutionalism of the art world, and therefore they seek to be anti-institutional in order to undermine the established order. The Hive are fundamentally a grassroots organization, and thus their priority with regard to their posters is to weave an elegant narrative that will educate as well as inspire the public – if not to join their fight, then at least to donate and lead more responsible lives. In that sense, their approach is evocative, hopeful, and creative, as opposed to the provocative, cynical, and destructive nature of the Guerrilla Girls posters.

The Hive has adapted the Poster model to their own educational needs by combining an awe-inspiring visual experience with committed research and passionate speakers. They only seem to be ineffective within the conventional criteria for the Poster; thus, they need to be assessed based on their individual intentions and approaches. The Hive has thus found a much more informative and motivational method of utilizing this print medium. Nevertheless, it is a very specialized and labor-intensive model that is not necessarily useful for other activist groups; the replication of this model would also diminish its singular effect on the wider audience.

Admittedly, they have sacrificed a certain efficiency expected of the Poster in order to successfully construct this model. Who knows how much more well known or at least how much further their message might have reached if they had done things differently – but then again, who knows if they would have been famous for the wrong reasons, or if that breadth would be at the expense of a depth of understanding? One must also realize that that kind of efficiency and speed is exactly the kind of “instant gratification” of the modern world that they are trying to oppose.[xiv] The “gratification” that the audience attains from their posters lies in the knowledge gained and emotions stirred, much like a good storybook should do. That is, all their ‘sacrifices’ have been deliberate decisions that in fact enhance the unique and engaging accessibility of their approaches.

If number crunching is to be done, they are probably one of the more successful non-profit organizations. They have handed out over 75,000 posters, purely by hand, in the past ten years. Although these posters are all provided for free, they are 90% funded by donations.[xv] In their current Kickstarter campaign, which still has 55 days left on the clock as of December 6, 2010, they have already exceeded their initial donation target of $5,000 by $2,755.[xvi] The growing support for their organization will lead to further dissemination of posters that can be used repeatedly as teaching tools in the years to come. Hopefully, this means that the Hive will be able to sustain their activities for a long time – for at least as long as the 25 years of the Guerrilla Girls – and pollinate many more minds in the process.

Bibliography

Ansell, Joseph, and Thorpe, James. “The Poster.” Art Journal. 44.1 (1984): 7-8.

Bee, Erin. E-mail interview. 16 Nov. 2010.

“Beehive Design Collective.” 2010. Beehive Design Collective. 16 Nov. 2010.

Barnicoat, John. Posters: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Freeland, Cynthia. But is it art?. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Gallo, Max. The Poster In History. Feltham: Hamlyn, 1974.

“GUERRILLA GIRLS: Fighting discrimination with facts, humor and fake fur.” 2010.

“Is the Beehive Collective’s “True Cost of Coal” poster a bourgeois, capitalist project?: A response to Keith Spencer.” 21 Oct. 2010. 16 Nov. 2010.

Spencer, Keith. “The True Cost of Coal (and Urban Condos): a Poststructuralist Critique of the Beehive.” 3 Oct. 2010. 16 Nov. 2010.

“The Beehive Collective’s 10th Anniversary Poster Print Run.” 2010. Kickstarter. 6 Dec. 2010.

Timmers, Margaret. The Power Of The Poster. London: V & A Publications, 1998.

Von Blum, Paul. “New Visions, New Viewers, New Vehicles: Twentieth-Century Developments

in North American Political Art.” Leonardo. 26.5 (1993): 459 – 466.

Weisberg, Gabriel P. “Graphic Art in America: The Artistic and Civic Poster in the United States

Reconsidered.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts. 16 (1990): 104-113.

Withers, Josephine. “The Guerrilla Girls.” Feminist Studies. 14.2 (1988): 284-300.


[i] David Crowley, “The Propaganda Poster,” The Power of the Poster, ed. Margaret Timmer (London: V&A Publications, 1998) 103.

[ii] John Barnicoat, “Posters: A Concise History,” (New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1985) 226-231.

[iii] Margaret Timmer, “Introduction,” The Power of the Poster, ed. Margaret Timmer (London: V&A Publications, 1998) 8.

[iv] Barnicoat 183.

[v] Josephine Withers, “The Guerrilla Girls,” Feminist Studies, 1988, 285.

[vii] Erin Bee, personal interview, Nov. 27 2010.

[ix] The Hive’s “The True Cost of Coal” poster took a total of two years, while their current project “Mesoamerica Resiste” is seven years in the making.

[x] Erin Bee, personal interview, Nov. 27 2010.

[xii] Max Gallo, “The Poster In History,” (USA: American-Heritage Publishing, 1974) 7.

[xiii] Erin Bee, personal interview, Nov. 27 2010.

[xiv] Erin Bee, personal interview, Nov. 27 2010.

Visual & Critical Studies