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Insurgent artist Josh MacPhee speaks at GVSU on art and resistance

November 2, 2012

Last night, GVSU hosted artist Josh MacPhee, with the international arts cooperative known as Just Seeds.

Josh identifies as a printmaker, but he said that his work and that of the collective is more about collecting people’s culture, particularly cultures of resistance.

He told the audience of mostly students and faculty that he wanted to talk about 5 projects the cooperative has been involved in, all of which deal with history. But before he discusses these project, MacPhee says that he had an interest in art from very early on, especially as a means of telling a story. He showed the audience a slide of a drawing he did at 6 of dinosaurs. He also told those in attendance that he was involved in punk rock, which because of its political nature, also influenced the evolution of his interest in doing radical art.

The Just Seeds Cooperative has produced two books, with two more in the works, books that are collections of international political artwork. The most recent volume Signal: 02, that we included in our recommended reading section, is a fabulous selection of international political art, which includes art from the 1968 Mexican student movement that was brutally repressed.

MacPhee then shifted to talking about the history-themed projects he mentioned in his opening remarks. One of those projects was called Resourced, dealing with the environment and resource extraction. While doing this project there was a campaign to bring a pipeline in with liquefied gas, which led to other prints being made. Just after this there was a large climate change summit in Cancun, where lots of their work was shown/used.

He then talked about the Quebec student movement, which was in part a response to the government’s attempt to increase student tuition. Massive protests broke out and the students made all kinds of images and used them for posters, signs, banners and put them in windows.

A third project that MacPhee mentioned was the Celebrate People’s History Project. This project was designed to both investigate and communicate the rich history of activism in particularly communities, a history, which has often been suppressed. MacPhee says about 60 of them have already been created, but many more are in the works. He said that the idea was to get them up on the street and add an e-mail addresses on the poster, so people could respond and give input. MacPhee says they get responses both positive and critical, but either way it has generated lots of conversation about this forgotten or suppressed history.

MacPhee then discussed the project they called United Victorian Workers.  This was a project to reclaim the suppressed history about the radical labor organizing that was taking place over 100 years ago in one town. The group used street theater and gave out worker newspapers and buttons as a means to educate people about what organized workers did in those days. Here is a video of the project:

Another project MacPhee highlighted was called Spectres of Liberty. This is a multi-media project to make history visible, particularly the history of anti-slavery resistance that has been suppressed in the city of Troy. Ironically, Troy is supposed to be the hometown of the mythical character of Uncle Sam. Here is a video of one of those projects entitled The Ghosts of Liberty Street Church:

MacPhee also talked about a project called Interference Archive, which evolved out of their experience of dealing with archivists, who too often were unwilling to grant access to material created by activists in the past or were unwilling to allow such archived material come alive again in projects that people were working on. Their project was to create an archive space with materials available for anyone, so people can not only look at material, but use it again. They also use the space for creating new work, screenings, critiques, hosting exhibition and creating/displaying zines.

The last project that MacPhee presented dealt with the decades long struggle against the use of nuclear power. In this project there was an effort to connect the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island in 1979 in Pennsylvania to what has happen at the Fukushima plant in Japan. Josh talked about how so many Hollywood movies are about The Apocalypse, which isually is presented as happening quite abruptly, but it was his contention, based on what is happening in Japan, that the Apocalypse happens slowly and we get to watch it. MacPhee said there is a massive movement in Japan against the nuke plant, where every week at least 50,000 people are protesting and using art as a form of resistance. MacPhee showed us a print he did that used the culturally iconic image of the Hollywood symbol in California and replaced it with the word Fukushima. MacPhee did this, waste from the nuclear disaster in Japan are now washing up on shore in California.

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