I sat down with the indomitable Rachael Young on Sunday 1/22 to talk wall murals in Belfast, the #YesEquality campaign for LGBT marriage rights in Dublin, PhD programs and why history is hard, and the Women’s March. Rachael uses my new favorite term “Activist Art” to describe the political statements happening on walls, fences, protest signs, social media.
Read pieces of our conversation below, or listen to the full interview above! If you want to learn more about anything talked about, links can be found at the bottom of the post or ask your questions in the comments.
Liz: Okay, we are on for one of our first episodes of Aria Fritta. I’m here with Rachael Young, who graduated Summa Cum Laude from Temple University where you studied history and art history. You have a Master in Philosophy in Modern Irish History with high honors from Trinity College Dublin. Yes, I looked at your LinkedIn page. And you’re currently applying to PhD programs. In addition to all of these incredible accolades, Ray is also one of my oldest friends in the world and I’m really excited to have her on today. So we’ll talk about art, you just did the women’s march, you traveled all over Europe, there’s a lot of things we can cover today. But I wanted to start: tell us a little bit about yourself.
Rachael: You’re making me blush. That nice list of accolades, what a good word. It sounds so much better on paper. So I did my undergraduate in history and art history in true nerd fashion. And just graduated in April with my Masters in modern Irish history which is great…useless.
Liz: Why Irish history? Why was that a thing?
Rachael: It was a thing because I did a lot of European and British history while I was in undergrad, and then I came to realize that I was writing all of my papers in Anglo-Irish history. We only had one British history professor, so I took all of his classes. Every assignment he gave us, I said “So, I know this is what you assigned, but can i write about this? It’s this weird thing that I found, this Anglo-Irish thing?” And he’s like, “Live your dreams, kid.”
Liz: What sparked your interest in history in general? I know when we were in high school, you were really interested in the history classes. We took Ancient Greek History together, but you also piled on additional history classes.
Rachael: I did. What a nerd. What was that? A double history class, plus AP Gov and AP European History. Not the useful things, like science and math.
Liz: Why did history draw you in?
Rachael: It’s kind of, for me, on the same level as being interested in reading. I think if people are big readers, they tend to be more interested in history because it’s the same concept. I get to sit down and throw myself into a completely different world. And there’s a different century, a different country, a different continent. Every one of those is basically a whole bookshelf waiting to be explored. I think that’s what really drew me in. I could learn as much as I wanted about this one thing and that was great. And then, there’s always something else. There’s always another decade, there’s always another place to go. I think that’s why it really drew me in.
Liz: And then you studied Anglo-Irish history while you were at Temple University in Philadelphia and then moved to Ireland to pursue your masters. Was that weird to have the modern Irish current affairs along with the history you were studying?
Rachael: Yeah, it was very weird, and also amazing. I lived in Dublin one year before the hundred years [anniversary] of the 1916 uprising: The Easter Rising that kind of started the Irish independence movement; that’s considered the main thing. So it was really cool, because I got to be there for the whole gear up towards that.
Liz: What did that look like?
Rachael: It was frustrating. It was really awesome, but really frustrating, because nobody wanted to talk about anything but 1916. While I find that fascinating, it wasn’t my real interest. I was much more modern kind of Irish history, like 1980’s to present.
On Wall Murals in Northern Ireland
Rachael: I wrote my dissertation on the wall murals in the troubles in Northern Ireland. So everyone else in my program was doing 1916, WWI, because it was also the hundred years [anniversary of] WWI. So everyone was very very early Irish history, and I’m just over there in the corner like, “Can I cite the internet? I mean, I know I can do that, but are you going to let me?” Everyone else is buried in the library, and I’m out taking photos of paintings that I find on walls.
Liz: Why murals, then? How did that tie into the 1980’s?
Rachael: Actually, my professor at Temple who just let me run amok, was the one that originally turned me on to this idea, because at Temple, I did history and art history. You would think that there is so much more crossover, but there really isn’t. So it was this weird place where art historians would just write about very high art, which is great and I love looking at all the gallery walls. I’ve dragged many people through and given my weird lecture on anything in any museum…
Liz: Friends, family…
Rachael: Friends, family, strangers, and small children who are terrified. Anyone, really. But it’s all very high art, which is great, but it’s not the common people. If we’re talking about art in the French Revolution, and I love that art, but it’s not the art that people who lived in France then actually got the chance to see that much. There’s a weird disconnect. So my professor was like, “If you’re super into art, why don’t you write about wall murals in Northern Ireland?” I had never even looked at one or heard of them before at all. He said, “There’s this huge collection of wall murals in Northern Ireland dividing the neighborhood, basically in Belfast.” If you’ve never been to Belfast, they have walls up still. Huge walls, with security gates, still to this day.
On the walls of neighborhoods, people painted murals; and they were a marker of territory and to show support and that this street was a protestant or a loyalist street, and this street was a republican street; because everyone looks the same in Northern Ireland. It’s very weird to have a division where it’s Protestants and Catholics or Loyalists and Republicans.
Liz: They’re not wearing that on their skin or on their t-shirt.
Rachael: Yeah, exactly. So, a Loyalist neighborhood, the houses look the same as two streets over where it’s just Republicans. You have to visually display your identity. That’s where the murals come in. They already have this big tradition of parades and bunting and flags and all this other stuff. But it was actually, for a very long time, illegal for Republicans, for people who wanted Northern Ireland to be part of Ireland again; it was illegal for them to display a lot of these things. So these wall murals crept up in the 1980s, after they [Republicans] started having hunger strikes… So, to show their support, these wall murals started creeping up. They were very graffiti-esque, spray-painted and then it grew into this huge thing, because they’re easy to paint. There’s no real authorship to them, so no one can really get in trouble. It’s a great way to show resistance when you have so little options.
Liz: Like a grassroots movement.
Rachael: Yeah, so it blew up.
Liz: How did the government of Northern Ireland react to that? How did the police fight that?
Rachael: They fought it basically when they first started, but they weren’t illegal. The murals weren’t illegal. But it was this very weird kind of “you don’t do it”. They come, you’re going to get a rude knock on your door; or the next time you need the police, they might not show up kind of thing. They were not fans. It was hard, because you can’t really curb that. It’s very quick, it’s very easy to do, it’s anonymous. It’s the 1980’s, you can’t really be a government that’s like, “We ban wall murals”. That’s a ridiculous thing. So it grew and grew and grew. So Loyalists always had wall murals, it was always a thing that they did. But Republicans never had them, and then all of a sudden this explosion happened. Then Loyalists had to go, “Oh shit, we should probably get some different wall murals. We should probably do some of our own wall murals that aren’t this one same theme.” So then it just built upon itself.
Liz: What were the themes from the two different streams of wall murals?
Rachael: So you have Loyalist ones, which tend to be orange, which is a throwback to the Battle of the Boyne, their leader that fought…I’m going to go so nerd on you.
Liz: Bring it.
Rachael: It’s this whole idea that when the Catholics and the Protestants fought in 1601, the leader that came to the English one was Dutch, so he had the orange colors. He’s William of Orange, so they have a lot of orange. He’s called “King Billy”. That used to be the only theme, just giant. Like King Billy on a horse, and that was it. And they’re so ugly. But, they have all these weird [similarities]…he’s in the same position, you always know who he is. That was the only thing that was up.
Liz: Okay, were there slogans? Symbols besides King Billy?
Rachael: For a while, for the Loyalists, not really. And then, they were like, “We should probably find some new stuff to paint, because this one theme is going to kill us.” So they had a couple new themes come out. They started doing historical events, which both sides did. They did mythology, and they did a lot of fighters, a lot of arms, struggles, resistance, a lot of guns, faces with masks and all this other stuff. And Republicans had; it’s the same kind of theme, they had hunger strikers, which they used to paint the most famous one; his name is Bobby Sands. Bobby Sands was everywhere on these murals, just painted to look like Jesus. He had the straggly long hair, and he was really thin…
Liz: From the hunger strikes?
Rachael: Yeah, from the hunger strikes. Not really good for one’s figure. They would paint him in Pieta form, being held by the Virgin Mary. So Bobby Sands, he died from the hunger strike. That was their first real theme: painting Bobby Sands and other hunger strikers. Then, they also grew into historical events. They would paint images of Catholics being slaughtered, and the Protestants would pick theirs too.
They also did masked gunmen. They did a lot of connections to other resistance movements. They had a lot of murals painted with Palestinian flags and South African flags and civil rights leaders.
Liz: The idea being “our resistance is part of this global resistance”?
Rachael: Yeah, and to give themselves this kind of legitimacy. They’re claiming that their rights are being subverted and they’re being oppressed. So it’s this group within Northern Ireland, and within Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as this entity, are suppressing their right to be reunited with the rest of Ireland. So it’s a lot of Martin Luther King Jr. and basically any civil rights leader they could find, they had portraits of [them]. What I studied was how these themes changed. It’s a big span of time. The “Troubles” is very vague term that lumps a bunch of stuff together for problems in Northern Ireland. But the big stuff was from the ’80s into the ’90s and the early 2000’s. I studied from 1981 until 2006, so 25 years… Because they were such a huge thing, a lot of them were photographed, so they have these huge archives of these murals, and you can kind of watch them evolve. You can see these paintings change based on: the politics that are changing, and global trends, and all these other things. My dissertation was saying that if you follow the trends in these themes, you see the change in group identity. Basically, these murals became the way that you presented your group to everyone, to your own group, to your enemy, to the world. You’re talking about a giant image on the side of a house that’s like, “This is us. This is how we see ourselves. Or this is how we see the enemy. This is our identity.”
Liz: So there’s self-expression. Were they also hoping to recruit?
Rachael: You hoped to recruit, you hoped to intimidate, you hoped to mark territory. There’s a whole range of uses for them, as a physical object. But there’s also this thing, that even if they don’t realize it, this is the group identity. If it’s not the group’s identity, then the mural changes. It becomes antiquated and they get rid of it.
Liz: What’s an example of that?
Rachael: Take the King Billy ones, the original Loyalist murals…They had Loyalist murals going back to the early 1900’s. It was just a wall of King Billy. It wasn’t a big thing, it was just their symbol, and that’s what they did. And then, in the ’80s, they had to change it. They were like, “This is no longer just us. We are not just this image. We have other grievances. We need to change our image because this isn’t how we see ourselves anymore.” Because now, Republicans were fighting back, harder and stronger, so they [Loyalists] needed their own identity. All their beliefs and what they were doing didn’t drastically change, but it morphs over time. So they moved away from that theme. It’s not that it wasn’t there, it just became less prevalent. That shift from that image being the most painted one to a different theme, like an historical event. It portrays a different ideal. It portrays a different kind of sense of self.
Rachael: The first Republican murals came out in 1981, which is why then they [Loyalist Murals] had to change. If you watch, the number of King Billy themed murals goes down starting in 1981. It drastically goes down and other themes rise, because of historical events. And then, taking place of historical events would be something like, paramilitary figures. There’s a rise of paramilitary figures and guns and terrifying screams and shots and blood.
Liz: Sure, rainbows and unicorns.
Rachael: Basically. That’s what we like to do. And then that theme changed, because then it became too violent. In the ’90s, there are a lot of on and off peace talks. You know, there’s two years of peace, and then somebody breaks it, and all this other stuff. So it became a thing that they were seen as too violent. All of a sudden, Loyalists are looking like the bloodthirsty, kind of crazy ones who won’t bend: they won’t do anything, they won’t try to give this up, because look, they’re still painting bazookas on walls across the street from schools. So that theme had to change. It’s not just that they were like, “That image doesn’t look good for us anymore, we have to change it.” They changed how they saw themselves.
That was basically my whole dissertation, this idea that if you studied the themes, you’re left with a pictorial map of the change in group identity, through the conflict
A mural is part of the community, so if the community doesn’t like it, they get rid of it. If they do like it, it’s protected. A lot of times, murals would be paint bombed, and the community would rise together to fix it or scrub it clean. So you know that that is an image they cared about. And if they don’t, then it gets painted over, it falls into disarray, and then eventually someone comes and paints a different theme there. So the community kind of reacts to it. They take care of it. It’s not easy, but the understanding is that: if this wasn’t how they saw themselves, it wouldn’t be there. When they change, it’s gone. The community has chosen to take it down and we’ve replaced it with this.
Liz: Now, you traveled to Belfast a number of times to look at these murals in person. Did you find fresh murals? Is that still a way that folks are expressing themselves?
Rachael: Fresh murals are still a thing. The ones there today tend to be a lot more hopeful. Don’t get me wrong, you still get the same giant murals of King Billy; there’s still murals of Palestinian flags and Martin Luther King. The paramilitaries have drastically dropped, because there has been peace there for a substantial amount of time now. They like to do ones with more modern themes now. Any kind of new struggle that comes up, a mural goes up.
Liz: Like what?
Rachael: Oh, there were a bunch of them for when Obama came into power. They put a bunch of them with civil rights leaders, like linking Martin Luther King and Obama. I wouldn’t call it a Black Lives Matter connection, they were too early for that, but there were a lot of civil rights ones that came out. They have a really good one of a side-by-side of Catholic school children having to walk through a Protestant neighborhood to school and getting heckled next to the one of that famous picture of…I’m going to sound like an idiot because I can’t remember her name…of the girl, the primary school kid, who walked into…, she’s clutching her book.
Liz: She was the first black girl to integrate into a [white] school.
Rachael: Right, so they put those side by side. That one is an old one, but basically, any new thing that comes up, civil liberties-wise or anything with Palestine or things like that, it comes up as a new mural, to remind everyone. So there are fresh ones painted, and the themes are still there, but they are definitely less violent.
On Yes Campaign and Marriage Equality:
Liz: I’m wondering…I know you were also there for when they legalized gay marriage in Ireland. Was that a theme in the artwork? I’m also wondering about the internet, how that changed the art.
Rachael: It’s very weird, it’s drastically different in Northern Ireland and Ireland. This whole mural aspect of Northern Ireland, it didn’t really filter down into the Republic of Ireland. There were certain areas where Republican sentiments were much higher in the Republic of Ireland and people cared more about the struggle. Murals would pop up there, but it wasn’t this huge explosion like it was in Belfast. The mural scene is different in Dublin. That’s where I lived. I was in Dublin for the passing of gay marriage; and I’m actually proposing for my PhD work a study on the use of activist imagery and murals and how those images filter from walls into other mediums. Case in point, they had this beautiful mural in Dublin…
The murals hadn’t really sparked on in Dublin. Dublin has some really beautiful murals, but they were more cultural, they weren’t really political… And then they had this push for marriage equality, they called it the Yes Campaign. The Yes Campaign just was so brilliant. They had not a lot, but they had a couple [of murals]. They would sponsor them, they got a bunch of artists who don’t…not that they’re not political, but they weren’t doing big huge concepts like marriage equality. Which was a huge deal for Ireland, because they … only decriminalized homosexuality in our lifetime. It’s a huge jump. So the Yes Campaign had these artists, some of them worked on their own, some were working with the campaign; these murals just popped up. One of them was this beautiful mural, on one of the busiest streets in Dublin, huge. It was two male figures hugging each other. That mural became this huge thing in all of Ireland. Pictures were all over the internet, people were holding signs beneath it, somebody threw eggs on it. This mural became a huge deal as part of the campaign for marriage equality.
Liz: What was depicted in the mural?
Rachael: It was this huge gray-scale image of just two male figures holding one another, and they were close. That was it.
Liz: Very simple.
Rachael: Yeah, it was very simple and they had a bunch of other, smaller scale murals go up.
Liz: Of the same image?
Rachael: No, not of the same image. They had a fist that was painted rainbow that said “Yes”. They gave out these badges that were like, “YesEquality” and rainbows, so they had that image everywhere…Once it was up, the image went kind of everywhere. Ireland is not that big, so when something gets national headlines, it’s absolutely everywhere. Images of these murals were spreading all over. They were on the internet and people were “liking” them. People were talking about putting those images on other things. These murals became a source of both contention and support… They took this tradition that Northern Ireland has and kind of made it their own. Actually, just a couple of months ago, marriage equality passed, which was wonderful. I’ve never been to a better gay pride parade, ever in my life, than the first gay pride parade in Dublin after they got same-sex marriage. It was beautiful. They have the most beautiful drag queen. Her name is Panty Bliss.
Liz: Good name.
Rachael: Right? She’s so spot on. So, that campaign ended, and right now they actually have a campaign to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution, which bans abortion. It’s basically an argument over a woman’s right to choose. In Ireland, they have a huge, I can’t tell you the number off the top of my head, but it’s a huge number of girls who have to travel to England to get an abortion.
Liz: Ireland still has very deeply seated Catholic ideals, within the government.
Rachael: Their constitution is based on Catholic ideals. Actually for the marriage equality movement, the main argument against was that it hurt families and children. It was very different from the argument against homosexuality we tend to hear in America. It wasn’t a big push about religion and homosexuality being a sin. It was very much about “a child should have a mother and a father”.
Liz: Interesting. So it was more about the effects on the day-to-day versus pulling out biblical passages.
Rachael: It was very strange. It’s kind of the same thing, the idea of a woman’s right to choose is portrayed differently in Ireland. There’s a current fight to repeal the 8th amendment. In this spot in Dublin called Temple Bar, where all the tourists go. Everyone who wants to go to Dublin, goes to Temple Bar. That mural I was telling you about, the Yes Fist, it was painted in Temple Bar, on this theater arts building. It was huge, everyone stopped and took pictures of it. That mural came down after they legalized same sex marriage and a couple months later, in September-ish, somebody put up another mural. It was a mural, by the same artist, to repeal the 8th. It actually got painted over, because the Dublin City Council was like, “We didn’t approve for this mural to be here.” It became a huge issue in Dublin and all of Ireland… It’s like one of those things where, if you don’t want a child to do something, you just ignore that behavior. They just completely zeroed in on it. They very publicly had a huge battle and painted over the mural. For the next month, there were images of it everywhere, from Galway to Northern Ireland. They projected the image with projectors on buildings; it was on shirts. It spread like wildfire.
Liz: What was the image?
Rachael: It was just a simple little outline that said “Repeal the 8th”. It was nothing grotesque or odd or anything that a passerby would be offended by, content-wise.
Liz: It wasn’t a photo of a fetus or anything.
Rachael: Yeah, it wasn’t one of those terrifying ones. It just said “Repeal the 8th”. That was it. It became this huge thing. So now, Dublin has these spots, these spots where these murals have been are now…Any mural that goes up there, kind of becomes a political statement. The place where they had the mural of the two male figures, so that came down, and a different artist, who I actually got a chance to talk to, he put up a mural of three female figures from the Irish Revolution, three famous women. Their hair is all tangled together. It’s a really beautiful image. He’s not a super political artist, so I talked to him and was like, “Were you trying to make a statement? Because you’ve now put up a mural of women on this spot, this contested spot, during a time where they’re discussing a woman’s right to choose.” He was like, “Well, I made the mural to represent women in 1916, because it was the 100 year anniversary. But, you can’t put a mural there anymore without it being a thing.” Now they have these spots in Dublin where any image that goes up there…
Liz: Is going to be interpreted as a political statement in today’s world. Interesting. What is that artist’s name?
Rachael: Gerard O’Shea
Rachael: So my PhD idea is to study how these activist images transfer from thing to thing. So in Northern Ireland, they tended to transfer, in the early 80’s and 90’s, to calendars and buttons and badges and posters and bumper stickers. If you go to Belfast, all the postcards are just of the murals. It’s a thing that Belfast is now famous for. You can do a mural tour and all this other stuff. So, comparing that to how an activist image spreads to other mediums, how people make it part of their everyday life versus…how people take these activist images and using social media and the internet make it part of their every day life. It’s one thing, as a group to identify with an image, but when you as a person choose to bring it [into your life]. You’re not just walking past the mural and going, “Oh, I love that mural!”, you’re wearing it or you’ve ‘liked’ it or you’ve shared an image of it on Facebook. It’s part of your identity at this time now, your visual identity and how you represent yourself.
On PhD History Programs
Liz: Now, going back to your PhD program… you were saying that when you bring this idea to PhD programs that it is sort of hard for some of the PhD programs to get their heads around it. Why is that?
Rachael: It’s hard because it’s not a usual history project. One, it’s very modern. Which, like I said, was a problem that I had while at Trinity. The next closest person to me, time-wise, was somebody writing about WWII. My dissertation started in 1981, and the next person closest to me in time was WWII.
Liz: The juxtaposition of Modern History. It seems like an oxymoron.
Rachael: It does seem like an oxymoron. And I clearly had taken the idea of modern history way farther than they were taking the idea of modern history. It isn’t a problem with all programs, it just happened to be the one I was in. It also uses visual images as primary sources, which, I’m generalizing here, but historians tend to use as back-up instead of evidence. I remember sitting down and having a meeting with my advisor at Trinity and I told her I had just come back from Belfast and here are all these things I’ve found and here’s what I want to write. And she said, “Don’t you have any text-based evidence to kind of show the change in group identity?” And I said, “Well, yeah. Found a bunch. I took down notes and all this other stuff, but that’s not the point of my dissertation. I don’t want to use that as the foundation and put the images in as a sprinkle on top. You’re missing the idea. The idea is the images.” It’s very hard for some history programs to accept that. They want text-based sources. I always hear things like, “I think it’s very interesting. I think the topic would do well, but I’m not sure if it belongs here.” It’s a bunch of things combined. I think it’s the modernness, and now I’m at the point where I really want to use social media [as a source]. To go into a PhD proposal for a history department and be like, “Yes, I would like to use Twitter of 2016”, it’s just very different. It’s the modernness, the social media, the images. So I split my PhD applications between History programs and Visual Studies programs.
Liz: What is Visual Studies?
Rachael: Didn’t know it was a thing until I found out that historians don’t like me.
Liz: That was a bad time to take a sip of water.
Rachael: It’s this concept of how images are used. Sometimes it’s in culture, sometimes it’s in history. It’s basically about images and content in culture and media. For example, the program I really want is at NYU. It’s Media, Culture and Communication. I proposed an idea of studying how an image interacts with people and how it spreads from one medium to another. That’s the visual studies part of it, you’re focused on the image and the media. So they don’t have a problem that I don’t want to use text-based sources. They are like, “That sounds great!”
Liz: That’s right up their alley.
Rachael: It’s a budding field. Most people have the same reaction, no idea what it is.
Liz: That’s very cool, and new. I feel like it will have a huge surge in the coming years.
Rachael: As a comparison to history fields, yes. It’s very new. A lot of good history departments are set in their ways.
Liz: Because it works and they create great studies.
Rachael: Yeah, and they produce great historians. But, it’s very structured and rigid, and this is how they do things; which is great, because that’s how they became the great institutes that they are, but it’s very different than the visual studies programs where I just am throwing stuff at the wall.
On the Women’s March and Propaganda
Liz: So, I’m sort of curious…We’re talking about Dublin, we’re talking about how media and social media changes images, and how those images get used to inform identity. You went to the Women’s March yesterday.
Rachael: I did go to the Women’s March yesterday!
Liz: Do you end up looking at signs differently than I do? Because I always look for the fun slogans.
Rachael: The fun slogans are always the best. I think I took photos of just signs. But I would say that I look at them differently, only because I like to look at them and see how that could make its way around. Some of them are hysterical, and that’s great. But some of them, I look at them, and I think, “That image. That could spread like wildfire if it’s used correctly.” I was on Buzzfeed today, and they had “Here’s 25 of the best signs from Women’s Marches Around the Globe”. We’re now talking as if it’s an age, it’s one person who has the sign and it’s now spread its way around.
Liz: Similar to that one artist, painting that one mural.
Rachael: Yeah, it’s now spread its way around Twitter and Buzzfeed and Facebook, and people have shared it and they’ve liked it. Sometimes those images become, now we’re even going into meme territory. It becomes a thing that people recognize for its own…It becomes its own life. This image that was part of this much bigger thing, becomes its own life, and it has a meaning. It has a very distinctive meaning. If you put up that image, the life of that image is part of your life now. It’s part of you. It’s the same with phrases. Like the phrase “Nasty Women”. It’s become it’s own thing. “Nasty” and “Woman” used to be just two words. If I was called a nasty woman before 2016, I would have slapped somebody and now, I have a shirt that proudly says that. I hashtag Nasty Women all the time in all my photos. It’s its own life force. And it happens with images. But, it’s different with images and text.
Rachael: A sign of the words “Nasty Women”, yes it has a connotation and a lot of meaning behind it, but everyone is reading the words nasty women. Yes, it might mean something different to other people, but those are the words. And that’s what it says. If it’s an image, a picture, there’s no way you can tell me that I’ve interpreted it wrong. Also, I feel like it’s easier for people to accept images, because we’re surrounded by them. But, I don’t think people always realize what that says, being surrounded by these images, but people tend to do it. You tend to gather images around you, and you don’t even realize that you’ve done it. Those images now are a part of you. I think the images are different than the words because they’re more subconscious. Because of that, I think they have their own unique way of moving and wrapping themselves around movements and people’s lives. It becomes very different than words or phrases.
Liz: Mentally, the image that came up was the first Obama campaign with that portrait of him. It said “Yes we can” underneath it?
Rachael: Or “Hope”?
Liz: That’s a perfect example. I can’t quite remember what the words were, but I remember the image. The image is very very clear to me.
Rachael: And that image has become its own thing. Actually, for the March, that artist (Shepard Fairey) made different posters of the same kind of design of different women for the Women’s March. One of them was this beautiful face in a hijab that’s the American Flag.
Liz: I saw that, I saw the photo.
Rachael: There were three different ones, and they were all different women that he had done in the same red white and blue color scheme. That image of Obama and those images, they are now their own entity. Because he’s made them look like that image of Obama, you don’t need the words. You don’t need “Hope”. They had ones with Donald Trump that had “Dope” or “Nope” in the same style, but you don’t need the word. You see the image and you immediately know what that is, that it’s linked to this. To carry around that image, or to get a t-shirt with that image, or to ‘like’ it on social media, it means something.
Liz: Yeah, whether you agree with it or not.
Rachael: Yeah, to dislike it or to make a negative remark about it also means something.
Liz: Right, it inspires a response.
Rachael: This image, of this Activist Artwork, it’s done its purpose. This artwork was made and used for this reason. It’s supposed to make you, one way or the other, positively or negatively, bring about change. To bring about discussion, to do all this other stuff. And they do that. I think it’s fascinating that it now happens on such an individual level. All of this stuff makes sense to people. To sit there and look at somebody and they’re like, “What do you want to study for your PhD?” and I go, “Oh you know, visual imagery and identity in these images” and they go, “Oh my god, that makes so much sense.” Nobody has done a study on this idea, but everybody goes, “Oh yeah, of course it makes sense! Of course the images that I like and that I surround myself with are part of me.”
Liz: I wonder if there’s some danger in…Not in studying it, I think studying it is important. But I’m wondering if part of the reason it’s important to stuedy it is to be aware of the subconscious response to it and be aware of that danger. I’m thinking of propaganda from WWII. And I’m thinking of some of the memes that go around, that gain a lot of popularity, but are maybe not entirely factual in the words. But you start to have the autoresponse to the image. I don’t really have a question there, just a statement.
Rachael: I do think that if anyone wants to start a study of images, WWII propaganda posters are a great place. When I first started writing history papers, that’s what I wrote on; and of propaganda artwork in the French Revolution. It’s always been a thing. It’s not a new concept that these images are used this way. It’s just that now, in 2017, there is so much. It’s not one painting hanging in a wall in a gallery, it’s not a couple of murals on a street in Belfast, it’s a bombardment. Just think about Instagram, you scroll through image after image after image. All of those images, they have some sort of effect. It’s the same: the images on gallery walls, the WWII posters, and murals have always had these effects, but now, it’s so individual. Everyone has, all the time with social media and the internet, a constant thing.
Liz: It’s an echo chamber of images.
Rachael: Basically. Now, we’re talking about all these images floating from one medium to another and do they mean different things if they’re in different mediums? Is it different if you buy an image, if you buy one of those t-shirts with the Hope image? Is it different if you paid money for it, does that change it versus something you don’t have to pay for? Do certain images in certain mediums become popular with certain subgroups? Do they become popular in certain areas, because they cling to this image that they feel is ‘them’ in this area at this time? But it’s not popular in this area at in this time. These groups might be very similar and feel like they have the same ideas, but they don’t have the same images. Or what’s the difference between hanging up a calendar with activist murals in your kitchen for you to look at every day versus tweeting an image of it? Do those images mean different things, if it’s the same image? Does it mean a different thing for your identity? Do you use the physical mediums of different images differently? Now, I’m just rambling about all the things that I’ll put in my PhD dissertation.
Liz: That’s really interesting. For those of you at home, please write in with the answers. If you have the answer to any of these questions, please comment.
Rachael: Or a PhD program for me to go to. Please just throw that out there.
Liz: But on a serious note, if you do have thoughts about the use of art, particularly those of you who have participated in protests or are artists yourselves, please write in and let us know what you think.