The battle over the visual language of counterculture, from Dada to the digital age

Transgressive design has long been defined by DIY tactics and political satire meant to alienate. Today, a new aesthetic is emerging—one that’s seductive, inclusive, and designed to be understood

It’s the strange summer of 2020, and I’m emailing Käthe Kollwitz from my apartment in Berlin. Of course, it’s not the Käthe Kollwitz who I’m writing to—the artist born in 1867, known for her overtly political prints decrying the brutalities of war and industrialization in early 20th-century Germany. This Käthe Kollwitz assumes the historical persona as a disguise: She’s a founding member of anonymous art collective Guerrilla Girls, the mask-wielding ’80s troupe that has spent 30 years fighting institutional discrimination against female artists and artists of color by making subversive use of appropriated collage, parody, and advertising know-how for the purpose of political intervention.

I’m emailing Kollwitz to work out what’s happened to a certain kind of anti-establishment aesthetic that she boldly deployed against institutions of power, and why the strategies of today’s progressive movements are headed in a different direction. For much of the 20th century, an aesthetic of disruption and transgression was a tool of the left, characterized by approaches that were low-tech, DIY, and cut-and-paste. These were the tactics of culture jamming and brandalism, anarchic appropriation and targeted satire of the political mainstream, often wheat-pasted anonymously in the streets, circulated in the alternative press, or set against political and cultural institutions. Think of Banksy’s Napalm (Can’t Beat That Feeling), which splices together a notorious Vietnam War image of a terrified girl wounded by the United States’s napalm bombings with images of Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, linking war atrocities and American capitalism.

These practices have certainly not disappeared entirely from art and design today, but they feel compromised and counterproductive, having been increasingly co-opted by the political right for misinformation and meme warfare. The alt-right’s 2016 hijacking of Pepe the Frog generated perhaps the best-known examples. One particular meme cast Donald Trump and his entourage (along with Pepe) as “The Deplorables” in a photoshopped film poster for The Expendables 2, subversively embracing Hillary Clinton’s dismissive comment about Trump’s supporters and reworking the typography of the film poster. This satirical appropriation, one of innumerable pro-Trump memes, would have been unthinkable from the right a decade ago. At the same time, progressive designers, activists, and movements online are shifting away from disruptive strategies in favor of clear branding and direct, targeted messages. Case in point: Recent months have seen the rapid spread of polished and persuasive Instagram carousel guides, laying out essential information on anti-racist politics, climate change, and trans rights with serious writing and disarmingly seductive, deliberately brand-influenced design. How do we make sense of this transformation, and what can the history of countercultural design tell us about where we’re heading?

“A lot of ideas, which were very radical, were based on our own ideologies and feelings, a lot of which were connected to Situationism…. Obviously, my cut-out lettering, which was a matter of necessity, had that criminal overtone.” —Jamie Reid

Before counterculture, there was the avant-garde. Overlapping with the emotive expressiveness of Kollwitz (the original), the Berlin Dada movement introduced an aggressively disorderly and politicized anti-art sensibility that sought to tear the aesthetic regime of the bourgeois establishment into pieces. “From an alluring visual composition or an enchanting fabric of sound,” the critic Walter Benjamin noted, “the Dadaists turned the artwork into a missile.” Concerned with the devastating consequences of WWI, Berlin Dada harnessed material from the magazines and newspapers to political ends, often producing shock and outrage in the process. In one example, the epic 1919 photomontage Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, Hannah Höch, the group’s only female member, combined unruly media and type appropriations to parody German politicians while likewise celebrating women’s newly acquired right to vote. In other works, painter Otto Dix combined newspaper clippings and printed images with painted representations of disfigured bodies to draw attention to the senseless violence of machine warfare and industrial capitalism.

Short-lived but deeply influential, the Berlin Dada movement helped foster a new archetype of the artist-activist: one who was politically aware and media savvy, utilizing techniques of appropriation and the novel possibilities of photography and mass reproduction to intervene within the circulation of images in the public sphere. Speaking directly back to those in power, John Heartfield, once a central member, later developed one of the most powerful and principled practices of resistance to Hitler and National Socialism. His photomontages for the left-wing German illustrated magazine AIZ twisted around Nazi slogans and reworked their images to reveal the hypocrisy just beneath the surface; one iconic example illustrates “the meaning of the Hitler salute” as a gesture by which the diminutive Nazi leader asks for handouts from the German industrialists funding his rise to power. After the war, the Letterist International and later the Situationist movement in France took up this Dadaist mantel, giving theoretical shape and definition to the practice of détournement—the flagrant redirection and hijacking of media images, typefaces, and logos that aimed to negate and recode dominant cultural meanings. Famously, theorist Guy Debord diagnosed the postwar media condition as an ever-increasing accumulation of illusory representations blanketing over the reality of social impoverishment, an all-embracing spectacle engineered through a conspiracy of capitalism and state bureaucracy.

On the other side of the Channel, another energy was brewing in London with the emergence of punk in the ’70s. Its leading graphic protagonist—the artist, anarchic printer, and Situationist-influenced Jamie Reid—pinned together a disenfranchised visual language for the movement’s anti-establishment messaging. While working out of his neo-Situationist printing press in Croydon, the Suburban Press, Reid printed stickers using the same typographic language of chain businesses, crafting lines like, “This store will soon be closing owing to the pending collapse of monopoly capitalism and the worldwide exhaustion of raw materials.” Punk continued in the tradition of a Dadaist cultural critique that broke down distinctions between art and life, with Reid’s cut-up newspapers, hijacked comics, and parodied official signage in acts of subversive appropriation, just as archconservative Margaret Thatcher was rising to power. His cover for the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun” repurposed a brochure that read, “It’s just a short excursion to see wonderful historic cities,” replacing these words with “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.”

Getting in touch with Reid today is no simple venture. Emailing various leads from cafés wedged among the streets in which Berlin Dada first took its form, I eventually track him down via one of his collaborators, who parroted my questions to Reid in person, sending back a transcription of his replies. The answers are fragments—collaged ideas and scraps that I piece together, not unlike the ransom-style type for which he is best known. One thought, accompanied by an image of a McDonald’s logo spliced together with the words “McCheap and McNasty,” reads, “One thing I can vouch for because I was very involved with it, was what we did with the Sex Pistols—me and [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren—where a lot of ideas, which were very radical, were based on our own ideologies and feelings, a lot of which were connected to Situationism…. Obviously, my cut-out lettering, which was a matter of necessity, had that criminal overtone.” Simply put, torn and reassembled letters weren’t merely an aesthetic choice; they were about using what was available out of financial necessity, taking on a fugitive cast visually while also literally stealing, manipulating, or vandalizing a corporate visual identity.

“I was looking to found a new Dada movement,” recalls graphic designer Malcolm Garrett, describing his own involvement with the punk music scene in Manchester. “And then suddenly, there it was.” Garrett takes me through his expansive career working in the music industry, up to his role today as creative director of Images&Co., a design consultancy and practice. “I grew up in Manchester, a very Victorian city, at the heart of the industrial revolution, and I was surrounded by Victorian typography—fantastic lettering above the doors. Dada allowed me to use that. Dada and anti-art allowed for influence from anywhere. You could take anything, and you could use it how you wanted.” Angular and brash, Garrett’s 1977 cover for the Buzzcocks’ single “Orgasm Addict” reconfigured a nude female torso with an electric iron and a pair of grinning mouths, an adolescent stunt for sure; the song itself broke with sexual mores and was banned from the BBC. It likewise set Garrett on a course to craft visuals for the likes of Duran Duran, Boy George, Magazine, and the music and culture magazine New Sounds New Styles.

From his punk beginnings, Garrett did not shy away from technological change, first adapting his work to reflect the changing social conditions of design practice, and later the shift from analog handicraft to digital platforms. “The power of words, the power of language, the look of letters, the visual prevalence that typography can have on the page—that was always my motivation, rather than any dogma or discipline.” His perspective helps give more shape to my feeling that things have profoundly changed, and that strategies today must necessarily be different, adapting to social, cultural, and technical transformations. Our conversation turns to the graphics and logo design of Extinction Rebellion—the most powerful countercultural typography he’s seen for a while, Garrett says. “Punk typography was very chaotic and expressive. Extinction Rebellion have drawn from that post-punk, indie viewpoint, but they’re using a very sophisticated way of getting messages over without alienating people. One of the great things about punk was that it did alienate people; we were alienating the people we wanted to. But with the discussion of climate change, you don’t want to alienate anybody. You need everybody on board.”

“One of the great things about punk was that it did alienate people; we were alienating the people we wanted to.”
—Malcolm Garrett

Garrett’s observations were very much on my mind when I finally received word back from Käthe Kollwitz. “Our idea,” writes Kollwitz of the Guerrilla Girls’ early days, “was to do a new kind of political art using strategies of persuasion like those in advertising. We write disruptive headlines and prove our case with killer statistics. We try to create some- thing unforgettable that has the power to change people’s minds.” The anonymous collective—in parallel with artists like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Sherrie Levine—repurposed strategies of appropriation and intervention as effective feminist tactics, aimed against the art world patriarchy and sexist media landscape. Set in all-caps Futura Condensed ExtraBold, in-your-face street posters pasted around New York City in the guise of public service announcements underlined the stark inequalities of museum and art gallery representation: Women in America earn only 2/3 of what men do. Women artists earn only 1/3 of what men artists do, reports one 1985 poster. Only 4 commercial galleries in N.Y. show black women. Only 1 shows more than 1, states another the following year.

The most famous of these works appeared first as a New York bus advertisement after being rejected as a billboard by the Public Art Fund: Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, asked the classic bright yellow design, featuring the 1814 Grande Odalisque by Ingres in a gorilla mask alongside comparative statistics on the inclusion of women in the museum. (In 1989, women represented less than 5 percent of artists shown, yet 85 percent of nudes.) The poster was one of the group’s earliest projects in full color, given the limitations of cost and printing capabilities. “Now that technical possibilities are almost unlimited,” Kollwitz notes, “we create giant street banners and large-scale exhibitions all over the world, as well as digital campaigns seen by hundreds of thousands.” The institutional critiques of the Guerrilla Girls are also regularly welcomed into prominent institutions around the world for exhibitions and lectures, as well as carried out online.

Reflecting on the efficacy and status of such strategies today starts from some casual observations. Scrolling through my social media, within my filter bubble, it’s increasingly rare that I encounter this kind of disruptive aesthetic, which isn’t to say that it’s not happening elsewhere online, particularly on alt-right message boards. In many critical circles, the limitations of appropriation and satire have been apparent for decades, seen as failing to build real political power or alternative social imaginaries. What’s different now is how broadly the political valence of these practices has been flipped over the past several years. Since the Dada movement, radical interventions from the left have sought to disrupt passive complacency and established norms, but the current cultural climate has necessitated a new approach. Capturing the current atmosphere of fake news and information warfare, one of Jamie Reid’s emailed fragments states plainly that “no one believes anything anymore, because there are so many conspiracy theories and so many versions, and everyone knows people are lying, so there’s a complete lack of context or reality to anything.” For the moment, the alt-right has proved very effective at conjoining anonymous imageboard transgressions and anti-establishment rhetoric for racist and xenophobic ends, exploiting a pattern by which outrage becomes attention that threatens to become normalization, owing to reposts from prominent sympathizers like Donald Trump Jr.

Since the Dada movement, radical interventions from the left have sought to disrupt passive complacency and established norms, but the current cultural climate has necessitated a new approach.

With such détournement now politically suspect, it’s not surprising that progressive activists are advancing different approaches, both online and off. For example, it’s hard not to notice a recent shift toward more refined typography, muted pastels, and clear prose for communicating political messages across social media—the furthest thing, seemingly, from the anarchism of Dada and punk. On Instagram, accounts like @soyouwanttotalkabout and the widely circulated guide to non-optical allyship by Mireille Cassandra Harper (@mireillecharper) have employed a new purpose for the platform’s slideshow format, working with an understanding of how design, algorithms, and search terms shape visibility and engagement. This is not to suggest that Dadaist tactics and histories are somehow “over” or no longer relevant. Take, for instance, artist Adam Pendleton’s long-running “Black Dada” project, which critically probes avant-garde history, abstraction, and notions of Blackness, culminating in his 2017 Black Dada Reader. Yet there is increasing recognition that, when not properly situated and considered, an aesthetic of transgression and deliberate alienation can fail to address social privileges and take for granted one’s recognition in society in the first place.

Now more than ever, anti-establishment aesthetic practices must seek to build coalitions and contribute to imagining new futures that are anti-racist and decolonial, LGBTQIA+ and immigrant inclusive, and attuned to climate and refugee crises, among other issues. To negotiate these varied concerns, while also seeking clarity and immediate recognition for their cause, activist movements and design agencies now turn to the tools of branding, appropriating corporate strategies not for parody or subversion but for cohesion and broad appeal, perhaps even across the political spectrum. “When you have a large decentralized network or a coalition fighting a common campaign, there are many voices to negotiate,” explains a statement from the Design Action Collective, a cooperative known for the Black Lives Matter logo, as well as work for the ACLU, GLAAD, and Greenpeace. “Presenting a strong and unified visual message, and one that isn’t convoluted or watered down with all the information, is the challenge. Facts can be found on a website. The poster, social media graphic, or home page, therefore, needs to strike to the heart immediately, and have a legibility or usability that can be easily understood, or that challenges assumptions and creates psychic breaks for people.” Grassroots organizations and individual activists alike have found power in principled clarity and visual consistency, enabled no doubt by the ability of new digital tools to more easily generate such identity systems.

Progressive anti-establishment movements, in short, now often adopt the systemic visual language of corporate aesthetics as a long-term strategy of speaking back to power, while permitting activist messages to move across platforms and—ideally—to penetrate filter bubbles. Looking backward and forward, Garrett notes of examples like Extinction Rebellion that “there’s a greater understanding in that part of the counterculture of the tools that corporate culture uses, and it’s using those tools against corporate culture to bring them on their side.” From the simplified hourglass of Extinction Rebellion to Black Lives Matter’s stacked-type logo and the countless designer-activists across social media, a new form of corporate subversion brings attention to urgent causes, reworking the practice of media appropriation for solidarity building and collective action. From a cut-and-paste past emerges a more sober present—one that is refined, persuasive, and set on a pastel backdrop with an emphatic sans serif.