Postering Revolution

by YVES ENGLER

In Ottawa they prefer to organize secret demonstrations.

I’ve been living here for ten months and I’ve barely noticed any posters for left wing demonstrations. There were none for the January launch of Common Causes, an initiative supported by many national labour organizations. Held at lunch on a weekday the demonstration, co-organized with Idle No More, took place close to where tens of thousands of people work and live.

Similarly, I saw no posters for the February 14 national day of action to highlight the plight of missing and murdered indigenous women. In Montréal organizers put up hundreds of posters and not surprisingly there was a much bigger turnout for the demonstration there.

It’s not like Ottawans are a special breed who won’t respond to posters. For the October launch of The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s foreign policy I put up a thousand posters – no surprise the event had the largest turnout Octopus Books had seen in a longtime.

While online activism can be effective, postering remains vital for organizing demonstrations, talks or other political gatherings. Vancouver based activist Derrick O’keefe made this point a decade ago: “At the risk of embarrassingly overstating my case, I will conclude by asserting that the lack of a culture of postering reflects a generalized lack of activist and revolutionary culture. As valuable and as international as the internet activist community has become, it can not replace the critical (and often messy) local work, putting up posters and putting back together coalitions and movements.”

Posters can bring people out to a specific event, but they also have a broader educational value. While most people who see a poster won’t attend the specific event, they are much more likely to investigate the issue in some other way.
Posters help make ideas that the dominant media marginalizes seem reasonable and by covering the public sphere with complaints about injustices posters embolden social movements. Sustained postering gives weight to the anarchist slogan “we are everywhere”.

Many political posters are also a form of street art that help drown out the barrage of buy this buy that corporate advertising. During the student strike that rocked Québec last spring a group of engaged art students set up a strike support collective. They produced a wide array of posters building on decades of tradition documented in Picture This!: 659 Posters of social movements in Québec (1966 – 2007).

Many countries in Europe and the Global South have deep postering traditions. TheWall Street Journal recently reported on those paid to put up election posters in Rome.

Apparently, there are so many accepted public poster spots in the city that these individuals can post up to 1200 in a day!

During a short trip to Athens 15 months ago I wandered in search of the left wing neighborhood of Exarcheia. I figured I was there when I found myself amidst street walls covered with images of Occupy’s ballerina dancing on the Wall Street bull. The neighbourhood’s various progressive posters and omnipresent Anarchist A’s almost certainly make sympathizers of the far right Golden Dawn feel unwelcome.

Beyond shaping the politics of a neighbourhood, posters can help torpedo local politicians. During the 2006 federal election Haiti solidarity activists in Montreal initiated a major postering campaign that contributed to the defeat of foreign minister Pierre Pettigrew. Unhappy with his role in overthrowing Haiti’s elected government, we put up over 2,000 posters in the riding with Pettigrew’s photo and the tag line “Wanted: for crimes against humanity in Haiti.” (We also handed out 15,000 leaflets and organized a series of rallies and press conferences during the six week election period.)

The foreign minister’s campaign team was none too pleased with these posters. One night the head of his campaign saw us paste one on top of a Pettigrew election sign. The campaign manager photographed the crime, called the police and then quietly followed us until they arrived. We were busted (defacing an election sign contravenes the Election Act).

But it was Pettigrew’s campaign flack who would have egg on his face. My partner in crime, Dru Oja Jay, sent out a press release about our arrest, which was picked up by the crime obsessed Journal de Montreal. The city’s most widely read newspaper ran a picture of our poster and (for the first time) a brief description of our efforts, further embarrassing Pettigrew in the midst of a tight election.

Our campaign against Pettigrew benefited from a dense, walkable neighbourhood. From a posterer’s perspective the half dozen metro stops in the riding were gold. Not only did the metro help us reach the riding, we could cover the area around the stations and know that thousands of residents would pass our posters each day.

I’m currently researching a similar style foreign policy focused campaign to target a handful of Conservative MPs in the lead up to the 2015 election and an important consideration is whether posters would be effective in their ridings? A pedestrian scale is required for posters to make sense. Sprawling auto-centric suburbs undermine that possibility (also undermining leafleting, stickering or even marches themselves).

Signs in the suburbs (think billboards) are enormous and usually too expensive for grassroots groups. Unlike car oriented bill boards, street postering is ideal for volunteer run movements. Postering is labour intensive but not expensive, which makes it among the most democratic means of mass communication. That is why some call wheat paste “Marxist glue”.

ps. If you poster outdoors, forget the tape. The best way of making sure posters stay put is to use wallpaper paste or the cheaper/more sustainable wheat paste, which can be made with flour and hot water. Mix until porridge like. Don’t forget your squeegee.

pps. If you expect to maintain your roommate/partner/office space don’t let leftover wheat paste foment in the bucket too long. The shit gets nasty.

Yves Engler’s latest book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. For more informationyvesengler.com

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