Redback Graphix and Vernacular Sedition
Essay published in Desktop Magazine #302
If you were new to this country and wanted to understand Australia in the late 20th century, Redback Grafix would be a fertile place to dig. The studio’s posters are a reliable historical index of the social tensions and political ambitions that shaped the era. The best of them are funny and crude and beautiful. The volcanic, screen-printed fluorescent images fought on the streets in solidarity with thousands marching, chanting and dreaming of social justice. They are defiant civic expressions of resistance and hope. And they are in a rich vein of imaginative Australian troublemaking that is at once a catalogue of conflict and a legacy of constructive cultural activity in an age of destruction.
Redback existed from 1979 to 1994 and grew out of Earthworks Poster Collective. Founded in 1971 from the lingering ferment of 60’s social movements: Anti-Vietnam war; Civil Rights; and Anti-Nuclear struggles, Earthworks was a community access screen printing collective established by Collin Little and joined in later years by artists and activists like Mitch Johnson, Mark Arbuz, Toni Robertson and Chips Mackinolty. Marie McMahon, Jan Mackay, Ray Young, Jan Fieldsend and Michael Callaghan joined in the few years before the collective was disbanded in 1979.
There is a creative and thematic evolution from Earthworks to Redback that reflects a response to a rapidly changing Australia. As the 70’s progressed Earthwork’s visual vocabulary moved from the 60’s legacy of Art Nouveau inspired psychedelia and eclectic counter-cultural aesthetics into more urgent visual statements. This corresponded with a shift from broader alternative and anti-authoritarian lifestyle themes to a focus on more specific social issues. With the Australian economy sinking into recession and the sacking of Gough Whitlam’s government in 1975, the energy of social reform was tainted. Capitalising on the political potential of the time, Whitlam had helped move Australia into a new era of cultural maturity and political progress. He had introduced wage rises, a shorter working week and paid maternity leave in the public service, passed laws providing women with equal pay for work of equal value, established land rights laws, single parents’ pensions, (what we now know as) Medicare, and free tertiary education. He also established the Community Arts Fund that made initiatives like Earthworks viable.
But then swiftly came the recriminations. Replacing Whitlam as Prime Minister was conservative Malcolm Fraser who began by (mis)quoting George Bernard Shaw, exclaiming, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”. The bitterness at the government’s attacks on decades of hard fought gains is evident in the late Earthworks' poster Give Fraser the Razor by Michael Callaghan.
The Earthworks logo was an Egyptian Pyramid and the all seeing eye. Redback’s logo was a triangle with a poisonous spider. The sixties were over. The droning conservative Australian media and advertising mythologies were smothering and sterile. The same fucking voices singing the same fucking songs. The conformity of public communications to reactionary values was steadfast. If you were gay or black or a woman, the dominant discourse was quietly condescending or outright nasty. The lingering pretensions and bigotries of British class privilege trumped the empty media folklore of classlessness and a ‘lucky country’.
But rebellion was always part of the country’s character. As much as the larrikin anti-authoritarian national nature is exaggerated as a perverse means to enforce the status quo, Australians have constantly found creative ways to resist oppression. Inventive sedition was wedded to the colony’s punitive foundational culture. The first contact with Europeans saw indigenous people defending their homelands. As the occupation intensified, indigenous guerrilla attacks resisted the might of British military power limiting expansion in some places for decades. Convicts too tried everything from not doffing their hats to officers, burning down jails and even torching Australia’s first church when mandatory Sunday attendance was introduced, and of course escaping.
Comedy is an eternally reasonable response to the absurdity of subjugation, and the use of humour in the work of Earthworks and Redback has deep roots in early Australian history. Mathew Brady, an elusive Tasmanian bushranger responded to Lieutenant Governor Arthur’s public notice of a reward for his capture in 1824 by posting his own bill that read, “It has caused Mathew Brady much concern that such a person known as Sir George Arthur is still at large. Twenty Gallons of Rum will be given to any person that can deliver his person to me.”
The increasing accessibility of printing and printmaking put mass communication in the hands of the dissenting working class: Among the first labour strikes in the foundling nation were by typographers from the Australian newspaper downing tools over wage cuts resulting from currency reforms; Woodblock printed flyers opposing transportation of convicts were widely distributed; Satirical newspaper, and later anti-war, cartoons in publications like Tasmania’s Cornwall Chronical were irrepressible; In 1854 boldly typeset flyers rallied miners to meetings on Bakery Hill that sparked the Eureka Rebellion; Banners demanding ‘8 HOURS LABOUR, 8 HOURS RECREATION, 8 HOURS REST’ supported Melbourne stonemasons in becoming some of the first workers in the world to gain a 40 hour week in 1856; In the 1890’s revolutionary anarchist J.A.Andrews created visually dynamic flyers, posters, journals and manifestoes with original, expressive lettering on a hand-made woodblock and tobacco-tin press.
With the development of photo-reactive stencils in the early 20th century, screenprinting technology became capable of rendering faithfully detailed and diverse found images, and its versatility, affordability and availability made it a perfect medium for resourceful activists. Multiple copies could be produced quickly and pasted up in public as soon as the ink was dry. The unique screenprinted aesthetic – solid blankets of opaque velvet sheen, saturated colour, halftone screens, tone dropouts and simple stencil forms – are now readily associated with, and continue to signify, alternative cultural and political communication.
The association of screenprinting with social change probably began with the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, which supported artists during the Depression under the US Government’s Works Progress Administration program. Screenprinting’s relationship with radical politics was sealed in the May 68 Paris revolution with Atelier Populaires’ street posters. The spirit of protest and possibility generated by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts students was received around the world, not least by an Australian youth culture ripe for change, including the imminent members of Earthworks and Redback Graphix.
Even the most famous screen prints in 20th century art, Warhol’s iconic portraits, which share an obvious aesthetic and seemly have little else in common with Redback’s frank agitprop, could be seen to obliquely critique popular material culture, (depending partly on how willing you are to ignore the artist’s own media crafted pronouncements). If only Bob Hawke had commissioned Redback to do his portrait as Jimmy Carter did with Warhol during his 1976 presidential campaign.
There are several prominent strands to Redback’s work: the first typified by founder Michael Callaghan with late Earthworks and early Redback posters that collect Dada, punk and situationist influences with found collaged images and type; and a middle to late period where Callaghan and artists like Marie McMahon use original illustration and typeset text. This also coincided with a shift from Earthwork’s collective workshop model to a more conventional design studio structure (although the equal say and equal pay for all members remained).
The best of Redback’s work employ an unambiguous visual logic amplified by a semiotic precision. Callaghan’s If the unemployed are dole bludgers exemplifies this, as well as demonstrating their favoured compositional method – text bordering an image at the top and bottom of the frame, often reinforced with plain rules and graphic border devices. An overwhelming majority of the posters follow this conventional template. The strongest of these relies on convincing illustration and collage by Callaghan, McMahon and Cullen and are always elevated by the formal qualities intrinsic to the screenprinting process, including black line work or high-contrast monotone photographs or illustrations filled with planes of vibrant, often flouro colour. Some of the less successful posters are overly conventional and suffer from unresolved typography and substandard illustration, lacking the force needed to carry the plainness of the approach.
As an art student Callaghan had discovered Dada. Anti-war, anti-bourgeois and anti-art, Dada’s formal strategies of borrowing and disrupting everyday items with collage, photomontage and readymades became a path to his own ideas about engagement and activism. Revolutionary Dada poet Hugo Ball wrote, “For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”
So it was much more than the direct influence of punk’s cultural artifacts that resulted in the coarse provocative collages in posters from the turn of the decade like Give Fraser the Razor, No God No Master, Onwards Christian Soldiers and Prostitution is the rental of body marriage is the sale! – the social climate and common influences that fed punk were experienced by frustrated teenagers everywhere. Even so, punk’s ethos of doing it yourself and making something out of nothing was perfect for Australian cities where there was often a whole lot of nothing to make something out of.
These qualities were supported by the context of production – the small cluster of uncommissioned posters from this period were created in Brisbane, when after Earthworks’ demise, Callaghan was hired for six months by Griffith University to set up a screen-printing workshop. Almost all of Redback’s subsequent output was client focused. This initial autonomy (and regular paycheck) allowed Callahan to conceive of a studio “where you actually got paid… an alternative-style advertising agency for the left”. The critical provocation of posters like Redback’s inaugural print, If the unemployed are dole bludgers, what the fuck are the idle rich, would eventually be replaced with a less confrontational stance related to clients’ specific needs.
For some art critics and theorists design remains a compromised cultural activity. Griffith University arts academic Jess Berry when writing about ‘Earthworks and Beyond’ argued that socially committed practices accepting commissions from government departments, for example, were demonstrating a retreat from principles (as if working for the public service is the same thing as party political propagandizing?). This typifies a naiveté about the nature of graphic design and its contemporary practice that must make initiatives like Redback Graphix puzzling for some. The art world often still struggles with the idea of a creative discipline that has both social agency and commissioned mass appeal, as if the art market itself wasn’t one of the most lucrative industries in world. In Anna Zalaga’s generally excellent survey Redback Graphix, she writes about the studio’s ‘strangely indeterminate status… [straddling] the two very different worlds of art and advertising’ – but where’s the mystery? – it’s called design (if you really want to call it something). In spite of their genealogies, practices like Redback and Inkahoots (the studio I’m part of) probably have more in common with design studios such as Pierre Bernard’s post-Grapus practice Atelier de Creation Graphique, than open access poster collectives like Earthworks. Ours is the stance that social change can be supported with visual communication through a broad range of social and cultural institutions.
After Brisbane, Callaghan moved Redback to Wollongong in 1980 where several others joined him, including Gregor Cullen, before relocating to Sydney in 1985 with hopes of growing the business. While Cullen stayed in Wollongong, Alison Alder and Leoni Lane came to Sydney as others joined, and Marie McMahon returned to the studio in 1987. Throughout this period they continued to produce vibrant visual communication for community and cultural groups, arts organisations, unions and government departments.
Redback are rare. They were politically committed visual advocates and activists during a decade in which most Australian designers were milking the excesses of corporate vandalism. They opposed the acrimony of the market by working with and for the vulnerable and marginalised. Passion, compassion, disgust, anger, humour and a squeegee.
I met Michael Callaghan for the first time the year before he died. Although unwell, he graciously accepted a gift of some Inkahoots posters, one of which was dedicated to Redback Grafix. I told him I could easily summon the thrill of first encountering a Redback poster, that seeing his fluorescent sipping monkey was like first hearing Cattle and Cane or Stranded – knowing there was hope…
Jason Grant 2014
Redback Graphix & Earthworks Poster Collective images courtesy National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. © Michael Callaghan & Redback Graphix