Q&A with “All of Us or None” author Lincoln Cushing

Following the controversial history of protest art, Lincoln Cushing presents a powerfully engaging narrative celebrating the sociopolitical energy and sense of immediacy that is unique to this particular art form. With an astounding collection of over 24,000 posters, All of Us or None depicts the evolution of the genre and relates it back to our still-relevant present.    

How does the poster art movement from the 1960s onwards define itself as art in contemporary times? How does it simultaneously straddle the line between a medium solely geared towards political message and “art,” if there is such a boundary?

Although some of the creators of these works did, and do, see themselves as artists in the conventional sense, many more see themselves as participants in a group process with a long term goal. This book is about the story of that bigger picture, the shops that made the work happen and the process by which these posters were integrated in the difficult challenge of creating social change. Many of these works were “anonymous,” partly – and deliberately – as a way to avoid the “star” system that capitalism uses to sustain the illusion of upward mobility.  

As your book illustrates, the rebellions that were fueled by these posters were virtually everywhere in the Bay area. What is your personal experience with the poster movement in the bay area and how has it shaped your vision of this book and the future?

I was making political posters as a teenager in Washington, D.C, then as a college student in San Diego. When visiting the Bay Area I would always make a beeline for La Raza Graphics, or Modern Times Bookstore, or La Peña, or any one of a number of movement hotspots. One of the main reasons I moved here in the early 1980s was specifically because of the amazing poster production, and I got a job working with the community print shop Inkworks Press. In doing the research on this and other books I’ve come to learn how much more we need to learn about these movements and these posters, we’ve just scratched the surface.

Do you find the spirit of poster art and protest movement being rekindled with all of the recent political and economic tumult? How does this book related to today’s situation, especially within the Bay Area? How is it different?

Anyone observing postermaking at the recent Occupy encampments could see that the lines for people to get a poster were as long as the lines for food. This is still a very vital medium. This book will hopefully provide examples of previous design strategies used to influence public opinion and mobilize grassroots energy.  

Poster art seems to be a movement that is primarily run and supported by youth and minorities; however, many of the examples shown in this collection are now over 40 years old. Is this age/minority-inclusiveness still the case?

To be accurate, there have always been older white people making social justice posters. It’s just that the heart of these movements is fueled by spirit and authenticity, and much of that fire comes from youth and people of color. In print making, just as in jazz, or dance, or any other vibrant cultural form, the goal is a synthesis of the skills and experience of the elders and the energy of the young. Many young people are hungry for the images and lessons of previous activist artists.  

Structurally, your book is divided into time periods and social and ethnographic groups, yet all of these different facets are combined to make this one collection. What would you say is the overarching similarity that binds all of these movements and minorities together? Is this still applicable to today’s protest movement culture?

The commonality is resistance to domination, be that personal, corporate, or governmental. But this does not mean some sort of “Tea Party” reactionary analysis; it generally is based on a utopian vision of shared resources and appreciation of things different than one’s own culture.  

Who was your primary target audience when creating this book? Has that changed or does it still remain constant?

This book seeks to reach multiple audiences; art history scholars, social movement historians, and activist artists. The paired exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, and their expanding online catalog of this collection, will reach many audiences I’d never dreamed of.  

This is not the first book that you have organized and written; how does this book relate and/or differ from your previous works?

Although all my previous books have covered political poster movements and producers (such as the Chinese cultural revolution, Cuban revolution, American labor movement, the output of one single Bay Area political print shop) this is the first time I’ve really drilled down into what makes this area so special. That’s not to brag, it’s to examine that enormous fount of output and try to understand what makes for a thriving, rich community. We all benefit from that.

 Is there a poster/graphic artist that resonates with you more strongly than others?

There are so many, all of them powerful in their own way.  One that I think is remarkable is a poster made during the 1970 Berkeley workshops by Jeff Kramm [figure 3.43 in book], using a distinctly and disturbingly erotic image to question the role of university military training (ROTC) in an unpopular war. The artist was afraid to put his name on it for fear of reprisal by ROTC students, and it was only recently that my research revealed his name. It brilliantly meshes arresting original art with clever, satiric, and provocative text. <http://www.docspopuli.org/AOUONcat/detail.np/detail-16.html>  

Were there any significant struggles in accessing the information that you’ve collected for this book? What was the process of making this book happen?

This was easy and hard. The easy part was starting off with the incredible collection built by my friend and colleague Michael Rossman, and the preliminary research he’d done on them over the years. It’s impossible to begin to undertake this sort of work without having the raw materials, and after I had shot all of them I was ready to roll. The hard part was the hard part in any nonfiction work – tracking participants down, interviewing them, corroborating their stories (and often meshing multiple, opposing versions of reality), and figuring out a framework that made sense to share them. I have learned something almost every day working with this collection.  

Political posters, protests, and movements seem to have strayed a bit from the physical poster and have moved onto more globally accessible mediums, such as the internet, and Facebook and Youtube now seem to have become more viable modes of reaching out to the public. How does this affect the production and evolution of social justice posters and what role will they play in the future?

Posters are not threatened by newer social media. One thing to bear in mind is that, among younger people, there is a resurgent hunger for craft. “DIY” (“do it yourself”) is leading many artists to the thrill of handmade objects, including posters. The web has enhanced, not limited, opportunities for research, sharing, and dissemination. And the posters are far more permanent than even the coolest YouTube post.