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8 May 2008

Signs of the times

An exhibition of posters and photographs from the Paris rebellion is irresistible, but tricky out of

By Michael Bywater

Interesting that the Hayward Gallery should celebrate its 40th anniversary with an exhibition of street posters from the Paris rebellion of May 1968. Presumably we’re expected to see some sort of political or aesthetic or spiritual link between the Hayward and the Paris students and workers. Tricky. As tricky as the invariable alliance of students-and-workers in the Sixties. A bit unpersuasive, too, given that one of the reasons for becoming a student is so that you don’t later have to become a worker.

The French students-and-workers didn’t leave any defining lines (and it’s hard, once your knee has stopped jerking, to work out precisely what was their legacy) but they did leave an awful lot of imagery. In his background note to this exhibition, the curator Johan Kugelberg refers to it as “a jumble of realia”, but even that’s negotiable. I always understood realia to mean stuff-out-of-context: doing lit crit on a cereal packet, for example, or exhibiting a military helmet in a library. Perhaps it can be narrowed a bit to include artefacts created for everyday consumption in which aesthetics take a back seat, or no seat at all.

But even then, these posters, and the images of the Magnum photographer Bruno Barbey that accompany them, don’t fit. The posters are more a matter of using aesthetics in the service of demagoguery: produced by students (and academic staff) who had occupied the École des Beaux Arts, they deployed an iconography as immu table and preordained as any politico’s boilerplate speech-making: the clenched fist, the crab, the assassin in black hat, the worker in beret and overalls, barbed wire, the black and white men held apart by the politico-industrial fascist bourgeoisie (fat man in a trilby), rats, sheep, the soldier’s webbing holster. None of these images commands or even expects a “thick” reading. Their flat, uncompromising monochrome and hand-drawn, upper-case lettering aligns them clearly with a wider European tradition of demotic exhortation. Behind their silk-screened immediacy is an echo of the potato-print.

You could get fancy, if you wanted. You could say that there’s a hidden mythology, à la Barthes, smuggled in beneath the surface: the agents of knowledge-production and goods-production excluded from the means of slick, mechanised production to support their struggle. The bosses and the politicians and the academic time-servers have offset litho, leading articles in the news papers, riot police, laws; the soixante-huitards have nothing but their glorified potato-prints.

But that, as I say, would be getting fancy. Taken on their own terms, these graphics are visually uncompromising and their texts – while they will happily make puns (“La police s’affiche aux Beaux Arts; les Beaux Arts affichent dans la rue“) and jokes (“‘ordre règne“, juxtaposed with two men carrying a wounded third on a stretcher) – don’t demand or even invite close reading, let alone de construction. What they want is an irritable acquiescence, a growled Yeah, fuck ’em. The images themselves, invariably in silhouette, support the proposition that what is being presented is unarguable and needs to be acted on.

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The posters are, to be sure, witty. There’s the vigneron in his bleu de travail reaching up to crush his own head in a wine-press; the caption: “PARTICIPATION GAULLISTE”. Here’s a part cubist, part Kali (chisels, hammers and wrenches clasped in his six arms) worker: “À BAS LES CADENCES INFERNALES” (“Down with hellish work rates”, though the pun is almost lost in translation).

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Molotov backswing

In context, the images worked triumphantly. The students-and-workers manned the barricades, as required; the government sent in the gendarmes, and the gendarmes threw tear-gas and their weight around, also as required. Charles de Gaulle fulfilled his political role and went into hiding, declaring the situation was (a) unspeakable and (b) no problem; editors duly published Bruno Barbey’s photos of students-and-workers, their arms wound up in the Molotov backswing.

Everyone performed their part as if to a pre-written script; at one stage, two-thirds of the French (unionised) workforce was on strike; and then, not so much at the final curtain, but more like a slow filmic fade-out, everything drifted back to normal and de Gaulle was re-elected with an increased majority.

The combination of Paris and the posters and the Magnum images was, naturally, irresistible. Paris ’68 was privileged above other, similar conflicts – in Europe, in North Africa, in the United States – which had prefigured it, simply because it was closer and more photogenic; and, of course, because the French had done it before, in 1789. But if it had been bliss in that dawn to be alive, this time round, to be young (elsewhere) was very annoying. One poster showed a silhouetted de Gaulle (conk, képi), hand over a student’s mouth, with the caption “Sois jeune et tais-toi” (“Be young and shut up”). That was about the strength of it. A few Vins Nicolas bottles full of petrol, some overturned cars, and that was the lot. “Beneath the cobblestones, the beach” was a fine slogan but, in the French polity at least, the few places where the sand showed through were quickly cobbled over again.

Still, it is odd to see this would-be-revolu tionary artwork classed as realia and co-opted into the very heart of the Establishment (the Hayward’s patron is HM the Queen). Kugelberg declares that “the ideas behind this uprising, and their solidarity, spontaneity and rebellious spirit, will hopefully attach themselves to us because we need them so desperately nowadays”. He may have a point, but it is undermined by his describing the images as “happy-making”. Even better, his co-curator Jeff Boardman is creative director of a “youth marketing” company called Freewheelin’, which appeared on the BBC’s Money Programme to market Diesel jeans by “setting up a pirate radio station and running an illegal sticker campaign; trying to make sure that 55DSL is worn by the trendiest people in the UK – musicians, skateboarders and breakdancers; organising the hippest launch party for Europe’s first 55DSL store at the very latest club”, and which now (even better) is advising French Connection.

“To display [the posters] in bourgeois places of culture,” say the curators’ notes, “is to impair their function and their effect . . . to keep them as historical evidence . . . is a betrayal . . . which inevitably plays into the hands of the ruling class”. As a cross-section of the ruling class, how to improve upon the Queen, Southbank, youth branding and clothing multinationals? L’ordre règne.

Peter Tatchell

I was a 16-year-old schoolboy in Melbourne, Australia, in 1968. Despite my left-wing politics and suspected gayness, I’d been elected head boy and sports captain. On 4 July 1968, in protest at the Vietnam War, I organised a symbolic burning of the US flag in the schoolyard, and later that evening went on my first protest march to the US consulate to speak out against the war. To my shock, our route was blocked and we were baton-charged and beaten by police on horseback.

Around the same time, I helped organise a scholarship scheme to enable children from poor Aboriginal families to stay on at school. This led the headmaster to denounce me as “being manipulated by the communists”.

The Paris rebellion was inspirational and stimulated some of us to produce an underground student newspaper that satirised the ultra-right-wing Australian prime minister and the state premier. This led to rumours of expulsions, but they never happened.

The assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were tragedies and crimes that pushed me towards more militant, revolutionary politics. I had just joined my local athletics club and begun running competitively. By sheer coincidence, and to my delight, the team’s mascot was a black panther.

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner

Olivia Chessell

My passion and belief in people power have been influenced by 1968, to which my generation is constantly compared. But this is unfair. So much has changed. We are often accused of apathy, but the years that divide us from the generation of 1968 have seen us deprived of the tools, not the passion, to change things. Our MPs, many themselves of the 1968 generation, favour the insatiable growth of business over the needs of our nation and our planet.

The challenges of climate change are complex and demand new strategies. The fickle media circus requires acute attention, on a scale no one in ’68 could have imagined. In some respects I am envious of those times. But the unity of the people is the force that will stop climate change. We still hold the fervent faith of ’68 that individuals really can make a difference.

Olivia Chessell, 20, is a Plane Stupid activist