Extinction Rebellion at the V&A
By BEL JACOBS
Protest groups around the world and across time have used to design to visually communicate their causes, from the Suffragettes wearing purple, green and white to the The Women in Black who hold silent vigils to protest those lost to war and militarism. Costumes serve as eye-catching symbols and create solidarity amongst a group; some have become universal symbols.
That is pretty much what has happened to the design identity of Extinction Rebellion (XR), the global activist group calling for urgent action on climate change through acts of non-violent civil disobedience and disruption. Since its first public action on October 31, 2018 - urging the UK government to declare a climate and ecological emergency, its visual expression have dominated the landscape.
Now, some of its most iconic pieces have been acquired by the V&A. Ranging from the open-source Extinction Symbol created by street artist ESP in 2011 and adopted by XR in 2018, to the Declaration that accompanied XR’s first act of Rebellion, and flags carried during mass demonstrations, the items are on display in the V&A’s Rapid Response Collecting Gallery, the museum’s showcase of objects that address questions of social, political, technological and economic change.
Donated by the Extinction Rebellion Arts Group, a coalition of graphic designers, artists and activists responsible for XR’s Design Programme, the objects reveal how XR has harnessed the power of open-source design to develop a coherent and impactful visual identity and sought to foster a collaborative ‘do-it-together’ movement recognisable across the globe.
“Extinction Rebellion is pleased our work and practice can be seen for free at the V&A, a collection that includes works by William Morris and other design activists from the past,” says Clive Russell, Extinction Rebellion Arts Group. “All these designers addressed the issues of their times. The Climate and Ecological emergency is THE issue of our time and art and design is crucial to our non-violent actions and communication. We call on all artists and designers to think beyond the bullying constraints of commercial drudgery and join us in rebellion.”
Balancing joy and menace and with a bold, tongue-in-cheek approach, XR’s graphics are characterised by four core design elements. These include the use of the Extinction Symbol, the XR logotype, a colour-palette of 12 playful tones including ‘Lemon’ yellow and ‘Angry’ pink influenced by pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi, and the fonts ‘FUCXED’ and ‘Crimson’. Often juxtaposing imagery of the natural world with more sinister images of skulls and bones, XR’s urgent visuals articulate hope, while outlining the grave consequences the group feels failure to act will bring.
Since its first public action on 31 October 2018 urging the UK government to declare a climate and ecological emergency and commit to reduce emissions to net zero by 2025, XR has grown into an international movement with over 363 groups active in 59 countries around the world.
The popularity of the first printed pamphlets issued by XR outlining its ‘Declaration of Rebellion’ makes this example from the first print-run extremely rare, while the screen-printed text and graphics outline the emphasis XR placed on a coherent and impactful visual identity from the outset. Two printing blocks – a 3D-printed Extinction Rebellion logotype block and the Extinction Symbol made of machine-cut ply - were used during a series of public design workshops staged by the XR Arts Group in autumn 2018 and spring 2019 where people made their own protest flags, posters and banners.
Six brightly coloured screen-printed patches bearing the group’s slogans including ‘Tell the Truth’, Rebel for Life’ and ‘Beyond Politics. Small in scale, they are designed to be worn by XR ‘rebels’ as a quick and easy way to show allegiance during mass protest. And anyone who’s gone to an XR action will know the flags: on display at the V&A are green, blue and pink versions featuring the block-printed Extinction Symbol designed to create a high-impact sea of colour amidst the crowds.
In addition, the V&A Museum of Childhood has acquired a child’s high-vis jacket worn during a peaceful XR rebellion. The high-vis jacket went on show at the Bethnal Green museum on Friday 9 August 2019, as part of a free six-month display. Aimed at all ages, the display will explore how XR – through its design work, values and organisational structure – creates spaces that are welcoming for all. The jacket will be shown alongside a series of loans including banners, stamps, flags and posters and photographs to tell the story of how XR engages with young families. The display will be accompanied by a programme of free workshops and family-friendly activities in collaboration with XR Families.
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