5 Questions For ... Bonnie Siegler, designer and author of “Signs of resistance: A visual history of protest in America”
WESTPORT — Many think the resistance movement sweeping the country is a new phenomenon, but resident Bonnie Siegler’s, “Signs of resistance: a visual history of protest in America,” published in February, 2018, shows how protest and protest art have been recurrent themes throughout American history, from women’s suffrage and civil rights to Black Lives Matter and now the anti-Trump resistance movement.
Siegler’s graphic design company, Eight and a Half, includes clients such as “Saturday Night Live,” HBO, “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” StoryCorps and Newsweek, in addition to political candidates and companies across sectors. As a young graduate newly minted with a graphic design degree from Carnegie Mellon University, Siegler, now 55, got her start as an on-air graphic designer for MTV.
A relatively new Connecticut convert, Siegler moved to town from Brooklyn. N.Y., three years ago with her husband, who grew up in Westport, and the pair’s 12- and 17-year old sons. Siegler sat down to discuss political engagement, the evolution of protest art in American history, and the power of protest art.
Q: What was the genesis of your book, “Signs of resistance”?
A: It was a response to the election of 2016. I went to the Women’s March in Washington and I was more filled with rage and anger as time went on. I was trying to figure out what I could do to change things, so I started researching what people had done in the past at different periods of crisis. Our country was founded on resistance, literally, so I started there. It was just for myself, to inspire me. I work on a lot of different campaigns for people around the country, and help fundraise and stuff like that, so I was just exploring protest art. And that became a talk I gave at a conference, and then someone asked me to make a book of the talk.
Q: What is the history of your political engagement?
A: It started with Air America Radio, which was a left-wing radio station created in 2004 with the goal of being another voice, because right-wing radio had taken control at that point. The four first hosts of the radio station were Janeane Garofalo, Al Franken, Marc Maron and Rachel Maddow. We did the branding, identity and advertising for Air America Radio. It was really exciting. At the time, I felt we were going to change the outcome of the election. Of course, that didn’t happen, but I was hooked. In 2008, a group of politically conscious friends and I had a big fundraiser in Brooklyn for (Barack) Obama. We did it again in 2012. Last year, we had a huge fundraiser for Hillary (Clinton) and raised over a million dollars in an event called Laugh Your Pantsuit off. It was just women standup comedians and hosted by Amy Poehler and Ana Gasteyer.
Q: Throughout the course of your book research, what changes did you see in protest art throughout American history?
A: The biggest difference came in the ’60s when people who were artists and designers in their day jobs started applying their skills to protest. That’s when humor really got introduced for the first time. A lot of the protests from Vietnam make you smile and communicated their image, which we saw in spades at the Women’s March where humor ruled the day. There’s a great Oscar Wilde quote that says, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” It really works well, but depending on the level of angst and the response that is needed. Black Lives Matter did something entirely different with their protesting — performance art. There isn’t a lot of visual material, but they used their power of numbers to make incredibly strong statements, which were essentially the equivalent of protest posters. The Parkland (Florida) kids picked up on it and did a lot of protest around the country where kids laid in the streets.
Q: Is the protest poster still relevant in a time of performance art?
A: The power of the poster has been heightened by Instagram and Twitter. If I design something, I can put it out there and it can be around the world in minutes. There’s a series of posters that I love from Berkeley in the 1970s. They designed something like 600 amazing posters with a group of people and nobody saw them outside of Berkeley. There’s an incredible power right now for designers to get their messages out.
Q: How is protest art contributing to the resistance movement today?
A: Really what we’re doing is communicating to other people how we feel and that’s creating a community of the resistance. The power of seeing all these people at marches talking about what they’re upset about, how personal it is, their anger and their rage is a really powerful thing. The first (Women’s) March on Washington was one of the best days of my life because I never felt so empowered, and that is the power of art in general, not only in times of need.
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What: “Signs of Resistance” talk by author Bonnie Siegler
Where: The Westport Woman’s Club, 44 Imperial Ave.
When: May 31, from 7 to 8 p.m.