To better understand what 'Yo! What Happened to Peace' does, ArabAd recently caught up with its founder, activist artist John Carr, and asked him some questions, in turn illuminating Yo!’s overall philosophy, why they chose to tour the world with their 300+ archive of anti-war posters, and what message Yo! can provide for those in the design arena?
ArabAd: Can you tell us more about Yo! What happened to peace?
How did the initiative start? What was your motive behind starting it?
John Carr: Some friends of mine from CWC International, a multi-faceted creative company with offices in New York City and Tokyo, asked me to curate a street poster show for their Tokyo art gallery. I've always been a student of politics and history and a fan of political art. I had been making posters at the time and attending anti-Bush, anti-WTO and anti-War demonstrations, so I pitched them on doing an anti-war poster show. This was around the beginning of 2003- the US had already invaded Afghanistan and an attack on Iraq seemed imminent. By the time the show opened, the Iraq War had begun. I invited some of my favourite political and street artists to participate and the response was very positive. After the first show I was in love with the project and just wanted to spread it as far and wide as possible.
AA: Could you brief us about your background before starting Yo Peace?
JC: My journey to political consciousness began when my family moved to Tehran when I was eight years old. After two and a half years I returned to the US. This was around the time when hostages were taken at the US Embassy. I was shocked to hear my schoolmates (and radio personalities) advocating nuclear war against the country I had just lived in, and then to hear my Catholic school teachers telling me how non-believers (Muslims, including many friends I had made) would not be allowed into heaven. At that point I started to catch on that the "official" story isn't always true, and that I should always question things. Fast forward to teenage years, being exposed to political music like punk rock, hip hop, and reggae, I became exposed to all the artwork that accompanied the music. It was quite shocking to learn about covert wars, the overthrows of governments, life in the ghetto, etc. for a young person growing up in relative isolation in the suburbs, but I knew right away that I had to learn more and get involved. I eventually got into poster design to express my own feelings and ideas.
AA: How do you evaluate the journey of Yo so far? Are you satisfied with the impact? What were the major hurdles along the way?
JC: It's been an honour to work with the amazing group of artists whom we represent. I am very proud of the exhibitions we have put on. When we mount an exhibition we usually pack the gallery walls from floor to ceiling with posters. The pieces in our show are mostly hand-crafted prints made using traditional printmaking techniques such as screenprinting, letterpress, etching, stencil and woodcut. This translates in to rich textures, bold colour and striking form. One common response is that viewers leave the gallery overwhelmed by the visuals and they feel like they've been engaged in a lively visual dialogue about war and peace. I'm satisfied in the sense that we've had many opportunities to reach diverse audiences, but of course I wish we could be in more places and reach more people! We're ambitious in our goals to network with artists and audiences worldwide to promote peace and justice and sometimes it can be frustrating to operate on a shoestring budget while our corporate counterparts selling sports shoes have seemingly unlimited funds, but that's just part of the challenge.
AA: In your opinion, how powerful is the poster as a medium and what do you think is its advantage over other forms of print media?
JC: The poster is just right. It's big enough to dominate the street on a pedestrian level, to represent on a life-size or larger-than-life scale, more than a sticker or flyer or newspaper headline. It's small enough to be intimate, more so than a billboard. It engages people in the public environment in the middle of their busy day or it stares at them from their bedroom or office wall. It doesn't get closed and filed away like a book or magazine but it persists in the field of vision.
AA: How do you rate the level of participation from the Middle East in Yo's exhibition?
JC: To this date we have no artists from the Middle East in the Yo! show, except for those who now reside in the US. We have an open submission policy, so any interested artists can send images of their work to firstname.lastname@example.org
AA: Can you tell us more about Yo's travelling exhibition? Where have you been so far? What's on your future agenda? What are the main benefits from such a road show/exhibit?
JC: In the US, we've done shows and events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Washington DC, Charleston (South Carolina), and Chicago. Internationally, we've exhibited in Japan, Italy, Belgium, England, Sweden, Ireland, and we're getting ready to go to Mexico in early October. One of the best things is to be able to show people in other countries that most people in the US don't like or agree with the politicians who lead us into unjust and murderous wars. The other benefit is the continued building of artist networks that bear fruit long after the exhibition has ended.
AA: What are the stimuli that keep you going?
JC: Political art is a way of life and obsession for some of us, so we do it because we don't see any thing else that makes sense. Our planet and species are constantly on the verge of destruction. I can't think of anything better to be doing as an artist than bringing this fact to people's attention and offering humour and insight as a way to deal with it.
AA: Can you tell us more about the 'Art is Hammer' award presented to you by the Centre of the Study for Political Graphics?
JC: We'll be receiving the award on October 4th. It's really a great honour to be awarded by CSPG, which we think of as the mother of all political art organisations in the US. They have over 50,000 political posters in their archives and they regularly mount exhibitions and offer themselves up as a resource for writers and researchers. Check them out at politicalgraphics.org!
Yo! What Happened to Peace? was started in 2003 with 14 prints and an opening hosted by Cross World Connections in Tokyo as a response to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Committed to highlighting the beauty of hand-crafted printmaking techniques as a method of visual protest, the show has traveled the globe continuously adding new artists and artwork. In the spring of 2007, a Yo! What Happened to Peace? book was published, featuring 144 colour pages of over 200 prints from the show, a die-cut stencil cover and an introduction by Winston Smith.
Currently based in Los Angeles, the show was founded by curator John Carr.