Interview with Josh MacPhee
Polymath editor, designer, artist, archivist, organizer, and father Josh MacPhee is in town for the symposium Talking About a Revolution: Art, Design and the Institution. He’s also got two curated walls (one of which is above) in Have We Met: Dialogues on Memory and Desire, up now at the Stamps Gallery.
Tell us about your beginnings in art and design.
I grew up with a Dad who was a high school art teacher. Art was always just part of life. And then when I got involved in punk rock in high school, that became even more true, as I started designing flyers for shows, t-shirts and record covers for friends bands, tattoos for friends, etc., etc. I’ve always been a fan of learning by doing.
And when did you begin to use these skills in service of social movements?
I was politicized in equal parts through punk rock and being part of a do-it-yourself scene, and also being in high school when the early ’90s Gulf War broke out. Most at my school were vehemently pro-war, which pushed me to question why, and to publicly lash out against the US bombing people halfway across the world for no clear reason. This led to being beat up and pushed around by assholes, so I knew I was on the right track. I made a zine with a lot of political content, and started making flyers and street stencils, which eventually led me to start making art in the mid-’90s with groups organizing around issues such as prison reform/abolition, housing, healthcare, and more.
The world is drenched in design and visual matter. How do you understand the fact that, even so, it feels as if there’s only a handful of radical graphical designers?
Design as a field is steeped in the broader assumptions of our society. The vast majority of the discipline is trying to convince people to buy shit they don’t need, and even most designers who adhere to concepts like “civic” or “social” design are steeped in what is now called Design Thinking—basically a festering cesspool of neoliberal crap where designers see themselves as hugely important social entrepreneurs shepherding their flock of consumers into our great compassionate capitalist future, where everyone gets to “win” and we can magically design poverty and racism away without once ever mentioning power. You couldn’t make this bullshit up if you tried, but somehow it’s increasingly dominating the discipline.
When you feel tapped out or adrift, who are the beloved mentors and wellsprings whose work you turn back to for inspiration?
Elizabeth Catlett, Alfredo Rostgaard, David King, Sister Corita Kent, Antonio Frasconi, Ben Shaun …
Two of your biggest ongoing projects are Justseeds and Interference Archive. Tell us a bit about their missions.
“Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative is a decentralized network of 29 artists committed to social, environmental, and political engagement.” Basically Justseeds is an attempt to magnify the work of an intensely committed set of artists by working collectively to promote and distribute what we do—be that by making and selling art to support ourselves, creating cultural work and tools for direct use by social movements, or researching and theorizing the ways art and culture can have meaningful and positive impact in our world.
“Interference Archive is a public-facing archive and social center exploring the relationship between cultural production and social movements.” In a storefront space in Brooklyn we collect and share all of the materials produced by people organizing to transform their lives and communities, including posters, placards, buttons, t-shirts, pamphlets, newspapers, flyers, stickers, and record albums. We are open four days a week, hold 2–3 events a week, and mount 3–4 exhibitions a year, activating materials from the collection to illuminate the ways movements make change. We host dozens of educational visits a year, from middle-school aged kids up through PhD candidates, and our collection is accessible for research by high school activists and academic professors alike.
You’ve also got other ongoing involvements, like Signal: A Journal of International Political Graphics & Culture. Will these three commitments I’ve mentioned remain your focus in the foreseeable future, or have you got other things in the works?
Too many things, too many things …
Over the past couple years I’ve dived into a wormhole of research about politics and music, and am just finishing up a new edition of one of the projects that produced, An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels. The finished book should be available early next year.
I also have been organizing and curating the Celebrate People’s History poster series over the past 20 years, and am gearing up to publish a new edition of the book collecting all the posters. That has me working with about 50 new artists and designers, which has been really fun.
I’m also continuing to work with the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice on their campaigns around pre-trial justice and harm reduction. I first started working with them in 2016 on the Close Rikers Island campaign, and you can read about that here.
How has fatherhood altered your art, design, and activism?
There has never been enough time in the day, but now there’s not enough time in the night. I often have to stay up late to get things done, or even just have a little down time to myself, but my son gets up really, really early, like 4:30–5 a.m. early, so I feel like an art zombie a lot of the time.
On the flip side, I think about and see the city with new eyes as I explore it with a 2-year-old, and it makes me more committed to the need for a serious reassessment of our culture’s obsession with cars (I tell him there is only really one kind of monster in his world he needs to be afraid of on a daily basis, and that’s the metal kind with four wheels), and to a public education system that works for every child across race, class, gender, and sexuality.
Presuming you run yourself ragged with all this work, tell us about your psychoemotional health, and if/how you’re able to maintain equilibrium.
Balance is hard, but part of that is that life is inherently out of balance under the current socio-economic regime. I know we’re all supposed to be about radical self-care these days, but trying to find the right yoga pose on the deck of the Titanic seems a little strange to me. I find moments of bliss in the time I have with my son, my partner, my friend when we are hard at work on a project, when something works and there’s a sense of a job well done. But I’m pretty sure that extending those moments isn’t an exercise in changing individual behaviors—we need to struggle for it together, hold our loved ones and comrades close as we exhaust ourselves fighting for something better.
Have you got enemies in the NY art/design worlds?
Maybe, but I don’t think I know them. I don’t circulate much in the capital-A Art or capital-D Design worlds, so who knows!?
Actually, come to think of it, some people at Creative Time weren’t happy with me when I used my slot at their annual summit a handful of years back to talk about the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel. That led to some screaming back stage …
How can we support you?
Support my projects, check out Justseeds.org and Interferencearchive.org. Get involved in your community in whatever way works for you. Shut down the prisons, stop the deportations, steal from the rich, give to everyone else, punch up, never down.
Catch Josh Friday, November 9, 2–4 p.m., in the panel discussion Art Futures: New Modes of Organizing, which is happening at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library (343 S. 5th Ave.), and Saturday, November 10, at 9:30 a.m., for an individual presentation of his work, which will take place at Space 2435 (North Quad, 105 S. State St.).